[Way back when Firefly were revealing Stronghold 2, I had a chance to talk to Simon Bradbury about the genesis of their big-in-Germany management RTS and its demi-sequel, Stronghold: Crusader. As usual, this originally appeared in PC Format. All sales stats referenced are circa then.]
It’s easy to underestimate something like Stronghold. We shouldn’t. As far as a games go, it’s been an incredible success. Ask our colleagues in Germany about it and you’ll receive a voluminous response. Over there it outsold Grand Theft Auto. It did it with nothing more than be a good idea (i.e. Make a castle, defend it and knock down someone else’s), well executed. Unique enough to attract an audience yet familiar enough not to confuse, it’s no surprise that it found an expansive and devoted fanbase. However creators Firefly have a far longer history, whose lessons directly contributed to their later successes.
“We were originally working for Impressions,” explains Designer Simon Bradbury, “We used to do the Caesar games. The last one we did was III, which was also a city builder. That’s part of our heritage.” They also worked on the first two Lord of the Realms game, so had experience with Real Time Strategy. “We’ve always ploughed that niche and done well out of it,” he says. “But we always felt that nobody had done a Castle Sim for a while and it was the perfect thing to combine a City Builder with an RTS game. It’s a castle, so it’s got fighting, but at its heart it’s about building, resources and depictions of medieval life. We had always wanted to do that, but decided the best way to do that would be to go and set up our own company.”
“No-one else in the market had done a Castle game since Interplay did Castles 1 and Castles 2, which were successful games… but then, for some reason, they didn’t do any more,” Simon says, “It’s not often you see a gap like that in the computer game industry.” So seeing an opportunity, they set forth to found a new company. “Everything slotted into place – our background, a hole in the market…” he says, “Let’s go do it. We were quite confident when we set Firefly up in 99 that our first title was going to be a successful one.”
No matter what the final results, things were never that simple in games development. It took until half-way through the game to realise something was amiss. “The biggest thing we found was that it took a while to get the basics of the game,” claims Simon.
When it took so long to get it genuinely playable, they realised they didn’t have the time available to include all the more realistic siege approaches they wanted. This lead to the appearance of trad-RTS elements like soldiers being able to knock down walls with swords, such as in Age of Empires. “We didn’t set off wanting to do that,” Simon says, “but we got to the point where we ran out of time and were tied to certain milestones.” It was important to do so, because they had a reputation of being good in this area. “It’s the sort of thing which lets you make friends with publishers very easily,” he advises, “if you can hit your goal dates regularly. To make them though we had to make the decision to simplify Stronghold 1.” Of course, simplifying caused further problems. “We then found out later that players didn’t use ladders or siege towers, because there was no need to,” Simon notes, “We’d balanced them out, essentially, and there wasn’t much we could do to address those issues.”
Since their games are so complicated and take so long to work in even a basic fashion, they take a flexible approach to design, assisted by their small studio size. “We’re always taken an approach that we know what we want to go in the game, and we know – roughly – how those systems will work. If you give too tight a specs it’s normally a recipe for disaster. If you don’t, [coders] come back at every juncture to ask what to do next, so you think “Knowing what I know now, what’s the right decision to make?”.
A sacrifice of this decision was the Skirmish mode originally planned for inclusion in Stronghold. “We really wanted to do it,” Simon remembers, “However, we discovered fairly early on that Stronghold was kind of new ground. We also weren’t just developers at this point – we were running a company. We had to deal with marketing, PR, company admin and things which were dragging our attention away. We realised that there was probably enough in the original game in terms of gameplay, at which point it became a positive thing, as we had our next game sorted. It was a benefit in the end.” So was born Stronghold’s semi-sequel, Stronghold: Crusader, which concentrated purely on skirmish.
Similarly, multiplayer. “It has to work well,” Simon says, “But it can’t detract from single player because that’s still our core market.” However, multiplayer has uses outside of the finished game. “The way that we approach it is we use it as a balancing tool,” Simon notes, “We’d play and start balancing. We use multiplayer for that, as it’s the easiest way to get the single-player working. In fact, we’re working on a game in the US which won’t have a multiplayer component in it, but we actually have multiplayer in it [For testing]. It also allows us to save a log of all the actions which makes bug fixing easier.”
Setting a new company while making a new game is clearly stressful. What sort of advice would he give to someone wanting to head into the strategy world. “Nowadays you have two choices,” he says, “You can do it by yourself, and still produce a really interesting cool game through shareware. And I still download things like that, and there’s not that many really accomplished strategy games out there. If I were starting out now, that’s where I’ll probably go – either for my own benefit, or as a way into a bigger company later.” For a more traditional team route, however, you need to get organised. “You need to go into it with someone who understands business,” he opines, “Unless you have someone who’s prepared to do budgets and cashflow, you’re going to get into trouble. You do see developers getting into trouble due to that total disregard. So many developers fail not through being a good developer – but being a bad cashflow manager. “
As they continue work on the true sequel, there’s still much to be proud of in the first games. “My favourite thing is in Crusader,” Simon says, “is the Skirmish mode. I really enjoyed playing a skirmish battle. We had a skirmish trail which had 15 missions that got harder and harder and harder. It’s kind of insane… why would you play to the end? Many, many people did. I still have a campaign I plan to play to the end. I have played the last mission – which took me seven hours of constant play and 20 save games… but I beat it. And I got a real sense of satisfaction. Building that skirmish on top of Stronghold was a crowning glory in a way, and I’m pleased we managed to get that.”
Still, there’s much to have regrets is part of the core design which was never quite implemented right in the full game. “I like castles and have dragged my daughter a few,” Simon says, “Some of the best ones have plaques about the place – like “This is a Killing Zone when they rained down arrows”.” This is what they wanted to bring into the game. “We wanted to try and get that sense of how the layout of your castle can trap people and funnel them in: the idea of a building as a killing weapon,” He sighs, “I don’t think we really got it in Stronghold. It was a little too much of knocking down walls with catapults with a very medieval flavour, but it wasn’t really the castle itself being a weapon. That, I was a little disappointed with, because it didn’t feel as if we hit that Castle sim right on the head.”