More Words Needed, My Lord
One day Stronghold showed up at my house. I have no clue where it came from, but it was a game I genuinely loved. I kept up with the series, even if I didn't get to play most of the games, and at E3 I got to see the upcoming Stronghold: Warlords, which has done a lot to revitalize my interest in the series. I wanted to know more about it. So I found the time to sit down and talk with Simon Bradbury, one of the co-founders of developer Firefly Studios. He took the time to tell me about the upcoming game, teach me interesting historical facts, explain the new systems, and even give me the fate of the sad peasant.
TechRaptor: For those who aren't aware, can you just really quickly give me the elevator pitch for Stronghold: Warlords?
Bradbury: So, Stronghold: Warlords is the latest in the installment that started out with Stronghold 3, and then we improved that to get to Crusader, and now Warlords is adding a new layer. For the first time we're a new layer on top of Stronghold. In the past we've had Stronghold like the sim, and then we've had that kind of Crusader iteration, which is at its skirmish mode.
Now Warlords is doing two things. One is adding a Warlords system, which is adding a strategy system on top of it. It's deceptively simple, but it's got a lot of depth to it. So it keeps the main game, it just adds this slower cycle strategy to its fast-paced underbase. The second thing Warlords does, obviously, is take us to the first time out to the Far East to explore some oriental castles.
TechRaptor: Firefly Studios has been known as "the Stronghold guys" for quite a while. It's, by far, your most famous series and the one you work on the most. Have you guys ever considered doing anything else?
Bradbury: [Laughter.] Well, you know, 20 years is such a short period of time.
Yes, we have. We've kind of have had little blips out of going "maybe there's all sorts of castles." We did CivCity: Rome, which we worked with the Firaxis guys and Sid Meier on a Roman city builder. I used to work a lot on the Caesar series for Impressions, a city builder series, so that's another string to our bow. We just haven't done too many of them in recent years. We also did Space Colony, which was a kind of space city sim. Space Stronghold, if you like.
But perhaps the most kind of funky thing that we've kind of done was we did a game called Dungeon Hero, in the middle of the last decade, which was a kind of dungeon game told from the point of view of the dungeon residents. It went a bit... it was doing great until the credit crunch hit and then that publisher went bust. So, we stopped. Although we are going to release a junior version of it called MetaMorph early next year.
So we've got a few little things we've done outside of Stronghold, but as you say, Stronghold is what we're known for, and that's what we always come back to. Castle stones are in our blood, I suppose you can say, in a strange way.
TechRaptor: How did you guys settle on the Far East empire for Warlords?
Bradbury: In terms of setting we've kind of done western Europe, the U.K., that sort of thing a lot. We've done the desert quite a bit as well. They're the two, strong, well-known areas for castles. But actually, the Far East is like the final area that has done castles in the past, and we've never really covered that. So we were intrigued, we had to go there and research a lot of stuff, researched the history and the castles.
It gives us two things. One is it gives us a different setting, so kind of more lush jungley-type setting for the south and a bit more of the planes for the north, and the Mongols and things. But it also gives us a very different castle style and look as well, so we were able to let our artists loose and recreate the big fortresses of Japan, Korea, the big fortified cities in China. They got a really different kind of look to them, and that was really exciting.
But also, just being able to go and research. I mean, there's a few famous faces, like you'll see Genghis Khan and most people have probably heard of Sun Tzu, but most people probably wouldn't have heard of Hideyoshi and Yoritomo in Japan, or Qin Shi Huang, one of the most famous emperors of Chinese history, along with a guy called Thục Phán who reunited Vietnam and things like that. There's loads of really interesting history that has big, epic battles and castle sieges. I guess, of course, the other thing is it introduces the early days of gunpowder as well, which is quite a cool, extra addition to the Stronghold canon. No pun intended.
TechRaptor: So obviously bringing things to Asia offers a lot of new opportunities. Is there any— I guess you mentioned the gunpowder already, but is there any other gameplay stuff you guys are really excited to bring to the series?
Bradbury: Again, the main thing we're bringing into the series is this whole new layer on top, which is Warlords. So I guess maybe if I could just talk a little bit about that to illustrate what I mean.
So the Warlords basically are kind of born of the old Estate system, and getting the AI to actually do stuff for you. See, in the past you could kind of ask the AI to do things for you, but they almost never would and so no one ever bothered doing it. Also, the estates were something you could kind of get hold of, but they weren't really fully realized. So what we've done is we've taken that and kind of run with it. So really, all you're doing, is capturing estates and controlling the warlords that are in there, but you get to tell them exactly what you want them to do using a new variable called diplomacy, which comes from government buildings, which you can build and they cost you a lot of money but, y'know, as you build up you can create more of them and control more warlords.
Then you can really, really fight with these warlords. So we have lots of different archetypes. For example, the Turtle Warlord would be someone that's great at building up his castle. So you can use him to strategically protect your territories. Maybe you upgrade him and give him different commands like upgrade your castle, defend more strongly, that kind of thing. Or you might get, say, an Oxen Warlord, whose good at producing lots of different industry goods. So maybe wood, stone, the new saltpeter for gunpowder. You can then get him to send you what you want, when you want it.
But you only have a certain amount of points to spend on these things. You know, you might get the Ox Warlord to send you some goods, and that comes in for the next ten minutes. Meanwhile, you got a Tiger Warlord over there that you've captured, and you're telling him to go harass somebody, because he's more of a fighty warlord. Then, maybe in ten minutes, you might come back and change what you want those warlords to do for you.
So its got a slow cycle pace to it. I mean, Stronghold has plenty of high-octane things going on, like managing your city effectively, the economy, building your castle, moving your troops around, lots of Starcraft-y styled fast action. But this Warlord system adds a nice, slow tech thing on top of it. So it's not really interfering with the main game. We've found, over the years, that it's best not to interfere with the main game, people don't like too much. You can add a few nuances here, a few new units there, but the game is a game and that's what made it very successful over the years. So this adds a lot of depth to it without really trashing that.
I think the nice thing about the warlords is, because we've got— I think there's eight going out in the game, and each of them does totally different things. So on the map you might have five Ox Warlords, or you might have a Tiger Warlord, a Crane Warlord, and a Mouse Warlord. You can choose which ones to capture, which ones to hold, which ones to upgrade, and what to do with them. It's a very thoughtful process, but it doesn't involve a lot of learning about how to do it. It's a simple system, but it adds a load of depth on top of the basic game.
So that's kind of, outside of the setting and, as you said, gunpowder, the main thrust of what we've been doing, is getting the Warlord system working. It works as an adjunct to the game, and I think, showing it in various shows this year, I think people have kind of got that and respond really well to that. So we're quite excited, I think we've managed to bring something out that doesn't defeat the main game, but actually adds a lot to it.
That's a long answer.
TechRaptor: It's all okay. Who's your favorite warlord?
Bradbury: Well... my favorite warlord would probably be the Turtle, because I am a very defensively minded RTS player. I know a lot of the guys here like the Tiger one, which has much more of a bend towards giving you troops or taking your orders and going in and attacking people directly. Because that's got quite a nice way of fighting about it.
In the past, you could never ever really try and time your attacks with the AI. You might be lucky and see them actually go and attack, in which case you could hurry your troops out and maybe you might get there in time to join in. This time around you can kind of make your troops, get them to roughly the right point, tell the Tiger to go and attack, and then do a pincer maneuver with him. Which can kind of really amplify the benefit of your attack, because his troops can be sent in first to draw the defenders to one side of the castle while you go around the other side to attack. So you might be able to take the castle with a lot less troops with a few simple strategic tricks.
For an attack-minded player, that kind of thing works well. I mean, again, there's lots. There's going to be economic warlords, there's going to ones that deal with spirits, there's going to be ones that are a little bit more random, could be good could be bad. Give it a little bit more "seat of your pants" stuff. Each warlord will have a different thing. They also have perks as well, you also get a passive perk. You might get, with the Pig Warlord, since he likes food, a lot of your food get a 10% bonus. If you upgrade him it might be 15% or 20% or something like that. So there's lots and lots you can do with them, and lots we can do and we do do with them.
TechRaptor: You're mentioning, with the Pig Warlord and the Ox Warlord, you're mentioning the economy a lot. One of the things that I got asked to bring up, by several different people, was if Warlords was going to have an economy campaign or economy mode like the original Stronghold did.
Bradbury: I believe the answer to that is yes, it is.
We definitely know that's what people liked. To be honest, in the original Stronghold, I loved the game, I was in a nice position to be coding in a lot of it, but actually the economy missions... I still think have it for me in terms of my favorite ones. They have a little bit of fighting in it, but they're just really really... they're hard. You sort of think the economy missions will be easy, but the economy missions in Stronghold are really really hard because you get totaled by fire or hop weevil. I mean, not many games can make a grown man cry with the use of hop weevil. But Stronghold seemed to manage that. To me, anyway.
TechRaptor: I always remember my crops being destroyed by rabbits.
Bradbury: [Laughter.] Yeah, it's true. The rabbits were a pain in the ass. You know, we got pulled up actually in the U.S. at the time, because the woodcutters would gratuitously and randomly smack rabbits on the head with their axes. We had to tone that done, because we were in danger of getting banned. Was an interesting thing.
TechRaptor: When you guys were doing all this research into Asian history, were there any really interesting stories that you guys found that you really wanted to turn into something in Stronghold?
Bradbury: Yeah. For example, there's a siege... the name of it escapes me right now, but there's a famous siege where some defenders in China... there was about a couple thousand of them, and they held off 10,000 of the enemy army. They did so by using... we're always on the lookout for new siege equipment and new traps for Stronghold, and that's like "ooh, look, they can use this." In this case they got a herd of a thousand oxen and they created this thing that we're now introducing as fire oxen.
So they would basically put stuff on the oxen, like sharp pointy things, and then cover them in tar and light them up from the back. So their tails were alight and the back end was alight, which had the effect of stampeding these poor oxen into the enemy army, who basically, at that point, it just got kind of... they just crushed through them, and they ran off.
So these 2,000 people managed to defeat a much bigger army using a new piece of kit called fire oxen. We've kind of taken that, obviously, and we've slightly boosted it by adding little pots of gunpowder to sides of the oxen as well, so when they land they explode. That was a story that really inspired a new piece of siege equipment, the fire oxen.
TechRaptor: You guys have been making Stronghold for a while. Would you say the market for an RTS game is completely different now, or do you still have the same market?
Bradbury: We do, to be honest. I think that we still sell a lot of the original game on Steam to a whole new set of people that come along and find it and enjoy it. I don't think our market has shrunk. The games market is a lot bigger, and the RTS market probably hasn't gotten a lot bigger with it, but it's still a big market in terms to exist in.
I think what has happened is that there's been a few people that have moved out of the space. In a way that's been good for us, because we're one of the last bigger people standing. But there's been a flurry recently, I think, of people coming back to it. Like Microsoft coming back and reimagining Age of Empires, for example. Which I, for one, am definitely looking forward to. I love Age of Empires.
I think the RTS space is still as healthy as its always used to be. It's just, unfortunately, a lot of the bigger companies have decided they can move into bigger spaces. So, I guess, from a user perspective, I kind of wish there were more RTSes. From our perspective I think, in a way, it's exciting because we're one of the biggest RTS games left.
TechRaptor: Also, mentioning RTSes, there's this really weird phase around, I'd say, the early Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era where a bunch of people ported their RTSes to consoles. Have you guys ever considered a console port for Stronghold?
Bradbury: [Laughter.] Yeah, we thought about it, then kind of went "no." I mean, it's weird, isn't it? Because, really, it should be fine. But the annoyance is the fact that you haven't got a mouse. Because without a mouse you can't lasso troops. You can do the rest of it, you can do the building part. You can probably just about get the walls in. But if you can't lasso your troops and click around to get them to move, you're done.
I know that Battle for Middle-Earth is probably the most successful one, and that's squad based and makes it easier. I think, for something like Stronghold where you need precision, you need speed. You got to do so much in Stronghold in terms of building walls, lots of changing your rations, going over there and looking at what they're doing, minutely positioning a few troops, making a siege kit. Now with Warlords going to the warlords screen and making some strategic tactical moves. I just don't think you have the controls on consoles to be able to do it. It's a shame. I think if it was more of a builder, or a simpler game like Battle for Middle-Earth, which is a great game actually, but I don't think it's something we could ever do for Stronghold. It's sad, because I think it'd be nice to be able to bring it onto it, for sure.
TechRaptor: Another thing I'm curious about. I have pretty good memories of the original Stronghold. One of the things that's always been in my head is the soundtrack. Is Robert Euvino coming back for that?
Bradbury: Yep. I mean, he never went away. He's still living in the woods in Woodstock, and he's probably practicing various weird Chinese instruments as we speak. He's one of the few people who know all the medieval Chinese instruments and can play them and live within a 10-mile radius. He did that with Crusader, with the various ouds and other various things. I know he's doing the same for Warlords. So yes, he is coming back. He's got some great tracks, he's going to be doing some longer pieces, battle pieces, some shorter filler pieces.
We always try to do a really good job with the sound, and, you know, the voices. Because these are areas I think we can punch above our weight. We're, you know, we're not the biggest studio in Europe. The area we can really add a lot of value, I think, are areas like humor, voice over, sound, and music. That's what we're doing.
TechRaptor: Will there be a sad peasant on the side of your screen telling you that they're sad right now?
Bradbury: I know a lot of people are asking for it, but in the end it's one of those things... It's just a picture of a sad peasant. We had the most, you could say, Monty Python level of animation on it, about two frames. But we just... kind of wanted to make... One of the things we've moved to is making the controls better, crisper, cleaner, more efficient. That's one of the things I know people are going to ask for, but we're not doing it.
We just recorded the Scribe yesterday, actually. We managed to find, I think, the perfect Scribe voice. It took this guy about three hours to do the full recording of the script, of the campaign and the in-game stuff. He's right on the money. It's a really hard guy to find, because we wanted a Chinese-sounding guy. If you overplay it runs the risk of sounding a little bit rubbish and pantomiming. I don't know if that translates very well into the U.S., but in the U.K. it's a silly play type of thing.
This guy really nails it. He's got a great accent, and he manages to get that raised eyebrow, slightly "oh, well done Emperor, you managed to get rid of all those surplus troops we didn't need" type of light sarcasm while still being very loyal to the Emperor. He nailed it, so I was really pleased about that.
TechRaptor: Again, I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Are there any final words you want to get across to anybody?
Bradbury: No. I think we're kind of... What is exciting is the warlord system, but I think what's really exciting is because we're iterating on Crusader 2, which obviously iterated on Stronghold 3, which, frankly, needed a lot of iterating on. But, Crusader 2 was polished. I think Warlords, what's really nice about Warlords is going to be polishing on top of Crusader 2. So we're really happy that we're getting a very very polished game on top of it.
We were able to give extra time to things like the sim side of the game. A lot of the daily life. Getting the time we perhaps didn't have on the earlier titles. That's nice for us to be able to do. We've got a lot of the sort of systems in there that are working really well, and we're able to polish them. We've put some videos out of just showing simple things. Like if you got guys behind walls you can't see them, we've never had that rim shade around the troops. For example, we've got that in there now. We've got a lot of the formations to work a lot better, a lot of the controls work a lot better. It is really nice to finally have that time to get a really polished game as well as a game that has some interesting new stuff in it.
Stronghold: Warlords is set for release some time early next year. We'd like to once again thank Simon Bradbury for taking the time to talk with us.