The Stronghold franchise has been around for almost a decade and with a new game coming out at the end of September we pinged the folks at Firefly about what we could expect from the upcoming iteration in the franchise.
Could you introduce yourself to our readers and talk about your role on the project? What do your daily responsibilities on the game include?
Hello Gaming Nexus readers! My name is Simon Bradbury, I am CEO and co-founder of Firefly Studios, as well as Lead Designer on Stronghold 3. My daily responsibilities generally include overseeing code and asset creation, making the tough design decisions on gameplay, story, environment and characters and answering a lot of emails!
For those who aren’t familiar with the Stronghold games can you give us an overview of the series? What are the defining characteristics of the franchise?
Sure, so Stronghold 3, Stronghold Kingdoms and Stronghold: Crusader etc are all part of the Stronghold family of castle strategy games that we’ve been developing exclusively for the PC since 2001 (it’s our 10th anniversary next month!) Stronghold games are about a mix of RTS and simulation, giving players all the action and excitement of a quality real-time strategy game with an added layer of simulation that modern RTS tend to shy away from. We are also all about castles, naturally!
The Stronghold franchise has been around for over a decade, looking back what have been the best decisions you’ve made in the design of the game? Conversely, what decisions do you wish you could go back and change?
Personally I think the best design decision we made was to retain our focus on the pure strategy aspects of the Stronghold games. We could easily I think have dumbed stronghold down as quiet a few strategy games have done over the last few years, but I think that then it wouldn’t be Stronghold anymore - stronghold needs to keep its old school style of gaming - else it will just doesn’t work IMO.
Conversely I think we also went too nuts on the Sim side with Stronghold 2 - our SIM crime system in particular was quite in depth - and many a time I would be playing it multiplayer layer and be swearing at the crazy amount of space needed to just stop people nicking my apples.
What are the biggest changes since Stronghold 2? Why the decision to fall back to a game closer to the original Stronghold than Stronghold 2? How much of the improvements came via internal lists and how many came in from the community?
The biggest change since Stronghold 2 would have to be our use of Trinigy’s Vision game engine. While developing the second main entry in the series we spent a lot of time developing our own bespoke game engine, too much perhaps. Using the Vision engine means that we can spend more time adding features and polish, rather than wrestling with engine design and refinement.
We decided to make a game closer to the first Stronghold because, much like Crusader, it gameplay was adored by critics and set the bar high for all Stronghold sequels. We really want to live up to the legacy of the original with Stronghold 3, so it makes sense to go back to our roots and model it on that game. The decision was also a reaction to feedback from the community. Players have fond memories of the original and we wanted to recapture its simplicity so if you played the original you should feel right at home with Stronghold 3. Our Scottish office is almost completely dedicated to QA and community, so there’s a lot of internal testing going on as well, but feedback from the community is just as important to us.
What kinds of changes have you made to the core mechanics of the game? What’s your favorite new feature?
The mechanics of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played Stronghold before, but we have taken certain aspects from Stronghold 2 that we think worked well and even added in a few twists! Castle building for example is still a huge aspect of the game and now you can place walls, keeps and gatehouses anywhere and at any angle, instead of being confined to a grid system. Things like AI, lighting and physics have also been brought up to modern standards, making for a more evolved set of mechanics, but my favorite new feature would have to be a simple change - which is the housing Sim. In previous games housing wasn’t really part of the game, you got X more population space for placing a house and it didn’t matter where, so people would place them in out off the way places, islands etc where they couldn’t be attacked. Now however they carry more people the closer they are to the keep. Its dead simple as an idea - but it takes a part of the game that was dead before and simply and elegantly adds to game play. It even looks good too - with the house visually upgrading as you move your mouse closer or further from the keep!
Can you detail some of the new gameplay mechanics in Stronghold 3? How does the new night time combat system work?
Other new gameplay mechanics include physics-based traps, a less cumbersome popularity system that we borrowed from Stronghold
Kingdoms and procedurally-generated castle destruction. Night time combat works exactly how it did in the middle ages – you can only kill what you can see! Fog of war has been an RTS staple since its earliest days and we’ve tried to create true fog of war with Stronghold 3. The idea is that everything is visible in the daytime, but at night the player’s view is limited to what is illuminated by watch towers, flaming arrows, torch-holding peasants and anything else that creates ambient light.
What kind of challenges does adding realistic physics to the game create? What changes to the game play does realistic physics bring?
Adding realistic physics to Stronghold isn’t all that difficult on its own, but when you combine it with new features like traps things get slightly more challenging from a design perspective. We do have to make sure that splash damage doesn’t wipe out entire armies for example - as whilst it looks cool for a few seconds - it destroys gameplay!
Physics change the game play because of the added considerations players must take into account. If you’re going to build a burning log trap for instance you have to take into consideration the layout of the land, building walls in the right places and funneling attackers into a ‘valley of death’ into which you can throw logs, boiling oil and other debris!
The game been fallen victim to numerous delays over the past couple of months, do you feel that the added time to its development has benefitted the game enough to overcome the “damage” caused in the perception of fans from the delays?
I think that having fans that are so passionate about the game that they get upset if we are a little late is very flattering and we do share their frustrations., But the short delay will be worth it, mainly because it has allowed us to make a better game, one that has the level of polish players expect today. Like any PC developer worth its salt we’ll continue to update the game after release, but we need to make sure that fans of the franchise will not be disappointed when they buy on day one.
DRM has become a major subject in the PC gaming world over the past couple of years thanks to many publishers / developers using DRM tools that many gamers find to be too limited or intrusive; what is Firefly using / doing in order to ensure that Stronghold 3 doesn’t attract any of the negative spotlight? How do you balance protecting your software from pirates vs. irritating your customers?
Stronghold 3 will use a simple Steamworks delivery/update method and that’s it.
Generally we are not big fans of heavy-handed DRM and several of our older games are now DRM-free. It’s not that we don’t care about piracy, but we care about our fans.
Was there ever anything of skipping retail and just selling the game digitally? Do you expect to see more sales of the digital version or the disc version?
We’re working with 7sixty to make sure that Stronghold 3 has a massive presence online and you can pre-order digital copies of the game from Steam, Direct2Drive, Greenman Gaming and Get Games among others. Digital distribution is the preferred choice for many PC gamers today and we wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to play Stronghold 3.
Digital distribution probably just about surpassed boxed retail right now I guess, but that said I don’t think that the gap is anywhere near wide enough right now to forgo a boxed product .
Has there ever been any thought porting the game to the consoles? What are the biggest hurdles to porting the game outside of the controls?
We are first and foremost a PC game developer, not least because our particular brand of strategy/simulation seems to appeal most to PC gamers. A console port is not impossible and we have experience with console development, but we feel that the controls, audience and distribution methods for PC gaming are just so much better suited to our games, so that’s what we will be sticking to. If we expand into new technical pastures then it will be online, such as our recently released castle MMO, Stronghold Kingdoms, but even this is almost just like making a PC game in many ways!
So we read somewhere that you’ll be able to change the projectiles in catapults to include things like cows and pigs, can you give us a list of some of the more non-traditional ammunition you can use and how effective they are against the walls of a castle?
Ah yes the infamous diseased badgers! We actually have a number of different animal ammunition types on offer, including cows, sheep and the aforementioned badgers. It must be said that they aren’t much good for taking down stone walls. What they’re great at however is filling the enemy’s keep with disease and attacking the health of its inhabitants as an alternative to taking down its walls, meaning that you can capture a castle without destroying it!
Will the game support modding? What kinds of tools will be available for people to create their own maps and scenarios?
In terms of modding Stronghold 3 will feature an extensive map editor, which has quite frankly impressed the pants off everyone we’ve shown it to! Essentially we’re giving players the same tools we used to create maps for the military and economic campaigns and letting them go to town on them. You can scale objects up or down as much as you want, mould the landscape, add waterfalls and wildlife. There are more possibilities than limits! If you are more hardcode - then other possibilities will be not be closed to you, but I wont spoil the fun by explaining any technical details here ;)
Is there anything else we missed? What’s the first thing players should try when they get their hands on the game?
The tutorial!! Well it depends on what kind of player you are RTS or Sim as there are 2 distinct campaigns that cater for both types of player - personally I am more of a hard code economy buff (this is what a I tell myself after being beaten yet again in multiplayer) so I would play the economic mission first.
We'd like to thank Simon for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Nick for helping to facilitate the interview.
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