Interview: Stronghold Crusader 2

This July marks the eleventh anniversary of Firefly Studios’ Stronghold Crusader, and while 2008 brought with it Stronghold Crusader Extreme, we’ve not had an all-new Crusader since 2002. That’s about to change. Firefly Studios are at work on Stronghold Crusader 2, a self-published, 3D sequel to a game Firefly feel especially fond of.

With a potential 2013 launch for Crusader 2, I took the opportunity to speak with Firefly CEO Simon Bradbury about the pressure of revisiting Crusader after so long, the benefits of crowdfunding and the changing state of the strategy landscape.

Stronghold Crusader 2

The Stronghold franchise has a long history and a staunch fan base, how did you approach development of Crusader 2 with it being so long since the first Crusader?

Simon Bradbury: Good question. Crusader has always been our favorite Stronghold and many of us have continued to play it on and off since launch. When we knew we were finally going to get to make its successor we went back and played the original game for a week solid. Mainly multiplayer matches with a bit of campaign thrown in for good measure. We then looked for every opportunity to transition that fun factor and gameplay into the 3D engine being used for the sequel. The classic grid-based wall building system is a good example. It’s a mechanic we can translate from Crusader 1 into Crusader 2 that helps make the new game play and feel like the original.

So the heart of the game will be the same, but we’re also making several big improvements. For example, we’re planning for the in-game UI experience to be smoother and more empowering with more customizable elements. It will streamline the experience of playing, allowing you to effortlessly gauge important production numbers whilst keeping your eye on any ongoing fighting. We’re going back to basics, but we’re not afraid to tweak, refine and improve elements of our beloved game.

The strategy landscape has obviously changed considerably in that time, how have you gone about satisfying the players of old while also drawing in a new audience?

Simon Bradbury: I’m hoping our long-term fans will see that Crusader 2 is the game we’ve wanted to make for 10 years. The sequel is aimed first and foremost at players of the original. That said we’re also confident that in the process of making a game specifically for the fans, we will create a really high quality title that players new to the series will also find really exciting.

This time around the game is entirely self-funded, so we don’t have to worry about adding in unnecessary publisher-driven features and we can concentrate on the gameplay, which is something everyone can appreciate. The aim is to make this Stronghold more accessible than ever with more intuitive systems, polish and a refined learning curve. It really is fantastic having the time and freedom to concentrate on what really matters to our fans and the wider community of players.

With that in mind, what were the core Crusader values you felt were important to keep intact?

Simon Bradbury: Skirmish, skirmish, skirmish! The “core” of Crusader is about playing against the AI as if they are human players. So unlike a scripted campaign there over 8 different AI personalities who will build their castles from scratch just like you. They will run economies, harass and siege you, taunt you and generally interact with you over the course of a skirmish match. You can also play across a series of increasingly robust skirmish trails, where you’re charged with defeating a series of increasingly difficult, and quirky, AI opponents like the Caliph and friends, allied together in fiendish combinations on more complex maps.

That will be the focus of the game, but we will also be concentrating on the very popular core values of Stronghold, castle building, management, castle sieging and defending. There will be fast-paced RTS gameplay and we will hopefully inject a little dark humor along the way as well. Since we are self-publishing we will be able to spend as much time as we like balancing the game and refining the gameplay, so it’s not just a matter of amassing as many units as possible and rushing the enemy.

What will we see in Crusader 2 that we won’t have seen in other Stronghold games?

Simon Bradbury: Compared to the original Crusader we will obviously be 3D rather than 2D and that allows for a much richer graphical depiction. That said the biggest changes will be a lot of smaller improvements, AI behaviors and the kind of polish that will make this the ultimate Stronghold game. Again we don’t want to mess with a very successful game play formula, we just want to make it stronger.

There will of course be new unit types. Many will have ‘charge up’ abilities, such as the Dervish who, when ready, can sprint into combat with an initial whirlwind attack. New on-map threats, such as outposts and guard houses, should add spice and strategy to the core game as well. Back to the graphics engine for one final example – we’re adding a range of environmental hazards not used before such as sandstorms and locust plagues.

Stronghold Crusader 2 2

With the rise of Steam Workshop more games are enjoying longer lives thanks to fan-built content. What kind of community features/editors/modding support can fans expect in Crusader 2?

Simon Bradbury: Stronghold games have always had a fantastic community of map builders – maps are still created and submitted daily for the original games and one of our fan sites recently went past 6000 downloadable maps. We want to support that community so Crusader 2 will feature a full map and scenario editor. This will give players the same tools and level of flexibility we had when making all our own maps.

We are also looking to support a number of Steam features on the community side of things, but at this relatively early stage of development we aren’t ready to show which ones just yet.

You’re using Gambitious to partly crowd-fund the game. Why go the crowd-funding route? What does it allow you to do that the traditional publishing model didn’t?

Simon Bradbury: Thanks to its fans Stronghold has endured for 12 years now and we want to be completely transparent about our decision to ask for crowdfunding. In terms of the actual funding we are asking for donations to raise funds for a stronger beta and extra development time, to allow us to polish the game and make it a very shiny thing indeed. The core aim however – which we are hoping to achieve regardless of whether or not we’re funded – is to establish a direct connection with our players and to hopefully get everyone excited and involved ahead of the games release.

Elements like backer-only forums, dev diaries and other rewards all take time and care to create. It’s a massive commitment involving the entire team, regardless of whether you are a smaller studio such as Firefly or a slightly bigger company like Double Fine.

Self-publishing isn’t easy. You’re essentially doing all the business and marketing work of a publisher in addition to designing and producing the game. But we’re happy to do this if it means we can build a relationship where we answer mainly to ourselves and our fans. That’s better for Firefly, the fans and perhaps most importantly the quality of our games.

Have you found the development process has been democratized with backers feeling as though their suggestions are more important having funded the game?

Simon Bradbury: It’s funny because although we haven’t started our Crusader 2 crowdfunding yet, we’ve been participating quite heavily in this more democratized development process for some time now.

We have a free-to-play title called Stronghold Kingdoms. This went into open beta back in 2010 and not a single update goes by without some tweak or gameplay addition being added that was sourced directly from the community. Because that game is self-published we have a constant, open dialogue with players about the state of the game and its ongoing development.

The fact that we are a smaller company without a dedicated community manager strangely helps us. It means that everyone from Producers and PR to QA and Support get involved, we’re all aware of community suggestions and make sure the best ones are tested and implemented. The experience gained from Kingdoms will certainly be carried through as we march ahead with Crusader 2.

Has that created any problems during development?

Simon Bradbury: The main issue for us has been communicating that changes we make to the game were in fact sourced directly from the community. The player or group who originally suggested the feature or tweak will be ecstatic and likely even tell their friends. The issue is that if you don’t communicate this it will simply fly over players’ heads unless they participate heavily in discussion in the forums and on Twitter, which you can only ever expect a certain number of players to do.

There’s also the issue for players who might have put a lot of thought and effort into a different suggestion that wasn’t implemented. They’ll be thinking “Ok it’s great to see you’re listening and reacting to the fans, but what about my idea? Why wasn’t that taken on-board?” Certain ideas, though exciting and well thought out, simply aren’t achievable for a variety of reasons and without a full-time Community Manager it can be difficult for Indies to help people understand that.

We’ve just seen XCOM launch to huge critical and commercial success. Strategy games seem to be enjoying a bit of a surge at the moment. Why do you think that is?

Simon Bradbury: I think it’s tied at least in part to the PC. With the recent resurgence of PC gaming we’re seeing an extremely passionate group of players making their voices heard. They love the PC and want to support titles that you don’t usually see on other platforms, which is part of the reason why self-publishing has been successful on websites like Kickstarter.

The average age of a ‘gamer’ is also rising. There are increasing numbers of slightly older gamers with very fond memories from the heyday of strategy games in the 80s and 90s. It’s quite easy to catch the interest of those people because until recently there were relatively fewer strategy titles to choose from. Now we’re in a situation where developers can make great strategy games, see profits and keep doing what they love. It’s great.

This interview was originally published on Strategy Informer. 

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