For nearly a decade, independent developer Firefly Studios - formed by veterans of Caesar and Lords Of The Realm creators Impressions Games - has been catering to PC real-time strategy fans from its offices in London and Canton, Connecticut.
Most of the studio's games are based on periods in European history - its Stronghold series is a rare example of the siege-based midieval castle game segment.
In 2002, Firefly released the well-received Stronghold Crusader on PC, and now it is working on bringing that title up to date with Stronghold Crusader Extreme. The aptly-suffixed Extreme boosts Crusader's scale, promising over 10,000 units on screen at one time, a new "Extreme Trail" line of missions, and various mechanical additions.
Meanwhile, Firefly is also working on Dungeon Hero, its first new internally-conceived IP since 2003. The action RPG aims to be the first dungeon-crawler to actually simulate a realistic underground society, with a wide variety of monstrous denizens not only antagonizing the player but living out their own lives.
Both titles are being published by indie-focused Gamecock Media Group, which represents something of a homecoming for Firefly - its past publisher Gathering of Developers was co-founded by Gamecock honchos Mike Wilson and Harry Miller.
Dungeon Hero and Stronghold Crusader Extreme designer Simon Bradbury recently sat down with Gamasutra to discuss topics ranging from the merits of organic and inorganic AI pathfinding to taking a postmodern tack with NPC dialogue cues.
Finding A Niche
How has it been to work with Gamecock so far?
SB: We signed our original Stronghold with them in 2000, before they got bought out by Take-Two, as Gathering of Developers - Harry and Mike's original company. We put our trust in them then, and it was well-founded.
They did a great job of marketing it and then they got bought, and Take-Two, they did a great job of distributing it and we were very successful. So this time around, we were more than happy to work with them. They're very nice guys, they're very professional. They look a bit crazy, but they're very clever and very good at their jobs.
Speaking of that game again, in terms of the PC market, it's mostly MMO stuff right now. Do you think there's still a large viable segment for those type of games, offline PC games?
SB: I think so. It's perhaps going to move into a different segment, it's going to be maybe a bit more casual and that's where we've pitched Dungeon Hero. The combat's got to be fun, and easy, but the skill is to make a game that is very accessible and casual, but at the same time rewards people who want to work at it.
But you haven't got to make the game hard to start with, like a lot of games do. For example, remembering all the combos - it's really not fun - so we wanted a game where you can see all the moves from the start, and the skill is using them properly.
How do you differentiate yourself - I mean, besides that element of trying to simplify things in certain ways - how do you differentiate yourself within the third-person action arena? Because it's, like FPS, a very crowded market.
SB: The easiest way to answer that is we wanted to carve out - we're going for a niche. With Stronghold, we looked for a niche and we are the only people doing a historical castle game, and with this we wanted to go for the idea of a plausible dungeon society.
There's that and the other way we're trying to narrow the USP [unique selling point] is that simpler, gritty combat. A lot of action games have gone very... it seems they've gone anime cartoon style in the combat play - I mean, God of War is unfeasibly large weapons and strikes. We wanted to go the opposite way. You're right, you've got to find a little niche and you've got to differentiate itself.
I don't think [the THQ-published version of] Conan did that well, and that had Conan behind it, so it's a difficult proposition tackling an established genre.
SB: You've got to provide something that captures people's imagination. You've got to get the combat right, for sure, and it's got to be fun, but at the end of the day, you've got to have an idea that is going to be a little bit different and is something that people are going to like. And Conan - it's almost got the feel of a license about it. Sometimes that's a good thing, but not necessarily always.
Lastly, I want to know how big your studio is?
SB: We have two primary offices, one in London, one in Connecticut, and across the whole company we're about thirty-five. We're still quite back room, and we like to keep things tight and flexible.
I've been talking to people about pathfinding. The impression I get is that pathfinding hasn't been evolved as carefully as things like AI or some other bits of programming. Have you found that that's the case? It's still not quite organic.
SB: In actual fact, Crusader, which is very much an oldschool path finding game -- it's tile-based. That's very non-organic and it's written to be very fast in assembly language. It works fine for us because we have thousands and thousands of guys in there.
Whereas obviously for Dungeon Hero it's nav-mesh based, poly-based, so it's a whole different thing. In actual fact we wrote all the path-finding stuff for Stronghold, and in Dungeon Hero we've brought it in using Kynapse I think. I think overall it's still got plenty of growth left in it.
Do you think in a game like Crusader it actually matters, because in a way if you have very inorganic or predictable pathfinding it makes it very Chess-like? Do you think if you were to do another RTS would it be another evolution of that, or do you think it's not necessary?
SB: I think for Crusader it's fine because in the end what we did is moved to a smaller tile size, which means that in the end it feels good enough - they never go out of the way. It's more important for non-strategy games to get the path-finding better, because you notice it so much more if a guy right in your field of vision is sort of wandering off as if he's drunk.
Whereas, in a game like Crusader, you see hundreds of guys moving about, you haven't got time to look at the little guys. I think for another RTS we have to move to non-tile-based anyway because the engine would be very much a 3D-based thing. We are looking at one at the moment, in fact.
There's so much going on in some of these that it seems it would be easier to play if it was all in text. I don't know whether it would be as much fun. Have you ever thought about that? Not that you would do it, but I look at these because I'm a bit more casual in terms of what I can do, and I look at that and think, I can't pay attention to what all these guys are doing at each given time, it's just too much for me.
SB: It is, and I think that's kind of the point of that - it's Crusader Extreme. It's already a huge click-fest before hand, but now your wrist will ache if you play it for two hours - for all the right reasons.
I know what you mean and there are games out there that are kind of more casual - the MMO-y games almost do that. But Stronghold, it's an RTS game, we're not planning to moving to text right now.
One of the things I was noticing during the demo, one of your English-speaking units said that they were under attack and he was so nonchalant about it, and it almost seems like a postmodern thing - I'm sure it wasn't intentional - but of course he's not concerned about being attacked because in that game you're going to be attacked all the time.
SB: I think it probably was intentional. We've always enjoyed ourselves and we've ended up going in and doing it ourselves - directing the sound guys in England - and we spend a lot of money on it. The worst thing with those things is if they repeat too quickly.
If you're doing that then some of the funniest times in game development I've had is directing actors in voiceover, because you want them to sound nonchalant, you want them to have a kind of humour rather than, "Yes sir!", so we've actively courted that postmodern feel, I guess.
I was just amazed that he didn't care he was being attacked. It was, "Well, I'm being attacked." I wanted to know why Crusaders are a very old concept, but you've chosen the word "extreme," which is a very Mountain Dew, trendy word. I was just wondering why you've chosen to append that word as opposed to any other.
SB: Partly because it just fit. It is kind of an RSI-inducing - I don't want to take any legal responsibility for that - game, and it just got a lot worse. It really is one of the most twitchiest games I've ever played -- if you're not doing everything quite right, you're going to fail. And we like to have fun. We don't like to be too straight-laced. I guess that's why we went for the over the top Crusader Extreme.
With Dungeon Hero, the concept of him in a way being the monster in this world, as they're orcs, being the natural denizens of these places, and he's the one coming in and hacking everything - it's an interesting concept. Was it built around that as a design principle, or was that just something that evolved as you realized what it was?
SB: I would say it evolved from it. You put it in there and you start to show it to people, and they're, "He's kind of mean, isn't he?" and we're, "Well, yes he is." It's like you're doing a demo to the press and half the time you're formulating ideas when you're doing it.
Someone will ask you a question and you go, "Yeah, that's right, he's going to do that." It's a great time, actually, to get your ideas straight and, in the early days, to evolve the design. But definitely, he became more psychotic in the first six months as we talked to people about it.
In terms of the NPCs, you will eventually, I guess, be able to murder all of them if you so choose?
Is there any consequence for that?
SB: No, I think we'll leave that one to Fable. If you feel good about chopping a goblin's head off, it's a moral decision in the real world, I think. If you attack too many of them, we will put out a couple of guards that will try to arrest you, but then you'll just kill them quite easily anyway.
Can you just kill the whole town and will they respawn or will they just be gone forever?
SB: Not in the town itself - we had to make the decision, because you need to get information from there quite a lot of the time, that you can't. So in the town you're not allowed to carry a weapon, so we just take the weapons off you, and if you try to button-mash in the town, you just end up waving at people, "Hey, how're you doing?" You won't be able to fight.
That's probably a good way to do it.
SB: It's simple, and we like simplicity.
You're talking about it being a live world, in a Pirates of the Caribbean way - I'm talking about the ride, where essentially you're down a gated path and there are things that look lively but they repeat themselves and they're not evolving or changing?
SB: I've kind of used that analogy myself a few times. We're kind of half that - we have that in it, and that's what we showed today, but what we also have, that we didn't show today, was some slightly more intelligent AI that will also move around and go and do some stuff.
It's not evolving or anything, but, yes, we do have that animatronics side, but we will also have another side to it.