Flying Squirrel Entertainment are a European indie developer that originally formed out of the team behind the Mount & Musket mod for Mount & Blade: Warband, before making the jump from amateur to professional development with the full-blown expansion pack Mount & Blade: Napoleonic Wars.
Rather than rest on their laurels, for their second commercial project Flying Squirrel have announced the online multiplayer game Battle Cry of Freedom, set during the American Civil War. With over 500 players participating in each battle, historically accurate renditions of the battlefields, troop types and artillery of the period and full destructible environments, Battle Cry of Freedom is not short on ambition. We talked to Maxim Munnig Schmidt of Flying Squirrel about how the four man team are attempting to bring the Civil War to life.
Strategy Informer: Having come up through the modding community to then turn professional developers with Napoleonic Wars, at what point did the idea for creating your own IP come to mind?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: Well, I’ve always played games, and I decided four years ago to do something useful with my life so I got into programming. Modding just came automatically - I would see a game and think this could be better or I could add something to it. As I went into making more and more stuff, I starting thinking to myself: “This isn’t so hard, why don’t I make a job out of this?”
So I spoke to the guys who made the original game that I was modding, and said “What if I make an expansion for your game? Would that be possible?”. They were interested, and that became Napoleonic Wars for Mount & Blade: Warband.
Napoleonic Wars was really successful - it’s had around 200,000 sales - so after that it was pretty obvious to me that we should keep doing this and make our own game.
Strategy Informer: Can you give us an overview of Battle Cry of Freedom’s main features?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: If you’ve already played Napoleonic Wars, you’ll have an idea of what we’re making. But if you haven’t: our game is focused around putting people into the shoes of soldiers in the American Civil War. If you’ve played strategy games such as the Total War series you’ll have an idea of what combat is like, but in this game instead of controlling all these troops you are just one of those little soldiers on the battlefield.
Everyone has a specific task that they need to do. You can be artillery, you can be a sniper, you can be an officer, a general, you name it. And with every player being an individual character, we’re focused around having huge multiplayer battles with hundreds of players, because that is what is needed to re-enact these battles as they happened.
Strategy Informer: The scale of the battles sounds pretty impressive - you’ve talked about over 500 players, more than double the amount in Napoleonic Wars. How have you gone about resolving the technical issues of supporting that many players battling it out online?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: It is a really big challenge. When I started the project, I said I wanted to double whatever we had had previously, and then started to realise how hard that actually is.
To explain it simply for everyone to understand, every player produces data: they need to walk round, to shoot, and everyone else needs to see that happening. So if a player turns around, everyone else needs to know that that player turned around, is now looking at them and could possibly fire at them. And every time you add another player into the game, there’s more data for the server to have to tell everyone about.
So, it’s a big challenge. If you have 200 players, an average server could probably handle it easily, but when you have double the amount of players, you actually quadruple the amount of data. We spent a lot of time researching and trying things out and came to the conclusion that 500 players is doable, but we had to make a lot of sacrifices. The design choices we make in the game had to be adapted so that they could work with 500 players.
Strategy Informer: You’re using your own custom networking technology alongside the Unity engine. Has that presented any special challenges after previously modding and developing for the Mount & Blade engine?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: It’s really different. It’s like going from Windows to Linux. But most game engines do have the same concepts - you have objects, models, textures and obviously code - so it’s like learning a different language, but once you’ve learnt it, you can talk to other people.
So it was really challenging at first, but now that we’re six months into the project I feel that is has given me so many more options because of things that are in the Unity engine that are great that didn’t exist in the Mount & Blade engine. It gives us so many more opportunities to make what we want.
Strategy Informer: Apart from the scale of the multiplayer, were there other things you learned making Mount & Musket and Napoleonic Wars that you were able to apply to Battle Cry of Freedom?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: The community. Such an important part in making us and our projects successful has been the community. We make something interactive, and the only way it’s going to get played is if there’s a lot of interaction between the player community and the game itself.
I think what we did well in those previous games was to give people the opportunity to form huge clans, to re-enact specific events or battles, and meet the community’s standards by enabling them to use tactics such as line formations of soldiers firing muskets at each other just as it occurred in history.
It created this whole re-enactment scene that got really big. With Battle Cry of Freedom, we intend to have these communities involved even more. Inside the game itself, people will be able to create clans, have tags, work together and find friends and play continually within the same teams and squads.
Strategy Informer: Judging by the Flying Squirrel forums, the community is already really engaged with the project. Has it surprised you how rapidly interest has grown since the game’s announcement?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: Not really. When we announced we were going from mod to commercial and people would have to pay for the next product, all of the community went over and were immediately involved with the paid game, with no-one staying behind to play the free mod. So when we announced Battle Cry of Freedom, before we knew it everyone was on the forums discussing it.
It’s been a hell of a ride but I kind of expected it, because there are people who want more of these historical games that not a lot of other developer’s are making these days.
Strategy Informer: You’ve stressed that there’ll be no persistent character stats or unlocks in the game, which is going against the recent trend in online multiplayer games. What was your thinking behind not including those sorts of elements?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: It’s more of a personal decision than whether people want it or not. I try to distance myself from what the rest of the industry is doing. The unlocks and RPG elements that a lot of games are putting in are important for a lot of people, but I believe that what is important is making a good game that people can enjoy and have fun playing instead of grinding towards better stats to be better than everyone else.
It really annoys me. I come from a background of playing a lot of first-person shooters, and as soon as the Call of Duty series started to implement a system where the longer you played the better guns you got I thought: “Wait a minute? What about player skill?”
I want it so that when players play our games for the first time, yes, they may not have a lot of skill yet simply from not having played, but they’re not at a disadvantage just because other people have played the game for years and are at Level 60.
Strategy Informer: Was having that level of control over your final product one of the reasons why you went the independent route rather than with a publisher?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: Yeah. A lot of publishers want to stick with what they believe people want and what they perceive every game should have nowadays. If you are going to stray from that path, then you’re going to get a lot of negative attention.
With Napoleonic Wars, we had reload times of about 15 seconds between each shot. I had to fight for that element of the game design for ages to get it into the final game. Most people were afraid that we would have players complaining about it, but it actually worked out. Yet I had to talk for days and days and give 5,000 word arguments to get that element through. So by being independent, I’m free to do what I think is best.
Strategy Informer: The American Civil War remains a contentious period in history, and has a really dedicated community of interest around the globe in the re-enactment and wargaming communities. How important is getting the historical details right in Battle Cry of Freedom?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: It’s always been really important to us to have as much historical accuracy as possible, although we’re still making a game - it needs to be fun. Having features that are realistic but not fun to play is not on my agenda. A good example is misfires. Imagine you load your gun, click and nothing happens and then someone else kills you. It might be realistic but it’s not fun.
Instead we focus on the actual historical moments such as the battles. The battlefields, the weapons, the uniforms are all completely accurate. We spend a lot of time on that because as both a historical enthusiast and gamer, I always get annoyed when other games do something that isn’t historically inaccurate.
If you look at something like the Total War series, a lot of those games have so many historical inaccuracies that it’s just painful in my eyes. I think our games can also be like a history lesson, to show how things really were.
Strategy Informer: You’re using crowd-funding for the game’s development, but through your own site rather than the likes of Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Is there a particular reason for that?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: Multiple reasons. For one, Kickstarter is still only available for people in the U.S. and U.K. - as I’m Dutch, that’s not going to work out! But another reason is that those sorts of sites actually take quite a big percentage. For example, Kickstarter takes 5% for themselves and you have to run your project through Amazon Payments who take approximately another 3%.
So a developer could get less when they do it through those sites. Of course, they also get a lot of bonuses such as publicity and so on. We’ll just have to see if it works out. If doing it through the site doesn’t raise enough we can always look at those other options, but for now I’d like to keep it on our own site.
Strategy Informer: You’ve presently got concept art and screenshots of the game’s highly detailed terrain on your site. What’s the timeline from here? For instance, when do you think you’ll have gameplay footage to show?
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: Right now, we’re still developing the gameplay. We have a lot of weapons and uniforms made already. I just didn’t want to show everything at once, as I felt it could spoil things a bit.
Timeframe is hard to say. I think in the next three months or so we’ll release the first videos.
Strategy Informer: Flying Squirrel Entertainment is a four man team, and Battle Cry of Freedom sounds like a huge undertaking. Are there times where you think “Oh my God, what were we thinking?”
Maxim Munnig Schmidt: [Laughs] No, I enjoy challenges! Give me something easy to do and I won’t want to do it. But ask me to make a 500 player multiplayer networking engine and hook it up to Unity, and I’m really challenged and all I can think about is how to make it work. Then once that’s done, it’ll be “What’s next?”
That’s the sort of energy we have in our team. We have one guy making absolutely all of the weapons and uniforms, and he works 20 hours a day. But he loves to do it and likes the challenge. We have those sorts of people on our team, and that’s what has allowed us to progress from a simple modification through an expansion to making our own game.
You don’t need a lot of people. What you need are dedicated people who really love what they do.
Pulling off a project on the scale of Battle Cry of Freedom will certainly require all the energy and dedication that Maxim and his colleagues at Flying Squirrel can muster, but their track record has shown them to be uniquely in tune with the interests and demands of the 19th Century wargaming community.