I first met Simon Bradbury back in 2008, at my first ever event since entering this business. Firefly were showing off their new title, Dungeon Hero, and whilst I came from the preview feeling optimistic and intrigued I never saw that game again. Now, two years later I meet Simon Bradbury again and in between reminiscing about how good Dungeon Hero was going to turn out to be, I settled down to talk to him about Firefly's current project, Stronghold 3.
Strategy Informer:You mentioned that this isn't your engine, who's engine is it?
Simon Bradbury: It's the Vision Engine by a company called Trinigy. It was recently used in Ubisoft's Settler's 7. They're a small German company and we like it. We were using it on Dungeon Hero as well and so it was a nice transition tech-wise. They're really nice guys, good at what they do, and they're small as well so we're not always stuck in some holding pattern because some vice-president of Activision is banging on his desk and going "we've got three SKU's with you *grumble* *grumble*", we'd never get any support if we went to Crytek or Epic, so it's good for us.
Strategy Informer: You mentioned how every developer has to go through that transition into 3D, but that it also meant that you were focusing more on the technology as opposed to the gameplay. Stronghold 3 licenses someone else's engine, and if you look at, say, Epic, their Unreal 3 is also widely licensed. Do you think that is a better way to do is? Do you think developers should worry less about making their own Engine and just license whatever product suites their purpose best?
Simon Bradbury: Absolutely I do, it's crazy now. I mean if you want to do some shader effects, or dept and field etc..., those are fairly easy to write. But if you want something that can throw a lot of polys, that can cull object, that can apply multi-shaders etc... Why? Why would you want to do that yourself when someone can do it for you and allow you to focus on the gameplay, which is complex enough. It's complex enough for us at the moment. We've got Havock Physics, we've got pathing, we've got Vision... even with all that going on there' s still plenty for us to do - scripting things, AI etc...
In the old days when I was coding in 2D it was fine. Nothing more was expected of me than a tile, you could deal with graphics yourself in a month probably. So back then you had to naturally focus on the game because there wasn't much else to do, but now it just becomes this monster, so if you ever have a hope of wanting to do a game, you've got to give that to someone else.
Strategy Informer:You mentioned how you want to use Dungeon Hero's more dark, comic-book style presentation for the story, I assume though that you're not using Rhianna Pratchett this time again though?
Simon Bradbury: No we're no using her again although it's not that we're not allowed too it's just that she's so busy! Even when working on Dungeon Hero she had all this other stuff going on. Haven't spoken to her in a while but I'm hoping she's going from strength to strength, as she's got a few things going on at the moment.
Stronghold 3 though is going to be slightly straighter than Rhianna's style anyway though. I mean there is humour in there, but it's deliberately underplayed humour. It has to be funny because it's funny, not because we've told you it's funny. Like launching dead animals during sieges. In fact we've taken that one step further and given you multiple animals to choose from . We've even got a Facebook campaign going where people can choose what the fourth animal is going to be from a list. My favourite is the Donkey, I hope people pick the Donkey.
Strategy Informer:I assume when you take this to Germany you'll have to replace the exploding carcasses with confetti or something?
Simon Bradbury: Well we actually had the Ubisoft guys here actually, and one of the things they wanted to see was the torture equipment. In Stronghold, if you wanted to be a bad lord you had to place a load of torture equipment and a tortures guild etc... but now, if you get the equipment for free and if plonk it down a torturer will just appear. It's kind of funny but not over the top, and we were showing these guys how most of it was downplayed, for example the executioner with his blade would practise on a pumpkin. So you get the idea but you don't actually see the deed.
In fact the Ubisoft guys were saying how everyone thinks Germany is like "you can't have red blood and you can't have people, you have to have robots" when it's not like that at all. You can have all that, it's just how you use it. I can't be inhumane or over the top or anything like that. You're right though that you do often have to do some things with Germany. Like pink fairies or something.
Strategy Informer:It's been a while since the last iteration of Stronghold, the strategy genre has moved on a bit... what would be success for you? Apart from sales, obviously.
Simon Bradbury: I think for us as a company it's time to bring it back, we've got a following and there's some expectations now. We want to continue to be THE castle-building company and we want the Stronghold universe to continue long into the future. Personally, one of the things I'd like to get is a graphics score of above 6.5 - we've never got great graphics scores because we've been a bit behind the times there. I mean on one level I don't care about the graphics, it's all about good gameplay, but I think this time round we've got a shot of getting a higher score there, round the overall score up a little.
The medieval period is a fantastic period, if you can own it, get a real presence in it... I mean I think it's one of the funniest periods in history. It's a period even the Americans get, and a lot of silliness goes on there. We have all these grandiose plans to do this or do that, so if Stronghold 3 does well, if Stronghold Kingdoms (the MMO offering) does well, then maybe we can scale up again and start doing those things.
Strategy Informer:Obviously you had your spin-off with Crusader's and the remake Crusader Extremes. Did you take any lessons from those titles? Do you still want to maintain that as a separate franchise?
Simon Bradbury: Yes definitely, I mean Crusaders was a very different game in many ways. Stronghold is very much single-player, campaign/story based. Crusaders is a skirmish based game, it's all about the AI building castles and then you being pit against that in an almost mini multiplayer setting. Crusaders actually one of our most popular games, and then Crusader Extremes was just a re-release of that nine years later. It's definitely close to our heart and we hope to be doing something on it in the near future.
Strategy Informer:You hinted that you felt that many developers were innovating for the sack of innovating. Do you think that it's better to just go back to basics as you have? If we take Command & Conquer for example, do you think it would be better if they just re-made that but took some of the good things from later games?
Simon Bradbury: I think so, I think the most recent C&C's have done that anyway. It's like you've got chess - I mean you had some good chess games in the 80's, but then people would go "oh let's have 3D chess games" or "let's have chess where there's this, this and this" - Why!? Chess is Chess. They'll always be a future for chess, but just keep it simple.
I mean we've been selling the same game to a new generation of Stronghold fans I mean at the moment with Age of Empires: Online, that more cartoony one. At first I was bit concerned because it was looking quite good, better than Kingdoms, but it wasn't an MMO. It's single-player played in a browser with leaderboards, but it will be very similar to the first game. I mean personally, I would love to play Age of Empires re-released. I would play it all again, absolutely. I fondly remember that game and I would happily go and play an updated.
Strategy Informer:Obviously there's the modding community to think about as well, are you doing anything special there?
Simon Bradbury: Well we always give out the map-editor, which means we've ended up with thousands and thousands of maps. But if you didn't own a fansite, you wouldn't know about it. We're sent everything though - in fact this one guy had made around a 100 maps that were a recreation of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He'd also completely ripped the New Line soundtrack and dialogue and stuff. We had to tell him not to submit it as New Line would sue us! In fact somone had taken Stronghold 2, stripped out all the textures and everything, replaced it all... and essentially made Crusader 2. We were like "Nooo! Stop!"
So yeah we'll be releasing the full modding tools like we always do, but also this time we'll be adding in a central database that you can upload all your maps too, so everyone can see your maps and play them.
Strategy Informer:SouthPeak have been having some... difficulties lately. Has that affected development at all?
Simon Bradbury: It's been an unusual time this last three years for everyone in the industry GameCock went under and SouthPeak bought them up. I mean we're getting on fine, we're moving forward and we'll get the game out. I mean from that point of view we're just glad to still be here. A lot of people have gone - these things are kind of cyclic anyway, but this has been a very bad cycle. It's been... fun times, for everyone I think.
There's been a lot of talk recently about digital distribution, Steam-only releases, MMO's, XBLA etc... as a developer there are multiple ways to market yourself. You can mix things up an do something with a publisher and then do your own stuff. I like that because for me it reminds me of a time about 15 - 20 years ago where you could make a strategy game in like 6 months with one designer, one coder and one artists. In fact some of the best strategy games came out of that period, and in my mind we're starting to go back to that flexibility to some degree.
A very interesting interview with someone who knows this industry all too well. We look forward to getting our hands on Stronghold in the months ahead, and we wish them all the luck in the future. Don't forget to check out our preview of the game!