Building a sequel: Firefly’s blueprint for Stronghold: Crusader 2 [Interview]

5 Sep 2012  by   Peter Parrish
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Last week, Firefly Studios announced plans to crowdfund and self-publish the long-awaited sequel to Stronghold: Crusader. We lined up our question-catapults and took aim at Lead Designer and company co-owner Simon Bradbury to find out more.

IncGamers: First up,? ?you’ve just announced that Stronghold: Crusader? ?2? ?will be a crowd-funded project.? ?Which platform are you launching on,? ?and how much are you aiming to raise??

Simon Bradbury: So the plan is to launch our crowdfunding campaign this month on Gambitious.? ?We looked at Kickstarter and Indiegogo,? ?but we really wanted to go with a European platform given that our games have always been popular in? ?Europe.? ?One anecdote we love to tell? (?and don’t tire of telling?!) ?is that the original Stronghold outsold Grand Theft Auto? ?3? ?in? ?Germany over the Christmas period.? ?That was in? ?2001? –?And the games have remained popular through a shift to? ?3D and even a move into free-to-play MMO territory with Stronghold Kingdoms.? ?We plan to reveal the amount we’re hoping to raise when the campaign begins later in September.

IG: Is this a situation where the game will go ahead even if you don’t raise the desired amount,? ?or do people need to be aware that without this funding Stronghold Crusader? ?2? ?will not happen??

SB: I’m glad you asked because you really do have to be crystal clear with people when asking for crowdfunding.? ?In our case the money would go towards extending the dev cycle to include a lengthy open beta,? ?adding the kind of polish,? ?tweaking and balancing that we just didn’t have time for during the development of Stronghold? ?3.? ?Crusader? ?2? ?will happen,? ?but with crowdfunding players have the opportunity to help make it an even better and more polished game.? ?It’s not just an opportunity to pre-order Crusader? ?2? ?at a discounted price,? ?it’s a chance for the players to get involved and help us create the best Stronghold game possible.

IG: What made you opt for a follow-up to Stronghold Crusader,? ?rather than moving on to Stronghold? ?4??

SB: Crusader? ?2? ?is the game we have wanted to make for? ?10? ?years.? ?It’s only now that we feel we’re ready to deliver a sequel to what is for many the fan-favorite game.? ?Stronghold fans remember that game so fondly and now that we can self-publish we can make the game they want,? ?without having to make changes based on what gameplay features a third party thinks we should add or remove.? ?Honestly the only reason we didn’t make Crusader? ?2? ?five years ago is because we couldn’t self-publish or crowdfund five years ago?!

We also want to make it clear to players that Crusader? ?2? ?is a completely different game to Stronghold? ?3,? ?something that would be much harder to do if we were making Stronghold? ?4.

IG: Will Stronghold Crusader? ?2? ?largely pick up where the original left off,? ?or are you going to take it in a direction closer to Stronghold Kingdoms,? ?your free-to-play title??

SB: The aim with Crusader? ?2? ?is to find a balance in terms of gameplay and mechanics between the classic? ?2D titles and the newer? ?3D games.? ?We want to bring the playability and fun factor of the original games into the third dimension and bang up to date with all the bells and whistles people expect of a modern RTS game.? ?So there will be a skirmish mode and all the other elements people expect from a AAA title? –?A rarity these days?! ?Stronghold Kingdoms is very much the other side of the business,? ?in the same way that Uber are currently working on both Monday Night Combat and Planetary Annihilation.

IG: What can you tell us about some of the new features or units planned for Stronghold Crusader? ?2??

SB: If we said it all at the announcement stage we’d have nothing left for marketing?! ?What I can say is that Locust Swarms will feature as one of many dynamic in-game events that give the game its desert vibe.? ?There’s also over ten new units planned,? ?for both the Arabian and Crusader factions.? ?We have obvious ones like the brutal Crusader Swordsman and also units which are a bit more tactical in how they’re used,? ?like the cruel Slave Driver.? ?We’re hoping to give them all a distinct flavor,? ?place you in the era and really differentiate the two factions.

IG: When developers opt for this model of self-publishing,? ?it generally means they’d had some bad experiences through? ‘?traditional?’ ?channels in the past.? ?Is that the situation with Firefly Studios?? ?Talk us through some of the? ‘?lowlights?’?…

SB: Our most worrying lowlight came when we were working on Dungeon Hero and our publisher fell through,? ?as a result of the credit crunch.? ?We were suddenly left with a lot of money not going to be paid,? ?the size of the company shrank considerably and we eventually had to put the project on hold,? ?changing tactics very quickly.? ?Luckily our shift to free-to-play? (?that we kicked off back in? ?2006?) ?paid off and now we’re back on our feet,? ?but being in that position was scary.? ?Those kind of sudden changes are far less likely to happen when you’re a self-sufficient business.

IG: Your last few games have been published by different companies? (?Stronghold? ?2? ?was? ?2K,? ?Stronghold Crusader Extreme was Gamecock Media,? ?Stronghold? ?3? ?was Southpeak?)?.? ?Did you have a good experience working with any of those publishers??

SB: Absolutely?! ?I’m not saying that traditional publishing is dead or that it doesn’t work.? ?Stronghold? ?3? ?was an unfortunate case where there was a great deal of uncertainty at the start of the project with the original publisher CDV going bust? (?yes lightning does strike twice?!) ?and that kind of thing really hinders development,? ?because it affects your priorities and sense of timing.? ?We’re actually still close friends with many of the people we worked with in the past on the publisher side and have even been known to go out for a? ?beer with them?!

IG: Stronghold? ?3? ?received a fair amount of criticism at launch for feeling? ‘?unfinished?’ (?this was a term used in reviews too?)?,? ?were you under pressure from Southpeak to push it out too early??

SB: That’s probably a fair criticism,? ?really.? ?When you’re working with a publisher you each have your own set of pressures and priorities and sometimes those don’t align,? ?especially if the dev cycle has an unsure or rocky start.? ?If delaying the game was a possibility we would have done just that,? ?even a month was enough for us to produce the? ?4? ?or? ?5? ?patches that solved the most glaring issues.? ?It’s a shame it had to be that way,? ?but now we have control over the release,? ?features and marketing.? ?It’s not something that’s going to happen again.

IG: The game? [?Stronghold? ?3?] ?received a lot of post-release patches,? ?but did it ever reach the standard you’d hoped for when the game was first in development??

SB: As it stands Stronghold? ?3? ?is in a different state now to how it played at release and we’re extremely proud of the work done by the programming team in the months after? –?Not least because it’s very hard post-release to change the general perception of a game,? ?let alone the review score.? ?Reviewers have a right and duty to review the day one release version of a game and gamers have other games and real-life interests and responsibilities.? ?There were some things we wanted to add but couldn’t simply because we were so far down the line by that point,? ?but we did everything we could with the available time and funds.

IG: It’s clear that the traditional model of publishing videogames has plenty of flaws? (?not least the tension between publisher and developer?)?,? ?but do Firefly see Kickstarter and similar platforms as a long-term solution to this??

SB: One of the most encouraging things about crowdfunding which suggests the model has staying power is that high-profile projects like the Double Fine Adventure have been shown to increase the overall level of funding.? ?We’re being quite specific here? –?To Kickstarter.com? –?But before the appearance of Double Fine just one video game project on the site had been funded over? ?$100,000.? ?Two weeks after the end of the Double Fine campaign and nine projects had been funded that amount.? ?The average number of pledges in the video games category also jumped from? ?629? ?a week to? ?9755? –?And that’s excluding donations made to Double Fine.? ?If developers can deliver the goods I think it’s entirely possible to build confidence to the point where we look at crowdfunding as an established,? ?accepted publishing model.? ?Hopefully the deciding factor will be the quality of the games,? ?rather than the size of their marketing budgets.

IG: Do you have any concerns that players and media are already developing? ‘?Kickstarter fatigue?’?,? ?which may prevent more recent projects getting the same attention and backing as the earlier trailblazers??

SB: I’m sure Double Fine and inXile would acknowledge that their Kickstarter success was at least partly due to the fact that they were first.? ?They identified a unique opportunity and tapped into their fans’goodwill and generosity in a way many wouldn’t have thought possible.? ?There is the worry that this kind of thing can turn out to be a fad,? ?but we are seeing stabilization.? ?More projects are simply reaching their goals,? ?instead of smashing through them? –?Which is good in a sense? –?You don’t want studios setting up goals with the expectation that they’re going to raise double or triple that figure.? ?It grounds the project and makes it deliverable.

The guys at Uber were very open about the fact that omitting a campaign from Planetary Annihilation was a cost cutting measure.? ?$900,000? ?sounds like a lot of money,? ?but for funding a two year dev cycle with a company of up to? ?50? ?employees it’s really not that much.? ?We’re trying our best to be similarly transparent.

IG: Going forward,? ?can you ever see Firefly returning to the traditional model of videogame publishing??

SB: It’s hard to say,? ?given our success self-publishing Stronghold Kingdoms I’d say it’s unlikely we would return the whole company to that model.? ?That said it’s still early days for crowdfunding and we’re only just starting to see the first games? –?Projects like Star Command? –?Near release.? ?Let’s see how both the indie projects and the bigger studio efforts turn out first,? ?but we’re extremely happy and fortunate to be the in the situation we’re in.? ?Right now we wouldn’t change it for the world.

IG: Long-term Stronghold fans will be excited for Crusader? ?2,? ?but for those who may never have played a Stronghold title sum up why you think they should part with their cash to help get this game made.

SB: Stronghold is one of the most enduring British games franchises of the past? ?10? ?years and it is THE game if you like building and knocking down castles?!? Players are still discovering the original games today via sites like GOG and even uploading maps for them ten years after release.? ?We plan to offer the finished game,? ?early beta access and other unannounced goodies as rewards for donating? – ?But anyone who donates will also be giving an independent British games developer the funds and creative freedom to create a great PC strategy game that lives up to the legacy of Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader.

Firefly’s Gambitious project will launch later in September. For now, you can follow Stronghold: Crusader 2 at its official page or on Facebook.

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