Stronghold 3 Q&A - Building a Better Castle

Firefly Studios' Simon Bradbury, designer of Stronghold 3, answers our questions on kingdom management.

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With Stronghold 3, developer Firefly Studios is going back to basics. In this case, that means going back to the original Stronghold and seeing what it was that made this castle-building, real-time strategy game so great. But that's not to say the team is stuck in the past. Free-form building placement, disease warfare, and a day/night cycle are all in the works as well. We catch up with Stronghold 3's designer, Simon Bradbury, and quiz him on what the team has in store for the latest entry in the Stronghold series.

Stronghold 3 aims to recapture what made the original such a hit.
Stronghold 3 aims to recapture what made the original such a hit.

GameSpot: It has been a long time coming, but we're happy to hear that Stronghold 3 is now nearing completion. Please give us an overview of the new game and what it will offer.

Simon Bradbury: We've made several games in the past few years based in the Stronghold world--such as Legends and Crusader Extreme--but this really is the big meaty new Stronghold for a while. In many ways it's a direct sequel to Stronghold 1; it features plenty of references to the original, and many familiar characters make their return. The Wolf, for example, survived the fall from the tower and the sword through his chest. He has spent the last 10 years plotting bitter revenge in the East. And that's where the game kicks off. The Wolf has returned with his faithful dastardly followers, and he plans to take over the kingdom. I think it's great that we're returning to the world of Stronghold, and I reckon that fans of the series will be delighted to become immersed in that rich medieval setting all over again.

GS: What are the most important lessons that Firefly has taken from the development processes, and reception, of previous games in the series?

SB: One thing we kept hearing from the fans--particularly after Stronghold 2--was to make a game that was more like the original. It may sound slightly cocky, but I think we got a lot of things right in the first game but then suffered sequelitis for the second game and tried to cram too many things in, which upset the fans. With this game we're trying hard to make something that has the spirit of the original. We know we made some mistakes, and we're aiming to rectify them with Stronghold 3.

Another thing we learned from the sequel was the folly of trying to build our own engine. At the time, it was almost the done thing for developers to make their own engine, so we decided we should do the same thing…which was a mistake. Because we were so busy making sure the engine worked, we weren't able to concentrate on finely tuning the gameplay to make it as enjoyable as possible. For Stronghold 3, we're using a third-party engine, which means we can make sure we nail the gameplay, rather than having sleepless nights about shaders and pathfinding. I mean, we still have sleepless nights, but just not as many as before.

GS: There was a time when the Stronghold games were more or less the only games in town when it came to games that focused on castle sieges. Times have changed, and there are now many, many other strategy games on many different platforms that are all about defending towers. What lessons has the studio picked up from such games? How will Stronghold 3 offer a different experience?

SB: I think that we're definitely more than just a tower defense game. Stronghold actually teaches you about the best way to build castles--where to put the tar pits, how far the walls should be placed, the best way to funnel the enemy into a small area where you can easily pick them off with a few arrows, etc. I reckon a Stronghold fan could probably travel back in time and easily build a decent castle.

You can also attack at night, if you're a sneaky, dishonest jerk.
You can also attack at night, if you're a sneaky, dishonest jerk.

I would say that we're still the only game in town (or rather the village) when it comes to castle games. Nothing else truly focuses on all aspects of castle life like we do, about building a thriving castle community alongside the military aspects of the game. In other strategy games set in the medieval period it tends to all be about combat. We have gritty, messy combat, but as a player you also have to worry about making sure everyone has enough apples to eat and that your stretching rack is sited correctly.

GS: We've already discussed how Firefly has noted that Stronghold 2 wasn't as well received as the first game due to some of its more-complicated (and more micromanagement-heavy) systems for economics and building structures. Could you explain in more detail how Stronghold 3 will try to recapture the magic of the original game?

It's going to take more than 12 soldiers to topple this wall.
It's going to take more than 12 soldiers to topple this wall.

SB: Stronghold has always had a lot going on--you need to be constantly building, tinkering with the simulation systems, and playing an RTS at the same time. We got that balance about right in the original, and that resulted in a very absorbing game, the kind of game where you lost track of time. With 2 we went too heavy down the simulation side and ended up losing that balance, so instead of getting lost in the game, the player got bogged down in just one aspect. This time around we believe we have our house in order and the core gameplay will resemble the original much more closely.

We are tinkering with the model, but much more from a position of wisdom this time and much more lightly when we do--for example, the new housing mechanics. In the original, houses could be placed anywhere, which had no effect whatsoever on gameplay, and because they could be destroyed, the best place to put them was on top of an inaccessible mountain. Now in 3, they vary their capacity based on their distance to the keep, so as you move them close to the keep, they give you up to 10 beds (and visually look bigger), and as you move them away to that mountaintop, they give you one bed (and look like the shack they are). This idea is dog simple really, but it's a good example of the type of design detail that we think will extend and enhance the original gameplay.

Another idea that we have trialed successfully in our recent online game Stronghold Kingdoms is to make a slight tweak to the popularity system. Instead of it being time based, and popularity swinging constantly from one extreme to the other, it's not (time based). Again, a simple change. But one that is far less frustrating when you forget, like I do, that you put taxes up to "extremely cruel" to raise money and left them there, and now there's no one left. Instead, you now feel that you have real control over your castle economy, although our mission designers now have a greatly expanded "events" system to upset your carefully laid plans.

GS: We're told that the new game will no longer restrict construction sites for various buildings and will be much more free-form about where and how you place structures. Tell us about how this new system works and what it adds to the game.

SB: That's correct. In previous games, the player has been restricted to grid-based building, so you could only place buildings in very strict straight lines. Obviously this is great if you're building a new street in Manhattan, but not so brilliant if you want to create a more authentic medieval village. Now you can place objects at any angle you want, which gives each village a very unique feel. The new any-angle system allows us to play a little more with the terrain as well. As in real life, the budding castle builder will be forced to adjust to the limitations placed on them by the landscape--rotating a wood camp to make it fit into a bend in the river, for example, or strategically deciding which trees would be better to clear first to uncover the biggest area of building space.

Because we've scrapped the grids, it means that castle wall building is also free-form. This allows us to re-create more-realistic-looking castles--particularly the ones based on actual historical castles. Players can almost paint the castle walls by holding down the mouse button, which makes it so much easier to create something that looks great. I think this goes back to what I was previously saying about stripping out some of the unnecessary elements in the game to create something that's far more accessible for newcomers but offers extra depth for experienced players.

GS: We understand that Stronghold 3 will introduce disease as a defensive weapon--that is, disease that originates from animal carcasses that can be used as ammunition for catapults. How does this new system work? What makes spreading disease by flinging a cow carcass a more strategic choice than hurling boulders, stationing archers on your parapets, or using other, more-conventional defense methods?

SB: We've always included cow-tossing mechanics in the series, but this time we're pushing the boat out by offering different types of animal ammo--including a sack of diseased badgers that the fans chose on Facebook. Historically, sieges were long and drawn-out affairs, so the armies would get bored and start catapulting anything over the parapets of the enemy castle…animals, bodies of captured soldiers. Not only did this relieve the boredom, it also disheartened the people within the walls of the castle. Genghis Khan would catapult decapitated heads, for example.

How will you lay out your castle?
How will you lay out your castle?

Anyway, in the game, using animal carcasses can spread disease, which takes out any foes that stumble into the filthy fog, so you can quickly take out a group of soldiers who are standing around waiting to attack. Plus, depending upon what type of animal you use, you'll get a different type of disease cloud. It's a new simple added extra to your combat tactics that doesn't reinvent the wheel.

GS: We also understand that the game will have new death traps to deal with infantry invaders. Give us some examples of these new traps. Aside from letting players with a sadistic streak amuse themselves by lighting enemies on fire with cleverly placed oil pots and fire arrows, what purpose will these new traps serve in the game? Will they decrease an enemy's morale, for instance?

One false spark and your entire kingdom could go up in flames.
One false spark and your entire kingdom could go up in flames.

SB: Stronghold has always been an unfair RTS--it's one of the things that make it so different in the genre. One side gets loads of troops, and the other side gets a castle. More troops in an RTS should be a walkover victory, so the castle builder must use their skill to funnel the attackers into their specially prepared "killing zones." This could be with overwhelming firepower or the array of traps and death-dealing mechanisms they have at their disposal. This isn't sadism; it's life or death for the plucky defenders, and yes, the good old oil pots will be there as usual, along with new devices such as stake traps that spring up (dealing instant damage) and then remain as a barricade. Morale has never played a part in the Stronghold series, and I think that it's best left to other games. If I place an armed peasant in the path of five knights, then I jolly well want him to stay there--the god of RTS games decreed it so years ago.

GS: We know that Stronghold 3 is powered by a new graphics engine with lots of new graphical bells and whistles, including a new day/night cycle. How does switching from day to night (or night to day) in game time affect what happens in a game of Stronghold 3? For instance, does darkness affect visibility for your archers?

SB: Darkness changes the game in a lot of ways. On a more philosophical level, the story is much darker because the Wolf is bitter and twisted, so he's attacking at night…which is really extremely dishonest.

One thing to note is that we're not necessarily going to have the standard day/night cycle that you see in other games. Instead, you might start a level in the dead of night, and you'll be advised that you must infiltrate a castle before the break of dawn. Then at key points during the stage, the light will increase a set amount. We think this will be a much better way to increase the tension, rather than just slowly watching the sun rise over the horizon.

However, there will also be levels that are played entirely in darkness, and we like to think of this as Stronghold's realistic version of fog of war…because it's literally so dark you can't see anything. Your own buildings and troops will have lights, so you'll be able to see around them, but outside of your castle it is pitch black. To counter this you can place towers that can be set alight with a flaming torch or you can launch flaming bales of hay into the battlefield to try and locate the enemy. This will definitely add a new element to sieges because you'll never be 100 percent sure about where the foe will attack next, and you could be tricked by fake attacks, while the main force is using the cover of darkness to creep up on your castle.

GS: How will Stronghold 3 improve on multiplayer? What new features and changes are planned?

SB: Stronghold has always had a big multiplayer following, and we find it's the best tool for getting the game balance right--so it's getting a lot of attention at the moment. One big new element in multiplayer will obviously be the nighttime maps (which is the one area where we will cycle through day and night). I love this option, as it really does make meaningful use of a day/night cycle. Instead of just a few minor changes to stats, the whole gameplay changes dramatically--fog of war on, fog of war off, fog of war on…

Another example of what we are doing is bringing the historical castles into multiplayer. These are great if you just want a quick battle with preset troops and have a very different feel to the standard deathmatch game.

GS: Fans of the series have enjoyed making modifications and custom content for previous games in the series. How does Firefly plan to support the mod community, and fans of customized content in general, with Stronghold 3? Any plans to release a toolkit, for instance?

SB: Absolutely! We've always been amazed by the creativity of the community (particularly their ability to re-create locations based on a particular series of ring-based fantasy films), and we hope that with the improved engine they will be able to make more spectacular maps. In fact, we can't wait to release the game just to see what they come up with, and this time they will be able to showcase their work far more easily as we are incorporating a simple upload, download system into the game as part of a raft of other online features that we are adding.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about the game?

The annual parade of torture is always a favorite with the locals.
The annual parade of torture is always a favorite with the locals.

SB: We're really taking our time with Stronghold 3 to create something that we--and the fans--can be proud of. We appreciate that everyone's had to be patient to wait for this follow-up to Stronghold 2, and we're hoping that the improvements we're making, along with the refinements of gameplay from the original game, will combine to make this the best Stronghold ever.

GS: Thank you for your time.

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