Published on July 19th, 2012 | by James Kulas
Battle of Tannahill: Stronghold Kingdoms Interview (Part 1)
Following on from last month’s review is the first of our two part interview with Firefly World’s Nick Tannahill from Rezzed. Nick is a self proclaimed PR ninja, mercifully he held off silently snapping our necks long enough to share his thoughts on Stronghold Kingdoms, the benefits of being an indie developer, and the allure of the free-to-play model.
Why did you decide to deviate from your previous Stronghold model and go down the free-to-play route?
It happened, sort of gestated, from some closed alpha tests, it came at a time when the company was very small, in a fairly bad place after a Dungeon Hero fell through, our staff were down to literally about three. Simon [Bradbury], the lead designer and Eric [Ouellette] in the States, coming from Impressions’ projects like Caesar 3 and Lords of the Realm, saw games like Travian and Tribal Wars and thought we could do a similar kind of game with a bit more depth, a real game people could really get into and appreciate. I think it was a stroke of genius for 2007, when free to play games were still in their infancy.
It’s easy to come to shows and see all these free-to-play games landing simultaneously, but bearing in mind the development time you had to be pretty forward thinking to hit that mark.
I think we were one of the first to join the Steam free-to-play store, so even with that we were quite quick off the mark. Now we’re getting things like Tribes Ascend and Crytek’s recently announced Warface, so it’s becoming huge now but I think at the time it was mainly a result of “we haven’t got a ton of money, we need a good idea”. I think the whole thing about performing well under pressure is true, essentially Simon and Eric performing under pressure, there were literally three or four people at the company at the time. A combination of limited resources and a good idea, essentially saved the company.
I can’t imagine the scale of the undertaking for three people to create a game with so much depth, particularly statistical depth, you must have spent three years in Excel?
There were a lot of Excel documents, quite lengthy ones too. We’ve got a support team now, but at the start we were about as indie as you could possibly get. It’s difficult to brand yourselves as indie when you’ve been making games for ten years, I think we’ve made something like eight Stronghold games, it’s hard for people to see that as indie, but we are. If someone suggests something across the room it can be implemented by the afternoon, which is something you only really get with indie development.
I think a lot of people who aren’t involved in the industry would be surprised with the massive fluctuation between projects. Once a game ships you’re looking to pick up a new one before you effectively run out of money.
Developing something like Stronghold 3 is so far away from making something like Stronghold Kingdoms. Kingdoms is less a game and more a constant service, you’re touching up, talking about it every day. That is more work than for instance Stronghold 8, where you have a milestone in September, at the moment people would be coming up with really cool creative ideas, but it’d be very slow paced, and ramp up as we approached the milestone. People start sleeping in the office and all this kind of stuff. Money comes in regularly, it’s less stressful, with traditional launch marketing you get to that point, launch, and get whatever the publisher promised. If you get 85 on Metacritic you get a bonus, if you get 84 you get nothing. Did you hear about New Vegas? They got 84 and missed a bonus.
I’m continually surprised by how much stock people put in Metacritic, particularly with all the evidence of smear campaigns and deliberate down-ranking.
It’s pretty obvious that sort of thing happens all the time, I don’t want to use Mass Effect 3 as an example, but that’s life, that’s the internet. If people want to say something about your product then they’re going to say it. I think Metacritic is good, I’ve talked to Marc Doyle who set the whole thing up, he’s a great guy, but it’s not without its flaws. Developing something like Kingdoms, if the game does well you keep your job. Sometimes games do well, the world loves them, amazing sales, critical acclaim, and they still get closed down, look at L.A. Noire. It’s insane the hundreds of companies that are closed down every year.
It’s quite shocking when you think of a studio like Team Bondi, triple A titles with massive budgets. There’s this period of fragility between shipping and the next project, particularly if you don’t have something like Stronghold Kingdoms providing that stability.
People criticise free-to-play quite fairly saying it’s leading design and that shouldn’t be the way it works. It should be an art thing and sales should be separate, but as a developer, someone with a job related to these games, you want it to be stable. I think more creativity comes from a stable working environment than a looming deadline. I think the best way to do it is to have a free-to-play game which half the company works on, and launch products with set dates for the other. When you’ve got a buffer, if something goes awfully wrong its OK, you’re not all going to lose your jobs. No one likes losing their job, no one likes having to tell people.
Have you seen the Double Fine video where Tim Schafer talks about how he hates doing payrolls, and not knowing if they’re going to be around next week? And that’s coming from a massive developer. Everyone in the industry will generally feel that.
Everybody knows the name, and yet he’s had a couple games cancelled this year, and is appealing for funding via Kickstarter. It really puts the challenges the industry faces into perspective.
I picked up Psychonauts recently in a Humble Bundle, I thought it was fantastic but I can see why it might not have sold. You get to the point where you’ve launched and you’re excited, but without that kind of stability you’re equally nervous about what happens next. Having a solid team who don’t fear for their lives makes it easier for everyone to perform.
When you say you’re worried the free-to-play model can lead design, I think it can but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Facebook games like Dragon Age Legends seem primarily money driven. I can see immediately where it’s trying to sting me which drives me away. Kingdoms is the opposite, it’s a game first and then it shows your its shiny undergarments.
I think that comes from Simon. Part of my job is to help Simon, suggest areas where we can make the game more accessible. Anything vaguely related to advertising he insists we need to let players discover on their own. It’s a good, healthy attitude to have, and I think other developers may not have that same attitude.