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For our very first Spotlight, we’re talking to Tobias Stolz-Zwilling, PR manager at Warhorse Studios working on Kingdom Come: Deliverance for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, which is slated for a summer release in 2016. The beta is expected to arrive in Q1 of this year.
The History Behind the Game
When it hit Kickstarter nearly two full years ago in January 2014, Kingdom Come: Deliverance enticed over 35,000 people to open their PayPal wallets and back a “different kind of RPG,” one which shunned the traditional tropes of magic amulets and elves to produce an experience that was still sprawling, open-world and non-linear – but above all, realistic. To achieve this, Warhorse Studios have drawn not only on real-life history, but also locations and fighting techniques in an effort to keep Kingdom Come firmly grounded in its Dark Age setting.
In the Middle Ages, life was short, sickly, and violent. Players take control of the son of a blacksmith in this RPG, which seeks to tell an engaging, exciting and nuanced story, without the aid of fantastical beasts and mythology.
“The game takes place in Bohemia in the year 1403,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “Basically, it’s the time of the Holy Roman Empire in Europe, when Bohemia was the most important country at that time because the lords and rulers of the Empire came from there.”
Bohemia is an historic region of latter-day Czech Republic, encompassing roughly 60% of the country’s landmass, and borders Germany and Poland to the northwest and northeast respectively, as well as Austria to the South.
“Kingdom Come: Deliverance is something like a prequel to the Hussite wars, which break out a few years later in Europe,” Stolz-Zwilling goes on to say. “So, with Kingdom Come: Deliverance, we’re explaining why those events happened. Not just from the religious side, because while the Hussite wars were very influenced by religion – it will play a role in the game – we’re focussing on the struggle in the house of Luxembourg.”
A dynasty which ruled as Kings of the Romans and Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire from 1308-1437, the House of Luxembourg were an influential and distinguished royal family in the late-medieval period. Their rise to power, followed by their subsequent decline, serve as the backdrop for Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
“The sons of Charles IV [were] Wenceslaus, the ruler of Bohemia, and the other son is Sigismund, the king of Hungary,” says Stolz-Zwilling.
“Wenceslaus was even the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, but he was deselected by the lords.
“He was a bit like, ‘whatever, I can still drink and whore around.’ Because that’s what he was interested in; he was a weak ruler. He lost the crown because he was deselected by the lords, but he didn’t really care because he could still be the king of Bohemia. His half-brother Sigismund, who as I said was, at this time, the king of Hungary, sensed the weakness in his brother and claimed that he’d come to Bohemia to help get back the Holy Roman crown, but immediately imprisoned Wenceslaus, took him to Austria, and Sigismund started to raid Bohemia for its riches.
“That’s where the game starts. You are playing as Henry, the son of a blacksmith, and you’re living in a city which is attacked by an unknown army.”
“Unknown because they look very exotic,” he explained, “they have these full plate masks with mustaches and things like that. This city that you live in gets totally destroyed and most of the people are slaughtered, which sounds like a cliché, but the interesting thing is that all of these events really happened. This city was really attacked in history and it was really burnt down to ashes. In Kingdom Come, you can technically spoil yourself if you read the history of the House of Luxembourg, but it’s more about your impact on the story, or how you’re seeing it through your own eyes.
“So, the game takes place in 1403, and is something like a prequel to this bloody, ugly civil war which breaks out a few years later.”
Despite its richness in political and religious conflict, the Bohemian revolution, as well as the larger medieval period, seem difficult to pull off in games. Few make use of the setting without adding elements of magic or mythology, but Warhorse felt they were up to the challenge.
“There are several reasons [why we chose the setting],” Stolz-Zwilling says. “Daniel Vávra [Mafia II], our creative director, who’s also the co-founder of the studio, is Czech. It’s close to him because the story’s located in today’s Czech Republic – Bohemia is a part of it – so that’s the easiest explanation. The other one is that we wanted to tell a story that’s historically accurate and based on realism.
“They thought, ‘what’s actually happened in Europe, what stories are there?’ There’s the Second World War, the French Revolution; a lot of stories to tell, but most of them aren’t in Czech Republic or are already covered. There’re tons of World War II games, lots about the era of the French Revolution.”
“But no one’s really tried to tell a story about the Holy Roman Empire,” he continues, “even though we believe that it’s a huge period of European history that’s extremely interesting because there were several lords fighting each other, claiming to be united but, in fact, they were more fighting each other.
“We think, we hope, we believe, that the story we want to tell, of the Hussite Wars and the Holy Roman Empire is extremely interesting, full of intrigue, war and blood, but also has its sunny sides. We just believe that this story is kick-ass, and we want to tell it to the world.”
One genre where the Middle Ages have found success in gaming is RTS. However, games like Crusader Kings and Total War lack the explicit characterization that Warhorse are aiming for with Kingdom Come.
“The medieval times are well covered by books and movies…kind-of,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “It’s pretty popular right now, even though they’re quite Hollywood-ish, where they try to make it more interesting with fantasy elements. So, it’s not unrepresented in general, but in games, for sure. There are games that somehow cover it, but no RPGs. Like Paradox Games’ Europa Universalis, they’re of course showing the Holy Roman Empire, but there’s no deep story; it’s just a setting.
“If you think about RPGs, in most of them you have a sword and shield as your main weapon. The sword and shield are connected to medieval times, and medieval times are connected to realism – because they actually happened.
“No one’s gone this way to the realism part; they stop with the medieval setting. We’re going that step further by trying to make it as realistic as possible.”
That dedication to realism is what Stolz-Zwilling and the rest of the team hope will characterize Kingdom Come, as they search for the right balance between historical accuracy and an enjoyable game experience.
“In the beginning, it seemed like an easy task,” he explains. “We can read about it, it’s something from real life, you don’t have to create anything new. But now we’ve realized creating something that’s historically accurate is even harder than something fictional.
“That’s something that we learnt very quickly in development – that compromises are something you need to live with.”
And while they’re committed to creating a realistic setting, Warhorse are also mindful of making Kingdom Come’s lore accessible to those without a working knowledge of 15th century central and eastern European socio-religious politics.
“That’s what our designers work on, that’s basically why they’re working for us,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “A: because they want to tell a story, and B: because they need to write it in a way that everyone likes, understands, and is interested in.
“In your head, it always sounds really interesting, because you know what you want to say and because you want to tell it; it sounds like an awesome story. The big challenge for every game designer is to somehow tell a story in an interesting and motivating way.”
He continues, “That’s what Daniel Vávra, as the creative director, is responsible for. He’s the head of the design team, he writing the quest dialogue and stuff like that, as well as reviewing the writing.
“People who know the Mafia games, which he was involved with, will know that he’s kind of good with storytelling,” he jokes. “We hope that he keeps the hype, that he keeps the flow, and’ll write a cool story.”
Warhorse’s focus on realism extends to the passage of time within Kingdom Come’s world. Events aren’t static and don’t require the player’s direct input to proceed. If a quest gets shelved when it needs to be resolved quickly, or the player doesn’t follow through with their promises to aid NPCs, there’ll be consequences.
“The way that you decide to resolve quests will somehow influence the entire story,” Stolz-Zwilling explains. “An example of that is if you have to find someone and you know that bandits are searching for him, then there are three options that can happen.
“So A: it might be that you’re there first, so you can warn this guy and save him. B: you come just in time to see that the bandits already have him, so you can watch them slaughter him or enter that arena and kill the bandits. Or C: you come late, and the story, the quest or the thing is already done.
“The entire world will react to the player’s action. If an NPC is approaching you and saying, ‘let’s go and kill those bandits right now’ – and you decide not to go – he won’t wait there with a big question mark on his head, but the game will simulate the situation. He’ll go there alone. He might die or he might complete the quest; everything depends on the player’s choice.”
Kingdom Come presents a chance to impact and experience a piece of the Middle Ages through your own eyes, and to push this idea, Warhorse are using a first-person perspective.
“We’re trying to be as immersive as possible; that’s why we have the first-person in the single-player,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “We want to come up with an AI system that’s so good that you don’t even see it. Then, of course, the storytelling is one of the most important parts of the game – the story is something we put a huge focus on.
“To be honest, in the studio we use third-person for testing. We’re using it to see how the animations look and if they flow. At the start we thought first-person only, but since we’re working with it, we asked in the forums if the players would actually be interested in using it. Since we’re a crowd-funded company, we’re asking if the community a lot.
“What is really interesting is that most of the community said, ‘no, that’s not what I pledged for, I want this single-player, hard-core thing.’”
“We believe that it’s the best way to do an immersive game,” he goes on to say. “It’s not only the combat but also the alchemy system. When you’re standing in front of the table, you believe that you’re really doing something. You have the recipe book that you need to find your formula, you have the bellows that you need to pull to make air flow, you have to boil and grind ingredients. You’re forced to do something to get something and in first-person, it looks awesome.
“It’s actually really awesome with the Oculus Rift, because the CryEngine is supporting it – but the game won’t be optimised for it. It just works and looks very interesting.”
The Art of Combat
The level of research put into Kingdom Come’s history is impressive, but for the combat and locations, Warhorse have taken it to another level. To give their combat system real impact, Warhorse have designed an innovative physics engine where weapons and armor are treated as physical objects which bounce, collide with, and slide off of one another. In the full release, they hope that different kinds of weapons will react differently to different kinds of armor, meaning that players will have to choose both their offensive and defensive equipment wisely. As well, almost like car damage in Driveclub or Burnout, armor will break in response to repeated physical contact.
“You can’t just button-mash and run into 20 soldiers and kill them all,” Stolz-Zwilling says. “You’ll have to concentrate on a particular soldier who’s standing in front of you. All the movements that you do are more immersive in first-person and again, there’s the historical or realistic part. We even added that your swords are physically colliding. If you hit someone, it’ll physically collide with his armor. If you hit another sword it’ll slide. Armor gets damaged. In other games, swords magically fly through bodies and return to the same position. In our game, when you slash once, your sword stays at the bottom of your swing and when you slash again it’s turned around and slashes backwards. You can have these almost choreographed fights.”
To bring historical accuracy to the design of their fighting animations, Warhorse enlisted the help of modern-day Czech swordsmen practicing H.E.M.A (Historical European martial arts) to perform motion-capture for Kingdom Come.
“Since none of us are real swordsmen, we had to invite real sword masters to the studio,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “These are people who were born with a sword in their hands, and they’re helping us with the animations in motion capture suits. But they’re also helping to translate medieval books. The fighting books were mostly painted, illustrations of people fighting with no written text because most people couldn’t write. They’re helping us to translate those pictures.
“Most of them are Czechs, and they’re something like a medieval knight guild, they’re almost like LARPs, like living history people. The sword master not only does sword fighting, but also teaches people medieval self-defense and how to live like a medieval knight. For example, we’ll have a huge monastery in the game, but we didn’t know how the people there should behave – how often do they pray, when did they eat, did they go out, and stuff like that. We have a full-time historian who’s helping there, but we’re also asking on Facebook where there are several living history and medieval groups. It’s not only game developers creating something, but we’re co-working with universities, museums, real sword guys who do this for a living. It’s a big thing in Czech Republic.”
He continues, “We’re trying to bring this historical fencing into gameplay. We’re trying to make this real thing into a playable version. I say playable version because it’s not 100% the same. That’s very important. We’re not doing medieval simulation. This is a game and a game is supposed to be fun. We believe with Kingdom Come: Deliverance that we’re creating the best balance between historical accuracy, realism, and fun gameplay.
“You need to make compromises to have a fun game. One example with the combat is that the best fighters are unpredictable. But in order to make it playable, you need to have those broad moves where you can see what the opponent is going to do. That’s important, otherwise you couldn’t react unless you trained for months.”
You can see alpha footage of Kingdom Come’s combat in action in the video embedded in this piece; but that’s a limited demo. When the final product releases, Warhorse hope to include much larger scale battles where the player will have to manage crowds of enemies to avoid being overrun.
“First-person is immersive, but it’s also a huge challenge,” Stolz-Zwilling explains. “You have to make the animations even better because you see them closer than from third-person. It’s something that sounds very obvious and very easy in the first place, but then you realize that it’s way harder than you expected. It’s a challenge, but also a special motivation.
“Large scale battles are something that’re going to be in the game for sure. But to be honest, we’re just testing right now. It’s already working – we tested it with 100 fighters and it worked pretty well. The idea is that you’re always locked to one person, because you need to choose how you want to attack, but you can de-lock very easily. The AI is smart enough to attack you from different angles, so if you have more than one person approaching you, they’ll try to run around and come from different sides.
“That’s the realism part again, the sword master at the studio told us that even though he’s a master, if he’s fighting against three noobs running around him, he’ll most likely lose. You’re not Legolas or someone from Lord of the Rings where you can just dance and kill them all. That’s something that you need to consider if you go into a fight with several people – you need to line them up somehow to only fight one at once.
“We want to try to show players this in the beta for the first time, at least a glimpse of it. That’s something we’re working on right now.”
Dedicated to Realism
Finally, and perhaps most impressively, is Kingdom Come’s world map which, true to Warhorse’s dedication to a realistic setting, features actual locations from Czech Republic – places which survive to this day, and which the team visit to better portray them in-game.
“The map of Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a real satellite map located approximately 50 kilometres south of Prague,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “We just slightly changed it to move cities a bit closer together to make the area more densely populated. So the map is nearly 100% correct – if you go on Google Earth you might find it.
“All those cities, all those villages, everything that’s in the game, all the buildings, everything really existed, and some of them still exist today. And since they’re only 50 kilometres south of Prague and they’re still around, like churches, we can visit those places, and we actually do.
“Our 2D and 3D artists are going there, taking reference pictures, and trying to transfer those buildings directly into the game. Sometimes, like with the monastery, they could never finish something because of the war, so it looks exactly the same as it looked in the year 1403.”
“They built a clock into the tower, so we had to remove that; but the rest is correct,” he jokes.
“That’s the interesting place where game development, education, and science meet,” Stolz-Zwilling goes on to say. “The people who work there went totally crazy when they heard we’re trying to reconstruct how the monastery looked, and they’re helping us with a lot of information.
Collaboration with both fans and historians has yielded great benefits for Warhorse’s quest for realism, adding intimate detail to their locations – as well as more mundane additions, like removing CryENGINE’s default orange carrots, which weren’t widely cultivated in Europe until the 16th century.
This systemic attention to detail flows through everything in Kingdom Come: Deliverance which, if sustained, looks set to deliver an innovative and interesting RPG experience.
“We’re trying to bring something new to the market, and tell the story of Czech Republic and Europe, which we believe is kick-ass,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “We’re looking forward to the day of release and seeing how the world responds to everything. Right now, we have good feedback from the alpha, from the media and players.
“But the alpha doesn’t include any story. People are wondering whether this realistic game will be fun, so we’re preparing the beta to show that it’ll be fun as hell. There’re castle sieges, large scale battles, fighting. I’m very happy to introduce the story into the game. I already know what quests will be in there, and Daniel Vávra is a very good storyteller.”