Features Interview

Exploring the Past of Warhorse Studios and Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Grand Ambitions, Growth, and Greatness

The story of Warhorse Studios has been well canvassed. As well as being remarkably open with the community during the development of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, the team has conducted many interviews over the years and was the subject of a Gameumentary documentary earlier in 2018.

Nevertheless, the team has always presented a bullish front—a confidence in its debut project that seemed unshakeable. That confidence has proven to be well deserved, as the game has carved out an enviable niche in terms of sales figures and the passion of the fanbase. However, the media surrounding the project has not always been entirely positive, with the DLC so far receiving mixed reviews.

As such, when the opportunity presented itself to visit the studio and pick the brains of some of the key talent, OnlySP leapt at the chance. A plethora of team members were on vacation at the time of the visit, having just wrapped up the hotfixes to ‘The Amorous Adventures of the Bold Sir Hans Capon’, and more were ill, including creative director Daniel Vavra and team historian Joanna Nowak.

Regardless of these absences, the interview involved a round table discussion with PR manager Tobias Stolz-Zwilling (who cuts a fine, aloof figure with his stylish street clothes and perfectly coiffed moustache), lead designer Viktor Bocan (whose unassuming manner belies his shrewdness and intelligence), and senior designer Prokop Jirsa (whose enthusiasm for the game, and gaming as a whole, is nothing short of infectious).

Viktor Bocan Warhorse Studios Kingdom Come Deliverance
Viktor Bocan, lead designer at Warhorse Studios. (Image courtesy of Warhorse Studios)

“We actually started with 12 people, I believe, in the beginning,” says Bocan. “We had some plans. It was like, let’s start with the basic prototype of the game, let’s choose the engine (because we didn’t want to create our own engine), and we started to hire people. Actually, our aim was to talk to the guys we worked with before […] because we who founded the company all came from the big studios. I was from Bohemia Interactive, who made Operation Flashpoint and ARMA. Martin [Klima] was in many studios all over the world, and Dan Vavra was from 2K, and we all came together and tried to bring the best people we knew from our studios for something new and great.”

“We had a plan,” Bocan continues. “We wanted to make this game—actually this game. It was really like, let’s make a medieval RPG in first person with realistic combat and stuff like that, so we had exactly this plan.” That was in 2011, a tumultuous time for the gaming industry. Mid-tier teams were struggling to retain their relevance; BioWare was acquired by EA a few years earlier, Insomniac first began trying to branch out from beneath Sony’s umbrella with what would become FUSE, and THQ would soon go bankrupt. Additionally, concerns about the future of gaming were at their peak, which meant that Warhorse had a hard time convincing publishers that the risk was worthwhile.

“Our problem was that we were of course showing it and presenting it to various publishers all over the world, and this was exactly the situation. Nobody knew what would be the new consoles. […] Everyone was saying something like ‘People will not play games like this any more. They like mobile games and everything needs to be free to play,’ and things like that. […] The interesting part is that all—well, most—of the publishers liked the game. […] Everyone said ‘Oh, it’s awesome; it’s huge; it’s great. We would really definitely want it two years ago, but now we have no big games on the game consoles. So it wasn’t like, ‘the game is stupid. Go away.’ It was really like, ‘Hey, we like your game, but we don’t think the market is ready for anything like that’.” 

— Viktor Bocan, Lead designer

The involvement of an investor eased the burden of these rejections, but the continued existence of the studio was never assured. Stolz-Zwilling says “Closing the studio was a valid option many, many times. We were running out of money. Publishers refused. The investor is not a person who is involved in video gaming. He does completely other businesses.” Jirsa adds that “for him, it was really like a normal investment project. […] If he didn’t see the potential, he wouldn’t do that. […] It wasn’t like a passion project for the investor.”

Kingdom Come: Deliverance
Some of the team hard at work at Warhorse Studios in Prague.

That lack of certainty made the Kickstarter campaign (which eventually raised almost four times its initial goal and was the third most highly funded project of 2014) of vital importance.

While that success is now in the history books, the team’s decision to push ahead with the project in the face of almost universal opposition betrays an inspiring level of confidence. The line that the company has always pushed is simply that it believed in Kingdom Come: Deliverance.

Bocan was kind enough to explain where that confidence came from. “I believe that, specifically, it’s very important that you create the game that you would like to play. […] I don’t much believe in focus testing and marketing research and stuff like that because I play games a lot.” He says that passion is at the centre of the recipe for success. “It’s not like ‘Hey, look at the RPGs. What’s there? Dragons are there. Vampires are there. Real medieval settings—Oh! That’s not there. Hey, this is the hole in the market. Let’s make it, and we will make a lot of money’. No, it doesn’t work this way. […] It’s because you believe that it’s going to be a good game, and you just make it.”

Jirsa echoes this belief: “I think it shows in every project when it’s being made by people who are passionate about it, and I mean passionate not in the way like everybody is hiring people who need to be ‘passionate’. Really, when you like what you are doing, there are a lot of those little things that wouldn’t be there because it wouldn’t be important for any people who don’t really like the product.”

Kingdom Come sunset

The codex included in the game—a vast resource with hundreds of entries about everything from gameplay mechanics to granular details about life in medieval Bohemia—attests to the team’s willingness to delve into “those little things.”

Nevertheless, medieval history is enormous in scope, and historical games often treat with flashpoints familiar to their audience members: Renaissance Italy, early America, and Ancient Greece in Assassin’s Creed; the Napoleonic Wars and the Roman Empire in Total War; or World War II in myriad shooters. Warhorse Studios chose a setting closer to home and a conflict that even Europeans may not be aware of for its game.

This lack of familiarity was not a problem for the prospective publishers. According to Bocan, the studio sought feedback specifically about the setting in Bohemia, receiving responses along the lines of “‘No, no. That’s great. That’s cool. We love it. There are kings and there are knights. That’s all we need’.”

Meanwhile, the reasons behind the choice of setting are three-fold, which Stolz-Zwilling sums up succinctly as “One thing is that nobody talked about it. Another is that it is very practical to have it, and the third one is that it is interesting enough to be covered in one video game.” He recounts an analogy of talking to French gamers who were dissatisfied with the relatively brief representation of the French Revolution in Assassin’s Creed Unity, using it as an indication of why Warhorse “needed to have a compact, small, almost closed story that can be told in one video game and offers some room for interpretation.”

“Hopefully the fact that nobody knows about it is cool,” adds Jirsa. “The fact that it’s exotic and new—hopefully people like it. […] You know, when you are really studying history, you learn that all the crazy s*** that happens in Game of Thrones actually happened and even crazier stuff, and it’s real.”

Despite his enthusiasm for the historical component, what attracted Jirsa to the project was the RPG design. He joined the team shortly before the Kickstarter campaign, before much was publicly known about Kingdom Come: Deliverance. He says that he took the opportunity and “right through the project, I found the little things that I loved. For me, it’s the complex quests. I really like to solve quests my way and usually in non-violent ways,” and this trait is one of many that separates Kingdom Come: Deliverance from the bulk of outwardly similar RPGs on the market.

Jirsa was a relatively early hire, and Warhorse Studios has increased ten-fold since the earliest days of a dozen people trying to make a grand game; it now houses approximately 110 developers, for whom many of which Kingdom Come: Deliverance is their first game project. Stolz-Zwilling estimates that fewer than a quarter of the team members are industry veterans: “Maybe from all of the 100, 20 ever worked on something big, and maybe 10 or 5 on something super successful and all of the other 100, 90, 80 people are—many, many of them are from university or other industries. For some, it’s their first job. For some, it’s their first video game ever. So [the veterans] can share their expertise, and the young guns come with the motivation.”

At this point, Bocan breaks in to joke, “Yeah, we advise, they work.”

Furthermore, although Kingdom Come: Deliverance has been out for more than half a year, with DLC now being the priority, the studio has never been larger. Unlike other teams, Warhorse is not interested in hiring temporary staff who will be laid off after shipping.

“Our goal from the beginning was to establish a big studio that can make great games with many people, so we grow all the time,” says Bocan. Stolz-Zwilling is even more explicit about the grand ambitions. “The plan right now is to get a staff of 150 in the next two years […] or next year maybe.”

To better allow for this growth, the team will be moving its office early next year, as the staff numbers are already overflowing. As an example, some of the game scripters are sharing a room with the community management team.

“We are already hiring people that we have no place for, so we are telling them, ‘Okay, we want you, but wait like half a year or five or four months because we have to move first’,” says Jirsa before Bocan adds with a smile, “We can test them and if they really want to work with us because they have to wait.”

In the second part of the interview, Stolz-Zwilling, Bocan, and Jirsa delve further into some of the design decisions made during the development of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, as well as discussing the controversy that embroiled the game shortly before its release, and how it sits alongside some wider industry trends.

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