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

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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.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Interview

Arma 3 ‘Contact’ Project Lead Discusses Importance of Single-Player Content, Inspirations, and Plenty of Details

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Arma 3

Arma 3 ‘Contact’ delivers a new spin-off expansion for players to explore an unnervingly realistic interpretation of humanity’s first contact with an alien species. ‘Contact’ combines popular science-fiction with stunning graphics, realistic forested terrain in Livonia, real military general protocols for dealing with any unknown threat or situation to produce an authentic hardcore military sim experience.

In an exclusive interview with OnlySP, the expansion’s lead developer Joris-Jan van ‘t Land discusses influences, game development, campaign details, a new weapon—the ‘Spectrum Device’—and much more.

OnlySP: Arma has a strong history of hardcore realistic military sandbox sims. What made you want to take your formula and branch out into the sci-fi genre with ‘Contact’?

van ‘t Land: Firstly, we should make clear that we view Arma 3 ‘Contact’ as a spin-off expansion. It does not signal a new direction for the Arma series, which will itself stick to its authentic military sim-game core. Arma 3 being six years into its impressive tour of duty, we felt this was the right time to get a little more creative. We’ve supported the game with lots of free and premium content, features, and support. Now some of us wanted to explore something less traditional, while still doing our best to support the military sandbox as much as possible.

The ‘first contact’ premise is one many in our team have wanted to explore for years. Some know that during its pre-production stage, Arma 3 itself had some less conventional elements under its ‘Futura’ codename. We had done our own experiments with the topic on the side for fun, but now pitched it as an actual project, and were fortunately given the chance. Looking around at other sci-fi entertainment covering aliens, there are but a few approaching it from the viewpoint of contemporary (or rather 2039 Armaverse) military. We simply loved to theorize about how current armed forces might react to an extraterrestrial intelligence arriving on Earth. Nobody really knows what might happen, so it’s a conceptually interesting ‘what if’ setting to work with. ET adds a variable that nobody can really argue with: who knows what they are technologically capable of, what their motivations are, and what it would mean for humanity?

OnlySP: Has Earth’s first contact with aliens always been something that you wanted to do? Where did the inspiration come from?

van ‘t Land: Absolutely! Personally, it’s one of my favorite big topics in general, ever since being very young. I grew up watching movies like Independence Day, Contact, and later Arrival, following TV shows such as X-Files and Falling Skies, reading books like War of the Worlds, and playing games like XCOM. Since the Arma series (as Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis) entered my life, there have been many moments when I fantasized about building scenarios involving humans and aliens. That mostly did not really go further than hobby projects and quick experiments, until now. During the project’s concept phase I also had the chance to re-explore many inspirations, for example by reading lots of books, like Contact, The Black Cloud, and a lesser known hardcore military sci-fi series: Legacy of the Aldenata.

OnlySP: Given the time since Arma 3‘s full game was released. Why did you decide to create another expansion instead of Arma 4?

van ‘t Land: ‘Contact’ originated from our relatively small Amsterdam studio, a team which was formed to develop original ideas for Bohemia. That specifically meant doing less traditional projects, even if they were DLC or expansions to an existing game. Our first project—Arma 3 ‘Laws of War’also offered a non-standard perspective on armed conflict. Some of our team members have worked on Arma for well over a decade, and we were personally interested in doing something different. Initially ‘Contact’ was not even specified to be an Arma 3 expansion. We considered even a stand-alone game, but ultimately the benefits of the expansion route were far too great. It meant we could make use of a massive sandbox, and Arma 3 players would benefit from additions even if they do not care about the setting. Without ‘Contact’, there likely would not have been another official Arma 3 DLC or expansion, aside from our Creator DLC program of course.

I should also mention that we received very important support from other small teams in Bohemia, such as in the Czech Republic and Thailand. They helped to build the Livonia terrain and other sandbox content, while in Amsterdam we focused on the “First Contact” campaign, aliens, and defining the overall package. Other than that, it’s no secret that Bohemia has been working on its next generation in-house engine: Enfusion. It continues to mature and will power the next decades of awesome Bohemia games. We’re a pretty sizable company meanwhile, with various teams working on exciting things.

OnlySP: ‘Contact’ will get a single-player campaign, can you give any details of the campaign and how long it will be?

van ‘t Land: A big part of the campaign is about uncovering its mystery and exploring what is going on, so we’ll leave most details for players to discover for themselves. Known is that you will assume the role of a NATO drone operator, deployed to Livonia for military training exercises. Eventually our alien visitors arrive to the Area of Operations, and from there on out you’re part of an improvised reconnaissance operation to investigate what’s going on. The gameplay at its core is still Arma 3, but we’ve wanted to add some extra mechanics that are less directly combat-focused, such as Electronic Warfare. It’s largely up to the player whether they want to use more direct action or deceive their enemies using a new type of ‘weapon’: the Spectrum Device.

The length is always hard to specify, because it of course depends on each individual player, and how much they explore the terrain beyond the core objectives. We’d estimate normal play sessions lasting between 4 and 6 hours. And after that there’s of course a cool box of new toys to tinker with, including the rest of the new Livonia terrain. We also hope community creators get inspired to build their own alien scenarios.

OnlySP: Is the idea to produce a realistic version of what you think first contact might be like? Military robots, recon, drones and tactical planning?

van ‘t Land: Military and scientific authenticity were definitely our starting points when we kicked off the project. We scoured books and the Internet, spoke to various consultants, and tried to find out whether there even exist real-world ‘post-detection protocols’. There are bits and pieces out there, like the US military’s Seven Steps to Contact (1950), but also the usual conspiracy theories and questionable sources. We could not find a clear central and declassified playbook, so then you get to more general protocols for dealing with any unknown threat or situation. Much of that could be extrapolated to an alien arrival, so we quickly landed on themes like Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear defense, autonomous vehicles, and SIGINT (signal intelligence). These things just make basic sense: avoiding cross-contamination and taking extreme care in general. Another interesting analogue was how Navy vessels may react to a non-responsive ship at sea. How certain actions or inactions may trigger the wrong response. Not all of it is intuitive; a signal meant to communicate a basic message can easily be interpreted as hostile. And that’s between humans … who knows how aliens are and observe the world around them?

Setting out to depict this premise put us in a pretty challenging situation. We wanted to be authentic, but at the same time introduce aliens, whose level of technology can easily surpass our understanding. We approached it by setting ourselves the rule that the aliens were allowed one general super technology that they could use to ‘cheat’ our scientific knowledge, one magical ability if you will. The other parts of their tech should have a strong connection to how we think the universe works. And we are also still making a game, so along the way you can encounter gameplay situations that need to break with authenticity to preserve fun or player understanding. All in all, I would still say our interpretation is more down-to-Earth than many other sci-fi stories out there.

OnlySP: Can you reveal if any missions will take place on an alien spaceship? Or does humanity’s encounter with alien tech revolve around the orange levitating orb seen in the trailer.

van ‘t Land: What I’ll say is that you will not be leaving Earth. And there is more to the alien visitors than the Alien Flying Object and anomalous orb seen in the Announcement Trailer, but you’ll experience that when you play.

OnlySP: This expansion is adding five new weapons, all of them based on real-world arms. Will there be any weapons specifically designed for engaging alien targets? Did you ever consider adding in alien weaponry?

van ‘t Land: Perhaps not a traditional weapon, but the Spectrum Device is the player’s primary new tool. It lets you receive and transmit signals on certain frequency bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, depending on the antenna you attach. This can be used for engaging in Electronic Warfare against human forces and technology, but perhaps also more. We based the device on real-world experimental drone jammers and how they might develop over the next decades. How capable the alien visitors are at defending themselves is something for players to uncover.

OnlySP: The environmental graphics in the trailer look amazing. The forest setting is an iconic setting for many alien stories and films. Were you consciously attempting to tap into the cultural heritage and atmosphere of the likes of E.T. with it?

van ‘t Land: Thank you! E.T. is another movie all of us saw growing up of course. I would not say we were directly trying to replicate its atmosphere, but now that you mention it, the mood of being alone in the dark with strange light anomalies, definitely is a huge part of the campaign. Another similarity with Steven Spielberg’s movies in general is subtlety. We quite quickly settled on wanting to focus rather on that as opposed to bombastic blockbuster scenes. Think Jaws and Jurassic Park more so than Independence Day. At the same time there are several events in the campaign that nobody has ever seen in an Arma game.

Livonia’s development history is not as straight-forward itself. The terrain started as a Research & Development project to incorporate more automated tools for terrain building, but after building a prototype that way, it did not have an actual project to finish it in. Then we kicked off ‘Contact’ and at some point the match was made. This turned into a rather massive effort to shape the foundation into Livonia, but having an actual narrative context and setting helped to flesh out its back story. It meant we started developing it as a fictional nation, with a history, flag, and armed forces. And we started incorporating wishes from the ‘Contact’ campaign team. It was no easy task, but the teams did a fantastic job, and it has also allowed the expansion to bring a huge new sandbox to Arma 3 players.

OnlySP: The forested area of Livonia looks like a closed landscape as it’s densely packed with trees. This is something quite different from vast open landscapes that we’ve seen in the past with sandy, grassy and dirty environments. Will players be forced into exploring different tactical options to cope with this?

van ‘t Land: The landscape indeed means not all tactics are suitable or successful. Especially in the mid-section of the campaign, the player has some freedom to explore off the beaten path, and choose to walk or use vehicles, employ direct action or pure stealth. Even so, Livonia is rather large, and there will be plenty of interesting places to explore beyond the campaign. We fully expect the community will create their usual assortment of cool scenarios and multiplayer modes to make the most of its rolling hills, fields, and forests. Some of them have actually already started to publish versions based on our Sneak Preview builds.

OnlySP: How important is the single-player portion of Arma 3, not just for ‘Contact’ but the game as a whole?

van ‘t Land: That’s going to depend a lot on who in the player community you ask. For some only multiplayer matters. They spend thousands of hours in mil-sim operations or on role-playing servers, and perhaps never touch any single-player content. And yet, I could personally not imagine an Arma game without a single-player component. It does not have to be a complex narrative-driven story, but could also be a more simulation-driven open world. The current Arma 3 library of content, whether official or user-generated, is vast. Pretty much everything is represented in one way or another. Going purely on analytics, it could be tempting to conclude that singleplayer does not matter nearly as much, but the data does not tell the whole story. Aside from curated content, there is another way to play Arma 3 alone: the editor. Many players love just throwing together a quick battle and seeing how it plays out.

Then you could argue that any playable content could be both singleplayer and multiplayer, but there are still many complexities that make it very hard to pull that off well. We’ve learned some of these lessons with our co-operative “Apex Protocol” campaign. Besides being technically much more complex and harder to test given all network situations, there are many storytelling difficulties when you have multiple players in the virtual world, starting with their individual pace. ‘Contact’ actually started out intending to be playable in both singleplayer and multiplayer, but we are really pushing the limits of our engine with the aliens for example. A few months in we made the call to go single-player-only, letting us focus on building the atmosphere we wanted without the worries of network synchronization.

OnlySP: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

van ‘t Land: Having worked on ‘Contact’ for some two years, we are very excited to finally let players experience it soon. There are not many companies like Bohemia, where such an unorthodox concept would be greenlit, so we’re very happy to have had the chance to make it a reality. We hope you all enjoy playing our take on this big human topic!

Arma 3 ‘Contact’ will be available on 25 July 2019 for PC.

For more on Arma 3 ‘Contact’ and from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. Also, be sure to join the discussion in the community Discord server.

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