In the first part of OnlySP’s interview with Warhorse Studios, lead designer Viktor Bocan explained that Kingdom Come: Deliverance, as it was released earlier this year, was almost exactly the game that the team’s founders envisioned all the way back in 2011. However, that statement sits oddly alongside the design outline of the Kickstarter campaign, which indicated that the project would be broken into three 15-hour-long parts.
Despite the finished product being a 100+ hour adventure, the question of the other two parts still appears on forums and comment sections from time to time. When asked to clarify the situation, PR manager Tobias Stolz-Zwilling says “Forget this one, two, three, right? […] When we really started to develop the game, it was very early very clear to us that finding the right spot to cut it into three logical parts and keep it so short was tough and would probably damage the story, the flow, and probably the overall idea of Kingdom Come.”
Senior designer Prokop Jirsa adds that “even the story changed” as a result of this decision. The team did communicate the shift in release model “very early and all the time” according to Stolz-Zwilling, but Jirsa admits that even those attempts were sometimes misconstrued:
“We said, ‘No. Kingdom Come will be only one big part.’ People… the message they got would be ‘So, you’re cutting two-thirds?’ So, it was really hard to communicate.”
Contrasting against that confusion was the clarity surrounding the fact that Kingdom Come: Deliverance would be a core RPG that aimed to provide players with almost boundless agency. That central focus on openness was a hallmark of the original design, says Bocan. “We said, ‘We will make a real medieval setting and it will be a realistic game,’ and ‘realistic game’ means we don’t want to limit you that much.”
In comparison, the AAA side of the industry, with Ubisoft at the front of the pack, was moving towards a model featuring environments overloaded with map markers, where conflict or reward were rarely more than a few minutes away. Bocan and Jirsa both emphasise that the openness of Kingdom Come: Deliverance was not a deliberate attempt to do things differently, but instead emerged from the passions of the design team. Jirsa uses an example from the latest piece of DLC to explain:
“There’s a quest where you have to scare villagers, and there’s for example an option that’s like a crazy combination of events that has to happen. […] There’s a completely different questline (not in the DLC), but in that questline, there’s a specific part when those guys are in Ledetchko when this DLC also happens in Ledetchko. So, there’s an option that you can work with them if you’re there. It’s like, 98% or people or 99% of people will never see this. There was no order to do all the combinations, but the guys doing it really like it.”
Systems-focused design has exploded in the indie sector, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is a recent example of a similar model being adopted in the AAA sector, but Jirsa doubts whether mainstream studios in general are involved in a concerted push to increase complexity and player agency. He first expresses the opinion that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey‘s Exploration Mode “doesn’t work at all,” merely putting players in control of marker placement, then says “I don’t really think—but that’s just my personal opinion—that the core games like Assassin’s Creed are really pushing that way that much.”
Stolz-Zwilling also downplays any suggestion that the reception to Kingdom Come: Deliverance has made waves within the wider industry. “If this ever inspired someone, cool, because then this means that it eventually opens a new genre type of realistic RPGs let’s say because there are not many out there. […] If not, then it stays our sub-genre, so also cool. […] I don’t think that Ubisoft is now sitting there think, ‘Oh s***, let’s rethink our games,’ but, yeah, if new, small studios say, ‘That was a great idea, let’s do a game set in Ancient Iraq’ [Editor’s Note: referencing Knights of Light by Rumbling Games], we would definitely support this.”
Nevertheless, Stolz-Zwilling does believe that Kingdom Come: Deliverance has left an indelible mark on its player base. “What, for me, is very interesting,” he says, “is that now that Red Dead Redemption 2 is out and I’m monitoring that people on the internet and on Twitter are saying, ‘Yeah, that’s great. Reminds me of Kingdom Come.’ […] At least there’s a very good thing that Kingdom Come is somewhat classical or something, at least in the minds of the players, so that they compare it to huge titles.”
In light of such comparisons, the team seems to have carved out a niche and embedded itself in the public psyche. However, the team remains modest. With studio closure having been a possibility at multiple points during the development of its first game, Warhorse is taking a relatively short-term view.
Stolz-Zwilling unequivocally shoots down any suggestion that a new project is being worked on, even in the deepest bowels of the studio, saying that the focus is firmly on the final DLC packs for Kingdom Come: Deliverance. “From the beginning, the way it was working was really step-by-step. […] Now we create the DLCs. Will they be successful? Yes? So now we can consider how we will be continuing. If they will be a total disaster, then what? Change the IP or not? […] Within the next year, we will release our last DLCs, then maybe a Game of the Year or something—we will see—and then we will consider how it continues.”
Nonetheless, a new project will have to begin eventually, which will mean that new decisions will have to be made. The stunning forests and natural environments of Kingdom Come: Deliverance were built upon the CRYEngine for the very reason that Crytek’s engine trumped the Unreal Engine in rendering those aspects at the time of the project’s beginning.
This choice made development more difficult as “the engine is created for the first-person shooters […] and even because the user base of the engine is much smaller, the documentation will be much smaller,” says Bocan. Despite these concerns, the team is happy with the outcome. However, Crytek is currently in a troubled financial situation, which almost inevitably raises the question of whether Warhorse has seriously considered switching engines.
“We are considering switching, of course,” begins Bocan, “but that’s something you do all the time. Like, you know, in our previous companies, we had one engine for, I don’t know, 15 years and we considered switching every day.” He reminisces about a developer conference where multiple studios had complaints about their solutions—CRYEngine, Unreal, Unity, and in-house engines alike—then adds, “Every engine has ups and downs and flaws and troubles, and we are thinking about different engines […] but for now we developed and we changed the engine much. […] It would probably be crazy to throw them away. […] We like our engine. We created a lot of the systems, so the possibility that our next game will be a football game or a space simulator is quite low.”
Indeed, the team seems entirely happy to occupy the niche of realistic historical RPGs and feels as though that focus acts as something of a buffer against wider industry trends. The fall of Telltale Games is mentioned by Jirsa as a cautionary tale against the hubris of success. He mentions a fear that the “CRPG renewal guys”—the likes of Obsidian and Larian—may be heading towards a similar situation of an overcrowded market, but sees Kingdom Come as being different enough to not fall into that same increasingly crowded market.
Nevertheless, Warhorse Studios has faced troubles of its own. Two weeks prior to the release of its debut game earlier this year, a controversy exploded around the idea that the team was whitewashing history.
The debate ignited conversation about the game, pushing awareness. “This almost seems like like a PR stunt because it seems like we did this on purpose so that everything is talking about us,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “For the first three days after release, Kingdom Come was the most watched game on Twitch.”
Thus, looking at the short term, the controversy may be read as a positive, but the team knows that such issues must be considered for their long-term effects.
“The conclusion of the story, which I
dislike a lot, is that we will be forever
that studio and those guys.”
— TOBIAS STOLZ-ZWILLING, PR Manager
“That’s what saddens me,” adds Jirsa, “Actually, if you play the game from start to finish, you’ll see that there’s no, I don’t know, hate speech, sexism, or racism. Nobody is demeaning anybody […] but because of some stupid comments on Facebook or Twitter, we are kind of marked as those guys, as Tobi said… I think it harmed us actually.”
While the team members would be justified in harbouring feelings of disdain towards the gaming media in general, they view the situation more prosaically. “It seems like every opinion is really heated,” says Jirsa. “It seems like people like that. The really like the heated, emotional stories, and they like to hate on anything. From all the spectrums, that just seems the way. […] I think it’s the jumping to conclusions is the thing I don’t like. So, someone is accused of something and instead of just seeing if it’s really true or something, you’re immediately blaming him for everything.”
Bocan attributes this tendency towards explosive communication at least partly to the structure of social networks: “Most opinions have 160 characters or something like that, and you need to react to everything, so there’s heated discussions. […] There is too much information around, and you don’t have time to find out if this is true or this is true or this is true, so you just jump on conclusions quickly because there is much more information to consume. I believe that people and humanity needs to deal with this somehow in the next few years or we will eat ourselves.”
One of the most recent examples of those heated discussions is the reignition of the debates surrounding crunch culture in the gaming industry. Many sources were decrying the existence of crunch, while others were parading it almost as something to be proud of.
Stolz-Zwilling views the scenario as “definitely not something to brag about,” but acknowledges that it is an unfortunate fact of life: “It’s like in university. You are writing your essay, and you have to release your Master’s thesis on November 16 and you decide to party in February and March and April. Then, you have to do night shifts and it’s very unpleasant, but this is how life works, I think.” As such, he admits that Warhorse did undertake periods of crunch during development, “but always when we did some f***-ups.”
He mentions the recent bug fixes for ‘The Amorous Adventures of Bold Sir Hans Capon’, which required the team to be in the studio across the weekend, but both Stolz-Zwilling and Jirsa reference the empty chairs to indicate that, once the crunch is over, those affected are able to enjoy their deserved time off.
While the core issue of the missing quests has now been resolved, the studio continues to face an uphill battle. While Stolz-Zwilling is not concerned about the impact of the botched release on the fortunes of the upcoming DLC packs, he admits that “the hiccup definitely harmed sales at the studio and reputation and everything, so there’s something to be done now. I have to work against this.” Furthermore, he does not begrudge any fans who turn their backs on the studio as a result. “We are now actively approaching them when something writes a bad review about that it’s just one hour of questing or two hours or something. […] Some say ‘f*** you,’ but that’s fair because they’re just upset.”
Seven years into its lifespan, the team is well acquainted with struggles; it has faced financial woes, rejections, public backlash, and much more, yet has so far surmounted every challenge. The future continues to be uncertain, but Warhorse Studios is in rude health. The team will expand across the next two years, and the investor who supported Kingdom Come: Deliverance when no-one else would continues to be involved—not to mention “very happy. He made a lot of money,” according to Bocan.
The interviewees reference the possibility of sequels at several points, with Bocan saying that the setting of the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1403 was selected in part because it is “a part of our history which is quite—well, not quite—it’s a really good story for a big RPG that can have sequels.” Nevertheless, Stolz-Zwilling flatly rejects that any new major project is in the works. Such decisions will not be made until the final two DLC packs, ‘Band of Bastards’ and ‘A Woman’s Lot’, are released.
Nevertheless, what is clear from a walk through the studio is that the team’s love for Kingdom Come: Deliverance is more than empty words. The staff seem genuinely enraptured with what they are doing, whether they are a 2D artist painting a loading screen, a character modeller adding wrinkles to clothing in accordance with reference photos, or an animator who says to remember that ‘when you see sex in Kingdom Come, it was hard work’ (after mentioning that all of the animations are initially created using only a single character model, resulting in the unshakeable vision of Henry making out with Henry).
“Even though we have 150 people next year, hopefully, and this year we have 110, this project is still very much ‘let’s lock ourselves in the basement or garage, and let’s make a game together’,” says Stolz-Zwilling.
That passion is clear to see both in the studio and in the game itself, and the team wants nothing more than for fans to understand that, even though it tries to hold itself to the highest standards, some mistakes are inevitable.
Stolz-Zwilling concludes the interview by saying, “I hope that people appreciate not the bugs, but the way we try to deal with it, how we try to inform, how we are open on social media with the community.”
The Long Return Creates a Beautiful Aesthetic in Each Level — An Interview With Max Nielsen
The Long Return is a beautiful third-person puzzle adventure game, following the story of an orphaned cub. The player explores hand crafted levels as the cub retraces the steps it once took with his mother. The Long Return’s level design is familiar yet still distinct and refreshing, taking inspiration from both new and old games to create this muted low poly feel.
This gorgeous, debut project is the work of solo developer Max Nielsen. Although he is currently finalising the game ahead of its release later this year, he took the time to talk to OnlySP to reflect and tell us more.
OnlySP: What inspired you to bring The Long Return to life? Was it an idea you were sitting on for a while or did it come on quite suddenly?
Nielsen: Actually, I never planned on releasing this game, or even finishing it. I had just quit my job at Microsoft and wanted to create a quick demo for my portfolio, so that I could apply for jobs in the industry. At the time I was working on a 2D RPG mostly for fun, and I knew I would need to make something in 3D for the bigger studios to give me a chance. So I decided to make a fairly simple demo with around 10 minutes of gameplay. However, while working on it, I got offered a job as an application consultant at a great company, and they said they would let me work on my own games and run my own company on the side, so I accepted the job and since then I have been working on this game as a hobby on my free time.
OnlySP: Each zone in The Long Return has such a pleasing aesthetic, how did you go about level design in a mostly natural world?
Nielsen: I am a huge Nintendo fan, Zelda OoT is still my favorite single player game ever, and I had just played through Zelda BotW, and wanted to create a world with a similar color palette and feel. After trying out a few different things I decided to use the low poly style because that would mean I could actually model some stuff by myself. I think I’ve gone through the level design of each zone in my game at least 10 times since I started, it’s crazy how much you learn just by trial and error (although time-consuming).
OnlySP: Will the game have a stronger focus on gameplay and location or story. Is The Long Return is a mix of the two?
Nielsen: Since the start I really wanted to tell a story without any words or text, and I have kept true to that. Instead I tell the story using memories and visuals. This does set certain limits to how gripping and detailed the story can be, especially when working with animals, but I think the message comes across quite well. The game is, at its core, a puzzle/adventure game, and you spend most of your time solving different puzzles and finding your way past obstacles, accompanied by an amazing original soundtrack that I still cannot believe is for my game.
OnlySP: Being your first big project game, what have you learned during development?
Nielsen: That list is incredibly long, and hopefully I can create a post-mortem detailing most of it. But I would say the main things I will take away from this project is:
– Plan, research and test; When starting out I kind of just created features for the game by trial and error, this leads to some really messy code. Nowadays I always make sure to properly plan, take notes, research best practices and test everything in a dev-environment before putting it in my game.
– Marketing is a necessary evil, even as a hobby developer with very limited time, I still don’t do enough of it, shame!
– It’s okay to take a day off, don’t burn out, it’s supposed to be fun!
OnlySP: Overall, how long has it taken for you to develop The Long Return?
Nielsen: Roughly a year. But I’ve been working on games for 4-5 years before that as a hobby.
OnlySP: Do you have any plans after The Long Return is released?
Nielsen: Big, BIG plans, haha. While I love this game and all I’ve learned, I am so excited to start my next project. It is much more “my type of game” and I have very high hopes for it. I won’t say too much yet, but it will combine my two favorite genres of single player games; RPG and city management.
The Long Return is set to release in August 2019.
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