2016 was a big year for Warhorse Studios. Their debut game, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a 15th century, medieval RPG focusing on immersive realism rather than fantasy, is nearing completion after more than five years in development — and the pressure’s on to get everything right.
Originally slated for a Q4 2015 release following their £1.1m Kickstarter success the previous year, Warhorse Studios’ ambitious labor-of-love will now launch in 2017. But in the interim, backers certainly haven’t been left in the dark: a slew of alpha demos, a more fully-featured beta, constant updates, dev diaries, and interviews via their official forum show that Warhorse have never shied away from their commitments, and are working slavishly to make Kingdom Come: Deliverance, in their eyes, the best that it can be.
“2016 was, now that I’m thinking about it, really really exciting for us,” says Tobias Stolz-Zwilling, PR Manager at Warhorse Studios.
“The public beta [in March 2016] was a huge milestone for us. After five public alpha versions, we released a bigger thing with most of the core features. We showed a long quest-line, we showed a castle, many NPCs — so it gave a good overview of what’s going to happen in the game without spoiling the story.
“We even managed to get a co-publishing deal, in about October. That was when business got real for Warhorse Studios and Kingdom Come. We signed the deal with Koch Media [the parent company of] Deep Silver. (We kept the creative rights, of course.) They won’t change the game per say, but they’ll lend their expertise to ship it to more people, to reach all the players out there.”
“They have a lot of expertise in releasing many games,” he adds, “and we’ve not released anything yet, so they can help us a lot to get the game on the shelf.”
But as the suit and tie side of development falls slowly into place, so does the sword and shield, as mechanics, quests, and dialogue are finalized.
“We’ve kind of finished the game already — it’s called Internal Alpha,” Stolz-Zwilling says, “and it’s something like the full game, start-to-finish, with all of the quests at least finishable in one way.”
“It’s hard to believe that so much stuff happened in just one year,” explains Martin Ziegler, a technical designer at Warhorse Studios.
“Tobi mentioned the beta, and that was still just a very small part of the game. At the end of 2015 we were still very much working on all of the systems we wanted to have in place to start working on the content.
“Now we’re at a point where basically all the content is in the game. We have the main quest, the side quests, all the open world mechanics.
It was an exciting year, and I’d like to think that it was quite successful. We can play the game from start-to-finish for the first time, and all the things that’ve been in our heads for all these years are suddenly on the screen.”
Indie development can be a game with constantly moving goalposts, especially when the scope of a project grows quickly in response to demand. Warhorse’s original Kickstarter goal was £300,000, which they went on to eclipse by nearly four times, completing stretch goals as diverse as a symphonic soundtrack, new playable characters and modes, and even performance motion capture — all of which require a great deal of time, personnel power, and expertise to research and implement.
“On Kickstarter we were around 25 people,” says Stolz-Zwilling. “It was pretty much all veterans of most of the Czech game developers like Daniel Vávra, Tomáš Blaho and Viktor Bocan — all big names who’ve released big games. After the success of Kickstarter, we hired many people, like us for example. All of a sudden we had to talk to the people, so we needed PR guys like me and needed to deliver the game we’d promised, so Martin had to jump in.
“The Kickstarter was funded in February 2014, and almost three years later we’re at about 110 people in the studio, and still hiring. The paradox is that the more people you have, the slower your processes are because you have to teach, and all of a sudden you have more than one guy deciding stuff. But now we’re on-speed, on-time, and everything’s good.”
Compounding this issue, the Kingdom Come team were constantly iterating on and tweaking designs in response to community feedback, determined to treat each aspect of the game’s world with the same attention to detail.
“We added a questionnaire to the beta, and of about 30,000 – 40,000 people that played, roughly 8,500 people answered, so we got a huge amount of feedback,” Stolz-Zwilling says.
“Generally, with things like the combat system, which you can argue about whether it’s too hard or easy, we weren’t sure, so we tried to talk to people and they gave it an average of about an eight out of ten. So, pretty good. That gave us relief for sure, because it showed us the way that we’re going was good, and the community is happy with the way we’re working.
“Being honest is something we’ve done from Kickstarter times until now. Sometimes honesty hurts, because not everything’s gone smoothly, but it’s better to be honest than be sorry afterwards.”
“The feedback is super informative,” continues Ziegler. “Whenever we get answers back, or see anyone play the game, you’re reminded of all the small stuff that you tend to miss. When you’re so close to a game for such a long time, you can miss what people are excited about.
“There was a guy in Munich who was so happy walking around in the forest, and didn’t really care about all of the features we thought were cool. It’s nice to see people excited about our game, but also very helpful to see why they’re excited.”
“And see what they focus on.” Stolz-Zwilling adds.
Ziegler goes on: “We actually made a lot of very substantial changes based on what we saw.”
“One of the things we gathered was how excited people were for the educational — or realistic — side of the game,” he explains. “We’ve heard the story we tell in Kingdom Come at school because it’s our national history, but once you go to Germany, the UK, France, it’s something they’ve never heard about.
“When we talk about how the people you meet are actual historical figures, and the locations and story are authentic as well, we noticed that people get really excited.
“There’re a lot of details that people would miss, because they’re just not used to noticing that kind of thing. If we have a baker in the game, we actually did the research on how people baked bread at the time — what tools they had, did they use wood or coal furnaces, et cetera.
“If you don’t know that we put this much effort into the game, then you couldn’t be expected to appreciate it. But when we point it out to people they think it’s really cool. We noticed that we needed to help people appreciate the research that we do. That’s where we committed definitely to having a codex in the game. That’s an encyclopaedia where you can see, with text and illustrations, more detail about the facts of life at the time, or the historical story. So for example, with the baker I mentioned, the first time you enter a bakery there’ll be a codex page shown to you about baking in the Middle Ages with the challenges people had to overcome.
“Then if you watch the baker, you can see that he does things that people had to do at the time; and that just makes it so much cooler. This new, educational aspect of the game is something we accentuated a bit more based on feedback.”
But while Kingdom Come: Deliverance might be playable front-to-back, it’s still far from the finished product. When games are delayed, one word is brought up seemingly more than any other: ‘polishing.’ A lot of people (myself included) don’t really know what this opaquely ambiguous term means practically, but here, it can refer to a variety of tasks across many disciplines of game development. Currently, Warhorse are transitioning Kingdom Come from internal alpha to beta.
“An internal alpha is something you need to have feature-lock, so you know what made it into the game and what didn’t,” Stolz-Zwilling explains, “then you need to put all the small things together — all the features, all the assets, all the quests, everything. The biggest workload now is for the technical designers, because they have to script the quests. They have to make sure that all of the quest options are playable.
“Where we’re at right now is that we’re transferring it into the beta stage, which means more polishing. The quests are in the game, but some only work with one solution.”
“There’re so many ideas that we want to implement,” adds Ziegler, “but we decided to feature-lock the game and try to polish things, which means several different things for several different people.
“For example, on the programmer’s side, we need to optimize a lot. We want the game to run as smoothly as possible, and to look the best that it can on both the consoles and any PC configuration that you might have.
“There are a lot of problems that you know how to solve, but you leave them for later because you need a rough cut of the entire game. It’s a waste of time to polish things when the entire system might get cut out completely or changes made while the game is still being designed. Now that we know, there’re all of these small, or even large, optimizations that programmers and visual artists are doing.
“For visual artists, there’s a lot of literal polishing — well not literal — but really making the game look better in terms of either creating more detailed assets. For example, one of the very cool things the art department are doing right now is taking screenshots of important places in the game, handing them over to the concept artists, who then draw in small details like rocks, particle effects, trees or flowers, which the visual artists will actually put into the game.
“For animators and anyone who’s doing any assets, they’re mostly all in place so we can wire them into the game, but they’re still looking rough, and we want to polish them to be more detailed, more subtle.
“For scripters and story designers, we needed to focus on having the entire story and all the side quests in the game to see how they connect — which we need to cut, which we need to redesign all together. Then when you’ve decided what you actually have in the game, you have to think, especially if it’s an open world game, of all the possibilities. What if this character dies? What if you loot this instead of buying it? What if you find the treasure by accident instead of asking?
And with voice overs, which are something you can only do at a very late stage of development because it’s very expensive on several fronts, you need to generate facial animations, you need to book a studio, you need to book the actor, and you don’t want to do that unless you’re sure that the quest is in, the text is right. So that’s something that we started doing just a couple of months ago.”
“Even with game roughly in place,” he concludes, “there’s still so much to do.”
TUNING THE ENGINE
On top of this, by creating Kingdom Come with the CryEngine, the Warhorse team are taxing an engine primarily built for the FPS genre, which generally only deals with dozens of non-player characters at a time with about 2,000 NPCs. The technical difficulties that arose from this, as well as Warhorse Studios’ desire to pack Kingdom Come with as many cool features as possible, all contributed to its delay.
“The easiest answer is that we weren’t ready,” says Stolz-Zwilling, “but you never know what will actually happen throughout development. Some features are much harder to implement than you thought, other features may be way easier.
“Also, something very important is that this project is passion driven. Just imagine 10 guys sitting in a room and saying, ‘How about we add this!’ and we’ll say, ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’ That’s something that cost a lot of time at the beginning of development, but now everything’s coming together.
“We also thought the console ports would be easier, but it turns out the CryEngine gives us a hard time with them.
“Some things weren’t as smooth, or as fast as we thought they’d be, but sometimes people think that we have the game finished in our basement and we’re just waiting for the perfect slot. But that’s why we try to talk to people and explain why things happen, what we’re working on, and that delay equals better quality.”
Ziegler continues the thought: “Basically, it’s very difficult to estimate how long things will take if you’re doing something that’s different from anything anyone’s ever made. I’m not saying that we have a super exceptional game, but everything’s unique in its own way. And in this aspect, we are even more…”
“Unique-er!” Stolz-Zwilling laughs.
“Even though we have people who’ve worked in the industry for 10-20 years,” explains Ziegler, “they haven’t worked on this particular game, so they can only call on experience from other projects with other teams.
“We’re leaning towards the more optimistic estimation of things. When we’re deciding whether to cut or keep something, we want to believe that it won’t be too difficult because we want it to be in the game. We’ve made a lot of these choices, and once you make them there’s no going back. They’re not quantitative milestones where we want a certain amount of quests, but qualitative ones where we want everything we’ve committed to being in the game to be at least a certain level of quality.
“Once we have that level of quality, we’re going to ship.”
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