"In 1999, our first game was Stronghold. The idea was to create a mix of RTS plus sim plus castle-builder," Harris told us. "There weren't many castle-building games around then – or any, as far as we really knew. It was a surprise hit for publisher Take-Two, and it's gone on to sell six million copies around the world. Stronghold: Crusader is its sequel; it alone sold over two million copies since 2002." Three more sequels have joined the roster in the ensuing years, and now, Firefly has freed itself from publisher restrictions with plans to develop Stronghold: Crusader 2 with some help from the crowdfunding platform Gambitious.%Gallery-192690%Crusader 2 is title based on the historical Crusades that swept across the Old World in the first half of the second millennium AD, and the developers have focused much more heavily on the setting's authenticity and polish. Massive advancements in graphics and simulation A.I. will also impress old-school Stronghold fans, as will the 3-D engine, which ensures player architects can build castle walls in eight different directions rather than be restricted to Crusader's previous tile-based foundation system.
"The original Stronghold: Crusader was 2-D, and now we're in a year of 3-D engines," Harris explained. "We've got full rotations and zooming, and that means we can do some graphical touches." To show off the team's latest effects wizardry, Harris inflicted a locust storm on the peasants in our demo, all while joking he didn't know what a real locust storm would be like. (We say the game does the real thing justice.) Then he commanded a chunk of our army to siege a castle wall. Our sword-wielding soldiers wisely dropped their weapons and instead tackled the wall with pickaxes. Another vignette showed a catapult smashing down a separate castle wall, tearing it away brick by brick. Even in its pre-alpha stage, the game showed a remarkable level of visual detail, all the way down to the scale of a single soldier and serf. And the UI has been updated to reveal more of the battlefield if the player so wishes, freeing up customization options on what resources to monitor.
The game does represent a curious blend of RTS and castle sim, and Firefly surely knows better than anyone that it's a risky business to play both sides, especially with the title being backed primarily through crowdfunding. If development is spread too thin between the two focal points of the game, there's a strong chance of delivering two 'half-baked' divisions of a game. When asked where the true focus of the game lies, whether simulation or RTS, Harris was quick to answer. "Definitely more RTS," Harris admitted. "The Stronghold games are heavy on the sim aspect, whereas Crusader is more focused on the RTS and skirmish gameplay. The sim element supports that, but it's really about the RTS, the fighting, and lots of players on the map."
In an RTS, however, balance is crucial to the core experience of the game. During our demo, we saw four archers in a wheeled transport take on four similar archers perched atop a castle wall. The attacking archers wiped out the defending soldiers, even with an extreme disadvantage of being on the ground and unprotected from castle walls. In another battle, we saw a whirling dervish character take out roughly eight soldiers with a single special attack that spun the attacker in circles, dicing the defending soldiers down. After watching the victorious battles, we were curious about how far along unit balancing is at this early stage of development. "We've got a lovely spreadsheet somewhere with all the key figures in it. It all comes out at the end of the day in that final six months of playtesting," Harris told us, adding the developer tried to avoid a system where any one unit can crush anything on the battlefield. "We try to make sure there's a counter to it."
"A lot of RTS games have natural restrictions – say, a building will allow you to make a certain amount of units," said Harris, "whereas in a Stronghold game, we allow you to pump out as many units as you want." The skirmishes we were shown seemed somewhat unbalanced. During the demo, the development team agreed and notes the balance figures need adjustment.
The Stronghold series hasn't been a financial powerhouse for Firefly and it's difficult to gauge whether this next title is built to bring in the masses or just the satiate the hunger pangs of loyal Stronghold fans. To add, if the unit tier doesn't have enough creative restrictions, or the balance isn't tightened well enough before launch, Stronghold: Crusader 2 may just bring back the hardcore fans instead of creating new ones.
Firefly plans to launch Stronghold: Crusader 2 in 2014. Its crowdfunding campaign has yet to begin.
Jeffery Wright is a regular contributor to Joystiq's MMO-focused website, Massively. Follow him on Twitter @WrightJeffd.