Stronghold 3: design a castle that fires cows

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"Throwing a cow through the air and getting it to land satisfactorily is something we can put a lot of time into now.” This is Simon Bradbury, founder of Firefly Studios, talking about their next castle-based strategy game.

Simon describes Stronghold 3 as “The one where we know what we're doing.” Firefly have been able to learn both from success – the ageing but adored Stronghold 1, and failure – the better-looking but needlessly overcomplicated Stronghold 2. Now they're ready to get it right, starting with making the game look nice.

“We went through the same process every developer does,” says Simon, “where we think: we're going to make our own 3D engine! And we came to the same conclusion every developer does – or most of them – which is: don't make your own tech. Use someone else's.”

He says the technical challenges of making their own engine for Stronghold 2 consumed the team, so for Stronghold 3 they're using an existing one (Vision Engine) and the best middleware going for path-finding and physics. Which frees them up to work on, say, getting a cow to fly convincingly from a catapult. Simon says “getting it to squelch properly” is especially challenging.

Stronghold 3 is also going to use someone else's technology for multiplayer and matchmaking: Steam. Simon says doing these things yourself is a massive undertaking, but “to put Steam in takes someone a day.” I'd like to add, from a player's perspective, that using someone's custom-built multiplayer service is also a massive undertaking, and using Steam takes a second.

Stronghold 3 looks nice: undulating hills, glittering water, bronze light at dusk, torchlight at night, and wonkier, more naturalistic villages than before. And you can now draw the layout of your castle walls onto the terrain freehand, for curvy designs or to hug geographical barriers.

The first game is adored by a huge community for letting them get deeply involved with designing, building, running and defending a castle. You don't just 'build' an archer in Stronghold. A woodcutter has to gather lumber, you need a stockpile to store it in, a bowyer's to make the bow, an armoury to store that in, a spare citizen and a barracks to train him. At the end of it, he's very much your guy.

The second game took this approach to ridiculous lengths.

“For example, we had the crime system,” says Simon. “Which makes my eyes water just thinking about it.”

Any farmer might start stealing from your town's food stores instead of contributing to them. To stop him you'd need to train a guard, and post him to watch the stores. But when you caught the thief, you'd need a prison to keep him in. But once your prison was full, you'd have to build a courthouse to try the criminals. But when they were found guilty, you'd need a torture chamber to punish them in. But who's going to do that if you don't have a torturer's guild?

At the end of the hilariously convoluted process, you were back where you started and you hadn't had much fun.

This time, Firefly are not complicating things more than they need to. They're adding a few new buildings, but they'll be ones you just plonk down and they work.

Stronghold 2 outsold the first, Simon thinks, “almost despite itself.” He thinks there's an enduring market for a castle game, and his company's done very well out of ruling that particular niche. A case of what he called 'sequelitis' with the second game didn't stop people from wanting to build castles and defend them.

With Stronghold 3, they're careful to ensure the things they add lead to fun. The day/night cycle, for example, is used for new types of missions only possible in the cover of darkness. In some you're defending from unseen attackers, and you can launch flaming hay bales to illuminate spots where you think they might be. In others it's you attacking at night, and you've got to break through the enemy castle walls before daybreak or risk being horribly exposed.

You can also use scouts with torches on these missions, or set up flammable towers in the dark that you can light with a flaming arrow when you need them, catching the enemy by surprise. Stronghold has never had fog of war: you can see enemy positions if they're anywhere on your map. But night missions introduce some of the visibility strategy fog of war is supposed to create – just in a more convincing and less abstract way.

Stronghold 1 is still a lot of fun. It's a game that lets you get creative about how you defend yourself, and hands-on with how you manage your empire.

Unfortunately, being sprite based, it's pretty hideous to look at today. If Firefly can just recapture that in a prettier engine, with a few new mechanics, perhaps this time next year they'll be as famous as they deserve to be.