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'Warrior Kings: Battles' - Developer Interview

by The Six Billion Dollar Man on March 4, 2003 @ 1:27 a.m. PST

Set in a fantastical medieval world where small Kingdoms struggle for supremacy in a chaotic land of knights, and demons, you are the ruler of a new kingdom, born from the ashes of a once mighty realm. To resurrect this realm to its former glory you must forge order out of chaos by uniting the fragmented lands into a single, mighty empire under the rule of one warrior king - you. We sat down with Black Cactus' Lead Designer Charlie Bewsher and talked about gameplay, game AI and tons more ...

Q : Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I am Charlie Bewsher, lead designer for Black Cactus's upcoming RTS, Warrior Kings: Battles

Q : Well, first thing's first. According to your press release you have made a deal with a new publisher, Empire Interactive. Are you pleased with the way things are going with that arrangement so far?

CB : Empire had been one of the first publishers we ever spoke to (in 1999!). Over 3 years, we have got to know and trust Empire, and it was a natural decision to go straight to them with WK:B. Everyone at Black Cactus is delighted to have found a publisher who actually played WK for fun. The enthusiasm they have for RTS in general, and specifically for WK, really shines through.

Q : Can you reveal more info about the storyline in Warrior Kings: Battles?

CB : Warrior Kings: Battles is set 100 years after the events in the first Warrior Kings. The Kingdom forged by Artos collapsed after the current ruler was assassinated by a fanatical zealot, and now the whole of Orbis has fallen into anarchy. Every local warlord has seen their chance to grab a piece of land, and wars are being fought across the whole continent. The player is given the task of once again, reuniting the lands of Orbis, by the use of diplomacy and warfare.

Q : How many missions will the new single-player include? I remember that some of the scenarios, even though somewhat linear, were pretty lengthy. Do you plan to maintain the same principal in WK: Battles?

CB : In Warrior Kings Battles there are 22 territories to conquer in the single player fully replayable campaign. Each of the territories has between 1 and 4 AI generals in it. Conquering a territory results in receiving Spoils of War. These spoils may be in the form of a larger population limit, Gold, opening the tech tree etc. In addition each time you conquer a territory it becomes available to play in single player skirmish or multiplayer modes, the AI generals also become available as well.

You do have options over the order in which you conquer territories, and you are going to have to explore the map to get all the Spoils of War before you take on tougher AI Generals.

Q : Give our readers a sample of some of the new units and races they will get to see in WK: Battles.

CB : There are many new units, but one really cool unit is the Arch Druid. He is a new Pagan unit. He has some pretty stunning abilities. For instance he can convert any tree on the map to a Wood Elemental, a monstrous unit that will do his bidding. The same goes for the other resources on the map, Stone and Gold, these to can be transformed in to Elementals. Get really sneaky and he can turn enemy units into trees....... Your peasants can even chop them down!!!!!! Or the Arch Druid can convert them into Wood Elementals. This leads to a whole new game dynamic, do you get your peasants to collect resources, or do you turn them into Elementals....

Q : One of the most enjoyable moments in the first game (which also gave it a nice RPG flare) was the ability to advance the experience of your units. As for WK: Battles, what do you think players will be enjoying the most in terms of gameplay?

CB : This new way of dealing with resources is certainly going to make people think about what they do more. But what we think is really cool are the new was to confuse your opponents, both Human and AI. We have several new spells that can be cast. Ghost Armies can be created and sent into battle, or to make your opponent think that you are sending forces in a certain direction. The reality is they are just an illusion, as soon as they are engaged in combat they just vanish (archers will even fire Ghost arrows). You can also cast a confuse spell on your opponent, making him think he is being attacked from all directions.

Q : Your previous game had all the essential qualities of a true RTS. Are you planning to bring any innovations to the genre? Will we perhaps see anything new in terms of strategy (unit formations, a new economy system, or something like that)?

CB : We like games that have interesting choices, rather than just grab all your units and throw them into the battle. In Warrior Kings Battles we have introduced even more interesting choices. Not only do you have to make choices over what formations to use and units to fight each other i.e. Spearmen are good against Mounted units, but mounted units are weak against Spearmen, now you have to consider how you use your resources. Do you chop down trees to build more buildings or convert them to Wood Elementals, do you use your peasant to collect resources or sacrifice them to increase your ability to cast spells. It is the interesting choices that make the game fun to play.

Q : Judging from the screens it's obvious you'll be using the same engine. What changes have you made since the last game, in terms of visuals?

CB : The game engine has been very much improved on. We now have bi-liner blending on all the textures so you cannot now see the pixels on the landscape. It can now throw around 3,000,000 poly's a second, all the objects like trees animate and blow in the wind (leaves even fall off the trees now). Route finding has been re-written plus many more improvements.......we have been busy.

Q : The AI in Warrior Kings was OK, but it had its bad moments. Frankly, it was slightly un-balanced and even weak at times. The patch didn't seem to help either. So, are you guys working to tweak that AI? Also, tell us more about the new AI diplomacy feature.

CB : We have a totally new AI system in Warrior Kings Battles. We wanted to develop an AI system that did not cheat, there are simply too many games out there where the AI knows where all the units are on the map and therefore has a significant advantage over the player. The AI system we have developed has to scout the map, it can only see what its units can see, just like a real player. This means that it can also be fooled, lure its unit into an ambush and watch the carnage.

There are three levels of AI general that you play against in the campaign, single and multiplayer games. There are 70 AI generals in total to fight against. But it does not stop there; we also include an AI general editor where you can create your own AI generals to play against.

We have also introduced diplomacy for the AI generals, again to give more of a feeling of playing a human opponent. So, when playing in Campaign or single/multiplayer games you can ally with an AI, they will even approach you. Some might even ally with each other, against you!!!!

Q : Where does this stand in the Warrior Kings brand? It's neither an add-on nor a sequel it seems.

CB : Black Cactus have always been keen to set the fashion, rather than follow a formula. WK contained the lead character and the issues he faced when choosing between justice and revenge, paganism, technology, and the One God. WK:B is an evolution of the original Warrior Kings, offering different gameplay experiences and features. Battles is all about epic confrontations and is more focused on armies as a whole, rather than individual characters. The game modes encourage the player to build bigger armies, as well as offering lots of replayability with the 60 AI generals and new game modes.

Q : Warrior Kings was originally Vivendi but ended up with Microids. Why is this 'follow up' now with Empire?

CB : Empire had been one of the first publishers we ever spoke to (in 1999!). Over 3 years, we have got to know and trust Empire, and it was a natural decision to go straight to them with WK:B. Everyone at Black Cactus is delighted to have found a publisher who actually played WK for fun. The enthusiasm they have for RTS in general, and specifically for WK, really shines through.

Q :What's the scenario to Battles? Does it follow on from WK in any way?

CB : There are 3 main scenarios for Battles.

The Campaign game is based in the land of Orbis set 100 years after the end of WK. Instead of doing another plot-based campaign the player must conquer Orbis in a strategic game, with the eventual goal of taking Telegmagna, the seat of the Empire. The player can choose their own route of conquest and each of the 20 plus territories has their own challenges and rewards.

The Valhalla mode is a quick battle game that allows you to jump straight into the action if you haven't got time to play for hours. In this mode we have removed the economic element and instead the player deploys their armies to hold flags against either the AI or other human players.

Finally we've implemented an extensive skirmish game to allow the player, or players, to fight against our numerous AI generals.

Q : OK, the premise to the game is similar but what have you added to the units, weapons, etc that is vastly different? How have you ensured it isn't 'more of the same'?

CB : WK introduced some very novel features to the RTS genre - from the strong tactical aspect - combined arms, our unit behaviour and approach to formations, to the strategic area - the non-linear tech tree, the food support, etc. The new game modes, units and weapons all exploit and enhance these fundamentals. The game is now a lot more open, allowing the player to build up larger armies and develop winning strategies. Plus of course we've overhauled the engine and made general game improvements. We'll also be making the map editor available for players to create their own maps. All this combined with the new Valhalla game and Skirmish AI should give the player an original WK experience.

Q : What new units, weapons will there be? How many battles will there be? Are they linear or random?

CB : Essentially we've given the game a complete overhaul. The unit's are more balanced, strengthening the combined arms. We felt the Acts Of God and Naval aspects needed to challenge the player more so these have been reworked. We have new units such as the Arch Druid and his awesome control of the elements, the new gunner with his bayonet and the mighty Imperial War Elephant. WK focused on delivering a great plot - WKB is a less linear experience with much more replayabilty. The campaign opponents are random and there are over 60 of them to defeat. The skirmish mode combined with player-designed maps offers extensive longevity.

Q : Have you used anything from WK in Battles either from a technological side with in game objects?

CB : It is quite a long list, involving almost every element of the game engine and its assets. We have aimed a lot of time and people at making sure that everyone gets the full Warrior Kings Battle experience, even on less powerful machines, so Rendering, path finding, networking and AI have been improved. We also spent a lot of time 'brushing up' the visuals and sounds of the game. So you will see some really lovely ground textures and a few more special effects on most objects. Finally, we were really keen to address the internet play issues that come from having hundreds of independent characters on large maps in a single game, so the Internet play systems have been almost entirely overhauled and upgraded. We are genuinely thrilled with the advances: on a P500 we are seeing frame rates well well faster than WK1 already, and we still have a lot of other improvements that we can include.

We ought to say that a lot of those improvements were only possible because of the wonderfully supportive internet community that has helped us identify and pin down issues really fast.

Q : Why do this instead of utilising time and effort for WK2? Won't the end user be somewhat confused?

CB : Warrior King :Battles is an addition to the Warrior Kings world. The idea is to build on the strengths of Warrior Kings, while introducing many more player modes, features and characters.

Firstly, the team always wanted to do something special in terms of multiplayer, so Warrior Kings Battles goes back a long way. The original Warrior Kings was the first game to imbed an RPG story in an RTS. In Battles we focus on more of the traditional features in an RTS, i.e. multiplayer and skirmish modes. For this we had to develop specific AI.

Warrior King :Battles AI gives you a similar experience to playing a real human opponent, and this was not easy to do, it has taken all year to implement.

Q : Explain why you think the AI is something 'all new'?

CB : We often felt slightly disappointed with skirmish games and we really wanted ours to give a much better game. The key philosophy for us was honesty - our AI wouldn't cheat. It has to collect its own resources and more importantly scout out its opponents, it doesn't 'know' where the player is. Once it finds you it will probe your defences and attempt to identify weak spots in your fortifications and will exploit any imbalances in your armies. The AI will also be diplomatically active and will attempt to forge alliances to maximise its chances of winning.

The 60 different AI personalities all display different characteristics and will give the player a much more genuine experience. When the player has defeated these they can create and fight their own AIs.

Q : What type of new environments, tactics, etc. will there be? Any new/different special effects?

CB : The game takes place in all of Orbis, so while some of the environments will be familiar to those who played WK, there are many new territories available for conquest - and they are richer and more detailed than before. The battle tactics have been tweaked to make them deeper and more rewarding and we've added many more ways to outwit and out manoeuvre your opponents - spells to raise ghost armies or to charm your opponents with madness and confusion. Of course the new Valhalla game will require a whole new suite of tactics as players attempt to hold the flags and capture bonuses while maintaining their armies.

Q : How successful was WK? Were you surprised by the reaction it received?

CB : Right back in 2000, we knew WK was going to be a hit with journalists and the 'hard core' of RTS players, and the earliest previews were really hot. We were terrified then, as we realised that we had to live up to those expectations. We were tiny (just 13 people then), and a very new company to be tackling the biggest games in the world. We are still a favourite with reviewers (our favourite comment this month was "light years ahead of Warcraft III" (PC Zone, issue 119) and we have over 20 reviews at 85% and above with many in the 90's, even two 6 out of 6's. We won over13 awards in Europe, and had top 10 chart positions in 9 countries.

There are good and bad things about the reaction and level of success we got. We ought to be honest and say that we have really learned a lot from our first release.

Q : Have you used any feedback/suggestions from the end user in battles?

CB : Indeed - obviously in the skirmish game and the AI but also in the Valhalla mode. Players wanted a shorter multi-player game so we've designed Valhalla to be played in 30 - 60 minutes. A great deal of input was received from player for gameplay improvements and the main issues with internet play (including AI ideas) were identified much faster thanks to our player community. We really respect their help.

Any outrageous suggestions that you would liked to have used but couldn't?

Lots of stuff about Orcs and Elves that didn't really fit with our vision.

Q : Are you in any way technology based developed and in terms of technical innovations what does this offer?

CB : WK:B really is an extraordinary game to play. There is a real feeling of tension, or threat, and a huge rush when you win (even if only one battle). So, we are gameplay based. Above all else, we really care about the experience that you get from the game.

OK, so we are a company that started off with a strong technology focus. We talk a lot about our Cactus SPINE tools, but the point is that we made them to free our designers to create good games. Characters go from sketches to in-game in 3 days. New rules come in and can be tested in the same day. Anything that does not make the standard we expect can be put aside or re-polished without feeling that a huge amount of effort has been wasted. That is hugely liberating for artists and designers. We also have a huge library of ideas and characters that we can 'mix-and-match' as the data is compatible with any engine.

Here are a few new things our technology allowed with just a few days of effort:

The Golems - from mixing the rules for resources, the Gibbering Horde and summoning

The exploding cart - from the scenario where you use gunpowder to blow up some gates and a cart

War Elephants - because players said siege engines were too vulnerable and slow.

Bayonets on hand-cannons - to allow the player to develop interesting tactics

Unlike other games our AI has no cheating, no free upgrades, no omniscience, and no extra resources. It has to scout, build defensive armies, build raiding parties, assemble strategic forces and manage its economy just like you would. The tools let us watch a game online, or on the LAN, make some notes, and introduce new tactics to an AI within an hour. We wanted to give our customers what they asked for: a game that was like playing their friends online.

Q : There a number of similar titles on the market what would you say marks yours out as the one to buy?

CB : We believe our innovative approach to the basics of the RTS genre - combined arms, formations, the tech tree etc, offer the player something new. Instead of merely out-producing your enemy and churning out units the player can 'out general' their enemies. It is very important to us that a smaller force can use better tactics to defeat a larger force.

Q : Can you sum up the experience in a sentence!?

CB : Challenging tactics, affected by superb 3D graphics and a first-rate AI will deliver an extremely gratifying gaming experience.

Q : Speak a bit about the multiplayer.

CB : We have packed Warrior Kings: Battles full of multiplayer game modes in which you can play against any combination of Human or AI opponents, so even a single player game against a couple of AI generals makes you feel like its an online multiplayer game. You can play a standard game, where you start with a Manor and have to build up your resources & economy etc, as per a traditional RTS. But we now have a couple of extra game modes that are just so much fun to play. King Piece is where you have a King on horseback, if you lose him then you lose the game. Hide him in a building and a flag appears showing your opponent which building he is in. On top of this we have what we call Valhalla, this is similar to capture the flag. Valhalla is points based, a number of flags appear on the map and while your in possession of them you generate points. The twist is that when your units die they automatically re-spawn back at your base, adding to the fast paced mayhem.

One big advantage in all multiplayer modes is that they can be saved out at any time.

Q. How do the story and missions tie in with the original?

CB : The campaign is set 100 years after the events of the original game. The unified Orbis has again been divided after the death of Artos, with each province controlled by rival Generals. The player's role is to once again conquer Orbis, and take control of Telemagna.

Each of the 22 provinces is represented by a map on which the player will battle the local rulers. Each has widely varying traits and will give the player very different games. Some will use sneaky tactics such as Succubi or Spies, others will hit you from a distance with Acts of God, while the more military minded will raid your villages with Light Cavalry. Of course, there will always be some Generals that will employ all of these tactics.

Q. Can you give us some examples of the new units and their strengths?

CB : With the new units, we have attempted to introduce new game mechanics and not just add 'more of the same', so every new unit has an entirely new ability. For example the Pagan race now have a powerful new unit, the Arch-Druid. He has the power to animate resources within the game. He can produce Elementals from trees, stone outcrops and gold outcrops; the larger the outcrop the larger the elemental. These elemental are creatures that will do your bidding. Although a wood elemental is a reasonably daunting opponent, a heavily armored gold elemental will test even the strongest defense. Of course, to be able to summon the gold elemental, you will have to save a large gold outcropping, but can you resist the temptation to mine and then spend it? Oh, and make sure you protect your Arch Druids, if you let one get killed then all the elementals they are controlling will instantly revert back to the material they sprang from.

We have also improved some of the existing units. The Gunner for example now has the ability to 'plug bayonets'. This stops them firing there guns but they are then pretty effective against an incoming cavalry charge, although they won't be able to stand up to battle hardened Heavy Infantry.

Q. Are there any new gameplay elements we haven't seen before?

CB : We have added an upgraded Barbarian unit that can pillage enemy resource buildings straight into your global stocks. Get him to an enemy village and steal all their food! Also there are a number of new spells which although doing no damage will confuse your opponent, you will be able to create illusionary armies, or set off false attack events on the minimap.

Q. Have you made any design changes?

CB : Many facets of Warrior Kings have been improved. At the lowest level interface improvements will indicate to the player the most effective position for their economic buildings (such as windmills). There are also major design changes in areas such as Trebuchets and Acts Of God. Trebuchets became a winning strategy due to their incredible range and ability to move, so now once built they are stationary. This means each siege weapon has it's own distinct advantages and disadvantages, and in our games in the office Bombards and Battering Rams are being used a lot more often. Acts of God being fired from the Cathedral allowed defensive players to sit inside their base and bombard the opponent from afar and this was the first flaw we rectified for WK:Battles. The Acts of God are now activated by the Bishop, who must be sent into enemy territory to set off the effects. To counter balance this effects are now more local, but a lot cheaper, meaning they should be used to enhance an attacking army instead of replacing it.

Q. What is the biggest improvement over the original? Q. What do you see as the biggest weakness in the original?

CB : By far the biggest improvement is the AI. In WK:Battles the AI is pivotal to the game. Each AI Player has their own distinct personality. As opposed to sending a constant stream of enemies running into your base the AI's intelligently evaluate the map and look at your threats and weaknesses. The AI's do not cheat; if they want to see what you are doing they have to send out scouts or other units, so there are lots of opportunities to ambush and mislead the AI's just like playing a human. AI Players will range from the economically inept, through generals who have not yet grasped Combined Arms, up to the bad guys at the top who use any sneaky tactic they can to get an advantage, just like the best players online.

The fans on the forums and the reviews told us where we went wrong. The lack of skirmish game was by far the biggest weakness in the original game. For the original game we had decided early in the project to concentrate on the RPG element of the game, and to give the player an involving campaign storyline, which we believe we succeeded in. However as you have already read, it was our decision in WK:Battles to create a tactically challenging skirmish game.

Q. How are you going to fix the path finding, which came in for some criticism?

CB : The main path finding problem of formations getting stuck moving through cities was fixed within the first couple of weeks of WK:Battles with a rewrite of the code. Also individual units behave more intelligently. The path finding has been improved so much that we have been able to include routines for the AI to be able to calculate routes around enemy fortifications.

Q. What features have you taken on board which were suggested by fans of the original?

CB : We have listened to everything the fans have suggested. Their suggestions have been incorporated into the balance changes, as well as being the inspiration behind the Valhalla mode and the new campaign game.

Q. Is there a release date in mind?

CB : Warrior Kings Battles is scheduled for release Q1 2003.

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