Firefly Studios is one of the unsung heroes of British game development - largely because it doesn't do much singing. The company's been around since 1997 and has managed to sell 4 million units of its biggest PC series, Stronghold, but still you struggle to place the name. It's all down to stereotypical British understatement, says co-founder Simon Bradbury. "We're not very good at blowing our own trumpet," he sighs, as we settle in to have a first look at the studio's next big thing, Dungeon Hero - due out in about a year's time on PC and Xbox 360.
For a developer whose bread and butter for ten years has been intricate, hectic 2D strategy games, Dungeon Hero is a bit of a departure: it's a third-person perspective brawler with RPG elements, all rendered in glorious 3D. More than that, though, Firefly hopes it will be a "shot in the arm" for the whole dungeon-crawler genre. "For so long it's suffered under the yoke and tyranny of D&D," says Bradbury, not entirely joking. He says that while D&D is great, its influence has discouraged developers from trying new things, resulting in a disappointing lack of evolution.
So how is Dungeon Hero going to shake things up? Well, for a start this is a game where you're playing for the opposition - and not in the tongue-in-cheek "be evil" sense that Dungeon Keeper introduced. Instead you play a human mercenary hired by a tribe of goblins living in an underground city - and as you might expect from a barbarian mercenary, your character is a violent sociopath whose social graces are matched only by his personal hygiene. "Hero is a loose term," says Bradbury.
More importantly, Firefly wants to use that setting to explore the whole idea of an underground world. The "dungeons" in the game are subterranean cities, living and breathing, in which the goblins live, work and fight. This is the dungeon from the point of view of goblins - not just somewhere for heroes to invade and nick treasure from, but actually a place where a whole species makes its home.
The upshot of this is that goblins actually become characters rather than brainless monsters. The Firefly team professes to be sick of games where you find a goblin, orc or whatever patrolling a room, with a Level 5 Giant Spider standing three feet away (but not attacking the goblin, for no apparent reason) and a conspicuous chest in the corner with a Helmet of Pith or whatever inside it. In a realistic fantasy world, this just wouldn't happen. It breaks the fiction. In the brief section we saw, Firefly's counter-point to this expressed itself pretty clearly.
You're recruited by the goblins to fight in a battle against their enemies, another goblin tribe who reside in a city across a stretch of desert that has become a battlefield - and rather than showing us the goblin home city, Goldstar, the developers decided to show off a zone called the Back Trenches. These are the tunnels which lead from Goldstar up to the battlefield - and as such, they're filled goblin soldiers who are off-duty and waiting to return to the fray, as well as the wounded and the dying who have been stretchered off the field. It looks and feels like a World War I scenario.