Hidden away in a dark corner of Sierra's stand at ECTS 2000, far from the flashing lights and explosions of Tribes 2 and the ill-fated Dreamcast port of Half-Life, was a 3D strategy game called Warrior Kings. At the time it was looking fairly crude, but the promise was certainly there. This year the game was back at ECTS in a more complete form and was looking impressive enough to grab our unofficial "game of the show" award. We caught up with developers Black Cactus to find out what they've been up to since then...
Making The Game
"At ECTS 2000 we really only had a first pass engine and some of the graphics, the basic movement and formation movement code and some very simple game mechanics", Black Cactus admitted. "In the year between our first and second ECTS events, we've made a game!" Although it has only recently been transformed from a tech demo into a fully functioning game, Warrior Kings has actually been in development in one form or another for a few years now, with the first elements of the design being laid down at Eidos perhaps as far back as 1996. "We started with a design spec that was written by Dave Morris, author and game designer. To a certain extent, everything that's been added to that original spec has been inspired by games that the other designers have played." It's no great surprise to discover that Ensemble's hit medieval strategy game Age of Empires is high on that list. "Charlie Bewsher, the Lead Designer, and Steve Bristow, designer and project manager, spend a lot of time playing RTS games, and certainly the Age of Empires series are games that we've spent many happy hours playing. Total Annihilation and Command & Conquer are up there too. When we brought the other designers on board - Nick Ricks (Bullfrog), Andy Trowers (Bullfrog, Lego) and Mike West (Pure) - their own personal influences were assimilated too. I think there are a lot of influences in Warrior Kings that go beyond RTS games; Zelda has always cropped up in conversations about the RPG elements of the game, certainly in terms of structure and storytelling. Beyond that, there are many films and books that have crept in too."
The last year has also seen a change of publisher. Just nine months after unveiling the game at ECTS 2001, Sierra unexpectedly dropped Warrior Kings, saying that "the title will not fit into the current 2001 release schedule and strategy". Fellow French company Microids soon snapped up rights to the game, and although (or perhaps because) they are a much smaller publisher, Black Cactus seem to be happy with the move. "I'd say that Microids are much nearer to a developer's perspective than Sierra", they told us. "Our producer Jean-Francois Roy is an ex-designer and has really helped move the game forward and infected the team with his enthusiasm. We've got a much better sense of 'making a game' rather than 'producing a product' since we've been with Microids." The game has certainly come together well in the last year, and the version which we saw in action back at the beginning of September looked to be fully playable. "By ECTS 2001 we had got the engine finalised, pretty much all of the basic game mechanics functional and the majority of the campaign complete. Since then we've primarily been working on balancing, completing the campaign and adding all the nice polish like camera paths and so on."
That polishing is taking longer than anticipated though. When Sierra first announced that Warrior Kings wouldn't fit into their 2001 release schedule we were a little surprised, as Microids insisted that the game would still be released in November as had originally been planned. As it turns out though Sierra were right, and Microids recently revealed that the game's release date had been pushed back from November to February 8th. "We could have released a game in November, but neither we nor Microids really want to release a game, we want to release the game", Black Cactus explained. "The extra time is for us to really polish what we've got. It's not about completing features (and certainly not adding them), we just want to get what we already have absolutely nailed." Certainly it seems more sensible to release a polished game in the February lull than to rush it out and get lost in the flood of new titles in the run up to Christmas, and the three months delay gives more time for meticulous testing. "There's no substitute for time spent testing. We don't want to be releasing patches while the game is hitting the shelves and, at the end of the day, we're not in a mad rush. We expect our relationship with Microids to last a while yet and we've got sequels on the starting blocks already."
Bells And Whistles
One area which should particularly benefit from the extra testing and polish is the unique multiplayer support. Most real-time strategy games have a peer-to-peer networking system, but Warrior Kings will feature a full Quake-style client-server system for online and LAN play, meaning that you can host games on dedicated servers. "The software is client / server and any machine can be the server, including a client without any performance issues. We have limited the number of players to eight, but this is only to do with distinguishing between opponents. Even with ultra high quality monitors and graphics cards we found it difficult to clearly identify more than eight player colours. We are also presently talking with a game hosting company to offer the normal lobby and league tables etc." Multiplayer isn't the only strongpoint of the homegrown engine which powers Warrior Kings, and Black Cactus are justifiably proud of it. "It's full of bells and whistles, and we believe it is the most advanced 3D technology used in a real-time strategy game. But we are not hooked on the technological aspect of the game engine, for us it is a tool. There have been many games in the past and there will be in the future that have excellent technology but no gameplay. For us the important thing is the game, so even though we have a world beating 3D technology, we prefer to focus on the game." And next week that's exactly what we will be doing, as we talk to Black Cactus again about some of the gameplay elements that make up Warrior Kings, including character development and experience, the multiple paths through the game's single player campaign and the importance of sieges and economic warfare.
Warrior Kings interview - Part Two
Warrior Kings preview (ECTS 2000)