An Interview with Darren Thompson

May I please welcome you to this interview with Darren Thompson, QA Manager of FireFly Studios. He was kind enough to answer some of the questions that kept us, and hopefully you, busy.
On with the show

HeavenGames: Can you tell us a little about yourself & your work background?

Darren Thompson: I’m the Quality Assurance Manager here at Firefly Studios; my job is to ensure the game goes out in the best possible condition within the given timeframe. When you imagine, Stronghold was created in twelve languages, with two demos, mini games and two patches, that’s a fair amount of work. Another large part of the job involves map/castle creation and sometimes designing maps, missions, etc.

Before I came to work for Firefly. I worked at the games publisher Empire Interactive for seven years (quite sometime, huh!). Working my way up the ranks, from lowly tea boy (only kidding) to what I do now. As Firefly is a developer it’s great to see the way things work from both points of view (developer and publisher).

HG: What other games have you worked on?

DT: As I mentioned previously, I used to work at a publisher, this means I have worked on numerous titles, from flight Sims to arcade action games. But nowhere near in the same depth as working here at Firefly. For FireFly, I have worked on Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader.

HG: What inspired the original Stronghold?

DT: That’s a question, which is difficult for me to answer. Some of us started when Stronghold was already in development for sometime.

At that time, there wasn’t a decent castle ‘simulator’ game before Stronghold came out.

HG: How many people worked on it?

DT: The Firefly Studios development team consists of thirteen people. Although when you count the amount of people at Take 2 (our publisher), who had a hand in it, then you’re talking about quite a few people.

HG: Could you tell us about the artists’ new computers? Are they really scary state of the art machines?

DT: Pretty much. They are 2.4Mhz dual processor, 2 Gigabytes memory, along with Quadro 128mb graphics card, dual monitors. I think the artists are still wondering how to use all that power 😉

HG: How much variation do the different AIs have when building castles?

DT: Each character is represented differently: They build in a certain way, sticking to a similar pattern (square, tall towers, circle, etc). They each have different characteristics (defensive, aggressive, etc) and they used different buildings and troop types. They also have different levels of intelligence. As I’m sure you have noticed the Rat is extremely stupid and builds daft looking castles, wasting huge amounts of stone, whereas the Wolf builds huge and pretty difficult castles to siege.

HG: Was Crusader easier to produce than SH as you had the basics already or was it the same as producing a new game?

DT: The Stronghold engine was in place already, but the skirmish mode took up the majority of time. This mode was written from scratch, along with the tools that go it with. Also, a huge number of maps and AI opponents were built this time, which took sometime to complete.

HG: What do you think are the things that are done better in Crusader than SH?

DT: We had more time to add a little polish to Crusader and we had the stable base of the 1.2 version of Stronghold to start with.

We kept an eye on what our customers wanted and tried to implement this, one of the main comments with Stronghold, was to be able to play skirmish mode.

Skirmish mode is the main feature of Crusader and should give the majority of people a challenge. I expect some people feel as if they are sometimes playing another human player. A number of hotkeys have been added which make it so much easier to control the various aspects of Crusader, without return and clicking on each building to perform that function.

Now that skirmish maps crossover with multiplayer player maps the player has much more choice in which maps to play, whether its skirmish or multiplayer mode. The options, such as ‘no rush’ in multiplayer were added because people playing on Gamespy wanted to stop other players from attacking them, giving everyone time to build an economy, then after a set period of time they will be able to attack. It’s simple but quite a neat feature.

HG: Do you personally enjoy playing SH/Crusader? Do you play online? If the answer to both is yes, do you prefer SP or MP?

DT: We have played both games for huge amounts of time when checking and balancing them.

It has been known for us to pop onto Gamespy and play against other (unsuspecting), people. It’s a little unfair (but fun), it can gives us a good idea on how people like to play our games and sometimes what they do and don’t like about them. But…. Usually, they’re dead before they get a chance to say anything…

HG: Do you have a favourite new unit?

DT: Personally, I like many of the units:

The Assassins are pretty cool, stealthy units who can’t be seen by the enemy until they’re pretty close to another enemy unit. I also like their ability to scale walls too. Which is pretty neat, when you get them into the enemies’ base without the other player noticing and suddenly their buildings start falling down.

Fire ballistae are a lethal unit, I like to build them around my castle and kill any incoming troops. The Fire ballista ability to burn down buildings is great.

I still enjoy using the old favourite; Swordsmen who are just like a little tank with legs. They are an incredibly devastating unit. Although, the downside of them, they are very slow.

HG: Do you have a favourite villain? And a favourite mission?

DT: I do like most of them. The Caliph is pretty nasty and never has a nice word to say. It’s pretty funny to watch when you start a multiplayer game and put a player between two Caliph’s. Just watch them weep. The Rat’s daft speech still makes me chuckle, such an idiot.

HG: Do you ever play user created maps? If so, do you have a favourite map or author?

DT: We haven’t played any maps with Crusader, as it still pretty early days for Crusader. But we have downloaded a number of user created maps for the original game. I was impressed with a number of maps and enjoyed playing through some. The missions link together to form campaigns were the most impressive, a lot of hard work has gone into them. It would be unfair to name one person, with so much talent out there.

HG: Were you pleased with the positive feedback for the SH map editor and, bearing in mind the interest fan-made scenarios has generated, did you consider the map editor as an integral and important part of Crusader from the beginning?

DT: During the course of the testing Crusader it was decided that the map editor should be returned to Crusader. Believe it or not at first Crusader didn’t have a map editor! You can thank the feedback from our beta testers for this returning to the game, personally I’m very glad the editor made it in.

We are all very pleased with the sheer amount and quality of user created maps available for Stronghold and now Crusader; the editor has helped to build a very health community.

HG: Have the eye candy or other map creations of some of the fans exceeded your expectations of the game?

DT: We are often looking at the creations made by fans, using the editor. We (I have emailed them around the office) are often amazing by what can be achieved using the editor and some of the weird and wacky creations that have been seen. One example would be; someone had managed to create a ship, which looked great and another a jousting arena!

HG: Stronghold was a great mix of combat and economy and Crusader has more emphasis on combat. Do you have any thoughts about leaning the other way and concentrating on the economic side as well?

DT: We are always interested in what our customers have to say about what they want out of our games. Obviously, Stronghold seems to work well with a mix between combat and economy.

HG: Leading on from that, are there any thoughts to progress to a true town (?) builder incorporating the combat learnt from SH and Crusader? Not resembling a citybuilder as such, but the ability to develop and manage/defend large towns.

DT: I really couldn’t tell you, it’s early days. Who knows what will happen in the future.

HG: What about a European slant? Or maybe go back in time and look at the Saxons?

DT: Please see the answer to number 17. 😉

HG: Fans tend to be fairly forthright with their views on the games. Do you find their opinions a help or a hindrance?

DT: We often visit the various fans sites and we do take on board people’s views, some of which can be very helpful. A lot of the features we implemented for Stronghold V1.2 came directly from comments/suggestion on-line!

HG: Do you enjoy playing games other than those you’ve had a hand in producing? If so, what are your all-time favourites?

DT: Yes, many of us are very keen gamers, playing all kinds of games. The all time favourite has to be Counter Strike and various Half Life mods, which are often played at lunch times. The final fantasy series is also a very popular choice with some of the guys here

I’m currently into Halo on the Xbox and playing Advanced Wars on the Train, via my GBA. GTA 3 on the PC is a very cool. Although, I often don’t have the time to play these games.

We also often download the latest game demo’s, which sometimes allows us to check out the competition

HG: A question from several SHH staff which I’m sure you won’t answer – will you give us any word as to how to decode the GM1 graphics files of the game?

DT: I like to help but… Sorry, no can do.

HG: Any chance of you revealing a glimpse of things to come from the hands of the FireFly studio?

DT: We are working away on our next title. The only thing I can say is it’s not a medieval game and we will make an announcement sometime late this year or early next year.

Thank you, Darren.