Everything about Kings and Castles
By Togra - 20th December 2010 - 20:55 PM
For almost a year we have seen the development of the “biggest fantasy RTS game” Kings and Castles (KaC) evolve in 35 official video blogs. The latter were often hilarious but also informative as they gave viewers a unique, early look behind the scenes. On October 8th developer Gas Powered Games (GPG) announced they were going into hibernation mode resulting into a temporary news and video blog stop. With the actual game production gearing up for next year it seems like the right moment to look back at what has been revealed so far, not just in the videos but also in articles and interviews. For your convenience we have filtered out nut jokes, sexy blondes, stuttering German interviewers and last but not least the crazy ramblings of Chris Taylor himself. Most of what you are about to read in this roundup preview is still subject to change of course, keep that in mind. If only a few of these ambitions are furfilled though we might be in for a treat when Kings and Castles is released in (early) 2012.

A medieval Supreme Commander would be a very broad way to describe this real-time strategy game. Huge armies on big maps are present, so will be the monstrous “Legendary” units, comparable to Supreme Commander’s experimentals, ranging from a traditional (dragons, giant stone statues) to a downright funny concept (war boars). A soundtrack by Jeremy Soule and the strategic zoom are back, so is the ‘simulation’ feel with weapon projectiles that can miss and with units having plenty of space to move on full 3D terrain. So far, so Supreme Commander. You will see air units like the zeppelins and the aforementioned dragons. Navies have been confirmed too although we have not seen much of them yet. A lone ship on the water (which might be able to change into a zeppelin) has been sighted in the video blogs just like a model for a sea cyclops brute. If anything then the art sketch below probably fuels our imagination about KaC’s naval warfare the most.

Despite the return of multiple theatres of war most attention will be placed on land battles through means of advanced army movements (by making more use of the terrain) and formation handling. You will even be able to compose your own formations via an in-game formation editor. Taking a closer look at the other features which have been shown until now reveals the presence of centralised research tiers (for Castles and the Monarch heroes) as well as an item/inventory system and a mention of creeps. GPG ain’t lying when they claim they are transferring some parts from Supreme Commander 2 and Demigod into Kings and Castles. With all these additions there is a risk that the core concept of an incredibly big fantasy war could clash with the more micro-oriented elements. How do you pick up and equip a sword for a unit, even if it’s just for your King/Queen, when you’re trying to control a battlefield of Braveheart-like proportions?

Regardless of how GPG is planning to solve that dilemma it is clear that the heroes of the game (the Monarchs aka the Kings and Queens) are going to play a central role, akin to the Commanders in the Supreme Commander games. Possible concepts which were already revealed for these Monarchs are the Paladin, Huntress, Dark Wizard, Gadgeteer and the Warrior (or Viking King as some fans wanted him to be). Already sounds a lot more varied than UEF, Cybran, Aeon and Seraphim Commanders, doesn’t it? We have not seen much of them in action yet but the standard king (suspected to be the paladin) has a lightning attack displayed in the E3 trailer which throws enemy units away as if they’re simple potato sacks. The King was riding his horse too but he can dismount as well. (Inside tip: Chris voiced the king in the E3 trailer) These Monarchs are coupled to certain factions of which the traditional Empire, the mysterious Ancients and an evil side have been revealed so far. The only other intel we have seen on this is that there will not be an elven faction. Chris Taylor and co does not want us to think Kings and Castles might have a too generic fantasy setting.

With such a game title there is no escaping to the fact we will see castles, big castles even. Starting out small these walled fortresses will eventually grow to gargantuan size. To build and expand castles raw materials are needed. Stone for regular structures, stone and gold for special buildings. For your armies there is a similar way of buying what you want: food for normal units and food alongside gold for expensive units. Magic is the fourth resource which could come in handy when one of your mages wants to build a magical bridge over a chasm. Spending these resources generally happens in the same way Supreme Commmander 2 handles things these days (read: after the patches). You can queue up everything you want but builders/factories will only start building/producing when you got the goods for it. For plenty of people this seems like a reasonable middle ground between Supreme Commander 1’s limitless queuing/stalling system and vanilla Supreme Commander 2’s method of deducting resources right away when you queue them.

Powering all this is a heavily tweaked Supreme Commmander engine (the fifth incarnation to be precise). The previous tech version showed impressive map geometry and graphical effects in Supreme Commander 2. One aspect came as a bit of a shock though and that was the fact that the maps and the overall scale felt downsized. Supreme Commmander 2 just did not feel as big as Supreme Commmander/Forged Alliance and Kings and Castles will improve on this by bringing back that grand look and feel. With real humanoids being part of your army now we will finally get a good sense of scale. Swordsmen marching through tree lines, houses and buildings with realistic height, it is going to look more real. Of course, human infantry and monsters fighting to the death is a far cry from futuristic blocky robots taking potshots at each other until they blow up. Melee combat is not new for the developers (look at Demigod) but massive melee combat is. Therefore GPG is paying special attention to big formations clashing into each other; they will not just stop and have just two rows battling it out while everyone in the back is yawning until it is their turn to have a go at it. No, warriors run further than the first line and face anyone standing there. Everyone should be fighting! The biggest technical hurdle to overcome regarding Kings and Castle’s epicness (and RTSs in general to be honest) is the pathfinding of all those troops on gigantic maps. We already saw how smooth flow field pathfinding was in Supreme Commander 2 and now GPG has a further improvement with “hierarchical" flow fields.

Playing together with other people keeps a game alive, a statement which is pretty much GameReplays’ mantra. The main challenge in the RTS multiplayer area is clear: World in Conflict’s Massgate and StarCraft II’s Battle.net 2.0 raised the stakes by a sizeable margin while Steamworks has not really proven itself to be a complete RTS matchmaking service, not even for Supreme Commander 2. At least not yet since Relic (Dawn of War II: Retribution) and Valve themselves (DotA 2) are likely to give everything they got on Steam to expand it for the demanding online RTS audience. King’s and Castles will use Steamworks so hopefully GPG can match or outclass those other companies’ efforts. We will find out for ourselves in a future beta test of the game which will be open to whoever gets its hands on one of the limited beta keys. In the beta test we are likely to see the standard offers of a GPG RTS: matches with up to 8 players and regular ranked matchmaking. New game modes like a co-op campaign and a “Defend against attacking enemy waves” mode have been teased as well as an option to control allied units from another player (AI or human).

GPG also wants to heavily explore the downloadable content (DLC) business side for Kings and Castles. Steam fully supports DLC deals and plenty of other big and small (strategy) developers have already used this method to generate more revenue out of their existing titles. According to Chris Taylor the plan is to sell several new Monarchs after release during a year or so. Valid concerns have already been raised by fans about whether GPG can retain an optimal balance when a new King or Queen could come out every month and what the standard package will include then. It’s going to be an absolute must to keep the online community together, even those players who are not willing or who can’t pay for new content every month. Other than that, if handled well it could definitely appeal to players craving for new toys to play with.

On a less potentially worrying point: after the complaints about the lack of mod support for Demigod and Supreme Commander 2. Gas Powered Games understand they cannot release an RTS without serious mod tools. These will probably be released separately from the (boxed) KaC game and it looks like a tileset-like map editor is a certainty. That only good things can come out of modding is a known fact, just ask Mike “Sorian” Robbins. Every Supreme Commander/Forged Alliance veteran knows this modder who transformed standard artificial intelligence (AI) opponents into worthy adversaries. Hiring him has been one of the smartest things GPG did to improve the Supreme Commander 2 AI. For Kings and Castles Mike has been given carte blanche to toy around with a mix of neural nets and traditional but extensive AI setups. It all sounds highly experimental if you read his blog but who knows this time we might actually see a decent AI right out of the box?

While most video blogs were full of greyboxing, placeholder stuff and random ramblings they showed a nice potential for Kings and Castles. The same things counts for other details which have come forward from interviews and previews. For all we know plenty of features have already undergone drastic changes but with the information released so far I think plenty of folks have been made curious about this project. If a developer claims he wants to make a game in a similar vein to Age of Empires II, to really bring back that medieval setting but on a larger scale and with fantasy elements, then I do not think anyone could accuse him of doing what everyone else does. The market is stuffed with DotA clones while other “grand” medieval strategy games separate their RTS portion from building/economy handling (cfr. Total War and more recently King Arthur). No, Kings and Castles looks like it’s gonna have its own place, we’ll just have to wait and see until 2012 and beyond whether we’re going to remember it as fondly as Ensemble’s classic.