The State Of Stronghold With Nick Tannahill

‘The RTS is that cherry on top but the cake is the castle’

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Ahead of the November release of Stronghold: Definitive Edition—a remake of the first entry in the now-legendary RTS and castle simulator Stronghold series—Nick Tannahill, marketing director at Firefly Studios, talked with CGM at Gamescom 2023 about how he and his team plan to breathe new life into this PC cult classic.

The original Stronghold is a historical real-time strategy game which was released in 2001 for PC and macOS. Its commercial and critical success inspired several sequels, the latest being 2021’s Stronghold: Warlords. Stronghold received a high-definition re-release in 2013, with the upcoming Definitive Edition set to launch with updated graphics, voice acting, a new narrative campaign and integrated multiplayer.

In the interview below, I asked Nick Tannahill about how he and his team plan to win fans over from Stronghold HD to Stronghold: Definitive Edition, what to expect from future titles in the franchise and more.

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Thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure to speak to you here at the UK Interactive Entertainment stand! Can you please introduce yourself and tell us more about your responsibilities working at Firefly Studios?

Nick Tannahill: My name is Nick Tannahill, I’m Chief Marketing Officer at Firefly Studios. I’ve actually been with Firefly for twelve years now, as it was my first job after university. Most of my time with Firefly’s been spent on the marketing side…when I came on I was the only marketing person…now we have a marketing team of about eight people. These days, I would say a lot of my time is split between marketing and actual product direction as well. So, this product that we’re working on, Stronghold: Definitive Edition, was pitched internally by myself and my colleague Paul Harris, who is our Chief Operating Officer. So, I’m kinda adding value on that side as well and helping to sort of, you know, scope out products and figure out what people want.

So, with Stronghold: Definitive Edition you and the studio are returning to the game that started it all. How long has it been since then?

Nick Tannahil: Firefly was founded in ‘99 and the very very first game was released in 2001. That was followed up a year later by Stronghold: Crusader which, these days, you don’t get that kind of turnaround for games. And since then we’ve had about seven mainline entries. At one point the company branched out into free-to-play which, in terms of sheer scale, that’s definitely our most successful game – like ten million successful players [and] it’s still going years after it was first launched.

I think at the time the company had scaled down to about four people so it was kind of a ‘Hail Mary’ shot to do something. And the owners were playing Travian and Tribal Wars at the time and they saw an opportunity to do that. So yeah, that’s something we’re still supporting every day. But our bread and butter is now on Steam, GOG…even though we’re still doing the online stuff and it’s a huge part of our playerbase. But, yeah, [the franchise] has been going for twenty years now and…we’re developing a new project in Unreal [Engine] 5… but that’s going to be a large piece of work so Definitive Edition is a nice thing to be able to give to players in the meantime.

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I’ll ask about that new project in a second but I also want to know…what is the goal with Stronghold: Definitive Edition?

Nick Tannahil: So it [Stronghold: Definitive Edition] was originally intended just to be a sort of stop-gap for players. We were hopeful that we were going to get a decent reception but we didn’t quite expect it to catch fire in the way that it has. But it’s been really nice! The studio has been working on the series for twenty years so it’s been really difficult to quantify and know how many people still want the old titles. You can go on our YouTube page and see all the comments but you just don’t know whether those people represent a small or a large portion of your fan base. So, when we released our last game on Steam, we did our due diligence and we did some surveys and tried to use that to gauge whether we have an audience for it basically. But…even then we just have no idea, right? We didn’t know whether this is something we were really passionate about but only a very small subset of our audience would be. However, it turns out that we have loads of 2D Stronghold fans and loads of 3D Stronghold fans.

Thanks for the answer! You mentioned that you weren’t quite sure how fans would react to the announcement of Stronghold: Definitive Edition. How has the warm reception to the title changed development, if at all?

Nick Tannahil: It’s interesting cause I think we did our due diligence by looking at similar titles in the field…but then there was other stuff like building hotkeys, for instance, [which] we hadn’t really thought of because we tend to associate those with faster paced RTS games which…the Crusader series is a bit like…whereas Stronghold’s a bit less in that direction. So that’s something that we’ve added to our wishlist as a result. But, really the feedback’s been to add mostly stuff that we were planning anyway but we didn’t get to in the demo. And, yeah…I think we have like five thousand, six thousand responses to the player survey so there’s loads of really useful stuff in there.

We definitely have changed [our direction], though. Stuff like building hotkeys is not something that we would have envisioned for a slower paced Stronghold game like this, but now we’re looking into it…and, you know, that kind of feedback is invaluable, right? Doing this stuff before release and getting [the demo] in the hands of press, content creators and players means we can learn this stuff now. And this is really good in terms of production because it means that, at a point in the production cycle where our only coder on the project is sort of wrapping up on the core features, we can look at the stretch goal list and decide where these asks sit in terms of our priorities and then try and incorporate them into the game. So there’s definitely stuff that’s come up but nothing major in terms of workload, I would say.

Is there any feature that you’re a fan of that did not make it into the game yet?

Nick Tannahil: I mean we’ve said that we would have loved to have done a Skirmish mode…and I think one of the reasons why we priced Stronghold: Definitive Edition at 20.99 CAD was because we looked at the feature set of other games and Skirmish was a big part of that feature set and we wanted to price accordingly to that – we want people to go: ‘yeah, that’s a good deal!’ and not have to think about it. So, yeah, we would have all loved to have done a Skirmish mode…but we’ve done quite a lot of what we intended to do otherwise. But we did address this in a Q&A because we want people to know everything that’s in the game like…if the [lack of a] Skirmish mode is a dealbreaker for you, it’s a dealbreaker for you. That’s fine! Don’t buy it, put it on your wishlist, get it on sale…that’s no problem. We just want to be as transparent as we possibly can with people so that there’s no smoke and mirrors, right? This is the game! Try it…and, if you like it, buy it! But, yeah, I would say Skirmish mode is the one big thing for this product.

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Eduard Gafton: Is a Skirmish mode something that players can expect to be added via DLC? And, in general, how do you plan to support Stronghold: Definitive Edition in the future?

Nick Tannahil: So one thing we actually learned from the release of Stronghold: Warlords is that we are intending to and will release a roadmap before the release of Definitive Edition. Again, it was something that like, before we did the reveal we did not know what the demand was going to be. Now we’ve seen that there is a substantial demand and so we are looking at post-release plans just kind of across the board. And, if we do that stuff, that will be revealed before release. Because, again, with the transparency thing, we want people to go: ‘okay, I know the features, I know what it looks like, I know how it plays and I know what the price is’.

But, also, these days I kind of understand that any game you’re hyped for, you want to know like what you’re buying into in terms of the post-release. So, yeah, we’ll definitely release a roadmap…cause we did one for Warlords. But we just waited until post-launch and, really, in retrospect, we should have just released it beforehand because we knew we were doing it…and it’s just a lot more transparent with people. So, yeah…we’re getting more ambitious with the post-release as a result of the feedback we’ve had and we’ll definitely share a full roadmap.

So, I know that Stronghold: Definitive Edition comes with reworked visuals – is there a way to freely change between the new and old graphics?

Nick Tannahil: So we haven’t got that. We did a Q&A recently to go into that and explain our decision into more technical detail. But, essentially it’s because it would be impossible to do that without impacting performance because you’d have to load both sets of visuals at the same time. But, yeah…it’s something we had on the wishlist for the game…we basically looked at Pharaoh: A New Era, Age of Empires and other games like them and their laundry list of features and went right…what can we do with Stronghold: Definitive Edition? But yeah, the HD remaster of Stronghold will remain available on Steam and when it’s 80% off it’s the price of a coffee! So…yeah, that game will stay online if people want to play that old version. But, the focus with the new one is the new visuals. If we can convince people that this is the preferred way to play the game, then that’s ‘mission accomplished’ for us.

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Looking into the future now – what can you share about the Stronghold you’re building in Unreal Engine 5?

Nick Tannahil: One thing we mentioned a few weeks ago was basically that it’s a large project and we want to share stuff when it’s ready to be shared. Something that we’re hoping to do, when we can do a proper reveal of the game, is some stuff on YouTube, some developer diary insights…cause we’ve done that in the past…we did it for Stronghold: Warlords and…that paid off really really well last time. But, we want to be more transparent with people so instead of it being like, me, doing Q&A videos and giving a bunch of marketing answers, we want to have the team talking about why they’re excited to be working on a new engine, on a new Stronghold game.

I want to put more developers in there, I want to have more technical detail and give people not just a view of that game but also of where the future of the series could possibly go. Because, for us, all this work in Unreal 5 is a foundation for the future of the series. This being said, we can definitely reveal more about this at a certain point in the future…whereas, at the moment, we’re still in those early stages of making sure it’s right. But it’s been a great experience working on Stronghold: Definitive Edition at the same time because it allows us to focus on certain elements that made the series really, really special in the first place. You know, stuff like funny humour, great characters, a strong story component, which is something we still don’t see in RTSs that much…a focus on the economy…all this stuff that was amazing about this first game.

With Crusaders, because that became the popular sub brand which moved more in the RTS route, subsequent games ended up moving more and more in that direction when, really, we perhaps should have been focusing a bit more on the economy simulation. That’s like the beating heart, right? The RTS is that cherry on top but the cake is the castle. The cake is the design, the cake is the economy. So it’s really interesting working on this at the same time because it gives us a really strong touch point…we just want to get back to the core of Stronghold and like the things that made people laugh – the stupid stuff: throwing weird animals from trebuchets, the dung system…that’s the heart of why you play Stronghold over something else. So, we really want to go back in that direction.

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Final question before we end the interview: what’s been your proudest moment of working on Stronghold so far?

Nick Tannahil: So, just before COVID, Valve invited us to the Steam launch event in China. And I’d never been to China before, but I’ve always wanted to go, and just going there and working with Valve and Perfect World on the launch of that platform and having Stronghold: Warlords featured there, up on stage…was pretty, pretty awesome. There are other moments but, really, for me, being in Shanghai and working with the lovely people at Steam and Perfect World and just seeing our game on a big stage in a part of the world that’s just…incredibly amazing and just very, very interesting to me. You can get three hundred thousand views, but…for some reason, there’s nothing like seeing your game on a stage! [laughs] Even if there are only thirty people in the audience…just seeing it on a stage…there’s something quite exciting about that! And, yeah, they built us our own little booth and stuff like that…so, yeah, it was my proudest moment I would say.

Eduard Gafton: Anything else you’d like to emphasize?

Nick Tannahil: If you’re interested in Stronghold: Definitive Edition, obviously you can wishlist it on Steam…but, also, the demo will be live until after PAX. And, yeah, keep an eye out on Steam for more updates – there’s a likelihood we’ll do more demos just to give people an updated version of the game. And play it! Give us feedback because the more feedback we can get, the more of it we can incorporate and that’s really our mission going forward, really. Just: reveal a game, let people play a game, fix/work on a game and then release the game…rather than waiting until release to figure all that out.

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Stronghold: Definitive Edition launches on November 7th on Steam for 20.99 CAD. Demo available now.

Eduard Gafton
Eduard Gafton

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