Simon Bradbury (Sierra/Firefly) – Interview

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Adrian caught up with ex-Sierra legend Simon Bradbury back in May, so a few details in this interview may be slightly out of date! Romans: Age of Caesar looks set to be the perfect title for fans of the strategy genre as you can count on Simon (Caesar I to III, Lords of the Realm, Stronghold) to make an excellent strategy game! Check out the trailer then have a read of this lovely interview.

 

 

How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and what was the first game you ever worked on?

My secret for getting into the industry is to be there at the start! Well maybe not the very start, but the days when a dev could single-handedly produce and sell a commercial game to a publisher in under three months. Which is what I did with ‘Elf’, a side-scrolling platformer in the mid 80’s when I sold my first game to Tynesoft, a company in the north east of the UK. My first strategy game (the first of what was to become my career) was not until the early 90’s though with the release of Merchant Colony, a colonising and trading game.

 

Many of the games you have worked on can be classed as simulator games, such as the legendary Lords of the Realm series and the Caesar games. What was is your main inspiration when working on these types of games and are the skills very transferable from one title to the next?

Everyone I worked with at Impressions and now today at Firefly tends to be inspired by history! Trade, politics and warfare were all at their most raw and brutal during the ancient and medieval periods, so video games are a fascinating medium for exploring that. Games have the unique ability to make complex systems and societies intuitive for players, easy to grasp and ultimately mould to their will.

In the case of Stronghold and Romans: Age of Caesar the skills were certainly transferable! In both cases we achieve great depth by taking relatively simple game mechanics and adding another layer on top. With Stronghold it’s the strategy-sim mix and with Romans it’s this interesting new experience of up to 16 players all building their own Roman city together!

 

 

I loved playing the Caesar games on my PC when I was growing up. How do you reflect back on these games and do you have a personal favourite game in the series?

Personally Caesar 3 remains my favourite. It was the most accomplished, polished and it benefitted greatly from the experience of coding and designing the previous two games. I also love the simple graphical style of the game.

The Lord of the Realms games allowed you to oversee many aspects of game development. What was it like working on this iconic series of games and again do you think there is room for a new game in the series?

Lord of the Realms was a great series to work on. As you say we looked long and hard at many game conventions, playing with each of them. It was slower than turned-based titles and yet it also had one of the earliest RTS games inside it! I would love to do another instalment, but seeing as how Rebellion have bought the rights to it I guess that would depend on the UK’s own actual knight Jason Kingsley 🙂

 

Out of all the great city-building games you worked on, do you have a personal favourite?

It has to be the first Stronghold for a number of reasons. Firstly like with Lords of the Realm we loved mashing together game genres, in this case a city builder and an RTS as no one else had done that before. Secondly it was our first title and we were a small and super excited team with an experimental dynamic. That enabled us to rapidly prototype and refine some amazingly complex gameplay, whilst still keeping our sense of humour! The fire and tree growth systems are great examples, added on a whim weeks before our gold master and ending up as fan favourite features!

Finally its success gave me a real belief than game lovers valued us doing something different rather than just sticking to a formula. In a kind of ‘build it and they will come’ kind of way…

 

You are well known for your stellar work on a number of hugely successful simulation titles, what do you personally feel are the key ingredients when creating a great sim title?

I think authenticity over accuracy is an important concept to get across, so player needs to feel that the game is genuinely simulating a city or a castle. Video games are abstract approximations of real like experiences for good reason, because they have to be fun!

So castle walls have to be taken down realistically, but you can’t really let players get stuck if they don’t have catapults. So you also let troops break them apart with tools or tunnel under faster than they’d be able to do in real life. You want players to be able to cripple their enemies by cutting off their supply chains and surrounding a castle, but you can’t have sieges taking months! It’s a careful balance and we always invest heavily in the realism side of things, with our focus on the detail of production chains and depictions of daily life. We just have to remember that we want players to be entertained and educated in equal measure.

 

Out of all the games you have worked on, which game are you most proud of and why?

Outside of Stronghold 1 I would have to say Stronghold Kingdoms. Coming out more than 15 years after the original it again redefined what a game can be. We had to tool up heavily in learning about servers and databases, things that were and still are slightly alien to a classic PC game coder like Firefly. We had to learn not only the tech side, but also how to design a game that can be played by hundreds of thousands of players over years.

Again I think it’s the sheer novelty of what we set out to accomplish that let to its success. I also firmly believe that interest in trying something new is what will help us build Romans into a groundbreaking new game.

 

 

How did you get the opportunity to found the iconic FireFly Studios, and how did it compare to your time at Sierra?

Well I always worked for Impressions (Sierra) on a freelance basis, so I was never actually employed by them. I did however work daily across the Atlantic with their lead producer Eric Ouellette on both the Caesar series and Lords of the Realm. The break came when David Lester sold Impressions to Sierra in 1998. I was presented with a stark choice, either get a proper job or start a company! Luckily I choose the later and had the perfect co-founder in Eric, whose first big idea was to create a mix of Caesar and Lords of the Realm and to call it Stronghold!

 

Do you have any funny or interesting anecdotes while working either at Sierra or FireFly?

Well it’s not really funny but Megan our financial director brought us breakfast the morning we shipped Stronghold, after we had just worked an all-nighter. This was very kind of her but her kindness was not repaid, as she got stuck in the lift on the way back down. This distracted us for a whole hour during which we could easily have added a whole new game feature!!

 

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing fellow Sim guru Chris Beatrice. What was he like working with and are you still in touch with many of your co-workers from Sierra?

I haven’t seen Chris for ages. He was always the Art Director when we worked together, a role in which he was supremely talented. Tilted Mill produced some really enjoyable and innovative old school style games and I was truly sorry to see them stop. Of course Eric and I still work with several Impressions greats in Darrin Horbal, who is now creating all the core art for Romans and Rob Euvino, the sweet melody behind all our games…

 

Romans: Age of Caesar looks amazing! Can you share to our readers how you came to work on this impressive looking game?

Thank you! After the heavy design work wrapped up on Stronghold Kingdoms we entered the early planning stages for our next online game. Rome was an obvious setting to return to with myself, Eric and Darrin all having worked on the Caesar series back at Impressions in coding, production and art direction respectively. We wanted to take that classic isometric city builder gameplay and not only bring it online in the way that we did with Stronghold Kingdoms, but also realise the cooperative and political potential of that setting.

In Romans players cooperate to rebuild the great cities of Rome in groups of 16 players, all expanding their influence throughout the empire and eventually gunning for the title of Caesar! Adding a cooperative layer to that classic Caesar style gameplay seemed obvious, but it’s the politics that will make the game truly come alive. By encouraging players to work together but also given them fairly lofty political goals to aim for we’re hoping to bring out some dramatic Game of Thrones style political machinations.

 

 

Can you share to our readers some exciting features and gameplay elements that can expect to see in Romans: Age of Caesar?

At the moment we’re ready to show off the co-op city builder gameplay and that’s what we’ve been testing in our private alphas along with some early world map gameplay. In our next series of alphas we’ll be adding the proper Empire Map which will allow players to explore Italy and the wider Roman Empire, defeating barbarian strongholds and holding off invasions from barbarian forces and other players alike. The end game will be our political gameplay which will allow players to work their way to the very top of the Roman senate and eventually become Caesar, at least until they’re betrayed! In that position a single player will have a huge amount of control over the game world, so it’s a position loads of senators will be gunning for.

 

What do you think helps Romans: Age of Caesar stand out from other Sim titles and how will the co-operative gameplay work?

No other Roman city builder takes the world online in the way that Romans: Age of Caesar does. We’re talking about a map of the Roman Empire populated by thousands of real players acting as senators across Italy, Western Europe and parts of Africa. Each will be exploring the empire, fending off barbarian invasions at the fringes of civilisation and vying for political power in the senate. The politics, trade and warfare will all take place between real players with their own motivations lurking behind each exchange. So while our systems will be just as complicated as other titles set in Rome the people using them will be real and therefore unpredictable!

The co-op gameplay works with up to 16 players sharing resources, land and trade in a single city. Each senator has their own district that joins onto the city centre where grand buildings like the Circus Maximus and Colosseum can eventually be built. You can harvest other players’ resources, trade with them and defend against common barbarian threats on the fringes of your shared city.

 

I love the graphical look and feel of the game’s intro. What sort of art style and look can we expect to see in the in-game footage?

As we have Darrin, who was Art Director on Caesar 3, working on Romans you certainly expect a style reminiscent of everyone’s favourite city builder. We’ve got some really lovely isometric pixel art in the game for the cities and are currently hard at work on making the Empire Map something special. So stay tuned on that front as we should have more to show soon!

 

 

When do you hope to release the title and on what platforms?

We’re hoping to release a public beta this year, but really the game will be ready when it’s ready. We self-publish all our titles at Firefly, which means we luckily don’t have to rush a game out the door early to meet a quarterly shareholder report or anything like that. As for platforms we’ll release first on PC and then on mobile, adding full cross-platform play for both.

 

Where is the best place for our readers to keep up to date with the game’s progress?

They can sign up for the alpha at www.PlayRomans.com and get updates on the game delivered straight to their inbox. You can also follow us on YouTube and Facebook for the latest Age of Caesar updates and videos.

 

If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?

Well a day is tricky but long-term I think I’d choose Caesar over Stronghold, just as long as I held a lofty position in the senate. Something safe where I had some power and influence, but not enough to paint a massive target on my back for aspiring governors… Playing Stronghold is great fun but I think I would rather live in a heated villa than a damp hovel!

 

Did you ever start work on any games that were never released and if you could release any of these game today, which would you choose and why?

In the noughties we worked on a game called Dungeon Hero that sadly never saw the light of day. Our publisher backing for the title disappeared with the credit crunch in 2008 and that was that for the project. It’s a shame because the idea with Hero was for the player to experience dungeons as living environments with goblins and other creatures living out there lives in relative peace. It would have been a fantastic setting to bring out Firefly’s trademark humour and we had some exciting ideas for the combat, however it wasn’t meant to be.

We did manage to revisit the dungeon setting a year ago with MetaMorph, which added a tactical character switching mechanic to the mix. Again another benefit of having financial independence and self-publishing!

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

For Firefly characters I’m tempted to say Stig from Space Colony, but would have to go with The Wolf. I just want to find out what’s eating him!

Otherwise I think Dirk the Daring from ‘Dragon’s Lair’, that groundbreaking title from the early 80’s. He’s such an idiot, but I’m convinced that there is a cunning plan in there just waiting to get out.

 

Adrian

 

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