Visiting Warhorse Studios - The Czech game developer behind Kingdom Come: Deliverance

Warhorse Studios, photo: Pierre Meignan

February 2018 saw the launch of the Czech medieval role-playing game, Kingdom Come: Delivarance. It was the culmination of a 7 year long project that assembled a studio led by some of the most stellar names in Czech video game development. Despite starting its existence as a Kickstarter project and suffering from some curious bugs in the initial days following its launch, the game has managed to find appeal among a fairly wide audience, reaching over a million sold copies just two weeks after being released and getting largely favourable reviews from game critics. Tom McEnchroe popped down to the studio which created the game where he discussed the company’s current situation and plans with its Executive Producer, Martin Klíma. First however, the Warhorse’s PR Manager Tobias Stolz-Zwilling took him on a tour of the company offices, showing how the game is made.

Tobias Stolz-Zwilling,  photo: Pierre Meignan
So Tobi, where are we now?

“Now we are in the 3D and 2D department. We also call it the bat cave, because it is very dark. The people who work here need as little artificial light as possible. These guys are actually creating the world. The painters sitting here at the back are taking the written ideas from the designers. The designers say they want a village with a pond for example and the artists then try to produce a picture out of the idea. Then the 3D guys, who are sitting here, try to put it into the world of Kingdom Come: Deliverance. They are working with the game engine, which, for those who don’t know, is a toolbox that allows you to create the 3D models, so they are creating all of the visuals for the game."

Just a question from someone not acquainted with game development: if the game is already finished, what are they actually making at the moment?

"When the game is finished, they still have to do bug fixes sometimes. Let’s say, for example, there is a weird shadow casted by something. That is also the work of the visual guys. They have to find out where they did something wrong, for example unexpected holes in the ground or levitating stones in the forest, etc. This means that someone placed the stone wrong. But Kingdom Come: Deliverance is not finished after release. We planned more than 4 dlcs, so they are working on that so right now. They are preparing the ‘The Amorous Adventures of Bold Sir Hans Capon’. That’s going to be released in early October."

What is this room called?

"This is our motion capture room and this is where all the magic happens. The magic with our actors. For Kingdom Come we had over 50 actors here in the studio and they are doing all of the animations. Maybe you’ve seen it in a few Youtube videos, depicting the production of Hollywood movies - guys in black lycra suits with those white dots. That is exactly what’s happening here as well. All those actors are acting or moving in a way we want them, whether its sitting down, running, sword fighting or whatever. We are now standing in a room that has 50 cameras hanging down from the ceiling and those cameras are only looking for those white dots. They are sending an infrared light, the dots are reflecting it and this creates an image in the computer, so we can capture the movement of the actor and directly put it into the game. Of course, it needs some polishing here and there. It must also be set-up correctly. However, it still is the most natural movement you can get.

'Kingdom Come',  photo: Warhorse Studios
"Of course we are in the 5th floor of a building here and we couldn’t bring in any horses, so some stuff is of course handcrafted. But the majority of the animations and motions was done here. We had three groups. First, British and American actors, who did all the movielike cut scenes. Then we had our own staff doing mini movements like sitting down, running, walking. Finally, we had actual, real sword fighters who did their performance here and all these three groups were combined together into the movement and the animations of KCD."

How common is it nowadays to have one of these?

"It is not usual to have it inside your own studio like we do.For us it’s a huge advantage, because the guys who are working with this are sitting a meter across the hallway. Usually, it is set in some other location. You have to prepare the room, prepare the team, write down what you actually want to shoot. Then you have to get there, it takes you the entire day and on the way home you probably remember you forgot to do something, which is a pain. For that reason, it’s a huge advantage we have it here and we are very happy about it."

I’ve noticed that medieval music, sword fighting and dressing up are quite popular in this country. Did you notice that coming from Germany? And how many developers here are into this stuff, given that the game is concerned with the medieval era?

"I must say that before I started in Warhorse studios it never occurred to me how popular this was in the world. Because I am the PR Manager, I travel a lot with the game. I am not only in the Czech Republic or Germany; I am also traveling to countries like Japan or China. I can see, and this amazes me a little, that these medieval recreation guys, swordfighters for example, are everywhere in the world. But I never noticed them before. As you say, in Germany and the Czech Republic it is huge. In Europe in general in fact, Italy and France as well. But then you have America for example, which has huge groups of reenactors and swordfighters. I try to connect with them. I try to contact them and to work with them closely whenever I can. Next week I am flying to Japan where I am working with Japanese knights, not samurais, but guys that are actually trying to recreate European fighting, so yeah it’s really interesting.

'Kingdom Come',  photo: Warhorse Studios
"And to answer your question: Yes. We have so called larpists in the studio. They were of course fans of the medieval age before. But the production team of Kingdom Come has definitely led to many people here being way more interested in the medieval era. Some people started to take sword fighting lessons. Our musicians, who were previously not connected at all, were so intrigued by the whole process that they started to do this."

So here we are in the room where animations captured in the room next door are actually being put into the game. Tobi, could you tell us a bit more about that?

"Yes, that’s a big advantage that we have at Warhorse Studios, that our animation team is sitting across the hallway of the motion picture studio. The guys here are creating all of the items you see in the game. Swords, armour types, horses and so on. But they are also working with the raw materials they get from the motion picture room. For example, there will be a dog in one of the DLCs in the future and there is a guy in the corner of this room working on dogs. But we need this dog to be jumping across obstacles and he has to bark, bite people and so on. These animations need to be adjusted, so they are recorded somewhere. In the case of this dog not in our studio, but somewhere else.

We can also see the various items here. For example, my colleague is working on medieval shoes. What happens is the designers want something like a particular set of shoes and the concept artists then paint what the designers might have thought about. We are also taking real life pictures from larpists and reenactors. All together, this then culminates in a 3D model done by one of our animators or item creators, concept artist and so on, who are trying to rebuild this medival object."

So how many guys would you say you have working at any time?

Photo: Pierre Meignan
"It varied a lot. When I started in june 2014 we were just hiring people to get up to 40, so this was after the kickstarter. Kickstarter was prepared by 15 people. Then it was executed by 25 roughly and once it got finished, Warhorse hired another 15 to get to 40. Now, 4 years later, there are 120 of us and we are still hiring, looking to boost the staff even more. On a regular day there are about 80 to 90 people working in the studio. We are now extending the studio however, and moving to another office so we will have even more testers."

Having seen the various sections within Warhorse Studios that make a game possible it was now time to talk to Mr. Martin Klima, the Executive Producer of Warhorse Studios and one of the oldest and most experienced game developers in the Czech Republic. I asked him how the idea of creating a new studio dedicated to a hyper-realistic rpg concept led to the development of Warhorse Studios.

"Well, the Czech Republic is not a big country and the Czech gaming scene is smaller still, so it is quite common for people, who are in the gaming industry, to know each other. I knew Dan Vavra [main author of Kingdom Come] and he approached me with this idea about founding a company to do this realistic RPG. It seemed like a great idea to me and we set out on finding an investor. It took us a few years to find Mr. Bakala and persuade him to give us the initial investment and then we set out looking for people. Obviously, all of us had teams before. Dan was part of Illusion Softworks so he worked mainly on Mafia [popular video game], but also on others that didn’t get published. I worked with guys from Bohemia Interactive and mainly with ALTER Interactive, so we had a lot of contacts in the industry, which we were able to draw up on.

"But there was also a lot of happy accidents during the development. People were coming to us. We were able to get a lot of experienced people when the Czech branch of 2K [creators of the Mafia games] was closed. Obviously, I hesitate to say that its closing was a good thing, but at least it allowed us to get some talented and experienced people. We were also lucky in hiring talented junior employees. Actually, I think that more than a half of the studio are people who have no previous experience making games or no experience of work at all. Most of them turned out very fine, learning very quickly and contributing to the development. So that was a serendipity."

How successful is the game?

Photo: Pierre Meignan
"The game is doing really well and we are really happy with the success it is enjoying. The reviews are good. We were very afraid before the release, I was worried, that the idea we are trying to put through will not be understood. That people will say: 'I want my game to be easy.' 'I want my game to be much more forgiving and easier to get into and don’t understand why the game should be difficult and different from other games.' 'I want my character to be a superhero like in every other game who goes around killing enemies by the hundreds.' Fortunately, that didn’t happen. There is a really big community of people who get it. Who understand exactly what we are trying to achieve. And appreciate it for what it is. It is very encouraging and we are very happy about this result.

Last time that one of us talked to you in 2016, your new game was just about to be released. And it was very different. Extremely historically focused, no magic, etc. Do you think your game will remain in a nieche or does it have a chance of affecting the general development of RPGs. Have you for example seen game developers taking any of your ideas, or gameplay options?

"Frankly, no I didn’t. But we are perfectly happy with it. We are perfectly happy with the kind of niche we have created for ourselves. We think we were proven right that there is a viable interest in that setting. We want to stay here and create more games along the similar basic idea. We think it is a very fool proof source of new gaming ideas."