interview

The Kingdom Series 

The Kingdom series is a trilogy of strategy games where you build up a kingdom and try to protect your citizens from the creatures that lurk beyond the forest. Unlike many of its strategy genre counterparts, the series is remarkably easy to pick up, and uses its apparent simplicity to create something that’s easy to learn but rewarding to master. We spoke to the creative leads behind the series to learn more...

Thomas van den Berg is the original creator of the Kingdom series, and worked on programming, art and animation on Kingdom Classic (2015) and Kingdom New Lands (2016).

 

Pixel Primers: Kingdom is a game with a very simple mechanic (spending gold) but out of that one interaction you’ve been able to build a really complex game with a great deal of player choice. Could you tell us a little more about the design philosophy behind the series?

 

Thomas: So the design philosophy definitely revolves around minimalism and 1:1 representation of the world. Using a few player interactions and a single resource (gold) means the game is super easy to pick up, there is not a lot to explain upfront. The possibilities branch out after that, and I find that makes for a very pleasant game experience. I think having the gold coins resulted from experimenting and wanting to keep the game simple at a technical level, stemming from the first Flash version of the game. Being able to have physical coins in the world and just do collision checks for picking them up was an easy way to implement game mechanics. Having this basis and realising it makes for a fun experience, the challenge then was to elaborate on it without complicating. The addition of the 'gems' in Two Crowns is a great example of that. 

 

Aside from the gold coins, we tried to keep the 1:1 representation throughout different aspects of the game. Enemies usually have 1 hit point, and each enemy is a physical character in the game. Each citizen of the player requires that you build a single tool for them, and each one must be recruited individually. I like the simulation based world that arises from this, and feel it's more immersive than a game that represents many aspects through (aggregate) numbers and tables. 

 

PP: The gameplay makes it a really easy series to pick up like you’ve said, though learning to survive into the late game takes some careful thought. How did you decide how much to guide the player, and how much to just let the player make their own mistakes?

 

Thomas: Ever since the beginning, our approach was to give the player as little instruction as possible. Once you have learned the basic actions (throwing coins) you are then left to explore and find out where to apply this action. However, we constantly had to adjust this to give the players more feedback, showing the results of their actions in a clearer way. There is a thin line between exploring and frustration, and we were often on the wrong side of it. We also added additional tutorial instructions as we worked on the game, constantly finding out where we should guide the player a little more for them to have more fun. However, failing (early) the first couple of times is also definitely an intended learning curve. 

PP: I know I’ve run into problems on my games before when I’ve overexploited the land, or expanded too ambitiously. Was this idea of the player staying in balance with their environment something you were interested in exploring?

 

Thomas: Initially, (2011) the game was meant to contain more of a simulation of capitalism and a message about concentration of wealth. But that was so vague that I could never capture it in gameplay. Balancing exploitation with preservation of the land was definitely a theme, but we didn't find a satisfying way to turn that into even more explicit gameplay mechanics.

 

PP: It’s a game that can get stressful at times, but there’s also a great deal of quiet and contemplation. How did you decide on the game’s tone? 

 

Thomas: For me, it starts with quiet contemplation and natural beauty. I layered the art until it formed a beautiful scenery to just walk around in. Then, I tried to find gameplay that would pull players in. I think the day/night cycle works very well to balance the two, giving you plenty of time to just enjoy looking at the scenery and what you've built. The 'infinite' nature of the game also helps to balance the stress levels. By gradually turning up the difficulty, it ensures there will always be a tense moment at the end.

Gordon Van Dyke is the game director and designer of Kingdom Two Crowns (2018), for which he is still releasing regular content updates. Prior to this he also worked on the previous two games in the series.

 

PP: How did you get involved with the Kingdom series, and what did you find most interesting about its design?

 

Gordon: I co-founded Raw Fury with Jonas Antonsson and it was the first game signed. Initially I was the producer, but since I had a background in design from my time at DICE working on Battlefield Thomas asked me to help on the games balance and end game experience. The funny thing was that the first time I played it I was very confused. It was also very early in development, yet it did something few games do for me. It planted a seed of curiosity in my head that I couldn’t shake. So, I went back the next day and played again and it all clicked. Since that moment I’ve been in love with Kingdom.

 

PP: What features did you decide to add with Two Crowns? 

 

Gordon: It really began wanting to be a simple co-op expansion to New Lands like New Lands was to the original, but the effort to add co-op was so great we decided to add a few new features and that quickly grew into its own game that was never intended to exist. Some of the bigger changes I decided to add were a Campaign game mode that moved the series away from rogue-like that allowed players to continue their Kingdom even after losing the Crown. Challenge Islands give players that original rogue-like experience, but in themed settings where we could add more experimental gameplay. We also added new settings to take players to new locations with fitting gameplay changes when possible. There are many more, but these were the biggest that impacted many other choices.

 

PP: Transforming the game from a rogue-like to a campaign seems like it could have been a big challenge. Did you find that the new campaign structure forced you to approach the game’s design in a new way?

 

Gordon: Luckily for me it was an easy transition from a design perspective, but for code it was a lot of work, especially since you needed to be able to return to a previous land. That was a big task on code to enable saving those lands and be able to load them back. With rogue-like you never had to save five locations and make them indefinitely returnable.

 

PP: How do you think the multiplayer modes changed the game? Did it create new challenges for you as a designer?

 

Gordon: I don’t feel it changed the game but expanded the experience for people to enjoy together even if they were physically apart. And from the start co-op was designed so that the second player could come and go without a penalty. Luckily playing co-op online in multiplayer was the same to design as local splitscreen due to those earlier decisions, so this was another task where the work and challenges fell more onto the code team than design.  

 

PP: You’ve added plenty of post-release content including a surprise collaboration with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. How did this collaboration come about? 

 

It was really a fluke happening; we were at an event with the Bloodstained: RotN team and started talking, turned out we were all fans of each other’s game, a few months later they contacted us about a collaboration. Luckily for us we were working on a gothic haunted setting already, so I just started adding designs and immediately wanted to use their characters as rulers and introduce ruler abilities with this crossover. I’m also a huge fan of Iga’s work and one of my favorite games of all time is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  

 

PP: What’s next for Kingdom Two Crowns?

 

Well, we have a big update that just released adding PlayFab so we could support cross platform saves. We also did a lot of fixes, especially to online multiplayer. Adding PlayFab will open a lot more things we can do, hopefully for multiplayer as well. After this update we’d like to add some more Challenge Islands and there’s early work exploring new settings, but nothing is confirmed yet. We’ll have to wait and see!

The Kingdom series is available to play on PC, Playstation, Xbox, Switch and mobile. The two most recent games, New Lands and Two Crowns, recently received a new physical release in the form of Kingdom Majestic