Warhorse Studios Weekly Torch

Martin Klíma is the Executive Producer here at Warhorse Studios. He works closely with team leads and other producers in order to make Kingdom Come: Deliverance a fine piece of art. He was born in Bristol, UK, his parents were from Czechoslovakia, they were on the run from the Russian invasion. They returned to Prague shortly after his first birthday.
Today, we will answer the last call of the Weekly Torch for you.
You still can ask questions to him, and there are also other still pending answers to your community questions, they will be available later.

1. It is finally done, Kingdom Come: Deliverance is released now. Born of a little idea at the beer table, the game will be available worldwide since 13.02.2018. If you look back on this, what can you say about the development process?

This is a really difficult question, because of course my perception of it – as someone who set it up and was responsible for its execution – is going to be along the lines of: ‘We had some problems, but overall it went well, and we created the game; the proof of the pudding is in the eating or – in this case – in the cooking.’

So, I will try to be very honest, but I can’t really step outside my experience, and if you want an honest assessment, you’d have to ask somebody in the team who was on the receiving side of the process.

The development was neither straightforward nor simple. We went through various phases, from developing a vertical slice prototype with a team of some 30+ people to the full-fledged production with more than a hundred people. We used different tools, different levels of formalness and control.

The team includes experienced veterans as well as junior people straight out of school. Our challenge was to turn them into a well-jelled team. There is a lot of books and theory about software project management, but at the end of the day, this is very much a soft skill, not a hard one. People – developers – are not like some interchangeable cogs you can place in a huge intricate clockwork, oil it regularly and let it hum away. So of course, you try not to re-discover the wheel and you build on the body of theory and past experiences, but every team is different – because every developer is different – and you have to tailor the process to their needs, not the other way around.

We – I – certainly did my share of poor decisions and blunders. We have wasted time and energy on things that we eventually had to abandon. We had to crunch a lot this last year. However, I believe that we did some things right, too. We had a remarkably low team turnover – only about thirty developers have left over the six years of development, so I presume that people, if they not actually like working for Warhorse, at least put up with it. We created an open and friendly environment where everyone can speak up their mind.

And in the end, we managed to cook the pudding, and that’s something, isn’t it?

2. After all that has happened in the last few years, would you take the risk again and start a studio?

Would I want to start a new studio today, from a scratch? Probably not. I am six years older and in a different situation.

Do I think it was a good decision at the time? You bet! I don’t regret it for a minute.

Seriously, there were times when I was exhausted, frustrated, when the project was not going well. There were times when I really had to force myself to go to work in the morning. But I was never sorry that I made that decision. It was – and still is – an amazing experience, truly, an experience of a lifetime.

3. Describe your position. What is it about being an Executive Producer?

Production in video games is about organizing various parts of the development – code, art, animations, script, sound and music, etc., making sure that everybody is working to the same goal and that as little work as possible is wasted.

For me, this means removing obstacles. Programmers, artists, animators, scripters, sound engineers, etc. understand their trade much better than I do, and I don’t presume to tell them how to do their jobs. However, they usually focus on the problem at hand and can lose the sense of the greater picture. It’s my job to have this bigger picture in mind and make sure every department contributes to it. If they can’t – because they are dependent on some other department, some other technology, or whatever – it’s my job to make sure they get everything they need to work.

Of course, I am not doing all of it myself. I work closely with team leads and other producers in Warhorse. As the studio grows, we are going to need more producers, too – wink, wink.

To put it another way, Executive Producer is responsible for realizing the vision of the game. I had some small creative input into the design of our game, but my main task was working with the production team to determine what parts of this vision will be produced. This involves making unpopular decisions about things to be left out. If there is no dog companion in our game, it’s because I said that we couldn’t do it in the time we had. So now you know who is to blame!

Seriously though, saying No is the most important part of your job as a producer.

4. Describe your usual day at the studio?

I arrive to work between nine and ten, usually leave about 8pm. On Friday morning we have Production Team meeting where I sit together with other producers and discuss our situation. Currently it means progress of work on the next patch, progress of certification of the previous patch, progress of work on DLCs and so on. On other days I try to go to a morning standup of either QA, code or script department to get some sense of their current issues.

After that I go through my Inbox, check the current bug counter and check the new bugs. In this stage of development, I am going through all new high-priority bugs and deciding if we are going to try to fix them in the current patch or in the next one (or possible, not going to fix some of them at all).

In the afternoon, I usually have some more meetings; my role there mostly consists of saying “Do you know what date it is today? Do you know when we release?”

Throughout the day, people are coming into my office with various issues they might have – some are very simple, some look simple, but are actually signs of a more serious trouble ahead.
In the evening the office gets mercifully emptier and I can finally focus on tasks that require longer attention span.

5. What do you like the most about Kingdom Come: Deliverance?

One thing about the game I like unreservedly is the melee combat. I had some small creative input into it, but by and large, it’s the brain child of Viktor Bocan. I think it works really, really well and I enjoy it a lot.

Another thing I sort of like about the game – and this might surprise even some people in Warhorse – is the peculiar story twist of the game. Henry really is nobody, an ultimate everyman. He is not a Dragonborn, he does not carry a Mark of Dragon, he is not a last scion of an exiled ruling family. The beginning of the game inverts traditional video game progression: you are first beaten by Kunesh, then by Deutsch, then almost killed by Cumans, then cravenly and stupidly slip from Talmberg, only to be beaten by Runt… In most other RPGs you have to fulfil a prophecy or live up to expectations. There are no expectations in KCD – it’s only up to you where you take Henry.

6. In some press comments, the game is seen as an AAA title. Do you see the game that way?

I don’t see KCD as competing with the likes of Assassin’s Creed or Shadow of War. We simply don’t have resources to create a game like that. I don’t view us as an indie game either, though. The trend I see in ‘real’ AAA games, like the ones I mentioned above, is toward making games more and more forgiving, better suited to the most casual and absent-minded players; they are games that in effect are ‘playing themselves’. So, you have all those different markers, prompts and handy hints that you never have to think about what to do next.

This is not entirely wrong. I can see why the companies that make these games take this approach and obviously there is a demand for it, as evidenced by the sales of these games.

On the other hand, we see a trend among indie games that are both more original and less forgiving, but because of limited budgets they have to go for a format that is somewhat simpler to develop for, e.g. many of them are 2D platformers or top-down scrollers.

KCD is an attempt of bridging the two: it is an indie game at heart – more hardcore, more demanding, more fierce – but with the visuals and production values of AAA game.

I freely admit though that I wish we had more time to polish the game before the release, that’s what AAA game deserves.

7. How, when and with what (platform, game) did you first get acquainted with videogames?

It was on my granddad’s HP-67 programmable calculator. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HP-67/-97) That was a really neat piece of hardware (I still have it stashed up somewhere) that could read tiny magnetic strips with programs of up to 224 bytes (yes, bytes). And one of these strips had a game Lunar Lander wherein you control a descent of a lunar module to the moon’s surface: you are flashed a number – altitude – then a second number – speed – then third number – fuel remaining – and then you must enter the amount of fuel to burn. Hours of fun!

8. What was your most touching video game moment?

The memories make everything better, but I fondly remember playing Loom, published in 1990 by LucasArts. I really liked the beautiful simplicity of their game design and the overall atmosphere.

The game I remember most is the original Sid Meier’s Civilization. It was the first – and probably last – game I played 24 hours straight, and I still return to it – or its sequels – from time to time. I could keep praising this game for several paragraphs, but everybody already knows Civilization games, don’t they?

More recently, I have played Prey by Arkane Studios and it was just amazing: for me this is the best game I have played since, I don’t know, Portal 2. I loved how all game mechanics worked neatly together, how cleverly and economically it was done. It was perfectly suited to the technology they were using, unlike some other games I could mention. It may be a professional deformation, but all the time I was playing it, I kept saying to myself, this is such a clever production. If by any chance anyone of the Arkane team is reading this, you guys are my heroes.

9. What would a perfect game according to your wishes looked like?

I think there are two things that videogames are doing really poorly, one is concept of sacrifice and the other is emotional intelligence.

Let me start with the latter: there are countless strategy, sim and tycoon games that allow you to notionally control other people, while actually doing all their decisions for them. So, if you have e.g. sim of battle of Austerlitz, you will place all your units, control their facing, equipment, etc., and then move them, turn by turn, select their targets, what weapons to use and so on.

But this is absolutely not what Napoleon was doing, is it? As a real commander, you would come up with the general plan of the battle, try to explain it to your lieutenants and make sure they understand it, and then you would stand on a hill, wait for messengers to arrive and at a critical moment dispatch a messenger of your own to marshal Soult: “One sharp blow and the war is over!” This is not to diminish Napoleon’s tactical brilliance, but to point out that large part of a success of a real-life commander is his ability to choose right people and inspire loyalty in them. This is where computer games are lacking. L.A. Noir was an attempt to create a game where you make decisions based on your emotional response, unfortunately it was marred by a completely bungled plot. It is a big problem in RPGs too, as we cannot simulate actual, real-life conversation, and therefore we must make very obvious ‘tells’: this is a shifty character, he is probably lying. This is an evil character, help him if you want to be evil too. This is a virtuous character, etc., etc. It is all very unsubtle and again favours rational intelligence over the emotional one.

The concept of sacrifice is also poorly understood. Any good game – any game at all – is about making choices: what move to take? what weapon I choose? what dialogue option? In a good game these decisions are meaningful, i.e. they have different consequences and it is not immediately obvious which decision is better; maybe it also depends on your perspective. Every decision should have some cost associated with it and it should not be possible to avoid a sacrifice when making them.

In most games, however, this is an illusion. In an RPG you cannot make a meaningful continuation of every dialogue option (KCD tries to do this more than most games, but it still has to take many shortcuts). Even in strategy games – probably the fairest genre in this regard – certain tactics generally work better. The result is that most games in fact behave like a puzzle game: instead of making your decisions, you are second-guessing the designers and trying to find their idea of playing the game. I believe enduring attractivity of purely abstract games – like chess – is also because they get this bit right, these are the kind of games that allow you to make real sacrifices.

One game that took this concept in the right direction was Call of Cthulhu (I only played the desktop version though). The extra twist in this RPG is that you sacrifice your Sanity for Power. So, you can be either dumb as a brick and completely impervious to Eldritch Horrors, or you can be a powerful sorcerer whose brain will turn to jelly if he so much as glimpses Nyarlathotep’s slippers. The result is that you just can’t have it all, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

So, this is what I would like to see most: game where I can actually relate to the people and where my decisions involve actually forfeiting something.

10. Your favorite music playlist

While writing these answers I was listening to random songs by Pink Floyd, as selected by YouTube. The weird thing about it is, that if you play a song by another artist – say Johnny Cash – in YouTube, it will suggest and choose other artists and eventually drift to playing Hotel California, where it loops indefinitely. When playing Pink Floyd, only suggestions are other Pink Floyd songs.

Another artist I like to listen to is Leonard Cohen, especially his later songs. So long Marianne, Suzanne and Hallelujah, are of course lovely tunes, but I like Who by Fire, The Future, Take this Waltz or even No More a-Roving better. But actually, I really like them all.

And finally, I’d like to mention Czech singer Karel Kryl, who is unfortunately not well known outside my country, probably because large part of the appeal of his songs are insanely intricate lyrics with insanely complicated rhyming patterns. A very rough approximation is to say that he is like Czech Jacques Brel or – you guessed it – Leonard Cohen.

Unlike these singers however, Karel Kryl was born in communist Czechoslovakia, and forced to move out of the country after he published his first album, Close the gate, my brother. He spent most of his remaining life in exile, where he published all but one of his remaining albums. Find him on YouTube and listen to his songs, even if you do not understand the lyrics, they are beautiful.

11. Your favourite movie or book?

There are many books I like, some I read over and over. If I had to pick up a few…

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Many people do not realize – especially on the first reading – that the basic point of the book is that in 1930’s Moscow, the Devil is the most humane character. At first, I didn’t get it too, and it’s not why I love the book. It’s really about triumph of hope over despair, about life and love flourishing in any circumstances – and it’s about all these things without any obvious pathos, with very understated narrative that reads – especially on the first reading – as a kind of a humorous novel.

Dream of the Read Chamber by Cao Xueqin and Jin Ping Mei by an unknown author of classical China. The classical Chinese novels have a unique ability – for me – to offer a glimpse of a completely different civilization; it’s fascinating to see certain patterns we know from our own history to appear there as well, while some other, even the ones we would consider universal and indispensable, are simply missing. I am an avid reader for SF literature, from Clarke to Chiang, Bradbury to Baciogalupi, but in a way, Dream of the Read Chamber is like an ultimate snapshot of an alternative universe.

Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in a Golden Vase), on the other hand, is like a polar opposite of the Red Chamber. The latter shows the world of perfect self-control, an absolutely timeless society that existed like that since forever and will go on like this forever, where people gather and bury the fallen petals of apple blossoms; the former shows the same society from a perspective of an ambitious parvenu that has to kill, steal and bribe to preserve his status. Yet it is still thrilling (besides small and dated amount of pornography) by repeating and omitting certain well-known patterns from societies I am better acquainted with. I assume that this is not how Chinese read these novels – I would imagine e.g. Don Quixote could play the same role there – and for a moment I don’t want to diminish their artistic accomplishment. Each book runs into few thousand pages and you wouldn’t read them were you not swept in the current of the story. They are amazing books on their own, this aspect of stealing a glimpse into otherwise unknown world is just a part of their appeal to me.

Mycelium by Vilma Kadlečková. Vilma is my long-suffering wife of 25 years. She is also perhaps the most accomplished science-fiction writer in Czech Republic. Her latest novel – or series of novels – Mycelium explores a relationship between religion and society, power and responsibility, drugs and mushrooms. Picking up the thread about sacrifice I mentioned earlier, Vilma’s books capture this concept perfectly: in her typical story everyone tries to do the best thing they can, they succeed, and everybody dies as a result.

12. If you could say something to the fans of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, what would it be?

Hi! You guys are the best fans a game could wish for. Without your support on Kickstarter and beyond, there would be no game. Truly, our game belongs to you.

I interacted with many communities over the years, and seldom did I see such mature, reasonable and supportive community. That does not mean that the community would forgive everything and put up with anything. On the contrary, you are usually well informed and clear about what you want. Above all, though, you are rational, and we can have rational discussion about the game, your expectations and our capabilities.

Thank you for this.