Alex Hayter is Brand Director of Torn Banner Studios in Toronto. While his primary work is focused on marketing and community, he wears many hats and gets to be involved in all manner of awesomeness at the studio.
It’s been nearly 15 years since a group of friends got together to create a free Half-Life 2 mod that turned the dystopian Valve classic into a medieval-themed melee brawler. Age of Chivalry was released in 2007 as a total conversion mod of Half-Life 2 by a group calling itself Team Chivalry.
Some of that team made a huge leap forward in 2010, shifting to Unreal Engine and forming Torn Banner Studios to start development on Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.
The studio’s first release delivered a melee combat masterpiece that asked a lot of players and was painfully difficult to master, but also drew a dedicated fanbase thanks to its ultra-intense multiplayer gameplay. After a palette cleansing change with magic-infused combat with the release of Mirage: Arcane Warfare in 2017, the studio got back to work on its first love: chivalric combat.
Chivalry 2 promises to return players to a medieval battlefield with all of the intensity and combat precision of the original title, but now infused with epic 64-player cinematic battlefields, castle sieges, and a revamped combat system that is easy to pick up but hard to master.
We chatted with Torn Banner’s Alex Hayter about the studio’s transformative journey, striking the razor’s edge balance of tuned melee combat, and the vision the group has for this hotly anticipated sequel.
This is Torn Banner Studios’ fourth commercial game, how has the studio evolved in its development process and products over the past 11 years or so?
Alex Hayter, Torn Banner Studios' Brand Director: Oh boy, this is a great question! And the short answer is: our studio has both utterly transformed itself since its early years, while also holding onto the gritty spirit of ambition and inventiveness that helped us make our mark in the first place with the release of 2012’s Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Our goal was always to make the games of our dreams and this remains the case withChivalry 2.
The first Chivalry was made by a group of amateurs strewn across the world, in basements and bedrooms, with a dream: make the ultimate medieval multiplayer FPS. We know it nailed a lot of aspects that helped make it both accessible and sticky—tight, responsive control of melee weaponry, well-designed multiplayer maps that felt true to the medieval fantasy, and a secret sauce of Monty Python-inspired personality. The vision of making a Hollywood-inspired “be a knight with a sword” medieval fantasy-fulfillment game was well-realized at the time, but it honestly fell short in many areas because of our studio’s minuscule size and inexperience a decade ago.
We look at Chivalry 2 as our opportunity to “do it right” now that we have developers with over a decade of experience, along with a larger, incredibly experienced team with AAA accolades. Plus, we now have the support of Tripwire Interactive, who are helping us take this title to the next level and realize our goal of reaching a broader audience than we could achieve alone, by bringing the game to current- and next-generation console platforms alongside PC on the Epic Games Store.
Mirage: Arcade Warfare was an attempt by the studio to try something a little bit out of its wheelhouse. Ultimately, the studio felt the title underperformed. What do you think you learned from the process of developing, launching, and supporting that game? And how have those lessons been applied to Chivalry 2?
Hayter: With Chivalry, we knew we had a winning blend (medieval plus multiplayer plus melee plus chaos), but with Mirage, we wanted to see what we could experiment with regarding the edges of that formula. Our goal was to make a game that represented a wild new take on multiplayer combat, by making ranged-based fighting feel as deliberate and user-controlled as Chivalry’s close-quarters melee. We thought we had made a game that would appeal to Chivalry’s skill-based hardcore audience as a significant new expansion upon its melee combat, refreshed with a unique art direction that was outside the norm.
We always planned to develop our “dream game,” a proper sequel to Chivalry directly after Mirage. Still, we hoped Mirage would offer a fun and challenging new experience in the multiplayer space. Our young studio was also eager for a creative break from Chivalry games, which for much of our team, had been the only thing they had ever worked on, from Age ofChivalry through to Chivalry: Deadliest Warrior. That’s a lot of work on one thing!
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. A lot of its failings were on a product level. It wasn’t able to communicate what it was meant to be at a first impression, so we really struggled to market it effectively. Its unfamiliar setting and art style made it seem like a casual game and a step back from the work we’d done on our Chivalry titles. So, overall, it just turned off our target hardcore audience entirely, and then most of the fresh-faced players who tried it met a wall of overwhelmingly challenging combat and poor user experience. We did a bad job of listening to all segments of our intended audience.
On a creative level, we also let the project get pulled into too many incoherent directions rather than steering the ship down the same path as a unit. This was one of the best lessons we learned as a team and the one that has helped us achieve something great with Chivalry 2.
Ultimately, the failure of Mirage turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We look back on Mirage feeling grateful that our studio was able to weather a storm that would have caused many studios to shut down, and we take away the most valuable lessons that any studio could learn. We also feel strongly that if we’d made Chivalry 2 directly after the first title, it would have been at risk of being ruined by the same issues that sank Mirage. Instead, we’ve now made what we feel has a chance at being one of the greatest multiplayer games of all time.
Torn Banner Studios has developed a lot of expertise in the realm of first-person melee combat. How has your games’ combat evolved over the years, and what are you hoping to achieve with Chivalry 2 in terms of combat?
Hayter: Put simply, the design goal for Chivalry 2’s combat is to make it feel like you’re in a bar fight, with swords. Our studio founder Steve Piggott’s description is such: Imagine you’re in a packed bar and suddenly someone drops a bag of weapons on the floor, challenging everyone in the bar to fight. Capture the creativity, insanity, and desperation of a fight to the end with swords, that’s the spirit of it, really!
With Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, we tried to create a combat system that gave players a huge level of control over what they could do with their weapon. A foundation for that system is real-time strikes. When you swing your weapon, the weapon itself as it travels through the air is what deals damage, meaning you want to target your opponent actively with the sword’s swinging path, not just at the crosshair. You can turn your camera to help your weapon meet your target faster, or turn away to slow it down towards the inevitable impact. This real-time swing system, aka “dragging” is still a foundational aspect in Chivalry 2. But compared to the first game, the level of over-the-top swing manipulation is far more grounded and focused on readability. There’s none of the “spin to win” or “ballerina” style movements that players discovered were possible in the first game, but were never our design intention. That stuff made high-level combat in Chivalry: Medieval Warfare overwhelmingly focused on using drags and feints to confuse players and bait parries. The result didn’t exactly feel like an awesome combat exchange, but a strange and unnatural-looking tangle. It felt great to do at times, but it sucked on the receiving end and wasn’t really achieving the fantasy of weighted medieval knights in combat on a gameplay level.
Chivalry 2 is, instead, focused on getting players to constantly have to improvise with their arsenal of attacks and genuinely feel engaged in exchange-based combat. Rather than having one or two combat features form the permanent and overwhelming “meta,” in Chivalry 2, we want players to feel like they always have an interesting and surprising choice to make at any time during a combat encounter.
Image courtesy of Torn Banner Studios
Most games of this nature tend to have a high barrier for entry because of the complex controls and need for nuanced gameplay to be successful. Is that something you’re working to adjust to make a bit easier for entry-level players and if so, how are you hoping to achieve that without taking away from the game’s graceful combat?
Hayter: We’ve set the ambitious goal of having a lower skill floor, but a higher skill ceiling than other games in the genre. For players who feel they’ve mastered Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, playing Chivalry 2 will be a unique “back to school” moment as they find a totally redesigned combat system to learn again. On a basic level, Chivalry 1 had slashes, overheads, stabs, and kicks. Chivalry 2 has both normal and heavy slashes, overheads, and stabs, as well as kicks, punches, special attacks, and more. Add in choices around subclasses, footwork, special abilities, support items, and even more, and that means that there’s always space for players to experiment and hone their skills on a different aspect of the game.
Meanwhile, inexperienced players will find it a lot easier to jump in and simply survive. You can now hold a block, which gives you a fighting chance when overwhelmed to “turtle” behind a shield or weapon. Your stamina does rapidly drain while you hold the block, but if used in combo with good spatial awareness, it can buy players the opportunity to wait for backup from teammates, as well as to learn how to dish out ripostes and counters without needing to first perfectly time a parry. We’ve put a huge amount of effort into better tutorializing as well as hints and prompts in the UI to help teach players how the combat system works. Our goal is to make players feel that, even if they get killed a lot, each time they understand what happened.
Chivalry 2 went through a number of alphas, what did you learn in the process and what sort of improvements were applied to the game in response to those lessons?
Hayter:Chivalry 2’s public alpha testing (under NDA) began in March 2020 and led us all the way to April 2021, with monthly testing rounds each lasting one to four days at a time. These tests were absolutely invaluable and we can’t thank testers enough for the time they’ve put into playing the game during development, providing us with feedback and reporting bugs.
Coming out of our previous games, we wanted to be better at improving our process for listening to the community. We had launched 2012’s Chivalry: Medieval Warfare as a huge success, to a scale we hadn’t imagined, and so we weren’t really prepared nor knowledgeable about how to communicate well with our suddenly massive community. Now in 2021, we feel this is an area we have improved the most as a studio. One of our goals since the beginning of its development was to genuinely open up Chivalry 2’s early development to a huge amount of our most passionate players. We had tens of thousands of active alpha testers during that time.
At the same time, we won’t simply stop listening to feedback or bug reports once the game launches. We plan to keep up our strong relationship with our community (centered in our Discord server) and see Chivalry 2 post-launch as a continued project that requires community input on an ongoing basis. It’s been a blast seeing how much the community has contributed to making Chivalry 2 a great experience.
All of the Chivalry games have taken place in a fictional universe inspired by medieval movies and television shows. What drove the decision to base the game in fictional worlds, rather than a real-world setting?
Hayter: Chivalry 2 is supposed to feel like a playable version of medieval movies and TV shows. So, to us, it made sense to create a fictional world that was where the “movie scenes” you’re playing in all took place. A fictional world also lets us do some interesting things creatively. When making maps, we don’t have to be tied down to reality; we can do a lot of interesting worldbuilding, and be more ambitious in the scale of what we’re doing in terms of level design and art. Plus, we love writing lore and getting into the nerdy details of the backstory behind why the Agatha Knights are (still) at war against the Mason Order. The lore gives our hardcore fans something to attach to, and grounds the battles of Chivalry 2 in a sense of storytelling and context.
Are there any particular movies or television shows that inspired elements of Chivalry 2? If so, what were they, and what did they inspire?
Hayter: Absolutely. Medieval movies and TV shows were the primary inspiration for Chivalry 2.
The ‘Battle of the Bastards’ episode of Game of Thrones has been our main go-to reference throughout all of development. The emotions of the scene, the sense of Jon Snow somehow surviving the crazy onslaught of two armies clashing at once… the rapid combat stories that play out as the camera roams the battlefield… This kind of cinematic experience is, on a fantasy level, where we want players to go when they play Chivalry 2.
Age of Chivalry, the 2007 impetus for the Chivalry games, was a mod of Half-Life 2 using the Source engine. What drove your decision to shift over to Unreal Engine for the commercial release of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare in 2012?
Hayter:Chivalry: Medieval Warfare’s launch development, from 2008-2012, coincided with a real watermark point in games development where a tool like Unreal Engine had suddenly become extremely accessible for amateur developers like our young team with the release of the Unreal Developer Kit (UDK). We had seen the incredible support that Epic was providing to Unreal Engine 3 developers, as well as the support of the engine itself with updates that made it the best tool for game development at the time (a trend which continues today with our use of Unreal Engine 4 for Chivalry 2). It allowed our team to truly graduate from “scrappy mod team” to becoming an indie developer.
Chivalry 2 will support full cross-play when it launches in June. What made you decide to include that feature and how hard was it to implement?
Hayter: For us, the pull of cross-play was the promise of a larger audience playing online together than we might ever achieve on PC alone. With cross-play, we are more assured that Chivalry 2 will have a healthy audience and packed servers for many years to come.
Cross-play also means our team was challenged to create a game that was an equal experience on all platforms. It’s genuinely the same game no matter how you play it; we could not cut down on content or features in the console versions; they had to be as complete as PC. Having 64 players in sprawling maps, with great performance on all platforms, was an incredible challenge but we’ve done it. This required a ton of optimization work, which has also led to a game that can be played with surprisingly low hardware specifications on PC.
This will be Torn Banner Studios’ first game for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X. Are there any particular improvements or features you were able to add because of the new tech in that hardware?
Hayter: The native ray tracing features of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X really put the heat on us to be sure that we worked with our development partners to integrate that technology into Chivalry 2. It’s coming post-launch to PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X but ray tracing is absolutely on the roadmap.
Naturally, the fast load times when playing on an SSD are a game changer, though load times for our game are not too shabby at all on an HDD either.
The DualSense controller on the PS5 is also very exciting. Our goal is to make a fun and immersive experience. So getting stuff like trigger resistance when you’re low on stamina, helping you feel your character struggle to hold up his shield, and having a sense of what side of your body the sword is on as you swing can really help players feel less like they’re playing a video game and more like they’re truly in the moment.
How are the game’s visuals impacted by technologies like ray tracing and 4K resolution?
Hayter: Our goal is to immerse players in an experience that feels like they’re playing in a movie battle scene, and in many ways forget that they’re even playing a game. These technologies are extremely exciting when it comes to that goal. Ray tracing support, which is coming post-launch to the platforms that support it, is going to bring an extra level of cinematic visuals to the game; and a game full of shiny metal armor and weapons is a real showcase for what the hardware can do.
On next-gen consoles, playing in 4K at 60FPS on a massive TV is a thing of beauty, and we’ve also enabled an uncapped frame rate option for folks with screens that support higher refresh rates than 60Hz. Chivalry 2 is a great “kick back and enjoy the carnage” game, so playing on your couch with a controller while also getting peak performance from hardware is a treat!
What elements of Unreal Engine did you find most useful in bringing your vision of Chivalry 2 to life?
Hayter: There are a bunch of incredible features to call out. Sequencer in Unreal Engine really helped us bring a far more cinematic experience to Chivalry 2 than we could for the first title. We start levels with Sequencer-built cinematics, helping to put players into the context of the battle they’re about to fight in. In some maps we’ve built animated sequences full of characters; for example, in the Siege of Rudhelm, you’ll get a view of the VIP “heir” target that the attackers are trying to kill. In various maps, the player finds themselves in the perspective of a character lined up next to his army; in some cases hearing a battle speech from a commander before the player takes control right as their team clashes against the enemy side.
Blueprint visual scripting has been incredibly helpful as well, allowing our design team to be able to work in a far more agile way, more independent of our code team (and therefore freeing up our programmers to work on new tools and features instead of being bogged down with small tasks from the design dept). That’s been useful throughout development, but will also mean that post-launch we’ll be able to make gameplay balance changes and tweaks on the fly incredibly easily; never needing to dig into code. For a multiplayer game built with the constant need for community feedback and iteration as we add more content, it’s hard to overstate the value of that.
For our team of 35 employees (as of this interview), being able to make a big, AAA-quality game that can still be experimental and different puts us in a very cool spot in the industry. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to make, and Unreal Engine has been incredibly instrumental with helping to empower our team to get there.
Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.
Hayter: Our team has worked hard to ensure that our combat and level design work in tandem to create a compelling sense of momentum as you progress through the maps in our primary game mode: Team Objective. This game mode represents one of the best-selling points of Chivalry 2: incredible design that makes you feel like you’re in a real war.
In Team Objective maps, you’ll progress through multiple stages to reach a final awesome ending; push the battering ram to city gates, smash it down, capture the village, and then assault a final castle at the end. We wanted players to feel like they were enveloped in the dynamism of a battlefield, the buzz of chaos all around them, carried by the energy of their teams’ fight towards shared goals.
Our design departments worked closely together to achieve this feeling. And, of course, an absolute ton of internal and external playtesting was required to massage the feel of levels and combat to hit the right notes. Some massive levels, such as the new Dark Forest map, have been in development for years and have seen hundreds of complete re-iterations to nail down until they feel right.
Our team often tries to build Team Objective levels around iconic moments from the medieval era (either using historic or movie/TV examples). These concepts are then turned into primary objectives, or even sometimes just peripheral aspects of levels. We consider this a kind of contextual storytelling that grounds you as a player to the action; you’re not just scoring points, you’re taking part in a narrative that your team is working together to tell. Of course, the combat design also has to support this sense of momentum; we’ve built Chivalry 2 as a game where you can manage the chaos of war in a 64-player battlefield. While exciting duels and smaller exchanges of combat of course will play out, if you look at the map from above, you can see two huge waves of troops crashing into each other as either side fights to win the tug of war.
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?
Hayter: We’re definitely looking to the future and Unreal Engine 5 with wide eyes. We can’t wait to one day start working on new projects with it! The promise of “no more polygon budgets” is mindblowing. Imagine, our character department being able to simply put more time into making more characters instead of making various character LOD variants; that sounds pretty great! More time spent on creative and less on all the pipeline and technical issues is a dream for all artists and designers.
With Chivalry 2, we’ve overcome immense challenges in optimization to make a massive-scale war game with 64 players performant across hardware generations old and new. So the thought of a game engine doing even more of the heavy lifting in that regard, freeing our team up to just make bigger and more ambitious projects, is exciting.
But for our team, that’s many chapters away. Chivalry 2 is going to be our studio’s entire focus for a long time yet. We really consider this game as a landmark achievement for our studio, and think we’ve made not just a great medieval game but dare I say, a modern multiplayer classic.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Torn Banner Studios and Chivalry 2?
At the State of Unreal, we revealed how we’re laying the foundations for an open ecosystem and economy for all creators. Find out how everything Epic has been building for the past 30 years fits together.
At the State of Unreal, we revealed how we’re laying the foundations for an open ecosystem and economy for all creators. Find out how everything Epic has been building for the past 30 years fits together.