Image courtesy of 1C Entertainment

King’s Bounty II returns to its 30-year roots

Brian Crecente
Nikolay Baryshnikov is the CEO of 1C Entertainment. He has over 20 years of experience in the video game industry. He has been working in 1C Group since 1999, initially as the manager responsible for international marketing, then as Director of International Sales and Marketing, and, from 2009, was responsible for the games division. He has taken part in the creation, production, and promotion of games such as Men of War, King's Bounty, IL-2 Sturmovik, Rig’n’Roll, and many more.
The original King’s Bounty was a 1990 role-playing wonder. Designed by Jon Van Caneghem and published by New World Computing, that old computer game did much to shape many of the formative design elements that would go on to become foundational pillars of what it meant to be a turn-based strategy RPG. Van Caneghem would go on to use the framework of the King’s Bounty design to create the Heroes of Might and Magic series.

But it took nearly 20 years before another King’s Bounty game was released, and it wasn’t a direct sequel. Instead, King’s Bounty: The Legend was a spiritual sequel that gave birth to its own run of titles that hit from 2007 through to 2014.

It wasn’t until this year, though, that the original classic received its first official sequel. With King’s Bounty II, developers 1C Entertainment looked to not just continue that original piece of influential design, but expand the game’s approach to include a more modern perspective and open-world landscape to explore.

We spoke with 1C Entertainment CEO Nikolay Baryshnikov about the design decisions that drove this return to a 30-year-old property, what the studio hopes to accomplish, and the sort of inspirations it drew from when creating the sprawling tactical role-playing game.

1C Entertainment has a long history of making video games, with more than 100 under its belt. Which team worked on King’s Bounty II, and can you tell us about their background?

Nikolay Baryshnikov: The team responsible for King's Bounty II is a new one created specifically for this project. From just three people at the very beginning (me, the producer, and the main narrator of the project), the core team has grown to 80 people. They are all excellent specialists, and I am glad that we managed to assemble such a team that, over time, will be able to make more cool games.

It’s been more than 30 years since the original King’s Bounty was released to MS-DOS, Commodore, and Amiga. What made you decide to create a sequel?

Baryshnikov: I think the original King’s Bounty is a unique game and that created an entire genre. It’s the father of turn-based tactical games such as Heroes of Might and Magic. King’s Bounty is one of the pillars of the modern game industry, and without the first game, we would not have hundreds of fun games that excite us at the moment. We always wanted to make a sequel, and this game is our new step for the entire series.

Why create a direct sequel instead of following the long line of titles kicked off with the spiritual sequel King’s Bounty: The Legend that was released in 2008?

Baryshnikov: Good question. When we got together to discuss the future game, we decided that we wanted to create a more grown-up product that would better reflect the current requests of the players. Most importantly, we wanted to return to the original series’ roots, which its creators laid down in 1990. I really love King’s Bounty: The Legend and other big expansions for this game; I personally worked on the latest Dark Side stand-alone installment, for example. But the games made by Katauri Interactive were not direct sequels, as you rightly pointed out in the question. Not spiritual sequels, but a full reboot with the same title. They included humor and other things that were not inherent in the first game.

Let's remember the Heroes of Might and Magic series from the original King's Bounty creators. There was practically no humor. Therefore, we decided that it is necessary to return the ideas that its creators put into the series. We had been prototyping King's Bounty II for about a year until we came to the final version; some things became part of the game right from the beginning, while some things had to be removed in favor of balance.
Image courtesy of 1C Entertainment
What elements of lore did you pull from previous King’s Bounty games for this sequel?

Baryshnikov: King’s Bounty II has no direct story connections to previous games, but it has various references and easter eggs about the series and other games. If players carefully explore Nostria, they should find most of them without too many problems. For example, King Maximus from the original game—you can explore the story of his life and great wars in our game. As for the gameplay, there are many more connections. For instance, we have the same tactical turn-based battles, several heroes with their own story, backgrounds, unique skills, and more.

How would you define the sort of fantasy this game explores?

Baryshnikov: Classical high fantasy. King’s Bounty II is inspired by epic fantasy such as The Lord of The Rings or The NeverEnding Story and other products of this genre: bright and medieval in tone, but sophisticated, refined, and more serious than it was in the previous games. The Lord of The Rings and other examples are not afraid to combine an epic fantasy with darkness, shadows, special lighting, and beautiful, unique environments where anything can happen at any time. We originally considered making the game more fairy-tale-like, but it wouldn't have been a good fit for the main story we wanted to tell. Instead, we want to show gamers something bigger—different, more complex topics, but still within a 12-to-16-plus rating, so without all the gloom and gore.
Image courtesy of 1C Entertainment
What made you decide to shift from the side view and isometric views of the original and follow-up games to a third-person perspective for all but the combat?

Baryshnikov: Honestly, when we started prototyping King’s Bounty II, the first version was completely isometric with a side view, like King's Bounty: The Legend. Then we realized that we needed to try something new and bring fresh things into the classic formula. We use this perspective to allow players to grow a deeper connection to the main characters and to combine the two genres (classic third-person RPG with turn-based tactics). It helps us stand out from the crowd and appeal to a different audience but also stay true to the original DNA we had in our initial pitch.

How did you decide which characters the players could choose from at the beginning of the game?

Baryshnikov: We decided from the very beginning that the game should have several heroes, each with their own backstory and attitude to the world. At first, there were six of them, and then four, and in the end, only three: Aivar (warrior), Katharine (mage), and Elsa (paladin). This gave us more opportunities to show their nature. Each of them has their own starting skills and characteristics. For example, Aivar values power and order, Katharine values finesse and anarchy, and Elsa values order and finesse.

However, the player can choose any way of developing their character and is not forced to follow a predefined path. All four in-game Ideals do not depend on each other. For instance, sometimes Aivar may choose to leave the poor peasants he swore to protect to certain death. Just like in real life. Your chosen hero’s affinities apply some restrictions: undead creatures will suffer penalties under the command of the Order, and the hero even could find some in-game choices inappropriate and refuse them completely, disregarding the player’s will. Certain equipment may also require certain Affinities.
Image courtesy of 1C Entertainment
A lot has changed in game development and genres in the 30 or so years since the release of the original King’s Bounty, not least of which the release of Might and Magic—which was greatly influenced by the game. How did you decide how much of the original game’s concept to bring forward and what new gameplay elements to explore in this sequel?

Baryshnikov: Our biggest goal for King's Bounty II was to try to make a bigger AA-project within our country. It wasn't easy, but it had to be done. We wanted to evolve the series from a new perspective and share our view of turn-based games. On top of this, we have a dense narrative and challenging battles. It's all about having fun when you manage your personal army and find chickens for one citizen. We always want to keep the player engaged and feel that they are in the middle of an adult fairy tale within a complex world. We hope that King's Bounty II will keep players engaged. New ways to traverse the environments really help keep the whole experience fresh, but the core gameplay needs to be the main reason for this game.
Image courtesy of 1C Entertainment
What drove the decision to add an open-world element to the game?

Baryshnikov: It's simple; we needed to take the next step and show something new in the series. Small worlds are good, but as you mentioned before, a lot has changed in game development and genres in the 30 years since the release of the original King’s Bounty. Users want more freedom, and we try to give it to them.

At the same time, I would not say that our world is fully open, like in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or other similar games. King’s Bounty II is closer to worlds seen in Fable, Dragon Age: Origins, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and others. Big locations with a thousand wonders and secrets for players to discover, but focused a little more on the plot and battles.

How did Unreal Engine help you in delivering such an eclectic mix of vibrant environments?

Baryshnikov: From the very beginning, Unreal Engine has been highly accessible for all developers (amateurs and professionals), and in Russia, most developers use this engine to create their magnificent worlds. For us, there are a bunch of incredible features to call out. Sequencer really helped us bring a far more cinematic experience to King's Bounty II. Blueprints have been critical for us and have allowed our design team to quickly prototype level designs, weapon and armor variations, and various gameplay systems. We're really proud of what we've been able to do. It's great for rapid prototyping, and I think all developers would describe Unreal Engine as the "easiest to learn." The results are great, and the tools are excellent for workflow.

How did you go about creating 3D battlefields for the game, and what challenges did you have to overcome to achieve the look?

Baryshnikov: At the very beginning, we wanted to give more freedom to players while at the same time not forgetting the tactical depth. So, our team decided that all combat arenas should be in full 3D to have more tactical opportunities (line of sight, height damage bonuses, and such). It was necessary to make sure that all troops and other objects—for example, high walls that blocked the view of archers to defeat enemy soldiers—were normally displayed in the arena, and the camera moved in any direction.

There were challenges, but we successfully overcame them by spending a lot of time on tests. Still, nothing beats a live game for collecting information, and now that we’re released, we are poring over the incoming data to validate our tunings. This will be an ongoing process, which is the norm, and user wishes and data will now guide any tweaks we make. 
Image courtesy of 1C Entertainment
Why did you balance the game in a way that splits the game between exploration, tactical combat, and hero management? Early in development, the team mentioned that only about 30% of the game would be spent on combat.

Baryshnikov: First of all, these numbers are already outdated. I mentioned it for the first time two years ago at the time of the project's announcement, but then they began to change. There are many battles in our game now with a variety of arenas and units. Still, we made them quantitatively smaller than in the previous game for one simple reason—quality must be higher than quantity.

For example, at one point, you begin to understand that after 300 battles, your main strategy doesn’t change. You constantly take your favorite units, magic, skills, and rush into battle, and so on to infinity. Some people, of course, like to repeat actions from time to time. But we received a lot of feedback from fans that they were tired of the endless battles and wanted more epic stories and such. So, we weighed all the pros and cons and decided to make a game with more stories and enough battles.

What challenges did you face bringing King’s Bounty II to the Nintendo Switch?

Baryshnikov: In short: a lot of things. We love Nintendo Switch, but the hardware is different from the other platforms. It was super exciting to be able to include the Nintendo Switch as one of our launch platforms, but porting and optimizing it was a challenge because getting any game up and running on four platforms simultaneously isn’t a simple task. It was just a question of time more than a possibility, so our team put a lot of effort into running a game with such a big world on this handheld console, adjusting the textures and specific effects, among other things. The final game looks good and has the same content as the other platforms, and I hope users enjoy the experience.
Image courtesy of 1C Entertainment
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

Baryshnikov: If I say everything, is that okay? But the possibilities shared by the Unreal Engine 5 reveal, MetaHuman Creator, and live-action volume stage innovations were super exciting for us. We are curious to review it all and see if it fits with our next 1C Entertainment game. But for our team, that’s many chapters away. King’s Bounty II is going to be our studio’s entire focus for a long time yet.

Where can people learn more about 1C Entertainment and King’s Bounty II?

Baryshnikov: You can learn more about King’s Bounty II on the official website, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, VK, Instagram, and our official website.

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