Solo dev makes sophisticated sim Manor Lords using Unreal Engine

Brian Crecente

Inspired by a swathe of classic strategy games like Stronghold: Crusader, Knights & Merchants, and Age of Empires, and fueled by a love of video game development going back to his primary school years, Greg Styczeń set off on what would become a nearly seven year journey to (mostly) single-handedly create a robust real-time strategy city builder.

Manor Lords is a medieval strategy game that dives deep into the intricacies of city building, sweeping tactical battles, and social hierarchy. Due out on April 26, the Hooded Horse published game managed to attract millions of wishlists and the attention of major gaming publications.

We sat down with developer Styczeń to discuss how RPG Maker 2000 got him into development and eventually led him both to Unreal Engine and his first “serious” game. He also talked about the impact receiving an Epic MegaGrant had on the game, and some of the important lessons he learned as a solo dev along the way.
How did you get into game development?

Greg Styczeń, Game Director:
My first adventure with game development was with RPG Maker 2000. I started making games with a friend in later years of primary school and it's been my hobby ever since. I went through a Flash phase too, then moved to Dark Basic and eventually Unreal Engine 4.

What inspired you to name your studio Slavic Magic?

Styczeń:
The inspiration was the meme you might have seen about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt labeled the result of "Vodka and Slavic Magic". I thought it really resonated with me as an indie dev from Poland with a small budget but huge passion :)

Is Manor Lords your first game?

Styczeń:
I would say it is my first serious project although I have finished small Flash games before. Nothing of this scope, though.
Courtesy of Slavic Magic
What made you decide to create Manor Lords?

Styczeń:
I've always wanted to make a RTS style game, I played a lot of Stronghold: Crusader, earlier BfME, Knights & Merchants, The Settlers, AoE and so on, so this looked like a very fun task.

As a solo developer, what made you decide to use Unreal Engine to create your game?

Styczeń:
I was having fun with a friend one day and we thought that we should maybe try making a VR game together (he bought a headset and there weren't many games around). We scrapped the idea but it made me learn UE4 since it seemed to have seamless HTC Vive compatibility. I've been working with UE ever since.

Why did you decide to develop this on your own, and how much do you rely on consultants to help the process along?

Styczeń:
It was really a hobby for me and I was doing it part time, working as a video freelancer as a day job, so there was no way to hire or anything like that. Only after I started up my Patreon and got the Epic MegaGrant did I start to outsource some of the work to professionals. Hiring is tough! It doesn't magically speed up development, but the production value increases immediately.

How did Hooded Horse become your publisher and how did that impact development?

Styczeń:
The developer of Falling Frontier, Todd D'Arcy, first introduced me to Tim, the CEO of Hooded Horse. I wasn't initially interested in publishing, but he kept helping me out with various problems and gave really great advice. Eventually I saw that it might actually be useful and actually increase sales. Looking back, it was truly a great decision. I'm not sure if everyone needs a publisher, but it did increase wishlists. One way to think about it is: Do you want to sit down and send 1,000 emails to all the press before launch, optimize tags on stores, and sit on calls with partners? For me, I learned to greatly appreciate that I can focus on actual development tasks instead. This might be tied to the popularity of the game. However, I could see an argument made that for a less popular game, having a publisher is even more important because then you need to use every possible tactic to get your game out there.

You’ve written that Manor Lords “prioritizes historical accuracy whenever possible.” But I know there have been occasions when your desire to include game mechanics are contrary to 14th Century European history. How do you decide when gameplay should supersede historical accuracy?

Styczeń:
Well, I don't think there is anything that is very "contrary" left in the game at this moment, but I always say that the game is "inspired by" history. Even historians advise that I should avoid using the term "historically accurate" because nothing truly is. I try to find a balance between gameplay and realism, and I don't want it to become just a simulation or something. It should be a fun game. Usually we can find a compromise. Sometimes it can be a little annoying, but often it is inspirational and inspires true creativity so I can add mechanics (or visuals) that no other game has.
Courtesy of Slavic Magic
What have you found to be most difficult in your endeavor to create Manor Lords, essentially on your own?

Styczeń:
I think development went faster when I was in a bubble, after publishing the announcement trailer and setting up social media I think it went into a spiral of infinite reworks. It makes the game better but sometimes it's difficult to know what feedback to listen to and what to ignore. People say "stick to your vision" but then if they don't like something, they know it and they will be vocal about it. I don't think my vision is always right either. Other than that I think it's just underestimated how much work is needed on a game but where you don't expect it. Like extracting actual playtime and making it fun versus doing the technical bits. Because you can probably make an RTS "project" in a week, throw in a camera and some units, but to make it fun to play for five, 20, 100 hours, that's a real challenge. The technical stuff of course can be difficult too, but for me it often comes from annoying unexpected places.

What impact did receiving an Epic MegaGrant have on Manor Lords’ development?

Styczeń:
After receiving the MegaGrant I was able to stop taking commissions from my day job and just focus on development full time. I also started hiring more freelance artists to help me with various tasks, whether it's cleaning mocap or adding illustrations to events. Little things that all add up and make the game look more like a finished product and less like a hobby project.

How has Unreal Engine helped you develop the game on your own?

Styczeń:
Now that I've sat with the engine for about seven years, I can't imagine writing my own engine. Not only is there so much to think about, but the world constantly changes, and we also worry about the driver compatibility of whatever new card comes out and the implementation of every type of AI upscaling tech, different stores, SDKs, etc. Honestly, I don't know how people do it!
Courtesy of Slavic Magic
What features of Unreal Engine have had the most impact on your process?

Styczeń:
The LOD generation system is something that is just there and works like a charm. Live Coding is truly awesome for debugging stuff like pathfinding. Audio cue editor is a brilliant tool for sound design. The Material Editor also is so capable it's insane. You can probably code a game within the Material Editor If you try. I love the "merge static meshes" feature, I use it constantly. I think the small quality of life things are more important than flashy features when you're actually trying to ship a product. One of the best tools in UE might be the profiling system. It's just so good to see the graphs of framerate with individual functions. The ability to inspect what takes up how many ms and surgically apply optimization. Amazing stuff. I think the features that are the most crucial for developers are the ones that don't get talked about much. Like, you can import Data Tables from a CSV without plugins or anything -- these kinds of features make or break games in my opinion! Having access to Megascans for free is really awesome. I had to invest in buying scans from Quixel early in development. Thanks, Epic!

You’re currently developing with Unreal Engine 4. Do you have thoughts on updating to Unreal Engine 5?

Styczeń:
Yes, but after doing research and speaking with other professionals, I know this will take time and should be approached thoughtfully. For now, stability and delivering the game on time has to be my focus.
Courtesy of Slavic Magic
As you approach the completion of the game, are there any things you would have done differently during development?

Styczeń:
I think I would try to "invent" less and lean more into what's already there in the engine. As a novice, my intuition was to write systems as I wanted them instead of adapting my preferences to how the engine works natively. Also, I would know better where to push and where to hold when adding levels of detail. I remember in the early days having fun doing grass bending under feet with distance fields, but since my units are crowd simulations I can't add as much animation fidelity as full proper skeletal animation Blueprints have. So that super cool detail actually might become a disadvantage as the players expect a consistent level of detail everywhere they look. Suddenly the bending grass is not that cool, and the animation looks stiffer.
Courtesy of Slavic Magic
What advice would you give solo developers starting out on Unreal Engine?

Styczeń:
Try not to fight the engine too much. Don't focus too much on the technicalities. Accept that some things might not be perfect and focus on finding the fun in your game instead. You wrote your custom component doing something super cool, but will it correctly output motion vectors when you update to the next version? Maybe you can use a component that already exists instead? Focus on scalability and consistency, if you make a AAA looking environment for a level, can you make 100 more of these or will you quit after 20?

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people learn more about Slavic Magic and Manor Lords?

Styczeń:
My pleasure! I'm always very straightforward, I hope I gave a balanced view. I don't think there is such a thing as a miracle engine, but I'm happy I picked Unreal. Time and time again, I receive help whenever I ask for it, and I'm not only talking about the MegaGrant, but just people to talk to, ask questions, and so on. For Manor Lords news, please consider following on Twitter and visiting the official website.Thank you!

You can wishlist Manor Lords now on the Epic Games Store.

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