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Interview: Gellert Keresztes from Strategy Mill

Gellert Keresztes is the mastermind behind Strategy Mill and the Cold War game Terminal Conflict.

Being a child of the Cold War and a big fan of Cold War games and a Political Science educational background, it immediately drew me to the game which enabled me to get to know Gellert over the course of a few months. I asked Gellert to do the first in this series of interviews that are planned and he graciously accepted and over the course of a few emails and text files we got this great interview.

I like to say that Terminal Conflict rose from the ashes of Paradox Interactive’s canceled project East Vs. West and while that is a sensational headline we even go into what happened with the East Vs. West project and how it enabled Terminal Conflict.

“Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”Nikita Khrushchev


Tell us about yourself, your background, and what got you into this crazy game design path.

I have always found games captivating, and I made my first game design as a 7-year-old back in the 1980s. I recruited my co-developer, my four-year-old brother, to make a sci-fi game. Later we drew and painted planets and mixed chess pieces, toy soldiers, and cards to create a board game with the catchy title “Sun Cruisers”. In some way, I’ve always been captivated by systems, history, and art. What is game design but a combination of those wonderful elements into memorable experiences? 

How did Terminal Conflict come to be? I recall talking to you on Skype and it seems to have an extensive background, including early physical versions.

As a child of the Cold War, the film WarGames completely captivated me. For those that are not familiar with it, it’s the story of a young boy and how he connects into a world of nuclear arms and strategy by making ‘friends’ with an AI from NORAD. That year, I had only one wish on my Christmas list, so it is a concept I have had in the back of my mind for a long time. Decades later, the idea remained with me and I finally developed it into a design for a Cold War game in 2009. 

 

 

The realization of the design started in real terms in 2015 when I had finished a paperback copy of Terminal Conflict and sat down with Lennart Berg (founder and CEO of BL-Logic) in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was on a warm summer’s day and there we sat, indoors, in my mother’s kitchen and had such a blast playing the paper board game version of Terminal Conflict. We knew we had to make the game. I contacted my programmer friend Davide Benedetti, who had worked with us on projects with Paradox Interactive that same evening. Putting together an industry veteran team of extraordinary talent, it was the start of a development team that has since been the backbone of a wonderful strategy game development team. In January 2016 we started full production of the game, and all departments began making the nuts and bolts needed, graphics, audio, and code. 

Tell us about Strategy Mill and the team, how did you find them, and what is the general background of the team.

Strategy Mill is an innovative Swedish designer and developer of PC games founded in 2011. We love to make strategy-powered games. Initially working in a supporting role for partner studios, over the last seven years our team has operated as an independent video game developer, specializing in strategy games. 

Beyond Strategy Mill, the team comprises partner studios. Right at the start, I knew the team would require deep knowledge of the Cold War era. Joining up with BL-Logic (Denmark), the former leading developer of the notorious Arsenal of Democracy and the canceled East vs West Paradox Interactive productions, it became clear that we could make amazing things happen. We wasted no time putting a focus group together with extensive knowledge of the history. That discussion also led us to explore more historical research than we have ever done for any previous game. 

Researchers include William Bois d’Enghien (Belgium), Espen Almerud (Norway), Niklas Rimbach (USA), Kate Grant (USA), Maddison Jay Reddie-Clifford (Australia), and Frithjof Nikolai Wilborn (Norway).

Our focus was simple yet rewarding, as we wanted historical plausibility to govern all the storylines in the game.

This was also our guiding star when we teamed up with the Hearts of Iron 4 Road to 56 teams. They brought exceptional ideas that took the design I originally created for the intelligence system to new heights. Today I look on with pride to see the brilliant Eyes Only DLC that Leif Miller and William Bois d’Enghien created. 

In terms of visuals and graphics, together with our industry veteran partners, at Scribble Pad Studios (USA), Polywick Studios (Singapore), we worked strategically in three different time zones to deliver new experiences to our players. 

For animations, we also brought in the legendary Dan Hunter (Canada) to do the wonderful little animations for our terminals. Dan is a veteran VFX artist most known otherwise for his work in Bioshock 2 and Halo 4. 

On the sound and audio side, we teamed up with composer James Spence (Japan) and Simon Donovan (USA). You can experience some of James’ work also in the newly released game Suzerain and Simon’s work can be viewed in projects he has done with Marvel, among others.

 

Then there is our renowned QA team. No serious game development can do without one and ours is a collection of exceptional individuals with a very keen eye for details. Alfred Frendo-Cumbo, Andreas Lütchens, Ata Sergey Nowak, Kerem Akyüz, Karoly Geza Keresztes, Logan Calkins, Lemuel Sora and Niklas Rimbach. 

The PR team and Big Games Machine (United Kingdom) helped us put the release together. With our high-performing culture and flexible turnaround time, we work hard to provide long-term value for players and partners with a diverse and inclusive international team. They say it takes a village to make games, and we can certainly attest to the comradery and the sense of community that we have developed together over the years. 

Lastly, the fans and the community. Their feedback and support are invaluable for us and we are humbled and grateful to all of them. Thank you! You mean the world to us! 

What are the influential games that you can recall growing up? How has that changed over the years and now what are your influential games and even game developers?

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of strategy games. Playing Balance of Power, the 1990 edition, was exhilarating. Later, joined by my little brother, we moved on to play Sid Meier’s Civilization, Age of Empires, Command and Conquer Red Alert, and many more. A whole another world opened, and I had grand plans for expanding the games with new ideas and systems. This is also when I played the first game released by our Swedish colleagues at Paradox Development Studio, Europa Universalis. 

It might then be a surprise that the biggest influence on me, despite this, is much less complex games. Games that are simple but hard to master. One of these minor games is the prisoner’s dilemma by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher and interpreted by Albert Tucker. A simple game about cooperation and defection, and yet fundamental in how we build strategies and the inner aspects of our human understanding of the world. 

For me, games have always been almost magical, a window into an alternative universe that could tell us something about our own. The people who play games these days are shaping the world of tomorrow, and we as humans have deepened our understanding of trade negotiations, nuclear deterrence, and many other issues that confront humankind. We can forge great ideas outside of an office building and in a world that seeks creativity, games are the obvious answer.

On the same lines are there any games that heavily influenced Terminal Conflict?

I built the origins of Terminal Conflict on the prisoner’s dilemma with a simple premise. Two leaders, limited contact opportunities, we don’t have an in-game chat by design, and a shared nuclear dilemma. How do we as an all-powerful leader of a superpower face conflict, and will rational individuals end up cooperating to solve a common threat or challenge? Especially if it is in all our best interest to do so, or will we blindly go towards mutually assured destruction? This is at the heart of the wonderful challenge in Terminal Conflict.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

The story I think everyone wants to know about. What can you tell us about East Vs. West what happened there and how it later related to Terminal Conflict?

The Hearts of Iron: East vs West game was a labor of love for the team, headed by BL-Logic and Paradox Development Studio, and for the greater Hearts of Iron community. I know it has gone beyond myths and sometimes on the internet things can become the stuff of legend. Where I think the controversy is, and what I will add, is that I think it can be a difficult thing to understand why some games get published and others get canceled for those outside the industry. It is therefore important to understand that the way games become legendary is by a process of improvement and failure. To learn, game designers and studios must dare to innovate and try new things and that risks failure because failure is the path toward success. 

Though a short-term tragedy as East versus West was in the end never released, for BL-Logic and Paradox it meant that they took with them important elements that have since enriched the games you play today. For Strategy Mill, the canceling of the project also freed up the best Cold War grand strategy development team in the business and enabled Terminal Conflict to be. It is the evolution of game development.

The inspirational side of the story on breaking into the game industry. I recall you bringing on a 16-year-old QA tester. Tell me about him and how that came to be.

Absolutely! Niklas has been incredible. I can do even one better and link you to the full posting we did about it that on steam. 

https://steamcommunity.com/games/745970/announcements/detail/2933494053287222686

What can you tell us about what is next for Terminal Conflict and Strategy Mill?

The future is bright for Terminal Conflict where we continue to develop content; we are working with three primary goals for the game: 

  1. Updates are in the pipeline and we are working on implementing a teaching module for the game for schools, particularly to meet the demand for teaching the Cold War to students. We relish the contact and work hard on making the game even more accessible for new players, including a focus on lowering the level of entry.
  2. We are moving some development to the Steam forums to make accessibility for modders easier. 
  3. We hold weekly multiplayer challenges where we are on Discord and Twitch, play and discuss the game. Challenge the developers for multiplayer games on our live stream each Terminal Thursday at 18:00–22:00 CEST. Put on your best Cold War suit or come to show off your modding creation or give us feedback if you had an idea for a game element that you would like to see in the future.

Strategy Mill as a company is forging forward and I am opening a new studio this year in Oslo, Norway. Apart from the development and support of Terminal Conflict, we have three new game projects under revision, so keep a lookout as we are expanding our portfolio of games.

Post Mortem time: what lessons have been learned from the release of Terminal Conflict?

The fundamental lesson for us has been the development of how players perceive tutorials. We wanted to know more about this often overlooked aspect of strategy games. Armed with a plan, we set up a focus group to help us gather data.

What we discovered was that 30% of players in that group never played a single tutorial. When asked, we found that out of principle they wanted to go on to the main game and not “waste” their time.

Another 35% played the initially created linear point and click tutorials but clicked through these with little reflection. When they took on the main game, most had not picked up the crucial knowledge going through that experience. That means 65% of all players went into the game without knowing much about the game. We knew we had to find an alternative way of doing tutorials for grand strategy games.

Setting our goal on creating something much more dynamic, we created the grand campaign – The Big Picture. It is a fully dynamic campaign, where you are playing the main game right from the start. We simply enhanced it with a mechanism that helps you unlock mechanics as not to overwhelm you from the start.

Discovering each core game element and concept, this provides small guidance for you through a pop-up in the in-game encyclopedia. Any subsequent time you encounter that concept, it will not bother you with further details during your campaign, but you can access that information through the MIRVIN button in-game.

Another major development is that we made the AI fully dynamic. This means that even if you play through the startup phase and take the same actions, the AI will make different choices and strategies. It ensures that no two games are essentially the same. The AI looks to a much higher degree in Terminal Conflict for opportunities to turn the table and to keep the initiative when possible. The offense is after all the best defense. It also uses Intelligence to a much higher degree to get a better situational awareness.

Focusing on the friendly loss per unit of target destruction, we aim to make each AI decision taken more efficient. Not efficient in the sense of killing more, but in weakening the adversary by any means. We are also developing these concepts further and adding more content that will be available for free as part of the grand campaign – The Big Picture. Expect more releases this summer.

 

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