Bellwright Launches Later This Month in Early Access – Here’s a Lengthy Q&A with the Devs

Donkey Crew, a small Polish indie studio that started as a Mount and Blade modding community before moving to Of Kings and Men and later Last Oasis, is now about to launch Bellwright on Steam Early Access.

This new project is an interesting hybrid of strategy, town-building, action, survival, and RPG elements with online cooperative support. The premise is that you, as the player, have been framed for the accidental death of the Prince years ago. After dodging a recent attempt on your life, you find a contract on the assassin’s body that raises many questions – was it just bad luck that you were framed? Or is there more to it? Determined to find the answers, you travel back to the very place you fled.

Eventually, players will uncover the truth of their family’s secret and become the titular Bellwright by leading a rebellion against the oppressive Sovereign of their homeland. They’ll be able to roam a map 25 square kilometers large and free the various villages from the Queen’s yoke.

With the game now slated to go live on Tuesday, April 23, Wccftech was invited to a press roundtable Q&A with Donkey Crew Project Lead Florian “chadz” Hofreither, who discussed topics ranging from gameplay mechanics, past mistakes (with Last Oasis), potential competitors, the duration of the early access, and more. You can read the full transcript below.

Is hunting a big part of Bellwright?

Yes, especially in Winter. While in Autumn you can actually harvest resources from the foliage and the plants, in Winter you have to resort to your stockpiles and to wildlife.

Will co-op simply make the game “easier” or will there be an increase in difficulty if more players join a world?

In terms of co-op making a game easier, it’s actually up to the players. As a player, you can choose what difficulty you would like to have. It’s really something that the player should decide for themselves, but there’s an option to increase the difficulty as well.

Regarding the release date, we actually planned to release the game early already, but after the stream event we found that there were some things that we really wanted to polish a bit further, so we decided to delay it a bit.

How has the development progressed since Gamescom 2023? Have you encountered any difficulties, or were you able to implement new features that were previously just wishful thinking?

Well, certainly, Winter is something that we added. We added much better behaviors. The behavior system had a big overhaul and a lot of bug fixes in general. Oh yeah, we have a new food system. That was one of the biggest criticisms from the players that we encountered, so we changed that completely. We made it more, let’s say, gamified, and it is now similar to other survival games in the genre. We have the companion system, which we just added recently that allows you to actually order them with contextual commands.

How does co-op work? Will you be providing servers for purchase through partners, or will players need to host their own games?

Bellwright is purely players hosting their own service. After our previous experience with multiplayer, we decided not to go into any of the hassles of hosting servers business. That is really up to the players how they want to host. We have no partnership or anything with any server providers.

How is the performance? Is the game running smoothly already? There were a few frame drops in the stream – but that could also be due to the stream itself.

The game is running smoothly, even though it does not here right now simply because we have a stream running and we have some issues in the background. If you have good hardware it can run smoothly at 60 fps and we still have a few days left to squeeze out something, but in general, yes, if you have a good PC, you can run the game at 60 fps. There’s also certain options to improve performance if you have a weaker PC.

At Gamescom last year, you mentioned that there are no limitations on building and one can build infinitely large. However, there’s a natural limitation because larger bases become harder to defend. The city is supposed to grow as the player progresses. Is that still the case?

Yes, that is still the case. As you build larger settlements, you become more and more attractive as a raid target. So there’s a big, let’s say, formula in the background that calculates your raid threat based on many different things, including how aggressive you’ve been and how many items you have. So it’s basically a little bit of an AI director trying to account for your challenges.

What sort of time investment are we looking at to get to this point in the game, and what does the player start with in terms of resources/NPCs at the beginning?

The sort of time investment we’re looking at to get here, I would say 40 to 50 is a good guess, but we’ve seen actually that a lot of players play very differently. We’ve seen players who play very slowly, we’ve seen players who actually like to just sit there and watch their NPCs do stuff, and we’ve seen players who try to play very fast.

So I guess 40 to 50 for this stage is an average. But you can play faster, you can play slower. As for what the player starts with, absolutely nothing. That was a very intentional choice. You start with nothing, you can build up from nothing.

You said the world will be quite large and the scale of your buildings is as well. Conan Exiles already tried that and had massive performance issues. How will you tackle that for Bellwright?

Regarding performance, we actually used a lot of tools from Unreal 5 that partially helped with performance problems. Unreal 5 really has made this kind of game possible much better. It’s really an amazing tool. Epic is not paying me in any way, but yeah, Unreal Engine 5 is quite amazing.

Which games are considered by you as main competitors in this genre?

Competitor is such a harsh word, but of course, we look at many games for inspiration. For me, one of the big inspirations was, surprisingly maybe, Subnautica. The UX and the experience in Subnautica was just great, and I kind of wanted to get a medieval feeling of that, obviously without the breathing and air stuff.

Of course, Medieval Dynasty clearly is an inspiration, and without Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord and the whole game series by TaleWorlds game series, this game would certainly not exist. Banished, certainly to some degree. RimWorld, and Going Medieval. Those are great games that have certainly inspired parts of this game. Those are the games we looked at for, let’s say, references.

I don’t think there’s a direct competitor, really. I don’t think there’s one game where we can say, this is our competitor, because any of those listed games have some parts of what we have, but not all of the parts have a good question.

Do you have an initial plan for additional content to be introduced to Bellwright?

One of the first things we want to add is walls. We actually wanted to add walls before early access, but we ran out of time, as always. So, this is one of the first features we want to deliver after the early access launch. We think it will really enhance the gameplay. With that, of course, comes very quickly after some kind of siege system, some kind of manning the walls system.

Which aspect of the game was most emphasized during development?

I would absolutely say that the on-the-ground interaction with the town was certainly one of our strongest focuses. We really wanted to get it right, so that it doesn’t feel like a bunch of production systems. We wanted to make sure that the game actually feels like you’re building up the town. That means making sure that the NPCs always have something to do and that the NPCs are also having a life of their own, and an intelligence of their own was certainly the most important thing for us.

Can we expect a threat from other sources than people? Animals, for example.

Animals are certainly a threat to some extent. There’s domestic animals, there’s hostile animals, and there’s neutral enemies like deer.

For now, Bellwright is a single player and co-op game. Will there be a full multiplayer mode in future updates?

We currently have no plans for a PvP mode. It is just not something we are currently interested in. We’ll see how the reaction is after our early access release. If there’s a lot of people who demand it, we may be persuaded, but right now, we don’t feel strongly about a PvP mode, to be honest.

How does conquering regions actually work as a mechanics?

You cannot just go into a village and start liberating it against their will. That is not how liberation is supposed to work. You are supposed to go into a village and build up the trust with certain NPCs that you talk to. Some NPCs have quests that let you fulfill them too. Gain up the trust and once you have reached a certain trust you can build what is called a bell tower. This is a symbol of rebellion that allows you to rally the village for rebellion. At that point a big battle starts to happen where you fight alongside villagers to defeat the enemy occupying forces. That is the current version of what we have for liberation, but we have a lot of plans for the future.

We’ll have to see how realistic those are, but liberation is something that we want to expand on a lot after Early Access.

How important will the narrative layer be for the perception of the whole game?

I would say the narrative layer is fairly important, but it’s really up to the players. When we’ve watched our test players, we’ve noticed some players really read a lot of what other players are saying.

It is not a narrative-driven game, I think that is fair to say. It is primarily a sandbox game and, secondarily, a narrative game. If you choose to ignore the narrative, then you can still play the game.

Are there any plans for a peaceful/sandbox mode like it’s custom for most city builders?

This is something that we’ve been asked a lot recently and we are looking into it. It’s not straightforward, so we don’t have concrete plans, but when I saw that there was a lot of feedback from players, I thought it would make sense for us to look into it. I would also like to look into an infinite play mode because right now, once you have defeated all the enemies, you have basically won the game.

I would like to add some kind of endless mode that allows you to keep building up stronger and stronger after early access.

Will there be formation options for armies to have battles be a bit more organized?

We do have some formation modes for armies and battles, but it’s not yet as detailed as, for example, Bannerlord. That’s certainly something we want to deliver afterward and there’s really no reason why we shouldn’t be able to. It’s just something that we didn’t have time for before early access.

Will there be larger sieges with siege equipment?

Yes, as I mentioned, sieges is absolutely something that we want to have. I would be very disappointed if you did not find the feature in the game at some point.

You can tell even from this presentation that we have paid a lot of attention to the map, which is handcrafted, to have certain interesting choke points and interesting terrain features to allow for more strategic combat interactions.

How long will Bellwright remain in Early Access?

I would say it really depends on how it goes. If it goes well, I would assume maybe three to four years is something I could see when I think about all the features I would like to add. But again, I don’t want to overpromise on too many things.

I think what’s really important from my point of view is the game is really enjoyable and good right now. We do not want to sell anything based on future promises. So, we want to say, look at the game how it is right now. We think it’s something really unique. And fun, and especially in co-op, it is a blast.

WCCFTECH – While your previous games had a lot of potential, it was never fully realized, and some fans of those games are worried that the same will apply here. What can you say to assuage such fears?

It is totally understandable. We are also disappointed, probably more than the players, with how Last Oasis went, but I think this is really a chance for us to actually fix both.

We are actually about to release a mod kit for Last Oasis, which is something that we hope will give players the ability to change the game themselves. And if Bellwright does well, we actually have bigger plans to go back to Last Oasis and fix it in various ways.

This is the state we’re in with Bellwright. I can understand everyone who says that we have not handled it well and I’m pretty sure we have not handled it perfectly. I will absolutely admit that. But I do think we’ve tried our best. We’ve made the best decisions based on the information that we had and we are about to see if it worked out or not because I think Bellwright is really quite unique. For any fan, if you’re disappointed and don’t want to look into Bellwright, I totally understand that.

I think we made a good game, and if you feel you do not trust us, then that’s just how it is, and we’re working hard to gain that trust back.

At Gamescom 2023 you mentioned there was a limit to the number of NPCs. Has the number changed?

Currently we have no limit for the number of NPCs, although it is probably somewhat limited by the CPU you’re using.

Do the difficulty settings of Bellwright include an Iron Man mode for NPCs?

We do not currently have a true Iron Man mode. It’s probably something coming after it exits early access.

WCCFTECH – Are you already using Nanite and Lumen?

Yes, we are using Lumen, but we are not using Nanite. The reason for that was, we looked into it and it was great at first, but we found that it was very problematic for older PCs and we wanted to make sure that the game ran fairly well on older PCs as well, so we actually decided not to use Nanite, although we might deliver that as an optional patch at some point in the future, because it is quite a good technology.

Are there horses and mounted combat already implemented or still planned for Bellwright?

It’s absolutely something that we keep getting asked every week. Even internally, we’re like, when do we find the time to make horses? We already had a prototype, but it wasn’t good enough, so we decided to kick it out again. But yes, horses will definitely come. Fast travel really is a kind of temporary precursor to horses. I mean, we’ll keep both even when we have horses.

A sandbox mode should have peaceful revolutions. Villages unionize and go on strike. What do you think?

We do not have peaceful revolutions right now.

WCCFTECH – When is controller support coming to Bellwright?

We do plan to have controller support either directly at early access or right after. We have a prototype of controller support. I have to check if it’s fully finished or not for the early access launch, but it should be in early access.

Do you support resolutions for ultra-wide screens, such as 3440×1440?

We actually support ultra-wide screens thanks to some of our developers who have such a monitor and who have been diligent about making sure that it is supported on wide screens.

Can you toggle off damage numbers? Also, is there support for NVIDIA DLSS/AMD FSR?

Oh, yes, DLSS support is in, and yes, you can toggle off the damage numbers in the options.

The tech tree was quite big – does it only affect NPCs or the player as well? What about RPG elements (classes, weapon/fighting styles, etc.)?

The tech tree is primarily for buildings and items that you can build. It is not about skills. Skills are actually separate. Each NPC learns its own skills individually, while the tech tree is more like the knowledge you or the rebellion as a whole has unlocked.

How many supported languages will be in Bellwright?

We have around 10 to 12 languages supported, but only written. We only have an English voiceover. Also, one thing I should maybe mention, we currently have voiceovers in our game that are AI-generated. That is only a temporary thing. We absolutely believe that the final game should have full voiceovers by professional voice actors. But we have found that it makes developing the story internally incredibly easy. We originally only wanted to use it internally, but then we decided to give players the option if they want to have the AI voices or not, they can always disable it.

But as I said, our intention with the voices and voiceovers is to have a voiceover by professional actors in the end. And for me that’s actually very important, um, to, how should I say, um, it is, it actually allows us to do something that would have not been possible.

Having support for voiceovers in an early access title that is constantly being developed is nearly impossible with classic voice actors simply because you do not know if they will be available again in the future, you need consistency between voice lines. For us, this is the perfect compromise, using those AI voices as a development tool and for the final release have professional voice actors.

WCCFTECH – What do you think about AI NPCs like the ones seen in Inworld, Convai demos, etc.? Could they have a place in a game like Bellwright?

That’s an interesting question. This is purely my only personal opinion, but I actually don’t give them a lot of future. As in, I believe that players want handcrafted experiences, and not necessarily NPCs that can say anything. Because if an NPC can say anything, then it kind of means they say nothing. Personally, I feel that AI will be a great tool for assisting developers in handcrafting content. However I do not currently believe that AI should be directly used as a tool for the player to interact with.

Does nighttime affect the combat capabilities of NPCs? For example, lower bow accuracy, etc.

Yes, nighttime does to some degree affect the combat in the night, but I do not currently know all the things. There’s certainly some visibility and movement modifiers, but which ones exactly, I would have to look up.

Did we just see the ability to make a fast travel point?

Oh, yes, you can build the fast travel points yourself. It’s actually part of the gameplay and the different fast travel points with different properties that are only allowed to be built in villages.

Anything else to say about Bellwright?

I have no idea how our game will do. Maybe it’s a very small niche in the game. Maybe it’s going to be big and players really like it. I have no idea. All I know is that we’ve worked hard for four years and put a lot of actual love into it. If you play the game, you should hopefully be able to tell that this game is actually a piece and labor of love. We’re around 25 people, and the team has been working a lot. Very hard, very smart. We feel we are punching above our weight. It feels like the game we have made is usually not made by a team of our size but a larger one, so we’re quite proud of it.

But what actually happens at release, we do not know. We’re excited, we are terrified, and we’ll see what’s going to happen.

Thank you for your time.

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