As every stereotypical young girl knows, horses are fascinating. This isn’t lost on games developers either; many include an equine buddy for the protagonist to ride. Link had Epona in Ocarina of Time, Wander battled the colossi with the help of Agro and Altaïr can ride fruitlessly around the kingdoms of Assassin’s Creed for 15 hours on a variety of multicoloured steeds. Not so many titles, however, give horses to the hero’s friends and foes and throw them together in frantic third-person medieval skirmishes. I guess Bratz Ponyz might do in a pinch, but frankly I’m frightened by games which feature animals in heavy eyeliner.

Thankfully, those interested in serious horsey combat can play Mount & Blade instead. Released in boxed form in September 2008, M&B is perhaps best described as a medieval version of Elite – that venerable space trading game. As a lone fighter/noble/former pop idol, you’re dumped near a training ground and town (Lave Station) in the land of Calradia with little more than a weapon and a horse (your Cobra Mark III.) Progression from this point is largely up to you, but whether you undertake a career in trade, villainy or derring-do, it will inevitably feature a great deal of splendid third person, horse-to-horse combat.

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Of course, it’s not possible for players to do entirely as they please. No matter how much they may wish to, players cannot take an entire village hostage and threaten to kill the inhabitants off one by one until the local lord agrees to a gigantic ransom pay-off. But with the flexibility of the M&B engine, industrious modders are making these demented schemes a reality.

Horseplay
M&B‘s boxed release barely tells the full story of its development. Originally the project of husband and wife team Armagan and Ipek Yavuz, the title was funded through an inventive pay-for-beta system. Realizing they were unlikely to complete their vision of a medieval combat simulator without further investment, the pair offered the work-in-progress at a knock down price, with the promise that anybody purchasing at this early stage would have free access to any subsequent versions. As the game neared a final release, the price for joining the beta process gradually crept up, ensuring that those who had shown early faith were rewarded. This creative business model could easily have flopped, but the game’s open world and skill-based combat system, which placed timing and physics above pure stats, sufficiently tweaked the public’s interest. By the time they released version 0.894 in October 2007, the team had expanded their studio to six people. They got more help in 2008 through a deal with publisher Paradox Interactive.

Thanks to this beta release system, it’s still possible to play extremely early constructs of M&B. A comparison between version 0.202 (tagged as “Copyright 2001-2004”) and even a release from mid-2005 such as 0.632 highlights the amount of progress made. 0.202 still isn’t quite sure whether the game is going to be named Mount & Blade or Warrider, and features character models who struggle against puzzlingly powerful gravity, plus a horse which crawls across a sprawling, underpopulated map like a fat gerbil. The jump to 0.632 is dramatic. Although missing many locations and a few gameplay mechanics, the fundamentals are strong. It’s not too much of a surprise that this 2005 version coincided with increased online interest and exposure for the game.

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With sales ticking upward and a demo which was just long enough to get more people hooked, the team slowly but steadily progressed toward the final version. Each new release saw changes and additions, from the inclusion of quests and better artwork to a far larger world map and improved troop trees. Almost every update brought players a new toy to play with, new bugs to report and new signs that the game was nearing completion. In this way, players who were on board from the very beginning gained an incredible insight into the design process. Sometimes this meant coping with the removal of elements which no longer matched the developer’s intended “feel” for the game. Even a staple of the series, the main, neutral training town of Zendar, was not safe – it was replaced late in the process by a series of individual training fields across Calradia.

Mod Squad
As the game expanded in scope, so too did the options available to the fledgling M&B mod community. From around version 0.704 onward, Armagan Yavuz has released a concurrent module system and provided support and encouragement to modders through the M&B forums. This help, alongside guidance on the various Python script commands from veteran modders, means that there is a great deal of information out there for any prospective designers. As the code is (relatively) straightforward to manipulate and support is forthcoming, there are a huge number of mods across each different version of the game. At the time of writing, the Unofficial Mount & Blade File Repository lists over 500 mods.

Broadly speaking, these come in two types: those which modify the “native” gameplay to some degree and those which use the engine to recreate a certain period in history, a favorite fantasy novel or bizarre fever dream the author had at some point. The former list contains minor tweaks, like improved banners for horses, but also includes invaluable gameplay improvements such as the ability to increase the number of combatants in a given battle beyond the default amount. Some act as a direct response to criticisms of the game picked up by reviewers. The Calradia at War mod expands upon the main elements of the title, adding depth and polish to quests, a more strategic map and yet more troops. Others seek to improve the somewhat spartan visuals, and while these graphical enhancement mods aren’t perfect, they substantially update the look of the game and demonstrate just how flexible the mod system can be.

Those mods which overhaul the entire game are even more impressive in highlighting this flexibility. Settings from the Old West (complete with six-shooters) to Ancient Greece (Hoplites) have been visited, each with their own modified maps and troop types. Some aim rigorously for realism, attempting to implement conflicts like the Hundred Years War in near obsessive levels of detail, right down to sculpting armour and coats of arms to precise historical specifications. In rare cases, the mods have shown such ingenuity of design that they’ve been ahead of the main game itself. As well as being one of the best full conversions, the Lord of the Rings mod The Last Days allowed players to join multiple factions before this feature was included within the native game itself (which ultimately expanded to five warring kingdoms).

Inevitably, some of these projects will never be finished, or will remain incompatible with the latest version of M&B. Yet such is the volume on offer that plenty will make it to completion. Wait long enough and almost every imaginable setting or alteration should come to fruition, be it pirates or all-female armies in skimpy chainmail bikinis. Personally, I’m waiting for a terrific Wars of the Roses conversion, or a proper Song of Ice and Fire mod stuffed with political intrigue.

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Final Furlong
Many games are fortunate enough to have close-knit modding communities, but M&B feels different; perhaps due to the unique way that game and mods have developed side by side. The solidarity and output of the community testifies to what can be achieved when a developer engages directly with players in a way which is far harder for commercial releases with larger teams and orthodox design processes. Armagan made his feelings clear in an October interview with RockPaperShotgun: “[I’m most proud about] the mods and the mod community. Mount & Blade has arguably some of the best mods developed for a computer game.” This is quite a contrast to the more familiar model for PC releases, where a bug-ridden version is rushed out, followed by sporadic updates and poor communication from the developer. An oft-written phrase on support forums is that players have paid full price to be beta testers. M&B turned this weary comment on its head by involving people throughout the entire design process for a fair price, and it’s still reaping the rewards.

M&B‘s great strength, aside from being the best damn horse-to-horse combat simulator around, is an engine which tacitly passes the creative baton to others to do with as they please. Story expansion, inclusion of new characters or texture re-skins, a complete change of setting – almost anything is possible with enough skill. This, surely, is what the next wave of “sandbox” titles should be aiming for: games which not only seek to free players from the linear restrictions of core gameplay elements, but also let them entirely reshape the game world as they see fit.

Peter Parrish is a freelance writer. He would like to mount and blade you.

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