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George Ziets on RPG Design and the State of Digimancy at GameBanshee

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George Ziets on RPG Design and the State of Digimancy at GameBanshee

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Sat 16 July 2022, 23:33:24

Tags: Digimancy Entertainment; George Ziets; Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

As you probably know, the esteemed George Ziets left inXile back in late 2019 in order to found his own RPG studio called Digimancy Entertainment, alongside fellow inXile veterans Kevin Saunders and Steve Dobos. Just what Digimancy have been doing since then remains a mystery, but we do know that a project they were working on (rumored to be published by Paradox Interactive) was cancelled in late 2021. The studio survived however and they continue to work on their own internal RPG project, reinforced by a cadre of former Disco Elysium writers. Today GameBanshee published an extensive interview with George. While there are no major reveals here, he does offer a few hints about the nature of the project, in addition to his thoughts about various aspects of narrative design, the challenges of running a remote work-based studio, and other relevant topics. Here's an excerpt:

GB: Now, moving on to your current projects, Digimancy Entertainment opened its doors back in 2019 as an RPG-focused studio. With your background, that last part is in no way surprising. But still, could you tell us what draws you towards role-playing games in particular?

GZ: I’ve always been most interested in games as a narrative and storytelling medium. Even when I was playing tabletop as a teenager, the stories and characters were my focus as a GM. I loved the back-and-forth, collaborative storytelling between GM and players, and CRPGs are one of the best ways to achieve that feeling in a video game format.

RPGs also have the capability of immersing players in a world - all elements of the game working together to transport players into another reality. Most RPGs don’t achieve that, but a few come close, and that’s the experience I’m striving for.

GB: These days it feels like a lot of games feature at least some RPG elements. How deep and complex do you think they have to be before a game can be considered an RPG?

GZ: For me personally, player choice is critical in RPGs. The more the player can decide how to develop and customize their character / party, and the more their choices affect both narrative and gameplay, the more RPG-ish a game becomes.

As an example - an RPG needs to have some form of player-controlled improvement (“leveling up”) and customization over the course of the game. It’s not enough for the player-character to just acquire a new weapon or capability at various points– they need to be able to choose *how* to improve their character. That could happen in a very simplistic way – e.g., the player could just be given a choice to improve one of three skills at every level-up. That isn’t very interesting or RPG-ish, but if the game also had a highly reactive branching storyline and a very open-ended structure that provided strong consequences to the ways in which the player pursues their goals, I might still classify the game as an RPG.

On the other hand, if a game has a highly sophisticated and versatile system of level-up and character customization with tons of skills, feats, abilities, weapons, etc., in addition to a branching story and open-ended structure, that game is very clearly an RPG to me.

Beyond that, my definition of an RPG is broad. I don’t think RPGs need any specific game system or setting. An RPG doesn’t even need combat if it has other systems to replace it, but it’s critical that those systems be at least as interesting and fun. As a genre, I think the subject matter of RPGs is going to broaden considerably in coming years – combat-driven RPGs will remain with us, but they’ll be joined by RPGs that rely on other fun mechanics too.

GB: You personally worked on the official spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment - Torment: Tides of Numenera - and an unofficial one - Mask of the Betrayer. And now, you're employing some of the people behind Disco Elysium, another game that was widely compared to Black Isle Studios' masterpiece. Any chance that whatever you still have cooking will continue this trend of heady narrative-driven RPGs?

GZ: Yes! That’s our goal, especially for our internally-driven projects.

Our current internal project is very much part of that tradition, and it takes place in our own unique setting. Steve and I created a prototype back in 2019, and development was delayed by our other (now cancelled) project, but we’re back to working on it with a small team now, including some former Disco folks.

GB: Your studio's mission mentions exploring "the intersection between RPGs and other genres." Which other genres would that be, and what makes them interesting to you?

GZ: The genre I personally find most interesting in this context is strategy. I love strategy games like Total War, Crusader Kings, and King of Dragon Pass, the latter of which is an excellent example of how strong narrative elements can be integrated into a strategy game.

This gets back to what I mentioned earlier about choosing a narrative experience you want to portray in your game and then designing mechanics around it. Sometimes strategy elements might be the best way to do this. As an example - imagine a game where the player takes the role of an agent provocateur in a 19th or early 20th century world, sent to infiltrate and stir up trouble in an enemy city. Such a game might need a combination of some traditional RPG interactions with strategy elements like directing the activities of workers during labor strikes and assigning your minions to tasks like fomenting unrest in poor districts, organizing rallies and riots, and infiltrating government offices.

GB: Anything else you can tell us about your ongoing projects?

GZ: Hmm… only that our internal project is inspired by a combination of real-world history, an ancient philosophical tradition, and one of my all-time favorite fantasy settings (among other things).​

I'll let you decide if that second-to-last answer is a hint or a red herring.

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