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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2015 - The Dwarves, Daniel Vavra, inXile, Sword Coast Legends and HoMM 7
Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 1 September 2015, 20:27:25Tags: Dan Vávra; Gamescom 2015; Heroes of Might and Magic 7; InXile Entertainment; KING Art Games; Kingdom Come: Deliverance; Limbic Entertainment; Might & Magic X; n-Space; Sword Coast Legends; The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep; The Dwarves; Thomas Beekers; Torment: Tides of Numenera; Ubisoft; Warhorse Studios; Wasteland 2
[Report by Bubbles and JarlFrank]
You can find Part One of our Gamescom 2015 report, covering The Technomancer, The White March and Kingdom Come (part 1), here.
In honour of the grand opening of the Kickstarter campaign for The Dwarves, I'm going to perform a modest feat of time travelling and present you with this exclusive interview from the final day of Gamescom. The Dwarves is being developed by the Bremen-based developer King Art, who had previously worked on adventure and strategy games; this was their first foray into the RPG genre. I was puzzled by the fact that the studio had turned so swiftly from doing a successful Kickstarted adventure game (Book of Unwritten Tales 2) to working on a licensed RPG, and I was hoping to get some answers. Thankfully, my interview partner was not a PR person or one of the lead developers, but an unnamed technical artist: the original presentation team had been overwhelmed with all the press attention and had bailed halfway through Gamescom, leaving him to conduct the interviews in their stead. He turned out to be one of the most natural and earnest seeming people I met at the convention, and I was very happy to get the opportunity to ask him some questions.
King Art: Do you know The Dwarves?
Bubbles: No, I know nothing about them.
KA: King Art?
Bubbles: Yup, I know all three BoUTs [Book of Unwritten Tales games].
KA: We also did Battle Worlds: Kronos, a turn based strategy. [He produces a humorously oversized paperback book.] Markus Heitz has had a real bestseller with that. We now want to adapt the first books. Who are you?
Bubbles: I'm writing for the RPGcodex.
KA: Ahh, ok.
Bubbles: Our community hasn't exactly taken a positive view of The Dwarves, but they do seem to talk a lot about the game anyway. And that's why I'm here.
Well, that's interesting. So you already knew that this was an RPG game...
KA: ...and now I need to convince you so you can convince the community. Tough, tough! Well, let's see then; I'll give it my best shot. So we have 3 layers to the gameplay; the highest, most abstract layer is a world map, which gives you an overview of Girdlegard [in German: "Das Geborgene Land"], which is the setting of The Dwarves. And it will perhaps play a bit like The Banner Saga, if you've played that.
Bubbles: [nods eagerly]
KA: Exactly, perhaps you'll even have resources to work with, not like Heroes of Might and Magic where you'll have to build something, but simply to maintain your troops. And on that world map, you'll have 200-300 points to travel between, so rather a lot, but they're not all equally deeply developed. Sometimes you may just read a text window saying: "nothing happens." And sometimes you'll come to an interesting location, where you might want to do something more. And those are the other two layers; either you go there in exploration mode, which will play roughly like in one of our adventures: you'll have points of interest you can investigate, multiple choice dialogues, and thus learn something about the story, the world, the characters. This will help you learn how to drive back the orc army that has overrun Girdlegard, which you'll have to do in the combat part. Often you end up playing a game that's mechanically interesting, but doesn't give you a lick of motivation to care about the story and characters. And we, now, want to supply the characters with a face and a personality to give the story meaning.
Here's an example, a little like in The Banner Saga as well: marauding orc troops are closing in on that villiage; do I go towards them to help out? That forces me into combat. Or you may say: "nah, I have other plans," and then you may return to that area later and find ruins, bodies, and a few survivors who may curse your name.
Bubbles: So you'll present a lot of the game through text?
KA: Yeah, you'll see more examples of that later. Since we're also an adventure developer, we really find this pretty cool, and we know how to deal with a lot of text. If you only care about the RPG, you may go through this much faster than an adventure gamer who cares about exploring the locations and clicks on everything. Content wise, this is a 50-50 split [between text-based "exploration" and combat], but we want to let players adjust that relation according to their preferences. Exploration players can just try to get through the combat ASAP and focus on the stuff that interests them more; for combat players we plan on offering a few interesting options for replaying battles.
[At this point, he loads into a combat scene; this is the first in-game footage I see.]
Now to the combat part. First of all, we've only been developing this game for 4-5 months, and we'll work on it for at least another year. So none of what you see here is final quality. But you can already see a few things that are important to us. For instance, here you see the asymmetrical aspect of the game: there are only a few heroes, and they are already surrounded by orcs. And that's basically what makes the orcs interesting and dangerous: their huge numbers. You can't see this here [every orc in the footage looks the same], but the final build will have many different varieties of orcs, and they won't just stand in line waiting to engage the player either. We still have a lot of work to do on that front. This isn't a technical problem for us; we just haven't had the time yet. I'm mostly a combat designer by the way.
Another cool thing is that this is all physics based. I do this one physical attack [an AoE blast attack], and can push all these orcs off the bridge; thus, using just a few action points has yielded a huge effect for me. And these are situations and possibilities you can learn from; you may push an orc off a cliff by accident, and then start doing it on purpose.
Here's a tanky hero with a shield; he doesn't do a lot of damage, but when he's surrounded, he can deal with it pretty well. The others wouldn't last very long at all in normal combat; the demo is tuned to a very easy mode. Here is another guy; he's very mobile and can jump out of dangerous situations. And this guy has a big weapon: he swings it slowly, but when it hits, it hurts [the hero makes a big AoE attack]. And now--- oh. [two of the heroes have been pushed down the bridge by the attack and are gone] Wait a sec, let me start the demo again. Well, this sort of thing is still happening in this build, but maybe we'll keep it around for the final version. It's fun, and it's physically correct.
Bubbles: Perhaps for the highest difficulty?
KA: Mhm, right; anyway, I wanted to show you this guy, the Berserker, a super fast runner. He just requires enough space to run around. He can run around an orc group, attack from the back, launch whirlwind attacks, but he can't do a lot of damage. But here's the twist: every kill gives him an action point. So he can chain a lot of special attacks together really quickly and finish a combo very easily. [He demonstrates how the heavy weapons guy pushes a horde of enemies together and the Berserker finishes it off with an AoE.] We're actively on the lookout for these kinds of opportunities, and we want to have lots of them in the game.
Now, we have this animation here: [he shows off an explosion effect]. I just wanted to test a damage effect and a guy [on the dev team] gave me a visual effect for it. And immediately our team came up with further ideas: maybe we can make catapults throwing fireballs into your group, maybe they'll do friendly fire to the orcs, and you can exploit that. One guy says. "Exploding barrels, like in FPS games! Let's do that stuff here!" The next one says: "we're Gonna have a mage character at some point, give him that for a fireball spell!" So you can imagine our creative process. We don't really have a 200 page design doc, but we have the book from Markus Heitz as our inspiration, and do iterative work on the rest, a bit like on a months-long game jam. At some point, of course, this will end, we'll settle on features, do content integration and polishing, and then release in the middle of next year.
Our Kickstarter is happening in 2-3 weeks [on the 1st of September, it turns out]. We'll see what people say about the game; ideally the community will embrace everything we have here. Well, this was combat. Do you have any questions on that?
Bubbles: Which version of Unity is this?
KA: The fifth. We first started with Unity 3 [on their earlier games], and if you'd asked me then, I'd have complained to no end. BoUT 2 was a constant struggle with custom solutions, but now with Unity 5 we go much more with the flow, we work with the engine as it was intended to be used, and we look for solutions on the asset store as well. That's where the explosion effect came from.
If you're from the RPG faction, I'm sure you'll be interested in this [very sweet and considerate guy, this one]: we don't roll dice when you make an attack, it's all physics based. If I swing my hammer, we check what the head bone – eh, the bone in my skeleton where the hammer head is – is doing, it's moving through the scene, and there you see shockwaves which level off based on the calculations of the simulation [technical bullocks imho] – and then something happens! Bodies move into bodies, into some sort of obstacles, and I calculate the force of these movements. If they're forceful enough, you'll be damaged, and if the forces are deadly, things fall over and die, and sometimes they just fall over and stand up again. Of course this is a model, not a realistic simulation, but it helps us avoid the typical problems you get when you're only faking this kind of stuff; pathfinding issues, models stuck in the scenery, that sort of thing.
Bubbles: So what about character development?
KA: Uhm, character development.... uhm... okay, so there's basically no loot. This is a little like in The Banner Saga. There's probably some really important weapons that can completely alter your skill loadout, and probably you'll get a trinket, like an evil skull totem that you can hang around your neck, and that might give you the action point gain per kill [the Berserker's special ability] as well. So you'll have completely new options for combining things. This idea of combining stuff, I think that's the core mechanic for us; we want to offer a huge amount of potential there for players who really want to dig into the game's combat mechanics. As you travel through the game, eventually you'll get 10 or 12 heroes in your group. And depending on which of those heroes you choose for a battle, you get a completely different group dynamic already – think of DotA. And this is an even more pronounced example of that, because we're actively searching for more and more of those combos and synergies.
You can also try to complete optional missions, and different skills might be needed there; for example, you may go into an easy scenario where there's a merchant NPC that must be reached in x minutes so they can be defended. If you defend them, they'll give you... some sort of thing that helps you [they clearly haven't tackled that part at all yet]. But if you attempt to accomplish that optional objective, you certainly won't be able to pull it off on your first try. So you'll play as far as you can, and then you realize: "Damn, I should have taken that guy with me, 'cause he has that cool skill, and with that skill I could have barricaded that choke point, kept half the orcs at bay, gone around behind their backs, run to the merchant, and then I'd be home free!" And then you try that again, restart the arena, and see if it works. And there we see a lot of potential for replayability for an audience of ambitious tactical players.
Bubbles: But you do have a full save system, not like in The Banner Saga?
KA: We do have a full save system, yes. But you can't change your character in the middle of a map; if you don't like your group, you have to restart. But if you don't like difficult combat, you'll be able to drop the difficulty; then it'll only take a little common sense to beat every map.
Bubbles: So what will I get as a reward after a battle? Will I have... gold? [He understands "dagger" here instead of "gold", because we're speaking German in a noisy room. That's what we in the industry call a dynamic interview.]
KA: Maybe. But you won't have a dagger in your inventory. You'll be drawing it in a cutscene, perhaps. Perhaps you'll take a dagger from an orc's inventory or something in this cutscene, and then the narrator will tell you the story of the sword. A bit like thi--- I'm not a gameplay designer at all, but that's what we talk about during brainstorming sessions.
Bubbles: Right, so generally, after a battle, what are the rewards? Gold?
KA: Ok... so.... I...I... don't want to get too much into detail here; even if we talked about certain things internally already, because, as soon as it's out there in the press [I assume he means the Codex], we can't change it anymore. So I want to show what we already have instead of speculation.
Okay, so let's take a closer look at the story part. Here's a cutscene. [Cutscene: a close-up shot of a dwarven blacksmith doing his thing with an anvil.] So this is Tungdil, our main character, and now you know that he's a smith, and he also has a piercing. And this viewpoint kinda makes him seem more human, as opposed to just seeing him in an isometric top-down view for the entire game. This is a lot of work: we had to make an entirely new character model with many more polygons than normal for this shot, but we think it'll be worth it. In exchange, we make cuts elsewhere. For example, many NPCs just get a portrait [and no special close-up model for cutscenes], but we think the art for these portraits is pretty good as well. Our artist has studied classical painting and somehow he manages to produce something good.
And there's some classic dialogue, with a bit of multiple choice; you do have some influence over the events, but only as far as our recorded voice samples cover it. Something that we're really proud of is that we don't just record dialogues, but that we also have a voiced narrator in dialogues.
Bubbles: Ah, like in Blackguards 2.
KA: Exactly! And Pillars of Eternity had these kinds of narrative texts as well, but not voiced! And this way it's a bit reminiscent of an audio book, it provides a calming influence on the flow of the game. If a game is too stressful, you might just quit after half an hour, but here, we have a rhythm: 15 minutes of challenge and then 15 minutes of getting to know people.
The English version has turned out really great; there, we have a female speaker [in the German version, it's an old, wizened dude], and that woman gives a great contrast to all the masculine dwarves. We don't do all that many cutscenes, but we have a lot of of voiced and narrated dialogues [in the top down view]. And you can look around and click on optional things, like this little horse, which our main character Tungdil has prepared as a gift for a child; imagine taking that horse, finding the girl later and giving her that horse in a charming little scene. A little like in an adventure game. Now imagine if 50 orcs barge in here; you'll have a new motivation to look after the girl and stand in front of her. If you invest yourself in the characters, you'll get more out of the game.
We follow the story of the novels; your hero starts as a nobody and becomes a real hero. This progression also works pretty well for video games, doesn't it? So we don't have to rely on silly stuff like amnesia or whatever plot device you need to justify starting a character over when you make a sequel. Markus Heitz has really written a story that's very well suited to making an RPG, full of twists. We're just adapting the first book, but there are four more. That lets us draw on a lot of pre-existing world building, and we'll also be able to satisfy the thousands of fans of the series. We're really happy with this stuff. Markus Heitz is a really cool, hands-off guy who doesn't object when we change smaller things.
[We change to the outdoor scene pictured above.] Our artists have put a lot of time into these locations; this stuff isn't all asset store. Much of what you're seeing here is hand made, but, for example, those trees are all Speedtree. They look great, they wave prettily in the wind, so why try to do better within two weeks [before the Kickstarter]?
We'll also put in an aggro system, so you can play aggro ping-pong a bit, kite enemies around maybe; none of this is set in stone, but this is what we're considering.
Bubbles: What kind of vision do you have for controlling your party? Are you supposed to keep an eye on all four characters at once in the middle of battle?
KA: Exactly. Basically you have to constantly keep an eye on all of them. We don't have massive health pools here; if you're surrounded by six orcs, you're really in trouble. You'll be dead within 10 seconds. But you do have those 10 seconds to notice it and regenerate your health; we hope that'll be enough time. But although this is designed for real time, we could still implment a pause & play system. We're currently also playing around with a bullet time mode, Max Payne style, where you have a third resource [next to action points and health], call it "focus" or "concentration" or "morale", and I can spend that to slow things down to 30% speed. Hearing that "wheoeoeoo" sound when it happens, that's pretty cool, pretty epic. But of course it also offers players a chance to relax a bit, reposition the characters, get an overview of the scenery again.
Bubbles: Will players have to learn where to position their characters, so that their abilities overlap each other?
KA: Yes, right. This guy for instance has a sort of shout. This shout has a certain range – we'll give it a better visual to make that absolutely clear – and you'll have to make sure that you don't just waste that shout; your comrades must be within range. With my action points, I have to make sure that they don't cap out, because then I'm wasting any further points I might gain, but I also have to maximize the impact of the action points I spend.
Bubbles: You can see those blue numbers on the skillbar – are those the action point costs?
KA: Yeah, but those are just improvised stuff, just so we can talk about them. I mean, just in these presentations, somebody suggested "can't you arrange these [four available] skills in the shape of a rhombus, like on a gamepad?" And I went "hmmm, yeah, we could have thought of that one ourselves. Let's write that down!"
Bubbles: If you do that, you'd better have different UIs!
KA: Exactly. Of course we'll accommodate the typical PC fan, who typically hates the gamepad-
Bubbles: Yeah, exactly.
KA: -and we'll give him a good mouse+keyboard interface, and we will not take the easiest and cheapest way to implement that. So for instance, a mouse user won't want to control a character with WASD; he'll want to use click-to-move, and we'll implement that.
Bubbles: And the skillbar should probably not be in a corner either, for people who want to click on the skills to use them; you know, some people actually do that.
KA: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, basically, like Heroes of the Storm or DotA, you know those?
Bubbles: [stoic silence]
KA: Those are games with a similar control scheme, four abilities, mouse and keyboard – imagine our UI working something like that. That's all doable for us. I can show you something else now; it's still unfinished, we've been working on this for four months now and are planning to release it next summer.
Bubbles: Oh right, you know, some developers offer stretch goals for their games, and when they hit all the goals they'll say, "well, we're gonna need an extra year of dev time to implement all this stuff". Can you guarantee that-
KA: No, we're not giving a guarantee. If our Kickstarter really goes through the roof, and we have to think about putting in additional stretch goals, then we won't hire more people to get this done by summer. We'll stay with the proven team and work on the game for longer. That's the logical move. We're aiming for Q2 2016, and if there's a bit of a delay, that's not exactly unusual in our industry, is it? Every Euro we make goes into our game. That's how we did it with BoUT2 as well.
Bubbles: Doesn't this game cost more than an adventure?
KA: Uhhhhhmmmmm.... [long silence] ...not much more. ...no, really, especially BoUT2 was a really expensive adventure. Because it's really long. And we will create content here through the combat; and combat replays don't cost anything.
Bubbles: But BoUT2 was profitable for you, right?
KA: Well, I'm not fully familiar with the numbers right now, but, generally, ...generally we don't approach a project in the way that we say "we'll invest a lot of borrowed money into our game, and if we can't make that back, we go bust." So instead we try to do it with Kickstarter, and with our own money, money that we really have, and with support from publishers, like EuroVideo in this case, so that we don't completely rely on sales numbers. Well, it... the Kickstarter [for BoUT2] went really well, and it sold pretty well for an adventure, but adventures are really a niche, and an expensive game like BoUT2 is hard to do there.
Bubbles: Of course. I recall Broken Age, which really struggled to make back their seven or eight million dollars of development money.
KA: With Tim Schafer you have the feeling that they don't operate at peak efficiency just yet. Of course we're not optimally efficient either, but we try to find solutions that make some sort of sense. Like that focus on text, with writing and voice, because that's cheap. And you're more likely to see something drawn or sketched than a 3D cinematic. That's something where we say "hey, cool, this way we can save costs without anybody saying 'what a bunch of crap!'"
Bubbles: Are you planning on doing Critter Chronicles 2 at some point? [I apologize for that question; by this point I was deep in the throes of BoUT-mania]
KA: For BoUT2? Well, the problem is that Nordic wants to wait and see how things look at the back end. On the one hand, that means waiting for future sales numbers for the PC version. But the game is only going to release for consoles in the near future. It'll also come out on the i-devices, all the ports are basically done, but what we don't know is: will they be worth the effort we put into them?
[At this most interesting moment, we are rudely interrupted by booth staff who want to shove in the next visitor.] I hope I could alleviate your fears a bit!
Bubbles: Of course, with good and complete answers! I'm glad that you weren't a PR guy.
KA: Yeah, I can't do politician speak.
And with these words, we bade each other a fond farewell. I'm not quite sure how to feel about a story-focussed action RPG with narrative point-and-click sequences that cites The Banner Saga, Pillars of Eternity, and DotA as inspirations, but I was certainly entertained and mildly intrigued by what I heard.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. The time is Wednesday afternoon, and the place is the Warhorse booth. JarlFrank is about to meet a man who will change his life forever.
When I entered, Vávra was talking to some guys in Czech. I waited for a minute before I introduced myself as "Frank, the guy from the Codex", and Vávra responded with a grin: "Ah, yeah, you have an appointment. You're the guys who hate everything, right?"
Right. Vávra knew who I was, and he was pretty chill about it, and it stayed like that for the duration of the interview. And, frankly, his attitude was rather Codexian. He participated in Codex discussions about his game and he knows what our tastes are, but he never tried to shape his answers to fit our tastes. He has his own vision of what he wants the game to be, and he never tried to use any PR-speak. He was just plain honest with me, and that's something we see too little in developers. Now, that doesn't mean all his answers were the absolute truth and everything he promised will be in the game just the way he promised it. He just had an attitude of "This is the game I make, and maybe you guys don't like some of my decisions, but then that just means it's not your type of game" rather than trying to play the "EVERYONE will like it, promise!" angle.
Before the interview began, he bribed me with a beer, telling me to go to the fridge and get one. I took a Sigismund, a strong India Pale Ale with a fruity aroma and slightly bitter aftertaste. It was great. I can really recommend that beer. My opinion on the game will in no way be influenced by the quality of the beer Dan bribed me with. The label, he said, was of his own design – he had always wanted to create his own beer, and the Kingdom Come kickstarter had seemed the perfect opportunity for this.
With beer in hand, I sat down and started to question Vávra. First, I mentioned the state of the playable alpha – that I tried to interact with NPCs, but nothing happened. When were they going to implement that? What would you be able to do?
Vávra said that the reaction system will be rather complex and, well, reactive to the player's actions once it's properly implemented. There will be an "awareness and crime system", something that, in Vávra's opinion, not many games get right. There won't be any telepathic guards like in the Elder Scrolls games, that know you have done something bad the moment a horse spots you doing it. If you kill someone in his home, and his wife sees it, you can kill the wife and nobody will know. But they will suspect. Vávra said that the people in rural communities have always been suspicious towards outsiders – they all know each other, and you're the new guy nobody has seen before. If too much bad shit starts to happen in their village the moment you step in, they'll assume you had a hand in it. While it might not result in direct action against you, a bunch of corpses suddenly turning up when you march into town will make the locals less friendly towards you, and they might even refuse service.
My next question regarded historical accuracy. I mentioned that as a historian, this is one of the major drawing points of the game for me. An actual historical place to explore? Awesome! I asked whether there would be any historical characters we could meet, and how accurate the equipment will be.
Vávra answered that there will be a couple of historical characters in the main quest – like King Sigismund – but the main reason they chose this particular time and this particular place is that "the period is not so well-known" (Vávra's own words), by which he likely meant a scarcity of written sources about the local events in this area at the beginning of the 15th century. Which means, the devs can allow themselves a large degree of liberty when designing quests and NPCs. When the chronicles of the time don't say much about this particular region, they can put their own ideas in there without anyone coming and saying "hey, guys, that's not how it happened! Here's a document that your quests are bullshit!"
They're very historically correct about anything that appears in the game, though. Vávra told me that when they decided to add dogs, they asked themselves: what breed should we add? What did medieval dogs look like? They discussed that on the game's forums with the community, and they finally decided on basing the model of the dog on an illustration from a medieval manuscript.
When he mentioned quests, I asked how they're going to be structured. What kinds of quests will there be? Is there going to be a variety to them? Will there be multiple approaches?
Vávra answered that most of the quests in the game can be completed in different ways, and especially among the sidequests, there will be a great variety of different quest types. He cited a quest where you have to investigate a crime, and different people have different opinions on who did it. It's up to you whom you accuse in the end – that person will be punished, and you might very well condemn the wrong man. NPCs having different points of view, or even conflicting interests will be a common sight in the sidequests. The game is never going to tell you what to do or whom to believe, it all comes down to player choice. He focused a lot on sidequests, so I followed up with a question on the main quest – what about choice and consequence there? Any big decisions that can lead to multiple endings?
Nope. The main quest will mostly be linear. There might be branches, but the ending will always be the same. "Our game is set in history, and history has a specific outcome – we're not planning to do alternate history," Vávra said, so you won't be able to affect the main storyline in any significant way. Historical characters can't be killed because, obviously, the historical sources say they survived. So you didn't kill them. Which is why you can't do it in the game.
Vávra said that they've decided to make the mainquest linear to keep the historical events as they actually happened, while the sidequests will be their playground riddled with player decisions and multiple endings to questlines. The main quest will, in Vávra's words, "wait for you like in Skyrim". You can run off and do sidequests and the main quest won't progress until you return to it, so there won't be any time limits of any sort.
And there was also one very good piece of news for our resident rat diplomats: most combat in the game can be avoided. And enemies that are obviously losing a fight might offer to surrender, so you won't have to finish them off. I can already see someone here attempting a 0-kill-playthrough.
My next question was a question Vávra said he gets a lot: since the game is historical and realistic, how will it deal with random encounters and giving the exploring player interesting stuff to discover? I mentioned how retarded the demographics in Oblivion and Skyrim were, with there being thrice as many bandits as workers in the world.
Vávra said that he knew about that problem – and they're trying to combat it by making combat with even small groups of enemies dangerous and deadly, so being waylaid by four bandits would be just as challenging as battling 20 in Skyrim. Rather than grinding through countless copypasted bandit camps, every encounter will be a challenge, and therefore fun – it's a quality over quantity approach. There will be many different types of encounters on the road, not merely bandits but also merchant caravans, and they don't necessarily end in combat – but they can end in combat if the player decides so. Attack the merchants to get their equipment? Sure, do it. That will have an effect on the economy, however, as the products they wanted to sell will never reach the destination. Therefore, the prices of these products will rise due to supply suddenly being much lower than demand. Dan liked to stress the simulationist approach to the game's design – a feature that I know some Codexers will be very fond of.
There's something that some Codexers will not be very fond of, though, and that's the stat and skill system. I asked him to describe it in as much detail as he could, because that's the thing we're most interested in.
There will be a couple of stats and lots of skills, the skills covering all fields of character development: combat, diplomacy, stealth. Every weapon type has its own skill, every minigame [Bubbles comment: Can't make an authentically medieval RPG without some minigames, right?] will have a skill governing it (lockpicking, alchemy etc), and the character's skill will directly influence how the game plays. When your combat skill is lower than the enemy's, he will be much faster than you and you have to be really good at the combat to stand any chance. When your skill is higher, the enemy's movements will be slower, and the combat will therefore be easier. Vávra's philosophy is to have a focus on player skill in combat, while character skill makes it easier.
"When you suck at the combat and an enemy is just too hard for you, level up and return later – he will be slower to react, and it will be easier for you. But someone who is really good at the combat could even defeat enemies several levels higher than him," he said. I actually like this approach to player skill vs character skill: rather than just raising your damage, higher stats directly affect the mechanics of the game. Vávra mentioned the bow skill as the best example of this system; when your skill is low, you will have a very low draw strength, can't hold the bow drawn for long, and have a shaky aim. When you raise the skill, your aim will stabilize and you can aim for a longer time before getting tired. It reminds me very slightly of Gothic's combat system, where at low skill levels your swings were awkward and one mistake could break your combo, while at high level it was much more forgiving and you could easily chain attacks. A lot of Codexers won't like the focus on player skill; personally, I think it's the perfect way to handle combat in a first person action RPG.
"I've posted in the thread on your forums," Vávra said, "and I was surprised at the shitstorm that broke loose when I mentioned this. When I said that player skill is important and it shouldn't just be about rolling dice, many people got angry, and I didn't understand it. But then I talked to a colleague who was also into the whole pen and paper thing, you know, and he agreed with you: he told me I'm a fucking idiot for doing it like this! And then I got where you guys were coming from, because I never was much into D&D. I think that computer games are an in-between thing, between rolling dice and actually going out there and doing reenactment. You should have some player control, some player skill, and also some influence of stats. When you go into something like Battle of the Nations and fight with real weapons, it's all about your own skill, when you play a pen and paper game and roll dice it's all about your character's skill. I want my game to be something in-between."
So, he gets where the Codex is coming from. But that's not his kind of game. And he doesn't think that whether the combat is more focused on player or on character skill is the most important thing in an RPG, anyway. He still doesn't understand why some people on the Codex have been so hostile towards the game just for that reason, because the game still offers a lot to RPG players. Why? Well, because it has a lot of stats. "More stats than most games on the market right now", he said. And then came a sentence that I guaranteed him would cause a gigantic shitstorm on the Codex. And I think he knew it would.
"Our game is similar to Fallout 1 in that regard. It also had few stats, but a lot of skills to choose from and customize your character. We have just as many skills as Fallout 1, if not more. I think our game is about on the same level."
Yep. He just compared his game to the all-time Codex favourite, Fallout. I bet he did that on purpose. Don't disappoint him, Codex. Give him the shitstorm he asked for.
Since the questions I had about the actual game had all been answered, we continued to talk about the Codex for a bit.
He has mixed feelings about our forums, but in the end, he's glad for us. Sometimes, he was a little shocked at how honest and straightforward the people here are – it's rather unusual that devs are insulted on any forum. But this way, he got some good criticism and could get into earnest discussions of the game systems, with people actually arguing pro and contra rather than mindlessly praising him because he's a dev. In the end, he realized that we're not his primary target audience. The Codex is very hardcore, and this game isn't supposed to be for niche RPG players. "A game of these production values cannot be produced for a small niche, that just isn't viable. And it's not the kind of game I want to make, you know. I like it when the mechanics are deep and complex, and my game will have complex mechanics, but it should also be easy to play. You shouldn't have to read a hundred page manual first, I want controls to be intuitive and success in combat based on player skill rather than learning an RPG system by heart."
One last anecdote he mentioned at the end was about that whole SJW shitstorm. He said that some white guy at a party told him that his game didn't have enough black people – you know, the usual bullshit about diversity. And a couple of black fans heard that and got mad at the guy, because they loved the game and were pissed off that some white idiot tried to represent their interests, even though they didn't have any issues and were completely fine with the game as it is.
Then we talked a bit more about historical correctness and beer (the beer he gave me was brewed in a location you can visit in the game), concluded the interview and shot a photo. Overall, my impression of the game was positive, but I know not every Codexer will like what he said. He knew that, too, and wasn't afraid to admit that this is probably not the right game for some of us.
While Jarl was doing his thing with his beard bubby, our dear Codex friend Brother None had arranged for me to meet him in the Deep Silver booth. RPG fans may remember Deep Silver as the publisher who turned Risen 2 into an international hit; more recently, they had managed to arrange rave reviews for Wasteland 2. Clearly I was dealing with masters of their craft. Still, I was determined not to be swayed by their smooth talking professionalism. After a minor misunderstanding with the receptionist (protip: just pronounce inXile as "inksile" in the future) I found myself inside a spacious waiting area. Dazzled by the display of opulent designer furniture and important looking people in business suits, I slowly made my way to the generous drinks bar at the back. After I had gulped down a few cups of water, I noticed that most of the visitors were gathered around a large red box that was standing next to the entrance. A closer look revealed the secret of Deep Silver's unearthly PR prowess:
They had gamified the Doritos. As I inched closer to the incredible machine, drawn by its siren call of player skill-based entertainment and free snacks, a staffer held me back and asked me what I was doing in the booth. In an instant, the spell was broken; I replied that I was waiting for my interview with inXile, which was supposed to be starting right at that moment. The staffer apologized profusely, told me that "Thomas from inXile" was currently unreachable by phone, and asked me to wait a while longer. Then he led me to a small, private booth. Most of the room was taken up by a large tv screen; on the screen, I saw a familiar mess of brown and grey smudges. The staffer pointed towards a controller that was lying on the table. "You can play Wasteland 2: Director's Cut while you're waiting," he said with a sadistic smile. Since I had nothing better to do, I took him up on his offer and started playing.
The setting they had chosen for the hands-on was the start of the Radio Tower area; my party was standing on brown ground, surrounded by brown hills, and I was starting to feel quite brown myself. I had held a controller for the first time in my life while playing Risen 3: Enhanced Edition just a few hours earlier. Back then, the idea of controlling a character from the third person perspective with two little sticks (one to rotate, one to move) had already seemed horribly unintuitive. Now I was faced with the prospect of controlling a full party from a top-down perspective with the same controls, manually walking them back and forth through the same old Radio Tower area. I tried to play the game for about 10 seconds before I got bored out of my skull. Instead, I inspected the UI, which had been heavily modified for the console release. To my surprise, I found that it actually looked and worked much better than the old PC UI. I was presented with clearly distinguishable icons which were cleverly and intuitively grouped together, making efficient use of all the available space. Suddenly, Wasteland 2 seemed like a whole different game; it felt downright decent.
Brother None, a consummate PR man at heart, chose this precise moment to make his entrance. We greeted each other cordially with the secret Codex handshake, then I immediately started complaining about how horrible the console controls were. My dear friend asserted that they were really quite good, that they would grow on me, and that inXile was very happy with what they had achieved. However, he also conceded that the controller might possibly not represent the absolutely perfect interface for literally every theoretically existant gamer in all the known and unknown reaches of the world. Brother None later sent us the following quote to characterize his stance: "as a PC gamer, I couldn't honestly say I wouldn't still prefer the PC controls myself."
[The draft version of the previous section read: "that they would grow on me,
that inXile was very happy with what they had achieved, but also – crucially – that he couldn't honestly say that the console controls were as good as the PC controls. That's what a Codex Connection gets you: a little bit of straight talk to go with all the hair raising lies." Brother None objected to this representation of his words and supplied us with the above quote to use in its stead.]
Then he led me through more of the UI screens, including the new doll-themed Quirks screen. Instead of cramming everything into tiny windows, the UI now took up the whole screen: everything looked surprisingly functional, and also quite pretty. I asked BN if they were considering implementing some of these screens in the PC version; he told me that this was indeed a planned feature. This led us straight into the interview.
Unfortunately I only started voice recording my interviews on Thursday, so I can only supply paraphrased answers and sparse quotes. On the upside, I got to ask lots of community questions!
First up was a question from honourable staff member Crooked Bee, which I had originally been supposed to ask at Obsidian: “What's up with Chris Avellone?”
BN went stone faced and replied that he had no answers for me, his eyes hinting at a terrible secret buried in impenetrable depths. I tried to press the commercial angle: with Chris being a professional stretch goal, could we be sure that his commitments would still be honoured if he found a full-time job somewhere else? If, for example, Bethesda hired Chris for Fallout: Miami, would they be expected to let him work on other games? Could his commitments be dialled back behind the scenes? Here commenced a good minute of semantic arguments and back-and-forth. In short: BN was reasonably sure that Chris would be able meet every commitment in full, including the Wasteland 2 novella (he couldn't speak to the Arcanum Let's Play). However, he wasn't able to cite any clear evidence as a basis for that assessment. We agreed to leave it at that.
“When does a developer reach the sweet spot between creativity and speed and become veterans?” (Ludo Lense, slightly tweaked)
“When you have George Ziets, you have Kevin Saunders, and you have a great manager like Brian [Fargo].”
“Have you ever scrapped a feature because it was too modern and your core audience might reject it?” (Ludo Lense)
“Social integration.” (Brian Fargo's idea for WL2 that didn't go over well with Kickstarter backers.) BN explained that these suggestions are usually caught in the concept phase. He stressed that nobody had ever suggested something truly stupid: “Nobody said: 'Let's do a lockpicking minigame!'” BN also used this opportunity to praise Adam Heine as a “shockingly great” designer who had been in a “design bubble” [i.e. out of the industry] for so long that he was still designing with a completely old school mindset.
“What is the process of deciding if a game shall have an enhanced edition rather than working on a new project?” (Ludo Lense)
“Every developer wants to do an Enhanced Edition,” because every game could still be improved after release. InXile were actually able to make these improvements thanks to their independent funding; the financial incentive of a console release made the decision even easier. “When people asked 'How could you be so stupid with your design decisions?', we just wanted to say 'We know!'” They were forced to rush certain things to be ready for release day, and now they had taken the time to improve their game's flaws.
“Are you planning to do a Torment DC?” (Bubbles)
“We're hoping for perfection, but we'll see after release.”
“What game would you say is the closest when it comes to Torment combat? Is it Temple of Elemental Evil or something else?” (Lady Error)
BN sumitted this answer a few days after the interview: "ToEE is a good basis of comparison, we're using a lot of Numenera elements, and also taking lessons from other recent titles, including Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin and the Banner Saga. I think my main point [is] with how many elements there are to combat, UI, feel, flow, rules, for each element you could name different factors/inspirations."
[The draft version of the previous section read: “There are quite a few similarities to ToEE. We're using a lot of Numenera elements... if I had to compare it to anything, I would name Divinity.” Brother None objected to this representation of his words and supplied us with the above quote to use in its stead.]
However, “the combat must be shown" before we could have a proper talk about it. Apparently, it is simply too unique and transgressive to be explained through human language.
"In Planescape, philosophy is a force of nature – strong beliefs make things happen and that's why factions are so influential. Tides aren't really a substitute for this, because they're external forces that sometimes respond to actions. So how will factions work in TToN? Are their creeds merely convenient abstractions? Does "mind over matter" ever have a chance?" (prodigydancer, cut for length)
BN agreed about the difference between settings, but he wasn't willing to go into detail on this question: "Factions will have weird abilities... they have control over areas in ways you would not expect. Anything is possible in Numenera."
"Your first released snippets of Torment dialogue were extensively analysed and criticised on the forums. Was that the intended reaction, or were you surprised?" (Bubbles)
“It was expected, but not intended… some dialogues were slightly more polished, some less so.” I pressed on the overall dialogue quality; he replied that they were very satisfied with the dialogues: “When I play through certain parts of the game, I just get the feeling, like, 'this is just what PS:T feels like!'”
“How much experience does the Bard's Tale 4 dev team have with puzzle and dungeon design? Do you have someone on the team who's an expert on making secret rooms and hidden switches for a first person game?” (Bubbles)
Brother None mentioned that the BT4 team was based on the core team of WL2, and that the work was once again a team effort. They did not have any puzzle experts on the project. They were talking to people from a PnP background for a fresh perspective, and were also thinking about bringing in design specialists. Finally, BN mentioned “Joby Bednar” as a team member who wasn't very well known, but who was “good at puzzle design.”
“The 2004 version of Bard's Tale seems to have a devoted following on Kickstarter. Humorous fantasy games are also quite popular right now – just look at Magicka or Donjon de Naheulbeuk. Are you planning on making a Bards' Tale 2?” (Bubbles)
“No, I think that numbering would confuse people.” BN liked the remake's summon system, but felt the game was overall “too light to be called an RPG.” Still, he mentioned that the game has a very special place in Brian Fargo's heart, and that nothing is impossible.
“What about new IPs?” (various)
“If Bard's Tale 4 wants to appeal to a Codex audience, you will have to convince us that it will be a better blobber than Grimoire. How are you planning on doing that? Is the team playing Grimoire to see what the competition is doing?” (Bubbles)
Brother None seemed slightly surprised by the question. “I've played the demo, but I'm not sure if anybody else on the team did.” He did not consider the two games to be in competition at all; Bard's Tale 4 was only taking the old blobbers as a "template", much like the relationship between Wasteland 2 and Wasteland 1. Meanwhile, Grimoire seemed to be a continuation of the Wizardry games, which was “a different thing.” He did, however, mention that he liked what he'd played of Grimoire so far.
This concluded a 30 minute interview. We had managed to use a lot of words to convey very little new information; that's how it goes when you deal with PR people. Brother None had a little time left, so we took another picture for the Codex gallery, and he congratulated me on my good looks: “You look like a typical Codexer. You look like you want to burn the world.” I thanked him most kindly and went on my way to meet up with Jarl again. We were about to see a very special game indeed.
This was one of our most anticipated presentations of the trade fair, simply because the game had been so controversial on the Codex. Half of our community had been vehemently opposed to the game's shoehorning of the D&D 5th edition rules into a cooldown-based combat system, while the other half were eager to get hyped for absolutely anything with a D&D license attached to it. We were thus under an enormous amount of pressure to do right by our audience, and to provide a fair and balanced look at the game.
We were greeted by n-Space's Tim Schwalk, the game's design director, and Ash Sevilla of Nerd Appropriate fame, who was also working part-time as SCL's Community Manager. Together with three other journalists, we were herded into a small hands-on booth. Our gracious hosts positioned themselves in the middle of the room, gave us a hearty welcome, and announced that we had a special guest: n-Space's CEO Dan O'Leary himself had taken the time to observe our presentation! In response, we heard a grunt coming from the entrance door. O'Leary was a large man with a big bushy beard, and he was in a foul mood. The man's breathing was slow and laboured, and his belt was at least two sizes too tight. His beard was an unkempt mess of brown and grey, with a few dark red strands twirling around his mouth. I studied his savage features; his gaze met mine. In that instant, I knew that Dan O'Leary hated me, that he hated Jarl (that part didn't shock me so much), that he hated the Codex, and that he knew about everything that we had done and all that we were about to do. I averted my gaze and took a seat at one of the hands-on PCs. The screen was showing a wizard holding a fancy wooden staff. A wizard! How cool was that?! I'd always loved wizards. This was going to be a totally mellow presentation. Nothing was wrong.
The two presenters raised their voices and declared that today was a day for glorious co-op fun. Indeed, if you had hoped for any information about SCL's single player mode, its DLC model, or even a single Drizzt name drop, you would have been severely disappointed: the version of Sword Coast Legends we saw that day was a pure multiplayer experience, with a minor focus on the world editor. Tim began by starting up the editing tools and showing off the variety of environmental objects one could place in the world. There were small bookshelves and tall bookshelves, there were candles and candelabras, there were large rectangular red rugs and small quadratic green rugs. I liked the pretty colours. Dan switched to the character generation interface and showed us how to make pink ogres. I counted 40 possible colours. The presenters also demonstrated how to assign quest triggers with a simple, console friendly list interface: click on an NPC, click “Quest”, then “Quest Action”, then “Find X” [in this case, “Find Aston”], and then “On Speak.” This all happened on the fly, while Ash had a party of characters standing right next to the NPC. After Dan was finished with the edits, the party spoke to the NPC, and their journal got updated with the “Find Aston” objective. The simplicity was intriguing; the editor looked very easy to work with. Tim showed off how we could swiftly write our own dialogues and quest descriptors, and then switched to an outdoor scene. It was a sunny, calm day; all was right in the world. Ash's party was enjoying the weather. They looked happy. Then, Dan opened the Weather interface (another text-based list) and clicked on “rainstorm”. Suddenly, the light faded from the scene and everybody got drenched. Dan placed a dead horse on the nearby road and started to play around with it. I hadn't written down one bad thing in my notes yet. Content with the general state of the world, I leaned back, looked towards the ceiling, and once more came face to face with Dan O'Leary. I did not know how long he had been standing behind me, but now I was starting to be concerned for my well being.
Of course, the whole presentation also had a secret secondary purpose: to prepare one hapless journalist for taking over the role of dungeon master himself in the hands-on session. They would be writing quests on the fly, plonking down chests and traps, hiding and locking doors, and hand-tweaking enemy encounters to adjust their difficulty to the prowess of the group of players they'd been burdened with. Currently, the DM seat was occupied by a female journo, who had grown more and more worried as the presentation had progressed. Now, she was sweating bullets. “I… don't think I can do this.” she muttered. Worried, the presenters asked for a volunteer to take her seat. I had done my fair share of DMing back in the late 90s (using the vastly superior Dark Eye system), but normally I wasn't eager to waste my time trying to improvise a session for a bunch of Dorito munching nobodies. Now, however, I had a possibly very dangerous man hovering behind my back whom I was quite eager to get away from. I raised my hand and said “I'll be DM!” The poor woman sighed in misguided relief and switched seats with me.
What followed now was genuinely the most exhilarating half hour of my time at Gamescom. With the two presenters standing by my side, I embarked on a journey of on-the-fly dungeon redesign (mind you, the room layout itself is still not changeable by the player), laying down traps, hiding doors behind fake walls, promoting trash mobs to elite monsters in the middle of battle, and generally having a hell of a time. I had forgotten how much fun it was just to screw with people. At the urging of our hosts, I made a zombie merchant to sell my poor party some weapons; then I promoted him and turned him hostile just when the fighter was about to buy a cool axe. I took control of the dungeon's Beholder boss and charmed the most dangerous party members; then I dropped a Master Vampire just out of sight and starting saving up Threat points to promote him into a mini-boss while the Beholder battle was still going on. The DM Threat system is fairly simple; for every "success" of the party, from defeating enemies to disarming traps, the DM is awarded points to buy cool stuff with. You could buy anything from cheap, harmless traps to outrageously expensive super-monsters. The presenters were in awe of my point-saving prowess, remarking that virtually every other DM at Gamescom had just been splurging their points on the cheapest trash mobs as soon as they became available. I don't know if they were just sweet talking me, but saving up points was definitely a winning formula if you wanted to have fun; hearing the reactions of the party when the Master Vampire wandered into the Beholder fight made me feel like I had made all the right choices in my life.
When the party was about to wipe, I demoted the Vampire in mid-combat. You see, in SCL you lose Threat points for letting the party suffer a defeat; and if the DM has no points, the game becomes much easier for the party. Thus, you have to play a careful balancing act by trying to keep battles tough enough to be fun, but never so hard as to make the party pay the ultimate price – unless you want to say “screw the points” and just send the lousy fuckers to hell, of course. I, however, was in a magnificent mood, and thus I made sure that the last player would be able to finish off the Vampire with about 15% of their health remaining. Was that gamey and completely unrealistic? Absolutely. Did that bother me? It did not. After the run was over, the presenters were all smiles and praise for my exceptional DM performance, and slipped me their business cards the same way a middle-aged banker would slip his room number to a high class escort at the Sheraton bar. Even O'Leary appeared to be vaguely pleased with the goings on, his beard seeming more vibrant and less spiky than just minutes before. His power over me had vanished completely. Of course, I was not in the least bit swayed by all the adulation: I already had over four thousand brofists on the Codex, and I knew my worth very well.
Overall, I can honestly say that I had a good time with Sword Coast Legends, even though I certainly hadn't expected to have one. The fun simply crept up on me. The sheer amount of choices I had just for placing traps and chests, changing the difficulty check on locked and hidden doors to delay the party, and tweaking combat encounters on-the-fly kept me fully occupied throughout the hands-on. Thus, I never had a chance to write a neat side quest or, for example, give the zombie merchant some clever bit of dialogue to explain why he would go hostile. However, I certainly could have done that if I'd had a bit more experience with the UI and known exactly what was possible. I don't know if being a DM and torturing newbies will still be fun after 10 or 50 hours of gameplay, but for this brief 30 minute excursion, it was good enough to make me recommend the game. Mind you, this is not an endorsement of the single player campaign: the few snippets of the campaign's writing and area design that I've seen on the net have looked abjectly terrible. I wouldn't be surprised if n-Space's current focus on multiplayer presentations were based on a smart PR reaction to internal feedback; Sword Coast Legends in singleplayer really holds no appeal whatsoever, but Sword Coast Legends in multiplayer is truly, honestly, fun.
Or at least it's fun for the DM. Hey Jarl, what was your take on all this? If I remember correctly, you played a cleric.
Jarl: To my shame I have to admit that I hadn't followed the discussion about this game here on the Codex, or anywhere else, really, so I went into this session of co-op dungeon crawling as a "blind" player. I knew this was a D&D game, I knew this was supposed to be the next Neverwinter Nights, and I knew this was based on the 5E ruleset. It all began with a presentation on the multiplayer part of the game – the single player was only mentioned, but didn't get any attention during this presentation. They showed off the DM tools, how easily you can add NPCs, give them quests, re-arrange the furniture, drop quest-relevant items and props into the landscape, and do pretty much anything you want unless what you want is changing the actual level architecture. Seeing all this "placing objects on a pre-generated dungeon map" foolery, I asked whether it's possible to add new rooms, or to change the layout of the place. Nope, you can't. They might add that later in a patch or DLC because this feature has been heavily requested by fans, but right now they're focusing on perfecting the DM tools as they are, without adding new features. Well, no powerful mod tools that allow the creation of modules rivalling those made for the Neverwinter Nights games, then.
After the presentation, we could play a hands-on dungeon crawl with one of the journalists DMing and the others playing as pre-generated characters. Before the presentation had started, they already hinted that someone will be able to play as DM. But now, when it actually came to taking that position, nobody came forward to do it. The journalists were afraid this was beyond their capabilities. So, of course, the Codex jumped in and offered its experience in being horribly unfair: Bubbles sat down in front of the designated Dungeon Master's computer and prepared to give us hell. It took a while to familiarize ourselves with our characters' abilities, and Bubbles used that time to place traps for us to stumble into. After a minute of getting to know our abilities, which were cooldown-based – a very liberal implementation of D&D rules – we set out to face whatever challenges Bubbles prepared for us. At first, it was a walk in the park. Have our rogue disarm the traps we found, kill a couple of zombies, I didn't even have to heal anyone.
Then, when Bubbles had familiarized himself with the DM tools as much as we had familiarized ourselves with our characters, shit hit the fan. The monsters became tougher, in the next room there suddenly was a big boss monster way stronger than we had expected, and it was even supported by not-shitty henchcorpses. It was the first of many challenging fights, and I used my cleric abilities to keep my bros alive throughout this. We even had to pull back and regroup when our health got too low, but we managed to defeat the creature without dying. It was a fun, challenging fight that showed us the importance of teamwork in a game like this. We took a breather for a few moments, glad about our survival. At least the worst was over now, right?
Wrong. As soon as we stepped into the next room, we were beheld by a beholder that promptly attacked us. A hard fight ensued where everyone frantically tried to not die, while I tried to help them as well as I could with my clerical healing abilities. Abilities with a cooldown that lasted way too long. As if it wasn't bad enough, the beholder was soon joined by a vampire. Many exclamations of "What!?", "Oh God!" and "Holy shit!" were uttered by the desperate players, who pulled away before they died. Well, one of them did – the others died, including me. This was the point where the devs explained to us how resurrection potions work. It's not over when you die – you have items that can resurrect you. There's only a limited amount of these, though, so death didn't come without consequence. We resurrected ourselves, regrouped, and went back into the fray, this time with more preparation and coordination. When we killed the beholder and the vampire without being killed ourselves, the feeling of triumph was palpable: you could feel the atmosphere of "HAH! We showed you, you nasty old Dungeon Master!" in the air. Bubbles was the kind of nasty DM that throws big challenges at you, and that's what made this session fun. That feeling of triumph when you prevail after an almost-full-party wipe is what makes dungeon crawls so great.
I hadn't expected much from this, but I had a lot of fun with this session of co-op dungeon crawling, which was mostly due to Bubbles' style of DM'ing. He threw varied challenges at us, from traps to overpowered boss monsters, and forced us to play as a team to prevail. The only bad thing about this: a tiny little glowing light moving through the level alerted us to his whereabouts, so we always knew when he was directly involving himself in a combat to make it harder. Rather than wondering what lurks around the next corner, we always knew trouble was coming when that little sprite of light flitted about on our screens. "Oh shit, there's the DM again! He's probably putting traps down, let's go into search mode!" I think it would be even more intense when you couldn't see where your DM was putting his attention. This way, the surprise is often ruined because you know your DM is up to something nasty when he's hovering over your party.
I couldn't help but think that this might be even more fun if it were turn based, like an accurate translation of D&D rules to the computer, but the RTwP of this game is one of the better RTwP systems I've played. Maybe even on par with the IE games. I have no idea whether the single player campaign will be any good, or whether there'll be an editor that allows the community to create modding masterpieces like "A Dance With Rogues" for NWN, but the multiplayer dungeon crawling has the potential to be fun – as long as the DM knows what he's doing. If we had been facing tons of trash mobs rather than challenging enemies that almost managed to wipe us, it would've been a boring slog. The game seems to offer enough tools for the DM to make it fun, though, so this is the kind of game you want to play with your friends, or at least with a group of people who know how to go about a classic dungeon crawl adventure.
Bubbles: I was a little surprised by the fact that me and Jarl had both enjoyed Sword Coast Legends. Could this really be the best game we'd see on Wednesday? But we had more interview coming up, and it was sure to be a great one.
I feel a great privilege to be writing these words, knowing that our HoMM 7 interview is not only one of our most anticipated reports in history, but also a fully Codex-exclusive piece of journalism. Mind you, it hadn't actually been planned to be Codex-exclusive in any way; that was just how it shook out in the end. Our appointment was scheduled for 6 PM on Wednesday as part of a large public developer Q&A in the Uplay Lounge; we had contacted Ubisoft in advance to make sure that we could still get a seat. Early in the day, we had visited the hands-on stands for Ubisoft's two biggest strategy games, and we had noticed something odd: while HoMM 7 had a measly four rather bored looking people waiting in line (including myself and Jarl), the neighbouring Anno 2205 booths had attracted at least 50 eager fans.
Of course, Anno is very popular in Germany, so we were willing to look past the small imbalance, and proceeded to our HoMM 7 stand. After we had played around with the serviceable, but unexciting combat for a few minutes (you can still try it out for yourselves with a beta key until September 3rd), we were suddenly ambushed by Arnaud Fremont. Arnaud had been the handler for Jarl and Grunker during their 2013 visit to the Might and Magic anniversary celebrations. I knew from the past Codex reports that Arnaud was “a friendly sort”, but his behaviour in the booth was downright servile. He smiled like a lunatic, making double, then triple sure that were would be going to the “big Q&A event” in the Uplay Lounge tonight. He said “great!” a lot. He inquired after Crooked Bee's health (using her super secret first name) and repeatedly asked us to send her his best wishes. I had only been at Gamescom for a few hours at this point, but I found all of this rather odd. Was this what Ubisoft-Codex relations looked like? Weren't we supposed to be a small site full of hardcore fans with dangerous fringe views? Why was this man smiling? I asked Jarl if this was normal behaviour; he answered that it was, perhaps, a little strange.
The experience continued to gnaw at me throughout the rest of the day. When we stepped out of the Sword Coast Legends booth, we realized that we were going to be late, so we hurried down the halls, hoping to make it into the Lounge before it was completely swamped with people. We finally arrived at the Lounge, five minutes late. The only people inside were the developers. There we no fans, no curious passers-by, absolutely no public interest whatsoever. It was just the Codex. Nobody else cared. We were greeted by the still smiling Arnaud and his utterly overjoyed colleague, who introduced himself as Erwan Le Breton. Erwan was the Creative Director for HoMM 7; he had also worked as Creative Director on MMX, and as Producer on HoMM 6, Clash of Heroes, and Tribes of the East. In other words, he had a lot to answer for. We sat down, just the four of us, in the middle of the large, empty room. I asked my first question.
Bubbles: You stopped support on Heroes of Might and Magic 6 long before the game was properly fixed. The version of the game that's being sold right now is riddled with a slew of game breaking bugs. When you equip certain items, you suffer stacking, permanent stat loss that doesn't even show up on your character sheet; you have to pay attention to damage floats in combat just to realize that there's even anything wrong. You may realize that your campaign hero's stats have been completely ruined after 20 or 30 hours of gameplay with no way to fix it. Certain story missions bug out if you take too long to finish them. Multiple skills and abilities are either completely broken or do the exact opposite of what they're supposed to do. Now you're trying to sell us Heroes of Might and Magic 7. How are you going to convince us that this game will ever be in a playable state? Why shouldn't I just wait two or three years after release before I make a purchase, just to see if you're actually going to properly patch this game?
While I was posing my question, Erwan had been smiling and nodding, nodding and smiling. Then he gave his answer: HoMM 6 had suffered from a number of major issues, not the least of which had been the choices of developer and engine [two rather large problems, those]. When Black Hole Entertainment went bust, Ubisoft was unable to provide the necessary technical support for their home made engine; they tried their best, but they couldn't properly fix the game. However, they had learned from their mistakes. The new developers Limbic were reliable people who had experience with the franchise and had already worked on HoMM 6; thus, there was a sense of continuity that was a great help during development. With the Unreal Engine 3, they had an engine that could be easily handled, and that was moddable by the community, should problems with patch support arise. However, such problems were unlikely; Ubisoft were “very committed to providing proper support” for the game, and they would continue to provide support for as long as it was necessary: “Release day is just a date.”
To be honest, that was more of an answer than I had expected for that question, so I let Jarl take the next two.
Jarl: So, is there any chance that we might see a Might and Magic XI in the near future?
This question made the mood of Arnaud and Erwan sink like a submarine for a moment. Their answer was phrased strategically, but it was pretty clear that there is no chance for this: "Right now, M&M XI is very very low on the list of next Might and Magic projects Ubisoft would choose to invest in". A more optimistic person might think, yay, it is on a list of possible next M&M related projects, but no... what Erwan meant was pretty clear. The game wasn't as much of a success as it should have been. He said that Ubisoft gave it the benefit of the doubt, an experiment to see if that kind of game would sell. Grimrock, which had been released not too long before MMX, was the main reason Ubisoft went ahead with this. Grimrock was a surprising success, and they jumped on the bandwagon, like any big company smelling big potential wads of cash does. For Ubisoft, the game didn't make enough money to warrant a sequel. It wasn't successful enough.
Of course, that led me to ask how successful MMX was. As a good, truth-seeking Codex reporter, I straight up asked "So, how much did it sell?"
They couldn't answer that, because releasing sales figures is not a thing big publishers do. They did reveal, however, that the game sold about 30% less copies than expected. The team would love to work on a sequel, but due to these disappointing sales, this ain't gonna happen. It kinda surprised them that their game bombed so hard, because Grimrock had been such a success, and they had been shooting for a similar amount of sales as that game. [Bubbles comment: You can infer that MMX sold roughly 70% as many copies as Legend of Grimrock, based on however Ubisoft calculated LoG's sales. Was turn based combat to blame?] Ultimately, it didn't sell enough for Ubisoft to be interested in any sequels, even if you count in the expansion. The Might and Magic RPG series is, after a brief resurrection, dead again.
And, judging from how they were talking about HoMM VII, the same fate could await the Heroes series if the game bombs.
Bubbles: What approach are you going to take to story telling? The Heroes series has taken a lot of different approaches over the years – personally, I really liked the big windows full of narrative text in Heroes 4. And then, with Heroes 5, you switched over to cutscenes. There were a lot of cutscenes in Heroes 5, and those were a bit… well... [the Ubisoft guys laugh] And in HoMM 6, you had those sprawling intertwined narratives, where you had to look up a cheat sheet just to see what the chronological order of the missions was. So... how are you going to do it in Heroes 7?
Erwan was very pleased indeed with this question, and took it as an opportunity to unleash the “three lessons” that the team had learned from the storytelling in previous games.
Lesson 1: Keep the stories contained! Ashan [the setting for the last few M&M games] is a complex place with a lot of history, but a good story should only focus on a small piece of the setting and teach a universally relatable lesson. That way, you can keep the story focussed on the essentials without overwhelming people with extraneous information.
Lesson 2: Make smaller maps! The maps in HoMM 6 were “huge”, which meant that “the story was diluted.” In HoMM 7, the campaign maps will be smaller and have a higher information density to keep the pace of the story.
Lesson 3: Variety is key! Every story campaign should have different writers, writing in their individual styles, and teaching the player a different lesson.
Bubbles: People in our community are very concerned about pacing; how do you plan to keep the gameplay fast and dynamic? [modified question from Ludo Lense]
Erwan replied that they had reduced map sizes in general; both the campaign maps and the battle map were now smaller to provide a faster and smoother experience. He asked how we felt about the smaller battle map size as shown in the hands-on; I answered that the map size had felt just right to me. My biggest problems in the hands-on had been with the fiddly UI and the unclear icons for monster abilities.
Bubbles: Animation speed in the hands-on currently caps out at 150%. When you've played a game for 100 or 200 hours, you really, don't care to watch the same animations over and over again – can you speed them up further or offer an option to skip them completely?
They said they'd take it under advisement. Animation speed currently caps out at 400% in the beta, which is still a little slow for my taste.
Bubbles: There is some controversy about the proper curvature of the town screen. People on our forums [Grotesque and CptMace] have mentioned that the layout of the old HoMM 3 screens presented the buildings in a clearer fashion by laying them out in front of the player rather than clumping them together in the middle of the screen. Do you have an opinion on the topic?
Erwan and Arnaud nodded eagerly and stated that our argument made eminent sense. Erwan took the opportunity to mention that town screens were fully moddable, so the community could simply insert their preferred town screen layouts into the game.
Bubbles: What made you decide on a three tier system for town creatures? What advantages do you see in that system as opposed to the older, more complex tier structures?
“We took that from Clash of Heroes.” Erwan explained that the three tiers “simplified [development] in many ways”; they not only made the creatures easier to balance, but also made it easier to introduce new creatures. In their experience, it was easier and more intuitive to determine whether a new creature type would be an Elite or a Champion than it was to decide whether it would be a tier 4, tier 5, tier 6, or tier 7 creature. This system was also more accessible for new players, who could notice the relative power differences more clearly than with the old system.
Bubbles: Who are you trying to appeal to with this game anyway? Who is your target audience and how are you trying to reach them? How do you see this game becoming a commercial success? [a highly pertinent question, considering we were sitting in an empty room]
According to Monsieur Le Breton, Ubisoft had changed their marketing strategy after the release of HoMM 6: “We're not chasing Starcraft anymore.” For HoMM 7, they projected that 80% of their audience would be mainstream players. They were trying to appeal to that target group with improved graphics, a streamlined UI, and the fact that they were offering turn based gameplay, which was inherently appealing to mainstream audiences. Erwan said that HoMM 7 was “a casual game in that respect”: being able to play a game in turn based mode “makes players feel intelligent” while letting them play at their own pace. It would also be much easier to share user made content; “when you share a map, you automatically share all the mods attached to that map.” Finally, Erwan pointed out that the different factions appealed to different target audiences. The Sylvan faction appealed to “female mainstream” gamers who “liked unicorns”, while the gritty Dungeon faction was aimed at the hardcore crowd. These hardcore players – the remaining 20% of the HoMM 7 audience – were people who had stayed with the series “for 20 years”, but they were not being taken for granted: “all the stuff on the website”, the polls, the community discussion, etc., was for them.
Bubbles: What are your plans for online features in Heroes 7?
They explained that they generally liked online features and were “not opposed to the Conflux” [which is not currently in the game], but that they wouldn't build the game around it. “The Conflux would be the cherry on top of the cake,” but first they needed to make sure that the Heroes cake was good.
After this healthy mix of PR gibberish, clear answers, and outright crazy talk, it was time to go. At this point, we were joined by a red—haired stranger who was probably from the dev team. He apologized for being late, and then offered himself up for a group picture.
Thus, we made our goodbyes. They pressed two Heroes t-shirts into our hands, and Erwan told us to check out Rabbids VR, which was a “must see.” On the way out, we noticed two female fans entering the Uplay Lounge; they wanted to know if they could have a t-shirt.
Unfortunately, Jarl had suffered from startling physical decay (pictured above) since his last Gamescom visit, and thus was unable to stick around for the next two days. Let's give a him a big round of applause in the comments for a job well done!
Coming up next: We take a look at Spellforce 3 and talk about indie RPGs with our friendly local Hobgoblin. Also: ELEX, Endless Space 2, The Guild 3, and a whole bunch of other strategy games and adventures.