RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2015 - Expeditions: Viking
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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2015 - Expeditions: Viking
Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Thu 1 October 2015, 19:40:22Tags: Expeditions: Viking; Gamescom 2015; Logic Artists
[Report by Bubbles]
My final appointment of Gamescom brought me to the Logic Artists booth, which was ominously located directly opposite the Daedalic booths. LA were the guys who had invited us to Gamescom in the first place; without their invitation, there probably wouldn't have been any Codex coverage of the event at all. Their new game Expeditions: Viking was the sequel to the studio's 2013 breakout hit, Expeditions: Conquistador. Conquistador had received an extremely positive review by one of the most well-known Codex writers, and we had enjoyed a close and fruitful relationship with the studio ever since.
My presenter was everybody's favourite bearded maniac Alex Mintsioulis, who'd taken on a combined PR+QA role within the company. Alex was clearly exhausted after three full days of presentations and could only communicate through feeble croaks. To make matters worse, I myself had just come from the Fallout 4 presentation and was experiencing the first signs of a deep and sudden depression. Nonetheless, we both managed to rally our last remaining resources and conducted a brief but insightful conversation.
Premise and Campaign Structure
Alex Mintsioulis: So I'm guessing you tried out Conquistador at some point, right?
Bubbles: Oh yes. I haven't actually finished it, but I've played about… 20 to 30 hours?
AM: That's good, you're almost there – it's only another 10 to 20 hours! [laughs]
Bubbles: It does get long at some point. You know, Divinity: Original Sin was about 70 hours long, and some people complained that this was too much. But if you announce that you're making a 20 hour game, people might say that's too short.
AM: Yeah, exactly, it's one of those things you have to dance around. Our golden hour for this game is gonna be 40-50 hours. We're hoping that will what the majority of the players experience. There will be a bunch of other short side quests and stuff that you can do to drag the game out if you want, but the basic experience, if you just do a few site quests, will be about 40-50 hours. Some of the elements of Conquistador did get a bit tedious – like the camping system, at a certain point. We got a lot of player feedback, from the Codex, from Steam, from other forums, and a lot of people wanted to see something a little more interesting and engaging. So we put a lot of thought into how we can make that different, but not too different, because we want to maintain the theme of the Expeditions franchise. We don't want to go too “dynamic”... it's not a touchscreen minigame, right?
[He shows me the announcement trailer.]
Like the trailer says, the idea is that you've just inherited the leadership of your clan, which is a small Viking village, considered modest and maybe even weak by your neighbours. People inside the village don't want you and your family to be in charge anymore, and your neighbours outside the village also want to you to “go missing.” The first campaign is all about the consolidation of power inside the region. You need to build up yourself and the village to make sure that you grow strong enough to actually go out and go raiding. One thing that we took from player feedback is that you have character customization: now you actually have a character who's walking around in the battles and in the cutscenes. So now you're not just a faceless general, but you're somebody who's physically in the world, and you can see your character, level them up, customize their visual appearance a little bit, equip them, give them skills, et cetera.
Bubbles: “Think like a general, fight like a Viking.”
AM: Exactly. That's a great way to put it! Arrgh, why are you the last person I'm meeting with? I could have used that all week! [laughs] Okay, so, people really liked the fortress [in Expeditions: Conquistador], but one of the problems was that we introduced it really late in the game, like two thirds of the way through the game. It's also a place where you can go and find respite while you're in Mexico, because Mexico is a very dangerous place. It's an upgradeable place where you can start building things up, and that's how you actually draw an army of Spanish soldiers. The fortress attracts more and more expeditions to the area, and eventually you have a large enough force to participate in the overthrowing – or not overthrowing – of the Aztec empire.
This time, you start with the village. You have your village, it's very small, very modest, and the idea is that you go out and gather resources and equipment, and then you come back and you can upgrade it. You can build buildings and extra defences; you build a blacksmith, for example, or a powerful protective fence. All these things also attract new characters to the area, who join your village; that helps you to consolidate the strength of your village, so your neighbours won't find you quite as much of an attractive target. And once you finish that element in the game – the first campaign –, you start the second campaign, which is the raiding campaign. The raids begin in England and Scotland; that's where the second campaign takes place. But different to Conquistador, you won't just stay on this new map for the rest of the game; you will go raiding, and then you will go back to your village. You'll upgrade your village, and then you'll go raiding again, and then you'll come back and see that the upgrades have been built, and you'll see changes in the village. You'll become more and more powerful, politically and tactically.
Bubbles: I've read a forums post from Josh Sawyer, one of the lead designers on Pillars of Eternity. He basically said that it was tough to have an area that the player could build up, like a village or a fortress, because a significant chunk of the RPG audience didn't like that aspect of gameplay. For those players, an RPG shouldn't have all of these elements of building a settlement, maintaining and upgrading it, et cetera. [Pertinent Sawyer quotes can be found here.] I was wondering if you had received similar feedback. Did you have people saying: “We don't want to build up a village in an RPG”?
AM: We didn't get any feedback where people said: “We hate that fortress!” Maybe [there were] some people who didn't like it, but it seemed like the overarching opinion of people who wanted to contribute to the discussion was that they thought it was an interesting addition to the game. They wished it had actually happened a bit earlier; like, “I'm 3/4ths through the game, and now I have this safe place that I can go back to, store my goods, and upgrade and build up stuff!” And, of course, the fortress had relevance to the endgame. And the same is true here: the village has relevance to the end game, because the big story of this game is that it's not just about you, the main character, it's about you and your clan. For the end of the story in Conquistador, we took various statistics from your gameplay, and we told you about various events that occurred because of your performance. Some parties had a lot of loot, and the king loved them and gave them a lot of kudos when they returned to Spain, and others came back with much less stuff, and the King was “not impressed” – he didn't feel that giving you permission for the expedition had really been worth it. And the same sort of thing will happen in this game: the end of the story will be based on how you've been behaving, how well you upgraded your village, and how you chose your path. Did you use politics, did you use violence, did you use a combination of the two? And based on that, it will be determined whether you'll live on in history.
Bubbles: Do you think that making the village [and its management mechanic] a critical part of the endgame also makes it a better mechanic in general?
AM: I think that makes it quite a bit more interesting. But the thing about the village is that, as you build it up, you don't only attract new villagers, but you also increase your notoriety. That way you'll attract warriors and other types of characters who'll be able to join your party.
Bubbles: So what kind of people will you be fighting? What kind of cultures will they be from?
AM: You'll be fighting Vikings in the first campaign, and maybe a little bit in the second campaign... wink. [He winks.] And you'll be fighting the English and the Scottish, essentially. They're not established as England and Scotland at this time, but you'll be able to figure out who they are.
Map Design and Travelling
AM: [He opens the map screen.] So down here is modern day Nottingham, here is York… the map is done in the style of a textile. The Vikings used rune carving, but we thought it would be weird to have a big stone carving for a map, trying to take it around with you. [laughs] The idea is that it's a textile, and there's a stitched pattern that's being used to represent the different areas on the map.
In Conquistador we had two layers to the game: [the battle layer, and] the exploration layer, where the whole party was represented by a Conquistador on horseback. They'd travel a little bit for a day, and then camp, and so on. The advanced environmental and quest interactions would occur on that map, but in a text box on the side. For Viking, we're creating large regions, each very close to the size of the Dominican Republic map, which was the entire map for the first campaign in Conquistador. So every region will have a large map of about that size; for example, York and the surrounding region will be one large “exploration space”. While you're exploring in that region, you will not have a day/night timer. You'll be able to freely walk around in that area. You'll be able to see your entire party with all the characters walking around the region in real time, as you click. When you encounter quests, you'll see a text box pop up and have conversations and negotiations with portraits, similar to Conquistador. But when you enter combat, instead of loading into a smaller battle map, we'll project the hex grid from the battle area into the existing space underneath you [on the region map]. So you won't transition between battle map and area map quite so frequently.
We'll manage camping and the passage of time while you move from region to region. You would use the map [of England and Scotland] to traverse a greater distance, and when you reach another region, you can explore within that region's map. This is similar to a pen&paper RPG, when you're in York, and you want to go to Ryton, and the Game Master would say, “okay, this is the path you would take to get there, and this is how many days it would take.” And if you take that course, then your icon will be represented travelling along the path. There'll be marked off spaces where it recommends that you camp, and if you choose not to camp, you'll incur exhaustion penalties. If you're in a rush for some reason, or if you want to avoid camping events, then you can choose to speed through it without resting.
Bubbles: So the movement between regions is turn based?
AM: Well, it's sort of “time based”. You'll see the route, and it may say “it'll take 3 days, and you'll need to camp 2 times.” It'll also recommend where you should camp to avoid exhaustion. But you can camp whenever you want. So you can camp more frequently; for example, if you have a lot of herbs, and want to convert them to medicine, but you only have a couple of camp spots before you arrive at the next place, then maybe you would choose to camp more often.
Bubbles: If I understand you correctly, you're doing this because people were finding it a bit tedious to do these things manually, in turns?
AM: Yeah, exactly. Over the three to four hundred days that most people play the game [Conquistador], doing all the camp stuff became incredibly tedious. So we're trying something different to change that fact. We want to encourage exploration in the game, so that people don't go “Oh God, not again! To get there, I have to walk all the way, which is gonna take all this time and every time I gotta camp… “et cetera, et cetera. We hope that these adjustments in the mechanics will help with that.
Camping Mechanics: Choosing Sites and Using Skills
AM: Let me show you what we have in the build. I've already pressed the camp button here. When we press the button, between three and five randomly generated camping sites pop up on the screen. They have a ranking from 1 to 5 for three different statistics. Security: how easy it is for someone to attack you or steal from you, Shelter: how good the ground is to sleep on, and how much stuff like water and firewood is available, and Food: how plentiful the food is in the region, and how decent of a catch you'll get when hunting. These [sites] are randomly generated every time you camp, but once you've picked one, it stays on the map permanently, because you know that particular space. So on your trip back, you might click on that camp, because you know it's a decent camp, and you'd rather go there than risk getting a crappier one.
Bubbles: Is there an explanation for why the other camp sites disappear?
AM: I don't really have an explanation for that, but the idea is that your party has scouted out some areas, and when you pick one, you say “This is the place we're gonna go to, and screw all these other places.” Okay, so let's pick one of these camp sites… “3-4-4” looks pretty good. 1 and 2 are penalties, 3 is neutral, and 4 and 5 are bonuses. So we'll just take that one… and now we enter our new camping scene.
We're creating a variety of camp scenes that represent the way the [surrounding] region looks. We want to give players a new perspective on the world instead of just the top down perspective. Here's all of our different inventory items [there's no screenshot of this]; some of them you recognize like rations and herbs, and also some new ones, like hide. You can use them to craft armour or upgrade your homestead. Here's your character list: we have 5 characters in our party right now. This camping scene will take 12 hours; we've got 4 shifts, and each shift is represented by a 3 hour block. There's a rest counter that's ticking down in the background that counts down to exhaustion, and you reset that by resting. To actually get rested, you need to make the character rest for 2 consecutive shifts. On the last shift, you can use a task called “Clean.” And when you tidy up your camp, there's a reduced chance that bandits will stumble upon your camp and attack you a while later. You should also guard your camp on each shift.
I'll show you the injury and infection system: Thorleif Oathbreaker here has a light infection to the groin – that's very unfortunate. That means that he has a limited number of things he can do in camp. In Conquistador, a character couldn't do anything in camp when they were injured – they could just get healed. But with the smaller party size, we didn't want to put players into a death spiral. If you were playing on a higher difficulty, and three of your characters got injured, and they couldn't do anything, that could be a game ender. So we need to do something a little different. We don't let your characters engage in the more active behaviours, but they can still guard – they can just sit there and look –, they can Preserve, Tinker, and do Witchcraft. Witchcraft is basically the herbalism from Conquistador, but again based on the Viking mystical beliefs. Creating a medicine might make [the Vikings] believe that the medicine had mystical properties; when someone takes herbs and turns them into medicine, they might also be performing rituals that they thought would imbue it with the mystical powers to heal. And we refer to that as “witchcraft” to maintain a sort of contextual element.
We made a mock-up screen to show you the variety of injuries you can incur and how they work. You can get hit in the head, eyes, chest, gut, and groin. Each of them affects one of the character's statistics. These statistics are used for the different checks in the game; they can affect things like how many hit points you have – that's Endurance. Finesse is essentially your agility; Perception and Finesse are both used for ranged shots. With a light groin inquiry, our character Thorleif is going to have a small Finesse penalty. So if he tries to use a bow, he's going to be a lot weaker with it. We also have the same thing we did in Conquistador, where there are six tiers to an injury, the sixth one being death. A more serious injury has a higher chance of getting even worse if you don't treat it. But if you do treat it, you will definitely prevent the injury from becoming worse, and you will also have a chance to reduce its severity; that [chance] is based on your healing skill.
We also have an auto-allocation system for meat; you can sort your units [in the “food queue”] from healthiest to weakest, or most loyal to least, or the other way around; there's a lot of options. Of course, you'll be able to micro-manage that manually if you want. All of the party members will prefer to eat meat before they eat rations. If they can't eat anything, they'll start to starve, which makes them weaker and unhappy.
Bubbles: I notice you have decimals on the screen: “54.5% Guarding.” Is that something you want to retain in the final build? It's quite a small number.
AM: I don't know if the guys wanna change that, but… you know, we kinda get excited about stats. I like this, because it helps you to understand what the contribution of each of the units is. The math that we run in the background results in decimal numbers, and when you start rounding those, you start losing useful information.
Bubbles: Or you could do it in secret; you could show “55%” on the main screen, and when you hover over it, it's actually 54.5%.
AM: Ohhh, that's terrible! That's evil!
Bubbles: Yes, it is.
AM: You know, we do like that kind of stuff though! [laughs] Interesting thought.
Bubbles: Did you choose these resting skills for injured characters based on realism? Or was it simply because these are the skills that have to be covered by the party at all times?
AM: Well, this is not necessarily a permanent rule set, but that's the idea: if you don't guard, for example, there's a huge chance that you're gonna be attacked, and that can lead to a huge death spiral. We want to be make sure that even an injured character can guard.
Bubbles: Do you have an injury that slows you down on the overland map, or is the travel speed fixed?
AM: The speed on that map is basically fixed, but in combat you'll have a mobility injury that will reduce your movement there.
Character Design and Considerations of Balance
AM: The characters in the game are going to be a bit different. In Conquistador, you had this pool of 30 people that you drafted 10 characters from. In this game, since you start off very modestly, in a small village, you don't have many allies. You're a young Viking, the son of the former leader, so you don't have a lot of friends. So now we have the opportunity to create a deeper storyline for each of the unique characters that we're putting into the game. They still have their backstories, but they also have unique events that will happen for them throughout the game. Whereas in Conquistador, we had unique events, but most of them were based on your attributes, personality traits, things like that. If you played through [Conquistador] multiple times, the character who's adventurous would ask if they could leave early on in the game. But that person could change [depending on who you took with you], because we needed a system that would allow for the draft to work. Whereas in this one, we're doing it a little bit differently. One of the things the designer really wanted to do was to give you the ability to dismiss a party member you don't like. Maybe they have a bit of a shitty personality, or their skills don't fit your play style. Then you can hire a mercenary to replace them, and you'll use the character customization system [the same one that's used for the main character] to pick their stats and their skills. But mercenaries won't have storyline elements. They will have some personality traits, and they will pipe up in group conversations, but they won't necessarily have these unique arcs throughout the game.
Bubbles: I remember that Pillars of Eternity offered a similar system, where mercenaries were available to replace any party members you didn't like. And people said “Why would I want to use mercenaries on my first playthrough, when I want to experience the full story? I'd rather play with a character I don't like, just to see where it's going, than to have a character who's not integrated into the story.”
LA: And I agree with that; you know, I've never done this type of “replacement.” But I know there's people out there who might want that – like power gamers, for example… like, in my Pathfinder group, I play with a couple of power gamers. I'm not a power gamer, I play a Sorcerer who does a lot of crowd control and doles out the buffs to help everybody out. But there's a guy who has an elven curve blade, which is ridiculous that he has the training skills for, because he shouldn't, he's a human. And he takes that because it's got a crit range from 18 to 20. And now he just smashes everybody. And I say, like, “come on!” But, you know, some people like to play that way, and we respect that.
Bubbles: How far are you taking this whole “making options for power gamers” theme? Do you offer a lot of stats, for instance?
LA: Yeah, there's a variety of character stats. I don't have the character sheets in this build, but we'll be showing that to you guys soon enough. The idea is that you'll have different stats that you start with, and then you'll have different traits and skills; passive combat skills as well as active combat skills. It can't hurt to mention at this point that the XP system is different now. In Conquistador we had a party pool of XP, and you'd give that to who you wanted. In this sequel, we're giving everybody who's in the party the same amount of XP every time you gain XP. We wanted to avoid “A-team” kind of behaviour, because that's what everybody would do in Conquistador; you might have 16 or 17 people in your party by the end game, but you'd only take the same six people in your core team. You'd save XP, and you'd [get these six characters to] max level.
We're also doing something different with the character inventory system. In Conquistador, we had this resource called “Equipment”, and the more equipment slots you filled with that resource, the better your armour and weapons were. I actually kinda liked that; I thought it worked quite decently. But we actually have a loot based system in this game; you actually equip your characters with gear. You can say “right hand: sword or axe, and left hand: shield.” There's two handed weapons, spears, some bows-
Bubbles: Magic weapons?
LA: No! The thing about that is… we play inside that concept of superstition. The idea is, as the player, you can always explain away what the characters are experiencing, but it's real for them. They were heavily into their religion; it was myth, and magic, and mysticism. When they would craft a steel weapon, the carbon that was mixed into the iron sometimes came from bits of burnt bone from an animal or ancestor, or an enemy that was particularly powerful. The idea was that this imbued the weapon with a mystical strength. So that weapon will give bonuses to a character, but it may be special to one character in particular. For example, the protagonist might be wielding his father's sword, which might give him something like a crit bonus because he knows it belonged to his father. That's a psychosomatic element, like giving sugar pills to very sick patient to make them strong enough to fight back the disease. In Conquistador, we had one mystical weapon – a spear –, we had the crystal skull, and we had shamans who could curse you. I believe that sort of thing is explainable because of the superstitions of the time; whether they were the natives or the Spanish Christians, the idea of a curse was vividly real to their ignorance. We believe that we can play with some of these things in this game as well, without making it high fantasy or anything like that. These aren't magic weapons, but they are magic for the characters. For example, with a weapon that causes bleeding, you find the weak points because you're so confident with the blade – or something like that. That's the idea.
Bubbles: Does armour give a total reduction or a percentage reduction?
AM: A percentage reduction. And if you have a shield, there's block chance as well. Then you have Parry, a defensive manoeuvre; it gives me damage reduction, but it also gives me a chance for a counter-attack with reduced damage on the enemy turn.
Bubbles: I've heard that you were switching to a “free” character development system: you don't have classes anymore, but you just pick skills. That seems to me like it would potentially homogenize characters, especially if there are some really powerful options that you'd want to have on every character in your party.
AM: Okay, counter point [laughs exhaustedly]: in Conquistador there was a lot of customization of your “A-team”, where you picked the characters that best suited your playstyle. I've read a bunch of arguments online where people said “I don't use Hunters, Hunters are shit! I hate them!” But I like to have two Hunters in my party every time, because I use them in a different way that that person used them. They're like “Scouts and Soldiers, that's all I do! Power, power, power!” And other people say “I use four Hunters and two Soldiers to tank, and then I just do ranged, ranged, ranged!” And the thing is that-
Logic Artists Henchman Who's Been Eavesdropping for a While: Can I just make a small point? We won't have a class system, but based on your skill choices, the game will actually tell you “this character is a Fighter.” So we'll give you some hints on how to create base classes, but you'll not be specialized into any of those classes. Sorry!
AM: Nono, that's good, that helps out! But the thing is, for me, we do have that variety of skills and abilities, and weapon types, and people will always gravitate towards something they like. But we'll have enough diversity in the abilities that you'll be able to think that your system is the best, and somebody else will be able to think that theirs is better. And that will obviously cause some discussion about who can build the most powerful powergaming team, but what I found is that it's really more about your own personal choices. If you like the Scouts and their high damage, you use them, and if you like the Hunters and their ranged abilities, then you use them.
Bubbles: Are you interested in seeing what kinds of skills people choose before the game is released? For instance, will you be doing early access or some kind of [open] beta, or are you waiting for the post-release phase to patch and tweak those systems while people are playing the game?
AM: Well, we're not gonna do Early Access for this game – at least, that's not the plan. Maybe we will, if it… if it... uhm… I mean, when we used Early Access for Clandestine [which is actually still in Early Access], for example, the goal was just to introduce the game to our players. It wasn't necessarily about generating a bunch of income, but about getting players. Which we got [for Conquistador] when we did a Kickstarter, because we got people who signed up for beta access and all that kind of stuff, and then we got a bunch of feedback from the beta and did a bunch of tweaking based on that. So we're definitely gonna do a beta, certainly a closed beta. I'm not sure about an open beta, since we don't want people spoiling the game, but the idea is that we'll invite at least a few hundred people to play-
Bubbles: Most of them from the Codex, I trust.
AM: Well, there'll be a number of codes available for the Codex for certain. But the idea is that we'll have this little group of players who'll try out the game and give us feedback, so we can see how they're playing it. We're not strong on this point right now, but I think we're gonna try to get some metrics into the beta so we can figure out what kinds of skills people use, so we can tweak and adapt the system to make it more interesting. We'll have a big barrage of passive skills and active skills based on weapon choices, and we definitely want to know which of those combos are too OP. If everybody makes a Sword-and-Shield character and picks Hardened and Strider, so they move fast, they have a ton of hitpoints, and they just go “smash, smash, smash!” with their swords... I mean, it's not that bad, because they're Vikings after all. But we'd also be interested in seeing how many people invest in ranged combat, and how many people invest in [reach] weapons.
Text Events and Combat Chat
Now I'm gonna make camp, and we see a time lapse; we see the characters do some of the different tasks in camp [while walking around in the 3D environment]. Now we have an event that occurs:
Ketill has a higher Hunting skill, so he'll probably be better for this job. We don't really tell you what kind of stat we're checking when you send somebody [on a mission]. In this case, I need to send somebody out to check what's happening; I probably want them to be sneaky, but we don't have a Stealth stat in the game. So I'm gonna pick somebody out of the offered choices who maybe can be sneaky. This way, we bring in more of that [pen and paper] RPG element; you're not really sure what the GM is checking, but you can get an idea from the context. So we send out Ketill, he sneaks off, and then he reports back to tell us that it's Mercians [i.e. enemy forces]. So now we can make a choice: we can retreat, which can be a good idea on higher difficulties, but I'm not gonna do that.
Or we can fight. We can't let any of the enemies escape alive, because our party is currently on a raid and if any of those bandits escape, they might warn the local peasantry. You won't see an escape zone in this battle area, but that's just because we haven't made those yet. Now we start the battle, and we get a camera shift. It's the same scene [the 3D camp site], but now we see it from the view of the tactical camera. You'll also have various attack options in combat. One of these is called Double Feint: you do three attacks at 50% damage against your opponent, with a chance to blind the target for two turns.
Now I'm going to finish this enemy off. That brings us to the finishing moves – the kill cams. [You can see one here, courtesy of the 0-3 brigade.] They're dynamic, so they're different for different weapons. This is another thing we do to bring people more into the world. Because when you always see the world from [the isometric perspective], you don't get as much of a feeling for the visceral experience of combat or for the environments. So we can swing the camera in and do something a little bit cinematic. But we'll also give players the option of turning that off.
Bubbles: Hardcore players who put like 100 or 200 hours into a game like HoMM often complain about having to watch the same animations again and again. They'd prefer to be able to speed up the animations to be very fast, or even turn them off completely. Do you offer that?
AM: We don't right now, but it's an interesting option. One of the things you may have noticed from Conquistador is that we love options menus, so I would recommend that any people who are interested in that kind of feature should go on the Codex and say “this is something that we would like,” and then see what the guys think. It's really up to the designer and the creative director what they wanna do, but the whole point of having the subforum on the Codex is that people can talk to us.
Bubbles: Playing a game like Expeditions: Conquistador on the highest difficulty can greatly change the gameplay; you have to worry about preserving resources and spending your moves wisely, which is much less of a problem on normal mode. Are you planning to offer a similar difficulty system in Viking?
AM: Yeah, the difficulty settings will affect the combat for certain. If you play on higher difficulties, you'll also get fewer attacks of opportunity, because the enemy will be smart enough to avoid them. Then you can use the Champion's Taunt skill, which will force the enemy to move like three squares toward him. So you can set up little gauntlets of death and get lots of attacks of opportunity. [At this point commences a long, shamefully nitpicky debate about how realistic the taunt mechanic is. It would not make for good reading.]
Narrative Design and C&C
Bubbles: How do you feel about the socially conscious elements of the games? I thought there was a very interesting dynamic in Conquistador, where you were playing a European who was sent out to conquer a “wild land” filled with strange people…
AM: Imperialism, right.
Bubbles: Right, and I think that offered a relatively novel perspective, which presented players with interesting choices about how to interact with these people. And now you're doing Vikings, which are in many ways more explored, but also… well, you can contend that they're often presented as a one-dimensional culture. You have that imperative to survive, you want to prove yourself in battle and gain glory… to me it seems that the setting might not be quite as interesting as in Conquistador.
AM: Ah, I see what you're getting at. You know, the thing about the Vikings for me is that they have a warrior caste system, that there's the focus on glory and Valhalla and all that stuff. But Vikings weren't just savage, idiotic warriors – they were smart. You know, in Denmark, I was at a party and I met a Danish Viking archaeologist. We started talking about the game, and he quoted an old Viking proverb; something along the lines of “Don't get into a fight that you can't win.” So they didn't just charge gloriously into battle like idiots.
Bubbles: But they could be taunted!
AM: But they could be taunted, yes. Well, you know that politics in that time were very very interesting, and you can always provoke somebody into a conflict – you know, the internet is full of that, we do that as humans all the time-
Bubbles: You mean the trolls? Yeah, they're horrible people.
AM: Oh yeah. Well, not only were the Vikings fierce and dangerous warriors, but they were also savvy tradespeople. The Vikings had trade routes all across Europe, but also all the way down into [the East Roman Empire]. Their trade routes went all the way down rivers and lakes until they reached into the Middle East – and you can't just be a bunch of violent idiots if you can achieve that much. The Vikings also managed to settle in England for a while; I think that is something that requires quite a bit of intelligence. You know, same as in Conquistador, you'll have the opportunities for violence, but you'll also have the opportunities for politics and power playing. You can also manipulate regional politics in your local area; sometimes, playing politics will be a better choice than engaging in battle. I think we'll be able to capture that kind of intrigue in our writing, so we can challenge people to think about what they're going to do.
Bubbles: Would you say that the basic conceit of the story is a more standard situation [compared to Conquistador]? There's this young Viking trying to protect his village, to grow into greatness, to gain glory – that's a fairly common trope, isn't it?
AM: I would like the writers to explain that point better, but I think you could say the same thing about Conquistador, because the story is the same: you're a young conquistador, who's setting out for money and to gain glory for themselves, for their country and their family.
Bubbles: But there's also a bit of a culture shock narrative there, right?
AM: That's true, there's a cultural clash. And the core philosophy of the Expedition series is this: we take a time in history where exploration was a key element, but also conflict. And these are the key ingredients for creating an Expeditions game. And cultural conflict can be one element of that. I think there is going to be cultural conflict between the English and the Vikings, because they didn't really know about each other before the raids began. So there's quite a bit of conflict potential there, as well as in becoming involved in the local politics, the way that we did in Conquistador. When you arrive in Mexico [in the first game], you meet the Aztecs, you meet the Totonacs, and they're about to start a war. And you can do missions for either side, you can pit them up against each other, and then finally you have to pick a side. I think there's a lot of situations we can play with in this game, and there'll be a lot of situations where the storyline will progress past a point of no return for different veins of the story. I think that's going to make some of the decisions harder for the players.
Bubbles: I talked to the producers of HoMM 7 [R.I.P.] a while ago, and they mentioned that one of their goals was to bring the players into a situation where we would “learn a lesson;” they wanted to tell stories with a moral. Do your games have that sort of “educational” element to them as well, or would you say that they're primarily about having fun?
AM: I think that there's something going on that's a bit deeper than just pure entertainment. The reason we picked a historical setting is to talk about the fact that things are going on in history, but in a new context. As a 21st century player, you know about history or you can easily learn about it. You're less ignorant than the people who came before you, so there are of course lessons to be learned. That's one of the things we found very interesting about the results of player choices in Conquistador: when players wanted to do something nasty in the game, we went out of our way to make sure that you knew exactly how nasty you were being. We don't just let you do the dirty deeds and then have a chuckle about them; we force you to read in graphic detail about how horrible some of your actions and behaviour are. That isn't necessarily done to teach you a lesson; we want to impress upon you that these things, when they happened in history, were brutal, awful, and really visceral experiences. And we think that using text is a great way to do that, because your imagination is often much more powerful than graphic depictions. That's also one of the reasons why we don't use voice over in our games.
Bubbles: Oh yeah, I never had that moment where I thought: “Boy, I wish I could hear that character's voice in the game!” I think that's not something that your audience needs at all – at least, not your audience on the Codex.
AM: Oh yeah, you guys are very much our audience; it's an 18+ game. The kill cams will also have decapitations and dismemberment and stuff, so killing people in the game is going to be increasingly more violent than it was in the previous game. Again, this is dealing with the consequences of your actions, and dealing with the brutality of the time. It's hard to engage in your own power fantasy if the things you are experiencing are visceral enough to make you think about them; they challenge you on whether or not it's as fun as you think it is.
Bubbles: Yeah, but it's a slippery slope; I'm coming from the Fallout 4 presentation, and there was a lot of cartoonish imagery about people being dismembered, guts splashing to the floor, et cetera, and people laughed about that. If you are too gory, you might run the risk of desensitizing people, or you may find that they're having a strange sort of fun with it.
AM: That's a good point. We'll experiment with that in our project, and I'm really excited to see how it comes out. The first thing we need to do is to finish the game and release it, to see what people think.
Bubbles: So I need to tell the people on the Codex that they should strongly disagree if they don't like something? That they should be extremely vocal about it?
AM: Definitely with each other! [laughs]
AM: That's one of the things I love about the Codex. People are brutally, brutally honest with each other: “Yes, what you're saying is crap!” I read an interview with Chris Avellone, I think it was at PAX… It was a whole group of developers sitting together, and they were all kind of like “oh, oh, the Codex strikes fear in the hearts of developers.” And I read that and I thought: “That's not the way that I perceive the Codex.” I'm sometimes a very blunt person. I'm very straightforward, and I'll swear, but that doesn't mean that I want to hurt people's feelings – I just want to get my point across. So when I read something with a whole bunch of expletives and there's also a point in there, then I just read the point. Everything else is irrelevant. It doesn't really matter how people are communicating, it's what they're communicating. The whole point of the Codex is that it's a place where people can be themselves, and if they wanna be rude, they're gonna be rude. It's a sort of take-it-or-leave-it environment, and there's no reason to be afraid of that. You know, as game developers, we're a bunch of socially awkward people. And when you live and work amongst a bunch of socially awkward people, then talking to other socially awkward people should be fairly easy for you. And you should be a little bit empathetic and understand where they're coming from. I'm not always the most polite person myself, and that's something that I think should be easily accepted [by devs who read the Codex]. But it's important that everybody should have the same level of appreciation. You shouldn't get dragged into an argument, because that's not the point. It's about bringing up the things that you like and dislike about the game, and then be challenged on them. If you go back and forth based on that, then that's exactly the kind of feedback that game developers should wanna have. If you develop a culture of communication with your players where you only listen to the polite people, then you're not gonna get to the root of any of your problems. I mean, people are rude, but that doesn't mean they're wrong.
Bubbles: I can see why you were promoted!
Bubbles: When I see this game, I see a company that's doing well for itself. You're in a good place right now; are you planning on doing more Expeditions games, perhaps with the freedom to experiment and expand a bit more?
AM: Thanks! Yeah, absolutely, that's why we named it the Expeditions series, even though it's only two games. We love the context of the franchise, and the opportunity to make RPGs inside of this theme, which is something that's not really explored by people- [we're interrupted by a group of people who ask us to clear the booth]. Yeah, I think with Expeditions we have the opportunity to make interesting creative decisions. Our creative guys love the historical setting because they don't have to deal with orcs and wizards and dragons and that sort of thing. Not that there's anything wrong with high fantasy games, but there is so much comparison and competition that it's really hard to stand out and have an interesting set of mechanics as well as an interesting story and a well-developed combat system. So we get to use the historical setting as a way of challenging ourselves inside some historical parameters, and I think a lot of creativity comes out of that – out of that restriction.
Bubbles: Wonderful. Can I take a quick picture?
AM: Yeah, of course!
To be honest, I've never held a strong opinion on Expeditions: Conquistador either way. The game offered a respectable amount of C&C, but its travel and combat mechanics eventually became too repetitive for my taste; if it hadn't been for its novel and interesting setting, I'd have abandoned the game a lot sooner than I did. By contrast, the setting of Viking seems to be more familiar and predictable; at least for me, it doesn't hold quite as much appeal anymore. Thankfully, Viking's changes to the equipment system and the character development mechanics could potentially make the gameplay more dynamic and interesting than it was in the first game; and if the gameplay is good, what else matters? On the other hand, the super gory kill cams and the animated 3D camp screens are big warning signs for me; all the talk about achieving immersion by means of extreme violence and "showing the world from another perspective" sounds suspiciously like mainstream pandering to me. And then there's the concept of roaming large regions for hours on end without ever camping or advancing the day/night timer, which I really find enormously strange. Let's hope that the Codex gets lots of beta keys, so that we may help Logic Artists to stay on the path of righteousness.
This is also the proper place to give my impressions on Gamescom as a whole. First off: I think the feeling of disappointment that Grunker, Jarl, and Roxor experienced in the last two years was mostly the result of slack organization. This was the first time that I made a dedicated effort to scour the internet for Gamescom-related press releases and to figure out the right e-mail addresses to contact for appointment requests. Organizing and coordinating all of these appointments took many, many man hours, but I think it paid off reasonably well. I managed to book presentations and interviews for 31 games, which translated to a full morning-to-evening, no-lunch-breaks-allowed schedule for all three days. While I saw a lot of terrible games, I can honestly say that I found the experience to be both entertaining and informative. In fact, it was so startlingly informative that me and Jarl managed to produce a good 49,000 words of high quality reporting on the event. This was perhaps a bit too much, if only because it led to a near two-month delay in coverage; maybe next year's report should be a few thousand words shorter. Or maybe we'll just hire a professional transcriptionist, because typing off all of those tapes really got on my nerves after a while.
Finally, the big question: what can Gamescom 2015 tell us about the state of the modern role playing game? Not much, because most of the indie RPGs were missing. This year's PAX East seemed to be positively overrun with bright eyed and bushy tailed indie developers who were eager to talk about their new game ideas; by contrast, the huge Indie Arena Booth at Gamescom didn't even have a single noteworthy role playing game to offer. As a consequence, the Gamescom RPG scene consisted mostly of AAA titles, risk-averse franchise games, and various types of Enhanced Editions, with the most promising announcement of the season (D:OS 2, of course) arriving just a little too late for the event. Meanwhile, the only new RPG at the trade fair that could even remotely be described as "old school" was Expeditions: Viking, and even there the devs were hard at work abolishing turn based map travel and coding some wicked finishing moves. In short, I saw no RPGs at Gamescom that any sane person could get genuinely excited about.
Ultimately, I would recommend attending Gamescom chiefly for the entertainment value. You won't see many good games there, but it's a fine place to go if you want to laugh at the excesses of triple-A marketing and bemoan the downfall of once-great developers and franchises. And really, doesn't that make it a perfect event for the Codex?
Next up: Nothing, I'm done.