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RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Guido Henkel on Realms of Arkania

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RPG Codex Retrospective Interview: Guido Henkel on Realms of Arkania

Interview - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Thu 15 November 2012, 11:55:32

Tags: Attic Entertainment; Guido Henkel; Realms of Arkania; Retrospective Interview

Retrospective Interview with Guido Henkel on the Realms of Arkania games

Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny was released in 1992 in Germany and quickly picked up by Sir-Tech who knew a good RPG when they saw it and released it in North America in 1993. It was followed by an outstanding sequel - Star Trail - in 1994 and a not so outstanding sequel - Shadows over Riva - in 1996.

The Realms of Arkania games were party-based, turn-based, non-linear RPGs; isometric in combat, bird's eye view when traveling, first person in towns and dungeons. Notable features included challenging combat, great atmosphere created by text-adventure elements, and the best travel system that's ever graced the computer screen. Blade of Destiny inspired certain doctors to make Baldur's Gate, but cheap Canadian knock offs couldn't compete with the famed German engineering.

Vince D. Weller from Irontower Studios did a Let's Play of Realms of Arkania: Star Trail, dubbed The Lost Magic, on their own forum, which you can consult to get a feeling of what these games were about:

"The game is powered by Das Schwarze Auge, which, as all German things are, is better designed and more complex than its American counterpart. In other words, rolling “six whole characters” takes awhile. You have to consider countless options, make and delete characters, and figure out who’s doing what (talking about non-combat abilities) and how to spread these abilities in the most efficient way. In the age of semi-retarded action rpg hybrids the number of things you characters are expected to do is staggering.

You start by rolling your stats: Strength, Agility, Dexterity, Courage, Intuition, Wisdom, Charisma. Then your personality traits: Superstition, Acrophobia (fear of heights), Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed environments including but not limited to caves, crypts, dungeons, and other popular destination spots), Avarice (everyone’s favorite sin), Necrophobia (fear of undead), Curiosity (the silent killer), and Violent Temper (collar grabbing).

If you are not happy with some values, you can increase them manually, but for every point you add to the stats, you must add two points to the traits. I’m not sure if it’s an invitation to abuse the system or not, as I don’t recall how important the traits are. Superstition affects your magic resistance, so it appears to be an important trait. I don’t want my party members to freak out when they run into a skeleton in a dungeon deep beneath the earth, so I’ll keep the fear of undead and underground places low. Not sure about Acrophobia though, but I suppose we’ll get a chance to discover it soon enough."

Anyway, it was about time for our "Retrospective Interview" series to move to the Realms of Arkania games and thus we caught up with Guido Henkel, co-founder of Attic, and got him to answer a few questions. So, without further ado, the interview:

1. What's your definition of RPG and how did it evolve over the years?

To me, there are a few factors that make up role-playing. First and foremost, I think, it should be an adventure, in the sense of that it creates an exciting world and story that pulls the player in on some kind of quest. Exploration is a big factor also, along with critical decision making, which leads to certain character developments. And then there is combat, of course. While not necessarily integral, I think combat is always fun and should be part of a good RPG.

The key, however, is that fun should always trump the mechanics. A game that is tedious is missing the point, I think. The game should captivate the player, entertain and challenge him in his actions and thinking.

With the graphic capabilities of today’s computers we have moved away from role-playing games where the imagination played a big part to something that resembles more of a movie experience. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand you limit the player’s imagination, but at the same time you create something that is fascinatingly beautiful or exotic at the same time. Which one is preferable depends on how you look at it, I suppose.

2. Blade of Destiny and Star Trail were fairly unique RPGs that stood out even in the Golden Age of games. How did they come to be? What were the goals? What influenced the design decisions?

The genesis of these games was quite intriguing, actually. We had just completed Spirit of Adventure at the time, the first role-playing game that attic did, and it was published by Starbyte, a German publisher. As it turned out, Starbyte told us that they had the rights to the Pen&Paper game that the Realms of Arkania series is based on [editors note: Das Schwarze Auge, The Dark Eye in english] and asked us if we would like to do a product for them using the license.

The kicker was that we were dying to do that, but we had serious issues with Starbyte. It was a horribly crooked company that cheated us and all of its other developers out of their money. So naturally, we were reluctant to work with them. However, when we talked to the actual rights owners of the Realms of Arkania Pen&Paper games, it turned out that Starbyte had been bluffing. They did not actually have the rights… yet. They were in negotiations, but when the licensor learned about their dirty business practices they decided to sign with us instead, and off we went to make the games. For us it was a great way to obtain the license, and for them it was a great way to do some work in the computer games field, because some of the original designers of the Pen&Paper games were itching to do some cRPG work.

The general consensus was at the time to create a computer RPG that was as close to the Pen&Paper game as possible, so there were no shortcuts at all. We implemented the entire set of game rules, the entire set of attributes and talents from the Pen&Paper original and worked them into the game as best as we could.

3. What were the games' undeniable strengths, in your opinion? What did they do really well, better than most games?

The area where these games truly excelled, in my opinion, was the micromanagement of characters. I know, it sounds bad, but for many players this is what they were looking forward to. We wanted to make the most hard core RPG out there, and I think we succeeded, all the way down to making sure players were feeding their characters on a regular schedule. Naturally, this kind of level of detail did not sit well with everyone. Many players and reviewers criticized the games for having too many minutiae in them to keep track of.

4. Considering that exploration was first-person and you moved one step at a time, first-person, real-time combat a-la Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Lands of Lore, etc. would have been a more obvious choice. Yet it was turn-based and isometric. Why?

I have always felt that real-time combat in a party based game is not only unrealistic but also extremely limiting. The beauty of role-playing is that you let your imagination go wild and if you force the player to revert to reflexive hacking and slashing, you are, in a way, defeating the purpose of RPGs. I prefer to take my time, appraise a situation and make tactical decisions. This kind of approach takes time since you need to do this kind of situational analysis for each member of the party. Therefore, real-time combat was never an option we considered seriously.

5. How were these games received by the media and gamers when they were released?

Mixed, I would say. We never received any real bad reviews, but there were clearly reviewers out there who did not understand what we were trying to do, or could not appreciate the approach. However, within the role-playing community, the games were truly celebrated. They won numerous awards as best RPG of the year, even in some of the major, mainstream gaming magazines at the time, like Computer Gaming World and Strategy Plus.

Role-players loved the game and still do. Even now, 20 years after making Blade of Destiny, people regularly approach me, telling me how much they loved the game. There is a community of players out there who play these games even today, still. To me, that is the most gratifying badge of accomplishment, more so than selling a million copies—though selling a million copies would have been nice, too. :)

6. Looking back, after almost twenty years, how do you see these games? Chris Avellone, for example, feels that Planescape: Torment needed more dungeons. What do you think the Realms of Arkania games needed?

Planescape was never a dungeon-crawler and it was never supposed to be one. The game was conceived entirely as a study in character. The Realms of Arkania games were always different in that respect. To me high fantasy games are, to a very large degree, about dungeons. The first thing I see in my mind when thinking of fantasy games, is a dark dungeon with skeletons in it.

The one thing the Realms of Arkania games could have used a bit more of, perhaps, would have been visual variety. We were extremely limited with how much art we could include in the game. 2D pixel art takes a long time to do and is therefore very expensive by nature, and it takes up huge amounts of space. Media costs were still significant back then and we had to limit the number of CDs we could ship, so in the end, we had to limit how much graphic content we could put in the game.

7. Each subsequent game in the trilogy was different from the previous game. What were the reasons for the changes?

The idea was always to take what worked in the previous games and build on that. We removed the travel map in Shadows over Riva, for example, because too many people found it too tedious. In retrospect, I would definitely put it in again.

But also story wise were conscious decisions being made to create games that are very different from each other. We didn’t want to fall into the trap where players end up feeling that one game is like the other, and gets boring as a result. No, we definitely wanted to grow as developers, creators and we wanted to offer exciting games that people were eager to play.

8. Realms of Arkania's design clearly reflects the lack of any concerns for the fate of stupid and illiterate players. If they couldn't figure out how to survive harsh marshes through rain and snow and even harsher battles that followed, well, it was their problem - RPGs weren't for the intellectually weak. What are your thoughts on the unforgiving design in general and accessibility in particular?

I call it a challenge. Too many games pamper players these days. I am waiting for the day when players will call for a boycott of a certain game because they died in it. :)

Seriously, though, I’ve played so many games that you finish and realize that you needed absolutely no skill to play and finish them. All that was required was the time to sit through it. What’s the point in that?

Especially in the cRPG genre and its periphery we’ve come up with so many ways to prevent players from dying, I wonder what wonderfully macabre deaths we could have thought up instead if we had the guts to actually kill off players more frequently? We treat dying like the unwanted stepchild of games, when it should not be. It can be a challenge, it can be a hook, it can be frustrating but equally satisfying when at last you succeed.

To me a computer game should have a certain level of difficulty. That’s how I grew up, wasting countless quarters on arcade machines, trying to figure out how to get through it. Naturally, it should be properly balanced so that it does not turn into a torturous gauntlet that makes players’ give up entirely, but it should certainly challenge their abilities.

Therefore I’ve always been a huge proponent of adaptive gameplay, where games analyze what a player does and then adjusts the difficulty and content accordingly. It is something you may find very well in my upcoming game, “Thorvalla.”

…plus, it helped us sell strategy guides, hahaha!

9. If you had to guess, what would be the main reason why we aren't seeing games like Star Trail anymore?

These were niche products. It is easy to glorify these games in retrospect with nostalgic glasses on, but the fact of the matter is that compared to many other games and genres, games like Star Trail simply did not nearly make as much money. As a result publishers turned their backs on these kinds of hard core games and instead went down the path of streamlined mainstream products, especially since Baldur’s Gate proved very clearly at the time that there is a market for light role-playing games.

10. What did you learn while working on the RoA games? Any insights and valuable lessons that you can share with us?

Deep role-playing games are a hell of a lot of work. It may all look simple and straightforward on a stat sheet, but once you have to mesh all those little cogs together, things get extremely complex very quickly. So, no matter how simple a game may look from the outside, I will always appreciate the effort that went into it.

11. At some point you've left Germany and went to the States. How did this come about?

The answer to that is very simple. I got married to the greatest American lady imaginable. :)

12. Can you gives us a short run-down of your activities at Interplay? In what projects (besides PS:T) have you been involved there? Why did you leave?

I joined Interplay as the producer of Planescape: Torment. During the first months of our project, Fallout 2 was in crunch mode, however, and required additional manpower. So, a bunch of guys from the Planescape team, myself included, jumped in to help with various tasks. As a result, for a couple of weeks I was actually doing a bit of world and NPC scripting on Fallout 2.

Once that game was out the door, we finally had time to focus on Planescape: Torment again, and we continued to flesh out the design of the story. Once that was all set, I focussed on the technical design and worked very closely with one of the team’s programmers on the user interface and various visual effects we wanted to have in the game.

As we reached alpha stage, I also took on the responsibility to work with Bioware on Neverwinter Nights, a game that was in its early design stages at that point.

In the end, however, I got frustrated with the corporate politics going on at Interplay, particularly after the company had gone public. The focus changed overnight from that of “by gamers for gamers” to “let’s ship it to make our fiscal quarter and patch it up later.”

13. What are you up to these days?

For the past years I’ve been working a lot in the mobile field, writing games for cell phones. It was a lot of fun and gave me a good kick of retro, but it got very repetitive. So three years ago I turned to writing. I created and wrote a series of dime novels called the Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter series. It is a pulpy series of supernatural mysteries taking place in Victorian England—kind of like Sherlock Holmes meets Van Helsing. I created eleven stories in the series until the game-bug came back to bite me. :)

So, right now, I am working on the design of a new computer role-playing game, called Thorvalla. I am in the last stages of preparations, as I write this, to start off a Kickstarter campaign to get funding for the project. Let’s hope this goes well, so I can dive into it full-time and create another exciting role-playing game. I’m certainly fevering for it after all these years…

14. What do you think about the Drakensang games? Have you played them? How do they stack up against the RoA games? Did Radon Labs ever contact you for advice?

I checked out the original Drakensang when Radon Labs showed me the game for the first time during E3. They did not contact me for advice or anything, and looking at the game I hardly think they needed it, but they were curious to get my impressions of it. I loved the look of it, as it truly felt like the Realms of Arkania universe. I was very much looking forward to playing the game when it was released, but I could never get it to run. The copy protection was hideous and made it completely impossible for me to start the game half the time, and when it was running, the game was so dog-slow that I very quickly lost interest.

I also played a bit of Herokon, the online browser game, but like all browser MMOs, I find it a good bit too sluggish, and the graphics too tiny on a high resolution display. Overall, it looks like a fun game, but again, I just could not get into it. Part of the problem was also, that I felt there was too little going on and there was no real “life” in the game world.

Chains of Satinav is an adventure game in the Drakensang series, which I found extremely well done. Considering that my first games used to be adventure games, I do have a soft spot for that genre, and Chains of Satinav sat with me very well.

15. As a somewhat unrelated question, what do you think of the Kickstarter hype as of late? Any thoughts on the emergence of a whole bunch of "old-school", turn-based cRPGs on Kickstarter and elsewhere (see Chaos Chronicles)?

Of course, Kickstarter seems like the salvation for all those who always wanted to make more ambitious games but could not really afford to do so. After all, I am one of them.

There is this big rush going on currently that will inevitably result in some kind of over-saturation—you can already feel it setting in—but for the most part, I think it is a great trend. Anything that breaks with the traditional publishing model that has stifled the industry for too long, is a good thing in my book.

When it comes to old-school, however, I think we have to be very careful. There is a fine line, because there were some things that worked, and others that didn’t. Recreating a past experience without analyzing its flaws and improving upon them does no one good, in my opinion. If we want to recreate the charm of these games, I feel strongly that we have to extoll on their virtues and remove the flaws. Legend of Grimrock did a marvelous job at that, for example.

We'd like to thanks Guido for his time and wish him luck with his upcoming Thorvalla kickstarter project.

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