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RPG Codex Interview: Dan Vávra (Warhorse Studios)

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RPG Codex Interview: Dan Vávra (Warhorse Studios)

Interview - posted by Zed on Mon 11 February 2013, 20:24:58

Tags: Dan Vávra; Kingdom Come: Deliverance; Warhorse Studios


There's not a whole lot we know about Praguian developer Warhorse Studios' current project. So far untitled, the game they are working on is set in a historically accurate medieval world. We know that Warhorse will try to combine an open world experience with notable storytelling, as this is very much the strength of the studios - the people there have been involved in games such as Mafia 1 & 2, Operation Flashpoint and ARMA. They have also said the untitled game is an RPG. Like, really an RPG. Besides a leaked engine demonstration (see video below), that's just about everything we know of the game today.

I sent a series of questions to creative director Dan Vávra (whom you may have seen lurking the Codex) for the purpose of getting some insight into his creative thinking, but also, perhaps, learning a little more of what will go into Warhorse's first game.

Warhorse Studios got the attention of the RPG community by announcing the licensing of CryEngine 3 to develop an ambitious open-world RPG. For the purpose of this interview, I'll just call the game "Warhorse RPG". While the game remains unannounced, what can you tell us about the state of it? There was a video leaked from a presentation of yours not too long ago, showing some really impressive visuals. Should we expect big announcements this year?

If everything goes well, the game might be announced this year. We are currently finishing the prototype of the game, which our future depends on. I am quite happy with what we have. We managed to do most of the stuff we planned and I think that the result is impressive, but its not up to me to decide that. Those who will pay for the rest of the development will have to decide if it's good enough.​

Speaking of paying for development... What are your thoughts on crowdfunding, or pre-orders, as means to at least partially fund a game? Recently, there has been talk of Larian Studios going that route to raise some additional funds for their projects.

I think it's great that people can finance projects, which no producer would fund, and make them possible. There are lots of risks, because a lot of Kickstarter projects will probably fail, will not be finished or will be crappy, but those are risks worth taking.​

Warhorse Studios personnel have quite a bit of past experience working on 'realistic' titles. Not only in terms of gameplay realism, but also game world realism. It sounds like that's your approach for Warhorse RPG as well. What does game world realism entail when creating a fictional medieval world? Have you forced any must-read literature or must-see movies on the team?

I have studied a lot of literature about our period over the past few years, but perhaps I should say that I have studied it for my whole life, because I love history and it's my hobby. I was drawing pictures of medieval castles and epic battles with my grandparents when I was 5. I visited almost all castles in Bohemia as a kid—and we have lots of them. Also, since I studied at art school, I learned about history of art and architecture. Another person who has very thorough knowledge about the period is our concept artist, who is almost pedantic about historic accuracy. Our lead designer Viktor Bocan has studied a lot about combat and weapons. So it's mostly the three of us who tell other people how it should be.

One time, one of our graphic artists was creating a model of a pie. It looked absolutely photorealistic. But it had icing sugar on top. So I told him that it's great, but that regular people didn’t use sugar that much and icing sugar didn’t exist. He was not happy. And if that’s not enough, we consult a lot of stuff with three historians—people who do living history and fencers.​

The jolly folks at Warhorse Studios, with Dan Vávra on the far right (with the dog).

What sort of realism is most important to you? Realistic gameplay, realistic game world, or realistic behavior? In regards to Warhorse RPG, in what areas are you striving for realism?

It's not about making a simulation of any kind—it's about creating a believable, coherent world and a story that makes sense. Because the devil is in the details, every detail counts when making that world. So, it's not important how many things there will be in the game, but rather that the things are well-executed and makes sense.

A real-world example: I am making a castle for my game. It might be a fantasy game, so I may mix different architectonic styles or came up with my own, but I still have to stick to some rules. Are there long-range weapons in my world? Are there any flying enemies? Who lives in the castle? How will it be defended? When you think about such things, you could never design those absurd caricatures of medieval castles you may find in most RPGs. The Witcher is one of the few exceptions. Probably because those guys are from Poland, and unlike Americans, they have real medieval castles all around them.​

Speaking of the Witcher—The Witcher 3 was announced recently, with the main feature being that the game will have an open world approach. We have also heard speculation about Dragon Age 3 moving towards having a more open world as well. Why this sudden interest in open worlds for RPGs, do you think?

Skyrim! When something sells 20 million units, it will attract some attention. Publishers were hesitant about RPGs in the past—they are usually very buggy, complicated to develop and very hard to judge whether they're gonna sell or not. Open worlds are also very expensive, and being open world doesn’t guarantee a success. Look at True Crime, Sleeping Dogs, Dragons Dogma, or Amalur… But when they are done right, it's the ultimate entertainment. ​

Ah yes, Skyrim. I suppose it's the de facto king of the hill. What are your thoughts on Skyrim?

Well, as they say: In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. For me, Skyrim (or the Elder Scrolls series as a whole) is the one-eyed man. So far, it is the only western open world RPG worth mentioning. For that reason, I was more grateful for it than anyone else, but I have lots of issues with the game. It's an American vision of a medieval fantasy world and as such, it's more like Disneyland with bizarre architecture, medieval knights using katanas, half-naked female warriors, illogical quests and story that is often morally very uncomfortable for me (for instance offering no other than evil choices in quests). The RPG I would like to play was still not made, so I am trying to make it. I'm also eagerly awaiting the new Witcher, which seems like it could be something I will enjoy.​

The engine presentation. With over half a million hits on YouTube, it has garnered quite a bit of attention.

You are obviously passionate about medieval Europe, but you have also created Mafia I & II, set in prohibition-era gangster America. Are there any other settings that interest you? Something you'd like to work with in a hypothetical future?

I have a huge list of ideas I would like to work on someday. Not only games. I would like to write a fairytale for kids, I have concepts for a comic book… a lot of stuff. The only problem is that I'm a very lazy person. But if I have to confine myself to games, I would like to do a first-person shooter my way. I play MilSim paintball, I have several friends who were in Iraq or Afghanistan, so I know how much different actual combat is from what we get in games—even the games trying to be hardcore simulations. I would like to do a realistic, but accessible FPS. It sucks that games take so much time to make.​

To touch on one of the Codex' favorite subjects: what do you think makes an RPG? In the context of open world games, the line between simulation/adventure and RPG seems quite blurry. What makes Warhorse RPG qualify as an RPG, for instance?

Years ago, when we played pen and paper, our goal was to experience something and make it as real as possible. The rules were the tools to make sure that the “simulation” would be accurate. When the computer RPGs started to appear, the premise was the same: I want to simulate how it is to be a knight wandering in a huge world, doing various stuff. The computers were not powerful enough, so a lot of stuff had to be left to the imagination and some kind of simulation based on numbers, luck and probabilities instead of real skill. I would say that the RPG rules and all those stats are just the means to simulate the world. RPG is an attempt for an ultimate simulation, that includes even the growth of the character and other things that are not visible.

Today, computers are powerful enough for accurate real-time visuals with all the simulation calculated in the background, and the controls are so sophisticated that it's possible to make very accurate skill-based simulation of combat or movement. So the RPG is no more about the dices and stats—it could be completely skill-based and it will finally resemble the real world as we all desired back in the days of pen and paper. Of course, a lot of people who are used to old rules or don’t like skill-based video games will not like it, but that's not important. Of course, you can still have character progression, and it's necessary to display it through stats, because you can't feel that your videogame character is hungry or feels pain and how much. Stats are also needed for things like the simulation of intelligence, persuasion or speech, because voice and face recognition is not up there for AI to recognize if you are lying or how you grimace as your speak in-game. So we have to simulate that through some stats and virtual dice throws. But one day, the ideal RPG should be like the famous Star Trek Holodeck. For me it's about that. Simply put, RPG is about role-playing in a complex world with lot of possibilities and about the development of my character. The more real it is, the better.​

Does your definition of a open world game include multiple alternative ways to solve quests? You say "RPG is about role-playing in a complex world with lot of possibilities and about the development of my character". What kind of possibilities are important to you, exactly?

This is always a trade off. You could either have very complex and absolutely open procedural world with unlimited options (Minecraft, Spore) and then the player will be creating his own story, but this story will be very limited. If you want to create something deeper, you need to set some boundaries for the player. He can't do certain things (kill important characters, get to some place too early…), because then the story would break. The rest of the game (side quests and free roaming) may still be very open, but the story part will be limited. Ultimately, you could create a very complicated setup, which will account for the most probable options. That means you (designer) will get prepared for every situation the player might try with a new branch of the story. That is very complicated, since these branches will multiply and the amount of work would be horrible. The best game in this area is probably Fallout: New Vegas. They have a branch for almost every decision you would do. But by doing this, you are not writing a story. You are writing multiple stories. That might be great if you don't want to tell one particular story. So I like the approach of The Witcher—there are options, but not an unlimited amount, and what it lacks in the quantity of the options, it gains in quality (a very good story). So, my approach would also be more linear in case of the main storyline, but with a lot of different options for how to solve each quest (like Deus Ex etc.), and then a lot of freedom in side-quests. That will allow me to tell the story I want to tell, but give the player lot of freedom at the same time.​

Huge thanks to Dan Vávra for taking the time to answer our questions.

Thanks to Crooked Bee, too!

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