"I would not bet against this team."
Remember When That MLB Pitcher Started a Game Company?
Three time World Series-winning pitcher Curt Schilling had only two
World Series rings when he announced he was not only starting a game company, but that Todd McFarlane and R. A. Salvatore were joining him in the endeavor.
In the years since that announcement, a lot has happened. Schilling got his third ring. He retired from baseball. He changed the name of his game company from Green Monster Games to 38 Studios before they released a single product. Later, we found out that 38 Studios was working on an MMO set in an original universe, presumably with input from his aforementioned collaborators: comic and toy icon McFarlane and New York Times best selling fantasy author Salvatore. But that's all we've known for a long, long time.
And then matters became even more confusing. Although they still hadn't released a single product, 38 Studios purchased Big Huge Games from THQ in 2009.
In February, Big Huge Games invited RPGFan and other members of the gaming press to their studios in Timonium, Maryland to finally give folks a look at just what the heck they've been working on.
Amalur: The Big Bang
"I wasn't a car collector or a jewelry collector," reminisced Schilling about his baseball days. "I was a laptop collector."
Baseball players lead a different kind of lifestyle – especially starting pitchers. Starters only pitch once every 5 games, and having a routine is extremely important if a pitcher wants to stay sharp during the down time. Part of Schilling's routine always included gaming. MMOs like EverQuest gave him a way to unwind in between starts, but perhaps more importantly provided some kind of continuity in the midst of all the traveling.
"Just like music – you remember songs. You think about songs that put you back in a place in high school. That happens for me over a 20 year baseball career," Schilling said. "I can remember what games I was playing. I can remember when I was playing them, what my life was like."
Schilling knew he wanted to be involved in games when he finally hung up his cleats, and he knew exactly what types of games he wanted to be involved in making. As a fan of RPGs (attention Curt – this is obviously the site for you), Schilling started to reach out for the biggest names he could get his hands on.
Recruiting R. A. Salvatore, author of way too many books to list here, was certainly a good start. "What he was really looking for was a playground – a place to go explore that lived and breathed."
Salvatore soon set to work on creating an entire universe, even before the studios were complete. "There would be 20 of us sitting around a table in one room while they were building the offices, with a big map on the floor," said Salvatore. "We'd be crawling across the map, putting down points of interest, just talking about the world."
Eventually, Salvatore delivered a massive binder filled with the history of Amalur. "It was literally a 10,000 year history," said Schilling. "So we had storytime with R. A. Salvatore, and R. A. presented a history of the world about all these epic events that happened: who, why, where, what, the villains, the heroes, the history, the myth, all of it – and it was like hearing J. R. R. Tolkien tell you about the Lord of the Rings."
From MMO to Reckoning
For a few years, 38 Studios progressed on their first game, an MMO codenamed Copernicus. Meanwhile in Timonium, Maryland, Big Huge Games was finding out some very bad news. It had been a little over a year since THQ acquired the games studio, and adverse economic conditions were causing plans to shut down Big Huge Games unless a buyer could be found quickly.
Schilling saw an opportunity and acquired Big Huge Games, bringing them under the 38 Studios banner. His accountants must have wept many tears.
"For three and a half years, we had the Amalur universe in 38 Studios," Schilling said. "The IP is being led by this team of very passionate people, we're making this MMO, we've got a roadmap – and in a 24 hour span, we add 90 employees who now all of a sudden are taking the baby being created in Boston. There's 90 people we don't know and we're handing off this multi-billion dollar, multi year project... to who
But perhaps it wasn't so crazy. As it turns out, Big Huge Games had already been laying the groundwork for their own single player RPG project under lead designer Ken Rolston, of Morrowind and Oblivion fame.
"They had been shopping this fantasy game for a long time," said Schilling. "From a tech perspective and a game design perspective, there was a solid foundation. But they were missing the story – the thing that makes a great RPG. We had that. It was a match made in heaven, because not long after the partnership, when Bob [Salvatore] and Ken [Rolston] and the creative team sat down together, there was a lot of magic going on."
Speaking of Magic...
So what the heck is
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? Perhaps the best way to start explaining this single player RPG is to start at the beginning.
You are dead.
"When do you know you have something worth doing?" asks Ken Rolston, Reckoning's Lead Designer. "I've seen 10,000 years of history from other people before, but I've seen a lot of it that wasn't any good! Sheer volume isn't enough. But when I found something in [Salvatore's Amalur history], I said 'Wow.' The premise for this character, a character who is dead – which is a pretty good way to start – the first guy who came back from death... and by the way, there are some very important cultural themes that begin around those kinds of myths. When you have that character appearing in the beginning of the game, in the first hour a character who doesn't know why all those things happened overlapped symmetrically with a player who doesn't know any of that – that's where the revelation of the content is going to be organic."
The game opens with a corpse being pushed in a cart. The camera cleverly stays away from the face of the corpse while two fellows chat, one pushing the cart and the other writing on a clipboard. When they mention the person in the cart, the character creation screen appears – and in that moment you realize you are about to take control of a dead guy.
It's a pretty clever beginning to the game. Sure, we've seen characters die and come back to life before – the Nameless One in Planescape: Torment immediately springs to mind – but the execution here is very dramatic.
It goes dark after the conversation ends, but then your character wakes up, somehow alive and breathing... and in a pile of corpses.
And now the player is in control.
"This all takes place in the Age of Arcana," explained Mark Nelson, Creative Director of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. "Magic is on the rise and strange things are happening in the world. Magic is appearing where it hasn't been before and there is a war going on – a war that has a lot to do with immortality."
Your character clearly stands at the center of this conflict by being the first to return from death. This has ramifications that are reflected in the game system itself.
"Every mortal in Amalur has a destiny. Fate has already determined their path. You
come back a blank slate and are able to determine your own destiny," said Nelson.
One of the ways we see this is in the "destiny" system, a skill tree-type progression system with some interesting twists. A player can unlock "destinies," which are like classes, by investing in various skills on the tree.
Those skills were demonstrated dramatically in the combat, which I can say without hesitation looks epic.
During the course of the demo I saw everything from a warrior wielding a single sword, executing a slice that flowed flawlessly into an upswing, to a wizard dropping meteors on a series of hapless creatures. By changing up the timing of your button presses, you can execute different attacks. There are no actual combos to memorize – a player can move seamlessly from swinging a sword, to swinging a hammer, to leaping directly into a earthquake spell via an awesome ground punch, to switching back to the sword for an incredible slow motion kill shot. And when I say slow motion, I don't mean cheesy or slowed down to the point of being annoying – I mean just a touch of slowness added to that kill swing that makes everything just seem way more awesome.
It's not just about being awesome – the developers' emphasis on attention to detail demands that there be narrative reasons for what you are seeing and doing. "We have certain things we demand of the narrative team," said Salvatore. "You can't just say 'it's magic.' I want a reason for everything. I want to know how it fits in the world. That's not a limitation on creativity, that's making sure something fits."
Hence, the slow motion finish to the kill I just described isn't just an awesome visual effect – it is a "fate shift." Your character's return from death hasn't just severed his ties to fate for himself, but for others whose paths he crosses.
Watching the game, one may assume that this is more action RPG than traditional RPG. However, the team stresses that twitch gameplay is not what this is about. Traditional RPG strategies will work. "What we really want is for this moment-to-moment experience to be fun. We want this combat to feel exciting with every button press," Nelson explained. "But at its heart, it has to be true RPG combat. It still has to be based on the way you built your character, the equipment you've found, bought, looted, and the strategy you employ. All of these are the backbone of our combat. We've just found ways to make that moment-to-moment experience more exciting than you're used to."
Lead Combat Designer Joe Quadara agrees. "We made the decision really early on – this is an RPG at its core. We have the action game depth, but we want RPG players to succeed in this game. Twitch skill is only going to get you so far. Strategy and proper RPG playing is going to get you farther."
It's hard to explain just how visceral and exciting everything looks. One caveat here is that Big Huge Games employees did the driving for this demo of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. But if the game plays even half as well as it looked up there on the screen during combat sequences, this game has a chance to really be something special. I'm the type of gamer that likes to avoid combat in RPGs when possible, but even I got chills watching some of the craziness going on in the combat demonstrations.
"We want combat to be something you're actively seeking out," said Nelson.
A Little Bit Better
The team is quick to credit Todd McFarlane for the thrilling look of the combat.
"Being the dumbest guy in the room, I don't have any barriers that stop me from asking obvious questions because I don't know what the stops and starts are," said McFarlane. "A guy like me comes in and asks a crazy question. When I get the pregnant pause, dead silence, when I ask can we do this – I know the answer is yes. Now it's just imagination."
McFarlane cannot be accused of lack of imagination. The creator of Spawn and founder of Image Comics and McFarlane Toys has made a living pushing the limits of what folks believe is possible – before McFarlane started making toys, nobody believed you could charge $20 for a toy aimed at adults.
"How can you take what exists and make it a little bit better?" asked McFarlane. "Looking at the art in the role playing game area, there are stereotypes. There are comfort zones that you guys want to do. So okay – artistically let's get the first thing out of the way. It's not
going to look like my artwork. This is not the vehicle for my artwork. This has its own set of rules."
Curt Schilling offered an example of how McFarlane changed the artistic team's perspective in approaching Kingdoms of Amalur: Recknoning. "Todd says, 'Give me two things that are in every fantasy game ever: humans, and inns.' We're going to take the human race and we're going to take an inn and build an art style. When we can make those two things stuff that you want to look at, the seven headed hydra is going to be easy. It resonated deeply with the team when they made humans something interesting."
Ken Rolston, with all of his game design experience, was quick to follow up on this story. "Todd's very simple point, when we were making our first character, our first model – most artists say 'Let's make the coolest, most dangerous thing with the most tentacles and the most special effects'... Todd says, 'No. Make a human being.' If they can be distinctive and eye-catching – the other stuff is chump change. Why didn't I hear that 10, 20 years ago?" Rolston wondered.
"The reason that those are important is everyone in this room knows what a human and an inn look like," said McFarlane. "However a hydra moves is right because nobody can criticize it. You don't know what it's like to be a 12 foot sloth, but you do know what it's like to hold something heavy. That's how you put logic into fantasy."
McFarlane's enthusiasm for the work was impossible to miss. Even while the demo was occurring, McFarlane was taking notes on reactions. At one point he made a remark about the way the blood looked like "grape jelly" and jotted down a note. He was explaining to me and anyone else who would listen, just how they would make the effect look better and more realistic next time, vigorously demonstrating how it should look.
"When I was doing Spider–Man," McFarlane said, "the thing you had to think about the most was Aunt May sitting at the table doing nothing but talking to Peter Parker. So when I drew those, I had to make a throwaway page be as visually interesting to some degree, even if I knew it was impossible, as Spider–Man jumping out of a window. The reason to do that is if you can make those kind of okay, by the time you get to Spider–Man jumping out of a window, it's easy."
Visually, the demo left me hungry for more. It's impossible to say whether choice pieces of gameplay were pulled out for the purposes of the demo, but the art design in everything we saw looked fantastic. Amalur really looked just a little bit different than anything I've seen before in RPGs, and the strangest part is that I couldn't quite put my finger on why.
"The layman at the end of the day has the sense 'I don't know what art is, but I know what I like'," said McFarlane, "So our goal, if there's 10 RPGs out there, we want people to say 'I like Reckoning better'. They might not know why, but if we do that we accomplish what we wanted."
"Todd is the most successful comic book artist of all time," said Nelson. "It doesn't suck having that looking over all your art in the game."
Loot and Other Crunch
Details on the game's various systems were tough to come by during this first look at Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. But one thing that immediately excited me was finding out that Ian Frazier from one of my favorite (and in my opinion, ridiculously underrated) games ever, Titan Quest, was in a Combat Designer role.
"The kind of loot system you see in a hack and slash but you never see in a hardcore RPG, we thought that was a shame so we put it in here," says Frazier. "We've got a system of prefixes and suffixes, sockets, collectible item sets that give you increasing bonuses, randomly generated stuff, but also unique items."
Let's be clear about something right away – loot is one of my favorite parts of an RPG. The idea of getting a Diablo or Torchlight style loot system into a game more akin to Elder Scrolls in terms of scope and storytelling seems like a massive win to me.
Speaking of scope, I was able to get my hands on the following raw numbers for the game: 5 distinct regions (the demo only covered a teensy tiny sliver on one of the regions), 4 playable races, and 3 class trees with 22 abilities per tree. This should provide a great deal of customization and area to explore.
I was not able to get any kind of number on quests, but Nelson did say this on the subject: "I think something that happens too often in RPGs is you get the huge, big, giant, save the world
story and then... 'find my pants.' Those are your two active quests. Save World, and Find Pants. By breaking into regions, it gives us from a storytelling perspective the chance to give you some middle of the road quests that are still important."
I also asked whether or not monsters would scale with your character like they do in Elder Scrolls games, something that I personally have always found a bit annoying as a player even if I understand it from a resource perspective – after all, more unique monsters means more hours spent making character models, appropriate animations, stats, etc. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has a nice approach to the problem. Creatures will adjust their level to your character in a tight range and then lock at a certain point. This sounds like it could provide a very nice compromise between the two approaches and will allow creatures to stay challenging for a time but will still give you the feeling of actual progress (and also won't actively penalize you for leveling up).
Before heading to Big Huge Games, I have to admit that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was barely on my radar. With so many great RPGs coming out, it seems like Big Huge Games and 38 Studios will really have their hands full trying to compete for print space, much less shelf space.
Ken Rolston is no stranger to the competitive environment. "One of the stupidest things you can possibly want to do in this industry is make a role playing game. The challenges are inexpressibly vast. You need so many different skills. You need so many different systems to work. You need it to have the most beautiful graphics in the universe. At the same time, everything else that you're doing is swimming against that! You have so many different subsystems and each is fighting for assets."
Now add to that the fact that the Kingdoms of Amalur universe will be competing with already established universes in the same genre. "We have an original IP," said Schilling, "which is the coolest thing and the biggest gamble you can possibly take in the entertainment space."
But if any team is going to pull this off against the heavy hitters at places like Blizzard, Bioware, and Bethesda, it may just be 38 Studios and Big Huge Games. Schilling believes that the team assembled can compete with... and beat... anybody.
"From a creative designer's perspective, going to work for a company where you get to work on a daily basis and rub elbows with Bob [R. A. Salvatore] – I don't have to recruit you as a designer if that's what I've got to sell you," said Schilling. "From an artist's and an animator's perspective, these are all kids: 22, 23, 24 year old kids who grew up on Spawn and grew up on Todd McFarlane. Where I had Nolan Ryan's card and that was my idol, these guys had issues of Spawn and Spider–Man. And [Salvatore and McFarlane] have been incredibly engaging and interactive. These guys are at their very best when they are on the floor with their teams and teaching these kids."
But what about Curt Schilling? What is his role at this point? "It's at the point now where I have one job: to protect the culture that we've created," said Schilling, with probably his most passion during the visit. "There's no place in the world where work is like it is in our company. They're not working for Bob [Salvatore], they're not working for Todd [McFarlane] – they're working for each other. That's not a dynamic that exists in a lot of places."
From a financial perspective, Schilling took a huge gamble not just investing in the development of one, but two
games simultaneously in this universe. The hope is that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will provide the bridge to the eventual MMO – but will MMO players play a single player RPG? Will single player RPG fans make the leap to the MMO? Will anybody play either game?
Which brings us to the last question – will this game be any good? From this author's perspective, it is far, far too early to say. I will submit this bit of personal, anecdotal evidence – after seeing the combat demonstrated in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and getting a first tour of Amalur itself, the recently released Dragon Age 2 demo seemed oddly drab and repetitive by comparison. Those little things that designers like Salvatore, McFarlane, and Rolston seem to be emphasizing to elevate their game just weren't present in the little slice of DA2 I played, and now I can't help but notice their absence. I can think of no higher praise to give a demo that I only got to sit and watch.
The difference, of course, is that I can actually get a copy of Dragon Age 2 if I want. Until Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning actually gets released, how it plays will remain speculation.
Bottom line: I would not bet against this team.