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AusGamers Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Ian Frazier Developer Interview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 01:04pm 14/12/11 | Comments
At a recent preview event in Sydney, AusGamers had a chance to chat to Big Huge Games' Ian Frazier about all things Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Read on or watch for what he had to say...

Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for a direct HD link.

AusGamers: Hey guys, welcome back to AusGamers. You’re here once again with Stephen Farrelly. Again, I’m actually in Australia, not anywhere else in the world, which is a bit rare these days.

I’ve got Ian Frazier, who’s here to talk to me about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. We’ve been talking about the game a little bit lately and you guys know that we’re pretty excited for it. I got some hands-on with it in Vegas; I spoke to Collin [Campbell, Lead World Designer] out at Vegas; I’ve spoken to Ken Rolston; now I’ve got you.

Let’s get to some of the nitty gritty. What was the decision behind no jumping?

Ian Frazier: So we actually tried jumping earlier in development. We had climbing -- like mantling -- and jumping. We ended up finding that to create the world and craft it the way we wanted to -- to have standardised enough metrics to make combat good made jumping not work, essentially.

If we let you jump everywhere, if we had crazy sculpted terrain where everything was constantly bumpy, we couldn’t also have the fidelity of animations we want for combat and have the level of control we needed design-wise to deliver that good quality combat. So seeing as combat was one of our top level concerns for the game and we wanted to make it as good as it could possibly be, we pulled back on that front and made jumping something that’s sort of channeled. There’s places you can jump, but you can’t do it everywhere.

AusGamers: If you were testing it early on, did that change the level design entirely for you guys? Because obviously you’re not going to give people different pathways to go.

Ian: It was early enough that it didn’t pose us problems or anything, but it certainly does change the way we do things -- even down to putting in the jump points where you can jump. So yeah, it makes a big difference.

AusGamers: Now another big staple in this type of RPG is -- especially with the concept of open-world, even if it’s not an RPG -- is emergent gameplay. And I think games like Red Dead Redemption did it really well; Skyrim does it really well.

What have you guys done to approach that? Because at the moment, the stuff that I’ve played, I do come across people... but I obviously haven’t spent enough time with the game. And we were talking about this before, but can you just run us through any of those kind of systems that you have?

Ian: Well NPC scheduling is one thing. So NPCs -- not all of them, but a lot of NPCs -- have their daily rounds, where they go around and do things. So because of that, as you’re doing a quest, or just going through a city, you’re meeting people in different kinds of scenarios than... you may encounter a different thing that I did because of the timing.

The next thing is we do have a full day/night cycle which plays into that. So you’re going to have creatures that show up in certain areas that would otherwise not be there, based on time. Reagents that you can only harvest because you happened to go to the scene at night or what have you; so there’s some of that.

You also have the crime system. So if you are in the middle of town and you start pickpocketing or trespassing or what have you and you get seen, then you’re going to get people freaked out; you’re going to have people try to kill you or call the guards or whatever depending on where you are. And that’s going to create a different situation depending on who’s there and if you’re powerful enough to deal with them and if you flee or pay up your fine; how you choose to respond to it.

In fact, if you say “hey, ok, you can take me in coppers”, they’ll bring you to jail, and the jails are totally different depending on where you’re at. So if you’re at a mortal area, it’s more of a traditional dungeon. If you’re in the Fae city of Isa, they throw you in a magical labyrinth, because that’s what Fae do -- so that’ll be kind of different.

As far as wandering in the wilderness, we have a faction system -- some creatures hate other creatures. So you may be wandering in the woods and see a giant spider chasing down a deer to eat. And you won’t necessarily see the same thing that I saw -- there’s a chance that it won’t happen -- but the combination of wandering things, scheduled things and the faction system that makes them like or hate each other, gives you those sort of emergent moments that will vary between players.

AusGamers: So there’s a full functioning ecology that’s built around hierarchy and a food chain and stuff like that?

Ian: We don’t simulate like “they eat the meat, therefore they live...”; we don’t do it to that level. But we do try to simulate who would and would not like each other and who would try to eat what else, in order to give you that kind of feel as you explore the world.

AusGamers: Another popular area of discussion with games like this -- and many get it right and many get it wrong -- is scaling, level scaling -- especially with enemies and the like. Can you talk to us about how you guys have approached that?

Ian: Yeah absolutely. As you said, it is a challenge and something we’ve seen done very well and very poorly in different contexts. What we do is sort of a... we try not to mention other games but I’m going to do it anyway -- it’s sort of a hybrid between World of Warcraft and Fallout 3 in terms of how it’s structured.

So you start the game off and the very first area that you step into, Allestar Glade, it’s level one; it’s only ever going to be level one. So if you start off there, it’s about right for you. If you come back later, you can just destroy enemies there.

As you get further into the game, individual areas will have a level range to them, this is somewhere between three and seven, or twelve and fifteen or whatever. When you get there, it checks your level and sets the level of that zone to your level or whatever that is within the range, for the rest of time.

So as a result, as you play through the game, you will generally find things at about your difficulty level, unless you just truck through and go way outside the bounds -- in which case, you’ll find really hard stuff. But if you then return to earlier areas, you don’t suddenly need Grand High Wizard in the starter zone, because you return and you’re level 30 -- no, you still meet starter enemies and you just crush them like bugs.

Because we wanted to have that re-travesal be fun, where you feel like you’re hercules when you’re going back through earlier areas.

AusGamers: That’s a good segway to the next question I had anyway, which was: will there be much re-traversing, or backtracking? Will there be reasons to do it or will there be times when you have left that level one area or that level five area and there’s nothing to go back for at all?

Ian: So it depends on how you play. If you’re a completionist who tries to clear out every nook and cranny of the map on every single quest, there’s some re-traversal expected, but not a ton. If you’re the sort of person that kind of does things organically and plays through -- finds some quests; does some quests; moves on -- then there’s a ton of traversal, because some of the factions especially have these ongoing storylines that will send you back to other areas and bounce you over there, then you might pick up another faction that sends you back over here and there; then you do side quests; it varies tremendously depending on your style.

AusGamers: Alright, now you said that you guys try to avoid talking about other games, but another interesting thing is that when you’ve got -- let’s call them instances... or dungeons -- a lot of the time, games have respawning enemies later on. So you might come back in game-time in a few days and they’re all still dead, but in a week in game-time it’s totally repopulated.

Skyrim’s done a really good thing, where when you look at the map it says “Cleared”, which I thought was quite cool, and I know a few other games have done that as well. Have you guys done that or do you have respawning enemies?

Ian: Yes and no. So things that make sense to respawn, like a named guy or some boss you’ve killed -- something that’s got some real substance and relevance in the world -- they do not respawn. However, in general the above ground areas and dungeons and so forth will respawn with a degree of randomness and a degree of time.

So if you clear out a dungeon, the big bad boss you killed at the end will stay dead and the cult followers he had or whatever... you cleared out the cult and you defeated them, well they’re going to be gone -- they’re not going to come back. But, the next time that you go in there, you may find bears and wolves have now infested the cave. When X amount of time has passed, a new suite of enemies can now populate that zone.

AusGamers: Now with the factions -- it’s another popular thing to talk about -- I thought Fallout: New Vegas did a really good thing where allegiance actually meant something and that you couldn’t actually get to different story branches and different items and what have you.

It seems like in other games, you can just join any faction you want and it doesn’t matter which one you’re in there. Do you guys have waring factions? Do you have buffs for being in one faction and it’s a detriment to you with another faction?

Ian: Yes and no. What we ended up doing is... the factions themselves are not exclusive; they don’t hate... like, fictionally they didn’t really have any issue with one another so it didn’t make a lot of sense to us to make them like “you joined the Warsown and now The Travellers won’t have you”, so we don’t do that.

That said, within the factions you have branching decisions that are exclusive -- that’s kind of where we worked the exclusivity in. If you’re playing the Warsworn -- and I don’t want to give away the details but -- you’re the fateless, your fate can change the fates of those around you. So you can change the future of the Warsworn as a group, in multiple different ways. And depending on how you choose to make that decision, you block off the other possibility and you earn what’s called a Twist of Fate -- it’s kind of a permanent systemic bonus; it’s a tarot card, like a destiny card that reflects the decision that you made.

And again, it’s exclusive and the rewards to it are also exclusive. So the factions themselves are not exclusive to each other, but your decisions within them are.

AusGamers: Is there a dynamic weather system as well? Because you talked about day and night.

Ian: Sadly no. No dynamic weather system. It’s something that I would have loved to do. I think if we had have had a little bit longer we might have done it, but we actually had to ship the game at some point, so we stopped. There are areas that have weather that is appropriate to that zone, but it’s not dynamic.

AusGamers: Now I didn’t get a chance to check out the PC version which you have running out there, so I will just ask a few questions about it. There’s a lot of contention amongst PC gamers that games are being built for console and then ported to PC -- specifically at the mere mention of a radial, every PC gamer goes absolutely crazy.

Can you talk about key binding and stuff like that and also... it feels like the combat has been built for a controller: how have you guys approached that with the PC?

Ian: If you get a chance, I would recommend that you actually play the PC, because you’ll be able to feel the answer for yourself. But Big Huge Games is historically a PC company, the console thing we did before this was Settlers of Catan on the Xbox Live Arcade, but everything else has been PC games and a lot of the folks in the studio come from a PC background.

So we didn’t want to skimp on the PC, we decided not to outsource a port, but to actually build the PC version concurrently with the console versions in-house. The same UI team, the same combat team building both. So we made sure to give it the love that it deserves.

As far as how it works: if you’re on the PC, you play with mouse and keyboard and “you don’t want any of that console crap” so you set aside the controller, then it’s setup not totally dissimilar to an MMO. You’ve got an ability bar across the bottom of the screen that will work with the number keys -- you can map abilities onto that. You can have spells on your right mouse button and your weapon on your left mouse button. You can use the scrollwheel to quickly switch between different weapons, like how a lot of first-person shooters tend to work on the PC.

And obviously you can bind all your keys. There’s a couple of specific things you can’t bind, like the Escape key is always backing out of menus -- we don’t let you rebind that -- but as a general rule, you can rebind whatever you want. Whether you want WASD or arrow keys or whatever else.

The other interesting thing about it is that if you prefer the console controls: if you plug in an Xbox 360 controller and you start fiddling with it, the game will instantly and automatically switch to that and the UI will change -- you’ll have a console-style UI. Then if you’re like “no, screw that”, sit that down and start moving the mouse, it’ll instantly switch back to the PC UI and you can do that whenever you want, you don’t have to change any options or anything, it just works.

Really, depending on the kind of build that you have, I might recommend one or the other. If you’re playing a pure melee warrior, personally I prefer the controller, because you get that rumble and tactile feel. If I’m playing a pure mage with a whole lot of active abilities, then I prefer the mouse and keyboard, because you’ve got a larger number of abilities you have instant access to.

So depending on your build and what you’re used to: if you like the controller; if you don’t like mouse and keyboard, you might want to go one way or the other. And obviously the PC can just look better than the consoles because it’s a PC!

AusGamers: That was going to be my next question: What have you guys done to approach the visual side of stuff on the PC?

Ian: The big things are: better shadow quality, the shaders are a little bit better and also just the resolution. You can run it in 1080p on a PC.

AusGamers: So you’re not doing anything special DX11 stuff or...

Ian: No. We looked at it, but it’s something we didn’t do for this title.

AusGamers: Now I’m going to end on something that you can’t probably talk about, but -- and this is a really interesting thing -- I spoke to Todd Howard [Bethesda Games Studios Director] out at E3, and one of the big things he said was in the Fallout games and even Oblivion, DLC was really good with those guys, but it was kind of short. They did four hours here, five hours there and he said for Skyrim, one of the things they’re going to do is more expansion-based DLC, which the industry seems to not be following anymore.

I’m curious to know -- as originally a PC company -- what your plans for DLC are. And if there was... I mean, it’s a big game and there’s a lot of lore. It seems like the more expansive DLC seems like the right thing to do.

Ian: Oh, that’s tricky. So, I can tell you that I personally like both kinds of DLC. I like the little bite-sized things that are kind of like you’re at the supermarket and you grab the impulse buy. But I also kind of like the giant ones, and I’m glad that Bethesda still does it, because I think that it’s awesome to have that big meaty chunk of content.

As far as what we’re doing with DLC, however, I don’t know... [grins] I think DLC would be handy; I’d like to have some; maybe some day that would happen; possibly [shrugs]. PR’s watching you know?

AusGamers: Yeah I know, but she knows I’ll ask these questions [laughs].

Alright, well we’ll leave it there. Thanks very much Ian. The game looks great and we can’t wait to play it next year. Cheers.
Read more about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!

Latest Comments
Posted 09:11pm 14/12/11
Great interview, the more I see of this game on here the more interested I become.
Posted 08:02am 15/12/11
o dear...

that interview seemed to go...

AG: yeah so skyrim and other games have these awesome features.. what have you done to make the game awesome like those games..

IF: nothing
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