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AusGamers Shadow Realms Developer Interview with BioWare's Jeff Hickman
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:58am 19/08/14 | Comments
AusGamers picks the brain of BioWare Austin General Manager Jeff Hickman about all things Shadow Realms. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Hi, Nathan Lawrence from AusGamers.

Jeff: Jeff.

AusGamers: Nice to meet you.

Jeff: Nice to meet you. How are you?

AusGamers: I think this is my last interview of the EA agenda. Best till last?

Jeff: I hope so! Have you not seen it [Shadow Realms]?

AusGamers: I have. That was the other guy. The Kiwi guy, perhaps (our friend Jimmy, from Gameplanet).

Jeff: Yeah, there are one or two that sit down and I say, ‘Have you seen the game? And they’re, like, ‘No’. And I’m, like, ‘I can give you the time to tell you about the game but the best thing is to go to the BCD [behind-closed-doors session] and see it’.

AusGamers: Agreed. Yesterday, I had to do all of my interviews before BCD, so this is the one instance where that’s changed.

Jeff: It’s really hard.

AusGamers: Well this is the best way, because this is a new IP, as well.

Jeff: And this is a weird game. Weird is a strong word, I don’t mean it to sound negative. It’s a different game. Did you go to BCD? Did you put your hands on it?

AusGamers: Yeah, I got to play Shadowlord.

Jeff: Fuck yeah. When you play the game, you go, ‘Oh, okay’. And you get that core slice that we’re showing without everything else. When people don’t do that it’s, like, okay, let me start from the beginning and try to get you to understand what we’re trying to do here. It’s a concept. My time is yours.

AusGamers: Actually, on concept, what came first: was it the idea of 4v1 multiplayer, or was it the idea of wanting to do a co-op based RPG?

Jeff: I think there are a couple of things that came really fast on each other and… I try to think back, I mean, it’s been two years since we started talking about this game, and we’ve been in production for about a year and a half now, so it’s been a little while. The lore came first. Here’s what was going on. If you think back a bit and I think back to that me and James [Ohlen] and Gabe [Amatangelo] and Matt Romberg and a couple of other people, we have a lot of the same thoughts and experiences, we’re all kind of nerdy D&D guys, we grew up in the 80s playing games, and we’ve come off Star Wars: The Old Republic and we’re just getting ready to launch the free-to-play aspect and we’re saying, ‘What’s next?’ We’ve got guys on this team who’ve been working on Star Wars: The Old Republic for seven years. They love the game, but they’re going crazy, to be frank.

AusGamers: They want something new.

Jeff: Yeah. What’s new? How do we get the studio moving forward? We have an opportunity to do something kind of cool and neat. At the time, some of us were playing first-edition D&D again, literally.

AusGamers: Wow.

Jeff: It’s actually the only D&D that I’ll play, just because it’s very nostalgic to me. I play with my kids. We’re reading some very… so we’re all readers, and I don’t know if you’re a reader, but if you’re a reader who has friends who are readers, you’re always kind of swapping books. At the time, we were all reading a similar book. So it’s like, here’s this book we’re reading, and also we game inside the studio, so we’ve got a couple of tabletop war games we play. So that’s our life, it’s what we do. We play games.

AusGamers: And that’s research now.

Jeff: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It’s good stuff, too. So we’re playing after work one day and we’re talking about the stuff, and James is talking, and he’s, like, y’know, one of the things that we’ve really missed is, we can remember sitting at a table in the 80s, your Commodore 64 is over there, you’re sitting around playing first-edition D&D, and there’s this thing where you’re, like, ‘God, if we could only do that thing together’. So we did. We made CRPGs, and these things came out, and we played King’s Quest, and we played Zork, oh, and all these different games, and it was so cool. And there are some awesome things that happen in RPGs to this day, where you’re just, like, man, without computers you couldn’t do that. But James is... y’know, ‘We’ve lost that dungeon master, he just doesn’t exist anymore’.

So James is, like, ‘What if we kind of go back to that thinking, that vision we had when we were 18, that fantasy we had when we were 18, and could we do something now with it? Really, do something now’. It’s like, okay, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Okay, imagine this, four dudes…’ and it wasn’t four, it was some dudes, there was no number then, it wasn’t four versus one, it was some dudes, we’ve experimented with two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. We’ve experimented with a couple of Shadowlords at the same time, and all sorts of stuff.

Anyway, some dudes sitting around on their computers, and another dude who’s a dungeon master. What could he do? Well, what do you want him to do? I want him to do all of the stuff: I want him to tell a story, I want him to really be a dungeon master. And it’s, like, hrm, that’s really hard. There’s a reason why nobody has done that. Okay, let’s try it from the opposite direction. What can we make it, or what can we give him the ability to do? Okay, well, he can cast some spells. Okay, he casts spells, we’ve got that. That’s easy. He can lay traps in front of the players. Okay, he can lay traps, we’ve got that. He can set a level with the types of monsters that are going to be in a levell: orcs, trolls, dudes, whatever. And so, before the game starts, set the dynamic spawns. We got that. We can do that. Okay, can he change the world? Hrm, how does he change the world? So we give him a map and, as he’s playing through the game, there are certain moments where he can say, that door doesn’t open, that door does. Or, there’s a breakable wall here, there’s not a breakable wall here. So he can give some redirection of the funnels of the player.

AusGamers: Yeah, right. Can he change the story?

Jeff: He can do that. We can do that. Can he change the story? That starts to get difficult. As soon as you go there, it starts to get hard. And so that’s kind of the point we’re at right now is we’ve pushed it pretty far, and now we need feedback. We need to understand, have we done enough? Is it cool? What else can we do? What else do people want us to do? And so that’s where it came from: how do we push it further and further; how do we experiment more and more? Oh, by the way, the Shadowlord is actually a character, and he can level up, and he’s got abilities, and that can be the Shadowlord that focuses on traps, or the Shadowlord that focuses on monsters, the Shadowlord that focuses on poison, all sorts of different things come up. So what you’ve seen today is a slice of these heroes with these five abilities. The heroes and the Shadowlord, they all have all these abilities.

AusGamers: How many abilities?

Jeff: I don’t want to give you a number because it’s changing right now, but it’s a lot of abilities that they can specialise in different ways, use your armour and gear in different things and different ways. So you can be a Shadowlord that specialises that way, or you can be a wizard that uses… I wore a baseball hat and I have a wizard staff, or actually, I can go and find a wizard cap and a machine gun, because it’s modern day. So there’s a lot of opportunity for that gameplay. Anyway, that’s how we really came up with this idea, and what we’re trying to do is push that boundary. It’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing now. We know how to do story. It’s not easy, but we understand it. And we know how we want to do story in this game, this idea of episodic story and people experiencing that story together, or at least at the same time, and we know how to do kind of that RPG classic progression, and we’ve done it a lot of different ways over the years. We have some ideas of how to mix this up but, again, it’s not easy. It’s straightforward, we understand what we want to do, and so our focus has really been on this concept of pushing the Shadowlord and heroes in all fields, and so that’s why we’re going to the alpha so early, that’s why we’re going to show people our alpha so early, because we want people to go, ‘That’s fun; that’s not. What if you tried this? You know what’d be cool, if the Shadowlord could blah, blah, blah’.

Right now, we have the opportunity to change and to really listen and react to this stuff from the players, and then we start to expose as we lock that in, and it really feels awesome. Because that’s what you do 80 percent of the time, as that locks in, okay, here’s story and here’s how we’re going to do it, and we expose that to people, we get their ideas on that. I don’t know if it’s going to be in this order, but we expose the progression systems and the loot and those things and the other things and wrappers that make it feel great and engage the player. I’m excited, sorry.

AusGamers: Oh, I can tell. You mentioned the game has been in development for around 18 months, two years now, do you find it gutting or validating to hear about announcements like Evolve with the 4v1 and then Fable Legends that’s kind of doing a similar dungeon-master thing?

Jeff: No, I find it exhilarating, actually, because it’s such an interesting thing that you see very rarely. Somebody posted the other day after our announce, ‘Oh, that’s a copy’, and so and so. You can believe what you want, and not that I care that you think whether it’s a copy or not, the simple fact is that I think every one of those games has been in development for a year or two. I mean, I know how games are made, and it takes a while. And you look at that and go, we have individually come up with this idea in a different way, and expressed [it] in a different way in the game. You look at those three major ones that have been announced, and these games are all very different. And it’s, like, this is very interesting. I think it’s cool. It’s exhilarating.

AusGamers: It’s kind of like these games are revolutionising the co-operative space with this 4v1 thing.

Jeff: Yeah, and you look at it and go… and what I said to my team when those games last year at Gamescom [were] announced, and my team was like, ‘Oh, my God, have you seen that?’ And I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so awesome’. It’s validating in some ways because we’re not following, we’re leading with them a new genre, potentially. Like, think about what that means. When MOBAs first came into existence, everyone kind of looked at them and went, ‘What are you guys doing? Is that an RTS? I’m not sure what that is’. And that’s what people are doing now with this kind of 4v1 and how it’s evolving, and you just look at it and go, ‘Oh, my God, we are leading the way to a new genre’. People poke at EA a lot for, ‘Are they innovative? Are the studios allowed to do that?’ And the answer is absolutely yes. I think Shadow Realms is just one of those games that proves that point. EA is super supportive of us. They want us to be out there. They want us to be innovating. They want us to try crazy things. I think it’s awesome, man.

AusGamers: What is the episodic nature of how you’re going to release the game and how does that add to the storytelling? I’ve seen it before in Alan Wake, and I played that from start to finish, I played it like a movie, which is what your average game is if you’re doing the analogy, and I saw it in Half-Life 2 and that didn’t work because they never released Episode 3. Why did you choose to go with episodic and how does that change the way you’re doing storytelling differently, especially because it’s the first time for you?

Jeff: Yeah, that’s a great question. It was one of those things that as we were talking through how we wanted to tell it, we were super intrigued by some of the successful episodic storytelling out there. Any time someone does something new with story, you can imagine the guys from BioWare look at it and go, what are you doing? Like, we keep story very close to our hearts. And it’s, like, okay, what are they doing? Why is that so successful? We feel it fits super well with this game. There’s a really interesting backstory that’s going on with Shadow Realms, this world of Embra that’s been under attack by the Shadow Legions, the flaws of nature allow magic to happen. It just so happens on Earth that the laws of nature don’t allow magic to happen and, again, you go back to, you’re 14 years old, and you’re thinking about your fantasies and your escape, and so many of us around the table were like, ‘God, do you remember when you thought about, what if I could do magic?’ Everybody in the world, somewhere, sometime has thought, ‘God, if only’. And it’s, like, okay, now what’s the logic of how that works? What’s the story behind it? The magicians of Embra, the humans are being basically hunted to extinction by the Shadow Allegiance, they punch a portal to Earth to get help and that portal allows the magic… the laws of magic to start to affect Earth, and the few people on Earth who have the talent begin to exhibit that magic. Oh, my God, fireball. It’s that fantasy, and it’s literally the guy in college: you, your friend, whoever it was saying, ‘I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing with my life. Like, I’m in college, I’m uhhhhh, oh my God, I’ve got a fireball’. And now imagine where that takes you. Not only has it allowed magic through, oh, by the way, the Shadow Legion has come through also.

AusGamers: Sounds like the makings of an epic story.

Jeff: We have this awesome story to tell about how that happens, and I don’t want to spoil the story, but how that happens, where it leads to and the classic BioWare choices of romance, betrayal, saviour, and all this stuff. And we really felt if you could tell it the right way episodically, there are a couple of really tough things around this that, I think, we have some really good ideas of how to solve, if you tell it the right way episodically, that emotion that you feel from a great story is amplified with that cliffhanger. And it’s how you get that cliffhanger, more than anything else, of literally, you finish this episode and your girlfriend is hanging off the edge of the Empire State Building because that’s the adventure you just went through, and you made a choice, and she’s there. And you go, ‘Oh my God’. And you call your buddy on the phone and you say, ‘I’ve just finished the latest episode of Shadow Realms’, and he goes, ‘Oh, so did I. I just finished it’. And you say, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, my girlfriend is hanging off the building’. And he says, ‘What are you talking about? My girlfriend is in my arms, I saved her, because I made the following choice’. And you’re like, ‘Holy shit, what’s going to happen?’ And then the next episode drops, you experience it together. I think it’s an awesome opportunity to raise the emotion around storytelling.

AusGamers: I was thinking about this before playing as the Shadowlord, does that mean the Shadowlord would experience the story differently to the way that the human characters working together are?

Jeff: I’m not going to talk about the Shadowlord and how he experiences story. It’ll spoil things. It is a very special… just to the point that you go to is, ‘Wow, the Shadowlord’s gotta be part of the story, right? And if the player can play the Shadowlord…’ you can go down that path. We did, too. I think we have some interesting answers to that question.

AusGamers: It sounds like you’d break your brain in terms of interpreting the story.

Jeff: There’s some cool stuff.

AusGamers: This seems like it could lend itself to a really interesting way of releasing the game. I mean, I don’t see it as a boxed copy on a shelf. Are you starting to think about that in terms of how you’re releasing long term?

Jeff: A little bit. The way that we build games and my philosophy for games in the studio is, I think pretty straightforward and very important, when we conceptualise a game, I want to say this the right way, when we conceptualise a game, we’re not thinking about how we can make the most money and, to be frank, we’re not thinking about what is going to make a player happy. We’re thinking about the passion that we can have for that idea. And we’re like, again, I told you about how we came up with this idea, and it was all about ‘what would be cool?’ And what were our fantasies when we were younger? And how can we go back to that root a little bit? And then we go, okay, that’s all well and good, can we actually build a game out of it? Okay, we can. Now what do the players think? And then when you really need to start… when you flip a coin on its head and you go, it’s great that we think it’s neat, do the players think it’s neat?

AusGamers: Have you already had player feedback?

Jeff: There have been real-life players playing this game for six months now and giving us feedback, very top secret-y. Play testing in the studio, specific groups that have been playing for us, and listening now to what the players say is super important, and I think that goes to how we sell the game, how we distribute the game, all of those questions that come up in the future. And to be frank, they’re in the back of our head, but what’s most important for us is making sure that people are engaging with the product, and that they come out of this game going, ‘God, this is just fun’. Because I guarantee, if we make a game that’s cool, fun, interesting, engaging, compelling, all these words you use, in other words, if the players like it, we’ll figure out a way to get it to them, and we’ll figure out a way for them to pay for it in whatever way is the right way for this game. I can tell you my opinion, I think for PCs, and I think the console is going here now, digital is easy. It’s straightforward for the player. It’s, like, look, you want to play this game, push this button to play the game. I like that. I like that it’s easy for the player. I like that you can get into the game quickly. I like streaming solutions. I mean, look at what we do with Star Wars: The Old Republic, we took a game that took, I don’t know how long that thing used to take to download, 80 hours, I mean, it’s a 23-gigabyte download, and we put in this streamer solution that lets people get into that game in under two hours, generally, I mean, connection, blah, blah, blah. That’s important and I believe in that. Accessibility for the player is what’s important, because I think that’s part of the fun. Wow, that sounds like a cool game, I want to play it. I’m in, I’m playing, I’m doing my thing.

AusGamers: Is it PC only at this stage?

Jeff: I would say that PC is our focus right now. I call PC the tip of the spear, we don’t have plans for consoles, but I’m also not saying that it might never happen. If you look at the game that you played, that game could be on a console. It is an action RPG, a game that feels cool dodging and blocking and fast slashing, it’s a game that could lend itself to a controller. But PC is our focus, right now.

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