Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning [Interview] – The best combat in an…
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is good. Good enough to get a 9/10 in our review. Therefore we thought we’d sit down with lead designer Ian Frazier to talk through a few of game’s finer points and the modern day RPG genre as a whole.
IncGamers: Now that the game is finished, are you happy with it?
Ian Frazier: I’m hyper-critical of my own games, as developers are. However, if I stand back and look at it like a sane normal person then I’m pretty darn happy with it. The big stuff that we wanted to do with the destiny system and the combat turned out like we wanted.
You can play whatever class you want, and hybrids of them, the moment-to-moment combat is entertaining. So, I’m pretty proud of that.
IG: Any significant features that had to be cut or abandoned?
IF: Originally there were going to be more destinies, but we cut them because the game would have been too big. There were little bits here and there that were cut but nothing that big.
IG: Are the console and PC editions the same?
IF: Almost, yes. You can jack the graphics up higher on the PC and the user interface is different if you use the mouse and keyboard – if you’re using a PC controller it will switch to the console style interface. Literally, if you’ve got a control pad plugged in, the moment you touch it the interface will change automatically. And vice-versa, if you move the mouse it will switch to the other interface
You can also use elements of both interfaces. If you’re a mage that wants spells mapped to keys on the keyboard but want movement and combat on the pad you can do that.
IG: Which platform was it developed on?
IF: All three were done in-house, none were outsourced. At the very start of the project we were owned by THQ and were making a game called Crucible. It was then that we built the core engine and the tools technology, so originally we started with a PC engine as we were a PC developer.
However, as time went on, we started looking at multi-platform development and put a lot of time into the 360 and PS3 – the PS3 probably a little more time as, frankly, it’s harder to develop on. Now Big Huge Games is straight up multi-platform development.
IG: Do you think it’s still viable to create a game with this kind of budget for the PC only?
IF: No, probably not. A game this big is very expensive to be blunt about it. The PC, with piracy being as rampant as it is, is really hard to make money from. My first game was Titan Quest, a hack ‘n’ slash RPG, which was PC only but the amount that it was pirated was the difference between us staying in business and going out of business.
It’s really, really hard to be profitable by concentrating only on PC. Unless you’re an MMO.
IG: Why the focus on ‘action combat’ with Reckoning?
IF: Well, Ken Rolston and I look at RPGs as having four key pillars – exploration, story, system advancements and combat. We looked at our competitors and decided Bethesda does exploration better than anyone, BioWare knows story inside out and Blizzard owns systems. But combat is something none of them do especially well, they’re all still mired in their Dungeons & Dragons roots. I love Dungeons & Dragons but it’s not the best videogame experience.
So, we decided to take the one nobody did all that well and make it our own. Don’t get me wrong, we do exploration and all that but we really tried to shine and be better than everyone else in the combat.
IG: How did you go about making that combat exciting for all three of the base characters – the warrior, mage and rogue? Was it a difficult balancing act?
IF: The core classes weren’t that hard to balance because the methods for doing it are pretty well known and are not that different from how you would balance it for any other traditional RPG. The mage is fragile but you can cover a bigger area with your attacks, the rogue is not quite as fragile but gets pretty heavy damage output with the critical hits and the mobility is higher, and the warrior is a frickin’ tank with limited range.
The difficult bit was with the hybrids, because the destiny system lets you play as a character that is equal parts all three or half each of two. It has been a huge time-suck trying to balance all the potential combinations but I’m pleased with how it’s turned out.
IG: Are you missing out on a lot if you do create a hybrid and never see the maxed out example of any specific type?
IF: No, absolutely not. In most RPGs you will suck if you spread your points out too thinly because you don’t get those high level abilities, what you want to do is min/max and focus on building certain stats.
In Reckoning you don’t have to do that, you can but you don’t have to. If you spread your points out evenly between all three (or between two) you’ll unlock ‘jack-of-all-trades’ abilities that are not available to those that have gone the min/max route. You will be as effective in combat as a ‘pure bred’ would be.
IG: Do enemies alter their behaviour depending on which class you’ve chosen/created?
IF: Yes, in terms of enemy behaviour. Bandits, for example, will dodge arrows, so if you’re using bow and arrows then you’re stuffed. If you’re a mage you won’t even notice that they do that. Other enemies will deliberately flank you, but only if you’re using melee attacks. It varies from enemy to enemy.
IG: What kind of character do you enjoy playing most?
IF: It tends to be the fighter/mage hybrid, as it’s kind of paladin-esque.
IG: Accessibility and depth is always a concern with any RPG, how have you approached that?
IF: I think there are two main ways we do that. The first is user testing at EA’s game lab where we do a ton of watching people through one-way mirrors and observe how they play and what’s going on in the game. Obviously, the RPG audience is our focus but we got a lot of ‘non-RPGers’ in to test it.
Secondly, it’s how we build the systems. We don’t ever ask you to memorise inputs to cast a spell – it’s always right trigger plus a certain button (on 360) and that’s as complex as it gets. And on the weapons you tap the button to do one thing, hold it to do another, tap it slowly to do something completely different and then you’ve got contextual attacks such as attacking during a role.
It’s all really easy to do. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, button mashing will yield good looking results. If you do know what you’re doing it’s very easy to memorise the different inputs and pull off the exact moves you want and quickly.
IG: What do you think about the notion that console RPGs are ‘dumbed-down’ experiences compared to those that have traditionally been seen on PC?
IF: I come from a PC game background myself so that something I’ve said in the past, so I can’t give too much ‘guff’ to those that say it. I think the big thing is getting interface right. I don’t think that being on a console forces you to dumb it down.
The user interface stuff is expensive to do because you have to spend a lot of time on it to get it right, but you can’t have the same interface because it doesn’t work.
Dues Ex: Invisible War is a good example. The original Dues EX and the new Deus Ex are spectacular, thumbs up to those. Invisible War isn’t a terrible game but it suffers from trying to be multi-platform and providing almost identical interfaces between the versions. A lot of people slammed that game for being dumbed down but it wasn’t necessarily dumbed down, there was no less depth between the versions, but it was certainly less accessible on the console because of the user interface.
IG: What do you think about the quality of today’s RPGs? Do you benchmark yourselves against them?
IF: Absolutely we do. We look at everything, from older games to the recent crop of Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 and compare ourselves to games from different spectrums. We want exploration that is in the same spectrum as Skyrim but we’re not trying to beat that game in that area. Same with the storytelling of BioWare games.
But, as I said before, we are trying to beat everyone at combat.
IG: With storytelling, does there come a point where you need to choose between storytelling and gameplay? Can they exist on an equal footing?
IF: I think they can exist on a fairly equal level, but the problem comes with story and freedom. A game can be linear but is still fun to play. Uncharted is a great game but it couldn’t be any more linear, there’s no freedom to go outside the box.
Something like Reckoning has a lot of freedom and, as a result, you can’t employ all the tricks of storytelling that we could if it was more contained.
IG: What about including multiplayer? Lots of other RPGs, such as Mass Effect 3, are going down that route.
IF: We have thought about it, but don’t really want to do it at all. Part of the reason for that is that our northern studio are making an MMO in the Amalur universe that’s set 2,000 years after Reckoning. They’ve pretty much got the multiplayer covered so we don’t really need to focus on that.
Then there’s co-op which everyone loves, but Reckoning is a game about you playing as the one person in the world without a defined fate and you’re the centre of the universe as far as the plot is concerned. Throwing in a buddy who follows you about the world and gets in the way of the fiction isn’t something we’re interested in.