Grim Dawn Interview with Crate Entertainment CEO Arthur Bruno – Part 2

10 Dec 2013  by   Paul Younger
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In part 2 of our interview with Arthur Bruno, we discuss the game’s Masteries, how the lore is being handled, the reworking areas, the business of Crate Entertainment and funding the game,  and more. If you missed part 1 you can find that here.

Grim Dawn Interview Transcription – Part 2

Paul Younger: Talking about the levels, maybe you can explain a little bit about the masteries. They’re not your usual character classes – “pick a class, there are your skills, off you go.” There’s this crossover which was confusing for me initially, but I’ll admit I didn’t play much Titan Quest. So for people who maybe don’t know about it, can you explain a little bit about it?

Arthur Bruno: You start off the game selecting one skill mastery, which is basically a giant tree of skills. Most of the masteries have 26 or 28 skills, and I think there are pretty much around 336 total points that you can invest in them. Those skills are usually divided up into a bunch of different trees, with a few active skills, a bunch of passive skills, and a bunch of modifiers that can change the way that the active skills work.

Some masteries are built to be more actively oriented and others are more passively oriented, because players seem to be divided about that. Some people love to bulk up on passive skills and focus on a couple of main actives, where they don’t ahev to worry about having their hands on all the keys, while other people love to go nuts with a hotkey bar full of active skills. So we try to cater to both crowds.

Once you get to level 10, you’re able to select another class mastery. Each mastery is like a theme – right now, we have the Soldier, who’s kind of like the melee tank-ish character… although you can play him or her ranged! There’s the Demolitionist which has a lot of explosive abilities, the Occultist which has the Hellhound…

PY: I’ve got my Soldier crossed with an Occultist, which makes for interesting playing.

AB: That’s one of the more favourable combinations on the forums right now. You can build a pretty tanky character, but then the Occultist has a lot of damage-over-time and area-of-effect spells that can help you break down mobs quickly.

PY: As my character’s been levelling up I’ve found myself going back to the melee skills, away from the Occultist. I guess I’ll see how that pans out, but it’s been fun mixing it up.

AB: I think that’s one of the interesting things about the mastery system. First of all, it basically gives us a much greater total number of classes because of all the different permutations that you can experiment with, but then within just two masteries – like Occultist and Soldier – you can decide to favour one mastery over another. Either almost purely focusing on one mastery and then just borrowing a couple of support skills from the other one, or going with more of a hybrid character.

So with the Occultist and Soldier you can make more of a tanky mage, or you can go more melee with Occultist damage support spells… there are a lot of options.

PY: So have you in the office thought “We’ve unlocked this extra mastery… hey, let’s give them three!”

 [Both laugh]

AB: We’ve thought about that before, and people have asked for it on the forums, but part of the problem is that – in terms of balance – there are certain types of skills that you need to limit how many a character is able to get. With two masteries we can at least ensure that if a person has a damage buff, they can only have two of them active at once. Add in that option for a third mastery and I think things would get pretty out of control!

PY: Yeah, but you kind of know that when modding happens…

AB: Somebody’s going to do it! [Laughs]

PY: Let’s talk about the lore. I may or may not be a typical ARPG player, but when I play an ARPG I’m kind of interested in lore for maybe 20 minutes, and then I kind of switch off and I just want to get in there and smash stuff. How are you handling that stuff? In Grim Dawn there’s dialogue between you and the NPCs, but how are you building the lore to try to make people get engrossed in it and not switch off?

AB: Honestly, we’re not trying to force people to be engrossed in it. There are different types of players out there. Some people naturally want to follow the lore; other people just don’t. I think that it would be detrimental to their gameplay experience to force them to sit through dialogues or to complete flavour quests that they weren’t really interested in.

I think I’m at either extreme at different times. A lot of times, especially when I first play a game, I just want to get into the action – run out into the world, ignore the NPCs, and go kill stuff. I think that’s one of the things that was really great about Diablo 2. In some ways the game was just so easy to play because you weren’t required to jump through a lot of hoops to get into the action.

 PY: In that case, though, the story was told without you having to pay too much attention. I guess that’s my point – there are ways to tell story within the gameplay itself, and who you meet and who you encounter. Is that something you’re looking at when you put each Act and each quest together?

 AB: We are, to some extent. We do try to tell a lot of story through the world, in terms of the atmosphere and the visual evidence that lets you see what took place in the world. I think that just going through the game you get a gleaning of what the story is and what’s been happening in the world. I think that’s similar to Diablo 2.

 I think – to some extent – you probably have a better understanding of Diablo 2 because of the amount of time you’ve played it. But in reality, if you don’t talk to any of the NPCs, you can basically bypass all of the quests in Act One. The only quest you needed to complete was to kill Andariel.

 If you just do that, if you just run through the game and don’t talk to the NPCs or get any of the quests, you don’t rescue Cain, you don’t hear his backstory, you don’t hear about the sisterhood or the monastery being taken over… you can, for the most part, ignore almost all of the story. And that’s what I did for a long time, playing Diablo 2. After awhile I was like “I wonder what’s going on with the story?” and I sat through it and listened to all of the dialogue.

 So there are different levels of involvement. If you want to get involved in the story there’s a tremendous amount of lore there, and we’re trying to offer that. We’ve basically put in lots of journals that you can find in the game, and we hope to build on that as we move forward and enhance the system for it, which is a little bit clunky right now. Basically, we want to put a lot of lore in there for people to find. We want to put in evidence – visual evidence – of what’s been happening in the world. And then there’s the NPC dialogue.

 But, similar to Diablo 2, we give people the freedom to ignore all of that stuff if they want. You can just run out of town and start killing stuff, find your way into the burial cave and kill the Reanimator, and go back and get the quest credit for it without ever having talked to the NPCs.

 PY: Is that something that’s evolving as you’re developing it? Are you thinking “It’d be cool to add this piece into the story?” You’ve obviously got a rough idea of the story, but is that something that’s changing as you go?

 AB: Very much so. For build 16, we’re actually putting two new quests into the starting area that provide a little bit more flavour and backstory for the world – the evidence of what’s been happening in the world. At various times, like a couple of builds ago, we inserted more lore items for people to find. I think we’ll just keep doing more of that as we go forward.

 On the one hand we’re trying to build forward and get Act Two done, but on the other hand, whenever we have a good idea for an additional story element that could fit at the beginning of the game, we go back and do that.

 PY: Path of Exile is another game that’s being developed incrementally, with new Acts being released as the game is available to the public, but it’s apparent in that that some of the early levels could do with a bit of work. Is that something you’re going to be continuously going back to? When you’ve done the rest of the Acts, will you go back and improve things in Act One?

 AB: To some extent we try not to too much, as we really want to just make progress with the game and at least get a first pass of the whole game done before we go back and do a lot of reworking, but at the same time I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

 I guess I have unfinished business with Act One. As you move forward there are always things you wish you could’ve done that you didn’t have time to do, or you didn’t have the technology at that point to do it, then over the course of development, as new quest features get added in or new randomisation features or whatnot, you want to proliferate those throughout the previous sections of the game.

 I think, at this point, we do occasionally touch up the beginning of the game a little bit. But we’re mostly trying to move forward. Once we get further in the game – once we’ve done a first pass of everything – we’ll definitely go back and spend some time buffing up the beginning of the game.

 PY: So how many are you in the team right now? You mentioned six earlier, but are you looking to expand that? What’s happening with Crate as the game starts developing further?

 AB: I’d love to expand that, but really it’s all about funding. Even with the release on Early Access, which has brought in a bunch of additional funding – although I’m waiting for the payment and our end-of-the-year taxes before I get an idea of how much we have to use, going forward… but with a lot of game studios going out of business in past years, especially in Massachusetts, we’re very focused on staying alive. Obviously, you can’t make the game if you don’t have a studio, so we’re trying to balance our desire to bring more people onto the team and expand our capacity with our desire to stay alive as a studio. Until we have a bigger windfall, we won’t be able to really dramatically expand what we’re doing.

PY: Looking back on it now, do you think it was the right decision for you to try to develop this independently as a small team?

AB: I do. As hard as it is, I don’t see publisher involvement as an option – especially earlier on. We did talk to some publishers and we got to the point of basically looking over contracts, and the reality is the business model there is just so brutal that I don’t feel like it would be sustainable.

Not only is there not a lot of reward for the developer, but it also puts you in a very precarious position where you get enough money to start up faster and assemble a team and put the game together more quickly, but at the end of development, you’ve incurred a large burn rate with all of the people you’ve taken on, and once you put the game out, your funding stops. You no longer receive payments from the publisher – you’re basically just losing money.

 At that critical point, which is the point where a lot of companies fold… I mean, that’s basically where Iron Lore went under; they finished development on Immortal Throne and the game went out. You basically have to line up the next project quickly. If you can’t line up the next project quickly enough, then you’re out of business.

Beyond that, it also de-incentivises you from wanting to continue to work on that project and support it, because you’re basically not earning any of the reward for doing so. In some cases you actually can’t, because the publisher controls the IP, so you have to get permission whenever you want to release a patch or do anything. We didn’t want to end up in that situation.

 This is kind of an all-or-nothing. We’re out here scraping by, trying to do this on our own, and if we’re successful then we’ll be in a very good position where we own our IP and can continue to keep supporting it, developing it, and releasing content for it, and we’ll directly benefit from that. If we don’t, then we’ll be no worse off than we would be had we signed a publisher deal and not been able to jump onto that next project.

 PY: I forgot to ask you something earlier, to do with future content: multiplayer’s something I’m desperate to see. How far off are you, on that?

AB: Er. Pretty close. Had you asked me a couple of months ago then I would’ve said that it’d be out by now, but there have been some lingering difficult-to-squash technical issues. We’ve got through a couple of them and we’re able to connect now and play for a little bit, but there are still some bugs that are the result of fundamental changes we’ve made to the engine since we inherited it from Titan Quest. Basically, our changes to the pathing system, the way that things spawn, and factions and whatnot.

 We’ve gotten through most of the major bugs and I would say that – and I’ll probably be wrong – there’s a good chance that it could roll out in the next two months.

 PY: Well, we’ve blathered long enough, so this is your opportunity to tell anyone who hasn’t discovered Grim Dawn yet why they should be playing it, and why they should go pick it up on Steam.

 AB: Well, I’m pretty biased, but –

 PY: Really?

 AB: [Laughs] I think if you’re a fan of the action-RPG genre, then I think most people want to play everything that’s out there. I think Grim Dawn is a really solid contender. I think we have very responsive and fun core gameplay, and complex systems.

 The game is just continuing to unfold. Initially we were supposed to deliver something like… I don’t know, I think we said three to five hours for Act One. Some people are blowing through it in six or eight hours, but a lot of people are spending 10 or 20 hours going through it. And there’s just so much replayability – if you go onto the forum, we have one thread that’s “How many hours have you put into Grim Dawn so far?” I think that thread pretty much speaks for the game. I mean, you go through that and people have put in hundreds of hours, and in some cases over 1000 hours, just playing Act One in alpha! I don’t know what could be a better sales pitch than that.

 PY: Arthur Bruno, CEO of Crate Entertainment – I know you love that title…

 AB: It’s weird when someone calls you the CEO of a six-person company, but I guess technically it’s true.

 PY: Thanks a lot for your time, and we’ll be back in the game soon. If you guys haven’t checked it out, then do check it out. It’s on Steam, and it’s Grim Dawn.

 AB: It’s been great talking to you, and I hope I can get more of your feedback!

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