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Building the World of Reckoning

Gamasutra speaks to the game's lead world designer, Colin Campbell -- who explains exactly why the team decided to build a cross-discipline art and design-based world building team for the massive open-world RPG.

Christian Nutt

February 6, 2012

21 Min Read

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the first fruit to fall from the tree of 38 Studios, founded by baseball great Curt Schilling to create an MMO that could live up to his dreams.

Reckoning, developed by 38 Studios-owned Rise of Nations developer Big Huge Games, is an open-world, single player RPG that shares its setting with the upcoming MMO, code-named Copernicus.

Gamasutra speaks to the game's lead world designer, Colin Campbell. At Big Huge, to tackle this project -- which began before 38 Studios acquired Big Huge from THQ -- the team decided to build a cross-discipline art- and design-based world-building team. Here Campbell explains exactly why, and how the team tackles creating a massive open-world RPG.

What does a lead world designer do?

Colin Campbell: So, my job -- my whole team basically -- is to take the outdoor landscapes and the cities, and build them up both from an art and design perspective.

We're actually trained environment artists. We come from an art background, but we're in the design department. So, we take the visuals and also craft the encounters, the combat. We house the narrative as much as we can, and immerse the player in the narrative.

I got the sense from talking to Tim Coman that it's a very cross-disciplinary process, working on this game, in general. And you sound like you're kind of where the disciplines cross.

CC: Yup, I'm one place the disciplines cross. There's a lot of us. You have to be collaborative to make a game like this, where there are so many systems, and the combat is so important to everything else, that everything has to relate and work well together.

Your background is in art, but you interface very closely with the design team, essentially.

CC: Yeah.

What do you do when you are talking to the leads? Like, what do you want from people? What do you give to people?

CC: I'm a bit of a bridge in that sense, where I'm working with the art leads to make sure that we're getting the assets we need from them. We get a lot of feedback from them on how to make the world look as good as it can.

I'm also working with all the other design leads to make sure that we're housing combat well, that we're, like I said, immersing the player in the narrative well. That we're supporting the quests, giving them the presentation that they want visually and experientially.

So, it's just a whole lot of back and forth and a whole lot of feedback. And we play a lot of support because we really are building the stage for everything for the players to play on, you know. It's one of my favorite things about it. Having all the different gears turning is one of my favorite parts of my job.

Now have you been at Big Huge for a long time? Or are you recent?

CC: I have. I've been there since 2005.

This has marked a change in the company, the kind of games that you're making. Your perceptions of the studio, you know, what's required to make a game, must have changed -- the way you look at the art of game making.

CC: I think so. I mean, it was a big shift. We had to learn new tools, build a new engine. It changed our skill set, in a lot of ways. Core gaming, game system dynamics, you can take from one thing to another. But an RPG is so much different from an RTS in so many other ways. So, it took a lot of learning. [Big Huge is the studio behind strategy game Rise of Nations. - Ed.]

We hired some really, really good talent. Ken Rolston is sort of our visionary granddad. He's just giving his guidance. He brought a ton of experience to the table. We have a great team of people who have made RPGs before. So the studio, our home, it's a lot of our old talent, but it's also a lot of new talent, training us up and helping us get there.

You were talking about quest design and stuff. How hands-on is the design team in terms of getting in there, touching the metal, like scripting, that kind of stuff? And how much of the design team is more writerly, more big picture?

CC: I think that's a nice thing that we have right now. Everyone on our design team, almost, has a nice mix of creative and technical experience. There are obviously people who have been one way or the other a little more, but everybody can get in there and make their quest, or make their landscape they're going to make. We ask people to come in, give us some support to make it a little more artistic, or a little more technically sound, but everybody can play in both worlds.

Is it more of a design-led process in terms of the way you're building the world? In terms of people set up what they want, and the art team sort of polishes it? Or is it done differently?

CC: So, the interesting thing about the world building is it's sort of both. We are both designers and artists, so we'll gray box it, we'll place the design aspects. We won't place the quests, but we'll work with the narrative designers to make sure that their quests work, and we're supporting them.

And then we'll actually do the final polish, you know, placing the final lights, placing the final particle effects, that kind of thing. We'll fix the itty bitty blades of glass to make sure everything looks good.

But we're getting the art assets from the environment artists. It's such a talented team of environment artists. They make incredible work for us. They make the trees and the rocks, and we'll place them down. They give us a lot of great feedback. I keep repeating myself on this, I know, but we work with everybody to get feedback from all parties and make a big cohesive project.

With open world games, I don't know if it's a weakness, but a challenge is environmental storytelling. Have you given any thought to environmental storytelling? Because I know R.A. Salvatore, in particular, is big on world building and society building.

CC: Yeah. It's one of the things we really strive for. We built a game where you can run along the path and veer off... The main quest is telling you to go in one direction, and you can veer left and explore the tiny shack that's been destroyed, finding quests that lead you down to the dark, spider-infested forest.

So, we try to build a world that ebbs and flows, and has moments of large visual storytelling -- like I said, a whole forest that's spider-infested, and then, like, a tiny overturned cart you find.

And, you know, 50 feet down the road, you find the bandits that are getting away with the loot. You kill them, and maybe that's not a quest, but it's a little moment in the world that makes it come alive. We try to do all types of scale in that way.

There are limited resources in this world, in this life, so how do you define how much of that stuff you want to do? The smaller, nuanced little nuggets like that, versus the big picture stuff?

CC: It's tricky. That's a really good question. You know, you take care of the big stuff first because that's what most players are going to see, and with the time you have left, and as you're going through the world, you just decide.

You have a moment of inspiration, and you say, "This is a great place to do something with. I'm going to make it right now." And you kind of just jump in at that moment. In that creative process, things can slip you by if you don't grab them at that time. But we've dedicated real time and real effort to the open world gameplay, running around the world and just finding things to do.

So, I would say that from our work, it's probably a bit of half and half. It's supporting the quest and what the player runs along and experiences, like if you're just following the quest targets. And also, we went off on our own and just made a whole bunch of stuff in the world the player can find.

As a manager, when you're managing other artists and other designers, how do you allocate time to people to let them make these decisions about whether they can follow their inspiration or "No, we have to hit what needs to be hit, or this game isn't going to ship."

CC: We reached that point... I'm really fortunate. My team is incredible. You know, I manage them in the sense that I keep a big picture about things, and occasionally if they need a call to be made about something, I can make that call. But they're so good at prioritizing themselves and looking at the whole world and not making it theirs, but making it the whole project's.

So, they'll look at it and say, "Okay, what does this need most? This space is supposed to support a quest here, so I'm going to take care of that. But it also needs to be freeform gameplay over here, so I'll take care of that." They're really good at balancing those things. I don't have to sit on anybody to make sure that they're following the right gameplay principles.

To get a sort of big picture question, do you consider your team to be an art team or a design team? Or is it too ambiguous to answer?

CC: That's a really good question. We've gone back and forth on that a lot. Technically, we're in the design department right now, but we still go to the art meeting. My heart-of-hearts tells me that we're both, you know? We're trained as artists, but a lot of decisions that we make in the game are about design. If there's a choice where one has to be given up a little bit before the other, we try to walk that line and balance the two.

You say your team has a really good sense of knowing when to spend their time on certain stuff, but where does that come from?

CC: That's a good question. It's experience a little bit. Failing, even -- like making the wrong and learning from it. Watching someone play the space and realizing, "That's not what's supposed to happen at all."

And evaluating and changing. Being willing to do that is, I think, a huge part of it. It’s being willing to take criticism and being willing to find out that you're wrong, and take actually a little bit of joy and discovery of learning a better way to do things.

But some of it is intuition, and some of it is, even looking at references in other games and learning how they've done things, and learning what not to do, even, from that.

Speaking of failing, Did you do a lot of playtesting and see what people react to?

CC: Exactly. That's the heart of it. You want to see how these things play out, because there's no right or wrong answer to it. It's pretty much the player experience, and watching people play in our spaces and in our worlds is one of the most rewarding, and, occasionally, challenging things we did. You want to see where you've messed up and fix it, and make it better. The only way to do that is to put somebody in the seat that doesn't know the place like you do.

How does playtesting work for you?

CC: So, we definitely do big playtesting where people come in, play it for a period of time. We have an occasional boyfriend or girlfriend of somebody from the company, like, "Oh, you're here for a couple hours to hang out? Why don't you come over here and play the game for a little while. We're going to watch and see what you do."

So, it goes from very official to more, "Hey, do you want to just check this out for me?" It might even be I turn to the guy or girl to my left or right and say, "Hey, would you just check out this space for me? I don't really know if I'm doing the right thing." It's being honest with yourself that you as yourself aren't going to know all the answers, and inviting people in.

Again, as a leader of your team, how do you inspire people to not be precious about what they're crafting? I think, for most people, that's an innate human desire to be very precious about what you're making.

CC: I think so. Again, I'm very fortunate to have a team that's naturally very good at this, but we try to do as a group is just be honest with our feedback. I think that's what Big Huge Games philosophy is as a whole. It's not even down to my team.

As a company, we've always said that if you're saying it for the good of the game, then say it. No matter what it is you're going to say, if you believe it's for the good of the game, get it out there. Obviously, you can be nice about stuff, but the more important thing is to make the point and improve the game. It's a philosophy of usability and just getting to the player at heart.

Given the high investments that have been made in games this generation, the number of people who have to buy a game to make it successful is very high, and there's a certain belief that we have to make them work for a lot of people.

But RPGs are pretty serious investments for players. Do you have a sense of where, philosophically, you lie in terms of saying, "How understandable does this game have to be?" or "How readable does it have to be?" Who are you targeting?

CC: One of my favorite things about our game... The combat, for example, anybody can pick up the combat, press the buttons, and get through the game. it's very approachable. It's very organic. It feels the way that combat should feel, I think in a lot of ways. You press the button, and something happens the way you expect it to happen.

That said, the player that wants to can learn about the different talents, learn about the ways... Like this attack does this, and you can chain this attack into this attack, and use a spell with these attacks or with these weapons, and you can apply this buff to this weapon.

There are a lot of opportunities to customize yourself and add a lot of depth to it. That's where all the RPG depth comes in. So, I think... You're never going to please everybody, but I think we've done a good job of creating a spectrum that can appeal to a lot of folks.

And that kind of goes back to what you were saying earlier about creating content that not everybody will see -- especially art, right? Art is the most expensive part of game creation, probably. How do you make determinations about those resources?

CC: It's a lot of give and take. You know, you start with an idea, and you have to have the willingness to change that plan. "The best laid plans", like they always say. You make your best guess. You have to have flexibility and patience and be able to roll with the punches because things get thrown out, things get made that don't get used or get completely redone.

You realize at the 11th hour that "Oh my gosh. We need this entire new thing, like a different kind of tree, because this isn't making sense with the narrative." You have to be able to, you know, not get too frustrated. It's part of game development.

That's sort of the fun nature of it, that every day is a new challenge, every day is a new adventure; you're never going to have the same problems twice. You'll learn from them and be able to use the lessons toward future problems, but everything is always a new adventure.

Can you give me an example of something that you ran into that was one of those moments in the game? Like sort of a shift in what you thought wasn't necessary or possible, suddenly be came necessary.

CC: That's a good question. Let me think for a second. Well, I think, in a whole, the world builder position might be an example of that. We wanted the spaces to look as beautiful as they could be, but we realized that we needed -- because combat was becoming so important and so unique to our game -- we needed to build the stage for that as well as we possibly could.

So, shifting artists into being in the design department and thinking like designers was actually... There were growing pains with it. It wasn't an immediate process, but it's one that I think has really paid off. We've had people really dedicated to making that part of the game work for combat while still maintaining the visual fidelity.

So, can you take me through that decision in terms of like why and when did you decide that you knew to like create a design-led art department?

CC: Well, it's not a design-led art department, actually.

How would you phrase it?

CC: I'm not in charge of the art department, I should be really clear about that. Or even the design department. I'm in charge of my team of world builders. We're integrated in a lot of things, but there's an art director, a design director, and that kind of thing. I'm just a cog in the machine, or what have you.

An RPG has so many systemic things that are so important to it, that all those pieces have to make the game fun. That's really the heart of it. If it's not making the game fun, you have to ask, "What purpose is it serving?"

There are a lot of the things in the game that are just beautiful, though. That can be part of the gameplay, you know -- things that are gorgeous or immersive; that's a part of playing through the game.

But it was pretty early on on Reckoning that we figured this out. We learned from previous projects, previous iterations, from making RPGs, that this was an important thing to us. I would say it was really quite early on in Reckoning, and all the way through we just learned and got better as we went.

When you say "early on in Reckoning", are we talking about when it was pre-Reckoning, pre-38?

CC: Yeah. And I think, in prototypes, in trying to figure out how to make an RPG, there's things that we're not doing now, and I think that's consistent for any studio. We learned and we changed our plan. Like I said, you have to learn to be agile. You have to be willing to say, "This isn't working. We want to make something the players will love, so let's change plans.

But pretty early on, you honed on the idea of having this world-building department. It seems the idea is to have an intersection point where everything comes together.

CC: Yeah. I think that's the real heart of it. We can't build individual parts. None of us are building our own sliver of the game, and then putting them all together expecting them to work. We're all connecting to each other. We're all building one thing, collectively. It has to feel cohesive in all of its parts. That's sort of the philosophy of the whole project.

You talked about a little bit ago about how combat came to the fore at a certain point in the game's development. I'm assuming that's something that arose through iterative processes -- there was a certain point where you realize that combat was becoming an important part of the game.

CC: Yeah. I wouldn't say it was a point. It was more of a... Maybe for other people it was. Maybe for the design director, or upper management, it really was at that point. For the rest of us, it was this thing we learned in stages. It got more and more fun, and more and more exciting. As the audio guys built the impact of the hammer and the effects playing off of it, like we're going, "This is really getting cool! I've never played something like this before. This is really exciting." And it energized the team around it.

Earlier, you were very clear on using gender-inclusive language, like boyfriend, girlfriend, guy, and girl, right? Fantasy has a lot of female fans.

CC: Yeah.

Do you think about that?

CC: I think so. We've got a team of three world builders. One of them is a female, and she's incredible. She's so great at her job. She brings a unique skill set, a unique look of things, and I think that's something we have to think about, not only in just who's building the game, but who we're building it for. You've got to pay attention to your demographic, and I'm thrilled that more and more women are playing these games. I think it's great.

If you look at fantasy novels, particularly in the '80s, it was a place where a lot of women struck out. And I think it was also a place where socially liberal ideas were explored. You definitely see that again, going into BioWare, and making sure that different sexual orientations are explored in their narrative and their audience. Do you feel the same way about exploring different options in this world?

CC: Well, I won't speak to that aspect of Reckoning. I'm not the best person to answer that big of a question, but I think... It makes all of the sense in the world that people are wanting to explore that, and push that. Like I said, the female creators, of course that's happening. And it's great that it's coming along. And in fantasy, like you said, it's been happening for a really long time. So, games are probably just catching up a little bit.

As a manager, do you feel a need or an interest in recognizing, or pulling forward, the work of women? In terms of getting more women into the game space.

CC: I'd love to. I mean, at the end of the day, you hire the best people for the job. Some of them are going to be women, some of them are going to be men. You don't want to choose based on either. You want to choose the best talent. Some of the best talent really is women. Some of it is men. We're really fortunate to have the incredible women we have working at Big Huge Games.

I think of women being an integral part of fantasy, but I don't as clearly think of women being as integral part of game development -- not because they're women, but just because that's how things have been.

CC: I think for a long time it's been a male-heavy industry. I actually taught night classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art for the last couple semesters, and a few of the Big Huge Games artists do. And that's really interesting because those classes that are very video game-centric have become more and more female, to the point where my last class I taught had 16 women and two men in it. The females in the class were just incredible. That's really going to have a significant impact in the industry. These women are going to do incredible things.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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