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Interview: The 'Long And Crazy Tale' Of Kingdoms Of Amalur's Creation

Big Huge Games lead designer Ian Frazier tells Gamasutra about the "long and crazy tale" behind the development Kingdoms of Amalur, an action RPG that he hopes will stand out against heavy hitters from studios like BioWare and Bethesda.
Role-playing games today are expected to provide a deep, engrossing experience for gamers -- an experience that might convey a tale full of conflict and uncertainty, perhaps taking a player through a few unexpected twists, leading eventually to some kind of satisfying resolution, with a dragon or two thrown in for good measure. While lacking dragons, the real-world development of Big Huge Games' upcoming fantasy-themed role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has a rather epic tale of its own. And the game's team, still hard at work, definitely has been earning its experience points all along the way. News of this RPG first emerged officially in 2007, when then-independent studio Big Huge Games and publisher THQ announced they had entered into a development agreement to create an RPG, at the time known internally as Crucible. The game was notable in a couple respects -- one being that Big Huge was more known for PC strategy games like Rise of Nations, not multiplatform RPGs. The other being that RPG design veteran Ken Rolston of Morrowind and Oblivion fame would be overseeing the game's development. THQ, which wanted to focus more on original properties and triple-A games, saw enough promise in Big Huge and the RPG to warrant an acquisition of the studio in 2008. Work on Crucible was continuing in earnest, now with a major publisher backing development. But as THQ struggled through financial shortfalls and the subsequent corporate restructuring, the publisher announced in March 2009 that it intended to sell Big Huge, along with the in-progress Crucible -- and there was zero guarantee that the studio or the RPG would be saved. Ian Frazier, lead designer on the game, was there through the whole ordeal. "It's a long and crazy tale ... Around the time of the sale, THQ was not in a good place financially and they decided, 'No, we're not going to keep Big Huge. No, RPGs are expensive.'" "There's always a mixture of fear and anger when something like that comes up," Frazier said candidly. "And certainly we had gotten some messaging from THQ not long before [the sale] about how much they wanted to pour more resources and more energy into their new IPs and triple-A titles." "So we obviously felt a little bit less than thrilled that that direction took a sharp turn to, 'No actually, we're not going to do that,'" said Frazier. "We were kind of cut off there, so basically [the feelings in the studio at the time were] what you'd expect. People were afraid, people were to some extent angry, but I guess THQ has to do what it has to do." But Big Huge, with its technical and creative talent, and well-underway RPG, wasn't on the market for long. Enter Curt Schilling By the end of May 2009, 38 Studios, the young, startup game development studio founded by former Major League Baseball star pitcher and self-professed World of Warcraft geek Curt Schilling, announced that it would buy Big Huge. Now called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the single-player RPG formerly called Crucible almost magically fit into the same universe of the in-progress fantasy MMORPG already in development at 38 Studios, codenamed Copernicus. Electronic Arts' third-party publishing and distribution arm EA Partners then picked up Big Huge and 38's RPG, the IP of which the developer will continue to own. Frazier said there was a certain amount of creative freedom that was regained at that point, now that Big Huge was not owned by a publisher. "I wouldn't have said this then, but looking back on it now I think [the sale] was the best thing for us," Frazier said. "...There are always going to be restrictions [when not publisher-owned], obviously, but overall there's a lot more freedom. Part of it's been that we're building IP from the ground up for ourselves. So when it's your own company that's building the IP -- and it's not like, 'Let us make this thing so that you [a publisher] then can own it,' -- iti¿½s a very different vibe." Changing Gears For An RPG With the studio sale well in the rearview, the Reckoning team is now around 120 people, including QA. Building that team, as well as switching from a strategy game studio to an RPG studio, was a daunting challenge, Frazier said. "I would say [the transition was] pretty hard, honestly," he admitted. "We finally fully made that transition, but the two biggest challenges were hiring experienced RPG designers, and just RPG developers in general, because there aren't that many." He added, "The industry, the RPG side of the industry, is really small, so it was hard for a long time to get people who knew how to make quests, to get people that knew how to build advancement systems and all that good stuff. We did it, but it was hard and it took a while." "The other big challenge was just technical, just the engine. We built the Rise of Legends engine back in the day, and that was proprietary. Rise of Nations -- I'm not saying that was easy [to develop], but in comparison to this game it sure was. To have a multiplatform engine that's covering the action combat the way that we're doing it in Reckoning, which also has this massive streaming world -- for our tech team it's definitely been a very large challenge." The Rolston Factor Playing a key role in guiding the team through its challenges is RPG veteran Ken Rolston, lead designer on Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. He has an office at Big Huge and plays Reckoning regularly, giving feedback to the team. "He's not like writing dialogue as a general rule, he's more playing quests and looking for what doesn't work, seeing how we can we make this more 'open,' what we can do to support the freeform play style," Frazier explained. "As an example, recently we have a lot of quests in the game -- we had over a hundred side quests between faction lines and stuff, and generally we expect that's what people are going to do. But Ken played the game for, I think it was three or four days straight without a single save, and didn't do any quests. He was deliberately avoiding quests." "He was just wandering around, killing things and crafting stuff, and that's it," said Frazier. "He was going out of his way to not do any quest content, just to see what that would feel like, and how quickly he would advance, and what the XP looked like for a character that doesn't do quests and so on. Then he just gives me a dump truck of feedback on that experience and then we can tune things to make that a good experience." "Ken's office is actually across the hall from mine, which is good because we have squirt guns that we'll attack each other with from time to time." Room For Another Fantasy RPG? Frazier is particularly proud of the combat mechanics in Reckoning, which he said are more akin to an action game, improving upon the often bland enemy encounters found in other action RPGs. He thinks that putting strong, more reflex-based combat mechanics at the core of a deep, sprawling RPG experience will set Reckoning apart from strong offerings from companies like Bethesda and BioWare. Reckoning's long and crazy tale has yet to end -- a ship date has yet to be announced. So the question remains: Is there room in the market for a brand new single-player RPG property, particularly one that is in the well-worn fantasy genre? "It's a combination of exciting and scary having these established juggernauts to compete against," Frazier said. "It's definitely intimidating. On the other hand they've built the space. It's because of the Oblivions out there, because of the BioWare titles, we now have this vast sea of RPG fans out there who want these games ... certainly we're not the only fantasy game in the space, but I feel like the space is a pretty good size." "If we were ever trying to straight up replicate what BioWare and Bethesda does, I'd be more scared, but because we've kind of found our own niche and we're kind of pulling to people who like these kinds of games ... I feel pretty good about it."

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