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INTERVIEW: Kingdoms of Amalur’s Ian Frazier ready for battle

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Posted on September 6, 2011 AT 08:51pm

Kingdom Come

Taking on the likes of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is no easy task, but EA, 38 Studios and Big Huge Games think they’ve got the necessary mojo to move the metaphorical mountain and dethrone the current king of big-budget RPGs.

We had a chance to sit down with Lead Designer Ian Frazier to talk about the team’s star power, creating new IP, and why Reckoning will be a definitive experience for role-playing fanatics:

EGM: You’ve joined quite the star-studded project in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. We know about some of the big names attached to this game, but what’s your specific background?

Ian Frazier: I came out of the mod world, doing mods for Dungeon Siege and a few other things. Then I moved to Iron Lore Entertainment, where I was a level designer for the Titan Quest series. Then I was lead designer on Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War—Soulstorm. Then I came to Big Huge, where I’ve been working on various incarnations of RPGs that eventually became this project.

“Various incarnations,” eh? That sounds interesting. Can you tell us anything more about that?

I can’t say a whole lot, but the short version is that, once upon a time, we knew we wanted to make an RPG that had action combat in it. We started building out that game while we were owned by THQ, and over time, we established the engine and a lot of the guts to be able to make a game like that. But the game wasn’t done, and ultimately, THQ decided to let go of Big Huge. We were then acquired by 38 Studios, where we kept the core technology we had built but completely took a new direction and put it into the world of Amalur.

In a weird way, it feels almost like we’re making a sequel, because we built so much technology before we started this. But that makes it easier.

So what’s it been like to graft this project on to a brand-new franchise like Reckoning?

It hasn’t been hard at all. We had a lot of things in the same vein as what the folks at 38 were interested in doing. One of the first things we did was to take some characters from their MMO and put them directly into our engine. They saw how well it fit in to some of the things we’re doing here, and they got really excited. That foundation we’d built was extremely well-suited to building within their universe.

How will you get players who don’t know anything about this world excited about jumping in?

It’s tricky with any new franchise, and ours has an extra challenge, because there’s an MMO in development as well. The big thing for us has been showing what about this particular game is good and why you’d want to buy it. We’re trying to show our combat, our colorful art style—just the sheer size of the world. If we do that—if we get people more excited about the game itself—I think that will naturally lead into more interest in the property.

You’ve got such an all-star team: former athlete and 38 Studios owner Curt Schilling, veteran RPG designer Ken Rolston, author R.A. Salvatore, and artist Todd McFarlane. What have they brought to the project? Has it been easy to integrate their contributions?

Honestly, I came into the acquisition and thought, “Um, I dunno, that’s a lot of big names…it sounds like this might be bad.” But I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

R.A. Salvatore, his big thing is that he wrote a 10,000-year story bible. So, before we even started building into what Reckoning is, we had this massive framework of narrative over the course of a very large stretch of time. It’s been incredibly valuable, because we’re not pulling things out of our butts on a daily basis. It helps our concept artists, our environment teams, and our enemy designers to root things in a world that feels believable.

Todd’s involvement has been all over the place, but his biggest focus has been animation. He’s given a lot of advice to punch up a sense of drama. If you’ve seen our demos, there’s a lot of pauses and slowdown moments—extra little bits of flair. Those very small details come from Todd’s feedback. A lot of Todd’s thing is, “Make it more awesome!”

The one point where we do occasionally see a conflict between them is during the traditional artist-versus-designer debate, where the artist says, “Let’s make this look awesome” and the designer says, “Let’s make this make sense.” We try to find compromises that do both.

Meanwhile, Ken Rolston’s been doing RPGs for 26 years, from the tabletop era to today. His big thing is the “I don’t give a crap about your design” player. As designers, we tend to focus on a cool story or quest or combo we want you to use. What Ken consistently reminds us is that a lot of players don’t care. Even if you wrote the best story in the world, they may just not want to play that story; they may want to deliberately screw it up. Ken reminds us to do the little things to make that player happy.

You mentioned Ken’s tabletop background. In the case of those pen-and-paper RPGs, you have a dungeon master right there on the table to adapt to the choices the players make. Is that something you’re keeping in mind?

I think there’s certainly a thread of that. For Ken, that’s very literally his background. I actually DM for a crew of our level designers, and the way we’ve built those campaigns definitely feeds into the way we’ve built Reckoning, especially the Destiny system—our class system. It stems from the core RPG problem of choosing a character class before you have any idea what you’re doing. For Ken, that’s been an annoyance for a quarter of a century.

Some of the unique items in Reckoning are actually based on the characters and events in our D&D campaign. We wondered if it was professional to do that until we found out that the character Minsc from Baldur’s Gate II was based on a character from their lead designer’s D&D game. Then we felt OK about it.

Tell us a little more about the Destiny structure and getting around that issue of character regret you mentioned.

When the game starts off, you pick your race and gender and patron god, but you don’t pick a class at all. As you play the tutorials, you get to throw around a basic-level spell; you use one-handed swords, daggers, bows, and a little bit of stealth. So, by the end of that experience, you know what the core gameplay styles are. At that point, you level up and start investing points into the three skill trees—Might, Finesse, and Sorcery—which are more or less your traditional fighter, rogue, and mage trees.

If you decide you want to, say, swing a big hammer and tank your way through things, that’s fine—you can dump points exclusively into the Might tree, and you’ll unlock the warrior Destiny. A Destiny is basically a class you can equip; you can only have one Destiny equipped at a time. And that gives you bonuses specific to that playstyle. Same goes for Finesse or Sorcery.

As you progress in the game, you’ll get more skill points to throw around. So, you might want to spread your points between trees, and that’s where Reckoning gets really interesting, because it’ll give you a Destiny appropriate to those choices. One of my favorite builds in the game is the fighter-mage—he’s kind of paladin-esque. So, I put some low-level points in Might to unlock skills like a shield bash or some sword techniques, and then I start throwing points at Sorcery, like the ability to heal or buff. That’ll unlock a Destiny that’s a combination of the two.

The idea is that, wherever you decide to put your points, the game will give you a name to apply to that. And it balances your character to be playable, no matter what your mix is. The traditional issue in RPGs is that you kind of have to minmax if you want to be effective. That’s a huge thing that we’re seeing in D&D. Multiclassing is interesting, and there are a lot of people who want to try a little bit of everything. But in most game systems, doing that screws you. So, the dirty secret for us designers is that Destinies are a balancing tool. They let us make it so that a crazy hybrid character is just as effective as a pure warrior.

Do noncombat skills play into these Destinies as well? If you unlock a certain Destiny, will it allow you to get around certain obstacles in a noncombat way?

Normally, your non-combat skills are totally distinct from abilities and Destinies. In most RPGs, you have to choose between being good at picking locks and talking your way through trouble or just killing things. We’re trying to separate that into two different decisions. We’re coming to you and saying, “You’re going to be a badass. Tell us what kind of badass you want to be.” And then we separately ask, “You’re going to be good at some other stuff, too. Tell us what you want to be good at on the noncombat front.”

The one exception to that is the jack-of-all-trades Destiny. If you choose to split your points evenly across all three ability trees, you’ll unlock different destinies that actually do buff your noncombat skills. We figure that the person who dabbles in everything probably wants to dabble in everything.

One of the things that kept me from getting into Oblivion was its combat; the first-person sword swinging just didn’t do it for me. It looks like Reckoning’s combat is a lot more fast-paced.

It’s definitely more akin to an action game. Many RPGs let you queue up an action when you press a button, and if you press another button, you have to wait for the first action to finish. Our model is more like buffering your inputs. If you’re in the middle of a sword swing and you hit the sword swing button again, the moment that the first part of the animation is done, you can chain to the next attack. We want instant—or near-instant—response to those button presses.

And you can change your mind, too. If you’re in the middle of swinging your hammer and you need to block or roll, you could cancel out of that animation and do that. One of the big differences between God of War and other action games of that ilk is the ability to get out of an attack by taking evasive action. We feel like, for our players who maybe aren’t as experienced on the action side of things, it’s really nice to have an out.

We try to avoid the word “combo,” because people assume we mean a button combination, like X-X-Y-B or something. But we have built a lot of our abilities and attacks to fit together. For example, we have an ability on the Finesse tree called Shadowflare that momentarily staggers enemies. That buys you time to get off a bigger attack. We have another ability in the Sorcery tree called Tempest where you have to kind of mash a button to get it powered up, but once you do, it blows up this huge area with lightning. So, if you were doing a jack-of-all-trades character, you could combine those abilities together, using the Shadowflare to buy you enough time to mash up the Tempest and zap everyone.

Finally, what’s one thing about Reckoning that you’re most excited about, and one thing you’re still concerned about?

I’m in the minority here, but I’m most excited about the Destiny system. I think most people focus in on the graphics of the game, the environments—which are, to be fair, beautiful—but the Destiny system solves a lot of problems that have been in RPGs for years. Seeing our testers get into that and use it as we intended has been really satisfying.

If you’d asked me six months ago, I would’ve said I was worried about people not getting the Destiny system, because it’s so different from the norm. And in some of our early tests, people did react weirdly; they were like, “Where’s my class? I don’t know how to deal with this.” But we started tutorializing it better, and that problem went away.

Due out Feb. 7, 2012, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will be a significant debut for 38 Studios, but the question remains: Will this RPG upstart give Elder Scrolls a run for its money, or will it fail to make it’s mark?

Brandon Justice, Executive Editor
Brandon Justice spent the last 17 years in the game industry wearing hats as an annoying retail weasel, an overly opinionated journalist, and game-development ninja—until he got tired of the all the caviar and groupies, returning to the ring as a rowdy, rambling writer in 2010 for EGM Media. Follow him on Twitter @jokeontheworldMeet the rest of the crew.

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