'Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning' was one of the biggest surprise packets of E3 2011. It literally came out of nowhere, and suddenly became one of the most anticipated games of 2012.
You can read why it's going to be so awesome, and then check out our chat with Reckoning's lead designer, Ian Frazier.
MMGN: What’s the feedback been like from true fans of the genre? What sort of challengers have you faced in making the game accessible for the common man, but also deep enough for the type of player that will put 40 hours in?
Ian Frazier: Overall the feedback has been great. I think there was quite a bit of initial wariness and skepticism about the game (especially regarding the action combat) back when it was all just talk, but after we started showing it off to people at PAX East last year, and then started offering hands-on sessions, we made a lot of believers. It’s really exciting to see die-hard RPG fans get into the game because they love its traditionalist elements (number crunching, dialogue, loot, ability trees, etc.) but then discover that they actually love this whole new approach to combat. And of course the sheer amount of content is a huge boon for us—this is the sort of game you can play for hundreds of hours, and although our more action-oriented players may not care, for the hardcore RPGers that’s a major selling point.
The combat has been talked up quite a bit. Care to talk it up a bit more, and tell us what sets it apart? What makes it so awesome?
The big thing about our combat is that it does something no game has done before: it merges the fluidity, responsiveness, and moment-to-moment experience of an action game with all the depth of choice, toolkitting, and tactics that one expects from a hardcore RPG. You get to build out your character exactly the way you want to—looting, buying or crafting equipment, investing in dozens of unique abilities, and so forth—and then when the time comes to actually fight with that character, you get to experience the effects of all your toolkitting decisions in a really exciting way. You get to feel powerful, slam your fist into the ground and cause an earthquake, hurl enemies into the air and keep them airborne with repeated shots from your longbow, teleport through a foe and appear behind him to slit his throat...the sheer drama and theatre of combat in Reckoning is just incredibly rich.
What games, if any, did you take inspiration from in building the game’s combat system?
Several! Reckoning’s game systems take inspiration from a number of different RPGs (from the classic Ultimas to more recent games) and the moment-to-moment combat gameplay draws inspiration from God of War, Tekken, Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, and even Secret of Mana!
As you level up in the game, do the enemies evolve around you, countering your new found skills and attributes?
Yes and no. The way our levelling system works is that each area in the game (town, valley, dungeon, etc.) has a particular level range to it, like 5-9, so that when you go there for the first time, the level of that area gets set to be as close to your character’s level as it can within that range. It’ll now stick to that level forever. This means that generally speaking, enemies you encounter in the world will be appropriate to your level in terms of challenge and loot, but if you try to blaze way ahead into areas that are out of your league, you’ll encounter some really nasty foes. Conversely, if you return to an earlier area of the game, you’ll crush your enemies easily and feel like a real badass.
The ‘Destiny’ system – I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. It essentially acts as the game’s class system, right?
That’s right, we think of it as a “dynamic class system.” One thing we like about the concept of class in RPGs is that it gives you a really specific sense of identity, very literally a role to play in the world. We liked this and didn’t want to lose it. On the other hand, there were a couple of things we did NOT like about class: first, you have to choose it before you’ve had any experience playing the game so you can’t make an informed decision, and second, once you’ve chosen it you’re stuck with it for life. If you decide 10 hours in that you made a mistake, too bad for you. So with the Destiny system we sought to keep the thing we like about class but lose the rest.
We start the game with your character as a blank slate, with no “Destiny,” no place in the world. Over the course of the first 30-40 minutes of the game, you get to try out all the core playstyles in the game—swing a sword, through a ball of lightning, backstab an enemy, etc.—and get a feel for what you like. After you finish the tutorial, you’ll level up for the first time and can start investing points in our three ability trees of Might, Finesse, and Sorcery. You can focus on just one tree or spread your points all around if you prefer. Depending on where you spend those points, you’ll unlock different Destinies—essentially equippable classes—than you can then choose to use whenever you want. There are Destinies for every different sort of character, from those who focus on a single ability tree to those who spread their points all around, and every Destiny grants you different bonuses (and in some cases, actual abilities) which help make you more effective at your chosen playstyle. Mage Destinies, for instance, allow you to short-range teleport rather than roll, whereas Warrior Destinies make you incredibly durable and Rogue Destinies make you deadly with critical hits, etc.
When combined with the ability to completely respec (via visiting NPCs called Fateweavers), the Destiny system lets the player constantly evolve his or her character build over the course of the game and never have to suffer from buyer’s remorse. I’m really happy with how it plays out in practice.
What sort of results has this led to in testing? Are you finding players to be more spread around across the classes instead of everyone ending up as a warrior?
Absolutely! One of the most fun things about testing this game has been seeing the Destiny system start to really work in practice. In many of our early tests we saw players pretty much sticking to whatever class they usually play in other RPGs, but as we improved and refined the Destiny system, we started seeing players experiment and try new builds that they never would have done in other RPGs. Hybrid builds in particular are something we see players do a lot in Reckoning that they always seem to enjoy.
Fate shift system – it sounds quite rewarding. Tell us a bit about it. What initiates it?
After R.A. Salvatore’s work on Forgotten Realms, it’s quite exciting to see him attached to this project. What does he bring?R.A. crafted the world of Amalur itself, from a fictional perspective. Very early on, he wrote a story bible covering 10,000 years worth of Amalur’s history—both the distant past of Reckoning and also its future—which set the stage for all the major locations in the world, the different races and how they interrelate, the cities that have fallen, the empires built, the wars won and lost, and so forth. Having this rich tapestry of history underlying all our design decisions on Reckoning has done a lot to help us make Amalur into an exciting, compelling, believable place.
One of the major stories in the game in the game is that the player is the one person in the world who is completely free from the bounds of Fate, and therefore the catalyst in breaking OTHER people out of the plan that Fate had for them. You’re a free agent, an element of change, the butterfly in the butterfly effect. This has several repercussions in the story, but from a systems perspective it means this:
Every time you defeat an enemy, you’re killing them in a way, time, or place where Fate didn’t originally “plan” for them to die. As a result, there’s some residual fate energy left over when you kill them, and you can harvest this energy. Once you’ve gathered enough of this energy, you can harness it to enter into a special mode called (wait for it...) RECKONING, where time slows down, you get a massive damage boost, and you become incredible durable. In this state you charge your weapons with fate energy and kick the crap out of your enemies. As you defeat foes, their fates actually start to unravel before your eyes, and if you run up to a character who’s unravelling, you can engage in a “Fateshift,” a special fatality move with an awesome animation that will destroy not only that enemy, but every other nearby unravelling foe as well. Plus you get a big XP bonus for every enemy you kill in this way, so it’s really rewarding from both a visual and number-crunchy perspective.
We’re seeing fewer and fewer new franchises in the industry. It seems like publishers don’t want to take the risk with a new IP, yet here you guys are, competing with a game like Skyrim. I’m sure there are things that set you guys apart, but gamers can’t help but make that comparison. What do you think is going to be the most inviting aspect of this world, this new world no one has visited before?
Three of the big things that I think will draw people to Reckoning despite all our competition are our action combat, our awesome loot, and the Destiny system. But as far as the world of Amalur (rather than the game itself), I think one of the big draws is the art style—we embrace a rich color palette and an exaggerated over-the-top approach to character animation that really captures the heart of “high fantasy.” Beyond that, there’s just a lot of lore, history, and depth to the world, with complicated relationships between peoples and races and cultures that stretch over millennia and help lend a certain weight and believability to the world.
And Todd McFarlane?
Todd’s involvement is—as you might imagine—on the art side of things. He helped craft the initial artistic vision for the world of Amalur, and within the context of Reckoning, he reviews and provides feedback on virtually every piece of art we construct, from concept illustrations to finished character models. He helps Tim Coman (Reckoning’s art director) to steer the artistic vision of the game in a lot of ways, but I think his biggest impact is on the animation side of things. When you see the strong poses from our characters, the pauses and slow-downs as the player arcs through the air, the sense of pregnant action from moment to moment...a lot of that polish comes in response to feedback from Todd.
Finally, what exactly is the “Kingdoms of Amalur”?
Kingdoms of Amalur is our actual brand, an entirely new fantasy universe created by R.A., Todd, and Ken. R.A. crafted the initial story of the world, Todd helped define the visual aspects of it, and Ken lent his game design experience to the process of bringing the various elements together into a compelling whole. Meanwhile the development teams at 38 Studios Providence and Big Huge Games down in Baltimore have been hard at work actually bringing that universe to life via Reckoning (Big Huge Games) and a shiny new MMO (38 Studios Providence). Ultimately we want this universe to cover more than just Reckoning and the MMO, though—we want more games, books, toys, comics, movies… In short, we’re interested in anything that brings people into the world of Amalur and gets them excited about it!
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is due for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on February 10, 2012
By Gaetano Prestia