With Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning a few short weeks away, we wanted to help spread the buzz by nailing down some last minute details with Lead Designer, Ian Frasier:
Strategy Informer:So, we’re a few weeks away from launch… I imagine the game is feature complete now?
Ian Frasier: It is done, it is gold, and it is getting ready to go into box. We’re very happy.
Strategy Informer:So, what has been the priority for you guys then since the game went Gold?
Ian Frasier: We have a couple of other smaller side projects that we’re working on, although we’re not talking about them right now. Beyond that just sleeping, mostly. A lot of people are taking vacation time.
Strategy Informer:How hard has it been to get the message across about what Amalur ‘is’? Do you think the community have been getting it?
Ian Frasier: It’s been hard- we just released a public demo about a week ago, and that’s helped a lot. I have issues with the demo too, but overall it solved the problem you’re talking about. They go “ahh, it’s World of Warcraft”… well it’s colourful, but it’s not WoW. And we can say that, but they won’t believe it until they get their hands on a controller and see for themselves. I think having the average Joe and not just the press play the game has been a lot of help.
As far as getting what the world is, as in why is Amalur interesting, that’s been building up over time. We’ve been getting forums, and we have a website that’s just about the lore of the game and then people get into that… it’s been a slow process.
Strategy Informer:What were your issues with the demo? Anything you want to say to set the record straight?
Ian Frasier: It’s just that it’s buggy. We branched off from our main game about three months ago, we got an external company to work on it, and they did a really good job without any support from us, but a lot of the bug fixes we did for the game, I mean they branched right before we started some hardcore QA; they’re not in the demo.
I’m happy there is a demo out there, but it’s upsetting to the team how buggy it is. The actual finished game isn’t bug free – nothing is, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job on that score. But yeah the demo is buggy, and we’re worried about what people might think because of that. I’m looking forward to the first reviews getting out; actually, I think those will verify to the world that the final game is clean.
Strategy Informer:Will there be a day one patch?
Ian Frasier: I don’t know, I don’t know. I mean you’re always looking at that stuff, but there are no major issues on the docket right now, so it’s not really necessary for us.
Strategy Informer:Coming back to what you were saying about promoting the game, have you struggled with the fact that – to use another EA game as a comparison – you don’t have your own ‘Shepard’?
Ian Frasier: Obviously we’re being represented by EA, and one of the first marketing concerns early on was “where’s your Shepard?” “Well we don’t really have one… the Shepard Is you, the guy sitting on the chair” and that’s been hard to market, but we’ve gotten around it by talking about the world of Amalur, and about what makes the game unique, like the combat. There are videos of guys throwing people around and the various kill animations and people are like “wow, ok”.
Strategy Informer:As an EA Partner, do you think EA has handled you guys well in terms of marketing your game?
Ian Frasier: I think they have. The thing that’s tricky is that we’re a new IP – you have to put a certain amount of effort into marketing just so people know it exists, but if you put too much into it there’s a terrible risk. I mean we’re brand new! Hopefully everyone loves it, I’d like to have a yacht, you know… but yeah marketing has been very fair, to the point where they’ve been looking at when we release compared to TOR and Mass Effect. Worst thing they could have done is dump us on top of one of those titles, it would have been devastating.
Even if you were like “This is the best game that has ever been, and will ever be made, in the whole world” our sales still wouldn’t be that great if we were up against Mass Effect or any other major franchise.
Strategy Informer:2011 seemed to be especially tough on new IP – what are your thoughts on that?
Ian Frasier: Oh gawd yes. It was tough on existing IP as well. I feel so bad for everyone who tried to release a game in the fall. There were some really, really good games, even some really good marketed games, that didn’t do some well.
Strategy Informer:Every game, when it’s in the early design phases, as a ‘wishlist’ of content and features that the designer wants. Usually though, as things progress, things get scrapped or can’t be included for various reasons – Is there any cut content you want to tell us about?
Ian Frasier: Somebody asked me about this earlier, and I was looking back… not really. There are some bits of content like, a village, or an attack button or whatever was cut. But in terms of full on features, not really… everything we wanted to do in terms of scope, like the destiny system and the combat system, that’s all there. There was nothing like “we really wanted flying mounts” or anything like that.
Although, for the MMO, Kurt really badly wanted Centaurs to be a playable race in the MMO… yeah, not so much. Doing mounts is difficult enough, but having a four legged race that has a completely different animation set, different way of moving, different equipment set… yeah that wasn’t going to happen.
Strategy Informer:Was there any content that was held back for DLC?
Ian Frasier: There was a couple of things – like there was a joinable faction we were going to do, and then we were like “nah not going to do this… maybe later for DLC” and that could still happen. But I don't want to talk about it, because if we do use if for DLC I don't want to have told you what it is! There's a DLC button on the main menue though. That's all I'm saying.
Strategy Informer:Will Reckoning be using any kind of Online Pass for DLC? Like the ‘Cerberus Network’?
Ian Frasier: I can’t really talk about DLC, but in terms of general validation and stuff, it’s similar… I mean if you play the PC version of Reckoning, and you get it through Steam or Origin, they’ll be a authentication process there. But on the console, it'll be a similar thing. I mean you don't have to, but if you're online it'll be like "Hey, do you have an EA account?" - like you see in Dragon Age or Mass Effect etc... and in fact that's how we do the cross-over promotion.
So, if you play our demo - on PC, console, whatever - if you have an EA account or are willing to make one (and it's not tied to using Origin either), at certain points in the game you can unloc Mass Effect-themed stuff, and in the Mass Effect 3 demo you can unlock Reckoning-themed stuff for us there.
Strategy Informer:I imagine as an EA Partner you weren’t…restricted into just sticking with Origin as a digital platform?
Ian Frasier: Well yeah. Obviously we wanted to be with Origin, it’s a new platform and we don’t mind signing up there, but of course we’d want to make a deal with Valve. I mean we like it when people buy our games! But yeah there was no compulsion to be Origin specific or anything.
Strategy Informer:Do you think there’s such a thing as ‘too much’ content?
Ian Frasier: That is a really good question. There are really two answers to that question – too much content at a time? Absolutely there can be too much content. We’ve really tried with Reckoning, at the beginning specifically even though there’s a crap load of stuff in the game, to start with this small funnel of content and then gradually get bigger.
You’ll notice World of Warcraft does this really well, like it’s a ginormous game, but they start small and then grow till you have like a bazillion options, but by that point you understand what you want and can pick and choose what you want to do. It’s similar with us – Chakrams for instance, Faeblades and Greatswords… they don’t actually drop until you’re level 3. So we do a lot of things like that under-the-hood, where we control when the player experiences what. Same with factions – we don’t dump them all on the player at once.
It’s an open-world game – not like Skyrim where it’s just a massive open square, but it’s a network of spaces you can journey through. It’s a bit like Fable but more like Skyrim in the freedom side of things.
The other side of that is “how much content in general is too much?” – I don’t have an answer to that. It’s a question I ask myself regularly as we got to the end of this game and thought “my god, did we make it too big?”
Have I mentioned the content completion play through? We recently had a content completion play through about two months ago… so, QA guys, they’ve been playing the game for years, they know all there is to know about it, it’s ins and outs, etc… their goal is to play everything. Do every quest, every dungeon, everything possible, but as fast as possible. That means easy difficulty, skip all cut scenes and dialogue, sprint everywhere that’s sprintable, fast travel everywhere you can…don’t do any combat you don’t need to do… that all took around 200 hours, and that was a speed run. For a normal person, it'll be way more than that.
I think in terms of a selling point – bang for your buck – I think it’s great. It should be on the back of the box. But as a developer I have to look at it and think “did we overdo this?” I really don’t know.
Strategy Informer:How about the main quest though, how long is that?
Ian Frasier: So if you just focus on the main quest, don’t bother with any of the side stuff, you’re looking at around 30 to 40 hours.
Strategy Informer:Even though Reckoning is a multi-platform game, so there probably isn’t a ‘preference’ or anything, will you be releasing mod tools for the PC?
Ian Frasier: This makes me sad, as I come from a modding background myself – I wish we could say we support them, but we don’t. Our tools are all heavily reliant on a database. There’s no good way of making them publically available. There has been talk of taking some of our tools, and making them available, and we’re still actively investigating that – but the whole set of tools? Not possible, not for the foreseeable future anyway.
That said, philosophically, the company is very much in favour of mods. We’re not going to be sitting around sending out C&D letters or anything – so if you can mod it, excellent! Even for our demo, someone’s already made a mod for that. That demo was made before we had custom key-bindings, so you were stuck with whatever we gave you, but someone has already made a tool so that you can customise the key bindings in the demo, so that gives me a lot of hope that we’ll see mods from the community, even if we’re not able to help them.
Strategy Informer:For future Amalur titles, do you think you’ll want to go down that route of having a ‘Shepard’ or a pre-defined character you can promote?
Ian Frasier: I’m torn. I mean if you want to tell a more encapsulated, or more linear story, then it’s great to have a Shepard. I think that’s part of what makes Mass Effect so good – I love Mass Effect. HOWEVER, there is another style of game, which is what Reckoning is, that’s not about telling a specific story about a specific person, it’s about telling YOUR story, so in that sense having a Shepard doesn’t really make any sense.
It is unlikely that in this franchise that we’d go down that route and do that kind of character. As handy as they are for marketing and as good as they are for telling a pre-set story, they don’t really lend themselves to an open-world experience.
Thanks to Ian for talking to us. We’re definitely looking forward to Reckoning, and we help it manages to do well despite tough conditions for new IP right now. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is due out on Xbox 360, PC and Playstation 3 on February 7th in North America, and February 10th in Europe.