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Interview: Big Huge Games GM Sean Dunn on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

by Xav de Matos, Mar 10, 2011 10:30am PST

The teams at developer Big Huge Game and parent company 38 Studios are pushing very hard for the upcoming game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to make a name for itself in the universe of open-world role-playing games.

Helping the cause for Reckoning is the involvement of an industry heavy-weight like Ken Rolston, lead designer on Oblivion and Morrowind. Also shining a spotlight on the upcoming title are names like best-selling author R.A. Salvatore and comic book legend Todd McFarlane. Based on our recent demo of the game, things to be shaping up nicely for the property.

In a genre where--in this generation--titles like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 are king, it seems like a daunting task to enter the market with a new intellectual property. At an EA Partners Showcase at GDC 2011, I spoke with Big Huge Games studio general manager Sean Dunn about the connection to Oblivion, the existence of Skyrim, and the dangers of announcing a franchise rather than revealing a single title.

Shacknews: There have been a lot of comparisons made from your team and [38 Studios boss] Curt Shilling about what Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is like. We've heard it's a marriage between God of War and Oblivion, for example. Let's examine that because I think there's an impression from players that, since they haven't seen it in action, it's a lot of talk verging on hyperbole. What's the core idea behind Reckoning?

Sean Dunn: The core idea behind the game is that it's an open-world RPG. It's a core, hardcore RPG that really is built to cater to those fans of products like Oblivion and Elder Scrolls games. What we wanted to do is, well we were never really satisfied with combat that was offered to open-world RPG players.

The whole team is made up of industry veterans. We have Ken Rolston, he's one of the visionaries who was the lead designer on Oblivion. We have Mark Nelson, who is the creative director here, he was was the lead designer on the Oblivion expansion. Our executive producer was at Bethesda, the system designer from Titan Quest... there's a lot of RPG knowledge in the studio now.

What we wanted to do is pull all of the combat in. We wanted to put combat that's geared in that "simple to pick up, but hugely deep and fulfilling and satisfying" gameplay. We didn't want to over complicate it with memorized combos and things like that. It's all based on single-button combat, based on your weapons, and it's based on your timing. Just like any good RPG those skills and those combo trees that you can execute through the progression of your character.

If you don't want to do in-close, tight combat you can go through a Mage build or maybe do a Hybrid build. Anything like that. It was really bringing fast paced combat into an open-world RPG.

Shacknews: You mentioned Rolston and Nelson, there's also involvement from R.A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane. Was there a pressure for this game--a new I.P. in such a volatile genre--to attach names like this in order to capture attention from players throughout the game's development?

Sean Dunn: To tell the truth, it's one of those things that could have been really dangerous for the product. You have all these really strong personalities who--I mean, how do you tell a writer who has 22 or 23 "New York Times Best Sellers" that you may not want a quest written in a certain way? Things like that.

One of the beauties about how the team was built is that they weren't actually built to make the game. They were built to influence the game. Built to set the stage. R.A. Salvatore? He doesn't write the quests but he did build the 10,000 years of history within the game that we draw all of the story and characters and setting from. He's also part of the whole critique of the product.

Same with Todd McFarlane, he doesn't animate any of the characters but he's the executive art director. He works with our art director at the studio. In a traditional Mage attack there's a lot of tossing of stuff but when Todd lends his flair there are these huge, pregnant pauses in the animations before they explode out onto the screen. It's really evident what he brings to the table there.

And then Ken [Rolston]? He's got 20-something, 30-something, 80-something years of RPG experience. He's really, really old.

(laughs)

Shacknews: Ken is your on-staff immortal?

Sean Dunn: Yeah, he started in pen and paper RPGs. That tells you something there.

Shacknews: Speaking to the danger of things: Reckoning is a game that has been announced as one title in a series. Do you think it's dangerous to make an assumption about a property in this industry, saying that there are other games attached to this IP before the first has even been put into the market?

Sean Dunn: It was really a moment of opportunity. There's also the Kingdoms of Amalur MMO that 38 Studios is building...

Shacknews: You mean Copernicus?

Sean Dunn: Yeah, codenamed Copernicus. That was in development and in progress and that whole world was being built. Then THQ and Big Huge Games separated ways and Curt saw this team of incredibly talented RPG makers, saw the product they were working on and said "I want to pick up that team and this is a product we can launch this IP with."

It was dangerous. It is. Obviously. Handing off the IP "keys" to another studio, but as you'll see in the demo [Read our Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Preview] it has really come a long way. We think it's going to be a really positive launch for the IP. There are a lot of dangers involved, it's just that things seem to be falling into place really nicely.

Shacknews: Obviously with gents like Ken and Mark on the team there is an expectation. When you mention those names, you have to mention titles like Oblivion. Does it hurt or help the fact that you are starting off this new IP with an expectation that the game is being driven by people behind one of the best role-playing titles of this generation?

Sean Dunn: If we had a low execution it would hurt. We have a really high execution so it will help. You know, the consumer really doesn't care what trials you face or what difficulties there are. They don't care about how much a game costs to develop or how difficult and RPG is to build. They just care whether it's fun or not. So, setting that high expectation? That's not something we have a choice in. That expectation is going to be set even if [Ken and Mark] aren't attached to the game.

I think having them attached to the game shows that we're not starting as infants in this genre. It's like there's some institutional knowledge of how to build these open-world RPGs. And they are really, really fucking hard to build.

Shacknews: It's funny you say that because this always ends up being a subject of discussion when I interview people involved with the development of open-world titles: the QA [quality assurance] must be a nightmare.

Sean Dunn: Yeah, you have to have a very buttoned up QA process. Many games, you have QA come on at the very end and do a lot of the late testing. In an open-world RPG you carry a full QA team as soon as the engine is up and running. So, we've had QA on this game for two years already and we have another year to go. So, it's something you just need to make sure you plan for.

Shacknews: With RA and Todd involved, you're pulling in weight from people in multiple mediums: novels and comics, in those examples. THQ, as you may remember, does a lot of cross media content to promote its properties. Is Kingdoms of Amalur going to take a similar path to paint a broader brush throughout various types of media?

Sean Dunn: It's a natural evolution of where to go. If you look at the people involved, they come from those other areas. I'm not at liberty to announce anything that's happening outside of Reckoning right now, but it would be a natural progression, I think.

Shacknews: There's a lot of mention of Oblivion when the subject of Reckoning comes up. People love The Elder Scrolls series. At the Spike VGAs, Bethesda revealed The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was coming out this year. People may have looked at Reckoning to fill the void of a certain style of RPG. You know, I hesitate to call it a replacement, but the perception may be there due to the involvement of Ken and Mark. Does the existence of Skyrim change anything for Reckoning?

Sean Dunn: Yeah, it really doesn't change anything. You know, Bethesda knows how to make great open-world RPGs. We know we're going to get a great game out of them. Ken leaving doesn't really hurt them a whole lot. It brings a lot of knowledge into our realm and really builds up our team, but we have a different focus on our team. Yes, we're an open-world RPG, but how we focus on combat and how we do crafting and the way we do our RPG systems or level up the characters, the class choices, abilities, talent trees... those are all unique to our game.

You'll see that both games look very different. They have different styles. Different thematic tones to them. I just think it's more awesomeness for the RPG gamer.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning launches in 2012 for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.