Titan Quest Interview

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Before ten years ago, the action-RPG genre consisted mostly of Zelda and a smattering of other, lesser known titles. Not to say that some weren't rather well-liked; it's just that the genre was typically overlooked in favor of "pure RPGs" such as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Lufia, et cetera. However, in 1996, a game called Diablo exploded onto the gaming scene and arguably served to put action-RPGs on the map the way Dune did for RTS. Of course, like RTS (and FPS, and... well, any genre, really) overcrowding tends to occur when one game sees the kind of massive success that Diablo enjoyed, and while some titles breathe new life into already great gameplay, others serve to suffocate it and diminish the popularity of the genre—and its overall reputation.

Why the history lesson? Because when you get right down to it, I think most of us can agree that there hasn't been a dungeon crawler like Diablo since... well, Diablo II. THQ and Iron Lore entertainment are looking to challenge the king for its crown with Titan Quest. Does TQ have what it takes to revitalize the genre, or is this just another hack-n-slash hack? I spoke with Michael Fitch, THQ Senior Creative Manager for Titan Quest, to find out.

Shack: What is the basic storyline driving Titan Quest?

Michael Fitch: Titan Quest in set in the ancient world, so the story is basically a mythological one. Long ago, there was a war between the Titans and the Gods, and as we know, the Gods won. What you may not know is that the Gods banished the Titans, but some of their followers, the Telkines, managed to escape.

The point at which you enter the story is a time when the rather rare and reclusive monsters of the ancient world suddenly show up in great numbers and start to attack human settlements, temples, and cities. Your story evolves as you start to help people to survive these attacks, undo the damage that has been done, and begin to unravel the connections between the monster attacks, the Telkines, the war of the Titans, and sites of ancient power: a true heroÂ’s journey that will take you across Greece, Egypt, and Asia.

Shack: Tell us about the character creation system. Just how deep is it? (e.g., control over gender, different character classes, etc)

Michael Fitch: The character system starts out very simply. At first, you choose a name, a gender, and if you like a tunic color, and you start playing. We wanted players, especially less hardcore players, to be able to get to the gameplay very quickly, and we felt it was better to get people involved in the game before they started to make decisions that they might not understand.

As you go up levels, your character really starts to take shape, based on the masteries you choose, the skills you choose within those masteries, and the decisions you make about equipment and attribute point distribution. Each layer of this has some interesting choices for the player, and together they form an incredibly deep system.

For example, you ultimately choose two out of the eight available skill masteries. The masteries cover a wide range of character dynamics. Earth and Storm, for example, are both elemental-magic masteries, but the types of skills within them are quite different; choosing Earth will give you the option of a tank-style pet and fire-based spells that will dish out lots of damage. Storm gives you cold and lightning based spells that can disrupt ranged enemies, inflict reprisal damage on those who attack you, and slow or disable opponents. If you put those together, you have an all-out magic-nuking, mob-busting Elementalist. On the other hand, you could combine either of those with a Warfare mastery to produce a dual-wielding warrior who can also dish out the spells; or, you could choose Defense to become a spell-throwing tank.

But wait, there’s more. Within each mastery, you can choose where you want to invest in the twenty skills that are available. Some of these skills are organized into “families” that have a base skill and a number of modifiers. So, you may take the Earth mastery and focus on Flame Surge (a close-in multiple-target attack) and spend your points to make it cheaper, faster, and more damaging; your buddy might take the same mastery and focus on the Earth Enchantment family, granting fire damage to weapons used by everyone in his party, and using modifier skills to add fire resistance and increased armor to the basic effect.

As if that werenÂ’t enough, you then can tailor your attribute point distribution for your build; intelligence, for example, doesnÂ’t just add damage to elemental skills, it also increases damage when youÂ’re using a staff, and it increases your energy recharge rate as well. But you might want to spend points on dexterity instead, which increases your attack and defense ratings as well as the likelihood of scoring critical hits. Or, you might want to spend your points on your energy pool to have more energy to draw on.

Of course, your equipment also has tradeoffs: do you go for the highest armor value or the best boosts to your stats? When you find that Epic item with a really cool secondary effect, like converting damage you dish out to health for your character, do you swap out your rings to get the attributes you need to equip it? Or do you hold onto it and spend attribute points to feed into the type of damage it does?

ThatÂ’s a very long-winded way of saying that the character development system is incredibly deep, but very easy to get into. Character development is one of the central dynamics of an RPG, and we wanted to make something that the casual players could have fun with, but the hardcore players would really be challenged to explore and tweak. I think players will find that itÂ’s turned out to be a compelling and fresh take on a core RPG system, and theyÂ’ll want to make several different characters just to try out all the different gameplay styles it offers.

Shack: What sort of settings will we be visiting, and how accurate are they?

Michael Fitch: Greece, Egypt, and Asia are the three main regions in the game, and within those regions, there’s a mix of wilderness, city, underground, and building environments. One of the things we wanted to offer players was the chance to visit some of the really interesting locations of the ancient world, so among others, we built the Maze at Knossos, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the monuments at Giza, Athens (complete with Acropolis), and the Great Wall. These are, obviously, based on both real and mythical places, and as far as accuracy, what we aimed for was “Hollywood realism”. In other words, they’re not necessarily to scale or laid out exactly like their historical referents, but they give the feel of going to these places, and they look fan-freaking-tastic.

Shack: What touches have been getting to each type of setting (e.g., Greece, Egypt, etc.) to give them all uniqueness?

Michael Fitch: Each environment has unique flora, fauna, architecture, monsters, equipment, quests, storytelling, and NPCs that really have the flavor of these different cultures. For example, one of the types of equipment we have in the game are Relics. These are fragments of objects that have the essence of mythical heroes or Gods in them, and if you combine them, you can form powerful items that can enhance your equipment. For each region, the Relics you find are related to the mythology and history of the region youÂ’re adventuring in.

Shack: What sort of music has been crafted to draw us into TQ's fantasy world? Does history play a part in the soundtrack, and if so, in what way(s)?

Michael Fitch: As with the items noted above, each region has a set of ambient music that is tailored to the traditional instrumentation of those cultures. We also have a wide variety of original composition work for key events that happen in the story. Again, we went for “inspired by” rather than historically accurate.

Shack: Given the focus on mythology, can we expect many such beasts to slay in TQ? Or will there be some original beasts, perhaps a mixture...?

Michael Fitch: There are a wide variety of monsters in Titan Quest, many of whom are based on mythology, from the lowly Satyr to the majestic Gorgon queens. The different mythologies and the environments of the regions gave us a lot of inspiration to draw from with monster design, but we also invented many out of whole cloth. One of our goals for the game was to give players something fresh and unexpected every 20 minutes or so (which is a lot of content, considering the length of the campaign), so we used a lot of creativity in coming up with monster looks, behaviors, and challenges.

Shack: Can any character use any skill, or are certain skill sets limited to specific character classes/types?

Michael Fitch: For each character, you get your two out of the eight masteries, but there are no restrictions about which two you choose. In fact, you can only choose one, if youÂ’d like, or none at all if you really want a challenge. Once you choose your mastery, you unlock skills within that mastery by investing points in your overall mastery level. Choosing your mastery and investing points in it are the only limits to the skills you have available.

Shack: Is it easy to, say, focus on 2 or 3 skill sets, or should I stick with just one?

Michael Fitch: This is more of a play-style choice than anything else. You can go deep or broad, depending on how you like to play. Since every point invested makes your character stronger, there are never any wasted points, unless you simply donÂ’t use the skill youÂ’ve put points into, and if that should happen, we have Mystics who are NPCs that allow you to re-distribute points youÂ’ve put into skills, for a price.

Shack: The main problem I've always found will skill-based games such as Diablo II is, once I get a really high level skill, I never use that quaint little level 6 skill (or whatever) any more. Once I gain higher skills, will the old ones become worthless? Why should I use them?

Michael Fitch: The key difference here is that your base, first tier skill that you pick up at level 2 gets modifier skills as you unlock the higher tiers, so it never becomes obsolete, it just takes on new characteristics and/or becomes more powerful. The skills you take early can also interact in interesting ways with the skills you take later. For example, if you took the Earth Enchantment early on as part of your Earth mastery, and later you take Warfare and invest in the dual-wielding skill, the enchantment damage stacks on top of the weapon damage; as you invest more points into hitting multiple enemies more often with dual-wield, the enchantment damage also gets applied to more targets more frequently. There really are no dead-ends in the skill system, but like I said, if you find something to not be as useful as you expected (and it doesnÂ’t surprise you by being useful in unexpected ways, which has happened to me more than once), you can also visit a Mystic and re-spec.

Shack: Will the player be able to team with any hireables, pets, etc.? If so, how do they work?

Michael Fitch: Several of the masteries have pet skill families, which allow you to bring in one or several companions to journey and fight with you. Pets function as members of your party in all ways, so you get experience for their kills, they can be buffed and healed (or they can buff you), and your enchantments and auras can apply to them as well. If youÂ’re a fire-and-forget type of player, you can let the AI handle everything; theyÂ’ll follow you, attack your enemies, etc., just fine without your having to do anything. If youÂ’re a more tactical player, you can actually tell your pets to scout for you, assign them to attack specific enemies, etc., with a simple point-and-click interface.

Shack: Hack-n-slash games typically rely on lots of random elements to keep replayability high. Did the dev team make use of anything such as random level generation, random monsters, loop drops, etc.? Also, are there elements in TQ that the devs specifically did NOT want to make random? If so, for what reason(s)?

Michael Fitch: We use a lot of random functions on the content side to make replaying the game have surprises and differences; so, all monsters are spawned from proxies that have tables that determine which combinations of monster types, numbers, abilities, and equipment are possible for that encounter. One time, you might run into a Satyr mage and a bunch of bow-wielding minions. Another time you might run into a Centaur with boar companions, or you might find a Harpy hero waiting for you in ambush. All of the loot is also randomized, and since the monsters can use the equipment they spawn with, that can certainly vary up the tactical situation in unexpected ways. Similarly, the monsters can use most of the same skills that the player has access to, which can again make an encounter play out very differently.

The one area where we consciously went away from randomizing was in the environments. We looked at this very early on in the project, and the level of visual quality for hand-crafted environments was so much higher than it was for randomized environments, that we decided to go the hand-crafted route. I think when you get into the world and travel to some of these locations, youÂ’ll agree that this was the way to go.

Shack: What sort of multiplayer modes will Titan Quest ship with?

Michael Fitch: Titan Quest multiplayer is all about getting together with your buddies and laying the smackdown on the monsters. You can play cooperatively with up to six players online or over a LAN. You can bring your characters from single player to multiplayer and back again whenever you like, so you can go online to trade items with your friends, or play from the beginning of the campaign to the end with your family.

Multiplayer is also one of the places where the class system really shines. When you get together a group with a variety of different mastery combinations, some using melee, others ranged, some with pets, others using buffs and enchantments, not only do you get these really powerful synergies, the screen looks like the 4th of July, with all of the different skill effects going off and the monsters and characters running around.

Shack: Tell us about Titan Quest's editor.

Michael Fitch: The TQ editor is really an amazing piece of technology. It uses a combination of height-mapped terrain with tiled pieces that auto-stitch into the mesh, so you can create these really organic-looking landscapes that have all of the sharp three-dimensional details like cliffs and overlooks, without the texture stretching of traditional height maps or the repetitiveness of traditional tile systems. All of the textures are also dynamically blended, so you can literally “paint” the opacity of a road texture to let the grass underneath show through more or less, and the grass actually grows up in the cracks of the road first! And when you walk across the grass, it moves, which is just a really great effect. Since all of this is done [semi-automatically], all you have to choose is which textures you want to use and paint them on the landscape, and you get these incredible looks that would normally take hours of painstakingly placing objects or producing new transition textures. I can’t wait to see what the mod community does with it, as I don’t think we’ve ever seen a tool that’s this easy to use but also has the amount of power and flexibility to produce detailed environments.

Whew! That was a long interview. IÂ’d apologize for going into so much detail, but weÂ’ve put a tremendous amount of work into getting all these things right, so there are just facets upon facets of the systems to talk about. I hope you found it as interesting to read about as weÂ’ve found it to work on.

No apologies necessary; in a game genre as adored by its fans as the action-RPG, dungeon crawl, or whatever you want to call it, more details are better than sparse details. For more information on Titan Quest, make sure to visit Shacknews often during our E3 coverage, May 10-12, as I'll be getting a chance to take the game for a test drive.
Long Reads Editor

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