Larian Studios are trying to create the best RPG ever, this much is known. Having turned to Kickstarter a good ways into the development process, the independent studio announced a want for community support, in order to fill their world with richness and vibrancy. Kickstarter is usually seen a way to, well, kick start projects, so coming to the platform this far into the games development is a strange and daunting risk. If they already have a game, why do they need your money?
The state of RPG’s
It sounds almost self deprecating as a PC gamer to say it, but RPG’s really are a niche genre now’days. Far be it from me to define what an RPG is, but in recent years we’ve seen a slew of visually appealing, highly polished titles that aim to deliver an overall immersive aesthetic, or context, with swaths of nuance and plenty of legend and myth. A lot of the time, these games seem more like references to RPG’s than RPG’s themselves. They dabble with RPG mechanics, and deliver open worlds to explore – but they often feel manufactured, lifeless, and heavily scripted.
You can program the AI of a fox to react to its environment, and you script and record (that’s the important bit) as much dialogue as you want, but in the last – perhaps 10 – years I’ve felt like many of these games are trying to be RPG’s by ticking boxes, and substituting depth for gimmicks – tokens that allow us to ignore our intuition, and really immerse ourselves in the world. Distractions.
That’s my opinion – but I know it’s one a lot of you share. Skyrim, The Witcher, and other highly polished AAA titles do a very good job at what they’re trying to achieve, but is there not a difference between a cleverly designed, character driven adventure, and an over-produced sandbox with grandeur and boldness, but no real nuance or charm? I’m stepping back from my subjective experience here, trying to look at what we could have rather than the best of what we’ve got. I think that’s what Larian is trying to do, too.
When it was announced that The Old Republic would feature fully voiced dialogue, my reaction was: “great, so we can basically cut the quality, quantity, humor, and charm of the script to a quarter of what it could have been.” I’m confident I was right to be worried. It’s easy to re-write some dialogue you didn’t like, or amend or add more pre or post launch if you don’t have to book a studio to record it. It’s also easier to get away with riskier conversations if you don’t have a chain of command worrying about how it’ll sound. You can get away with quirks in written text that you simply can’t when you’re looking to actors to speak these roles.
Actors cost money, and video-game productions have finite resources. Very tight resources (unless you’re Activision, who see fit to star three major Hollywood actors in a fucking DLC map pack.) I think you can see where I’m going with this.
You need to look at the element of ‘thrill’. What ‘thrills’ you in an adventure. Let’s look at books. Books cost a lot less to make than movies, yet books undeniably have much more depth, and arguably potentially much more reward. There’s more to invest into as the reader, and the depth, scale, and scope of the world can be so intensely descriptive as to kick start your imagination and literally change your life (I can’t go to London after reading Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole). All from one £5.99 collection of pages and ink. Books aren’t acted, and books don’t have AAA polish and first person visuals. All of the creative prowess is focused into one area: the story.
Am I saying that RPG’s should be text based? Of course not, but there, at this stage, has to be a balance between thrill from depth, and thrill from gimmicks. So what do I mean by “gimmicks?” I’m using the term gimmick in its positive sense (without judgement). Photo-realistic visuals, life-like animations, expensive graphical features, actors, and to some extent motion capping. Whilst I can’t deny there are games for which these aspects surely apply positively, my argument is that the more money spent in these areas, the larger the detriment to the RPG experience. Ouch.
You’ll intuitively want to argue that striving for reality is clearly the most sensible way to achieve immersion. This works for some, but I think for a lot of people heavily into RPG’s, it really doesn’t. I don’t want to turn around and point my finger at any demographic of RPG player, contrasting ‘elites’ to ‘casuals’. That’s not what this is about. Let’s look at an example:
The Witcher 2
The Witcher 2surpasses its predecessor in almost every way, but to do that, it had to become a much more linear experience. Linearity comes as a detriment to the foundations of the RPG experience. I absolutely adored The Witcher 2 - I played it with great interest from start to finish, and I have nothing but admiration for CD Projekt Red. They created a sublime action RPG – but they created an action RPG. This is not the same as an RPG in the classical sense. This isn’t 4Chan, so I won’t go into the ins and outs of this. It’s subjective to an extent, but the overall consensus is that there’s a disparity between action RPG’s and RPG’s proper.
More examples: Divine Divinity or Beyond Divinity, Larian’s own Magnum opus, were startlingly different to their AAA, more modern release of Divinity II. As a result, their die hard fans don’t hold that title in such high regard. This is a very straw man account of the differences and economy of it all, but as I have described above, adding pomp and polish to a game detracts funds from other areas. As a result, Divinity II held aspects that came as a detriment to the potential for the RPG experience, whilst adjusting to a modern, more action oriented style of game play. When I shook Swen Vincke’s hand, I openly admitted that Divinity II is one of my favorite RPG’s of the last decade. We later discussed exactly why, however, the game was only a small percent of what it should, and could, have been – given the resources.
Resource distribution – where should the money go?
Resources is exactly the problem. What are resources in games development? Money? Not just that, but: people, time, work-space, talent, technology, and, to an extent, freedom of creativity. Putting the right resources into the wrong things is a sure fire way to make a bad, or at least compromised, game. Why take my word for it? Take a look at CD Projekt Red talking about porting. Porting a product across three platforms is a huge blow to both manpower, money, and time resources. It necessarily comes with compromise. There’s one example of how to potentially compromise your RPG. Do PC gamers own the soul rights to RPG’s proper? Of course not, but it doesn’t help that so much money is being spent on AAA polish, only having to reduce and reshuffle it entirely to work on other architectures. This is money they could be spent on the game itself, rather than three versions of the exact same game.
As we talked about above, there’s also millions of dollars allocated to photo-realism, which, suspiciously enough, seems to be dedicated to open fields full of basically nothing, or small towns – excused by narrative and story – rather than the great cities and structures we see and read about in fantasy novels. It’s not the size, it’s how you use it. That’s a beautiful field, but what’s in it? What purpose does it serve? To the credit of BioWare they tried to take Dragon Age 2 out of the country, and into the city, but its cookie cutter characters and, ostensibly, upper-management meddling ultimately made that a fruitless endeavor - although an honorable one. Where are the cities?
Voice acting doesn’t come cheap, especially when you want to motion cap everyone’s face, although we talked about how that’s getting cheaper with Larian due to procedural animation techniques. The relative cost isn’t the problem, though, it’s the quantity. Imagine this scenario:
Writer: “I have an idea for a little joke – it’s not very important, and it’s not integral to anything, but I think a few people will find it quirky and funny. In fact, I have an idea for many. These characters, who aren’t important, but will add some flavor to the world, can be placed anywhere on the map. Shall I go ahead and write these guys?”
Producer: “Well, I’ll need to talk to accounts to see if we can afford the recording space… if it isn’t very important, I can’t see how we can justify dedicating resources to it. Maybe I’ll get back to you… but don’t hold your breath. We are already swamped with studio sessions, and we’ve checked most of the writing, we don’t have time to look into this now.”
This seems like a reasonable problem, doesn’t it? What do games like Original Sin do to alleviate this? They literally give all the staff the option of writing their own dialogue. No restraints, no money, no problem. Think of a joke? Talk to the producer, and toss it in the pile. Woke up inspired? Throw it in. You don’t have to worry about recording, funding, and financing your silly little joke that people may or may not care about – and that’s the beautiful thing about resource management: do it properly, and creative freedom is completely unlocked.
So if producing isometric RPG’s is so much cheaper, why give anyone any money?
Because resource management isn’t suffocated by technological and scheduling restraints, you know that every penny is distributed through the ethos of creative freedom. Money in isometric RPG’s, even in the 90′s, wasn’t “wasted” (contestable point) on “gimmicks” (as described above). They add life, flavor and depth to a world that really can achieve a good balance between what we see in fantasy novels, and what we see in fantasy films. No one can re-create Middle Earth in a PC game and sell it as a single, or cooperative RPG experience – it needs to be maintained and continually financially nourished for it even to exist. We need huge, expansive worlds full of life, depth, character, quirks and charms to really be immersed in the way in which RPG’s deserve.
We need choice, and the ability to go where we want and play in the style that we want. We don’t all have the same sense of humor so we need more than one or two running jokes. We don’t want one experience, we want many. What we want is the visual representation of a sublime fantasy novel, in as much detail as possible, finding a good balance between graphical fidelity (prettiness) and vibrancy or expansiveness. Go for one, and it comes as a detriment to the other – which is why isometric is the perfect compromise, and has traditionally delivered the greatest quality RPG’s.
There’s a danger here that I’m giving you the impression that creating isometric RPG’s without gimmicky frills is cheap. It’s not cheap. Not at all. Creating any game isn’t cheap, relatively speaking. No one creates “cheap” games. Developers work within their means, and to some, that means not eating and sleeping in a hostel type environment with the rest of their team. People literally dedicate their lives to something that some people in the world view as ultimately meaningless. Why lose sleep over designing a electronic entertainment, when some lose sleep saving lies? Relativity aside, we’re gamers, and we love gaming – it’s what we do. Games developers are artisans. They are the Michaelangelo’s of electronic creativity. They have a million ideas, but almost always never the resources to bring them all into fruition.
So, back to Original Sin, where could the money possibly go?
If you’ve read my preview, then you know that what we were shown was crude, but incredibly earnest. Original Sin is the exact sort of idyllic RPG experience I’ve been talking about this entire time. Larian are exhibiting tantamount to altruistic resource management, where every penny is spent on something improving the RPG experience. Watch their Kickstarter videos, where you’ll see Swen wander around the world, talking about how he would like an NPC here, or an NPC there. Let’s give this guy something to say, let’s give that guy something to say. I want something here, I want something there.
As it stands, Original Sin has the foundations for that classic RPG experience that RPG fans are craving for, but bringing even isometric RPG’s into the modern era is still an expensive feat. All the money raised through their pledge is, as they have said, dedicated to enriching the foundations for a huge and expansive RPG world full of quirks, charm, humor, and mechanical depth.
Recently, they announced that if they pass the $800k mark, ‘Henchmen’ will become ‘Companions’, each featuring their own back story and character. What better example than this to highlight how exactly teams that work in this way can enrich true RPG experiences? Suddenly, something bare-bones mechanical, and merely functional is full of life, depth, and character. They are no longer defined by the token of their function so much as the depth of their character. That’s what an RPG is about! Scripting, polygons, and triggers do not constitute humans!
The team have already talked about adding a homestead, fundamental additions to character customization (traits, story, background) which change story development and conversation options (extended dialogue); there’s of course the richness and detail to the world, extra enemies, dungeons, etc,. They are looking to add day/night cycles, weather, and ways in which this can affect your foes, and your magic.
So, why did they turn to Kickstarter? Because Larian Studios built a true-to-form RPG with their own money, for people who genuinely love RPG’s. It’s 2013, and people want some extra flair, so Larian, having already earnestly crafted something agreeable to RPG fans, having worn their hearts on their sleeves, are saying: help us to make this better. No compromise. No publishers. No bullshit. Depth, scale, density. There’s always space for revisions, and there’s always space for more – they are creating a world, not just a game. Unequivocally striving for perfection; entertaining all quirks.
Please note that I hold no affiliation to Larian Studios, its employees, or company. The views in this opinion piece are not necessarily shared by any of the aforementioned parties, no do I imply they may or may not find them agreeable. This written work has been independently authored through no ultimatum. All previews/opinion pieces on PCGMedia.com are written without publisher/developer pressure or bias. We do, however, have our own opinions, and this is something we’re behind.