The Average Gamer

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Interview – Pick Whatever Abilities You Want

A few weeks ago I was invited down to EA’s Guildford headquarters and plied with soft drinks and cookies to preview Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. This new open-world RPG comes from Big Huge Games and 38 Studios. Traditionally a strategy house (Rise of Nations, Catan), Reckoning is their first foray into role-playing games. With hugely successful creators involved, like R. A. Salvatore (writer on the Forgotten Realms series), Ken Rolston (Lead Designer of Morrowind and Oblivion) and Todd MacFarlane (Spawn), it sounds like they’re in safe hands.

I spoke to Will Miller, systems designer on Reckoning about the levelling system, the jail and getting naked in Amalur.

Debbie Timmins: In a lot of RPGs these days you just use the skill to skill up. You guys have gone down the route of levelling up and then putting points into skills. Can you tell me more about the decision – did you think about going down the other route?

Will Miller: We wanted to make a lot of interesting choices for the player when they level up. The ability allocation part, where you’re deciding what kinds of combat skills you want? We took that from games that players are probably familiar with, like Diablo. It’s very familiar, presented in a familiar way but those choices unlock the “destinies” – the replacement in our game for classes. You can swap those out whenever you want to. They encourage you to try new kinds of builds that just would not work in other RPGs – multi-class and spread out your allocations over all three trees. That’s fine, you can do that in our game. It helps you play as that kind of build.

In our non-combat skills, it’s just another interesting choice you get to make when your level up. So it all feeds back into the moment-to-moment gameplay and also the long-term gameplay.

When it comes to the destinies do you not worry that it would be very easy for a player to just break their build?

WM: Break the game?

Well, break themselves.

WM: So we let you pick whatever abilities you want. We encourage you to, if you see something that’s cool on that tree, take it. Regardless. If you’re a mage and you see a might ability that you want, just go for it coz it’s cool, it’s there. As you do that, the game looks at the combinations of things you’ve unlocked and rewards you destinies to fit those combinations; to fill in the gaps that you may create by multiclassing in a certain way.

For example, one of the biggest mistakes new RPG players make is they’ll evenly allocate all of their skill points, right? And that totally nerfs your character late in the game ’cause you don’t unlock any of the high-level ablities. It’s awful.

In our game, that’s totally fine. If you do that, you unlock the jack-of-all-trades destiny tree. you can apply that to your character. What’s cool about that specific one is that yes, there are a finite number of ability points so you’re not gonna be able to unlock the top tier abilities in all three trees but… we cut your equip requirements in half. So if you’re one of the players who likes to run way ahead in the game and get all this loot, if you didn’t have that destiny you couldn’t use the loot ’cause it’s way out of your level range. But if you have that destiny equipped, you can use pretty much whatever loot you find.

We also buff physical damage, magic damage, mana regen and all the stuff to make that build work. So we spent a lot of time playing with different combinations of abilities, figuring out what buffs to give you to make pretty much whatever decision that you make in the levelling system work for you.

We also let you swap those destinies out whenever you want to and if you really bork yourself and you find yourself playing a mage and saying “Well, I don’t really like the way the mage plays” or “I wanna try a fighter”, you can go to a fate-weaver and totally re-spec your character. It costs some money, right? And it costs a bit more every time to to do it. Not a prohibitive amount, so you can totally wipe the slate clean in the game without starting over.

The jail’s quite fun.

WM: Oh, you went to the jail? [big smile] That’s a system that I wrote from the ground up a while ago. It’s seen a lot of iteration and the jail experience I think is brief. Did you sneak out?

No, I was rubbish!

WM: Haha, okay.

I’m too impatient. ‘Cause there’s nothing to hide behind.

WM: Yeah, some of them are harder than others, certainly. It gets easier when you invest in the stealth non-combat skills. To negotiate the jail correctly you have to watch the guards for a little while – pick up on where they go and what frequencies they leave the area. There’s lots of rewards. You can even pull a lever and release all the other prisoners. The guards will chase them, letting you get out. There’s certainly a crime system in the game that punishes you if you start killing people.

[Minor hidden achievement spoiler coming here – skip down past the next picture if you don’t want to know]

Factions – that’s what I was thinking of as well. Does that have any… okay, I’ve been wandering around the game naked.

WM: I saw that. That’s… interesting. An interesting way to play.

Hey! I got an achievement.

WM: Yes! You got the streaker achievement! Excellent. I’m so glad you did ’cause you’re probably the only person outside the studio that’s ever been rewarded that. That’s great. That was my idea. [laughs]

Wa-hey! Playing nekkid. But the thing is… nobody seems to react to that. I’m just wandering around in my bra and underwear. I’m going to the inn.

WM: We would love to change the game for you based on the fact that you had clothes or not – it’s an edge case that up to this point only you have discovered. We did things like we decided to localise ALL the audio in the game. So every line of dialogue is localised into several languages and it has voice-over so to change the game substantially based on whether you wear your clothes or not would be a pretty difficult undertaking if we were to do that for a lot of these edge cases. But I thought that was really interesting that you did that. Funny.

I’m glad you got my achievement. It’s one of the only hidden achievements in the game, actually.

[Edit: in a tweet after this was published, Miller attributed the Streaker achievement to Sean Bean (@Notthatseanbean) No more spoilers from here]

I was leading on to factions – I met the dude in the pub who’s with the WarSworn. I presume that’s faction-based.

WM: Yes

Will characters start reacting to you on the basis of factions as well?

WM: The faction itself will certainly start to respond differently if you engage. if you start the faction quests they’ll being to open up to you, because you can encounter the characters within the factions without actually being in the faction quest.

In any part of the game we don’t want to close off content based on your choices. We want the game to react to you differently based on the kinds of choices you make but we never want to say “because you did this faction line you can’t do this faction line.” There are no mutually exclusive quests. There’s certainly times where you have a lot of different ways to solve a problem; or multiple problems – pick which one to solve. Certain characters will treat you differently if you make different choices.

At the end of faction quests you get these things called twists of fate which are like perks. Permanent buffs that stay with you for the entirety of the game. Depending on HOW you play the faction quest, who you piss off or who you cater to, will result in a different twist of fate. They’re all GOOD. They’re just different.

Can you tell me about the persuasion mechanic?

WM: There are opportunities for you to persuade, as I’m sure you’ve seen. In the tutorial you persuade the gnome to give you more potions if you try that. It’s a skill check. It mainly factors into a lot of the faction quests; a lot of the side quests have persuasion parts so it’ll branch depending on whether or not you can persuade somebody. Or you’ll get different kinds of loot or you’ll get the loot in a different way. Easier to persuade the guy rather than having to steal it or kill him. Also in crime of course, you can bribe the guards if your persuasion is high enough. It depends on the level that you’re in. Usually they’re harder to persuade in higher level areas.

So you’ve gone for area-based levelling?

WM: I’ll give you a peek under the hood. The way this works is that the game is partitioned into regions, not necessarily corresponding to the geography but mainly divvied up by how we wanted to pace the player in terms of the difficulty. Each region has a level range, 10-15, 15-18 what have you. When the player first enters one of those regions, we clamp all of the region’s NPCs to the level of the player, provided he’s within the range.

So if you go too high and you’re a level 20 character and you go to a level 5-10 area, we clamp it at 10. And if you’re too low, we clamp at the low value. So if you’re one of the players who tries to run way ahead of the game rying to get the “sweet loots” further away from where you’re supposed to be, you’ll quickly run into regions that clamp at much higher levels than you are.

They will be difficult to negotiate but we also think that it’s really cool to have a challenging area. You go into an area the first time and it really whales on you. You level up a little bit and get to come back and beat down. That’s really cathartic, that’s satisfying so we wanted to keep that. Enemies don’t level with you always – when you encounter them the first time, that’s the level they’re gonna be at for the rest of the game but we intelligently decide what that level is.

Thanks for your time.

I’ll have a full preview of the game up next week. Go catch us on Facebook or Twitter to find out when it goes live.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will be out in February 2012.