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Postmortem: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
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Postmortem: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

July 30, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the single collaboration between Big Huge Games and parent studio 38 Studios, became an inadvertent teachable moment for the games industry when rocky initial sales, mismanagement and no end of poor luck resulted in the complete closure of both companies in May 2012, just three months after the game's release. Financed in part by a loan from the state of Rhode Island, Reckoning is also a fairly unique case of a triple-A game built with the help of alternative funding.

In this postmortem, reprinted from the April 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, former Big Huge Games executive producer Mike Fridley walks through what went right and what went wrong with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning's production leading up to its ill-fated release.

Over five years ago, Big Huge Games set out to completely change the type of games we make. We switched from making real-time strategy games to role-playing games, and we started making games for consoles in addition to PCs. We made these changes for several reasons, and although profit was one of those reasons, it wasn't the only one. We wanted to do something crazy. We wanted to make a big open-world RPG -- pretty much the craziest project we could think of short of an MMO. But we're all big fans of the genre and thought we could find our niche in it, so we started our quest to convert the studio into an RPG ho use.

At first, our RPG project was named "Crucible" and was being published by THQ. We were making great progress on it, and THQ was happy enough with the progress that they purchased us outright; and we became an internal THQ studio. Around that time we switched some of the key features of the game and renamed the project "Ascendant." We were part of the THQ network of studios for a short period of time right up to the point that THQ started running out of money. Our big, juicy, unproven-in-the-genre studio was a prime target for them to try to sell.

With literally days left on the "close the doors" timer at the studio, THQ sold us to Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, which has R.A. Salvatore as "creator of worlds." It became clear pretty quickly that we would need to change the universe and some of the game features yet again to take advantage of Robert's genius. We changed the project name to "Mercury," which later was given the final shipping name of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

For those keeping track at home, in five years we were bought and sold twice and changed the name and core features of the project three times. Needless to say, it's been a long, strange trip. The rest of the postmortem will be restricted to the two and a half years we spent working on Reckoning rather than the two previous false starts.

What Went Right

1. Combat: RPGs don't have to have boring fights

Shortly after we came out of preproduction, we took a long, hard look at the game we were making and tried to figure out where we were going to be better than the competition. We figured that open-world RPG designs are segmented into four basic quadrants: story, character progression, exploration, and combat. We discovered that it was easy to identify the games leading the industry in story, progression, and exploration, but there was no clear title that does combat well while still meeting the expectations of the player in the other three quadrants. So we decided to go all-in on combat and change our staffing plan to really commit to making combat fun in an open-world RPG.

The game wasn't built solely around combat, but it was definitely built with our flavor of combat in mind. Everything from the minimum size of a dungeon's hallway to the number of enemies we could handle onscreen at a time was governed by the guideline that combat had to remain awesome.

Two of the other things that went right during development were direct results of this focus on awesome combat, usability testing and functional group seating.

2. Usability testing -- early and often

We made sure that getting feedback from real players was high on our priority list from the very beginning. Since we couldn't just release work-in-progress builds to the public and take surveys, we did the next best thing and took advantage of EA's usability lab very early in the development process. The lab at EA allowed us to pull in testers from the general public and use them for highly focused testing on systems or content that we were currently developing. For example, if we had the first pass of a crafting system in the game, we could pull in a dozen or so players for a half day and get some players feedback on whether the interface was easy to navigate or whether blacksmithing felt rewarding.

Since EA's lab recorded videos of the wrap-up sessions, we were also able to show our team what the player thought of their part of the game. If the attack chain you were working on felt bad or the quest didn't make any sense to the normal player, the team that worked on those areas of the game got to hear it straight from the consumer's mouth. That kind of direct feedback from the player really helped us fine-tune the combat system, and ultimately, the entire game.

3. Functional Groups: Sitting together pays off

As part of our development philosophy, we have cross-departmental teams working closely together. A lot of studios do this, but until this project we didn't really push seating functional groups of people together at BHG.

Some of that may have been because the physical structure of the studio didn't lend itself to more than three people in an office, or it could have been just old-school thinking that never changed until it was forced to change. We did eventually break down the walls (literally) and start sitting larger functional groups together in what we called "pits" around the office. For example, the combat pit has animators and designers all sitting side by side.

This way, an animator working on an attack chain could be sitting just a few feet away from the designer implementing and fiddling with it in-game. They could easily look at each other's work and offer comments or critiques very quickly.

However, functional groups are less about speeding up the feedback process and more about forcing interaction. A lot of developers are lazy about socializing or unaware of what is going on outside their office, but when the people you are directly working with are in your face all day, you start to bond with them. A lot of our functional groups became pretty tight-knit and hung out after hours, really bonding as a group. That translated into more and better communication in their work and really increased the quality of the end product.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Dustin Treece
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I played the game all the way through, even bought the DLCs and I have to say it was a game definitely worth playing. One negative thing I did experience as a player was in the combat system, which in all other respects is probably one of the game's biggest successes. The difficultly of the game never really became challenging, while fighting itself was entertaining enough, I never felt like I was challenged, even playing the game through on hard, I only died twice (and both of those were during my attempts to run as far into areas that outrageously out-leveled me), and I'm not a really skilled player. If the player follows the main quest, and doing just a few of the side quests, it seems like they always stay just above the sweet spot of being actively challenged by the game (again this is on hard too), and fall into the area of just mildly being satisfied with playing around with the combat. The combat system could of been more effective if the game had more challenging gameplay.

I will say that the difficultly definitely did spike up in the Dead Kel DLC, maybe even a bit too much in some areas (I died several times in some of the cave sections of which the names escape me, and started to get a bit frustrated), but then fell way back down in the Teeth of Naros DLC.

Overall though, really enjoyed the game, definitely a worth a look for RPG and fantasy fans.

Michael Dawe
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Thanks for playing!

In fairness to your point, Reckoning was tuned to be a little bit on the easier side. Playtests gave us a pretty consistent 4 on the "How difficult is this game, 1 being too easy, 10 being too hard?" question, which we felt was probably about right for our target demographic. And in fact, about two-thirds of Reckoning's players played on the easiest difficulty setting.

Having said all that, we were aware of the vocal minority wanting something harder, and in fact were working on a "nightmare" difficulty mode as free DLC when the studio shut down. Alas!

Dane MacMahon
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I would take Skyrim's combat over Reckoning's. I think it's important to remember target audiences and genre expectations. Reckoning's combat seemed to please people who like third-person action games like God of War or Devil May Cry, but personally that's not what I'm looking for period and especially not in an RPG. When you consider the rest of the game played like an offline MMO it seemed more like a genre clash tha. A progression to me. I've seen the combat treated as a massive negative in my RPG fan circles.

It's all subjective of course and what do I know. Just sharing my personal experience. Despite RPGs being my main genre I waited to get this one on sale and never finished it, mostly because I disliked the combat and the MMO style of questing.

Ron Dippold
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Even MMOs play like that these days. The WoW-style combat of 'stand around and wait for a button to light up then press the key' is almost gone, except for the older WoW-likes that are still holding on like Lord of the Rings and Rift. New stuff (Vindictus, Tera, Neverwinter) is much more active combat, and if latency allowed it they absolutely would be as active as Amalur.

It really was a Single Player MMO - the test run for the real MMO they were working on when the whole thing went pear shaped.

Dane MacMahon
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I'm not really a fan of MMO combat and have only played a few games in that genre (WoW, TOR, Star Trek). I am more a fan of Dragon Age or old school IE combat, or the first-person immersive stuff like Skyrim.

I'm not sure how large a part of the market I am but I know a lot of "hardcore" RPG gamers seemed to share my opinion that the combat felt like something from a different genre. Which can be great and unique when the customer likes the two genres being combined (such as FPS and RPG in Deus Ex) but falls flat when they don't. I'm not sure how many Weatern RPG fans like Devil May Cry style action games.

Nicholas DeVillers
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(This comment doesn't assess the "brokenness" of the combat system that Dustin points out, which I agree to be true, but simply the enjoy-ability factor of it in an RPG setting.)

I would have to disagree with your assertion that the target audience only desires the typically seen RPG combat style like in Skyrim. Yes, when we find a combat system we enjoy, lets say FFVI's turn based combat, then we desire more of that. However, there still is a large group of people out there thinking, "What if I could actually be executing my own limit breaks and being the one to swing the sword and fly through the air?" Which has brought us all through attempts, such as FFXII and Dissidia, and now to the inevitable FFXV.

I and others who have fallen in love with the combat system of Reckoning because it gave the player the fast paced fighting they want. It was the merging of two art styles to create this very desired mutt. I wanted Skyrim but with intense Prince of Persia style combat.

I feel that there are far bigger contributing factors to this games unpopularity. Personally, the "open-world" seemed very linear, and the lore just wasn't interesting when I've already been engrossed in so many other great tales. These were huge disappointments when I simply loved the combat and the leveling concept.

Did I get exactly what I asked for, no, but did I get some great stepping stone that will eventually lead to what I desire, yes. The important part is it was fun for me, and if it wasn't for you that's understandable. Standing with others who I know loved it, I definitely wouldn't say that this artistic leap was undesirable to its target audience and therefore was a leading factor in this games demise.

Edgar Harris
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I actually really appreciate the combat system in Reckoning. I've been playing RPG's since the first Dragon Warrior (now Quest) came out in the U.S. While I love RPG's, I've noticed that they tend to cling to stale techniques for way too long. It's really refreshing to see a studio like BHG challenge the conventional RPG wisdom and innovate in the combat department. On the whole I still prefer Skyrim to Reckoning, but that's only because I think Skyrim's world is so much more immersive. In my opinion, Reckoning's combat is much better than Skyrim's.

Dane MacMahon
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It obviously depends on the person. I can only say how I and the people in my RPG fan circle responded to the game. The linearity, boring dialogue and art style were all problems for some. For a lot of people so was the combat, which played like a different genre. This could be a PC community thing, as I am a PC gamer.

I bring it up only because I see the combat praised in every article about this game. It's all subjective.

Aaron T
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@Merlock Fairwood: I think you may have missed out a little there. I agree with the opening being like that. Looking back at it once you know what's going on, it works well enough, and I'm fine with it. But going into the game for the first time, it doesn't exactly do anything to make you want to stick around...

That said, I'm very glad I stuck with this game. I fell absolutely in love with the world after getting into it more. The combat may not have held much of a challenge (I refused to use the fate meter because it just broke things), it was still fun enough that it and the story kept me hooked. I'm just glad they made it long enough to get some DLC out for the game.

Glenn Sturgeon
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I absolutely loved KOA, it was the game i was playing when my ps3 died.
Although i put more hours into skyrim, for me KOA was much more fun. KOA is a game i will go back and play again.
I realy hated to see BHG die.

"but our day-to-day drive came from not wanting to fail each other."
Thats really one of the best ways for hard work to get done. It takes alot of stress off the job to know your partners are going at it full steam, just like you are. imo there was no fail in the final game, it was a blast!