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Building the World of Reckoning

February 6, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the first fruit to fall from the tree of 38 Studios, founded by baseball great Curt Schilling to create an MMO that could live up to his dreams.

Reckoning, developed by 38 Studios-owned Rise of Nations developer Big Huge Games, is an open-world, single player RPG that shares its setting with the upcoming MMO, code-named Copernicus.

Gamasutra speaks to the game's lead world designer, Colin Campbell. At Big Huge, to tackle this project -- which began before 38 Studios acquired Big Huge from THQ -- the team decided to build a cross-discipline art- and design-based world-building team. Here Campbell explains exactly why, and how the team tackles creating a massive open-world RPG.

What does a lead world designer do?

Colin Campbell: So, my job -- my whole team basically -- is to take the outdoor landscapes and the cities, and build them up both from an art and design perspective.

We're actually trained environment artists. We come from an art background, but we're in the design department. So, we take the visuals and also craft the encounters, the combat. We house the narrative as much as we can, and immerse the player in the narrative.

I got the sense from talking to Tim Coman that it's a very cross-disciplinary process, working on this game, in general. And you sound like you're kind of where the disciplines cross.

CC: Yup, I'm one place the disciplines cross. There's a lot of us. You have to be collaborative to make a game like this, where there are so many systems, and the combat is so important to everything else, that everything has to relate and work well together.

Your background is in art, but you interface very closely with the design team, essentially.

CC: Yeah.

What do you do when you are talking to the leads? Like, what do you want from people? What do you give to people?

CC: I'm a bit of a bridge in that sense, where I'm working with the art leads to make sure that we're getting the assets we need from them. We get a lot of feedback from them on how to make the world look as good as it can.

I'm also working with all the other design leads to make sure that we're housing combat well, that we're, like I said, immersing the player in the narrative well. That we're supporting the quests, giving them the presentation that they want visually and experientially.

So, it's just a whole lot of back and forth and a whole lot of feedback. And we play a lot of support because we really are building the stage for everything for the players to play on, you know. It's one of my favorite things about it. Having all the different gears turning is one of my favorite parts of my job.

Now have you been at Big Huge for a long time? Or are you recent?

CC: I have. I've been there since 2005.

This has marked a change in the company, the kind of games that you're making. Your perceptions of the studio, you know, what's required to make a game, must have changed -- the way you look at the art of game making.

CC: I think so. I mean, it was a big shift. We had to learn new tools, build a new engine. It changed our skill set, in a lot of ways. Core gaming, game system dynamics, you can take from one thing to another. But an RPG is so much different from an RTS in so many other ways. So, it took a lot of learning. [Big Huge is the studio behind strategy game Rise of Nations. - Ed.]

We hired some really, really good talent. Ken Rolston is sort of our visionary granddad. He's just giving his guidance. He brought a ton of experience to the table. We have a great team of people who have made RPGs before. So the studio, our home, it's a lot of our old talent, but it's also a lot of new talent, training us up and helping us get there.

You were talking about quest design and stuff. How hands-on is the design team in terms of getting in there, touching the metal, like scripting, that kind of stuff? And how much of the design team is more writerly, more big picture?

CC: I think that's a nice thing that we have right now. Everyone on our design team, almost, has a nice mix of creative and technical experience. There are obviously people who have been one way or the other a little more, but everybody can get in there and make their quest, or make their landscape they're going to make. We ask people to come in, give us some support to make it a little more artistic, or a little more technically sound, but everybody can play in both worlds.

Is it more of a design-led process in terms of the way you're building the world? In terms of people set up what they want, and the art team sort of polishes it? Or is it done differently?

CC: So, the interesting thing about the world building is it's sort of both. We are both designers and artists, so we'll gray box it, we'll place the design aspects. We won't place the quests, but we'll work with the narrative designers to make sure that their quests work, and we're supporting them.

And then we'll actually do the final polish, you know, placing the final lights, placing the final particle effects, that kind of thing. We'll fix the itty bitty blades of glass to make sure everything looks good.

But we're getting the art assets from the environment artists. It's such a talented team of environment artists. They make incredible work for us. They make the trees and the rocks, and we'll place them down. They give us a lot of great feedback. I keep repeating myself on this, I know, but we work with everybody to get feedback from all parties and make a big cohesive project.

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Glenn Sturgeon
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Cool interview. I'm looking forward to getting the game. I played the demo and it was good, but pretty buggy. Unlike many people, i do understand it's thier first RPG and may have a few ruff edges at launch and those factors will be delt with in time. The demo was realy enjoyable! But they will need to exchange it with a more current build, so they don't scare people off with the bugs.(mostly sound based)

Bart Stewart
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When I think about "world design," my first thought is for dynamics. What should be the core systems and how should they interoperate to create a coherent universe?

So it's interesting to get the perspective of someone who sees world-building primarily as achieving an aesthetic goal. That could well be the most effective approach to building a place that feels emotionally coherent.

"We're all building one thing, collectively. It has to feel cohesive in all of its parts. That's sort of the philosophy of the whole project."

I love hearing this. :)

Jack Kerras
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So few design departments seem to have the freedom to create a cohesive -thing-. It's really interesting to fool around with a game that has it; Amalur's not exactly my speed, it's a little simple for my tastes (being an oldschool SWG guy means my crafting itch is pretty Goddamn tremendous) but I still had fun playing with the demo and it seems like this is a worthy buy even for someone who can't often be convinced to part with sixty bucks for a single-player game.

Amalur's been good to me so far. I wanna get into it and not have a time limit or a place limit. All the things this guy said about the whole team bridging up in the worldbuilding department is interesting as Hell, and I think other developers should take note.

Eric Schwarz
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Very comprehensive and fun interview. The idea of a dedicated world-building department is one that sounds incredible to have, but is a sort of pie-in-the-sky idea that I doubt few developers are able to realize even if there's so much value to be had in ensuring a degree of consistency to the game. These sorts of projects can get so big, and have so many people working on them, that you almost always need that person sitting in the middle to be able to mediate all those different bits and pieces.

Thanks to Colin Campbell for giving an inside look at the game. I've followed Amalur for quite a while and it's been a lot of fun to finally be able to play it. If there's one thing it does well above all else, I think it's that world design.