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How RPGs Were A 30-Year Detour: Matt Findley On  Hunted: The Demon's Forge
How RPGs Were A 30-Year Detour: Matt Findley On Hunted: The Demon's Forge
May 24, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

[In this interview with inXile president Matt Findley, he explains why Hunted: The Demon's Forge is the game he wanted to make since the Interplay days, and how his team is doing it.]

For some reason, fantasy and action haven't blended as closely as they could this generation. Hunted: The Demon's Forge aims to change that.

Developed by inXile entertainment, a company founded by Interplay founder Brian Fargo, the game harks to the hard fantasy setting you'd expect, but with Unreal Engine 3-powered action that's somewhat atypical.

In fact, as Matt Findley, president of inXile explains in this interview, it's the game they always wanted to make at Interplay -- it's just that the technology was not ready. The game is co-op driven pure action, and while it does feature RPG elements, it's far from being an RPG.

It also marks a step up in ambition for the studio. In this interview, Findley explains the origin of the game, his ambitions for the title, and how the team arrived at its gameplay design.

Based on what we've heard before from Brian Fargo, it sounds like you made the decision to take inXile in a more triple-A direction with this release.

Yeah, well, I mean, my roots go back to working with [CEO] Brian [Fargo] for 13 years back at Interplay. I started working for him 23 years ago. We both left Interplay about the same time and started inXile in 2002. We made the remake of The Bard's Tale that shipped in 2004 for Xbox 1 and PlayStation 1. That was kind of going back to our fantasy roots, and that turned out to be a different experience.

We have been talking about making this game since the early '90s. At Interplay... we made games like Stonekeep. We would sit around the conference room table and go, "Some day, the tech is going to exist to be able to do this type of game in real-time 3D." Back then, it was all faked. [laughs] So, I think we've always wanted to get around to making a fantasy action game. We love the fantasy genre from even before computer games, whether it's tabletop or novels. We've just been huge fans of it.

The fantasy genre has been really only represented in the RPG category. It didn't need to be that way. Action games are so fantastic, that we just really wanted to do something relevant in the action category, in a rich fantasy universe. That's just kind of the origins of it.

Approaching this genre what was your go-to in terms of the way you wanted to present the action or player interaction? Because it's sort of a new spot for you guys as a developer.

Well, you know, we analyzed the long history of video games. I think these games always wanted to be action games at their heart. I think all those old turn-based games, it's just that's all the technology would allow.

The tech today, using Unreal Engine 3, which allows us to prototype really, really fast and spend more time to make the game than worrying about the technology, it allowed us to deliver on that action experience.

When you play a modern action game, whether it's set in World War II or outer space, they all have similar mechanics -- jumping into cover, ducking into over, and shooting. We thought that applied equally well to spellcasting and shooting a bow as it did to shooting a machine gun. It was really our primary goal in the beginning to just find all the ways we could...

It's interesting to hear someone with an Interplay background say, "Really, what we always wanted to do was make an action game."


I'm not saying you're lying or anything. It's a little bit of a surprise.

Look back at the history of fantasy action. There's not that many representations of it. You play games like Hexen and Heretic, which were essentially Doom shooter games that hinted at fantasy, but they didn't really fully deliver on that experience.

We just think you can have these rich worlds, tell deep, meaningful stories, and have all these elements of exploration, and wandering through dungeons, finding loot and going on quests for enchanted weapons -- all of these paradigms that would be in those other types of fantasy games work equally well in an action game.

There's kind of this convergence across all games where the genres are really getting blurred. Like, I don't think people playing BioShock realize they're playing an RPG. Or even in Grand Theft Auto, you go into the weight room and pump up your character. There are all these elements of your character getting better. That's what those games are really about. It lends itself to the action genre just as well. You're starting off with really weak weapons. You're finding better ones, better pieces of armor. You're getting more hit points on your character. You're getting the ability to store more mana.

You know, that phrase "RPG elements," it's become beyond trite. It's almost like saying "game elements".

Exactly. It's the simple principle of your character starts off weak, and they become more powerful. And that's really what it's all about, whether it's in the weapons you use, the magic you're using, and just the characters' strength itself. You start off, and you're weak, and you find things that make you stronger throughout the course of the game.

You have two characters -- for co-op.

Yeah. The co-op stuff is designed to make the players work together. Generally, games that say co-op, all that really means is two players play at the same time, but in our game, we wanted our players to have to use their skills in conjunction with each other. You know, E'Lara uses her ice arrow to freeze the guys, Caddoc shatters them...

So, you do that for design, essentially.


So, does it change what spawns out? When you're playing co-op, is it actually different when you're playing single player in fundamental ways?

No, it's kind of the other way around. I think you have to see who has spawned and decide, "What are the right skillsets I want to take to defeat them?" When the armor guy comes out with a big shield, E'lara is at a huge disadvantage because she shoots with arrows. They're blocking them left and right. If you shoot them at the head, they raise their shield. If you shoot their feet, they lower their shield. And then she can switch to her shield-breaker magic, fire an arrow, and shatter that shield. Now that guy is vulnerable, and she can take them out with arrows. So, each enemy has their own strength and weakness, the characters [have their] own strengths and weaknesses, and you have to figure out the right combination of things to beat the enemies.

[In single player] you pick whichever character you want, and then the AI buddy is keeping the character along. We're trying to recreate the co-op experience and the single-player. I don't want the player to be able to tell the difference... At every checkpoint in the game, you can switch which character you're playing as. We tried to design a game where I want those character swap areas being about wanting to switch, not needing to switch. We tried to make it so either character can be the leader to lead through.

That sounds like it requires a lot of play passes through the areas and seeing how things play out, then revisit...


Is that in your process?

That's the fantastic part about using the tech that we're using. Everything is iterative. It's always faster for us to implement something in the tech than it is to write the design doc. So, you can always take your first pass playing it. And then, "Wow, this level sucks as Caddoc. Okay, let's change the enemy spawns. Let's give you different items here. Let's change the configurations."

We introduce the characters kind of one at a time. Now you get to figure out how to fight the crossbow guy and figure out how to fight the shield guy. Now all of the sudden you're seeing, "Okay. I have two shield guys and a crossbow guy. What should our strategy be?" Just to think a little bit.

And then we added a little bit of depth to the melee combat as well because that's something we haven't really seen much in the fantasy games, a really deep compelling melee experience. So, with Caddoc, he has this thing called the "Fury Meter." We're trying to eliminate button mashing and make the player use a little more strategy. So, for every time you successfully block with the shield or hit with a light attack, you're filling up the Fury Meter. If it maxes out after seven or eight hits, you can use a heavy attack that just destroys them heavily.

Fantasy computer games came out of people playing D&D, and then picking up computers and going, "Oh, it can do the math for me."

Right. That's exactly it. [laughs]

So, now you're sort of moving a step back and saying, "You're not solving that simple problem that was solved with the Apple II anymore."

That's definitely part of it. I mean, the reason those games were turn-based sword battles is that was the only option you had. I think, now you get that twitch element of "me at the controller." When you take the monster down because you successfully hit, blocked, switched to exploding arrows, and shot him in the head, you're getting that same depth that you would have had through 30 years ago D&D experience, but it's happening fast-paced, quick, and in real-time for a modern audience that wants to see action.

It seems like, this generation, all the PC talent sort of came back into the mainstream. You know, last generation, we still had sort of that console/PC dichotomy, and it's all sort of dissolved.

Yeah. I think part of that is just the tech. It's just now possible. All these machines are doing approximately the same thing under the hood. You can play a game on the Xbox, and you can have a PC version of that game, and, you know, the same art assets work, the same environments work, the same control schemes work. You can use the same controller if you plug your Xbox controller into your PC. It's allowed the lines to be blurred. Going forward, I think the lines between genres are getting blurred and the lines between all the different consoles are being blurred, which is, I think, very positive for what we can do with our games.

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Matthew Mouras
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This is an interesting interview. I'm surprised at some of the comments from Matt Findley. Had Interplay been harboring some great desire to do an action game while they were cranking out some of my favorite turn-based PC experiences?

Maybe turn-based evolved out of the limitations of the hardware at the time, and maybe it is abused by developers that take it for granted in their RPGs today, but I'd argue that it is still a valid and entertaining mechanic. It has evolved over the years. The choices that you make in such systems are still more interesting to me than pressing a button to swing a sword repeatedly or sliding into cover. My one major annoyance with turn based systems is that often RPGs make you play for many hours before the depth of the system reveals itself and the choices get interesting.

Ah well... I'll be very interested to follow this game's development.

Thanks much for the interview!

Matt Barton
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I can't get past the line "I think these games always wanted to be action games at their heart. I think all those old turn-based games, it's just that's all the technology would allow."

Oh, yeah, if those designers back in the day had only had better tech, they'd have made Hunted instead of Pool of Radiance and Wasteland. If only!

I really wish designers would seriously study videogame history instead of buying into the linear view that what is made with better tech is inherently better. Any good designer would know better than that.

Elad Drory
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This guy worked at Interplay 23 years ago. I doubt he needs to study videogame history, considering he lived and worked in the industry through most of it.

He does seem to be retconning things a bit. I doubt designers back in the day sat aorund saying, "Well, this game's going to suck, but we might as well make it until technology gets better". You work within the limitations of your platform and try to make the best of it. It's part of the challenge and probably what makes many games great.

Tore Slinning
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"Exactly. It's the simple principle of your character starts off weak, and they become more powerful. And that's really what it's all about, whether it's in the weapons you use, the magic you're using, and just the characters' strength itself. You start off, and you're weak, and you find things that make you stronger throughout the course of the game."

The difference lies in how the challenge/strength is factored, in a game like half life its a rigid implementation, and a one way street.

The point of RPG mechanics is for it to be limiting, you are limited in how much/many upgrades you can perform. What you choose will have consequences in terms of what you didn't choose.

The point is mainly, that in a coherent setting where the weaknesses and strength are properly defined for both you and the encounters, you get to figure out your own tactics, if you don't *reload*

Jonathan Lawn
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This doesn't sound right to me. An FPS where you have to choose your load-out has the same limitations as you describe.

For me, the defining factor for an RPG is that the character gets stronger as you play it, rather than you having to get better to get more powerful. An FPS may have elements of this (bike riding gets easier with practice in San Andreas; Far Cry 2, like most games, gives you weak weapons to start, and a chance to accumulate better ones later) but it is primarily the player's skills improving that will make the character more deadly or clever. RPGs largely remove skill from the equation. (Of course, both genres may allow more or less use of tactics by the player too.)

The interesting thing here, I think, is the emphasis on skill and accumulation. That does make it an action game with RPG elements I think, and it's an increasingly popular choice. Does it provide the joys of either genre though, or sit uncomfortably on the fence?

Tore Slinning
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Not by a longshot, as i said and RPG should limit character strenght and then give them narrow ways to improve their character through choices which must have sacrifices.

If you have X skill points and lots of choices to upgrade, you must neglect a few of them, if you over time upgrade every skill evenly, you'll end up as a subpar jack of all trades.

GTA's skill system does not fall into this category, because you have no limits on how mucn/what you can improve, you can just drive, shoot, swim, play the game and it will gradually increase the skills with no after though and no sacrifices.

Its a nice feature for GTA but RPG mechanics it is not.

But Far Cry 2 to is a better example(well even GTASA for that matter) when it comes to buying weapons, but its like comparing a plane wheel to an actual plane.

And at the end of the day you can fill your entire arsenal without having to make sacrifice in the long run.

Back to the tactics, there are two kinds of tactics in an RPG, the one you ponder on in battle situations(reviwing enemy strenght and what choices you have before you make your next move) and those you ponder on when you level up your character in the long run(altough that might be considered strategy).

I think giving the player variation in FPS (pseudo RPG mechanics then if you will) is a good thing, i think everyone would be bored of just another Quake3, if they didnt add feutres and abilities in the action gameplay.

My gripe however, is that people suddenly forgets the standards of the RPG genre, in an effort to bridge demographics.

Thats not to say there is an Golden law of RPG implementation, cross-genre games can still be good, but there is an annoying trend to streamline RPG gameplay and remove the depth of the gameplay.

Huck Terrister
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Well it's a good thing Interplay didn't have the tech for realtime action games back then considering they built their entire brand on turn based RPGs

Hirotaka Sato
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"I think all those old turn-based games, it's just that's all the technology would allow. "

I can't agree with his opinion.

I don't think old "Haiku" always wanted to be Movies at their heart.

Gabriel Verdon
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Haha, great analogy.