Germany-based developer Ascaron has been developing PC games for over fifteen years, but with its upcoming sequel Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, it is making the plunge into multiplatform development, with the game set for release on PC and Xbox 360.
The original Sacred, a 2004 point-and-click action RPG seen as one of the better Diablo-esque offerings, found a solid audience, selling nearly two million copies and retaining a strong multiplayer following. To build on that community, Ascaron is taking a heavily multiplayer tack with Sacred 2, with the game supporting eight-player co-op and architected to allow players to jump in and out of each others' games.
Gamasutra sat down with Ascaron managing director Heiko tom Felde, assistant producer Sebastian Fleer, and Xbox 360 Q&A programmer Sebastian Walter to discuss Germany's historically PC-centric games market, the challenges of moving to multiplatform development for the first time, why it's important to build relationships with your outsourcers, and how to balance what your fans want with what's practical.
The PC-Centric German Market
So the original game was PC-only.
Heiko tom Felde: It was only on PC. Germany, as a place to develop games, is not as far advanced as other countries like the UK, France, the U.S., and Canada. Gaming in Germany, from our government and our society, is something slimy - something "ugh," you know?
It grows year by year, but we never had some kind of support from the government to develop the gaming industry. That's why it is very tough to develop in Germany, but nevertheless, we have some really wise, talented people there. Also, meanwhile, some young guys can make their own studio together.
It's interesting. I guess the PC is the primary gaming platform in Germany?
HTF: That's right. But that's also because of... the console was never really implemented into the society. For developers, it's hard to get a developer license. You have to go to Microsoft or to Sony, you do this and that, you get a kit, and after you've received a kit, you can start your own development.
Since we don't have the kind of work-for-hire structure in Germany, we do not have so many people who know how to develop on console. So, this was a challenge for us. But Ascaron sees the future in being a multiplatform development company.
If you want to sell the games in the U.S. and other parts of Europe, it makes a lot of sense to have it on consoles. If you look at series that started out on PC, like Call of Duty, they now do their primary business on consoles in the U.S.
HTF: Yeah. We believe that RPGs and action-RPGs are definitely something that adds value to the console.
Adding A Console Platform
Did you recruit people who had worked on the Xbox 360 before, or were you able to research and get people up to speed on what they would need to do?
HTF: There is not a big difference between console and PC development. If you have smart developers and the time and the tools, they find ways to work with the specialties of the platform.
Believe it or not, last year in November, we received the Xbox 360 development kit, and they were thinking it may take time, like half a year. I said, "No, I know you guys. I think you'll be able before the end of the year to produce running code."
And they did it. It took them six weeks to port the basic code from Sacred on PC over to the Xbox 360. Last year, during GDC, we disclosed and showed, for the first time ever, the 360 version. And after one year, you can see what progress it has made.
It's not just from a perspective of porting a game. It also has to be suitable to a console audience. As a developer used to working on PC games, is that a challenge you've faced in the studio as well?
HTF: No. The people, mentally, are flexible. Everybody has their own console at home, and this is the reason they would love to see how to use the controls, and how to work with this platform to bring their dreams to reality, during the programming process.
Since this is your first Xbox 360 game, how have you found building your relationship with Microsoft?
HTF: That was interesting. At 2006 E3, I talked to [Microsoft EMEA Xbox and Games for Windows third party publishing director] Mark Maslowicz about putting Sacred 2 on Xbox 360, and he said yeah, he liked it.
He likes the game, and this is something that hasn't been realized on the Xbox console. So we returned and got the development kit, and then we came to the situation that okay, finding a publisher is something that is difficult for developers, always, especially in the console business.
And then there's a chicken and egg situation. What comes first? PR about the title, and having a chance to promote this to a publisher, or the other way around? Microsoft was there with us, and last year at GDC, we got the okay to show this title, even without a publisher.
I think that's a very kind and flexible way of dealing with the situation that developers always... even in trouble of finding one who finally publishes in the United States. For development we got nice help, with the tool chains and everything else. It was very well developed, so we cannot complain about Microsoft.
CN: Have you given any consideration to moving the game to the PlayStation 3, or is that not under discussion right now?
HTF: This is something we would not like to put on the table at the moment. As you can imagine, Sacred is something that could also be interesting for PlayStation 3 people. PlayStation 3 is an important platform, but we cannot comment on this at the moment.
Development And Outsourcing
Are you using your own engine for this game?
HTF: Yes. It's our special technology. It has some new abilities; it is not a single-player technology at all. There is no single-player in the game.
Traditionally, there's a special executable for multiplayer. But whenever you start the game, immediately the server and the client are started, and the AI controls the single-player.
So the environment and the values depend on how many players join the game, and what level they are and what type of characters they are, and it makes it a smart process to increase the item drops, increase the number of enemies, and decide special quests for multiplayer.
Sebastian Fleer: You connect to them through the Internet, and may join other players there or they may join your game. You can also have a direct LAN connection. When a friend comes over to your place and wants to connect to your game, he can simply jump in.
Sebastian Walter: Especially on the Xbox 360. It's easy to carry a lot of gamers and you can be a hero on one path, and go to your friend's place and pop it in, and join this game that he's now playing.
HTF: Another specialty is that we do not have a level-based game. It's a big, huge landscape, and it's streaming technology. You do not have any loading time during your gameplay.
This is something division holders and level designers like, because you do not have a kind of cue that you follow leading your path. You have to change now to increase gameplay through side quests that lead you into a complete, new world, apart from the main story.
Your development studio has different locations. Is this being primarily created on the PC at one studio, and then being ported at the other?
HTF: It's all a mix. The people are the key to making a good game. To have talented people, they like to have a living environment, so in Guetersloh, since our company has started, we have some smart AI programmers, and porters from PC code to 360 code, and also we make some of the artworks by a division that is kept centrally in one place. That's very important. This is located in Aachen, not far away from Cologne.
It's not difficult, you find, to manage the project across multiple studios at the same time?
HTF: It is a challenge, but it also gives opportunities. If you have everybody in one big building, then the kind of creativity that comes from this kind of people and that kind of people is almost... sometimes not really there. There is a lot of communication that needs to be focused, and because of the necessity to have communication and workflows being smartly controlled, we are quite efficient in our development process.
Does all of the development take place at your studios, or do you outsource anything that you're working on?
HTF: Yes. There are some areas where we cannot find the right people. For what we believe is not our core business, we do outsourcing. The outsourcing process is controlled by Sebastian [Fleer] over there. He is the one who is the main contact to studios doing work that we cannot or do not want to fulfill.
What kind of aspects of the development do you outsource right now?
SF: The main part is graphics, plus coding in some areas. We have graphic assets worth several hundreds of thousands of Euros, and also specialists for SFX coding, AI coding, and so on.
So we have several studios taking care of different issues we can't afford within our team, which is much easier to be done by someone who's really used to doing it and can solve problems much better than we can.
Are the outsourced studios you're working with in Europe, Asia, or North America?
SF: They're all over the world. They're from German studios that we've been working with for several years, up to Eastern Europe. Several things are North American - Canada, and all over the world.
Have you worked with any Asian outsourcing companies, or just those ones?
SF: Yes, we have, but mainly with Asian companies that have leading management in the U.S.
HTF: We haven't worked so much with Asian companies at the moment, because we found that the quantity that we get from there is not very sufficient to our needs. Price is just one relative thing in the process. It can be very expensive to buy something cheap that you have to rework and recheck all the time. The development process needs fantastic in all areas, not just some areas of the game.
The reason I brought it up is that I went to some of the outsourcing summit today, and what really they seemed to agree with is that you have to build a relationship with the companies you outsource with, or it's just not going to work.
SF: That's absolutely right. Take for instance... can I give an example?
HTF: Yeah, tell him the Red Jade example.
HTF: Red Jade. I don't know if you know them.
I've heard of them, yeah.
SF: They did lots of stuff for the Battlefield games. Red Jade did almost all of our hero animations, and they had crafted three or four thousand hand-made animations for us. So everything you see when our hero characters move has been done by Red Jade, and it's an awesome relationship that has developed.
They're doing preview modeling for us right now, and the response for anybody who's been working with them - our technical artists - can define any detail to them. I can have a look at that too, and check the progress and so on. If you ask something, the response is immediate. That's one of the best companies we've been working with.
HTF: And because we asked someone to come over to visit our guys and see them in person, it's much better to have a handshake and a beer, right? Rather than just being over e-mail or the phone. There must be a personal relation between a company and another company if you want to achieve good quality.
It seems that the action RPG market is sort of tough on consoles. There aren't any powerhouse series, aside from maybe Zelda, that seem to make it from generation to generation.
SF: That also takes it in a different way. It's a Nintendo game. It's cute. It has a story that continues and still develops. We're going to take the developing in another direction.
Yeah, this is clearly quite different.
SF: We're operating on two different storylines, for the light and the shadow path, each offering the player about 108 quests for the main story only, and 600 sidequests. And six characters from which you can choose. So there's a lot of options that you can combine. It's far different from the classic, iconic, single-character style.
HTF: Nevertheless, PC gamers are a lot different from console gamers. PC gamers want to decide every little thing, even down to the colors of the shoes and stuff, while the Xbox gamers like to have instant action. We tried - I think successfully - to combine both ways of how to use it, because the PC plays like a PC version, and the Xbox plays like an Xbox version, because the controls are set in a way to have it be easy and immediately accessible.
Are the differences between the two versions just the controls, or are there any tweaks?
HTF: Gameplay, story, and everything is the same. You can compare the results if you play the Xbox version and the PC version. I think that's important, on a multiplatform title.
People can talk in the same forum. They talk about the game results and can help each other, because the solution to solve one problem - like a puzzle, or how to kill an enemy - must be the same. Sebastian [Fleer] just takes the Xbox you see on the screen, and he can explain how they came up with the controls from mouse to [controller]. I prefer the keypad controller, and we'll port this back to the PC version.
Are you actually going to support Xbox controllers for the PC?
HTF: Yes. It's such a cool input device, and it's perfect in my hand.
It's all cooperative. There's no competitive multiplayer, is there?
SF: No, but there will be.
HTF: Co-op is just one option, but it's an important one. Sometimes you just want to play for 30 or 40 or 50 minutes and just meet each other for a quick game. Without making big deals, they can each pick a new character, go to an area they like, and have some fun.
When I hear a game has co-op, I'm much more interested in it. A lot of games I play just feel like Skype with a minigame. I can talk to my friends who live far away, and it's better than talking on the phone. If you have a single-player campaign, a cooperative campaign, and also competitive, how do you address issues like the security of the characters and the items, so there's not duplication of items? Is that a concern for you?
SW: Obviously, it's something that we want to take care of, and through Xbox Live, it's very easy for us, because they have this unique system that no one else can enter. There will be, for example, trading your items with other players.
It will only be possible if you do this online, with your Xbox online. Then we'll save some kind of security checksum of your character on the server and can compare the character afterwards. "Is the character afterward when he logs in the game? Is this correct, what he's wearing? Does he try to duplicate any of his items?" We are going to do this security, and make sure that peoples' items are earned by themselves. It's a very important feature for us.
SF: The PC version is open net and closed net. The open net is accessible to anyone we want to let in, and that's a mode where we can't guarantee that there's no item duplication. For that, we offer the closed net. The closed net feature checks every item in the game, checks what XP the enemy has given is not enhanced and modified, and so on. It's a secure mode to ensure that everything is like it was intended.
Does Microsoft have guidelines that you have to follow when it comes to security in RPGs, or is this all coming from within you guys?
SW: More or less, this is something we wanted to do. We used the technology that Microsoft is offering us through Xbox Live, of course.
Dealing With The Community
Do you find any resistance from your more traditional, hardcore domestic audience that resists? There has been some friction over the years, with the hardcore PC gamer audience feeling games get dumbed down on console.
HTF: We've never had hardcore gaming people for Sacred. We sold 1.85 million. In Germany, we know them very well, and in the U.S., we know them very well. It's about 30 percent females, and really die-hard Diablo fans are only almost 30 to 40 percent. The rest is casual and non-frequent gamers.
Look at the Titan Quest results. They targeted and focused only on the core gamers of the action-RPG genre, but we never did. If you look at the characters, the characters are liked by almost everybody, because of how they made the environment and the graphic style.
This is something that has been developed with our community, for instance. We polled for their wishes for what they'd like to see, and what kind of features they'd like to have. That is always getting checked and discussed with our community, that we do the right things.
So you do a lot of research into what the fans of your games like when you develop them?
HTF: Absolutely. We support our fansites. For instance, if you go to www.sacred2.com, you'll see a long list of fansites that always get refreshed content from us. It's a big community of Sacred fans. The original has been released in 2004, and still we have thousands of players every day. Ten thousand people every day playing in a game.
SF: In response to that interest in Sacred 2, there have also been many decisions like, for example, weapon-naming contests and so on. The community loved that idea.
I think there's a delicate balance between the ideas you can take and solicit and implement, and the kind of ideas that you can't. How do you draw the line?
HTF: That's a process. First of all, you want to hear or want to see what the [audience] thinks they want. You eliminate the things that you definitely cannot do because we don't all have the technology.
The next thing is, "Okay, what is the most wanted feature?" And the most wanted features have to be done. If you achieve something like 85 or 90 percent of the features the community definitely has as the most wanted, then you're definitely on the right way.
Another thing is that the community is always looking from a leapfrog perspective. Whereas, we have to look into the future, so in 2004 when they designed this technology, they already made the decision to not have a traditional single-player game and to have multiplayer technology at its core. I think it was very smart of our developers. Looking that far has become something important.
It's crucial now. There are very few 360 games that do not support Xbox Live, and I think that those that don't aren't seen as full-featured.
SW: We wanted to support the feeling of doing this together in team play, so we decided not to do the split-screen, because of the huge world we are in, and we had to do things to get that.
You can play with your best buddy over there, and he can bring his best character and not mess up his storyline. He can join my storyline, help me gain experience, get items, improve his character, and afterward go back to his place and start his game, and he's starting up at the position in the story where he left the character, but his character has improved since then.