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In October, the unusual open-world RPG ELEX landed on Steam, PS4, and Xbox One, brought to us by developer Piranha Bytes. It's an old-school role-playing game updated for modern consoles, one that lets you jetpack around a harsh apocalyptic environment.
Piranha Bytes' previous role-playing series Gothic and Risen have found a special foothold in the United States and Europe. Curious about the company's move to a more science fiction-inspired setting, we decided to ask project director Björn Pankratz about the company's development process and how it makes these fascinating, if niche, RPGs. He was kind enough to join us for a Twitch conversation.
We've transcribed some of the more interesting passages of the conversation below.
Bryant Francis, editor at Gamasutra
Björn Pankratz, project director of ELEX, at Piranha Bytes
Alex Wawro, editor at Gamasutra
"Why are we following our philosophy of making games as we are with such a small team?"
Wawro: Piranha Bytes' games have a reputation for being "hidden gems," cult classics, they have a small but devoted fanbase.
And they have, typically, when I look at critical consensus around your work, I see a lot of concern over buggyness, but I also see a lot of praise, for the creativity, the inventiveness and the scope of the world. I kind of wanted to get your read on that. Is it accurate, and if so, what is it that enables Piranha Bytes to make these sorts of games?
Pankrantz: Hmm. I don't think we have as many bugs as we're told that we have! (others laugh) The question is, why are we following our philosophy of making games as we are with such a small team?
Wawro: That is a fantastic drill-down to what I was getting at. What is it about Piranha Bytes that makes the studio capable of producing these expansive, rollicking, open-world games?
Pankrantz: There were many guys who said, "Here, take my money and make a bigger company!"
Wawro: (laughs) I can believe it!
"Many Germans believe that Americans want to have a very easy game. But I don't think so. Games like Dark Souls and such are very successful in America. "
Pankrantz: But we didn't want that, because when we become bigger the responsibilities will change, and we have not the control of gameplay and things like that. We know that we have many, many fans out there. They expect something from us, exactly that what we do, especially here in ELEX.
And that's our philosophy, we've followed now for about twenty years or something. In Germany, it's not so easy to hold your position as a small developer company here.
Many companies aren't around anymore, but we're still there. There are reasons for that, that we still exist. When you get bigger you have to make more business stuff, controlling and meetings and stuff like that,
Wawro: Busywork? Work for work's sake?
Pankrantz: Yeah. I don't find the word for it. There are too many minds that follow different visions of how a game should be. Many Germans tried to become successful in America. They believe that Americans want to have a very easy game. When you only hit the bottom, you (have to be told) "You're great! You're great!" But I don't think so, with games like, as you said, Dark Souls and such, are very successful in America. That's not the typical American, to want to have an easy game.
In the end it is the matter of the money you spent for it, cutscene quality, quality of animations, graphics and stuff like that. But what we want to do is to tell them a deep story, an interesting thing, a very cool pacing game and immerses you in the world.
And when you want to explain our formula, our philosophy, you have to use more than two sentences to explain that. That was always our problem, what it is to sell about our games.
"We have no game where you can adjust and select your character class at the beginning, because you have to know them, learn about their intentions and such."
Pankrantz: It's very important to us to not look only on the weaponry they have, or armors, abilities or skills they have. It's very important to attach the player, they have to invite themselves, to say what their intentions are, their needs and their beliefs.
We have no game where you can adjust and select your character class at the beginning of the game, because you have to know them, you have to go to them and learn about their intentions and such. We think that's a very special, cool experience in a game, to make them your friends or your foes. We think it's interesting gameplay and storytelling.
Francis: That is a different answer from what I was expecting, but I like that. Bethesda asks you at the start of every Bethesda game, what species are you? They give you an open-ended choice to pursue, they give you a lot of tools to say what kind of class you want to be, but I think that's a really interesting way of looking at it. (Alex's character gets immediately killed by a sudden, unseen dinosaur waiting in ambush.)
Francis: Oh god! (laughs) I think that's a really interesting thing going in, knowing that the player can't know who these people are until they've actually played the game.
"It's fun to make games. It's also very difficult, but we believe in ourselves."
Francis: My next question, we talk a lot, on this show, about how making games changes for developers all over the world. How has live as a German game developer been?
How do you feel, have things gotten relatively better or worse in recent years? Have your colleagues in other companies been doing well? Do they have worries? It's a broad question but I've been curious what life is like for you as a German game maker?
Pankrantz: We are more like smaller companies and teams here in Germany. There are bigger ones of course but I can only talk for the mid-size developers. We are about 27 employees here in our company, and that is not so many for a game like this.
We have a developing time of about three years or so, so we have all our attention on this title. We only make one title at a time, we work very different here than other teams, so it is very difficult to speak for the others. But it's not so easy, because when you make a game, it doesn't matter what, it seems to me there is always a bigger one that compares to you and your title, and that's not so easy to make it.
But nevertheless it's cool to be a developer in Germany and make cool games. And someone in America at a company like Gamasutra is having an interview with me. So it is fun to make games, what is the word? It is very difficult, but we believe in ourselves.
Francis: I think that's a good answer. Alex! I have been steamrolling ahead on the question front while you have been steamrolling into death.
Wawro: I want to talk about jetpacks. I just want to know what was the process of fine-tuning the jetpack's design, how did you zero in on exactly how much fuel to give the player, how much life, that kind of thing?
Pankrantz: Very early in development we made this feature and ensured it works. Then in the first year we finished the iteration and velocity stuff, all the adjustments in the movements. Then we built the world. All the level designers had to have this feature almost finished, so we could test all these things. To the level design, it was very important.
For more developer insights, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.