Dungeon Siege 3 Interview
with Obsidian's George Ziets and Rich Taylor
The hack-and-slash genre should be chock full of games building on the foundation of games past, but at this point we only see a half-decent attempt to rekindle the magic of the Diablo games every couple of years at best. With Blizzard's own sequel looming and probably coming in 2012, now might be a good time to get out any upcoming hack-and-slash action/RPGs. Developer Obsidian Entertainment and publisher Square Enix agree, as Dungeon Siege III, their sequel to the franchise built by Gas Powered Games, hits stores on June 21st. I got the chance to talk to Obsidian's Creative Lead George Ziets, and later, Rich Taylor, the Project Director on the game. Let's start with George.
AtomicGamer: So you are a writer?
George Ziets: We call it the Creative Lead. So, technically I'm a designer and I do design-ey stuff, but I did a lot of the writing on this game, and I was in charge of the story and making sure [things are] consistent, expanding the lore, and all that sort of fictional narrative stuff.
AG: Did you guys get together and watch the Dungeon Siege movie in anticipation of making Dungeon Siege 3? Even ironically?
GZ: I've seen it, but I have no comment. I can't say anything. One of the guys on the team owns it, and we saw it. We didn't base anything off of it.
AG: Hopefully not.
GZ: The movie's over there, and we're over here. We are based on the previous two - well, really, the first game more than the second game. We continue the story of Dungeon Siege 1. The Kingdom of Ehb is where we set the game. You will see a lot of throwbacks to what you saw in that game. We're primarily based on DS1.
AG: I played a decent amount of DS1 back in the day, but I remember almost nothing about the story. I imagine most people who played it back then are the same - how do you build on lore that no one remembers?
GZ: One of the issues with DS1 - I've played through it a number of times, I did actually play it back when it came out; I played it again for this title. There's a couple of things that can be said about the fiction and the narrative in DS1. There actually is a narrative there, it's just very difficult to wrap your head around, because the way they presented it, a lot of it was in the lore books. Some of it was in lore books that didn't make it into the game, and some of it, you can piece together what's going on. But in the main narrative, if all you're doing is hacking monsters and then every once in a while you might get a brief narrative drop that you may or may not read, it doesn't come up clearly to a lot of players.
We played through it very carefully and also read [Gas Powered Games'] bible, and had [Dungeon Siege creator] Chris Taylor give us some information and a lot of the backstory. There actually is a narrative there. They have a ton of little lore books in there, and we did lore books as well. I actually wrote quite a number of them, and one of the lore books has the story of Dungeon Siege 1.
The story was fairly simple and definitely linear in DS1. The background fiction was also there, but again it didn't come through to players all that well, and that's another thing that we really tried to remedy in this game. They had a richer fiction that was presented, so we tried to take what they had. I wrote this hundred-some page document to expand their lore and take the foundation they had, blow it out and have a much richer world. You will get a sense of that as you play through [Dungeon Siege 3]. There will be a lot of references, things that you'll find out more about [from other characters], some where you will find a lore book and it tells you more about that group of people. And then there will be references to things that just suggest a larger world, kind of like they do in Star Wars, and other universes that have lots of fiction. We intentionally did that to make the world feel like it's a bigger place, and there's a lot more going on than just what you're seeing.
AG: There have been so many RPGs, especially first games in a series, that try to build lore. One of those ways is with lore books that are really long. Morrowind did that. Then there are games like Mass Effect, where you get it more by talking to characters, with long dialogue trees you can optionally dig into. Where's the mix in DS3 between reading books and character exposition?
GZ: A lot of the lore that you get, you won't see a ton of it in conversation. I know Obsidian has a history of some very long conversation trees, and there are a few in this game, but we tried to keep them more direct and more to the point, so you'll get more suggestions of the lore. You might ask a character at the beginning of the game, you'll see the Lescanzi mercenaries coming after you. At some point in that sequence you can ask a couple characters about those guys, and they'll give you their perspective on them. You get a suggestion of what those guys are, enough for the casual player to be like, "ok, that's who they are". We also have some lore books that talk a lot more about it, and there are a couple places where you meet some Lescanzi NPCs that give you more of a suggestion. But if you just focus on the dialogue, we really tried to keep it more about the story and driving the narrative forward, whereas the extra stuff can be suggested in dialogue but we go into it in more detail in lore books.
That was the balance we tried to strike in this particular game. It's not so much based on a principle or "the way we want to do things now", but this style of game is much more action-oriented, and we wanted to keep the dialogue as a result a little more spare and focus more on the action so action players don't have to sit through the dialogue and read and read just to understand what's going on.
AG: What made the story more interesting in Mass Effect for some was in characters who didn't really give a crap about you finding out their past. It created mystery and felt like a challenge finding out about them, and they weren't offering up the entire history of their people to everyone who walked by. Do we get some of that in Dungeon Siege 3?
GZ: There's a little bit of that. Certainly not as much of that as Mass Effect or some of the older Bioware or Obsidian titles. I worked on Neverwinter Nights 2 and there was a lot more of that in that game. Mask of the Betrayer, I wrote a lot of that, and that was definitely a case of "hey, all this information [characters are] going to tell the player" - we didn't have much in the way of lore books in that game. This game, while it is still an RPG, it's definitely more of an action-RPG than Neverwinter Nights 2.
So, we dialed back on the length of the dialogs. Our writing team was smaller, too, to be honest. I was probably the only person that was almost full-time writing. We had some other writers from our other projects come on and help me out at points. The area designers did some of the writing, but in terms of having people that are doing predominantly writing, we had less people on this project, because really, the action and the gameplay was the most important thing to us, and some of the lore-based stuff, we wanted to have it in there, but that wasn't priority-one for a Dungeon Siege=type of game.
AG: Do you wish it was?
GZ: No, actually, I think this is a really good balance. I think we have, for this kind of title, where people are coming in and expecting a lot of action, I actually think we struck a pretty good balance. The lore is all there for people who want it, and it will feel like a rich world, I can almost guarantee that, but there will be less of the chatty stuff going on.
If we had these long conversation trees Obsidian was famous for, paired with the very fast action and combat, players were going to feel a mismatch. I think that because we pared down some of the conversation trees, and off-loaded some of that to lore books, I think there's going to be a better match between dialogue sequences and gameplay sequences, if that makes sense.
AG: It does. So, with DS3 being the first console edition of the game, I think there will be quite a few players who have never played a Dungeon Siege before, now going into the third game. Obviously Fallout 3 set the standard for this kind of thing, where they made a sequel but it might as well also be a reboot. Are you guys looking at this project the same way?
GZ: To some degree. You'd have to talk to Rich [Taylor] for high-level executive perspective. From my perspective, we are rebooting it in the sense that it's almost ten years later, the graphics are completely overhauled, there are a lot of things we did differently than [Gas Powered Games] did, and our class system is very different from what they did. I think it is sort of a re-imagining of Dungeon Siege but at the same time there's a lot of continuity. And I don't think it's quite as big a jump as Fallout made, if you look at the old Fallout games versus 3 and New Vegas, it doesn't look anything like it except that they take place in a wasteland after a nuclear war.
If you look at Dungeon Siege 1 versus 3, you're going to see a vast improvement in graphics, some differences in presentation style, but it's still gonna feel like you're running around, you're killing lots of monsters, there's lots of stuff coming at you, and there's lots of loot. I think it's not as big of a reboot as with Fallout, although there's also a smaller space of time between them.
AG: There are sometimes places in games where I feel players would enjoy seeing writing, but there's nothing there. For example, descriptions of unique items, but also even for stuff like spells and powers. For example, Dungeon Siege 3's Anjali has all of these cool fire abilities, but we don't know where they came from. Do you wish you could fill in those gaps?
GZ: As a writer who enjoys writing that stuff, I would love to have time to write descriptions on all the abilities and items, and have little backstories on everything, yes. But on this project, we unfortunately did not have time to write backstories to things like items. In fact, our item screen really only has room for stats at this point. There are some items where we suggest some history, there are some places where you go where you will get items that belong to characters that you've heard of or were in the previous game. On our website, there are pre-order items, and that was my chance to write little blurbs on some of those things, so I did that on those. That would have been fun to do, but the realities of development were that we had a relatively short amount of time to make this game, so priority one was dialogue and the main narrative and making sure what the heck's going on.
And then priority two, closer to the end of development, close to our "text lock", was me taking about a week and just firing off fifty-plus lore books. I feel like we covered all the big stuff that I really wanted to cover for the lore books. Would I love to write item descriptions? Sure, but it just wasn't possible with the amount of time we had.
AG: With Knights of the Old Republic 2, LucasArts gave Obsidian less than a year to finish the whole thing, which is a ridiculously short time for a team of a normal size to make an epic RPG. You mentioned that your dev time is relatively short - this isn't a repeat of that, is it?
GZ: It is not as insane as that. I don't remember exactly how long it's been, to be honest, but it's almost two years, I'd say. We had a relatively small team, and that makes a big difference, obviously. For the writing, on Neverwinter Nights 2, we had a larger number of designers and writers working on the project. I most vividly remember Mask of the Betrayer where we actually had somebody who came on the project and just wrote on the item descriptions. We just didn't have that luxury on this project. And that's fine, not every project - I'm an RPG guy, I read a lot of fantasy, I love that, and I'd like to get as much of that into the game as possible - but not every project needs that level of detail, as much as it's nice to have. When you're making a game that's more of an action title, that has a lot of RPG elements but still appeals to the action audience, I don't know that you necessarily need all that. I wouldn't say any of that really hurts our game, I'd say that in my perfect ideal world of having endless time to write all kinds of extra stuff, that'd be great.
We also got to talk to Rich Taylor, Project Director on Dungeon Siege III.
AG: Dungeon Siege 3 is the first game in the series for a lot of new players, not just because of the time gap but because it's coming to consoles. Are you going the Fallout 3 route in the way they got people to play the third game when they hadn't even heard of the first two?
Rich Taylor: It's a good point. A lot of it goes into how approachable we make it, where does the story pick up, things like that. There's a time jump here from where the other games left off, so it gives us room to work with. We don't expect the player to come in and then tell them, "Well if you don't know what happened in DS1, then you won't be able to follow the story". While we have references to events from then, and sometimes you can even find items from DS1, you don't have to know that, and the game is totally playable without knowing anything from the older games.
And obviously, bringing it to the console, we're introducing it as "hey, we want you to be able to pick up and play this game". It should be easy to get into. We've heavily tutorialized the intro sequence so that if you've never played an action-RPG before, you can still get into it and know what you're doing. We've given it different difficulty modes, so that if you're really like, "Hey, I just wanna check this out, I've never really played a game like this and I don't want it to be hard", we have a casual setting for someone who wants to see the story and experience what a story-based game could feel like, even if they've never played one like that before.
It's approachable, it should feel like a console game, but it should hearken back to PC RPG mechanics: the loot, the complexity of the items, they're kinda complicated, they have a lot of stats, but at the same time we try to present it in a way that, even if you really don't care about the stats, if you see a lot of green arrows, it's probably a good idea and you can go ahead and put it on. If you see a lot of red, probably don't want to put it on. It's trying to balance the needs of both of those potential audiences for Dungeon Siege 3.
AG: What a lot of console players may wind up attaching their experience to, as far as past games, is Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. It does seem that the gamepad control scheme is channeling some of that Dark Alliance feel. And if people decide to use the gamepad -
RT: And we're going to support the mouse and keyboard for the PC gamer, but for the console, we looked at Baldur's Gate, looked at how it plays, the co-op experience, the single player experience, and we took some ideas from that. We looked at other popular games on consoles that play that way, like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. And how do we take that but still make it an RPG? What is our level up process? What's our equipment system? Does it feel like an RPG? Having resources: you have your health to keep track of, you have the ebb and flow of your focus bar, and then of course the power spheres to do your big attacks or your self heals, emergency maneuvers, and things like that.
So there's that RPG side of it, should feel like you're very used to managing resources in an RPG, but then there's also the console side where you push a button and see an immediate reaction. The attack doesn't go into an attack queue and wait until the round comes around to fire. I worked on those games, too, and I love them, but that's not usually what you're looking for on a console experience.
AG: On that topic, Obsidian would probably be the best guys to ask about this, but do you think the days of turn-based RPGs are done? Are we just gonna get some mix of action and RPG from here on out?
RT: I think it's still doable. Dragon Age was quite successful. It wasn't necessarily turn-based, but it was very much pause-and-play, especially if you kicked the difficulty up. It was very challenging if you did not play is it as a tactical RPG. I thought that was a fantastic game, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
AG: But they're moving away from that. With Dragon Age 2, there's no more tactical view. So it seems that even Bioware has decided -
RT: Yeah, it does seem like a dying genre, doesn't it? Kinda sad.
AG: The only place I really see that kind of really old-school game viable now is as a smaller-scale, downloadable game.
RT: I think it's one of those things, that on the PC, there's not such a high threshold to get a game out on the PC, especially with features like [the ones Steam gives developers] these days. And I think that's probably where we'd be more likely to see a very hardcore tactical-type game come out.
AG: Recently we just saw Double Fine release Stacking. They made a big-name game, Brutal Legend, and when the sequel didn't pan out, they decided they would back it off, and start making downloadable games based on interesting concepts. That's not a direction we see developers usually go in, but do you see Obsidian doing something like this?
RT: We talk about it. I can't say anything more [laughs]. I would just say that that is certainly a conversation we have around here. I think it makes a lot of sense. We'll never quit doing the big games, we love doing those, and that's what this studio is about, but I don't think that rules out working on other games, especially if they can have tie-ins - I think that's fantastic.
AG: I think Obsidian would be in a good position, especially considering how many of you have that worked on those RPGs from the old days.
RT: Yeah - lot of people here helped develop and design those. The owners, and I came from Black Isle myself, I worked on that stuff. Yeah - we would love to do that.
AG: Now, Dungeon Siege 3 is not really a game for the hardcore old-school RPG fan. Those guys, the guys from sites like Duck and Cover, or NMA Fallout, they haven't said much about Dungeon Siege 3, but overall they don't seem terribly hopeful that any developer is going to sell them the game they want to buy. Do you think those days are over?
RT: I don't think those days are over.
AG: That will be a wonderful thing to hear for them.
RT: We have some ideas, and we talk about them, and exploring ways to make that possible. You have to figure out, what would be the market for it, what's a way we could release that and actually have it be viable. There are a lot of things we have to solve for. We talk about it. A lot.
AG: Oblivion was a controversial game, especially in the RPG crowd. It was often seen as "Baby's First RPG". But, it made a lot of new RPG fans, and even though Bethesda went from fantasy to post-apocalyptic with guns, they were able to take the fanbase from Morrowind and Oblivion and apply it to Fallout, which was not Baby's First RPG anymore -
RT: No. Now it's like nitty-gritty combat, this big open world with adult content, with violence, and they were able to bring them over like that.
AG: Can you guys do the same, bring the fanbase with you from one game to another? You guys work with so many publishers, though.
RT: Yeah, that can be difficult. I think it's a matter of finding the right game for people to connect to. We're always talking, and approaching publishers with ideas for that.
AG: When do you guys make another new IP?
RT: Yeah, it'd be nice.
AG: Is it like, every time you guys get greenlit and it's another licensed game, is someone yelling, NO! Somebody let me make a new game!
RT: [laughs] I don't know, we've had really great licenses to work on, so I can't complain. Being able to work on a Star Wars game, and the Neverwinter license, and things like that, they were fantastic opportunities and I really enjoyed working on those projects. Of course, we're always looking for a chance to do something ourselves.
AG: You guys haven't always had the best luck with publishers. There was some weird stuff posted on forums about Alpha Protocol's development that didn't make it onto too many big news sites. And then LucasArts gave you something like ten months to make Knights of the Old Republic 2? What's the deal?
RT: Yeah, I don't really wanna talk about that [laughs]. Let's talk about Dungeon Siege 3.
AG: But seriously, though, ten months? I know people who hated the ending to that game, but once I found out about that time frame, I remember thinking that very few studios could get nearly as much done on such a big game in such a short amount of time as you guys did.
RT: You know what, developers never get enough time to work on a game. We always wanna put more in, but eventually the game has to be done and you have to move on. There's always more cut from a game than what actually makes it in, from any title, all the ones we work on. You have to try to pick the right things to get in in the time that you have, and the opportunities we've had to work on those projects was great. Would we have liked to do it differently with [KOTOR 2's] ending? Yeah - but it was still a good project.
AG: Just in the last year, you guys have worked with Sega, then Bethesda, now Square Enix. They all are very different publishers. What is it that Square Enix brings that you're most excited about?
RT: A lot of things. Obviously, they're a big name, just like the other ones, but they've been very involved in Dungeon Siege in terms of helping us with the marketing, there's a lot of back and forth on that. They're doing a lot of work on the website, which I don't think is out yet. Just a lot of things that have been really great working with them; they get our feedback on things, and they didn't have to if they didn't want to, but they solicit our feedback. We go "hey, we don't like the way that looks", or "we think this would be cool here", or "what if we showed it this way" - these are discourses that go on in emails and on the phone. We have conference calls all week with them. They're very involved and I think they're very excited about the opportunity that Dungeon Siege represents in terms of being a big Western-style RPG for them.
AG: Feargus talked a little bit about Square Enix moving into Western RPGs. What are they looking for? It's not just sales, is it?
RT: No. [With Dungeon Siege 3], it was something they wanted to expand in their library, and they wanted to find people that could make it, and had experience, and that's kinda how we got hooked up in the first place, and it worked out from there.
I think that, in Western-style RPGs, you see things like randomly generated loot, branching dialogues is a big thing. It's very common here, but not so common with JRPGs. Usually you click through the dialogue, and it's whatever was recorded - you don't usually have choices come up. I think there's elements of that, the mood, the flavor, the art style, things like that, that are more Western-style. I think they just wanted to expand the type of games they're associated with.
AG: JRPGs, much like Western ones, have integrated action in different ways. I feel like none of them have really done it right - are they looking to today's Western action-RPGs as inspiration?
RT: Hmm. That, I don't know. I've played a fair number of JRPGs, where, usually they're different because you go into the battle mode, and the action isn't seamless. There's the wandering around the world, and then there's the battle mode. But those also actually have an opportunity to have different tactics, or showcase different skills, your characters take turns, that actually hearken back to the turn-based mindset. And I think they live with that environment for their combat, and we were able to provide more of [a style where] you're walking around and then the next minute you're fighting, and it isn't a different mode of gameplay, it's all the same experience.
I kind of feel like the JRPGs have started moving towards that, like Final Fantasy XII, you still had combat and non-combat mode, but it was more seamless. It wasn't like, oh, load screen, and now you're in combat mode. It was like, now the meters come up, and you're in combat. I think both approaches to making a game have strong merits, and they both are able to showcase different things or let the player focus on different things that you couldn't focus on in both. So it kind of just depends on what the game is and what it's going for.
AG: I think that's all I've got for you. Thanks, Rich.
RT: Thank you!