The Elemental Interview
Interview with Assembler Of Redux (David Goldfarb), project lead (and more..) of the The Elemental, an action rpg in a Biblepunktm setting, using the Dungeon Siege Engine.
RPGDot: For how long have you been working on The Elemental and how many people are working on it?
Aor: We've been working on Elemental for roughly 20 months. The core team right now is about 24 people - I think at last count we had something like 80 people touching the project at one time or another in the course of development.
RPGDot: Could describe what The Elemental is about?
Aor: Elemental is an action RPG set in a historically alternate Judea, taking place in roughly 200 AD. The hands-free, easy-listening gameplay of Dungeon Siege was discarded in favor of the more involving "make-you-buy-a-new-mouse-every-week" mechanic that typifies games like Diablo 2. We're kidding about the last part, but not really. :). Players should be involved, not observers.
RPGDot: How did it all get started? Where did you get the idea of a Biblepunk(tm) RPG?
Aor: Well, the germ of the thing started back in April of 2002. We'd been talking about modding a game and I'd just gotten back from GDC. I had seen Scott Bilas's (of GPG and Dungeon Siege fame) presentation on data-driven architecture when I was there and it made a profound impression, profound enough that when we were talking about games to mod, Dungeon Siege was actually our first choice.
As for the biblepunk rpg, it sort of rose out of this novel I'd been working on for a few years and finally completed. I can't speak for everyone on the team, but I know my own frustration with the rpg genre as it applies to games is that it nearly always seems to defer to the goblin+hobbit+orc set of Tolkien tropes. They've been done to death. Occasionally games like Planescape or Fallout come along (Avellone rules)but for the most part, playing a western fantasy game seems to involve some sort of implicit understanding that at some point, I WILL encounter a damn elf, and there's nothing I can do about it. RPGs have this immense potential to be something interesting, and it's usually squandered in favor of the familiar and cliched. And it's not to say there's anything wrong with Tolkien either, but just his mythos seems to have become the RPG equivalent of the Giant Snakehead. So when we started on Elemental, it was with the idea that whatever we did would have to be compelling to us in a way that orcs and goblins aint. And so setting the game in this strange quasi-historical place where there are half-tigers and early Christians and pagans and mantis and Romans all mixed up together, it seemed like a rich place to set a game. We hope it is. We do, however, still get mails from time to time asking us if Jesus is going to be a boss.
RPGDot: How far in the development are you? How much of the game is going to be released on October 21?
Aor: It's coming along. Our estimate is 10% of the game on the 21st, although most of the primary mechanics will be in for the first release, many are slated for the second release. It's not that we only have 10% done, but something more like we need to playtest a lot of this, and we finally got to a stage where we could release a testbed to everyone.
RPGDot: Do you have any contact with other teams working on a Siegelet?
Aor: We talk to Madigan from Allysium and occasionally Starr from u5 every now and again. Good folks.
RPGDot: What kind of changes did you made on the RPG system and why?
Aor: Whew. Uh. We changed everything. The short why is that we didn't like DS at all but admired the engine and extensibility a great deal. So we tore out all their systems. We wrote a totally new Item System because theirs was insufficiently deep. We wanted something that would keep players coming back to look for items, much more like d2, with true sets, true uniques with custom abilities, etc. We removed all their player chars, all their monsters, and removed their Experience and Combat systems. We don't use any of DS' own systems to deal damage or interpret XP at all - it's all our own custom stuff. The XP system is a weird hybrid, something like a cross between DAOC and d2.
Arguably the biggest change is the addition of Technique Trees, 10 in total, 10 skills per tree, 8 trees per player character race. These are: melee, ranged, earth, air, water, fire, time, mantis, tiger, human. The tech tree is what diablo 2 made famous. Ours function similar to theirs with a few significant differences - one, depending on the skills you use, you earn XP for that specific tree. When you earn sufficient xp to level up, you can then spend skill points within that tree, but only in that tree. So hopefully we'll avoid the annoying "i use frozen orb all day long and magically can cast a fire spell" issue with many games. Now there is another value, called Alphalevel, which is the sum of all your XP, and when you level up at some arbitrary point, you earn attribute points which can be allocated among your four attributes.
Oh yeah. We don't use DS attributes anymore. We have four now, str, dex, int, con. We have 3 player races: mantis, half-tiger, human. Each one has a totally different racial skillset, attribute distribution, and even (in the case of the mantis)different items and leveling systems entirely. The mantis wears tattoos, for instance, which are effectively like charms for him. There is a good deal we haven't mentioned here - have to see what we can squeeze into this release, and also, honestly, some of it we want to be a surprise. :).
Look and feel is completely different. We are indeed going for a "whole new game". We reworked the entire GUI, from the main menu to the ingame gui to the way that button clicks and hotkeys work. As Scott Bilas said last time he saw Elemental demoed: "that isn't our game."
RPGDot: Is there still the auto map and a quest book? Are there dialogue-trees?
Aor: Yep, automap and quest book are there, with different looks. Re GUI, it's wholly different, as the screens should indicate. As for multiple choice dialogues, yes, although we are not making Planescape.
RPGDot: DS was praised for its smooth game play, but many people were a bit disappointed by its linearity and lack of plot. What is the Elemental about, great tactical battles in a beautiful landscape, or is it als a story-telling game? Will there be puzzles?
Aor: Well, we hope it's great tactical battles in a beautiful landscape, but it should also be an entirely different world to occupy, most of all. We want people to be like "uh, ok, who the hell is the Order of the Paschal Lamb" and ask questions like "wait, was there REALLY a group of heretics that canonized Judas in 185" and stuff like that. And you know, we're sort of screwed too, because we're forced to use a lot of the same tired conventions that we made fun of other RPG developers for (kill =reward, etc etc).Puzzles. Uh. Maybe ethical puzzles. Lots of alternate quests. Bring me the head of this prophet type of stuff. Grow me a garden. Camel races.
RPGDot: You choose the Elemental to be a online-only game. How does this work? Does this mean it will it not be playable on a local Lan system? Do you have plans for a SP version?
Aor: Actually, we changed our minds. We've had to do a ton of work, but it'll ship as single and multiplayer. You can play on lan.
RPGDot: Could you give some examples of the changes you made regarding combat?
Aor: Heh. Let's see - just to throw some numbers around, and remember we are using no ds weapon, armor, animation, or model assets at all.
RPGDot: How many different weapons are there?
Aor: 10 weapon classes, over 80 new weapons, dual wielding of certain weapons, over 90 armor types. These are just base types. I think we have an additional 110 or so unique/set weapons.
RPGDot: Did you make any changes to the ranged weapon system?
Aor: Yeah, ranged is a skill tree with 10 skills now, so it bears zero resemblance to DS. We have ranges on different bow types, so you can fire and miss if you're out of range; likewise you can have an archer line if you want and just hold your position while you rain arrows on your enemies, something which was essentially impossible in DS.
RPGDot: What about the magic system?
Aor: This is reiterating what we said above, but everything is new. We use none of the DS stuff at all. 100 skills, all new. All races can use elemental and racial techniques, although the mantis can't use melee or ranged techs at all, it is the most potent combatant of the three races and has a variety of attributes (the ability to directly increase base armor, damage, and attack rating) which the other races do not.
RPGDot: When do you expect (or hope) the project will be completed?
Aor: I think we plan to having rolling releases through the end of March/April and then we'll step back and assess how the project looks, community interest, all that good stuff. I think one of the things we really miss in the DS community is a huge and active group of modders that communities like HL or bf1942 or even Morrowind seem to enjoy. A lot of people vanished after the first few months and never came back. It's a shame that modding DS is so difficult, because it really is quite a powerful engine.
RPGDot: Do you have any plans for the future? More project like this or a job in the industry?
Aor: After we get this out I think we're agreed to move on to HL2 and stay away from rpgs for the next 2 years. :). Some of us (myself included) already work for game companies - those of us who don't hopefully will soon.
RPGDot: Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers?
Aor: Only that we hope you'll check out our game - if you loved diablo 2 and planescape and fallout you're in for a good time with Elemental. :).
RPGDot: Thank you very much for the interview. We are looking forward to the first release.