Lionheart is an upcoming RPG game from Reflexive Entertainment, produced by Black Isle (whose friendly PR folks have made this interview possible). It puts the player back into the dark ages, on an alternative Earth where magic is possible due to a cataclysm. Read on for our interview with Ion Hardie, the Lead Designer and Co-Producer of Lionheart at Reflexive Entertainment and check out some exclusive screenshots in our gallery.
Hi, can you introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Ion Hardie, and I?m the Lead Designer and Co-Producer of Lionheart at Reflexive Entertainment. This means that during development I didn?t get out of the office very much. I made schedules for everybody else, made crazy design decisions that I then had to convince others to implement, level scripting and creation and also tried to keep the whole project real and possible within our milestone requirements. All of these wrapped together meant that I kept, and still keep, a bowl of candy on my desk so people will still want to come into my office.
What is Lionheart about for the uninitiated?
Lionheart is an RPG that is set within a historically altered Earth, circa 1588. It uses the SPECIAL system for character development, made popular in the Fallout series of games, and is a great blend of action and RPG elements. It was developed by Reflexive Entertainment, creators of Zax, Star Trek: Away Team and Ricochet, under the tutelage of Black Isle, the studio that brought the Baldur?s Gate, Icewind Dale and Fallout series? to life. We used a modified version of Reflexive?s proprietary Velocity Engine to create the game with, which uses 3D characters that are anti-aliased in real time with 2D background images. In Lionheart, you play a character that is a descendant of Richard the Lionhearted, and you enter the ?Earth? of Lionheart some 400 years after him.
Can you tell us some more about the game's storyline?
When we were developing the original concept, we did some preliminary research into history and historical episodes and factions, including the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish Armada, etc. and came up with the bare bones of the story. During a more intense historical research phase, we were able to really flesh out the design with actual events that occurred in human history and altered them to get our new divergent timeline. There is a divergent ?break? with history that occurred in 1192 during the Battle of Acre in which Richard the Lionhearted inadvertently caused the Disjunction, a ritual that briefly tore the fabric of reality and let loose magic into the world. Chaos reigned, and spirits of light and darkness were spread to the four corners of the Earth. As you would expect, many historical events were severely altered because of this. The game starts some 400 years later in Nueva Barcelona, a city rebuilt upon the ruins of Barcelona. Spain is ready to unleash the Spanish Armada against England, England is occupying much of Northern France, and the Inquisition has a strong foothold in much of Europe in its quest to eradicate magic and magical beings. Many of the historical people from that era are also available to interact with, including Leonardo DaVinci, Galileo and Shakespeare.
What would you say this game is most like? Diablo 2? Baldur's Gate? Fallout?
From the beginning we have been working towards an action-oriented RPG. Black Isle approached us as a developer because of the fun they had with Zax: The Alien Hunter, our previous game that was a solid action title. We worked hard throughout development in modifying their SPECIAL system for real time with the action elements in mind. Of the three gaming titles that you gave, I would have to say that the combat is more Diablo 2 than the others, but the dialog system is more like Fallout?s. The action is quick-paced, but there are tons of ways to complete quests, and many people have dialog solutions to their problems other than just hack-it-up. One of the game testers over at Black Isle also figured out a way to go through the entire game sneaking, talking and using non-combat spells without directly attacking anyone, which I took as a complement to how we had implemented our open style of gaming dynamics.
Is the game open-ended or very linear? Most people hate linear RPGs, Dungeon Siege being one of them, although I liked it.
At the start of the game, once the player arrives at the gates of Barcelona, the game is non-linear in the extreme. DaVinci will give you some objectives to follow if you wish, but you can really do just about anything you want. You can wander throughout Barcelona, go underneath the city, journey to the many wilderness areas outside the city, venture to the Goblin village, etc, without following any sort of ?path?. This really lends itself well to a particular gamer?s style, so those people that want to go into the city, complete quests, learn history, whatever, can do so. Those that want to immediately go into the wilderness and start killing things can do that too. However, I would also say that the game is open-ended to a point, but there is a definite system of goals and objectives that help shape your path. As the game progresses, the objectives become clearer cut, shaping the game into more of a ?path with choices? sort of behavior.
What kind of special stats will the player have in the game?
The SPECIAL system that we are using from Black Isle (which stands for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) is a system of statistics and rules that allow for classless open-ended character development. Characters in the system have Race, Attributes, Skills, Traits, and Perks. Race affects your starting statistics and may give you some special abilities, race specific Traits, and/or race specific Perks. The Attributes are used to make various skill check roles and to determine other derived statistics. At the heart of the system are skills. Skills are measured in points and can go anywhere from 0 to 300; these numbers are used in conjunction with other modifiers to determine whether or not you do something successfully in the game. Since there are no classes, you primarily define a character by what sort of skills you want that character to get better at. There are 5 fighting skills, 4 ?Thieving? skills and 12 Magic Skills in Lionheart to develop. So if you have been working on a melee character, and then decide you would like to start working on your Tribal Magic skills, you can. You define the character however you want, you decide how you want them to get better and how much you want them to get better. Traits and Perks essentially liven things up a bit. You can pick Traits for your character at the beginning of the game, and they have both positive and negative aspects to them. Perks are received at a specified rate throughout the game and have only positive effects, allowing the player to mold their character in a unique way.
Can you change class mid-game, say you are a Wizard and you want to become an Evil Warrior, is that possible?
One of the wonderful things about the SPECIAL system is that developing a single player character in multiple ?class? paths is easy to do. In fact, as an avid player of an archer/mage in Lionheart, I would say that it is very easy to do. But you can do it wrong if you ignore your skills. In this particular example, let?s say that you got your wizard up to level 10, and you concentrated your spells in the Tribal Necromantic branch and the Thought Electrical branch. If you were to try to develop your one-handed (or two-handed) fighting skills and just cut cold-turkey using your summoning abilities or your kick-arse lightning abilities that you still have, you would be screwed. When you are spending skill points in a new skill that is undeveloped, that skill is fairly weak in the beginning, as you would expect. As long as you still used your magical spells in conjunction with your fighting abilities during the transition period where you are developing your fighting skills, you?re fine. Eventually, if you really didn?t want to use them, you could stop using your magical spells and just hack stuff to death?but why would you do that? It?s much more fun to hack stuff up AND summon skeletons to help out.
Will there ever be multiplayer like Diablo 2, where more than 4 people can meet up and trade items and play the game?
We designed the game from the start to only support up to 4 people. This group of adventurers goes through the same adventure as the single player game, only modified to take into account the increase in party size. More monsters, more powerful monsters, better loot?however, any more than 4 would really take a substantial change to basic level design, as well as multiplayer code. I think the answer is probably no, not without a major overhaul.
Are there any special features I didn't mention yet?
Well, a couple of features that I particularly like about the system are the behind-the-scenes ?Mojo? system for keeping the game challenging and the way we implemented Sneak.
First off, our ?Mojo? System is a behind-the-scenes way in which both monsters and items are created ?on the fly? in response to the power level of the party in the game. This allows for different players of different levels, and even multiple players in multiplayer, to fight and discover items that are balanced for their particular power level. An area that a single, low-level player comes across may only have a few creatures and a minor magic item, while the same area for a party of higher-level adventurers will contain more powerful monsters and much better magic items. While random item and monster generation adds a lot in the ?replayability? department, it also helps to balance the game and allow for large parts of the game to not be played linearly. You could wander right into a goblin village near the beginning of the game, and the fight would be a lot less difficult than if you wandered in much later in your adventure.
Next, I think a cool thing that we did is how we implemented our sneak skill. I know sneaking around a gaming environment has been done before, but we have things in place that make it a definite option. For example, when sneaking, a player can obtain up to 75% of that enemies experience by sneaking past them successfully. This experience is earned every few seconds as the player is successful in their sneaking attempt, with the ?maximum? experience being earned in about 20-30 seconds or so. A small portion of that enemies experience is given to the player as a reward, and is real-time subtracted from the potential experience that the enemy could give if you killed them. If you want the other 25%, the enemy has to be killed. I find Sneak to be very viable, especially when combined with Speech and a few non-offensive tribal spells.
The graphics look remarkable, how'd you do that?
Thanks! Besides just good artists and an engine that can render it, I would have to say that how the art was conceptualized was a contributing factor. The basic process of art creation starts with communication between the design team and the art team. The design document paved the way for the first conceptions of what the game should look like and play like, and from there the artists did a tremendous amount of historical research. Since the game is steeped in magic, they also had great liberty to add their own twists to characters and architecture, so the look of the game is very different than real history. As production started for Lionheart, the artists created thousands of modular pieces and textures that the designers could use to construct levels. The Velocity engine has a very robust editor that allows designers to play the game, jump into the editor mode, add pieces to a level or change a texture, and then see the effects on the level instantly. The designers used these assets to build the initial levels, populate them, and add complex scripting. Where needed, the artists created custom pieces for the designers to give even more detail to the levels. Once the majority of the scripting work for the levels was complete, a team of artists went back over all the levels and added a final level of polish. It took extra time, but we think this process of cooperation between designers and artists really benefited the game.
Of course, all of this would just be talk without the efforts of the meticulous artists we have on staff that really cared about the finished product.
How long has the game been in development? How many people worked on it?
Lionheart has been in development since about September of 2001. We went gold in July of 2003, so that means that the game has been in various stages of development for about 19-20 months, all told. We have had about 19 people directly involved in development on the Reflexive end, and another handful of people on the Black Isle side that were involved as well. In this case, a ?handful? is about 4-5.
What do you think influenced the development of this game during its, well development?
Most of all I would have to say history. It is amazing how much influence history had in shaping side quests, story lines and characters that were in the game. As we would flesh out the major story arc, we kept coming across characters or events that would fit into the game with a little encouragement. That?s not to say Lionheart is a history buff?s dream, it just means that sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction. Because of the magical alteration of Earth?s history, we had some license to mold events to make them even more interesting than even history provided for. There were quite a few things that worked out very well, story-wise, when we looked to history for the clues.
Will you offer tools and/or any support for mod makers after the game is out?
The basic structure of the game really cannot support fan mods or levels, as the multiplayer component uses the single player gaming areas and there was no time spent on making the tools user friendly or support in sharing created assets between users. While I am a fan of user-created content and systems, Lionheart was not designed to do this.
Is there anything else you would like to add, something I may have missed?
As mentioned, we have gone gold, and the publisher says the game should be hitting the shelves August 12th! It?s a fun game that I have spent more than a year and a half of my life creating, balancing and thinking about and the finished product was worth it. Thanks to all of the Reflexive team members who stayed late to get the project finished, and the folks at Black Isle, current employees and recently departed, that helped in the creation of what has been my most time-and-love intensive game yet.
Thanks for chatting with us!