With the likes of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on the horizon, fans of the fantasy RPG are well catered for, so launching a new property in the genre is a daunting task. 38 Studios has teamed up with Image Comics co-founder Todd McFarlane and noted author RA Salvatore to ensure that their debut venture Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning gives the market leaders a run for their money.
We caught up with McFarlane to discuss the challenges of launching a new IP, the game's prospects, and its influences.
How did you get involved in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning? "The guy who started 38 Studios and financed the game, a gentleman by the name of Curt Schilling, a former Major League Baseball player, he played for a team based in the same city where I had my business. We would run into each other at charity events and grew a bit of a kinship with each other.
"He went off to play for Boston, and about a year or two went by, then he gave me a phone call out of the blue and said 'Hey Todd, my career's winding down and I have to think post-athletic. I've been a gamer my whole life, so I'm going to start a video game company. That's what I've always wanted to do, but I need somebody to come on board and help handle the art end of it.'
"I said 'Okay, well as long as it's beyond concept drawing. You let me sign off on all aspects of it and have some authority on all levels of it, from music to animation to environments and lighting, then I'll come on board.' He took me out and gave me the pitch, and we've been doing it ever since."
How do you fit into the game's general development schedule? "Having done this sort of gig before in Hollywood and with toy making, you do way more of it at the beginning because you're trying to set the tempo of what it is you're trying to accomplish. As we get closer to it, we've only got a few more days til lockdown, the later stuff they showed me, I don't really have much to say if they've been doing their job, we've all been going to the right path. So, what you are trying to do is say 'What are we trying to do? What are we trying to accomplish?' You have a lot more failures at the beginning of it.
"Either they're in the studio or I have a video link-up, so they bring in the group and I download all the work they have done. We look at it, they can see my computer and I can draw on my computer and they can see all the notes. They put stuff together and every four or five days, we have a three or four hours session going over all of it."
Did you fell it was necessary to depart from your usual style to achieve the look you wanted for the game? "Yes. I don't think Curt would have minded if I'd said I want it to look like my artwork, but I intentionally didn't want that to happen. I wanted to be broadminded about it and say 'There's this many people who know who I am, and there's this many who play video games'. I was trying to appeal to the people that play video games.
"I think there's a certain kind of comfort zone visually that they are used to, and I didn't want to go too far outside of it, or say 'This style will only make sense if you know who I am'. That wasn't my task. My task was at the end to create an RPG game that just felt and played like something cooler than the other RPGs you may have played."
So even though you had full creative freedom, you had this defined style in mind and kept by that? "Y'know how it is. When you try and get too clever with art it can be a little bit of a distraction because you're more concerned about the look than the gameplay. I was way more concerned about the gameplay than whether it had any resemblance to anything I'd done before with the toys or the comic books.
"Like I said, the experience I wanted them to walk away with is the feeling that it was a cooler game than what they have played before. To me that was the big goal, and not whether or not I recruit another fan."
What influences did you draw from in the fantasy genre? "The genre in and of itself is a little flowery, you've got all the armour and the detail and all that. I think everybody has been influenced by Lord of the Rings. That set the standard for the kind of fantasy we have our heads wrapped around. I think there's plenty of obvious stereotypes that we have, things like King Arthur and anything that's a couple of thousand years in the past. We sort of have a mindset of what it's supposed to look like.
"The goal wasn't necessarily to go in there and invent any of that. To say all of a sudden 'Trolls are going to look like sci-fi guys from the move Alien' because it's a little too disruptive. We still had all the same trappings of elves, trolls, mages and wizards, and all those things, but the question is, can we design them in an interesting manner? Can they move in an interesting manner, and exist in an interesting environment?
"If we've got those ten categories that we're dealing with - spellcasting, sound, music and all those things - if we take them and add a couple of percent to raise the bar, we've got ten categories times 2% becoming a 20% lift overall
"All I want is for players to put down the control pad and say 'That's cool as hell'. In the end players shouldn't have to be in a position to explain why. Either it strikes you in the gut, or it leaves you flat. In this case, I hope they come away saying how cool it was and tell all their buddies."
What is the biggest differences between working on art in video games and working in comics? "You write a novel it's just words. You make a movie and it's talking with motion and sound. Comic books, where I've spent a lot of time, it's words and pictures but it's all stationary. So what I have to do is find the key frames of the storyboards and do the directing with each one of those dramatic moments.
"Here, you have to embed all those dramatic moments, and put in all the melodrama and great lighting and give it thousands of possibilities, and literally build an entire world. Then once you've built the world, which is the vehicle, you hand the pilot seat to the player, and you go 'Here, have the experience you want, because it's yours'.
"I don't get to dictate it. Obviously we have an influence. We build a big village or something like that. You see the tip of it in the distance and you're probably going to be attracted to go and see it. But at the end of the day, we have to make all of it, no matter what direction you go, have some value because RPG players are a bit of a different lot.
"A lot of them have different wants and needs, compared to first-person shooters where the goal is just to drive through it. Here you're doing the same thing but you meander a lot more, so you have to make the travelling as interesting as possible, and if they want to play the action it better be cool. It should excite you, because if not, why are you doing it?"
Would you say that was the biggest challenge you faced, having lack of direction at your end because it's in the players' hands? "That's the unknown, what players are going to do with the game. The known is that the players can do almost anything, so we have to create the 'anything'. So the bigger task is how do you create enough of a world, so when they're playing their 200 plus hours of it, they don't feel that there is any repetition?
"Give them enough variety so they still want to investigate what's on offer within the confines of whatever their playing style is. Some people like action, while others avoid that and just want to do the quests all the time."
Do you feel that there is a risk involved with this game since there are so many established fantasy series out there? "Any new game is always going to run up against the same question of 'Why should we buy your game when there's so many established ones out there?' But you can make the same argument about new comic books, TV shows, or new rock bands that come along. If we just listen to the same four, they're going to bell curve and then the question is where's the next stuff? So it's going to be daunting task because there are so many big giant brand names out there.
"EA has its own big cash cows, but within the fantasy realm, the comforting thing is that people come with little bit of a stereotype of what should be in it. So, you can't go too far away from that, you need to stay within a certain parameter because people know what they are getting themselves into, so the question is 'Can you make it cooler and fun' and give them a couple of 'Whoa' moments in the game that they are no used to seeing in the confines of the RPG genre?"
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is released for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC on February 7 in North America and February 10 in Europe.
Watch the first gameplay footage of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning below: