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The Dwarves

JuliusBorisovJuliusBorisov Member, Administrator, Moderator, Developer Posts: 21,998
edited September 2015 in Off-Topic
You probably know I just couldn't pass this news up.

Recently a new kickstarter has been announced:

The Dwarves

"We're putting dwarves front and center in our new RPG with physics-based combat and an intriguing story."

"If you need more beer, beards and battle in your life, The Dwarves is for you!

Learn all about the coolest fantasy race out there
Explore a huge game world with an ever-growing group of companions
Experience an epic story with many optional side-quests and tough decisions
Discover unique traits about your 15 different companions and improve their skills
Fight against hundreds of enemies in epic real-time battles that combine dynamic action and tactical depth
Release planned for Mid-2016 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One!" managed to get an interview with the Bremen-based developer King Art about the future game.

King Art: Do you know The Dwarves?

Bubbles: No, I know nothing about them.

KA: King Art?

Bubbles: Yup, I know all three BoUTs [Book of Unwritten Tales games].

KA: We also did Battle Worlds: Kronos, a turn based strategy. [He produces a humorously oversized paperback book.] Markus Heitz has had a real bestseller with that. We now want to adapt the first books. Who are you?

Bubbles: I'm writing for the RPGcodex.

KA: Ahh, ok.

Bubbles: Our community hasn't exactly taken a positive view of The Dwarves, but they do seem to talk a lot about the game anyway. And that's why I'm here.

Well, that's interesting. So you already knew that this was an RPG game...

Bubbles: ...yes.

KA: ...and now I need to convince you so you can convince the community. Tough, tough! Well, let's see then; I'll give it my best shot. So we have 3 layers to the gameplay; the highest, most abstract layer is a world map, which gives you an overview of Girdlegard [in German: "Das Geborgene Land"], which is the setting of The Dwarves. And it will perhaps play a bit like The Banner Saga, if you've played that.

Bubbles: [nods eagerly]

KA: Exactly, perhaps you'll even have resources to work with, not like Heroes of Might and Magic where you'll have to build something, but simply to maintain your troops. And on that world map, you'll have 200-300 points to travel between, so rather a lot, but they're not all equally deeply developed. Sometimes you may just read a text window saying: "nothing happens." And sometimes you'll come to an interesting location, where you might want to do something more. And those are the other two layers; either you go there in exploration mode, which will play roughly like in one of our adventures: you'll have points of interest you can investigate, multiple choice dialogues, and thus learn something about the story, the world, the characters. This will help you learn how to drive back the orc army that has overrun Girdlegard, which you'll have to do in the combat part. Often you end up playing a game that's mechanically interesting, but doesn't give you a lick of motivation to care about the story and characters. And we, now, want to supply the characters with a face and a personality to give the story meaning.

Here's an example, a little like in The Banner Saga as well: marauding orc troops are closing in on that villiage; do I go towards them to help out? That forces me into combat. Or you may say: "nah, I have other plans," and then you may return to that area later and find ruins, bodies, and a few survivors who may curse your name.

Bubbles: So you'll present a lot of the game through text?

KA: Yeah, you'll see more examples of that later. Since we're also an adventure developer, we really find this pretty cool, and we know how to deal with a lot of text. If you only care about the RPG, you may go through this much faster than an adventure gamer who cares about exploring the locations and clicks on everything. Content wise, this is a 50-50 split [between text-based "exploration" and combat], but we want to let players adjust that relation according to their preferences. Exploration players can just try to get through the combat ASAP and focus on the stuff that interests them more; for combat players we plan on offering a few interesting options for replaying battles.

[At this point, he loads into a combat scene; this is the first in-game footage I see.]

Now to the combat part. First of all, we've only been developing this game for 4-5 months, and we'll work on it for at least another year. So none of what you see here is final quality. But you can already see a few things that are important to us. For instance, here you see the asymmetrical aspect of the game: there are only a few heroes, and they are already surrounded by orcs. And that's basically what makes the orcs interesting and dangerous: their huge numbers. You can't see this here [every orc in the footage looks the same], but the final build will have many different varieties of orcs, and they won't just stand in line waiting to engage the player either. We still have a lot of work to do on that front. This isn't a technical problem for us; we just haven't had the time yet. I'm mostly a combat designer by the way.

Another cool thing is that this is all physics based. I do this one physical attack [an AoE blast attack], and can push all these orcs off the bridge; thus, using just a few action points has yielded a huge effect for me. And these are situations and possibilities you can learn from; you may push an orc off a cliff by accident, and then start doing it on purpose.

Here's a tanky hero with a shield; he doesn't do a lot of damage, but when he's surrounded, he can deal with it pretty well. The others wouldn't last very long at all in normal combat; the demo is tuned to a very easy mode. Here is another guy; he's very mobile and can jump out of dangerous situations. And this guy has a big weapon: he swings it slowly, but when it hits, it hurts [the hero makes a big AoE attack]. And now--- oh. [two of the heroes have been pushed down the bridge by the attack and are gone] Wait a sec, let me start the demo again. Well, this sort of thing is still happening in this build, but maybe we'll keep it around for the final version. It's fun, and it's physically correct.

Bubbles: Perhaps for the highest difficulty?

KA: Mhm, right; anyway, I wanted to show you this guy, the Berserker, a super fast runner. He just requires enough space to run around. He can run around an orc group, attack from the back, launch whirlwind attacks, but he can't do a lot of damage. But here's the twist: every kill gives him an action point. So he can chain a lot of special attacks together really quickly and finish a combo very easily. [He demonstrates how the heavy weapons guy pushes a horde of enemies together and the Berserker finishes it off with an AoE.] We're actively on the lookout for these kinds of opportunities, and we want to have lots of them in the game.

Now, we have this animation here: [he shows off an explosion effect]. I just wanted to test a damage effect and a guy [on the dev team] gave me a visual effect for it. And immediately our team came up with further ideas: maybe we can make catapults throwing fireballs into your group, maybe they'll do friendly fire to the orcs, and you can exploit that. One guy says. "Exploding barrels, like in FPS games! Let's do that stuff here!" The next one says: "we're Gonna have a mage character at some point, give him that for a fireball spell!" So you can imagine our creative process. We don't really have a 200 page design doc, but we have the book from Markus Heitz as our inspiration, and do iterative work on the rest, a bit like on a months-long game jam. At some point, of course, this will end, we'll settle on features, do content integration and polishing, and then release in the middle of next year.

Our Kickstarter is happening in 2-3 weeks [on the 1st of September, it turns out]. We'll see what people say about the game; ideally the community will embrace everything we have here. Well, this was combat. Do you have any questions on that?

Bubbles: Which version of Unity is this?

KA: The fifth. We first started with Unity 3 [on their earlier games], and if you'd asked me then, I'd have complained to no end. BoUT 2 was a constant struggle with custom solutions, but now with Unity 5 we go much more with the flow, we work with the engine as it was intended to be used, and we look for solutions on the asset store as well. That's where the explosion effect came from.

If you're from the RPG faction, I'm sure you'll be interested in this [very sweet and considerate guy, this one]: we don't roll dice when you make an attack, it's all physics based. If I swing my hammer, we check what the head bone – eh, the bone in my skeleton where the hammer head is – is doing, it's moving through the scene, and there you see shockwaves which level off based on the calculations of the simulation [technical bullocks imho] – and then something happens! Bodies move into bodies, into some sort of obstacles, and I calculate the force of these movements. If they're forceful enough, you'll be damaged, and if the forces are deadly, things fall over and die, and sometimes they just fall over and stand up again. Of course this is a model, not a realistic simulation, but it helps us avoid the typical problems you get when you're only faking this kind of stuff; pathfinding issues, models stuck in the scenery, that sort of thing.

Bubbles: So what about character development?

KA: Uhm, character development.... uhm... okay, so there's basically no loot. This is a little like in The Banner Saga. There's probably some really important weapons that can completely alter your skill loadout, and probably you'll get a trinket, like an evil skull totem that you can hang around your neck, and that might give you the action point gain per kill [the Berserker's special ability] as well. So you'll have completely new options for combining things. This idea of combining stuff, I think that's the core mechanic for us; we want to offer a huge amount of potential there for players who really want to dig into the game's combat mechanics. As you travel through the game, eventually you'll get 10 or 12 heroes in your group. And depending on which of those heroes you choose for a battle, you get a completely different group dynamic already – think of DotA. And this is an even more pronounced example of that, because we're actively searching for more and more of those combos and synergies.

You can also try to complete optional missions, and different skills might be needed there; for example, you may go into an easy scenario where there's a merchant NPC that must be reached in x minutes so they can be defended. If you defend them, they'll give you... some sort of thing that helps you [they clearly haven't tackled that part at all yet]. But if you attempt to accomplish that optional objective, you certainly won't be able to pull it off on your first try. So you'll play as far as you can, and then you realize: "Damn, I should have taken that guy with me, 'cause he has that cool skill, and with that skill I could have barricaded that choke point, kept half the orcs at bay, gone around behind their backs, run to the merchant, and then I'd be home free!" And then you try that again, restart the arena, and see if it works. And there we see a lot of potential for replayability for an audience of ambitious tactical players.

Bubbles: But you do have a full save system, not like in The Banner Saga?

KA: We do have a full save system, yes. But you can't change your character in the middle of a map; if you don't like your group, you have to restart. But if you don't like difficult combat, you'll be able to drop the difficulty; then it'll only take a little common sense to beat every map.

Bubbles: So what will I get as a reward after a battle? Will I have... gold? [He understands "dagger" here instead of "gold", because we're speaking German in a noisy room. That's what we in the industry call a dynamic interview.]

KA: Maybe. But you won't have a dagger in your inventory. You'll be drawing it in a cutscene, perhaps. Perhaps you'll take a dagger from an orc's inventory or something in this cutscene, and then the narrator will tell you the story of the sword. A bit like thi--- I'm not a gameplay designer at all, but that's what we talk about during brainstorming sessions.

Bubbles: Right, so generally, after a battle, what are the rewards? Gold?

KA: Ok... so.... I...I... don't want to get too much into detail here; even if we talked about certain things internally already, because, as soon as it's out there in the press [I assume he means the Codex], we can't change it anymore. So I want to show what we already have instead of speculation.

Okay, so let's take a closer look at the story part. Here's a cutscene. [Cutscene: a close-up shot of a dwarven blacksmith doing his thing with an anvil.] So this is Tungdil, our main character, and now you know that he's a smith, and he also has a piercing. And this viewpoint kinda makes him seem more human, as opposed to just seeing him in an isometric top-down view for the entire game. This is a lot of work: we had to make an entirely new character model with many more polygons than normal for this shot, but we think it'll be worth it. In exchange, we make cuts elsewhere. For example, many NPCs just get a portrait [and no special close-up model for cutscenes], but we think the art for these portraits is pretty good as well. Our artist has studied classical painting and somehow he manages to produce something good.

And there's some classic dialogue, with a bit of multiple choice; you do have some influence over the events, but only as far as our recorded voice samples cover it. Something that we're really proud of is that we don't just record dialogues, but that we also have a voiced narrator in dialogues.

Bubbles: Ah, like in Blackguards 2.

KA: Exactly! And Pillars of Eternity had these kinds of narrative texts as well, but not voiced! And this way it's a bit reminiscent of an audio book, it provides a calming influence on the flow of the game. If a game is too stressful, you might just quit after half an hour, but here, we have a rhythm: 15 minutes of challenge and then 15 minutes of getting to know people.

The English version has turned out really great; there, we have a female speaker [in the German version, it's an old, wizened dude], and that woman gives a great contrast to all the masculine dwarves. We don't do all that many cutscenes, but we have a lot of of voiced and narrated dialogues [in the top down view]. And you can look around and click on optional things, like this little horse, which our main character Tungdil has prepared as a gift for a child; imagine taking that horse, finding the girl later and giving her that horse in a charming little scene. A little like in an adventure game. Now imagine if 50 orcs barge in here; you'll have a new motivation to look after the girl and stand in front of her. If you invest yourself in the characters, you'll get more out of the game.

We follow the story of the novels; your hero starts as a nobody and becomes a real hero. This progression also works pretty well for video games, doesn't it? So we don't have to rely on silly stuff like amnesia or whatever plot device you need to justify starting a character over when you make a sequel. Markus Heitz has really written a story that's very well suited to making an RPG, full of twists. We're just adapting the first book, but there are four more. That lets us draw on a lot of pre-existing world building, and we'll also be able to satisfy the thousands of fans of the series. We're really happy with this stuff. Markus Heitz is a really cool, hands-off guy who doesn't object when we change smaller things.

[We change to the outdoor scene pictured above.] Our artists have put a lot of time into these locations; this stuff isn't all asset store. Much of what you're seeing here is hand made, but, for example, those trees are all Speedtree. They look great, they wave prettily in the wind, so why try to do better within two weeks [before the Kickstarter]?

We'll also put in an aggro system, so you can play aggro ping-pong a bit, kite enemies around maybe; none of this is set in stone, but this is what we're considering.

Bubbles: What kind of vision do you have for controlling your party? Are you supposed to keep an eye on all four characters at once in the middle of battle?

KA: Exactly. Basically you have to constantly keep an eye on all of them. We don't have massive health pools here; if you're surrounded by six orcs, you're really in trouble. You'll be dead within 10 seconds. But you do have those 10 seconds to notice it and regenerate your health; we hope that'll be enough time. But although this is designed for real time, we could still implment a pause & play system. We're currently also playing around with a bullet time mode, Max Payne style, where you have a third resource [next to action points and health], call it "focus" or "concentration" or "morale", and I can spend that to slow things down to 30% speed. Hearing that "wheoeoeoo" sound when it happens, that's pretty cool, pretty epic. But of course it also offers players a chance to relax a bit, reposition the characters, get an overview of the scenery again.

Bubbles: Will players have to learn where to position their characters, so that their abilities overlap each other?

KA: Yes, right. This guy for instance has a sort of shout. This shout has a certain range – we'll give it a better visual to make that absolutely clear – and you'll have to make sure that you don't just waste that shout; your comrades must be within range. With my action points, I have to make sure that they don't cap out, because then I'm wasting any further points I might gain, but I also have to maximize the impact of the action points I spend.

Bubbles: You can see those blue numbers on the skillbar – are those the action point costs?

KA: Yeah, but those are just improvised stuff, just so we can talk about them. I mean, just in these presentations, somebody suggested "can't you arrange these [four available] skills in the shape of a rhombus, like on a gamepad?" And I went "hmmm, yeah, we could have thought of that one ourselves. Let's write that down!"

Bubbles: If you do that, you'd better have different UIs!

KA: Exactly. Of course we'll accommodate the typical PC fan, who typically hates the gamepad-

Bubbles: Yeah, exactly.

KA: -and we'll give him a good mouse+keyboard interface, and we will not take the easiest and cheapest way to implement that. So for instance, a mouse user won't want to control a character with WASD; he'll want to use click-to-move, and we'll implement that.

Bubbles: And the skillbar should probably not be in a corner either, for people who want to click on the skills to use them; you know, some people actually do that.

KA: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, basically, like Heroes of the Storm or DotA, you know those?

Bubbles: [stoic silence]

KA: Those are games with a similar control scheme, four abilities, mouse and keyboard – imagine our UI working something like that. That's all doable for us. I can show you something else now; it's still unfinished, we've been working on this for four months now and are planning to release it next summer.

Bubbles: Oh right, you know, some developers offer stretch goals for their games, and when they hit all the goals they'll say, "well, we're gonna need an extra year of dev time to implement all this stuff". Can you guarantee that-

KA: No, we're not giving a guarantee. If our Kickstarter really goes through the roof, and we have to think about putting in additional stretch goals, then we won't hire more people to get this done by summer. We'll stay with the proven team and work on the game for longer. That's the logical move. We're aiming for Q2 2016, and if there's a bit of a delay, that's not exactly unusual in our industry, is it? Every Euro we make goes into our game. That's how we did it with BoUT2 as well.

Bubbles: Doesn't this game cost more than an adventure?

KA: Uhhhhhmmmmm.... [long silence] ...not much more., really, especially BoUT2 was a really expensive adventure. Because it's really long. And we will create content here through the combat; and combat replays don't cost anything.

Bubbles: But BoUT2 was profitable for you, right?

KA: Well, I'm not fully familiar with the numbers right now, but, generally, ...generally we don't approach a project in the way that we say "we'll invest a lot of borrowed money into our game, and if we can't make that back, we go bust." So instead we try to do it with Kickstarter, and with our own money, money that we really have, and with support from publishers, like EuroVideo in this case, so that we don't completely rely on sales numbers. Well, it... the Kickstarter [for BoUT2] went really well, and it sold pretty well for an adventure, but adventures are really a niche, and an expensive game like BoUT2 is hard to do there.

Bubbles: Of course. I recall Broken Age, which really struggled to make back their seven or eight million dollars of development money.

KA: With Tim Schafer you have the feeling that they don't operate at peak efficiency just yet. Of course we're not optimally efficient either, but we try to find solutions that make some sort of sense. Like that focus on text, with writing and voice, because that's cheap. And you're more likely to see something drawn or sketched than a 3D cinematic. That's something where we say "hey, cool, this way we can save costs without anybody saying 'what a bunch of crap!'"

Bubbles: Are you planning on doing Critter Chronicles 2 at some point? [I apologize for that question; by this point I was deep in the throes of BoUT-mania]

KA: For BoUT2? Well, the problem is that Nordic wants to wait and see how things look at the back end. On the one hand, that means waiting for future sales numbers for the PC version. But the game is only going to release for consoles in the near future. It'll also come out on the i-devices, all the ports are basically done, but what we don't know is: will they be worth the effort we put into them?

[At this most interesting moment, we are rudely interrupted by booth staff who want to shove in the next visitor.] I hope I could alleviate your fears a bit!

Bubbles: Of course, with good and complete answers! I'm glad that you weren't a PR guy.

KA: Yeah, I can't do politician speak.

And with these words, we bade each other a fond farewell. I'm not quite sure how to feel about a story-focussed action RPG with narrative point-and-click sequences that cites The Banner Saga, Pillars of Eternity, and DotA as inspirations, but I was certainly entertained and mildly intrigued by what I heard.



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