GenCon 2010: Fantasy fencing with 38 Studios

One thing is for certain: When you are sitting in the crosshairs of Curt Schilling and R.A. Salvatore during an interview, it's easy to become bowled over by their collective intensity and passion, especially when it comes to their interest in games and fantasy worlds.

While GenCon Indy lacked its usual MMORPG presence this year, Massively was able to grab a few minutes of face time with 38 Studios' founder and lead writer as they passed through the convention. It was a bit of an odd interview, however, as two of the biggest topics -- 38 Studios' move to Rhode Island and any solid details about their top-secret MMO -- were off the table for discussion. Do not fret, as that certainly didn't stop us from trying to pry for a few hints along the way. Schilling and Salvatore were obviously eager to spill the beans about Copernicus, but they are still biding their time until the right moment.

Happily, the duo didn't mind us fencing with them for facts, and were quite open about their single-player RPG lead-up to Copernicus, their general philosophy of designing the MMO, and why they've waited so long to unveil it to the public. Read on, gentle gamers, for a few ripostes, parries and lunges with two of the biggest figures in the industry right now.
A two-thousand year prologue

Seeing as 38 Studios is keeping Copernicus under tight security for the time being, our greatest source of information about the upcoming title is to look at the company's other big project: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The two games are meant to be complementary to each other, with art, story and game design shared (if not identical) between them. The art style and story (overseen by Todd McFarlane and R.A. Salvatore, respectively) connect the two titles intimately, ensuring that players who experience Reckoning will find Copernicus familiar and welcoming right from the get-go.

A prolific writer -- he's up to one novel published for every year of his life: 51 -- Salvatore's task at 38 Studios was to not only come up with the storylines within the games, but to flesh out a 10,000-year history of this brave new world. This history was then presented to senior designer Ken Rolston (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) and Mark Nelson for Reckoning.

The creative process culminated in a tale that would take place a couple thousand years before the MMO, in the Age of Arcana, essentially becoming a prologue for the online game. The time span between the two games is long enough to ensure that each title has enough room to be its own game, but close enough so that players who travel through Reckoning will bear witness to events, places and people who will shape the world that eventually becomes the backdrop for Copernicus. "Without going into too much detail, there are things people will see in Reckoning that will make a lot more sense in the MMO," Salvatore hinted.

Unlike games such as the Mass Effect trilogy, your actions in Reckoning won't be carried over into Copernicus directly, although Schilling hopes that players will find that their enjoyment of Copernicus will be enhanced by their time with Reckoning. It won't be a requirement to play Reckoning beforehand, however. One of the examples Curt Schilling used was how playing through Warcraft 3 enhanced his understanding, appreciation and fun when he went into World of Warcraft.

World building 101

We asked R.A. Salvatore what inspiration he drew from in creating the world of Reckoning and Copernicus. "I'm known for high fantasy worlds, I like lots of races but I like them to make sense. So I think historical sources always play a part in the books I'm writing." He admitted that he used Mario Puzo's The Godfather for inspiration when he created the Drow houses of his Forgotten Realms books. He looked at folk tales and fables throughout history, particularly from the perspective of the people of those eras, and imagined how they might have actually happened.

This world combines both a lighter tone and a darker one because, as Salvatore insisted, you need both for a good MMO setting. "You need the dark, and you need the beauty. You need a place that is so gorgeous, warm and comfortable that it's home and it's worth saving."

They had to stop before revealing too much, but Schilling challenged players to dig into the title of the game for a big hint: "Amalur means something. It means 'Mother Earth.' Think about that."

Mum's the word

It's not that Curt Schilling and his team are reluctant to talk about Copernicus; on the contrary. When asked how much they were looking forward to being completely open about it, Schilling laughed and said, "You have NO idea."

The issue, Schilling explained, is one of timing and of expectations. "I understand why you can't," he said. "I'm a gamer my whole life, I've played and I've been burned. I've waited for a lot of games to come out through two and three years of hype, and I built up those expectations, and then I spent the first hour in that game looking for things that didn't exist that they told me would be in there -- instead of just playing the game. And that is something we will not do. We will keep my mouth shut so you don't spend that first hour looking for things that didn't make it."

We asked how much they're using Reckoning as a testing ground for the MMO in terms of systems and ideas, and the response was adamantly against that notion. "That would be the height of stupidity," Schilling said. "It's our first product. We have to make you think of us the way you think of Blizzard. We'll never get a second chance to make a first impression."

"The systems in a RPG and the systems in a MMO are different," Salvatore added.

That doesn't mean that everything's different, they clarified, as it's important for the UI, icons and art assets to provide a comfortable bridge between the titles. It's just that it can't go much deeper than that with the game design, otherwise the single-player RPG would end up shortchanged compared to the MMO, or vice-versa.

One of their "pie-in-the-sky" ideas was to create guilds in Reckoning, although they didn't confirm whether this was to happen or not.

This article was originally published on Massively.