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Games Day '09: Lands of the Dead design discussion with Gabe Amatangelo and Jeff Skalski


After saying goodbye to Paul and Josh, I soon found myself sitting down with Gabe Amatangelo, the senior designer on Land of the Dead, and Jeff Skalski, the RvR team lead, with the task of getting inside the Land of the Dead development process.

What I got were some great insights into how testing and development works at Mythic Entertainment, as well as some inside facts on Land of the Dead and some great reasons for why players should come back and try out some WAR. Interested in what sparked the movement to an action RPG dynamic? Wondering what features may not have made the final Land of the Dead cut? All of that and more is inside this Games Day interview.

So guys, I want to know, what's your favorite part about this new expansion?

Gabe: I love the action RPG feel added to the gameplay mechanics. It makes it into a rich experience by default and it allows us to leverage so many different things once we move into that genre. Like you saw before, the traps, the locust swarms, those dynamics throughout offer a unique gameplay experience that makes it my favorite part.

Jeff: My favorite has to be the tension players are going to feel when going through the content in Land of the Dead. You never know when your enemies are going to swarm in and take you out. It's that watching out for the purge, defending against the invaders, seeing how long you can hold off against them in the Tomb of the Vulture Lord -- that's what I'm excited about. No place to hide...

Gabe: ...the instance invasions...

Jeff: ...Yeah, I'm hoping it works out pretty well. I'm excited to see how to leverage that and add more to the game.

So I'm guessing a lot of testing and titration is going on right now...

Gabe: Oh, we're in the midst of it. Our testing schedule for Land of the Dead is much greater than anything else right now.

How has this new, aggressive testing been working out?

Gabe: We're catching many more of the nuances in all the different systems than before. Everything is a gradient in the player experience and if there's a hiccup it could ruin the experience as a whole. So, being able to cover that base is big for us.

Jeff: I think as developers you tend to focus so much on whatever it is that you're responsible for that you develop blinders and just don't see the flaws anymore. Then, when you start putting that content in front of people who have never seen it, whether they're new to the MMO genre or experienced players, you start picking up all this different stuff. Things like not giving the player enough information, or why is the player wandering off over here and doing this, or this encounter is too challenging for six people. All of these things we've been catching aggressively over the last month doing internal testing with the devs, and now we're just moving into public testing with the players.

Gabe: There's also the element of coordination between different departments when you're developing these things, like engineering, art, and design. This testing lets you make sure that everything is synced up. At times we have things designed a certain way, but engineering didn't quite support it or may have gone in a different direction. With this, we can go, "Ok, so let's pick that up and get it right so the experience is right."

Why the push towards the action RPG style? That was actually surprising, for me, to hear in a genre filled with button mashing motionless encounters.

Gabe: Well, I've been playing MMOs since they were MUDs, and I've been seeing how when technology evolves so does all the different things we're able to do. I've always loved single player RPGs, action RPGs, I love that whole setting. So I wanted to do that and the community wanted to see us elevate the action as well.

But you have to do it carefully. You can't compromise the MMO systems. You can't make it suddenly into a twitch game. You want to meld in the experience of an action RPG so it feels like you're having an adventure. Every time you go in something different could happen. When you're in there with different players, like friends on Ventrilo, I can picture them trying to go through the [swinging blade] pendulum trap. Then you learn the pendulum trap and you get through it, but then you bring new friends and you can completely enjoy watching them going through the experience. You can laugh while they get severed in half and you try to coach them through it.

Then you have things like running away from the locust swarm and seeing your buddy get caught by skeletons, then you have to try to help free him so you can both get away. It's capitalizing on that action RPG social element, but it's not changing it from the MMO core.

And the theme! The theme really inspired this type of gameplay. It's the Egyptian setting, Mesopotamian influences, treasure hunting, Indiana Jones, Zelda type stuff -- all of that solidified our decision.

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