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Exploring the Kingdoms of Amalur with Big Huge Games' Sean Dunn


It wasn't that long ago that Big Huge Games was on the edge of oblivion. THQ put the studio up for sale in 2009, placing its projects and the studio itself in jeopardy. As fate would have it, Curt Schilling's 38 Studios swept in to acquire the ailing developer. Its major project, once on the chopping block, eventually became Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which released earlier this month to largely favorable reviews.

So, how does a studio go from the brink of closure to critical success? How does Big Huge Games prevent another potential disaster, and where does it go from here? Big Huge Games general manager Sean Dunn told us.

The first question: what has Big Huge Games learned from its near-death experience? How does it avoid repeating its own history? Dunn has been with Big Huge for about a year and a half now, and he notes that "one of the things that drew me to Big Huge was the fact that they'd gone through all these trials and tribulations, and the entire team was still there."

We feel that we're in a really, really strong position.

Prior to joining the studio, Dunn had worked with Big Huge through THQ. He visited the studio often and got to know the team. After Big Huge nearly collapsed, and after 38 Studios acquired the company, Dunn was offered a position. Returning to the studio, he was surprised by what he saw. "When I was asked by Curt to come out and interview for the position, I'd expected to see an entirely different team of people there. You know, the games industry is rough, and a lot of times a stiff wind blows and half the studio leaves for fear of their jobs." But that wasn't the case for Big Huge. "When I came in for the interview, the entire team was pretty much still there." Dunn then recognized "something special" about the team, which led him to accept the position -- and eventually led to Reckoning actually making it to market via EA's Partners program, despite the studio's hardships.

Now that Reckoning has made a positive critical splash, Dunn notes that it is selling well, though he can't offer concrete numbers. So what of the future of the franchise? Todd McFarlane, one of the major names attached to Reckoning, has said that a sequel is dependent on word of mouth. While Dunn won't go into hard numbers needed to spur a sequel, he notes that publishers look for certain elements. "I can't speak for EA at this point, but just from my experience, looking at where the studio is, we're kind of in the perfect position."

The studio owns all of its own technology -- geared toward making open world RPGs -- and the team has its first big project under its belt. "We came in on time and on budget, and so all of those things are really favorable for the studio, so we really have no real concerns at this point," says Dunn, "we feel that we're in a really, really strong position."

Switching gears to Reckoning itself, I ask if Dunn had anything to add to Curt Schilling's comments regarding the "online pass" downloadable content included in new copies of Reckoning. The DLC upset some gamers, who saw the content as something that should have been included with the game to begin with. Schilling has stated that the DLC was intended as an incentive for fans, most notably those who "commit to us with their time and money when it benefits [38 Studios]."

Dunn doesn't have much to add to Schilling's comments. "It's interesting how perspectives of developers and gamers can sometimes slip sideways," he says, adding that the team was sure that gamers would see the extra content as a positive thing. He laughingly admits that assumption "may have been a little bit of a miscalculation on our part." Still, he stresses that Big Huge isn't out to "suck extra pennies" from its customers.

Beyond Reckoning, I ask about 38 Studios' other project, an MMO set in the Kingdoms of Amalur universe. Does the MMO depend on the success of Reckoning? Are the projects completely separate? "Well, I think obviously, if [Reckoning] came out, and were to tank and were to suck, it would probably put some stress on the franchise as a whole." That said, the bearing Reckoning has on the MMO, says Dunn, is in getting the Amalur name into the public eye. "It's letting people taste what is in store," he says, "all of the fiction that we pull for Reckoning comes from the intellectual property's kind of library of information -- you know, the giant R.A. Salvatore bible of story."

Regarding the lore and the involvement of fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, I ask if the team would consider expanding Kingdoms of Amalur beyond games, especially in an industry where major releases are accompanied by books, comics and even straight-to-DVD movies. "I'd love to see that type of stuff, and I can't talk about any plans that have not been announced, but there are certain things that make perfect sense and certain things that don't make sense." Dunn mentions the Todd McFarlane troll statuettes for special editions of Reckoning as a good example. "That's the type of stuff that we're interested in doing," he says, "and it has to be really high quality and it has to be really meaningful for the fans." So don't expect any Amalur Pillow Pets.

"Telemetry here is really important for us," he says, noting that Reckoning allows players to share their in-game statistics with 38 Studios. The developer uses that information to monitor how players are actually playing Reckoning, giving the team insight on how to improve future content. It's also "really fun to watch," says Dunn. Big Huge has a live, real-time feed of Reckoning information in the studio. "At least we did until yesterday," says Dunn. "Yesterday" was February 14, "when the numbers then got too big and broke everything."

In other words, only a week after launch, players had literally accomplished so much that Reckoning stats literally became too vast to track. Dunn says the team is working to get the feed working again. As the developer of a brand new IP, there are definitely worse problems to have.

You can listen to this interview in full on Episode 27 of the Joystiq Show.

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