Electronic Arts is set to release the first of what is expected to be many journeys set in the fantasy world of Amalur. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a role-playing game for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 that was developed by 38 Studios and its Baltimore game company, Big Huge Games. The architect overseeing this new kingdom is baseball legend Curt Schilling, who has transitioned from a Hall of Fame pitching career into the head of a growing multimedia franchise.
Co.Create spoke with Schilling and his creative partners, celebrated Spawn comic artist Todd McFarlane and best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore, about how the three diverse talents–and a supporting cast of game artists-worked together to forge a massive fantasy world.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a third-person, combat-intense role playing game set in a lush and colorful fantasy world, which includes beautiful open world environments like koi filled lakes with waterfalls and deep, dark mines inhabited by monstrous creatures. Every aspect of the game is customizable, allowing players to create their own unique character, arm them, and then hone combat using magic, melee, and ranged attacks.
According to McFarlane, Amalur first took seed at a baseball game–Schilling flew Salvatore and McFarlane to Kansas City on August 8, 2006 to watch the Red Sox take on the Royals.
“Curt told us he was thinking about his post-athletic career and he had this seed of an idea for an MMO game called Amalur and he needed somebody to come in and write a story to it and to help put some visuals to it,” says McFarlane. “R.A. and I heard the pitch and talked to each other away from Curt. We both said the same thing–that if we’re going to jump in, we’re going to jump in full force and not just do it on a casual level.”
Neither of the three creative leads who met at Kauffman Stadium that day had ever made a game from scratch before. But Schilling, a lifelong MMO gamer and founder of 38 Studios, knew that the key to creating Amalur was to have a rich story and mesmerizing visuals. Schilling said that he understood that games are incredibly hard to make and this work requires as much team effort as anything he’s ever done. With Salvatore (creative director) and McFarlane (executive art director) on board at 38 Studios full-time, a 10,000-year history for the fantasy world was written.
“Whenever you’re writing a book or creating a movie or a game, your first task is to get the reader/audience/player to suspend disbelief, to buy into the logic and boundaries of your world, even though those boundaries might include things like dragons and magic,” says Salvatore. “To do that, you need long threads–of history and culture. It’s not enough to say there are orcs or halflings or dark elves. Where did they come from? What’s their role in the world? How do the cultures interact, and why? Putting all of these things in place is what defines an IP for whatever medium or media you choose to present it. The deep threads mean immersion, and immersion means that you’ve engaged your audience on an emotional level. That’s a win for everyone involved.”
Schilling has taken more of a management role since Salvatore came on board, allowing his talent to do what it does best. “I’ve tried very hard to define what I bring to the table and stay out of the stuff my team is better at than I am, which is almost everything at this point,” he says.
While work was underway on the full-fledged MMO game, which is codenamed Project Copernicus, Schilling acquired game studio Big Huge Games in May 2009. McFarlane said it was then that work on the first RPG, Reckoning, began full-time. The trio was now collaborating with game industry veteran Ken Rolston, who had helped turn RPG games Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion into international blockbusters.
“From the past, I learned that planning, then producing, the vast content needed for a great single-player RPG is the limiting factor for success,” said Rolston. “Based on wisdom earned through bitter experience, we planned ambitiously, but shrewdly. We decided we must have one glittering, fan-fantasy-titillating feature that totally overwhelms all predecessors. We decided to make combat that feature.”
With Rolston in Baltimore, McFarlane in Glendale, Arizona, Salvatore in Massachusetts, and Schilling in Providence, Rhode Island, collaborating on this fantasy world involved a lot of travel and teleconferencing. McFarlane says his day-to-day work included either flying into Boston or Baltimore and having direct conversations with the group or using GoToMeeting.com at least once or twice a week as he oversaw the 15 different specialized art departments that were bringing every detailed aspect of the game’s world to life.
“If you ask 10 RPG fans what they like about a game, you’ll get 10 different answers,” says McFarlane. “Because people enjoy games for different reasons, I focused each of my 15 teams on delivering an excellent experience. We essentially became game developer communists, where every aspect of the game, or touch point into the world, was of equal importance and needed to shine.”
Salvatore worked extensively with McFarlane and his art team on the look of Amalur from the very early days. When Big Huge Games came aboard and began putting those assets onto their amazing game engine, then began expanding that pool of assets, McFarlane worked with them for consistency, and for amazing monsters and animation.
“Curt’s been involved in every bit of the process from the beginning, but like me and Todd, he knows his limitations and place,” said Salvatore. “And I mean it when I say, ‘Like me and Todd.’ The point is, we hired/acquired incredibly talented people who weren’t brought in to fall lockstep into our world, but to add to it, expand it, make it beautiful and incredible. So Todd and I became the arbiters of the boundaries, I guess, and the editors, whose job was to pull bigger things from our team.”
Rolston said that every new feature the team dreamed up for Reckoning had to fit smoothly into the greater setting of the franchise, since this game is a very small part of the fantasy world. He said the greater setting gave greater weight and significance to each narrative and art design detail in Reckoning.
“It has a lot to do with the peculiar qualities of the art and design teams in Baltimore and Providence, and how well they worked together,” said Rolston. “Our team members are passionate, clever, and energetic… but great listeners, and always eager to embrace charming new ideas and to piggyback on top of new proposals.”
One of the things that separates the new game from other RPGs is its Destiny system, which allows players to evolve their character as they explore the deep storyline. “Reckoning is the ‘first game ever’ of its kind,” said Schilling. “I do believe tons of games have tried to be everything to everyone, and ended up nothing to anyone. We’ve ‘pulled it off’ so to speak. If you love deep, lore-rich story-driven RPGs, there is a deep immersive multi-hundred hour game here for you. Reckoning has gotten the one thing most other games need but never get, and that’s time to age and perfect the tiniest of details.”
With Electronic Arts launching Reckoning around the globe on February 7, Salvatore, McFarlane, and Schilling focus their attention to the MMO game and the broader franchise. There are plans to explore other parts of this fantasy realm through comic books, television shows, and even movies down the line.