Darkspore Day Recap from Maxis Studios

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Just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco and down the street from
Pixar's studios lies a nondescript brick building. The area might have
been a prosperous medium commercial zone in the signature games made by
the developer housed within,  but we were in town to check out
another one of Maxis's unique creations: style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore.



First, we should clear up some misconceptions. Quickly approaching
release on April 26th (US), style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
may well be one of the most misunderstood games in recent history. The
title invites comparisons to the games balefully shallow predecessor, style="font-style: italic;">Spore,
yet only a little of the art style and a stripped down version of the
creature creator were carried forward. What's more, only one of the
devs we talked to was ex- style="font-style: italic;">Spore;
the bulk came from games like style="font-style: italic;">Diablo 2,
the Magic:
The Gathering TCG
, and, most
numerously (and most curiously), style="font-style: italic;">The Godfather 2.



Darkspore's
sometimes cartoony, decidedly non-humanoid characters and Pokemon-esque
collect ‘em all nature of it's heroes have lead some to think
Darkspore
is a kid-targeted title, but the opt-out blood and violence, not to
mention the dizzying depth of the game and 100+ hour complete, will
dispell such notions. MOBA comparisons are also rife, perhaps since
each hero has a short stack of three unique abilities (plus a passive
ability, a squad ability, and a modest amount of temporary in-board
progression via the Catalyst system - more on that later), but no
creeps or bases are to be found in game.


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Hero - Goliath

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Hero - Magnos

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Hero - Sage



Instead, you'll march through maps called by names reminiscent of those
in an ancient platformer (1-1, 2-2, all the way to 18-4, with ten
“star” levels for each fourth major level),
hot-swapping heroes (a la style="font-style: italic;">Braid)
as you push through randomized maps as you might a dungeon crawler, but
don't think you can clickety click and healpot your way to success. style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
is all about knowing your heroes and having fast tactical reflexes to
match the ability and hero to the situation.



So, perhaps the simplest definition is best: Maxis calls style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
an action RPG, and so will we. But style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
is an action RPG produced by natural selection of some of the most
interesting traits from a load of great games, regardless of genre.



First up at the studio, we were ushered to a conference room
resplendant with 8 demo stations. Executive Producer Mike Perry
welcomed us and walked us through the schedule, hosting a short Maxis
trivia session to see who'd get e chance to flip the open beta switch
at noon that day. We performed pitifully (for any time-travelling D-Day
attendees: SimEarth
was Maxis's second title, Will Wright announced style="font-style: italic;">Spore
at GDC 2005, and The Corruptor is the name of style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore's
archvillain) but fortunately a login problem prevented a throw down to
see who got to change that debug page "0" to a "1" and thus allow the
Steam hordes into beta.


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Teleporters must be cleared of
enemies before use, hindering speedruns.

On the tour of the office, we stopped by the art and level design pit
for a sneak peek of TNX, a planet that will be released after launch.
Artist Brian Vanderlust began with a graybox of the level and stepped
us through the process of realizing the environment in the game's
proprietary engine, revealing a lush environment featuring high vistas
and a second vertical layer, pebbled with ruins of what seemed like a
lost technological civilization. Though each level represents roughly a
10-15 minute playthrough, Brian explained that the rough cut takes the
team about a month to produce, with several additional months for
polish.



Level Designer Dale Dowd showed us how he was quickly able to take a
map drawn up in a tool similar to Adobe Illustrator quickly to 3D using
in house EA tools, saving time on painstaking modeling, and focusing
more on tasks like placing mobs and pathing. Mike Perry explained that
one of modern EA's goals is to get to the playable stage as fast as
possible to see if what's in-process is actually fun, and such tools
help turn Dale into a one-man level building machine.



Our next stop was the gameplay pit, where Designer Lauren McHugh crafts
and adjusts AI behavior by modifying XML files and seeing how the
results shake out i in real time inside the game engine. Before our
eyes she tinkered with the radius and intensity of the area-of-effect
Thunderstrike effect’s raidus and intensity, explaining that
each of the hundred NPC enemies (and countless variants) gets their own
complete combat shakedown. It’s a subtle touch that really
comes through as you play the game; trash mobs heal and buff each
other, others devour corpses or power each other up to become elite,
and in short even the smaller encounters play like semi-scripted
content.


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Obelisks are Darkspore's
treasure chests, but using Health Obelisks could lead to fewer medals
at the end of the level.

Designer Daniel Kline showed us the drop system put in as a response to
feedback. Darkspore
has a player agnostic auto-loot system - loot is doled out in co-op
play randomly, meaning that your friend might get some loot that you
want in the worst way. style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
doesn’t offer a need-greed system because, as Lead Designer
Paul Sottosanti explained, Maxis felt such a system might slow down the
quick map playthroughs that they were aiming for. That, plus every
piece of loot in the game is potentially a “need”
– since some heroes are better suited to certain maps or PvP
vs. PvE than others. As a compromise, Daniel added a way for players to
drop the loot that they’ve acquired, so long as its in the
same level.



Paul, with the copious use of Excel workbooks, showed us how the team
is tracking and tweaking every aspect of the gameplay, from addressing
speedruns through epic drop rates and locked teleporters to loot
creativity and customization at endgame. As Paul ticked through the
myriad RPG pitfalls that style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
is intelligently addressing, it occurred to me that style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
isn’t just a solid action RPG, it’s also a highly
innovative RPG – perhaps the most innovative one since D2
established itself as the once and future pinnacle of the genre. Look
for an interview with Paul on just this topic next week.



After lunch, we returned to the arena for an extended playsession. The
accounts we were given had all levels through 15-4 unlocked, an
assortment of good equipment, and the alpha and beta forms of the 25
characters unlocked. Heroes have 4 forms with one different ability for
each, but all 100 heroes remain viable throughout the game with the
purchase of stat cap increases.



After I got thoroughly thrashed on 6-1, Paul suggested I step back to
5-1, explaining that 6-1 through 6-4 constituted the very end of the
campaign. Players may keep playing for 7-1 through 12-4 for loot and
prestige, and these are called Invasion levels. Finally, 13.1 through
18.4 are apocalypse levels. The difficulty ramps up tremendously for
Invasion and then again for Apocalypse – so much so that only
one person outside Maxis has been known to beat 18-4 (though Paul was
quick to note that few testers have been given access to the Invasion
and Apocalypse Levels).


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There's nowhere to hide in the
PvP arenas, but some have hazards like plasma vents.

I played through 5-1 to 5-3 before being summoned away to try my hand
at an Elite NPC design contest. We were given access to the internal
NPC tools – basically a souped-up style="font-style: italic;">Spore
creature creator – and a number of templates. I based the
creature that would come to be named Evil Bolo Tie on a stringy
blob-like thing, and had no delusions of winning the contest
– which was to see your creation as an elite mob in-game.



The last hour of the visit was devoted to a style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
PvP Tournament. Fortunately I was paired with Eric Tipton from Gosu
Crew – the beta tester and organization whose names literally
appear as the header of filled QA whiteboards at Maxis.



In PvE, you have to be careful not to match types with enemies (quantum
vs. quantum, necro vs. necro, etc. since like enemies deal double the
damage) but in PvP this penalty is removed. Nevertheless, PvP was
intense, and really required a knowledge of heroes and abilities. The
key was to bring a quiver of diverse heroes and switch out to match
your opponents. So, for example, if your opponent starts pestering you
with a ranged character, you might want to switch to a character like
Magnos, a quantum sentinel (or tank) that can manipulate gravity to
reel in far-off opponents to melee range.



Thanks to Eric’s thorough knowledge of the game and fast hero
editing/equipping, we won through to the semi-finals but lost to Chris
from ZAM
and Kyle from href="http://www.rpgfan.com/">RPGFan.
After winning our way through the loser’s bracket, we got a
rematch though – and lost again. Eric manfully forgot to
equip his second squad of heroes (losers are allowed to switch squads
after a match, but winners aren’t), thereby removing the
blame that should rightfully have been mine. The downside was that we
played more matches than anyone, and my hands were shaking with the
intensity of each successive game. Fortunately nerve-soothing libations
were poured soon after.



My thanks to the style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
team at Maxis for a great and entertaining inside look at one of this
spring’s definitive gaming highlights. style="font-style: italic;">Darkspore
(official
site
) is set to release on April
26th in the US and April 28th in the UK.



To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Darkspore Game Page.

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