Darkspore Day Recap from Maxis Studios

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: Darkspore.

First, we should clear up some misconceptions. Quickly approaching release on April 26th (US), Darkspore may well be one of the most misunderstood games in recent history. The title invites comparisons to the games balefully shallow predecessor, 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-Spore; the bulk came from games like Diablo 2, the Magic: The Gathering TCG, and, most numerously (and most curiously), 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.

Hero - Goliath

Hero - Magnos

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 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. 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 Darkspore an action RPG, and so will we. But 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 Spore at GDC 2005, and The Corruptor is the name of 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.

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.

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. 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 Darkspore is intelligently addressing, it occurred to me that 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).

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 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 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 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 Darkspore team at Maxis for a great and entertaining inside look at one of this spring’s definitive gaming highlights. 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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