A Revolution Through Visionaries - How 38 Studios Hopes to Change Lives

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kingdoms of amalur: reckoning
Exploring a dungeon in Reckoning.
What makes a great game? Defining that could take an entire series of articles and more words than the Internet can hold. For some it would be graphics, for others it would be story. However there is a simple answer to that question. No matter what game you prefer and for whatever reasons, the root is always the same. What makes a great game? Its visionaries and the team.

When it comes to visionaries it's hard to argue that 38 Studios has anything but the cream of the crop. We've seen their team and we've seen what they've done in the past. Earlier this year I was able to join the quad of minds behind the plans at the Studio in a panel discussion. What ensued was nothing short of inspirational to any game enthusiast.

Of course, when you have a team of all-stars on any panel it's hard not to get swept away. In attendance to discuss the vision behind 38 Studios was the Studio's founder, Curt Schilling, along with Todd McFarlane of Spawn and other comic book fame (as well as some major motion pictures), RA Salvatore best known for his NY Times best selling Dungeons & Dragons novels featuring the iconic Drizzt, and Ken Rolston of Morrowind and Oblivion fame.

The All-Stars

38 Studios
Curt Schilling

38 Studios
Todd McFarlane

38 Studios
Ken Rolston

38 Studios
R. A. Salvatore

Schilling opened the discussion by outlining his gaming history and his recruitment strategy when he went to form the Studio. Hardcore gaming, he said, was always a commitment to him more than it was a play style. It was something he did whenever he didn't have a ball in hand. He was a laptop collector, always with the latest and greatest, and he'd be at those laptops whenever he had the chance so he could play the video games he enjoyed.

The company was founded on a Teamspeak server in an EverQuest raid channel. Some of the founders were in the same guild. After discussing it for some time, Schilling wanted to take the next step by taking action. From his formidable baseball career ending as a famed pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, he understood the nuances and intricacies of team play. As such, he wanted the best team he could get, so he approached it as he would have a fantasy sport team. He wanted the number one picks, and he went after them.

Schilling had known Todd McFarlane for 11 years up to that point, so getting him on board was not difficult. Later, McFarlane would bring his celebrated creative mind to the artistic direction of the team.

kingdoms of amalur: reckoning
Fighting a troll!

""We want a revolution in the genre," said Rolston. "The thing that makes a revolution possible is by doing what everyone else says is impossible.""
Next up, they needed someone who could flesh out a captivating story and universe. There really was only one person Schilling wanted for that spot, and that was RA Salvatore. Unsure of whether or not Salvatore would be up for the project, Schilling contacted his PR agent to try to get a hold of him. Soon enough he was on the phone with Salvatore.

"I can't believe I'm talking to you!" Schilling said when he first connected with Salvatore. And Salvatore said the same thing: "I can't believe I'm talking to YOU!"

Schilling was pitching against Kansas on opening day, and that night he stayed up until 7am to put the proposal together for Salvatore. It didn't take long after that before Salvatore was on the team and committed to plotting out the story, history, and lore of Amalur.

At that point the team was looking for a playground, and Salvatore was going to be the man to provide it. He created the entire history of the new world - all 10,000 years of it. When he presented it to the rest of the team, Schilling said it was like hearing JRR Tolkien tell the story of The Lord of the Rings.

kingdoms of amalur: reckoning
The Well of Souls.

Over the next few months and years, Schilling aimed to make working at 38 Studios incomparable to anything else. He wanted no better working environment in the world. "When employees matter and know they can make a difference, they work with a passion," said Schilling. His primary job now is to protect that environment to ensure it remains a place where its employees want to stay.

McFarlane was busy at work too. He went to it by recruiting a lot of young artists. He would watch them at noon as they would take a break and go play video games. As he watched, he asked questions, mainly "why not do this better?" When he presented that philosophy at one of the company's meetings he asked that very question. "There are only three things that would stop anyone from doing things better: money, time and technology," he said. Were any of these obstacles that couldn't be overcome by 38 Studios? When the question was asked, there was a pregnant pause. The team then knew there was nothing holding them back, and they could do better than what was already out there.

That's been McFarlane's philosophy throughout his career, he admitted. He's made his own personal success by using what already exists and just making it a little bit better in some way. As an example we can look at one of his signature scenes in his movies. Action combat exists in abundance, but in one example he made it just a little better by slowing the motion down almost to a pause just before a devastating punch or hit on the screen. "We can just make it a little more fun, visually," he said.

So how does his philosophy translate to the average viewer, or player? McFarlane illustrated by targeting the average person--the kind of person who says: "I don't know art, but I know what I like." The goal is to make it so that type of person will say "I like that better." They may not be able to explain why, but that's not what McFarlane is shooting for. He just wants them to like it better; he'll worry about the whys and hows. He wants to create those moments in the game which he refers to as the "whoah factor." Those are the times when players will play the game and see something on screen that causes them to stop and shout "whoah! Fred, come in here, you gotta' see this!"

kingdoms of amalur: reckoning
A Whoah! moment in combat!

For McFarlane, the starting point is simple: make humans interesting. He feels if one can do that, everything else is chump change. He noted that drawing the action scenes in Spiderman comics was the easy part. The hard part was those scenes with Aunt May sitting at a table. Drawing those panels could have been rigid, and throw-away, but he felt they needed to be interesting. So when he brings new talent into the team, he'll ask that they draw the hard stuff first. He feels if they start on the big fun stuff, it's hard to go back and do the normal average characters and environments.

This approach works for Salvatore too, as he creates the world. Salvatore will not allow any of his team to use the phrase "it's magic." Everything needs to have a reason and a history to it in the world, which echoes McFarlane's attention to detail. Salvatore doesn't view this as a limitation on creativity, but rather that it just involves more work.

For Salvatore, the challenge is in the suspension of disbelief. The world is certainly a beautiful place with a lot of action, but the story needs consistency and this is achieved through the details. Why is that inn there? What is the history of these ruins? The answers are all in the game and nothing "is just magic." Taking this approach, Salvatore finds it easier to draw the audience in.

It's not just limited to the environments either. In the Studio's upcoming Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, even the death mechanic has story and reason. Why does a player seemingly magically respawn after death? The Well of Souls holds the answer and is in fact an integral part of the story.

kingdoms of amalur: reckoning
The forest kobolds look bad-ass!

This approach brings functionality to the game through lore and poses implications on world structure. How does the Well of Souls impact religions and social structures within the world? What does it mean for the mother of a dead child? Does she want to live forever?

"At that point the team was looking for a playground, and Salvatore was going to be the man to provide it. He created the entire history of the new world - all 10,000 years of it. When he presented it to the rest of the team, Schilling said it was like hearing JRR Tolkien tell the story of The Lord of the Rings."
Through these details in the story, designing the game becomes much easier, Salvatore explained. The quest lines reflect a myriad of implications on the world from the Well of Souls alone. If the designers know the story behind the Well, the rest of the game is easy to make sense while designing it.

These kinds of philosophies are the strength of the visionaries at 38 Studios. Ken Rolston, Executive Design Director recognizes this. "The best visionary needs high egocentricity but also the desire to teach," he said at the panel. And that's precisely what the team is good at doing. They have a sizable staff working on their games and under the leadership of Schilling, McFarlane, Salvatore and Rolston, the team is able to not only develop a promising game, but learn how to do design well in the process.

"We want a revolution in the genre," said Rolston. "The thing that makes a revolution possible is by doing what everyone else says is impossible." Though it may have been more logical and cheaper to design a game using an existing IP and avoiding the MMOG market, the Studio was ready to take on the challenge.

"We're not making a game to make money," Schilling stated. "We want to make something that will change people's lives."

kingdoms of amalur: reckoning
The world of Amalur looks lived-in and not shiny new.

It was easy to see that lives had been changed already within the Studio. Will it change the lives of gamers? Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the Studio's single player title, is aiming to launch some time in 2012, and the MMOG sometime after that. But the plans are to use the IP in several games over the years, as well as comics and/or books. With the names behind the process, who knows? It could very well change our lives at home soon.

Anyone can make a video game. But it takes a real visionary to impact our lives.
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