By John Walker on August 3rd, 2011 at 11:03 am.
Crate Entertainment, an indie development studio born out of the ashes of Titan Quest creators Iron Lore, have been working on their first major project for a while now. Grim Dawn, built using the tech behind Titan Quest, will hopefully be entering alpha at some point this year, and it’s a game we’re extremely excited to see. So we caught up with Crate’s core man, Arthur Bruno, to learn more. In a wonderful interview he tells us about the fall of Iron Lore, and the birth of Crate, explains where Titan Quest fell short, and how Grim Dawn is not attempting to appeal to casual players. In fact, it’s going to be actively hostile toward them. And he introduces us to the concept of rainbow farting machines.
RPS: Can you explain a little about how Iron Lore came to an end, and then how Crate began?
Arthur Bruno: There were many decisions and factors within and outside the studio’s control that lead directly or indirectly, over the course of several years, to the studio’s ultimate demise. In some ways it is similar to when an individual suffers some misfortune like a car accident and then looks back and thinks about how the whole terrible event could have been averted if any number of little, seemingly innocuous events or decisions had played out differently. “If only that other guy had been going the speed limit, if only I hadn’t stopped to get the coffee that spilled in my lap and distracted me, if only my boss hadn’t kept me at work late to fill out my TPS reports.”
Ultimately though, all the decisions the company made and all the events that transpired, lead to a situation where Iron Lore couldn’t survive a gap between projects. This is generally what has occurred when a seemingly healthy independent studio suddenly vanishes after releasing a game.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that many, if not most independent studios, make little or no money off the actual sales of games they develop. If you take the case of Titan Quest and Immortal Throne, information I’ve been given put the combined sales over a million copies in late 2008. At that time I heard that it had reached profitability for THQ. Since then it has continued to do surprisingly well in digital sales given its age. Yet, the owners of Iron Lore never and probably will never receive a royalty payment due to the structure of the funding deal.
Studios survive by jumping right from one publisher funded project to the next and try to build enough of a profit margin into their development budgets that they can potentially survive a few months between funded projects. Supporting a thirty person development team, similar to what Iron Lore and most mid-sized studios employ can cost $300,000 a month or more when you add up salaries, office rent, taxes, and other operating costs. Those costs don’t all stop after the last publisher payment is cashed and until funding starts for a new game, the studio is just burning through whatever they’ve managed to stash away.
It generally takes a hit game before a studio can build up enough of a nest-egg that there is some breathing room in this cycle. Until that happens, the count-down to bankruptcy is always running and each new funded project just puts a little more time on the clock. For a variety of reasons, some just bad luck, Iron Lore couldn’t line up that next project fast enough and the clock ran out…
RPS: Were you happy with Titan Quest? Was there anything about it you wished you could have done but couldn’t?
Bruno: Yes and no. Over time the game went on to sell rather well considering the slow start it had. Given how few games are profitable for publishers, I have to think Titan Quest was at least a success in that regard. I also continue to be amazed at how long some fans have been playing the game and the fact that the number of people playing seems to still be growing so long after release. Although it is now barely hanging on, you can still often see it among the top 100 games by players on Steam. So yeah, Iron Lore is gone but I do think Titan Quest turned out to be a game that I’m proud to have worked on.
There are of course many things I wish we could have done differently or better. I could probably write an entire dissertation about it. One of the biggest things I would have liked to improve was the general presentation and feel of the game. God of War’s dark and edgy feel was a much sexier way to sell mythology to people. You can see our obvious attempt to course correct as much as we were allowed to in the difference between the Titan Quest and Immortal Throne box art and the atmosphere of the games overall. The atmosphere of the original game was seriously lacking a sense of dread and mystery. It was just sort of like “Oh hai! Welcome to ancient Greece, btw there are some monsters around.”
I believe this all impacted people’s early perception of what the game was about and didn’t help us much when it came to marketing. Regardless of features or other information about the game, I think at some level people just sort of look at the material available, the screenshots, the box art on the store shelf, and quickly form an impression of what the game is. If that superficial impression isn’t appealing enough, they won’t be interested in learning more and you’ve lost them. Even if they would have loved the game, they will never know it unless sometime down the road, someone recommends it to them or they have some cause to re-examine it. I think Titan Quest as a franchise really failed in this regard. I’ve read so many stories about people who initially passed up Titan Quest but then ended up playing it years later and loved it. This is something we’ve been really conscious of in designing the look and atmosphere of Grim Dawn… Hell, even the name!
Another big issue with Titan Quest was the feel and pacing of combat. One of the most frequent complaints I’ve seen about Titan Quest was that people felt like combat was slow and attacks had no real sense of power or impact. A lot of this stems from a lack of satisfying combat effects, hit reactions and death effects. The mandate that the game stay within an “E for everyone” or “T for teen” rating really restricted us here. It was rather funny when the original box shipped with an “M for mature” rating because the rating board decided the nymph pet was too scantily clad even though no actual naughty parts were showing and it was tiny on-screen. That eventually got amended.
I could go on and on but the last, most significant thing to me was the lack of secure multiplayer. THQ just didn’t want to invest the money for that. The previous two issues are things we’ve greatly improved upon for Grim Dawn but secure multiplayer is still something that eludes us due to the cost – for now… If the game is successful enough, this is something we will be keen to develop in the future.
Did you think about developing something other than an ARPG when you started Crate?
Bruno: Well, originally we set out to pitch the last game we had started developing at Iron Lore, which was a multi-platform, open-world RPG with action-style combat. It was sort of a Gears of War meets Oblivion. We had a demo for Xbox 360 showing off PvP combat and our gruesome “overkill” system. It was pretty damn fun, but it also came with a relatively large price-tag. A few publishers had been very interested when we were pitching it at Iron Lore but, ultimately, they couldn’t stay alive long enough to see a deal through. For Crate, it was quite a tough sell trying to convince publishers to invest that much in a small start-up studio during a time of economic crisis. As the world economy went down the toilet and publisher funding dried up even for established studios, we decided it was an impossible mission.
It was a tough time and I actually considered calling it quits. The prospect of getting any funding to do anything seemed dreary at best and we had no programmer, so it didn’t seem like we could do much by ourselves. It was at that point that I learned the owners of Iron Lore had moved on to other things and had no plans to use the Titan Quest engine. I also noticed that the number of active users on titanquest.net had grown dramatically over the years instead of declining as you’d typically expect. I realized there were a lot of Titan Quest fans who wanted another game, so I went to talk to the Iron Lore owners and worked out a deal for the rights to the engine.
With a complete engine and toolset, we were able to begin building a new game straight away. A few months down the road we got a programmer on board, which has allowed us to make a lot of improvements and add a bunch of very cool new features. Over time, we found more outside help, mainly from ex-Iron Lore colleagues and some other volunteers and Grim Dawn slowly took shape.
So, our return to ARPG was really sort of a natural progression. Perhaps you could call it fate? It is my favourite genre, alongside RTS, and I feel like I have unfinished business here after Titan Quest, so I’m quite pleased to be working on ARPG’s again.
RPS: Grim Dawn isn’t set on Earth, nor during a period of recognised mythology. So can you explain a bit about the process of coming up with your world and its history?
Bruno: Creating fictional worlds has long been a sort of hobby of mine ever since a relative bought me Lord of the Rings when I was about ten or eleven. When I finished the books, probably for the fifth time, I wanted more. Alas, there wasn’t much else that really compared to Tolkien at the time, so I set about planning my own epic fantasy novel… Mainly that has revolved around imagining and detailing out fictional worlds but never actually writing much. Since I tended to be more interested in designing worlds than writing fiction, this interest aligned well with game design.
I think all that imagining of fantasy worlds sparked an interest in ancient history and I ended up majoring in it, in college. A background in ancient history helps tremendously in planning out the history of a fantasy world and the characteristics of its civilizations. When fantasy locations, characters, or cultures are too far removed from the real world, I think people have a tough time relating to them. They have no frame of reference within which to ground the fantasy elements. I believe this is the primary reason that most fantasy cultures in books, movies and games tend to be modelled after real-world cultures, rather than it just being a lack of imagination on the part of the creators. Of course, this can also feel rather cheesy when it isn’t done right.
So, generally I use a historical culture or a combination of historical cultures as a foundation. Then of course, you have to figure out your time period, which might inform the choice of cultures. With a culture and time period, you have to think through the technology and decide what will mirror the real-world and where things might diverge. If you have magic, you have to account for how that might have impacted the development of technology. For example, if your fictional civilization has tamed magical unicorns that fart rainbows and can run at the speed of sound, then they may not have had any reason to invent automobiles or rainbow farting machines as we have in the real world.
A sense of consistency and logic is necessary to create a truly believable fantasy world. From there, it just requires good creative judgment to flesh things out in a way that will be believable and compelling to people.
RPS: While a lot of ARPGs will create an elaborate backstory, they do tend to somewhat forget to tell a – I guess – forestory. Will your game have a meaningful narrative, or does that get in the way of the hacking and slashing?
Bruno: I believe that a meaningful narrative could be worked into an ARPG as long as it was done in such a way that it did not intrude into the gameplay of those who weren’t interested in it.
Grim Dawn, however, isn’t really focused on one flowing narrative. We’re more interested in providing backstory and atmosphere. We also want to tie the player down to one chronological sequence of events, but aim to give the player some latitude as to the order in which they do things or in terms of what they decide to complete. You might say our narrative is told indirectly through a collection of smaller, side-quest type stories that all trend together and cast light on the event that destroyed human civilization, the last hours of dead, the struggles and loss of those who survived. As the player progresses, they will also start to convey hope as Grim Dawn is ultimately a story of survival and redemption. Many of the quests will revolve around protecting and rebuilding the scattered, fragile human enclaves, and helping individuals get back some of what they’ve lost.
Of course, we’re a very small team and our resources are limited, so I’m not sure how much far we’ll be able to go in terms of story. Developing story and quests is always one of the more demanding aspects of RPG development. We’ve put a lot of thinking and creativity into the planning of our world. If we aren’t able to fully realize our goals for the story and back-story in the first release, it is something we will continue to develop with the release of later content. Our hope is that the first release of Grim Dawn will be enough of a success that we’re able to expand our team and really build out the game a lot more in our next offering.
RPS: The action RPG seems to be becoming more popular of late, which is great news. How will Grim Dawn stand out – what makes it unique?
Bruno: I think we’re probably unique just in the sense that, while most studios are redesigning their games to be more casual-player friendly, we’re busy making Grim Dawn more complex and probably casual-player hostile.
I think older, traditional PC games had a certain magic that has been lost in most modern games. Bethesda comes to mind as one of the few big companies left still making games with the kind of depth and magic that games had when I was a kid. I mean no disrespect in saying this, but their games are sort of complex, clunky, and often rife with imbalance and exploit. The very sort of imbalances and exploits that I delight in discovering and abusing but not the sort that are so bad they ruin the game. They are the sort of complex but loose systems that leave the player wondering how far they can push the limits of what is possible, and where there are no hard caps obviously and arbitrarily restricting what they can do. I sometimes wonder whether this sort of thing is intentional or not. I certainly add some deliberate measure of this in my games where I can get away with it.
I love systems that are asymmetrical and chaotic, where the player can’t easily see the tell-tale structure and patterns of deliberate, organized human design. The real world isn’t always perfectly planned or sensible and I don’t think game worlds should be either, otherwise you see the hand of the developers everywhere you look and it erodes the magic of feeling like you are in a living and unpredictable world. Exploration of game systems is all about the discovery of what is possible. When there is too clear a structure and pattern to the design, not only does it feel artificial but the player is much more quickly able to assess the limits of the system. Unfortunately, most of the industry is moving away from this sort of design.
There has been a growing realization in the industry, propelled in previous years by Wii sales and more recently by the astronomical success of social games like FarmVille and smartphone games like Angry Birds, that the vast scale of the casual market makes it a veritable goldmine. Publishers and developers are increasingly looking to boost their sales by attracting more of the casual market and increase their revenue by getting this larger audience to make a lot of small purchases.
To court the casual audience, developers are simplifying game systems and minimizing the potential for inexperienced players to make bad choices. They’re reducing the amount of time it takes to finish games, adding a constant stream of visible rewards for increasingly simplified achievements, and allowing players to pay for success when the effort of achieving it through the game proves too challenging or time consuming. We’ve come a long way from my childhood, where failure in most games caused you to start completely over from the beginning, to a point where it is impossible to fail in many games and in some you can just pull out your credit card when you decide it is time to win.
The sad reality though, is that this isn’t some evil corporate executives have perpetrated upon humanity, it’s what people want. At least, some people. Well, as it stands, it appears to be quite a lot of people and that is why the industry and gaming is largely trending in this direction. This is all anathema to what I love about games and is much of the reason that I’ve forgone earning an income the past couple years and instead slave away, with a few other dedicated souls, to create a game that we hope will embody some of what we loved about the games of yesteryear.
While the casual market is certainly large, the hardcore gaming audience has also grown tremendously over recent years. As the heavyweights of the industry move to grab a piece of the massive casual market I think this creates an opportunity for a smaller company like us. I believe many in the more traditional, core gaming audience are starting to become frustrated with the changes they’re seeing to their most beloved games. They say you can’t please all of the people all of the time and I think this is certainly true. Our belief is that we can perhaps better please some of the people most of the time by catering Grim Dawn more closely to the desires of that traditional, core audience (and ourselves).
So yeah, what are we doing that is unique? Moving backwards some might say…
RPS: You’ve already started talking about DLC. Are you intending for this to be content that adds onto the end of the game, or expands it sideways?
Bruno: It will likely be a bit of both. The first release of Grim Dawn will be somewhat comparable to Greece in Titan Quest. That is to say, it will be about one-third of the content that players might expect in a full-sized game, which is why we’ve priced the normal edition at one-third the cost of a full-sized game. That idea is that we’re too small a team to produce a full-sized game on the first go, so we’re doing it in pieces. Players will really get a bit more than a third of a game though with the first release since it will include a fairly robust feature set and allow them to replay it on higher difficulties to continue levelling their character.
We’re hoping profits from the first release will allow us to expand our team a bit and follow up quickly with more content. Subsequent content will both extend the game with new regions of the world and add to the earlier areas with new classes, equipment, enemies, and quests.
RPS: Have you explored any other pricing methods than a straight fee for the game? Lots of indies seem to be having success with innovative approaches.
Bruno: Honestly, we don’t have time to think about much else beyond making progress with development and getting the alpha out. I’ve read about the incredible success other companies have seen with different monetization models but it isn’t something we’re really considering right now. At this point, I think the simplest plan is the best plan. In the future, we’d only look at other models if we felt like they could be implemented in a way that was agreeable to our fans and fit with our own development and gaming ideals.
RPS: Thanks for your time.