Once not so long ago, I wrote a '90s Saturday morning cartoon theme song for Techland's Hellraid. Name aside, however, the first-person Diablo-esque RPG never struck me as particularly inspired, and apparently Techland agreed. The Dead Island developer has spent the past year rebuilding many elements of its demon-bopping opus, with melee combat and magic apparently gaining double the complexity. A transition into the "next-gen" Chrome Engine 6, meanwhile, is imminent, and that'll bring better graphics, adaptive AI, and a slew of other upgrades. It's all coming to Steam Early Access this fall, but for now I met up with producer Marcin Kruczkiewicz to discuss changes, delays, developing for PC first and foremost, the possibility of mod support, and why training with real swords is something every game developer should do.
RPS: Why the change to a new engine? Why do it this late in the development process, especially given that you were nearly ready to release a year ago?
Kruczkiewicz: The decision was based on our need to keep the quality we have now. We are developing our game mainly on PC. So every time we run our game on the previous gen consoles, it just feels outdated and not sufficient in quality compared to the PC version. So the main reasons we're doing this is for graphical performance, and the second issue is a new arena mode that we need to be able to spawn huge amounts of enemies for. The enemies have adaptive AI, which also consumes some power.
The process of developing this game from the beginning was to have a very high quality version on PC. We then shrank the textures and simplified special effects on consoles. That resulted in poorer quality. But now we're having a 1:1 connection between PC and the new generation of consoles - as opposed to reducing the experience on previous-gen consoles. Those versions are no longer in development.
Techland's engine team's main focus is now Chrome Engine 6, so we also get better animations, special effects, particle effects - all the things our engine team is working to implement in Chrome Engine 6.
RPS: You're also putting the game on Steam Early Access, according to a very nice PDF you sent me before this interview. Why? What sorts of feedback are you hoping to get?
Kruczkiewicz: We've decided to include Steam Early Access in our production plan. In Autumn we are planning to invite players to participate. We want to put a piece of all three of our modes - story, mission, and arena - in the Early Access version.
Our two biggest questions for the community are balance because we have a lot of loot and items, and replayability. We need to know whether arena mode and mission mode are designed well enough to attract people for a long time. Will they want to go back and play the arena again? Will that challenge be enough of a motivation?
RPS: What happens if it's not, or if a major feature swings and misses? Will you delay the game - now set for launch in 2015 - yet again? Are you in the Early Access game for the long haul, I guess, is what I'm asking.
Kruczkiewicz: This is the toughest scenario, when people say, "Well guys, nice work, but the game isn't as cool as you think it is." We'll need to treat that feedback seriously. When you decide to let people say what they think and then ignore it, what's the point? If that feedback causes more delays, well, the most important thing to us is to provide a game that people love. If we're forced to re-design something, we'll definitely do it. Shipping a game people don't like would be a big mistake.
RPS: What about Steam Workshop or some kind of dedicated mod support? Do you think you might pursue that?
Kruczkiewicz: Currently we have no plans for Workshop or any of that. We're focused on the new engine and Early Access.
RPS: What else about the game has changed since you delayed it? What made you decide it wasn't good enough in the first place? Did you not have enough skeletons? Can you ever really have enough skeletons?
Kruczkiewicz: Our combat system has evolved in the past year, but this is not strictly connected to the shift to a new engine. But last year, we decided to replace big important pieces of our game. We totally re-designed the melee system, and recently we totally re-designed the magic. A year ago we were basically ready to release the game, but then we did some serious playtesting. It appeared that the gameplay was decent, but it wasn't fresh enough. That's why we delayed it. So we decided to take another step and change engines too.
RPS: That's a lot to rework. Was there ever a point where you thought Hellraid might be beyond salvaging? Or, like, it just wouldn't hit the quality standard you were hoping for?
Kruczkiewicz: Nah. We just discovered that the player wasn't engaged enough. For example, there were two few ways of striking in combat. The leg movement was too simple for it to be fun for the player to navigate. We also didn't have enough power in changing distance, jumping closer to the enemy, avoiding attacks, etc. We also introduced better mechanics for shielding and parrying. It's twice as complex as it used to be. Same goes for magic.
RPS: And you rewired the enemy AI quite a bit too, right?
Kruczkiewicz: Arena mode revealed to us that our AI wasn't smart enough. We had to think of how our AI would behave in a group situation. Now, say, a group of skeletons doesn't all approach at the same time. They can see that you're dealing with their comrades, and they can get frightened and move back or seek a better position for attack. And then we realized, "Why should this AI only be in the arena? This is how warriors fight." So we propagated it all throughout the whole game.
RPS: You took up practicing with real swords, didn't you? I think I watched a developer diary about that.
Kruczkiewicz: Yeah, we even took up practicing with real swords. Of course that didn't give us all the answers because we have a variety of weapons - two-handed swords, maces, clubs, etc - but we learned a lot about dynamics, speed, and trajectory.
Everything we thought we knew about swordfighting was from movies and games. It wasn't even remotely the same as grabbing a sword. Personally, I always assumed a two-handed sword is much slower than a one-handed sword. Well, it's not. Even simple things like that [change radically with real weapons]. At that point, we knew we didn't need to stick to patterns everyone has in their heads.
When you grab a one-handed axe and strike a heavy hit, the trajectory is diagonal. But when you grab a two-handed axe and strike a heavy hit, it's vertical. You only strike one enemy, not a group. So now you have more toys to play with.
It's common and convenient to just base your combat on what everyone else is done, but I think moving from your desk and learning these things yourself creates far better fun than sticking to some rules everyone knows. I know the guys from our other team, working on Dying Light, studied and practiced parkour. That's just kind of how Techland works.
RPS: Conceptually Hellraid reminds me a lot of Diablo, but obviously it's quite different from a gameplay standpoint. Or at least, all the hacking and slashing and looting happens from a first-person perspective, making everything more up-close, personal, and heavy hitting.
Kruczkiewicz: It's not only Diablo. I remember all those early games. I'm in my 30s, so I was into a lot of games that were popular in the '90s. So it's not only Diablo. In fact, one of the biggest inspirations is the first game that scared me a lot when I was young. Games like Hexen and Heretic, and even the first Quake, when it was more industrially oriented. There was a darkness in it that I remember even today.
Influences are tough, though. For me it's mostly about capturing how the player should feel in a moment - not paying exact homage to select games. The example I always give when we're trying to design great parts of levels is from Quake. You had an empty hall and a button, and there was nothing else. Just silence and a little ambient noise. You knew you needed to press the button to make progress. You knew what you had to do, but you were scared to press the button. This feeling was priceless. It comes up once, twice a week when we're discussing the emotional layer of our story mode or in arena mode.
RPS: Thank you for your time.