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Making of: Arx Fatalis

[An unusual one this. Normally I interview the Project Lead or Lead Designer or similar. In this case, I was actually interviewing Christophe Carrier, who was Sound lead at Arkane on this Ultima Underworld-inspired RPG (Christophe, when asked for inspirations, simply stated "We wanted to make Ultima Underworld 3"). This was done when I was visiting Arkane before Dark Messiah of Might And Magic hit. And since I'm in Paris today, seems as good a time as any to repost it.]

How does a development team start? Where do they come from? How are they begat? They happen because of one thing: people decide that, actually, we’d like to do it our way for once. People coming together from different places, meeting and going forth. Arkane’s Christophe Carrier had worked in the games industry for most of the nineties, when not in bands. His first experience was in Quality Assurance (QA) “I was working for Electronic Arts as a QA person – fixing things, organising the testing, going to England to test games,” he recalls, on things like Bullfrog’s Theme Park. Then he moved into areas more relevant to his talents. That is, working primarily in the field of sonics. “I did all the sound for a game called Hexplore for Infogrames,” remembers Christophe, “Before a game for the PS1, which was where I met Raphael and we worked together.” That is, Raphael Colantonio, the future charismatic CEO of Arkane, it was the sort of fateful meeting which helps form a country. “He decided to do this game,” Cristophe says, “He created this company and I put money into it, and I worked on our first game. I made the sound and the SFX… and then got into the design”.

“This game” was a little thing called Arx Fatalis.

It was a simple aim… but the most complicated of simple aims. “What we wanted to do was Ultima Underworld 3,” Christophe explains simply. It’s quite the aim. While it was the game which invented the modern-first-person revolution, pre-empting Doom considerably, it was far from a simple game. It was all about complicated simulations in a role-playing environment. It was also the first game of the team who were then known as Blue-Sky Software, before swiftly transmuting into the venerable legends Looking Glass (R.I.P.). In fact, they /literally/ wanted to do Underworld 3. “We talked to Paul Neurath [Looking Glass Big Cheese – Ed] to work with us on it,” Chrisophe notes. It couldn’t be done, however, so they set off with their own setting… but with Ultima as a solid blueprint.

Spider, Spider, Spider, Spider. The Arachnid so good we named it thrice and then one more time.

“Raphael felt all the mechanisms in the game were in there,” explains Christophe, “Thinking about it, having the same User-Interface, having the same crafting experience…”. Despite the fact they had such a strong design to begin with, it was still an enormously ambitious game to attempt in a modern engine (which they made from scratch) with a team which never grew into the double figures. Still, Arkane believe in the power of chasing the impossible. “Anything is possible,” Christophe relates, “This was our main idea in the first place. We did what we wanted to. Now we’re going to try the game without selling ourselves. It’s risky. But when it works… this is the Arkane policy. Always find a challenge. When people say “You don’t want to do that… it’s crazy”. That’s why we want to do it. It’s a challenge. If it works, great!”

That they were such a small team gave them advantages, however. “We were five in the beginning,” reminisces Christophe, “It was so cool, because when someone had an idea it was like… “Well, what do you think about doing this?” “Yeah, that’s cool! Let’s do it”.” He compares this to the current procedure working on first-person action-RPG Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. “Now it’s an entire process. You have to talk to a lead, who talks to the publisher and there’s lots of people saying “Let’s think about that…”,” he sighs. “Back then it was “We have an idea?”” he stops, clicking his fingers sharply, “Let’s do it! It was like a special forces commando unit. We were so fast.” The problem with such a concentrated team was obvious – simple lack of man-power. “It was so difficult,” Christophe says, “We worked for hours at night, but I think we were very lucky. Ten years ago it was easy to do that. Five years ago… it was getting very difficult to make a game.”

In terms of changes to the design which they were pleased with, only one thing really stands out however. “The only thing we added which was quite original which was the spell-system,” he grins, “Which may have been too hardcore”. Coming at a similar period to Black and White, it used a gesture system where runes were drawn with the mouse to activate various magical effects. “It’s not like we wanted it to be too challenging to the magician,” he says, “You’re a magician… you have to be a magician.” The action was an attempt to bring you closer to your avatar. Also trying to blend the character with the world was the sound elements. “Of course, we worked with a bunch of guys like Kemal Amarasingham who made ambient noises for Thief,” Christophe explains, “It added a touch. We then started to work with people we liked, which helped us a lot.” They also used some Looking-Glass related voice talent, like Steve “Garrett” Russel.

Please kill me. My head is made of four polygons.

Being a non-native English language speakers created some more problems for the French Arkane which American developers don't have to worry about. They decided to do all the in-game text in English themselves. This lead to a string of rewritings along the line by different people to make it good enough. It involved a back-and-forth between several translators, each of whom who missed something which Arkane had to fiddle with. And even then when it was all done, they had to translate the final changes back into French. They learned that it really was best to get a native-English speaker to do it to begin with. It just saves a lot of time.

In terms of actually getting the game out, Arkane were at both lucky and unlucky with their distribution. “The publisher was Fishtank then JoWood,” Christophe explains, “They were very permissive. They allowed us to do what we wanted to. We didn’t want to be a bit too hardcore, but it was a cool experience because everyone did what they wanted to do”. The game wouldn’t have been possible without this level of freedom. The problem that neither was a big publisher, and it lead to limited penetration. “Unfortunately the game didn’t succeed in terms of mass sales, as having been marketed by Fishtank then Jowood... and then JoWood didn’t have enough money to hype the game in the US,” Christophe relates, “So we ended up with a game which was cool, I guess, but not very polished. But it allows us to be respected in the community, especially with Valve and Bioware, which is cool – as we achieved what we wanted to do. To be respected in the community.”

Sexy lightning!

This respect in the community means a lot to Arkane. With their initial motivation to ape the huge successes of another, to be taken in means a lot and has lead to various collaborations since. For example, Thief Deadly Shadows Project Lead Randy Smith has worked with them on Dark Messiah. “We had conversations with him by mail, then we asked him to work on the game with us,” Christophe Explains, “He really helped us with the mechanics and how to structure our thoughts, because we kind of thing “That’s cool to do that!”. We were learning, as we weren’t very experienced like he is. But now we are. He provides us these tools to organise our game design.”

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