Interview: Curt Schilling Talks 38 Studios’ “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning”

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At EA’s Studio Showcase event yesterday, Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling finally got to reveal the first glimpses of his long-brewing action-RPG. Formerly known as “Project Mercury”, the title’s been revealed to be Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and is being published through EA’s EA Partners division. The game will be appearing on consoles and PCs next year.

After the presentation, Schilling and Big Huge Games designer Mark Nelson–who worked on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion with 38 Studios’ Senior Designer Ken Rolston–sat down to talk about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. In the conversation that followed, Schilling compared his old job to his new job and spoke about why we’re finally getting our first peeks at the fictional universe he and the brain trust at 38 Studios have been building.

I hope you don’t take this in the wrong way, I think you won’t, I have seen you talk abound this game at least three times now, including GamesBeat last year. But you’ve never been able to show anything. How does it feel to finally be able to pull the wraps off of this?

Curt Schilling: I can exhale. I’ve been looking for some semblance or some recognition of my past life in this. I have lived a life where every fifth day I went out and did my thing, and it was instant feedback, and I was done. So, in development, it’s little wins and it’s little things that happen behind the scenes, but no one ever talks about it, because they can’t, and because you [nods at PR person] won’t let me.

Today really is like opening day all over again. I started opening day nine times in my career, and that was — yeah, after opening day everyday is a normal day, but it’s that special first day. This is the first day I have been able to brag about these people, and what they’re doing.

In terms of brass tacks and basic facts, is ‘Reckoning’ the project that was formally known as ‘Project Mercury’?

Curt Schilling: Yes.

So ‘Copernicus’ is still under wraps?

Curt Schilling: Yes.

But, ‘Copernicus’ is also the name of the larger universe, too, right? Okay. And I remember some of the early talk about the games, how the two were tethered with some kind of interoperability between them. Is that still the case?

Curt Schilling: ‘Amalur’ is the universe in which ‘Reckoning’ is set and ‘Copernicus’ will be set. The games are going to be connected in a lot of different ways. We are not going to detail obviously on any of that stuff, but they are in the same worlds.

Same fictional universe?

Curt Schilling: Yes, yes, and the story is tied together in a lot of different ways. And as we roll this out, and when reckoningthegame.com goes online Thursday, from then to launch, people will begin to understand what those ties are.

Kind of going back to where we started talking, you have been working on this a long time, why is now the right time to kind of show people a taste, a teaser about –

Curt Schilling: The truth?

Yeah.

Curt Schilling: Because I don’t think that they felt they could keep my mouth shut for another 30 days. Because when you put together, and I am going to brag, when you put together insanely talented people, it doesn’t do you any good as a manager if you don’t trust them and listen to them. I wanted to come out much earlier than this, I felt like we could come out much earlier than this. When I look back, there is no possible way, it would have been the wrong thing to do.

Again, it’s just like managing a team with all stars and not putting them in their positions. That’s what they do. I don’t do any of those things. So, my value to the company is to listen to the smart people and do what they tell me to do, for the most part, and this was the right time.

If you think about it, we are coming out of Comic-Con. Think of five names in your lifetime that you could associate with Comic-Con. One of them has to be Todd McFarlane. And, I’m pretty sure we are going to be at GenCon with R.A. I mean, that’s who our guests are going to be.

In both instances, you’re playing to your base.

Curt Schilling: Right, right. And it doesn’t matter if you play to your base if what you are doing is not good. I fully believe that we are putting something together that’s incredible. But the proof is going to be in the pudding. So Comic-Con just, from a timing perspective, from a development perspective, it was a natural fit. Yeah, it’s not a strictly game-centric gathering like E3, but it’s becoming more so. We’ll have a lot of eyes looking our way, because we will be there with Todd McFarlane and R.A. Salvatore, and Ken Rolston.

As a quick aside, I am a lifelong nerd, I have never been athletic in my life. Growing up I had two sports heroes; one of whom was Muhammad Ali and the other one was Reggie Jackson. I’m a Yankee fan because of him and you’re a Red Sox pitcher. With all of that, “the straw that stirs the drink” remark on stage, was that off the cuff or was that intentional?

Curt Schilling: [Laughs] Trust me, I have never written a speech in my life, and if I have my way, I never will. I am off the cuff, and the reason I have always been, because it’s very easy to be truthful and honest about something that you believe in. I know what we are doing. I have been a gamer my whole life. I am much more of a geek than I am an athlete. I’m a pitcher, for Christ’s sake! You could ask any position player and they’ll tell you: pitchers aren’t athletes. But, again, I have spent much more time in front of the computer than I have on a baseball mound.

So, I understand. And I know what I like, I know what good games are, and being able to — in my heart of heart I know what I like to play and what I don’t like to play, and it has just been — these guys are so insanely talented, and the ability to get out in front of people and tell the world what they are doing, to me, is — I mean, this is every bit as fun as anything I have ever done.

Alright. So let’s talk about the game, insomuch as we can. What do you think are the biggest problems with the way fantasy shows up in video games right now, and how do you feel like ‘Reckoning’ is going to address them?

Curt Schilling: Well, I am going to talk about from the gamer’s perspective, then Mark can talk from the design perspective. So for me, I can think of a ton of games I have played in my lifetime that I loved where story felt like an afterthought. And most times it is an afterthought, because people don’t understand how hard making games is at the base level; both in time and money. So the story piece is, always, “Yeah, we will get to that, we will get to that, we will get to that.” We started out with that as kind of the foundation of everything we did. So it’s a very story-driven product and all of them are very story-driven products. And then what you do is you take an R.A. Salvatore-created world which–again, I am a fantasy guy, so that’s cool–and you get a Todd McFarlane to put that thing to paper, and then it becomes even cooler.

And those two things in themselves are awesome, but they don’t mean squat when it comes to making a great game. Then you get a Ken Ralston and a Mark Nelson, and the guys in the Boston studio, and they take those ideas and they put those ideas to paper and they make game mechanics out of them, and that’s where the magic happens.

Mark Nelson: I mean, I think one of the things that we have been solid with, just sort of within the RPG development community is, we are so tied to the old paper games and to the old PC games, and it took us a while kind of to learn that we don’t have to do these things anymore, like we can make these games more moment to moment fun and not lose any of that real crunchy RPG goodness. So we got to really start from the ground-up. We weren’t tied to games that have been going back 20 years and we had to have the exact same systems.

We were able to start fresh and say, here the things we know we love, here are the things we know work moment-to-moment, and really just be able to build from there. It has been kind of a liberating thing for us, but I think it’s going to really show up in the final product.

So you feel like there is kind of this legacy mindset on the behalf of the players more so than the developers?

Mark Nelson: I think it’s a little bit with everyone, and quite honestly, when we started developing, we said, “Okay, we’ve got all this stuff, that’s all this legacy stuff. Everything is a number, it’s got all these deep, deep stats. We are going to pull a lot of that out.” And we did. We pulled out a ton of that stuff, and when we were done, we went, we have got a heck of an interesting game, but it’s not an RPG anymore. We had to kind of go too far and pull a lot of stuff out to go, okay, we are missing the core fun, like all of this RPG deep number crunching stuff really is fun, but we don’t have to make it a chore for the player to do. We can keep all of that, but still make it something that they can get their hands on quickly and enjoy, but still have that same level of customization and depth and character development that exists in all the old games. We can just bring it to them in a much nicer package.

Going back to my question­–the problems that you feel like kind of plague the fantasy genre–it seems kind of implicitly answered, because you guys are focusing on combat. In fantasy titles, it always seems like someone said, “I guess we need to like have some swordplay there.” It seems like it’s something that’s more written about, the prowess of a particular protagonist than you actually get to control. Was that one of the places where you guys started? I see big head nods…

Curt Schilling: The analogy that I always use is, if you think about all the big RPGs and you think about what made them fun, the most compelling ones had this incredible story that I cared about. I will go back to ‘Curse of the Azure Bonds’. I mean, that was a blast to play, because that story was really compelling and the tattoos were dissolving off my characters. That was really cool. There was the story I was trying to get to, and in between that I had to fight some stuff. There was some combat that just kind of happened, because that’s the game mechanic. But there was never a good marriage of the two. It’s always “I’m at the story thread, and oh, this awesome encounter is going to be fun as hell to fight, and and then I am going to go to the story again.” And vice versa, when you have an action RPG game. “These battles are awesome, and I can’t wait to see these animations again, and then, okay, I have got to do the story stuff, and then I get to fight again.”

So now you take, what I believe we are doing is, you have got this incredible story line that — again, ‘Reckoning’ is resonating as a game name, because it actually is part of the game itself. The choices and decisions you make in the game are going to impact you, which is incredible from a story standpoint, and you have got this incredible combat that I can’t wait to see the next animation. And there is a deep animation thread to the game and combat thread to the game is every bit as deep as there is a story thread.

So to use the sports metaphors again, you are ostensibly in the same division as BioWare now, whose games I am sure you have played and enjoyed.

Yeah, huge fans.

Do you see it competitive? Do you see it as additive?

Curt Schilling: Yes, we compete against everyone. I want to be the best in the world. I want us to be the best in the world. However, BioWare is 110% an asset. We have been able to have Greg and Ray and the guys at BioWare in to talk and confer and give advice. I would tell you, they are the best in the world at that genre right now. Hands down! And that’s not to slight anybody else, they are just great at what they do. That’s absolutely a value-add for us. Through the EAP partnership, we have them for whatever and they have us as well. To get their sign off, to have them come in and say, you know what, this is pretty bad-ass. That’s another one of those rubber stamps that tells us that we aren’t lying to ourselves.

Mark Nelson: These are complementary games. I mean, even though they are in the same genre, like ‘Dragon Age’. Ray and Greg are our friends. They have come in and they have looked at our stuff and they have provided valuable advice. They are geniuses at what they do, but obviously it’s a very different focus for the games.

So you have kind of assembled a Murderers’ Row of creatives –

Nice!

Hey, I’m a nerd but I know a little sumthin’ sumthin’! Seriously, though, with the guys you have working on this, do you ever get veto power? Do you ever get to act like you are the boss?

Curt Schilling: Yeah, I do, but, honest to God, I haven’t used the veto yet, I don’t think I ever will. You don’t have to, when you build the right team and everybody understands what’s going on. For something to get to me to have to say “Absolutely not!”, a lot of failure has to happen for things to get to that. With our team, I’m not worried about that. I am done thinking and believing I am a game designer. I ‘m like the billion other gamers: I’ve got great ideas! But, put those ideas on paper and it’s like, “that sucks!” My job now is to maintain the culture at 38 Studios and to keep the strength of the team in place as we move forward and as we grow and as we realize what we are executing on.

Mark Nelson: He downplays it, but Curt is savvy about games. He is not just a gamer, like he knows the ins and outs of how they work.

Curt Schilling: These guys would never tell me this when I send them a design email by the way.

Mark Nelson: If we read them, we might, but –

[Much laughter]

Curt Schilling: I am going to start sending my design emails with a return receipt. Come on!

Mark Nelson: But we do trust where he is coming from, like this is a guy who has been a gamer for a long time. We have got to know our audience, and in many ways Curt represents that.

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