The Shadow Sun Interview

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Ossian Studios
Release Date:2014-04-14
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Several weeks ago, Darkness over Daggerford and Mysteries of Westgate developer Ossian Studios surprised us with the announcement that they're hard at work on building a "true Western-style RPG" for Apple's iDevice. There aren't many such titles on the platform, so to get an idea of how they intend to change that, we fired off some questions to CEO Alan Miranda. Here's what he had to say:

GB: First things first - why the iDevice? Do you feel that a platform shift was necessary to continue to develop role-playing games while remaining profitable? Have we seen the last of PC-first development from Ossian?

Alan: First, let me confirm that you have not seen the last of PC RPGs from Ossian, and it's something we'll return to down the line. The PC is a relatively crowded market for Western fantasy RPGs, and the development of one of those triple-A RPGs can take several years involving a huge team. With Ossian transitioning from developing expansion packs for existing game franchises to becoming an indie developer, we wanted to attempt a high quality RPG title that could be done by a smaller team in a shorter time, and within a new gaming space.

In creating our own new fantasy IP of The Shadow Sun (TSS), we wanted to select a popular platform that offered the potential of good sales but also had a large user base. These would help lay the groundwork for the future growth we have in mind for TSS. We think our decision to pick the iOS platform last year was the best move for us, especially seeing the recently released International Gamers Survey 2010 (from Newzoo), which showed that iOS has nearly surpassed the Nintendo DS as the most popular gaming platform in the U.S.

GB: What engine are you using to power The Shadow Sun and what are its capabilities? If the game is successful, would it be possible (and would you be willing) to port it over to the PC, XBLA, or PSN?

Alan: We are using the Unity engine to develop this first Shadow Sun game (the same engine EA recently licensed for all its studios worldwide). For the iOS platform, we felt it was the best choice in terms of technical power and game track record. Since we're specifically designing the game with the mobile platform in mind, and because Unity is constantly expanding its cross-mobile support (e.g., Android), I think we would definitely be interested in porting the game to other mobile platforms. If we were to do a PC TSS game, it would be something that we would design from the ground up to suit that platform.

Unity has been a solid technical base for us, but we've added a lot to turn it into the RPG engine we need. After reading our design specs at the start of the project, our lead programmer asked me point blank, (You know you're basically asking us to build Neverwinter Nights?) to which I replied, (I know.) Obviously, we're not creating the multiplayer aspect or end-user toolset that NWN had, but there are so many systems that had to be built in order to be comparable to the RPGs we've worked on previously, and that wasn't a small undertaking.

GB: How much depth are you able to give the dialogue system on an iDevice game? Will you be implementing the standard dialogue trees we've seen in your previous games? Also, will our non-combat skills or attributes open up responses that would otherwise be unavailable?

Alan: You can expect to see the same kind of dialogue tree functionality that you saw in our previous games or in other popular RPGs like Neverwinter, Dragon Age, or Mass Effect. Having meaningful conversations with characters is an important part of the role-playing experience, as is giving players additional non-combat options of influencing NPCs. So we allow player characters to advance in the skills of Persuade and Intimidate, which opens up new responses depending on their skill level.

GB: Give us a quick rundown of the character creation and progression system you're implementing. How does it compare to the level- and feat-based system in Dungeons & Dragons, the SPECIAL skill- and perk-based system in Fallout, or the skill tree system in Diablo?

Alan: We use both an ability system and a skill-based system, which should be familiar to D&D and Diablo fans. Abilities constitute a character's attributes like Strength, Dexterity, etc., while skills are for things like weapons, magic, and so forth. When players create their character (and later level up), they receive ability and skill points that they can assign to whatever abilities or skills they wish - we don't constrain characters with classes, so players can freely grow their character as they like. Stats aside, players can also customize their PC to be either male or female and with the choice of several different appearance types.

GB: Will you be implementing any sort of alignment, reputation, or karma system? If so, are there benefits to following a path of neutrality, or will it be more rewarding to take a full-on good or evil approach?

We aren't using an alignment system that quantifies you as good or evil, but instead use a cause and effect approach. Players can choose the path that suits them when faced with a difficult situation, which may then result in a different outcome or a repercussion later. We leave it up to the player to feel either good or evil about their actions. :)

GB: How linear is the game and how many gameplay hours are you shooting for with the main quest and all side quests?

Alan: The game will have a strong story experience along the critical path while still providing branching paths and allowing players to accomplish their goals in different ways. Critical path aside, the game has a big city adventure aspect, where you get to freely explore the huge city of Shar and complete sidequests whenever you like. In some ways, it's similar to what we did with NWN2: Mysteries of Westgate (MoW) except that this time we allow players to travel to areas outside of the city walls. The total length of the game will be announced later.
GB: You've stated that we'll be exploring the city of Shar and exotic desert lands. What can you tell us about these locations and what other environments might we be taking a journey through?

Alan: The city of Shar, capital of the Sharian Empire, sits along the shore of Lake Abelur, one of several huge lakes in the region, and in its prime several hundred years ago boasted an impressive and highly-disciplined navy that controlled much of the South. Now, in its slow decline in power and increasing decadence, its busy port is more about trade than military prowess and the city acts as the only mercantile gateway between the lands to the north and those to the south. Its control over trade is what has made it rich, allowing its emperor and upper class to live in unparalleled opulence.

The region around the city is mainly desert, with the exception of the strip of cultivated lands along the lake's edge. To the north lies an endless expanse of sand dunes that caravaneers sharply avoid due to the predatory creatures that infest them, and choosing instead to follow the caravan routes heading east. However, a thin fertile arc known as the Green Trail cuts across the desert, the result of an underground river that runs beneath the hot sands. As the river nears the surface by the city of Shar, it branches up through the sandstone, which over the ages has created a labyrinth of caverns below and a multitude of oases above.

GB: Based on your description, it sounds like you're shooting for a very low magic setting. Will our character or any of his or her companions be able to directly wield magic? If so, can you tell us a bit about the magic system you're implementing?

Alan: With The Shadow Sun setting, we wanted to avoid a world populated by fireball-tossing wizards around every corner, as it is with many other fantasy settings. Instead, we sought to make the knowledge of magic rarer and make those few who wield it very special. The player character is one of those people (though I won't elaborate here on why that is) but suffice it to say that they can cast magic if they so choose. And yes, there will also be a magic-wielding companion.

Being a skill, just like melee or ranged weapons, advancing in the magical arts requires that players assign points to the kinds of magic spells they wish to focus on, with a spell becoming more powerful the more points that are assigned to it. Since skill points are common to any skills in the game, it will be up to players to decide if they want to specialize in magic or other skills instead. Magic for the player is represented by a mana pool, and each spell requires a certain number of mana points to cast. Mana regenerates over time, though at a slower rate during combat.

GB: What sort of equipment can we expect to see in the game and how will inventory management be handled? Could you give us a specific example or two of some of the more powerful weapons or armor in the game?

Alan: You'll be able to pick up all kinds of items in the game, including many weapons, armours, potions, assorted gems and jewelry, and miscellaneous objects (like books, letters, keys, etc.). If you've played Oblivion or Dragon Age, you should feel right at home with the game's inventory screen, which displays the inventory as a list of items that can be sorted into the categories mentioned above by pressing different tabs.

By tapping an item, you can read additional information about it (such as special properties and description), equip it, unequip it, possibly consume it, assign it to your quickbar, and even destroy it. How many items you can carry in your inventory is limited by a maximum capacity. As for specific items, we aren't ready to reveal those just yet. :)

GB: The game will be set in "a world that has felt an alien touch upon its sun" - does that mean there will be a little sci-fi mixed in with the fantasy setting mentioned in the announcement?

Alan: When we say (alien) don't think of it in terms of sci-fi but rather in mysterious, otherwordly Lovecraftian terms. There is no science involved - it's pure fantasy. The people of this world look up into their sky and recognize that their sun has become diseased in some mysterious way, as a fringe of shadow can be seen to be creeping along one edge.

GB: Fable and Zelda seem like odd comparison choices when you're talking about a "true Western-style RPG" and "redefining role-playing". What inspiration did you pull from those two titles, exactly?

Alan: Those examples are really with regard to the dynamic and easy-to-use combat systems those games employed. We wanted to create something similarly fluid for our game because of the smaller screen space for controls on the iPhone/iPod touch.

As for what we meant by (redefining role-playing on the platform,) we're specifically referring to the iDevice platform and about the scarcity of high quality, Western RPGs from an experienced RPG developer who has worked on triple-A franchises. That's something we're aiming to change.

GB: What can you tell us about the game's companions, their personalities, and their motives for joining the protagonist on his or her quest? What is the maximum number of companions that we can take with us at any given time?

Alan: There will be four companions in the game, each of which will have skills that can complement different player character builds (melee, magic, or rogue). You are able to travel with one companion at a time, and as you encounter new ones, they will await you at your hideout until you need them. Companions automatically follow you as you explore and fight at your side in combat, but they can also be directed to attack a specific target or move to a certain spot.

The companions are a varied bunch, each with their own unique personality. They definitely aren't pack mules or combat fodder as found in some action RPGs, but are fully developed characters that are tied into the story's events in some way. They have their own motivations for joining the player, and interacting with them over the course of the game, you will come to know their characters quite well.

GB: Will there be any multiplayer support of any kind, such as a cooperative mode? Why or why not?

Alan: We won't be implementing multiplayer support for this game, though as we gain more experience with Unity and the iOS platform, it may be something we'll consider for a future game. For now, we want to focus on making the best possible single player experience we can for The Shadow Sun.