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.