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Pathfinder: Kingmaker will be the first major role-playing title based on the Pathfinder RPG ruleset to grace our PCs, and given the game's successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly double the targeted pledge dollars, its close partnership with ruleset creator Paizo, and the contributions that the one-and-only Chris Avellone will be bringing to the table, we're confident that Owlcat Games will be delivering something special when they release the game in the second half of next year.
And while we've learned a lot about the game in the several months that we've been covering it, there are a number of development intricacies and design decisions that we wanted to learn more about, so we took those questions straight to Owlcat to get the most relevant, up-to-date answers. Our questions and their answers follow below.
GameBanshee: To kick this off, Pathfinder seems to be the tabletop RPG of choice for Owlcat Games. Can you tell us a bit about why you prefer Pathfinder to the many other role-playing systems available?
Owlcat Games: We have both sensible and sensitive reasons. First, we love Pathfinder and can’t resist the temptation to make a big story-driven RPG for our beloved tabletop system. Let alone - strange fact, really - no one has ever done done a single-player Pathfinder CRPG before. A more pragmatic reason is the fact there are a lot of people who also love Pathfinder. (Luckily, we had a chance to prove this during our Kickstarter campaign). It’s a beloved universe for a reason - few other settings have the same level of content and details as the Pathfinder universe.
GB: Reading up on Pathfinder, I found that "Rasputin Must Die!" is not only a thing that exists, but that it's an official adventure published by Paizo. That adventure takes the player characters to Russia and pits them against the eponymous Russian mystic. How often do you come across something like this in Pathfinder? Without spoiling much, should we brace ourselves for an adventure that goes off the rails fast, or is this more of an Easter Egg kind of thing?
OG: It was a lot of fun to read "Rasputin Must Die!" :) Though this "off the rail" adventure is not quite typical for Paizo as they admitted.
Many aspects of the Pathfinder universe have their roots in our reality: races have traits from modern or historical nations, some places resemble famous sightseeings spots, etc. All these things are brilliantly incorporated into Golarion and make a cognitive clue between this fantasy world and our everyday experience to add more believability to Pathfinder’s world. We strive to support the same approach in our game. History buffs will be able to find recognizable traces both in the nations and locations involved. Pathfinder: Kingmaker takes place in the northeast lands which feel so familiar to Russian developers. So we hope to bake a good pie of original Adventure moved to a digital format with some proper Easter Eggs mixed in for good measure.
GB: The pursuit of a more grim, dark, and realistic fantasy world seems to be more prevalent in recent years. Game of Thrones and The Witcher come to mind immediately, but there are countless other pieces of media. Does Kingmaker follow the trend, or is it, perhaps, more light-hearted in tone?
OG: First of all, we try to catch the true spirit of Pathfinder’s art style, which is renowned for its attention to detail. Let’s take character art as an example. Every piece of equipment, including backpacks full of camping gear and potions, are visibly displayed on the character and make us believe that these are true adventurers rather than generic fantasy ones.
We would call this approach "realistic high fantasy." The art style is still "high" - compared to what you would call grimdark fantasy - but the unprecedented level of detail and the way they are functionally portrayed make us trust what we see in the art.
The story will do its best to keep this ‘realistic high fantasy’ vibe throughout the whole game. There would be an epic adventure, a story filled with heroes and villains, honor and betrayal, allowing the player to pick a side. At the same time, the characters are never flat, the shades of grey are always thrown into the mix. Even the vilest of villains has a story for a player to at least understand their motives, if not sympathize. Prepare yourselves for making tough decisions!
GB: You're using the Unity engine, which unfortunately has a reputation for lengthy loading times and other surface issues. How have you addressed any perceived shortcomings with Unity and how well should we expect Kingmaker to run in comparison to other Unity-powered titles, if that's even possible to tell at the current stage of development?
OG: Every engine has its pros and cons. We took the time to thoroughly examine our options - Unity, Unreal, Cryengine, and our own engine which we share with Skyforge. Then we debated the benefits of each approach in terms of quality, pipelines, and more. Sometimes these discussions were more like battle scenes from Highlander :) And much like Highlander, there could be only one - Unity, which we felt was the best match for the CRPG we were creating.
Well, we are more than a year in production now and we still feel Unity was the right choice. It has worked well for our small-scale team highly experienced in scripting.
GB: Why did you choose to go with a real-time with pause combat system for Kingmaker? Were you considering turn-based at any point during development?
OG: Short answer - turn-based combat brings too much attention to itself, while real-time with pause is blending nicely with other aspects of the game. A bit longer answer - we were considering turn-based system for several months into development. It was a long and hard discussion when we were finally decided which way we should be going. Turn-based combat brings a lot of tactical elements into every battle, but it comes at the cost of battles being long. In tactical turn based combat you want each battle to be challenging, a small puzzle to solve - otherwise it becomes boring. So you as developer will struggle with ordinary battles - make them easy and it is boring, make them hard and you exhaust the player. Even if you manage to solve this, turn-based combat will still require a lot of attention from the player and this attention will not be spent on anything else. In our opinion, every system in the game has to be properly balanced to each other in terms of time spent, player attention, complexity and a lot of other aspects and for this game we want players to enjoy the story and characters, participate in governing their kingdom. Real-time with pause still requires tactical thinking on the player’s part but only in the more challenging encounters. You can easily plow through weaker enemies, enjoying animations and visual effects by issuing only a couple of commands. We feel this fits much better into the overall game’s pattern of exploring the lands, meeting new people, and fighting adversaries.
GB: Some of the games you've worked on, like Silent Storm, Heroes of Might and Magic V, and Rage of Mages II, feature strategy elements of varying degrees, the former two being primarily strategy games with some RPG elements. In Kingmaker, we get to run an entire kingdom. With your strategy-focused experience, is there any chance you'll be making our reign over the Stolen Lands strategic in nature?
OG: Governing your kingdom will be strategic and you will have to make decisions on a big scale - even micromanage settlements if you choose to. But we want this part to have not only a strategy experience, but also a your personal narrative of you and your companions trying to govern those lands, making difficult decisions, maturing a bit. We want to provide more of a spotlight on your companions in these situations and tell a bit of story about your kingdom at the same time.
GB: Let's talk a bit about crafting. It seems that most modern RPGs possess a crafting system of some kind, but I'm in agreement with Richard Cobbett that heroes don't craft. I know Kingmaker won't have traditional tabletop crafting and will instead use Royal Artisans, but if I decide not to craft at all, how much will I miss out on?
OG: We do happen to agree that crafting is not something that should be usually done by heroes. Moreover in Pathfinder: Kingmaker you are not just hero, you are king, governing your lands, and crafting fits this profile even less. This is why we decided to introduce Royal Artisans. These do not strictly resemble a crafting mechanic. They are similar to all those guilds and manufactures in the 17th-18th century sending beautiful tea sets to the king’s court that we enjoy in the museums nowadays. They are helping themselves to make a name and a patron to compete with other guilds. In our game it will not be as competitive but close to that experience. Imagine yourself encountering a dwarven smith on your adventures in the region you are planning to add to your growing kingdom. His goods are really good, but he is in a bit of a quandary. You can help this dwarf and he agrees to work in your kingdom, occasionally sending gifts of elaborate dwarven armor to your court. Can you complete the game without any items from artisans? Absolutely! But you will be missing out on some of the unique items and a bit of a fresh experience.
GB: What are your thoughts on encounter design? Do you try to pack your locations with as many encounters as possible, go for several carefully crafted encounters per location with a fair degree of tactical challenge to them, or sit somewhere in-between?
OG: It is very convenient to answer "in-between", both because it is true and because it allows more freedom for the location design. Same goes for the balance of game elements. We want our players to experience a great story and challenging battles while exploring the unclaimed and wild Stolen Lands. You can't explore if you are besieged by encounters. It is difficult to remember the story if you have to fight monster after monster just to get to the next story point. Don’t get us wrong - there are a lot of enemies to fight, but you can skip at least half of them if you do not want to fight. Every location has several fights that will test your tactical skills, for some you may even consider (wisely) retreating and returning when your group will be more experienced. Every bossfight is specially crafted to provide a new experience and to challenge common strategies.
GB: A great, carefully designed dungeon can be the difference between a good and a great CRPG. Will Kingmaker feature any vast, optional dungeons with traps, puzzles, NPCs, side quests, or other challenges - perhaps something on par with Durlag's Tower from Baldur's Gate?
OG: Uh, that’s a good question - and not an easy one. To be honest, we had a reward among our unrevealed stretch goals but we didn't get to it. The problem is a "mega dungeon" is expensive content. Everybody on the team wants to make it. But to add it at the cost of cutting a whole chapter from the original story - that would have been the price - would have been unbearable and we think would have done the game a disservice. So right now this idea is lying on the "development shelf". We like to console ourselves that we will find some time to implement it but frankly speaking, it would be difficult to do.
GB: Chris Avellone is something of a legend in the video game industry. What's it been like working with him and how would you summarize his contributions to Kingmaker to date?
OG: To be honest that was a question for us too: how it would be to work with such a renowned writer? :) But we pretty soon found out that Chris is not only one of the best narrative designers but he is extremely open and friendly in communication. We are very lucky to be able to share our ideas in constructive and complementary manner. So Chris not only reviews all narrative design elements, but he also does a lot of work to assist with the story and characters, as well as doing writing, assisting with chapter outlines, and also companion design (inc. writing companion dialogue) - it's a collaborative process, and we exchange ideas frequently.
GB: Will item descriptions in Kingmaker have flavor text or will they be purely utilitarian in nature?
OG: It would be disappointing to us if one of the prime features in every CRPG - equipment - would have only utilitarian descriptions :) There are hundreds of armor/weapon/other pieces in the game - and to be honest, we’re not sure we can write flavor text for all of them. But we definitely will do it for every noteworthy and special item, especially items taken from tough enemies or won through difficult challenges - flavor descriptions add to the reward of the item.
GB: Stores that have limited cash is a mechanic that isn't always well-received by some players (including myself). Will Kingmaker feature such a mechanic?
OG: You are welcome - we are not planning to limit cash for our vendors.
GB: Scounting ahead with a rogue or an invisible character and then using appropriate buffs for any major encounter ahead - yea or nay? In other words, will we be able to pre-buff before combat begins?
OG: Yea, in most of encounters. Sometimes you will be in the situation where pre-buffs are impossible, like having random encounters while camping.
GB: On a similar note, will Kingmaker feature epic spellcaster battles?
OG: Yes, but to go deeper into the answer is to spoil the story.
GB: A couple of questions about the Journal. Will we be able to write our own notes? How about putting custom pins on the map?
OG: We would love to do it. To be clear, these features are not the top priority ones. So there is always a chance we may not have time to implement everything we would like to see in our game. But we always want to give players as much ability to customize their experience as we can. We will do our best to implement custom notes.
GB: You talked about highly customizable difficulty settings for Kingmaker during your Kickstarter campaign. But what about the game's base level of difficulty? Taking the default setting and an average CRPG veteran – how challenging will they find that experience? What difficulty setting would you recommend for those of us who know what they're doing when it comes to RPGs?
OG: Yes, you will be able to customize difficulty in many ways. Our default difficulty setting is called Adapted Rules and will mostly follow Pathfinder rules, except for the parts where they get too lethal to the player. Criticals will be less deadly and character death will be handled in a way that allows you to recover characters without paying for the resurrection. We think that a lot of players will find the game enjoyable and challenging on this setting.
Meanwhile, the Core Rules setting is a little more challenging - this difficulty setting will be as close to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game system as possible, and characters will not be protected from death by the occasional critical strike. This is quite a challenging experience even for CRPG veterans, but combat on this setting requires all of the depth of character customization and mechanics. You have to use your characters’ strengths and guard against their weaknesses - in addition, buffs and consumables are really useful on this setting.
GB: And finally, how do you handle optional content? Will we be able to glean new things about the main story by doing side quests or are they mostly self-contained?
OG: What we are trying NOT to do are quests like "bring me 10 pieces of something useless for some stupid reason". We feel it’s important to build a consistent story where every single event has a connection with either the past, present, or future of the world and contribute to the plot development as well. Not only will side quests will be a reflection of the main plot but even the majority of simple events will reveal some knowledge or a new perspective on the story and the characters.