Tuesday is “opening day” for Curt Schilling. The former Boston Red Sox pitcher who won three World Series championships is about to launch his first video game. His game development studio 38 Studios and publisher Electronic Arts are launching the fantasy role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
Years in the making, the title is an adopted one. Schilling created 38 Studios and hired novelist R. A. Salvatore and Spawn artist Todd McFarlane to create a massively multiplayer online game code-named Copernicus. That title is still in the works and Salvatore has created a 10,000-year history to serve as the back story for a series of games. The whole endeavour is one of the biggest bets in video games and shows that passion counts for a lot in this business.
As you’ll see below, Schilling is a gaming nut, and not such a bad business guy. He pounced on an opportunity to create a new game with a shorter development time. When THQ put its Big Huge Studios team up for sale, 38 Studios bought it. So Schilling got together with role-playing game designer Ken Rolston and challenged his team to create a single-player RPG that fit into the 10,000-year history. They came up with an interesting story that involves a mysterious Well of Souls. The well determines your destiny, but as the player in Reckoning, you are the only person ever born who does not have a fate, as pre-determined by the Soul Weavers. You’re a reborn hero, seeking your killer and hoping to change the fate of the kingdom.
If players like Reckoning, you can bet there will be more games based on the 10,000-year history. A lot is riding on it. Schilling’s team has more than 400 employees in Providence, R.I., and Baltimore, Md. And Schilling is counting the days as if he were going into another World Series. Among the marketing events coming up: Schilling will promote it on talk shows, and gamers will livestream video of their gameplay on opening day. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Schilling.
Curt Schilling: Well, I’m nervous. This is my first opening day in a new job. Five-plus years is a lot. The challenging part is that I’m kind of powerless, we’re kind of powerless now. The game is going to be in players’ hands on Tuesday, and everything we could possibly do to make it the best we could do, we’re done with. Now it’s just the anticipation.
GB: Tell me about the genesis and how long you guys have worked on it now.
CS: The Reckoning project was started as another project at the Baltimore studio, six or seven years ago. The actual beginning of Reckoning was about two and a half years ago when we acquired the studio from THQ. There have been some people on this game for six, seven years now, which is staggering I think. We launched this company with the MMO as the driver behind what we were doing, we always had this … “product ecosystem” is what we called it. We always had that vision from day one of growing a new intellectual property around an MMO as kind of the sun in the solar system. This opportunity presented itself, and once we felt that ethically, from a philosophical perspective, the two studios were aligned, bringing them onto the team so to speak was a no-brainer. They’d been shopping an RPG around and could not get anybody to bite on the IP, this story that they were selling. It was just a match made in heaven, out of a very fortunate circumstance.
GB: Did it take very long for you guys to fit it into the timeline and the universe of what you’ve been doing?
CS: No. Literally, we sent assets down on a Wednesday evening, and Thursday they flew up here with those assets in their engine running in-game. Which was very powerful to see. The engine is ours, exclusively, proprietary, which is awesome. We have thousands of pages of history. We told them, “Hey, find a place in our timeline where you think you can build an awesome single-player RPG.” Ken Rolston and Ian Frazier and those guys looked around and the Age of Arcana was where they settled. That’s the age that Reckoning comes alive in.
GB: Could you remind us of the storyline?
CS: The overarching storyline is centered on immortality. I know that’s not some new revelation, oh-my-God groundbreaking thing, but … R. A.’s a hardcore MMO player, he’s a fantasy guy obviously, and death was always something in gaming that bothered him. And so the Well of Souls and immortality became one of the focal points of our franchise. In our MMO, 2,000 years after the RPG, the Well of Souls is a defined piece of the story, it’s explained through the story. When you backtrack to Reckoning, you are the first person to ever be successfully resurrected with the Well of Souls. The magical piece of this is, you walk into the world with no fate and no destiny, in a world where every human being in the world has a fate and a destiny. When R. A. starts to ask philosophical questions around that it gets pretty powerful. Yes, there are probably basic, everyday life questions around not having a fate, but there are forces of good and evil who quickly become aware of your presence, and your value to them is obviously diametrically opposed…. But that’s the story. You spend the game trying to figure out what it means, but more importantly for the play experience, what you mean to the world.
CS: Ah…no. It looks that way. But no. Explaining that to people has been the challenge in leading up to the demo and all the marketing. Because it’s hard not to just be visually stunned by the combat and the animation. But there’s a deep, stat-driven, lore-driven, story-driven multi-hundred-hour Baldur’s Gate RPG fantasy game behind this combat. That’s very hard for people to grasp. But yes, the combat is the thing that jumps out at you as what is uniquely different. I think when you see it first, you think God of War or some other combat game. And then you quickly understand when you start playing, there’s a massive, deep, and rich story behind this. It’s hard to imagine that the combat is statistically driven as well, in addition to being a button-masher. That was the challenge, and I think it’s still a challenge. I still think people are hesitant to believe that those two things can coexist, but they do.
GB: What was it like working with folks like Ken?
CS: Oh my gosh. [Apart from] having to introduce him as an internationally celebrated game designer every time I say his name, which is frustrating, it’s been awesome. Ken is what my dad used to call “good people.” He’s genuine, he’s obviously amazingly talented, and he’s got a couple screws loose. That makes it fun. He’s also quietly, deeply involved, in all the good ways. I can think I have good ideas, Bob [Salvatore] can think he has good ideas, and Todd can think he has good ideas. Ken is that guy who can take bigger concepts and make them fun gameplay. I think that was his magic and his touch on all of this. About a month before we went gold, Ken went and played the game for two straight weeks and never accepted a quest. And he wrote up a report about it. When we asked him why, his response was, “Because I wanted to know you could do it in our world.” That’s the depth of the world in this game, and this IP, and everything we do.
GB: You guys seem like you got it out on time. Did it pretty much come in on schedule?
CS: Yep. Well, our initial ship was late last year. We had a chance to look at the competitive window, and another smart decision by EA was to try to move away from that a little bit. I think we found a sweet spot. I think given where we are, given who and what we are, I think this is the best possible time we could have done this. I also think that there’s somewhat of a fallacy around launch windows. I think a lot of people believe game windows to be far longer and bigger than they really are for us as gamers. Outside of an MMO I’m not sure of many games that I don’t beat the crap out of in 30 days. I think it’s a month to month thing. There’s some other games, Plants Vs. Zombies, Railroad Tycoon, Company of Heroes, that I’ll play for years, on and off. But my dedication and commitment to one title and one title only, it’s not as big a window as we sometimes think. But at the end of the day, we finished on time, we finished on budget, and I think we over-delivered in every possible way that anybody outside of the company could have been expecting.
GB: How many hours of gameplay do you think you have here, on the light side or on the heavy side?
CS: I think if you were to go down and play main quest only, and not take anything else or do anything else, I think there’s 40 or 50 hours of gameplay, comfortably. If you are the full completionist, every quest in the world, find everything in the world, craft to max level, I think there’s comfortably 200 to 300 hours of gameplay, maybe more.
CS: That’s one of the things I think the industry… whether they intend it or not, [sees as] a selling point. Very few people actually ever spend 200 hours in a game, I think far less than we might want to believe. But they’re out there and they’re vocal. It’s something that actually matters to gamers. For us, if you think about our intent around our larger IP, we want to introduce our own version of Middle-Earth or whatever you want to call it, create that immersion and that depth. The NPCs, the animals, the environments, the colors, everything has a much deeper and broader and longer meaning to us.
GB: Are there some interesting twists and turns that you would say… “Hey, you gotta hang in there, because by the 25th hour such-and-such is gonna happen”?
CS: I would tell you, “Absolutely not.” I don’t want you to have to bide your time to have fun. I think that’s one of the secret pieces, marrying that Oblivion world and Skyrim world to the God of War combat. When you played Oblivion, most of my time spent in Oblivion, and Skyrim too, was going from quest to quest. Combat was something I had to put up with in between. In God of War it was about combat, dialogue would exist between encounters because it was a necessary evil, is the way I’d put it. Having both of those together, I don’t believe you can ever not be entertained, whether it’s working through the quest line, really understanding how deep and vivid and fleshed-out our crafting system is, looking at the ability tree and understanding what the destinies are, unlocking destinies and realizing that the destiny system is completely focused around…almost its own AI, shaping the gameplay around the player that you are and not the player that we want you to be.
GB: Are you hearing any sort of interesting buzz coming back from the internet, the way people are feeling about it, the way they’re feeling about the various previews?
CS: Yeah, the response has been overwhelming. I would tell you that there’s very few times in life… I don’t like to be caught off guard. I try to prepare and do research. But I think the online reaction, the awareness, has been staggering since the launch. Well over a million downloads. Awareness and pre-orders have gone through the roof in the last two weeks. I think they were something in the neighborhood of 100 percent… Two weeks in a row we had 100 percent growth in pre-orders. Today, right now, we’re number one on Gamespot overall and number one most anticipated. We’ve been in the top five on Gamestop on preorders. I believed we had that game, but until you actually see flesh and blood humans that don’t work for your company reacting to it, you never know.
CS: No. I believe the scores are going to be great, I think they’ll be a reflection of the game. I can’t remember, somebody had been mentioned… It was the IGN review, it’s a nine-part review, they’ve been playing for a lot of hours, and the game had not locked up, they had encountered literally no bugs in that entire time. 20, 30, 40, 50 hours of gameplay. The five to six months of polish time we took I think was incredibly well-spent. Because it all gets back to that point I’ve been making to everybody. This is our introduction to the gaming world. Our reputation is going to be whatever this game impresses on people. You want to create that value proposition, which is… You might not like this genre of game, but when you see our name on the box, you’ll not question the quality of the product inside. Not a lot of companies have that. We’re trying to earn that. Seeing this response, again, has been overwhelming. But the rubber’s going to meet the road on Tuesday. I think I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve accomplished, that’s for sure.
GB: So you’re starting out like it’s the World Series.
CS: It is! Every one of them is. When you think about the fact that… We’ve created a company that’s employed 400 people, and our success rides on the production and quality of everything that we do. This is an immensely important deal to us. We’re a building full of gamers who want to do nothing more than make awesome games for gamers. If we do that, the business side of it will take care of itself, front to back.
GB: How do you feel about working with EA on this so far?
CS: They’ve been a lot smarter than I could have been. You’ve got arguably one of the biggest and most influential global companies in the space… For me it’s been more of a mental… I’ve got friends from Peter Moore to David DeMartini, Bryan Neider and those guys, they’re friends, they’ve been friends. A couple of them longer than I’ve been in business with them. They’ve been out and available to explain the pitfalls of where we’re headed and what we’re doing, the bumps in the road, helping guide us. Their production staff has been amazingly influential. We couldn’t have gotten this done without them, incredible people. And then you’ve got their marketing wing, which is… It’s EA marketing. It’s been impressive.
CS: Yeah. It’s bad-ass combat in a master-crafted world.
GB: That’s good. Any other topics that are interesting to you right now?
CS: It’s all about Reckoning. I’m actually hopping on a plane to fly down to Indy tonight, I’m doing radio row for two days at the Super Bowl to talk about the launch of the game. And then I’m in New York, gosh, Sunday night and Monday. Around the launch. We have another really cool thing, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but Team Liquid, Sean Day9 posted on Team Liquid’s homepage, we’re doing a launch day live stream, about eight hours of gameplay with probably 10 or 15 of the most popular live-streamers in the world. They’re all going to be playing Reckoning and streaming it live for eight hours on launch day. This was something Sean brought to the table, it’s an unprecedented event, we’ll be streaming live to potentially millions of gamers on the launch day of our game. We’ve got some really cool prizes, real personal, gamer-centric prizes we’re going to be giving away to viewers of the stream. It’s a very organic, gamer-driven initiative, which is just so frickin’ cool.
GB: That’s cool, that’s very cool. I haven’t seen many games do that yet.
CS: There are games that are probably streamed live, I don’t know that anybody can touch the volume we’re talking about. Like I said, they’ve got probably 10 to 15 of the biggest, like Total Biscuit. They’ve brought in a bunch of European streamers as well. So it’ll be a global thing. They’re going to play the game and we’re going to have a lot of fun with it. Todd will be involved, R. A., myself. I know Felicia Day is going to stop by. It’s going to be a really neat event. And then I think launch night I’m on Jimmy Kimmel, and then we’re lined up to do Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien after launch as well.
GB: Boy. That’s pretty good publicity there.
CS: It’s exciting, yeah, it is. The game and the team deserve it.
CS: Oh, absolutely, I’ll do anything. Again, I honestly believe that they delivered. My only goal is to get people’s eyes on it. I believe that if you get your eyes on it and you play it, the game will sell itself to you, the vision of what it can become and what we can become will sell itself.
GB: In the story of this game, are there lots of clues about what you’re going to do with Copernicus, then?
CS: Well, it’s set in the same universe, so it will become obvious over the next I don’t know how many months and years of time. This game exists in the same world. In a small way, if you think of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and World of Warcraft, those were tied together because they were in the same IP, but there will be story connectivity between what we’re doing in the games. In the MMO, there will be races that you can play in the MMO that are monsters in the RPG. Things like that. Same locations, there will be cities and places, there will be a familiarity to it that… Nobody else, I think, has gone in with the intent to do that like this.
GB: How is the MMO. What’s the status so far?
GB: A team of 400, that’s a very big team.
CS: There’s 300 in the Providence studio, just south of 300 maybe in the Providence studio, which is the core of the MMO team. The Baltimore studio is the Reckoning team for the most part. We may have some corporate functions across both studios, but the studios are pretty comfortably on their own projects for the most part.
GB: So when this team frees up, does it help with the MMO? Or do you actually have something else going?
CS: Ah… [knowing laughter] Yes.