After six years stumbling through the shadows, no-nonsense PC RPG Dungeon Siege crawls back onto our screens this month, sporting console versions, a new publisher, a new developer and, crucially, a new take on its decade-old gameplay formula.
Fallout: New Vegas studio Obsidian Entertainment’s decision to ditch the series’ menu-heavy focus on strategy and team management in favour of flamboyant, uninhibited blood-letting was a brave move, but one that has paid off rather nicely, recently securing it a healthy 8/10 from Quintin Smith in Eurogamer’s Dungeon Siege III review.
With the finished game barely out of the door, we caught up with lead designer Nathaniel Chapman to discuss how the fans have responded to its take on the franchise, how it went about striking a balance between the old and new, and what it has done to ensure a bug-free experience in the wake of last year’s infamously creaky Fallout: New Vegas.
Eurogamer: The game is out and early scores are in – are you happy with how it has been received?
Nathaniel Chapman: We’ve got a lot of good feedback on the story and the combat. The reaction to multiplayer is a bit mixed, but we’re really happy that people seem to be enjoying what we choose to focus on.
Eurogamer: It’s a more combat-focused experience than previous Dungeon Siege titles. Did you have your sights set on the Diablo crowd? Or are they impossible to please?
Nathaniel Chapman: We didn’t want to be ‘Diablo minus minus’. We wanted to be a different kind of game… It’s not that they’re impossible to please, but it’s impossible to please them and be happy with what we were trying to do.
Eurogamer: What aspect of the game are you most proud of?
Nathaniel Chapman: Personally, the combat system. I’m really happy that people seem to be getting into and enjoying the core mechanics, like the blocking, dodging, the power meters and all the abilities. That’s really satisfying to me personally.
Eurogamer: Is there any aspect of the game that you’d like to have spent a little more time on, given the opportunity? Not everybody seems to be happy with the loot system…
Nathaniel Chapman: I think our loot system has a lot of strengths but one of the weaknesses is that it’s not very clearly communicated what each of the stats does… I think having a more fleshed-out tutorial system for the stats and what they do and how they function would be a nice thing. Having more unique armour variants too. It’s always good sequel or DLC material.
Eurogamer: That decision to put combat front and centre was potentially a risky one. What was the thinking behind it?
Nathaniel Chapman: There were two main things that motivated it. One was, in bringing the game over to consoles, we really needed it to play in an exciting way on a console controller. It was very difficult to take the party management aspect of the earlier games and… it just didn’t mesh well with the console controls.
In general, one of the criticisms of the first Dungeon Siege was that it kind of played itself. We wanted to make a really active experience and put a lot of emphasis on the ‘action’ in ‘action RPG’. We wanted to ensure you never felt like the game was too automated. We really wanted it to feel like you were always directly controlling your character, and how you controlled your character really mattered and affected the outcome of combat.
Eurogamer: You weren’t worried about a backlash from the series’ core PC fanbase?
Nathaniel Chapman: Honestly, we were less worried about that aspect of it. Actually this is one thing I would have liked to have spent more time on, and we are actually spending time on now. Basically, I think as long as PC gamers have a good way to control the combat they will enjoy it. One review – I can’t remember which – said if you play with a game pad the combat is great, so right now we’re working on improving the PC controls through an update.
I think if there are PC gamers who are having a negative reaction it’s less about what the combat is, it’s more how the combat controls.
Eurogamer: The last Dungeon Siege came out back in 2005. What were the biggest challenges in bringing the franchise up to date?
Nathaniel Chapman: Obviously we couldn’t really use any of the tech from the first two games and we were developing our own engine, which was great. It was actually really nice – it gave us a lot of advantages, but then it’s also a big challenge to develop your tech as you’re developing the game.
I think people seem to be able to play through it fairly well. We’re not hearing about bugs or performance issues, so that’s awesome. But definitely it took a lot of time to get there.
The combat system is a big change from the earlier games. It took a lot of iteration… And then one of the other things that was really interesting was figuring out how to make levels for this style of game because it’s a very different type of game to the earlier Dungeon Siege games, as well as the usual Obsidian games… We had to find ways to be very combat-focused but not have it drag.
If you get endless combat for hours, the player starts to get bored. It was a very tricky balancing act between having too much combat and not having enough. That was new to us.
Eurogamer: The game seems to be relatively bug-free so far, especially compared to the problems you had with Fallout: New Vegas. Is that solely down to you being able to work with your own engine this time, or have you made a concerted effort to iron out those sorts of issues?
Nathaniel Chapman: I wouldn’t say we were not focused on being bug-free before, but we are very rigorous about controlling… it’s more like, y’know, boring production stuff. It’s not really easy to pin it on just ‘it’s the engine’. Obviously having our own engine helps, but it’s also really hammering down on defining how big the game is going to be and making sure we get all the bugs out and making sure we’re doing things in ways where bugs are less likely to happen.
With the engine, it’s more a matter of knowledge than anything else. When you’re working with your own tech, you’re the guys who know the tech the best. That is always an advantage. But again, I chalk up about half of it to the tech and half to us being very adamant that this was not going to be a buggy game and we were not going to have the technical issues we had with other projects.
Eurogamer: Was it a very stressful time at Obsidian when the New Vegas problems started coming in?
Nathaniel Chapman: Any time you get a lot of issues like that it is very stressful. I didn’t work on [New Vegas] so can’t give so much details on it but it did… As a company, something we’ve really been working to improve is our reputation with bugs. And I think that’s panning out with Dungeon Siege III.
It’s very solid.
Eurogamer: Do you think gamers have the right to expect bug-free games at launch, or is just an unavoidable side-effect of games getting more and more complex?
Nathaniel Chapman: So, I think there are two things. One is the rose-coloured glasses effect. I think older games were just as buggy [as newer ones], but we’re more tuned-in at looking for the bugs. I personally remember old PC games and even old Nintendo games that had tons of bugs.
I think the big difference is that the core technology of games has gotten more complex and it’s very difficult to get out all the little bugs. Usually in an old 2D Nintendo game a bug is no more than a few lines of code to fix, whereas in a 3D game it could be something in the animation system stomping memory in the renderer. There are so many more layers that it’s very hard to catch all the bugs.
On the flipside, I think more what gamers should expect when they go out and buy a game is that they get an experience that’s worth their money. But it’s very hard to say what that is.
You have an industry where World of Warcraft or an MMO comes out and nobody really expects it to be done when it ships. You’re buying it with the expectation that it’s going to get a lot more stuff, they’re going to fix a lot of balance issues and all that. At the same time, for a single-player game, the evaluation that you have to make is if someone puts $60 down on a game are they getting their money’s worth?
I’ve played games that are more buggy than other games but I enjoyed them a lot more. It’s hard for me to say whether gamers have a right to less buggy games. Where a developer spends their time is often… It takes time to fix bugs and it also takes a certain… there are some really ambitious games that have bugs because they’re ambitious, and they don’t have the time [to fix them], or they spend time on making the content cooler rather than fixing the bugs.
Obviously, if the game is so broken that you can’t play it then it’s not worth your money. On the flipside, if you have an amazing game that has some bugs and you spend $60 on it, maybe you can feel OK with that.
Having that as a company rep is not what we want, so as a company we’re very focussed on removing bugs. But when I go out to buy games, it doesn’t necessarily upset me if I find a few bugs.
Eurogamer: Rumour has it your next project is going to be a 2D RPG. Can you tell us anything about that?
Nathaniel Chapman: We do have some job postings for something but I can’t talk about it, except to say that people will be very excited when they find about it.
Nathaniel Chapman is lead designer of Dungeon Siege III at Obsidian Entertainment.