Developer Piranha Bytes is dreaming big with its upcoming sequel to the action role-playing game Risen. The sequel, Risen 2: Dark Waters, takes the high-fantasy setting of the previous game to the high seas, where pirates rule and buried treasure is ripe for the picking. We recently caught up with Daniel Oberlerchner, senior brand manager with publisher Deep Silver, to talk about all the additions coming to this game.
GameSpot: Give us an update on Risen 2's development. What aspects is the team working on at present?
Daniel Oberlerchner: We're slowly but surely leaving the content creation phase (items, textures, animations, and voice-over) and starting with fine-tuning and balancing, which is commonly called the alpha phase. All NPCs are getting their weapons and inventory set up, the fighting system has to be tested thoroughly, and we also have to make sure that the learning curve for the player is not too steep in the beginning. As Risen 2 offers a lot of playtime, the right pacing in the story and gameplay is important. An old saying goes that 80 percent of the work is in the last 20 percent, and this is true especially for open-world RPGs. Creating the assets is more or less straightforward once the preproduction is done; arranging and combining them to create an interesting world people like to play in is the most important and challenging part.
GS: We were told at the March Game Developers Conference in San Francisco that Risen 2 is intended to be a "full-fledged pirate role-playing game." For the team at Piranha Bytes, what's needed to make a full-fledged pirate RPG?
DO: Wow--where to begin? Let's start with the general scope (aka, the recipe), and then we'll talk about the building blocks (aka, the ingredients). What's generally needed to create any good RPG is an immersive gameworld with interesting characters who offer the player a convincing backdrop for the gameplay to happen in. What makes it "piratey"? First of all, the architecture has to reflect the culture of pirates, so everything you see in the game has to fit the period we want to convey to the player and the lifestyle of pirates. Pirates don't rely on civil engineers to build their houses, so everything looks a bit improvised and chaotic.
Secondly, you must have a language and tone throughout the game which fits the setting. The pirates in Risen 2 live in a dark and gritty world, so living like a pirate also means talking like a pirate. Thirdly, the weaponry we give to the player matches the setting as well: muskets, rapiers, sabres, pistols, bombs, powder kegs, coconuts, and parrots. Yes, you read that right--you can launch your very own parrot at people to annoy them, and knock them unconscious with coconuts. And last but not least, you can craft your own weapons and booze from the items you collect during your adventures.
GS: We were told in March that Risen 2 will take place across numerous islands, rather than on a single landmass, and that there would be some as-yet undisclosed means of transporting your pirate hero and his companions to and from different islands. Is it safe to assume that this method of transportation might be some sort of ship, perhaps of the pirate variety, as it were? If Risen 2 were, in fact, to have a "pirate's ship," if you will, what other purposes would it serve? Customizable housing? A quest hub? A crafting hub?
DO: Yes, you will be able to command your very own ship in Risen 2! The decision to make the ship the central means of transport in the game was based on the feedback from the fans. In Risen 1, even key characters dropped in and out of the storyline, and the players felt a bit isolated--they wanted a sense of ongoing companionship. For this reason, the ship in Risen 2 will not only get you from point A to point B, but will function as a hub for your companions where the player can talk to and get quests from them. So it helps to add the flavor of a party in an RPG without the hassle to the player of having to manage multiple characters all the time.
GS: We saw in the original Risen trailer that the nameless hero will have at least one companion, a swarthy young woman who seems to be an expert at voodoo magic. What can you tell us about this character? Who is she and what is she capable of? Will she remain at your side throughout the game?
DO: It's a bit too early to disclose her role in the game to a big extent, but I can confirm that she will be one of your companions in Risen 2 who will be part of your crew and support you in fights if you choose her to accompany you on shore leave. Her role will also depend on your actions throughout the game, so make your decisions wisely.
GS: Aside from this voodoo priestess, who else will join the hero on his quest to save the islands?
DO: The fellowship of the player character in Risen 2 will consist of representatives of the different factions in the gameworld, as well as special characters you can pick up during your adventures. They will also give you feedback on how you're doing and might also give you tips and hints on how to tackle some challenges. Patty, for example, is the helmswoman of your ship and is a character who made her debut in Risen 1. In Risen 1, Patty asked the player character to help her find the treasure of her father Steelbeard and took him on a treasure hunt all across the island.
In Risen 2 she will not only return, but will also have a reunion with her father, one of the mightiest pirates of the southern seas. Another example of a companion character would be Venturo, who is a soldier from the Inquisition and who shares their basic values but is fed up with all the discipline of the order. All characters who are with the hero will have a different skill set, so Patty, for example, is a very talented melee fighter, whereas Venturo will support the player with his musket. Additional skill sets will even include pairing up with a character who can heal you, or someone who loots killed creatures for you.
GS: We recall from the original Risen that the island home of the hero is under siege by mystical monsters of great power that are disguised as natural disasters. How can the hero possibly prevail against a group of these ancient beings? Is the hero's task to simply become powerful enough to confront them directly? If not, what indirect means must he seek?
DO: The reason why games from Piranha Bytes seem so authentic although they take place in a fantasy world is because the hero character always starts off as a humble, normal person who stumbles into a big adventure. So becoming an all-powerful entity is not on the shopping list for the main character. While the forces he has to face are epic, he will still find a way to influence the pendulum of destiny since the titans are also not the only force in the Risen universe. The Risen universe itself is governed by a power struggle, be it titans, their lords, the Inquisition, or the very anarchic pirates who try to outsmart everyone with intrigue and wits. The journey of the nameless hero character will be very like a journey in a sailing boat where he sometimes will have control over what is happening and on other occasions be committed to the ways of the mighty ocean. In the end, he will be able to influence the scales to a degree that can change the world, but how he can do that is something for the player to discover.
GS: We understand that Risen 2 will include a more fully-realized world with characters that go about their own daily schedules regardless of whether players are present or not. While this is definitely an interesting addition, what will it add to the game? How will the hero interact with, or benefit from, characters who wake up every morning to tend to their farm, or sneak out to the tavern every evening?
DO: To understand the focus on daily routines, the AI of the NPCs, and other design decisions, we have to dive a bit into the origin of the Gothic series. When Piranha Bytes created Gothic in 2001, their aim was to create an RPG which follows the tradition of the old Ultima games. The Ultima games in the '80s and '90s already offered a lot of the game mechanics we take for granted in a modern RPG even though the presentation was of course in no way comparable to what players are used to seeing on the screen nowadays. In Risen 2, every NPC has a daily routine and will react to the player based on a set of rules. Many of those rules are similar to the rules in our society: Don't steal or you will be punished. Don't attack or threaten people unless you're ready for a fight yourself. Don't sneak into people's houses when they are awake/nearby or you will raise their attention. All those basic rules give the player a sense of actually having a place as a person in society and thus convince him that this is a real world he is playing in.
Risen 2 does not throw the player into a huge city with thousands of citizens where none of them react to what you're doing. The appeal of the games of Piranha Bytes is to observe the NPCs, and then either play along or try to outsmart the AI by developing devious ways to get to your goals. What we offer is a lively and immersive gameworld to play with, and we equip you with the hero character, who is meant to serve as a vessel for your chosen play style. This is also why there is no character creation screen when you start the game. All decisions you make in the game will influence which skills will be available from trainers throughout the gameworld. Additionally, the game will not only react on your actions in the short term, but NPCs will remember that you fought or argued with them and, depending on the outcome, admire or hate you.
GS: We understand that the console version of Risen 2 is, in fact, being developed simultaneously with the PC version (a departure from the previous game's console version, which was developed later than the PC version and didn't turn out as well). Could you give us an update on the console version's development? What steps are being taken to ensure that the console versions of Risen 2 are as close as possible to the PC version? What's being done to ensure that the console versions of Risen 2 are better than the console version of Risen?
DO: Risen 1 was started as a PC-only development, which means that the conversion afterwards into an Xbox 360 game was quite a challenge. For Risen 2 we have all three platforms (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC) in parallel development, so each platform should get the best result possible. To ensure a higher quality, we optimized also the workflow. For example: During the development of Risen 1, Piranha Bytes didn't have the possibility to judge how their content would look on a console instantaneously because they had to send all content first to their development partner Wizarbox, who then in turn had to send their feedback. This took a lot of time, and time is always a scarce resource in game development.
In the case of Risen 2, Piranha Bytes now has all the preview tools from Wizarbox in their development environment to see their creations on the different platforms immediately, which gives us a lot more iteration cycles to get the game right since it is vastly more time efficient. Apart from better organization, there is also a lot of technical progress in Risen 2 on consoles compared to Risen 1. Risen 1 was, for example, in part quite inefficient with its memory management since it contained one huge island and many objects shared a texture file, so if you downsized one texture to save memory, you also lost quality somewhere else.
Risen 2 is now split into smaller islands, and all items do have their very own texture sheet, which allows for much better memory handling. Excellent memory management is vital for console development since PCs nowadays have 4 to 6GB of RAM, and the current console generation is at 256 to 512MB, so you have to be very skillful to get a good result.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add?
DO: Absolutely! I'd like to thank our fans for their dedication and also their feedback, which keeps us and Piranha Bytes on our toes while communicating and creating the game. Stay tuned for more on Risen 2 in the upcoming months, and consider visiting us at Gamescom if you happen to be in Europe in the middle of August!
GS: Thank you for your time.