Lionheart Designer Diary #1

Producer Ion Hardie gives a behind-the-scenes account of this upcoming RPG's development.

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Entry #1 - 08/12/02

By Ion Hardie,
Reflexive Entertainment

Lionheart will be an off-beat role-playing game that will combine real-time combat, traditional high fantasy, and an alternate version of European history. The game is currently in development at Reflexive Entertainment, though it's being produced with feedback from veteran role-playing developer Black Isle Studios. In fact, Lionheart will actually feature the SPECIAL character creation system that originally appeared in Black Isle's classic 1997 game Fallout. We join Reflexive Entertainment producer Ion Hardie for a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Lionheart, including Ion's role in the project and how this unusual game got its start.

This upcoming RPG will let you explore a dark fantasy world.
This upcoming RPG will let you explore a dark fantasy world.

Why does this madman write? Press! That's what these designer diaries are all about. Getting the word out. Going into the backyards of your local Southern California game development houses and seeing what people do in the wee hours of the morning.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. My name is Ion Hardie, and I am the coproducer and lead designer for Reflexive Entertainment's latest game, Lionheart. Lionheart will be a new historically based RPG that will be published by Black Isle. And yes, I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. Then I grew up and translated the "time wasting" of playing RPGs and video games into marketable skills. The money I sank into my Colecovision really paid off. However, 10-plus-hour days are what allow it all to happen, so any kids reading this--don't be fooled. Some work is required. But it's not all bad. I don't have to worry about getting burned by the sun during the day, and I don't have to speak to any telemarketers at all. Ever.

For those of you who don't know who Reflexive Entertainment is, we are a game development studio set up in Lake Forest, California. We've been in business for about five years and have made Star Trek: Away Team, Zax: The Alien Hunter, Swarm, and Ricochet Xtreme. Reflexive started out as four people working in the downstairs of a condo I shared with our then almost meaninglessly titled CEO, Lars Brubaker. The other guys lived close by, and we worked all the time. Our first big contract was with Hasbro Interactive, and I can still hardly believe that they agreed to a million-dollar contract while sitting at our kitchen table. Maybe it was the big bowl of leftover Halloween chocolate bars that got their interest. Anyway, it was the break we needed, and we moved out of that condo and into larger and then a year later even larger offices. We also convinced Activision, JoWood, and then Black Isle to sign us up, and along the way we were able to hire some real talent and grow our staff. I sometimes wonder how the pieces all came together like they did.

In Lionheart, you'll explore foreboding areas, like this one.
In Lionheart, you'll explore foreboding areas, like this one.

Our current project, Lionheart, is our most ambitious project to date. We have six artists, three designers, and four programmers working on it on our end, and at least three other people from Black Isle assisting in its development. I currently am scurrying around, making sure things are getting done, making monsters work and attack correctly, and working on a bunch of other minutiae, like writing this designer diary. Other designers are testing the dialogue in the game, making sure the quest log works correctly, and so on. I feel like we have been running as fast as we can for months, getting scripting commands, level maps, story elements, enemy models, and all the other thousands of pieces together for these last few months of final construction and testing.

A SPECIAL Kind of Game

A new addition to the SPECIAL system: magic.
A new addition to the SPECIAL system: magic.

However, to give you a complete background check, let's now go backward in time to the fall of 2001, when we put the basic ideas for this game together. Our CEO, Lars Brubaker, and Feargus Urquhart, president of Black Isle Studios, have been friends for years. They started out on the bottom at Interplay at about the same time and stayed in contact as the years, and their careers, progressed. Last summer, I think Feargus said something to Lars first about making a game using the SPECIAL system, and Lars counterproposed a medieval setting using our Velocity engine (which we used for both Zax: The Alien Hunter and Star Trek: Away Team). Much talk and deliberation, over several months, slowly produced the rough foundation for what would eventually become Lionheart.

The Black Isle guys were very good to bounce ideas off, and they had plenty of their own to throw into the mix. In fact, Feargus created a document that must have been 60 pages long or more, detailing the SPECIAL system rules and how they could be adapted to a real-time setting. However, the first draft of the story that we ran with was set in a more generic-seeming Europe, without exact people or locations to flavor it. I am very glad that plan got tossed out, because our delving into history has opened up many cool quests and situations that we could not have dreamed of otherwise. Plus, it's just cool talking to Shakespeare.

The internal working title for this amalgamation of ideas was "Fallout Fantasy." We didn't think that this was going to ship like this--they were just the code words so anyone who knew the basic subject material could grasp what our concept was. We kicked a bunch of different titles around before "Lionheart" finally stuck.

And magic can be remarkably effective, too.
And magic can be remarkably effective, too.

This SPECIAL (which stands for a character's strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck) system, made popular in the Fallout series of games, seemed ideal for us to work with because of its adaptability. However, we have modified it to fit our real-time gameplay, and we also adapted it to work with magic spells. When creating a new character, players modify their basic attributes, select tag skills, select racial traits, and so forth. Like fans would expect to do in a SPECIAL game.

Right now, it's very rewarding to see that the monster animation is going along at full blast and that the spell effects are almost complete. We are working on programming journal entries as we speak...or write, or type, or whatever. Just about all game's maps are complete (with a few very small holdouts). The real fun is underway now. As enemy resistances and attack damages are modified by our developers and testers, swarms of bad guys can be attacked and destroyed and game mechanics can really be messed with. But frankly, as cool as my job is, I sometimes wish I were an artist. There is some fun stuff on their current schedule. Some of them have already transitioned into polishing stuff--making different areas look better and the like. I don't get to do that until I get it all working, which unfortunately won't be for a while yet. Oh well.

Next time, we'll get more into the nitty-gritty details of the game and focus on specific elements that will hopefully showcase to you why I think Lionheart is going to be so much fun.

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