Q&A: Conan developer Nihilistic

We check in with Nihilistic Software to find out how THQ's fantasy action game is shaping up.

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THQ's upcoming game based on the world's most recognized barbarian (apologies to Thundarr) is set to slash its way into stores this fall. We're expecting to get a look at the game at next month's E3 Media and Business Summit, but, hungry for information, we recently tracked down Nihilistic's lead gameplay programmer, Mark Cooke, and hit him with some questions.

GameSpot: How's development been going on the game?

One of the team's goals was to make you really feel like you're playing as Conan.
One of the team's goals was to make you really feel like you're playing as Conan.

Mark Cooke: Overall development has been going great; lots of little bits and pieces are starting to come together as everything is being integrated into one cohesive package. We're currently in the final weeks of development on Conan. As an example of what we're up to, as gruesome as it sounds, we're tweaking those last few parameters to make a decapitation feel more barbaric to exhibit Conan's combat prowess further. Putting in a lot of these small changes near the end is what really takes the game to the next level--not just a fun combat experience, but really making users feel like they are playing as Conan.

As many developers would attest, this is a time of both stress and satisfaction. The team is working really hard to tune the gameplay and fix bugs, but when we finally take a step back and look at how the game is coming together, it feels great and puts everyone's work into perspective. It's always a lot of fun for me to check out a mission I may have not seen for a few days and see all the great improvements the team has put in.

GS: What's been the most challenging aspect of realizing your vision for a Conan game?

MC: From the first day Nihilistic started working on this project, we knew we had to capture the essence of Conan: bloody combat and adventure throughout Hyboria. Staying true to the character and emphasizing Conan's traits have been both a challenge and a prime goal in the development of this game. That said, I believe the ability to "crush your enemies, see them driven before you and to hear the lamentation of the women" has been our biggest success. In all seriousness, seeing Conan surrounded by seemingly overwhelming odds (be it from man or beast) and using his supreme combat abilities to slice enemies in half at the waist, break their backs across his knee, or simply impale them through the chest has been an exciting thing to see.

GS: How has the combat system been evolving?

MC: The combat system is definitely the core of the Conan experience. With that in mind, what we've been focusing on recently are two main things: smoothing out the controls so players perform the actions they want when they want it, and making sure players feel the impact of each of Conan's barbaric combos.

The combat system will give you the freedom to change your tactics on the fly.
The combat system will give you the freedom to change your tactics on the fly.

From the start, we made it a goal to have a really fluid combat engine. If a player is attacking but then suddenly wants to block, dodge, or jump to avoid an incoming enemy attack, we allow that. If they want to switch targets midcombo, we allow that too. Players can dodge to extend a combo chain and move around the environments quickly. We've tried to make a freeform combat system so players can really get creative with how they string moves together.

As for capturing the barbarism of each combo, we've employed a number of camera tricks and controller rumble. On top of that, we have a really cool dynamic gore system that can determine how to either remove limbs on an enemy or simply cut them in two, depending on the combat move Conan is using and where it hits his enemy. Every time I see new players try out the game, they always get a big kick out of how Conan is able to decimate his foes.

GS: What's been the one key element to combat you've wanted to make sure you get just right?

MC: In addition to making sure we represent Conan's combat skill appropriately, we really have tried to make a game that isn't a straightforward hack-and-slash button masher. Conan has a lot of different combat abilities that can be unlocked throughout the course of the game, and players have to vary their strategies accordingly when battling with different enemy types. At Nihilistic, we've worked hard to make a game that is both challenging and fair. On the easier difficulty levels, the game is accessible to a wide audience, but players looking for the ultimate challenge should try king mode!

GS: How have the adventuring and puzzle aspects been to manage? What's the breakdown between straight-out fighting and puzzling/platforming shaping up to be?

Puzzles and platforms won't be as prominent in the game as combat.
Puzzles and platforms won't be as prominent in the game as combat.

MC: Conan is primarily an action combat game, but we've definitely worked on offering multiple styles of combat with some varying mission goals and platforming segments. The breakdown is probably about 80 percent combat and 20 percent puzzles and platforming. We've tried to make sure we show off Conan's strengths as he navigates through the environments. Knocking down columns, destroying metal handcuffs that are imprisoning fair maidens, or pulling apart a gigantic door that no other human could possibly manage are some of the things players will be able to do throughout the course of the game.

Throughout Hyboria, there are hidden areas with maidens and treasure. Players will want to seek out these areas to earn precious experience points, and in turn, acquire all of Conan's impressive and powerful combat abilities. Conan is good at removing his enemies from his path, but killing is a means to an end for his goals.

GS: What games have influenced the direction you're going with the title?

MC: While everyone on the team has played a lot of games and has various games they each individually prefer, the two biggest influences have been the recent successful action game franchises Ninja Gaiden and God of War. Both are great games, but I feel we've innovated Conan in our own way and offer a different action combat experience from other games that have come before us.

GS: Can you speak to the differences between the two platforms? How are you taking advantage of each?

MC: While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 each has its own distinct capabilities, the programming team has been primarily focusing on making sure the Conan gameplay experience is equally compelling on both systems. On the Xbox 360, we take advantage of controller rumble, and on the PlayStation 3, we have Sixaxis support. Beyond that, we've tried to make as solid a game as possible so that no matter which platform, players will get the same great experience.

GS: How much of the Conan lore are you drawing on for the title? Are you putting in any surprises for hardcore fans?

MC: While the story of our game is a new story in the Conan universe, it was definitely inspired by Robert E. Howard's original stories. Some familiar locations and beasts will definitely be recognizable by fans of the books. Fans will also recognize locations in the game, such as Stygia, Kush, and the Barachan Isles. The artists at Nihilistic have put in a lot of time into representing these locations in a painterly style inspired by Frank Frazetta. We've worked hard to give the game a unique look that hardcore fans will appreciate.

Fans of the books will find plenty that's familiar in Conan.
Fans of the books will find plenty that's familiar in Conan.

There are other minor details in the game that Conan fans will hopefully enjoy. I don't want to spoil anything, but there are certain combat move names that those familiar with the books and films will recognize. In addition to that, some of Conan's animations were inspired by poses taken from Frazetta's artwork. It takes a keen eye to spot them, but we hope the dedicated fans will appreciate these details.

GS: What are you planning to show off at E3?

MC: In addition to content we have previously shown in Shem, Kush, and Stygia, we'll be showing the Barachan Isles for the first time, as well as a new area of Kush, the underground caves. Within the Kush underground, we'll be showing a new boss, the Elephant Demon, as well as a new beast monster, the monstrous Cave Apes.

Along with the new locations and monsters, we'll be unveiling the lead female character of our story, A'Kanna. GameSpot will have to come check out the game further at E3 to get more details on her!

GS: Thanks for your time.

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