Josh Sawyer has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Project Eternity and shed some light on various design decisions.
* * *1. Let's skip traditional KS questions like "Did you really think it will get funded? What are you going to do with all this money?" and jump straight to game-making business.
So, a brand new world... What are elves and dwarves doing there? Mind you, I'm not against "encompassing the recognizable", I'm merely curious what your reasons were. Is it a Baldur's Gate thing?
A large number of players like to play familiar races. Of the common fantasy RPG races, dwarves and elves are the two that players gravitate toward most often. Also, because we stated we were making a game inspired by the Infinity Engine games and, implicitly, the Forgotten Realms setting used in most of them, it seemed appropriate.
We're going to have subrace offshoots that are slightly less traditional (like the "boreal" dwarves that people have already seen) as well as increasingly unusual races like orlans, aumaua, and godlike, but if you want to play a fair-haired bow-twanging elf or an axe-swinging bearded dwarf, we've got it covered.2. As a follow up question, when it comes to recognizable and familiar vs strange and bizarre, how far is too far? Do you find that the players in general are more comfortable with the familiar? How willing are they to take their time to figure out something truly different?
People in general are more comfortable with the familiar, but players vary a great deal. Some players react extremely negatively if any aspect of the setting or mechanics in the game is unusual or unorthodox. Some players are of the opinion that if something's been done before, they're not interested in seeing it done again. There are also single-issue gamers. I've seen gamers who aren't interested in an RPG unless there are dwarves in it and I've seen gamers who write off an RPG if there are firearms in it. Above all else, many RPG fans are passionate, so if you push their buttons, there's a good chance the response will be strong.
I also think that gamers often trip over the same logical and emotional hurdles that anyone does. If they've used something before and liked the experience, it can be hard for them to see the flaws in that experience. Similarly, if they don't like the ideas they formulate about how something is going to work, they can have difficulty revising their views even after it's been explained to work contrary to their assumptions.3. So, a brand new world, with elves, dwarves, the godlike and the odd, as well as souls and firearms. How do the firearms fit in there from the design perspective?
I think early firearms are interesting and I've enjoyed reading about their use in late Medieval and early modern Europe. From a gameplay perspective, they pack more of a punch than bows and crossbows, but they have worse accuracy and take much longer to reload. They're also particularly good at penetrating wizards' arcane veils, which are commonly used for defense. In our setting, I believe the presence of firearms helps shift the feeling of the world away from the equivalent of Earth's High Middle Ages and into the Late Middle Ages and early modern period. Europe's early modern period was a time of domestic social unrest and extensive exploration by imperial powers. I think those topics aren't explored a lot in fantasy RPGs (Maztica [RIP] being a notable exception) and the presence of firearms helps give the feeling of that age.4. Speaking of arcane veils and such, one of the most praised features in BG2 was the mage duels. In BG a wizard was an annoying pest lurking behind fighters and waiting to be shot full of arrows. In BG a wizard was an impregnable juggernaut, capable of wiping out your entire party, if it was caught unprepared. What should we expect in Project Eternity?
Personally, I believe AD&D elevated the "glass cannon" conception of wizards to an un-fun place. It's cool that, especially in 2nd Edition, wizards had so many spells to use, but in Baldur's Gate II, I believe it resulted in more-or-less strict combat puzzles rather than loose combat puzzles or tactical challenges. If the only viable way through a fight is to use a specific sequence of spells, that's not something that you tactically opt to do -- it's the thing you must do to move forward. And in many of those fights, the only way to figure out what spells to use is to trigger the fight, get wiped, reload, and try again.
I think we can still have powerful, high-threat wizards in Project Eternity without using rock-paper-scissors defense and counter mechanics. I'd like to present players with challenges that make them think of a variety of solutions. I want them to feel like they can be flexible and adaptive when an unforeseen challenge appears. If the game comes out and I see walkthroughs that all suggest the exact same tactics for going through a tough fight, I believe that's a failure on my part.5. Stamina, health, and regeneration. A lot has been speculated on the topic, so would you mind clarifying it? What are the advantages of a "dual-bar" system? What does it do that a single-bar system can't? What role does stamina regeneration play?
The "dual-bar" or two resource system allows the player to have separate tactical and strategic resources for their characters' survivability in combat. In most versions of A/D&D, you have hit points that determine how much damage a character can take before he or she can no longer perform actions in combat. If you're playing in a more forgiving edition, you also have "Death's Door" rules that allow the character to dip into negative hit point values without being killed outright.
Many A/D&D adventures have an expectation of periodic healing, so if your party members have a rough fight, the party cleric, druid, or maybe paladin has to spend resources to make you viable for the next fight. This leads to the "healing battery" expectation, where someone in the party has to devote strategic resources to healing between fights -- or you're stuck walking back to a resting location with high frequency. Neither of those options are particularly enjoyable for many players.
With Stamina and Health, Stamina represents short term damage (shock, impact trauma, initial pain) and Health represents "the bad stuff" (burns, cuts, bruised ribs, etc.). When you take damage, you lose Stamina, but you also lose Health at a fixed ratio to the amount of Stamina damage you took. Currently it's at 1:4 Health:Stamina. When you run out of Stamina, your character gets knocked out, just like hitting 0 hit points in most editions of A/D&D. You're effectively out of the fight and you're not going to get back up without outside assistance.
If you're conscious, Stamina will regenerate quickly. "How quickly, Josh?" I don't know, man, but... pretty fast. It's the thing you're most likely to run out of in combat, but you'll probably get most or all of it back before you start another fight. You can also recover Stamina through the use of spells or class abilities, so it's something you can choose to tactically manage in combat. Between fights, it's really not an issue. No one has to cast ten healing spells in a row to get characters back into fighting shape because the Stamina will return in short order.
Health damage doesn't regenerate and you can't get it back with magic. You have to rest to recover Health. If your Health hits zero, you'll either enter some form of maimed/critically injured (and unconscious) state or, optionally (and all the time in Expert mode), be killed outright. If you explore far away from rest locations and keep getting your faces pounded in, you can have characters with very low Health and high Stamina. That's a dangerous circumstance to be in because even one or two blows could lead to a character being maimed or killed.
Ultimately, the mechanics are present to allow "hit points" and unconsciousness to be a real threat in individual combats without necessitating the presence of a healer or resting to allow for more exploration.6. What are your thoughts on combat difficulty? Where is the line between challenging and frustrating? Would we have to download "Sawyer's Hardcore Mod!" separately (btw, loved the mod, great work) to enjoy Project Eternity properly or would it be a challenging experience "out of the box"?
Thanks. You should not need to download a separate mod for a challenge, but there will be a pretty big gulf between playing on standard difficulty without Expert and playing on higher difficulty with Expert (not to mention the other two challenge modes). My opinion on challenge is that accomplishments you achieve without some measure of frustration often feel unfulfilling, but every player has his or her own comfort zone for frustration. Some players only feel satisfied if the frustration level is high and the game is kicking them in the virtual groin. Other players really don't deal well with adversity and would rather overcome conflicts with minimal resistance.
I do think it's worth saying that tactical combat is a core part of the game, as it was for almost all of the Infinity Engine games. If someone simply doesn't like combat, Project Eternity may not be the game for them. There are ways to avoid combat or gain a distinct advantage in combat, but a good chunk of the game is built around it.7. Tim Cain said that "Non-combat skills are gained separately from combat skills. You shouldn't have to choose between Magic Missile and Herbalism." May I ask why?
Everyone in a party contributes to the party's overall combat efficacy and failure in a combat challenge is a game-ending (or at least reloading-invoking) event. With combat, you can fail or succeed by degrees. Failure in a non-combat challenge is usually not in degrees, but in absolutes, and there's not much (if any) tactical decision-making that can change the outcome. Additionally, combat is always a way through areas. While we are going to give players many different ways to navigate areas and resolve conflicts, combat will be a common means of moving forward.
Because combat will usually be more dominant than any single other means of conflict resolution, and because every character contributes to party combat efficacy, increasing an individual character's combat capability is always a strategically sound decision (assuming you aren't metagaming every non-combat challenge). The thing is, we want people to use non-combat skills to navigate through the environment and solve problems, so we want characters to have those skills! Dividing combat and non-combat skills into separate resources allows parties to be good in and out of combat, but a party still will not be able to cover all "bases". The system we're making doesn't assume that you have maximum combat capabilities and are buying skills like a 3E rogue with an 18 Intelligence.8. Chris Avellone mentioned several times that the player will be able to avoid some combat encounters with non-combat skills. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that Project Eternity will be a combat-heavy game (like Baldur's Gate was) with combat oriented classes. Why would a combat party want to avoid combat? How are you going to balance the loss of experience, content, and loot?
Yes, Project Eternity will have a lot of combat (though probably not as much as Icewind Dale II!) and the classes are all "battle ready". Players can avoid or stall combat either to gain an advantage or to stretch their resources between safe resting locations. Some players may simply not want to fight certain enemies or they might want to peacefully resolve a conflict.
Tim and I would both like to use an experience system that relies heavily (if not wholly) on quest, objective (i.e. steps within a quest), and challenge (e.g. exploration rewards) rewards. We want to encourage players to solve problems by whatever means are at their disposal. Combat is a very common solution, but that shouldn't be the only solution. If our experience system discourages the use of alternate resolution mechanics, it's at odds with that goal.
As far as loot goes, I don't want to rely heavily on putting all of the best gear on enemies. Again, that would conflict with the goal of allowing the player to resolve problems in the way that they would like to.9. Which speech/conversation skills and ability are planned or being discussed and why? Are there any spells that can grant you new dialogue-related abilities like PST's speak with the dead ability?
We haven't discussed conversation skills as much as reputation mechanics. To me, conversation is one of the primary means players have of defining the type of person they are playing in the world. Instead of a heavy emphasis on conversation skills, I would rather allow players to behave in a variety of ways and develop robust reputation systems to react to those choices throughout the game. I think it's more interesting to allow a person to select diplomatic responses and develop a reputation for being a diplomat than to level up a Diplomacy skill and pick the Diplomacy option when it's unlocked for you.
I think some of the best role-playing experiences come from expressing your character's personality in the way that you want and seeing how the world reacts to it. I believe that we can make a conversation system that allows people to do this with dialogues and characters in a natural way.10. Chris mentioned that you "want to explore the idea of speech as a tool not as a key", citing "intimidating, flattering, pissing people off" as examples and "providing a broader context or more information on the target" as the goals/rewards. While it worked well in Planescape: Torment, it does sound like you're marginalizing the speech skills, going from one extreme (a win button) to another (mostly flavor). Any thoughts on that?
I'd like to marginalize the speech skills into the dust bin, personally. I think the player's conversation choices should be important without dead-ending quests and I think that Alpha Protocol managed to find ways to do that. There are certainly optimal choices for the player to make if you want a certain type of outcome (e.g. impressing one character instead of another), but dialogue isn't a right/wrong puzzle.
I don't think it's correct to say that I want dialogue choices to be flavor only. I want the player's choices from node to node to actually be more mechanically significant that they have been in most RPGs. That consists of two parts: the immediate reaction within the conversation and the long-term effects of how that choice feeds into your reputation. Sometimes the short-term effects are minor, but the reputation system won't "forget" what you've done.
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Thanks, Josh. Looking forward.