At a recent preview event for the upcoming Darkspore, I was fortunate enough to chat with Mike Perry, Executive Producer at Maxis, all about the upcoming PC/Mac title. Keep reading to find out about the way the loot mechanic works, the types of NPCs you'll be facing, and whether or not you'll be playing the game on a system other than your computer (hint: you might be).
Game Rant: Hi there Mike. As the Executive Producer on Darkspore, what does your role on the project entail?
Mike Perry: "As the Executive Producer, I'm the person generally responsible for the development of Darkspore, and it's my job to really help the rest of the team get all the resources they need, and make the game as best as they can make it. So I'm the guy that runs the project. *Laughs*"
GR: The game's title, Darkspore, obviously makes people think of Spore, the title that came out back in 2008. How are the two titles linked? Obviously, you have the Creature Creator that comes from Spore, but is there anything else that links to that title, or is it its own project?
MP: "You're right. By naming the game Darkspore we wanted to make sure the players knew that we have that cool technology from Spore in this game. Darkspore is not a sequel to Spore, and it's also not a spin-off. It is its own game, and now that you've played it, you can see that it really is a different kind of game, and really unique kind of Action-RPG. And that's something we wanted players to know, because in the world of Action RPGs, using the technology from Spore let us put some really unique features in the game. The ability to collect loot for your heroes, and then bring them into the editor, upgrade your heroes however you want to by putting loot on wherever you want to, and then customize it, is something that we don't think players have really seen before in an Action RPG, and is something that we think is really unique to us. At the same time, we want people to know that this is not Spore, it's a unique Action RPG, and it is its own game, so we named it Darkspore to try and say both of those things at the same time."
GR: When playing the game, I noticed that the loot you picked up throughout the level, you couldn't actually equip until the level had been completed. Is that correct, or was I missing something?
MP: "Yeah, that's right. We felt that, as you're playing through the level, the level gameplay that we designed is very unique. We built this campaign system that we call 'Chaining planets together,' and the way it works is that, each one of the levels in the game is only about 15 minutes long or so. If you play through the level, and beat all the Darkspore on that level, and then the boss at the end, you're rewarded with a very unique piece of loot at the end of those levels. But then you're given this choice: you can either go back to your ship and upgrade your heroes with this piece of loot, or you can choose to forfeit that loot and go onto another level -- the reason you'd make that choice is because the next level is harder, and harder levels pay off better loot. But, if you lose, you won't get any loot at all. It's a neat risk/reward mechanic that encourages players to push forward as far as they can."
"What we really wanted for players to do, while they're on those levels, is really focus on the action gameplay. Especially when you're playing co-op, when you're playing with your friends, we really wanted your friends to know what you're doing, while you're paying attention to which characters they've spawned into their squad, and to make sure that you support them. So, we intentionally didn't let players go into the editor during that level because we don't want to stop that action-gameplay experience. We want that action experience to be fast-paced all the way throughout the level, and then we let players back on their ships spend as much time as they want to in the editor, without any pressure saying 'Hey, hurry up and come back in here, I'm getting killed by an enemy!'"
GR: Today, we only have enough time to play the first few levels. So far, they've all looked relatively similar. There's a purple sheen to everything, perhaps a few grassy areas here and there, but on the whole, it's basically "Space." How do the later levels vary themselves from that first hour of gameplay?
MP: "Darkspore is set on six different planets. On each one of those planets, there are four different sectors -- what you guys are playing today, you're seeing levels from two different planets. One is an asteroid that has been destroyed in space, and you're teleporting between the broken parts, and the other is a dark, moon planet which has a lot of necro-type creatures on it. But we've also got other types of planet -- there's a jungle-type planet, which has a lot of lush green environments, and an ice-planet, which has lots of snow and ice, but also plasma rivers on there, and few other planets that have very different looks and feels. As the player plays through, they're going to encounter a lot of different environments and, more importantly, on the different types of planet, the player is going to encounter a lot of different types of NPCs. You'll want to build a different collection of heroes, and a different squad of heroes, so you can make sure that you'll be able to counter those types of NPCs that you see on these other planets."
GR: During the session, I noticed that Experience doesn't share between each of the heroes in your party. Whichever hero you're playing as, he's the one who receives all the XP. Do you think that perhaps that will make it too hard for some gamers?
MP: "What we wanted to do with Darkspore is make sure that we had a game that supported, not only leveling of the player, but leveling of the characters. Because of that, they actually level a little bit differently. A traditional Action RPG lets you play as a single hero character, and that's the guy you level up through the rest of the game. Darkspore is a game about many heroes, you're collecting a lot of different hero characters, they all have their own unique abilities, and they can all be different levels."
"There's two ways to level up in the game. The first is You as a player. You play as a Crogenitor, so it's your Crogenitor Level, and that's what XP affects. So as you play through the game, the XP you collect, no matter which hero you're playing as, levels you up as a player. As you level up, you're unlocking new heroes, and you're unlocking the ability to purchase upgrades, either in the Weapon Store, or in the upgrade store that's in the inventory. So that's the way the player levels up."
"The way you level up the heroes is with the loot that you collect. As you're playing through the game, you see a lot of loot drops, the special loot that you get at the end of the levels, and when you put your loot on the heroes, the loot itself increases the level of the hero. So it's all about upgrading stats and loot to level up your heroes, and it's all about playing the game and collecting XP to level up you as a player."
GR: I'm not particularly good at Action RPGs -- I'll quite happily admit that. The guy sitting next to me, however, was very good. During one of the levels, I kept getting killed by one of the bosses, but he sailed through with ease. How does the game accommodate for the different skillsets of different players?
MP: "That's a great question. There are lots of different types of Action RPG players, with a very broad set of skills, right? So what we did with Darkspore, is we created a system called an AI Director. This was something very inspired by Left 4 Dead and their design for their AI Director. The AI Director in Darkspore pays attentions to everybody that's playing the game, and what it does is: controls the number of NPCs that spawn in, it controls the type of NPCs, their behavior, how hard they are. It watches how you're playing, and adjusts the difficulty dynamically depending on how you're playing the game."
"It also takes into account how many people are playing together. So if you're playing solo through the campaign, the AI director will spawn one type of enemy, and if you're playing in Co-op, it'll do something a little bit differently. We want to make sure that the AI director supplies a really good experience for everybody who plays the game, regardless of your skill level. That said, the difficulty of the game absolutely increases as you're playing through the campaign, and as you go from level to level, it gets harder and harder, but the AI Director is there to ensure the difficulty level is always tuned to how you're playing."
GR: If you were to die then, say, at the end of a level, and then replay it, would the AI Director know that? If you get your butt kicked at the end of Level 3, would he say, "Ok, next time you play Level 3, it'll be a little bit easier"?
MP: "The AI Director works by paying attention, not to what you did previously, but to the way you're playing now. So, as you're playing through the level, and you're getting killed by the Boss as the end of the level -- you, as a player, are probably going to adjust your behaviors a little bit, right? You're going to say 'OK. I got killed last time because I was playing as this specific hero, and I was trying to use a melee attack, but the enemy was moving around and shooting ranged attacks at me. So next time I go in, I'm going to use another hero, one who's got a ranged attack, and see if that gets me a better advantage because then I can attack from a distance.' You'll be adapting your behaviors, and the AI Director will be looking at that on the fly."
"So no, the AI Director doesn't remember what you did from level to level, but it's always adapting to what you're doing in the level itself."
GR: In the first couple of levels, I was surprised at the wide variety of enemy types. How do they continue to change throughout the course of the game? Does it stay similar to that initial range, or does it diversify even further?
MP: "There are a lot of different enemy NPCs in the game, and they do have a lot of different kinds of behavior. Early on in the game, you might see a lot of enemies with very simple types of attack -- they'll just run up to you and do a basic melee attack, or you might've seen the Space Barracuda that will teleport around you, but then do a very slow ranged attack. As you get further into the game, you'll encounter enemies that can do a wide variety of different attacks. For example, on one planet you'll encounter minions that will shoot a very slow ranged attack at you, but when that projectile hits you, it'll prevent you from using any abilities for a few seconds, basically disabling you for a little while."
"You'll run across characters that will fear your character, causing your character to run away from them, meaning that you lose control. Later on, on other planets, you'll run across a Cyber enemy that'll actually roll up grenades next to your character, that will then detonate as they get near you. You'll have to use different strategies for the different types of enemies that you encounter, which will in turn force players to decide 'Well, how do I compose a squad of heroes that will have the right combinations of abilities to take on these NPCs?'"
GR: Thanks Mike, final question: In a couple of weeks, Torchlight will be hitting the XBOX Live Arcade as part of its House Party promotion. Another Action RPG, released in 2009, originally on PC, but now it's coming to XBLA. What is your opinion on Action RPGs on consoles, and do you think we could ever see Darkspore on a console downloadable service?
MP: "Honestly, we can't wait to play Torchlight on console. We love Torchlight on the PC, and we love Diablo -- probably everyone on the Darkspore team is going to buy Diablo III when it comes out! I think it's going to be really interesting to see what they did. For us, we're focused on Darkspore as a PC game because, for us, PC online gaming is really a great fit for the type of game that we're making. In fact, it's an online-only game, which means that players can download Darkspore on as many PCs as they want to, install it wherever they want to, and log in wherever they want to -- there's no restrictions on that. We store all the information on a Darkspore server, so that you always have your data available to you wherever you go."
"But, as we launch Darkspore, we're going to play close attention to our community -- it's not the kind of game that we're just going to ship and forget about! It's a game that we're going to ship, and we're going to continue to support, and upgrade as long as we can. So, if players in our community say that they feel like Darkspore should go somewhere besides PC, we'll absolutely pay attention to them, and see what we can do there.
"But, for us, Darkspore is a PC game, based around a PC community."
Thanks again to Mike for his time, and we hope you enjoyed the interview. Check back with Game Rant for our hands-on impressions of Darkspore, coming later this week.
You can find out more about Darkspore by visiting the game's official website.