The Success and Failure of Kingdoms of Amalur

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The success of World of Warcraft encouraged 38 Studios to create their own MMO.

The formation and demise of developer 38 Studios is one of the more fascinating tales the video game industry has to offer. Former MLB pitcher (and lightning rod for controversy) Curt Schilling, recently retired from the sport, was ready to enter the next phase of his career, and in a move that surprised some, that second phase would not be as a coach or as a sports analyst. Instead, Schilling was going to enter the MMO game. A long-time fan of games such as EverQuest, combined with the on-going success of World of Warcraft, Schilling wanted to make the next great MMO, and he was ready and willing to spend the cash to make it happen.

The whole story, which Kotaku reported on back in 2012, is worth a read. To summarize – Schilling was looking for investors, and saw an opportunity to get a sizable loan from the state of Rhode Island, on the condition he move 38 Studios to the state. Schilling did just that, and work began on an MMO, codenamed Copernicus. However, Schilling quickly realized that they would need more money to create this MMO, and so he purchased developer Big Huge Games, who were tasked with making a single-player RPG set in the same world as Copernicus. The idea was that this new game would sell, make a profit, and those profits would keep the studio afloat long enough to finish the MMO. That single player game was released, and it would end up being the only title 38 Studios ever saw to completion.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a game built and designed by some of the best minds and talent in the industry, a game that would go on to sell over a million copies, and in the end it led to the ruin of 38 Studios and set the taxpayers of Rhode Island back an estimated $112 million. For this reason alone, the title has always intrigued me – this was the dream project of a multi-millionaire who threw caution to the wind in an attempt to make the game he wanted to make. Mismanagement of the company aside, I was fascinated in a game that sold relatively well being called a failure (estimates put sales within the first 90 days over one million copies, but then-governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee claimed the title needed to sell three million copies just to break even). And this supposed failure never did seem to go away, lost in the bargain bin amongst movie tie-ins and quick cash-grabs like so many before it. Kingdoms of Amalur would come back up in conversation here are there, just enough of a reminder that it still existed, and that it retains passionate fans who want a sequel. There had to be something to this game, something that made it stand out.

As of this writing I have spent 70 hours in the world of Amalur, and what I’ve found is a game that has its share of major flaws, but also some strengths, and in certain areas it’s one of the better Western-style RPGs I’ve ever played. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that this game deserves to be discussed on its own terms, and not lumped into a discussion about Schilling and government spending. Kingdoms of Amalur is a fascinating title, with some interesting ideas, but it also carries with it the baggage of a sub-genre (fantasy RPGs) that is long overdue for an update.

Nothing To See Here

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There is little to see or do in the world of Amalur.

The video game industry can often seem like a technological arms race – bigger is synonymous with better, especially when discussing games with an open world setting. The pre-release hype of Just Cause 3, Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt all focused on the massive size of the game worlds, as if size automatically equaled quality. However, we know that’s not necessarily the case – the worlds of Red Dead Redemption, Batman: Arkham City and Fallout 4 are smaller than their contemporaries, but those games are considered by fans to be successes. What matters isn’t necessarily the size of the world, but how developers utilize that space. Red Dead Redemption is filled with numerous places to explore, engaging quests to complete and random encounters that add flavor to the world. Merely riding on horseback from one end of the map to the other is entertaining, because the world feels alive – you may run into a wild animal and fight for your life to defend yourself, you may stumble upon bandits trying to rob you – hell, you might even find a new location that needs to be liberated from some unsavory types, which turns into a 30 minute shootout scene the likes of which Hollywood only dreams it could capture on film, and that might end up being a footnote in your impromptu adventure.

If there’s one thing that drags Kingdoms of Amalur down, it is the size of the world coupled with the lack of things to do within it. A world that looks beautiful, but feels hollow, with no sense of exploration. The final nail in the coffin is a canon that isn’t properly introduced and lacks imagination, and a story that offers little in the way of motivation. 38 Studios was happy to enter into this open-world arms-race, but fell significantly short of their competition.

The Lack of Canon

There is one major decision that a developer needs to make right up front when crafting an open-world RPG: is this game going to be about the characters, or is it going to be about the world? In many ways, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a character-based RPG. Granted, the design of the world and the locations within it are top-notch, but every mechanic is designed to empower the player character. The whole point of nearly every Bethesda Softworks-developed game is to allow the player to inhabit any character they want without penalty, and to allow them to become God-like. The opposite of this is The Witcher 3, which features some incredible characters, but places the emphasis on the world and canon. The player character, Geralt, is really just a bit-player in events that impact the whole world, and transform it in ways that no one person ever could. If you strip away the canon and story from the entire Witcher series, you’re left with some likeable characters that have no motivations or goals. Of course, developers can try to aim for both – to create a game that is equal parts character and lore-driven, but the best developers know to make this distinction upfront, and to stick with it through development.

For its part, Kingdoms of Amalur makes this choice, and never diverts from that path. This is a game where canon and world building takes priority – the characters, including the player character, are all emotionless husks that serve only to move the story from one point to the next. This can work, but the problem is that the canon and world building fail to engage the player.

The problems start immediately, with the opening cinematic:

After watching that video, there are more questions than answers. What is that scroll in the very beginning? What language is it written in, and what does it say? Is it important? What conflict are they referencing? Who are the Fae? Why should we be worried about forces that could twist the Fae-folk when we don’t even know who they are? We see the villain, Gadflow, but who or what is the Winter Court? Who are the Tuatha, other than followers of Gadflow? Which god is giving him this power? Who are the young races? Who is immortal? Who are any of these people?

This info-dump at the beginning does nothing to engage players. There are numerous words and phrases that have little meaning tossed around, and it culminates in the narrator referencing the player character in the most vague of terms. Unfortunately, this sets the tone for the rest of the game – the writers have this complex world crafted out in their minds, but they never bother to introduce players to it in a way that makes it accessible. Instead it’s one expository scene after the other, which is off-putting and tedious. Compare this to the opening cinematic for The Witcher:

Immediately, the player is introduced to the main character, Geralt. A new concept, Witchers, are introduced, and the narrator uses clear language to define both of them. “His name was Geralt of Rivia. He was a Witcher, a professional monster slayer.” Already we know who the main character is and what he does, and it also gives us some insights into the world – monsters are so common and dangerous that people can make a living simply hunting and killing them. Only 17 seconds into this cinematic and more useful information is conveyed to the player than in the entirety of the Kingdoms of Amalur opening cinematic. The trailer continues, and we learn that Geralt is working on a contract – a monarch’s daughter has been cursed, turning her into a Striga (Werewolf), and Geralt has to lift the curse, one way or another. Again, the player learns more about the world – people can become cursed and turned into monsters, and sometimes a Witcher’s job is more complicated than simply tracking and killing a beast. It’s also worth mentioning how focused this cinematic is – we later come to learn about a conflict that is tearing the world apart, but that’s too much information to convey up front to the player. When introducing a new property, it’s always best to start off small, and save the epic, grander conflicts for later, when the foundation is set and players have a grasp on this new world. The whole trailer is worth watching, but the point has been made – in 32 seconds, The Witcher transports players to a new world with its own unique rules and does so without overwhelming the player, whereas the two minute and eight second trailer for Kingdoms of Amalur confuses the player and doesn’t hook them.

One Hundred Fetch Quests Later…

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I have no idea what any of this means, which means I have no investment in the hundreds of missions I’ll complete.

A confusing introduction to the canon is compounded by the fact that the world is mostly hollow and nothing interesting happens within it. There is indeed a conflict, a major war that has torn apart the world, yet there is no sense that this conflict is even occurring. Farmers and crafters are happy to tell you that the war is making life hard, but everyone still goes about their day, working and eating and drinking at the inn at night. There’s no shortage of supplies, and people seem free to move around the world as they please. This leaves almost no tension or drama for the player to latch onto, meaning there is no incentive to progress the main story, which is focused on the player character saving the world from imminent destruction.

That story is also very generic, and indicative of a major problem with Kingdoms of Amalur – although it had some amazing talent working behind the scenes, the game clearly wasn’t a priority. The story is one-dimensional – the player character was killed in battle, but was somehow brought back to life. This means that the protagonist is not bound by fate, which somehow means that they can defeat Gadflow, the main villain. Gadflow is threatened by the protagonist cheating death, and wants to fight. That’s basically all there is to it – the story does branch off here and there, but there is no sense that the player’s actions are impacting the world or changing the narrative – no matter what the player does, the bad guys will still try to defeat the good guys in the same manner. There were a few moments and events that implied the world would change due to my actions – one quest had me assassinate a local politician who had an isolationist view of the war, and a politician eager to engage the enemy came into power as a result of my meddling. I was hoping that meant there would be less instances of the enemy (Tuatha, or whoever the bad guys are) roaming that part of the world, but nothing changed – everything felt the same, regardless of whether or not I killed that politician.

Meaningless quests are a major problem in Kingdoms of Amalur. I have completed over 150 quests, and it’s no exaggeration to say that at least 100 of those could have been cut from the game. Quests are split into four categories – main story, faction, side quests and tasks. With a couple rare exceptions, side quests are meaningless, and tasks are worth even less (they are repetitive chores the player can do for money; however, money is abundant in the game, making their inclusion useless). The main story quests can be entertaining, and the faction quests, which are lengthy storylines tied to a specific faction, are the real meat of the game. With a hindsight-bias, it’s easy to see that 38 Studios should have cut most of these side quests and tasks, and instead focused on creating storylines similar in nature to the faction quests, ones that actually force the player to interact with the world and learn about the canon at a much more manageable pace. As it stands, players walk into a new town, get 10 new missions, run through an empty world to a location, kill a few enemies, then report back to town and earn their money and some experience points. Rinse and repeat 100 times, and it becomes clear that there was a lack of attention paid to quests and world building. It’s disheartening to see such talent go to such waste – the art style is fantastic, and there are places that, on the outside, look fascinating and worthy of exploration. But it’s all window-dressing, with little meaning to any of it.

The God of Amalur

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The gameplay is very reminiscent of God of War.

Setting aside the issues with canon and world building, Kingdoms of Amalur succeeds in some key areas, and these successes are not small victories that get lost amongst the flaws – these aspects made it possible for me to get through 70 hours of gameplay, and leave me eager to keep going. It may be a Western RPG, but Kingdoms of Amalur does not play like one – wooden, slow mechanics make way for fast, fluid action. And when it comes to those RPG mechanics, they are not only sound, but streamlined in a way that makes the game far more accessible than titles like Skyrim and The Witcher 3. These impressive feats are possible because 38 Studios executed one of the better examples of hybrid game design in recent memory.

If I could sum up Kingdoms of Amalur in a few words, it would be God of War meets Skyrim. The God of War aspect comes in the combat, which is split between melee weapons, magic, and bow and arrow. Each of these combat styles has their own unique feel – melee weapons range from slow, thunderous attacks to very fast strikes, allowing for multiple playstyles even when focusing specifically on melee weapons. Magic is great at dealing with mobs, with attacks that can be fired off quickly, or large area spells that take time to charge, but devastate anything on the battlefield. Finally, a bow and arrow allows for sniping and ranged attacks, which can be combined effortlessly with melee and magic skills.

On paper, this gameplay description sounds identical to Skyrim. Most fantasy RPGs feature three standard character types (warrior, rogue and mage), and allow for some mix of the three. Where Kingdoms of Amalur stands out is that all of these styles are responsive and fluid, similar to God of War’s lightning-fast combat. The action takes place in a third-person perspective, and targeting an enemy is as simple as moving toward them while attacking, just as in God of War. No need to lock onto an enemy or move a target reticule around until the player has highlighted the enemy they want to strike first (ala The Witcher 3). It’s a simple, intuitive system, and it’s refreshing to see it implemented into an epic RPG.

Another aspect similar to God of War is the combo system – each weapon type has a few combinations the player can use, depending on the enemy or situation, and these combos unlock as the player levels up certain skills. It’s nearly identical to how players can increase the effectiveness and lethality of weapons in God of War, and the combos are never too difficult to pull off, meaning that players will be able to chain them together easily. 38 Studios so effortlessly adapted a style of gameplay from a genre that lives or dies on fluid gameplay, that it’s a wonder more developers haven’t done this. I love The Witcher 3, but by far the weakest aspect is the gameplay – something similar to what Kingdoms of Amalur uses would have pushed it into “best game of all-time” status. And there is no doubt in my mind that Kingdoms of Amalur bests the entire Elder Scrolls franchise when it comes to gameplay. It’s easy to pick up and master, and it’s very entertaining in its execution.

Skyrim Lite – With ⅓ Of The Role Playing

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The RPG elements are streamlined and easy to learn, making the title accessible to more than just hardcore RPG fans.

Kingdoms of Amalur is, at its heart, a hybrid game – an action-heavy RPG, and that means that, to be successful, the action and RPG elements need to be streamlined. The gameplay, as outlined above, accomplishes this by closely following the straight-forward approach God of War perfected, and the RPG elements follow suit by being both comprehensive, in the vein of Skyrim, but accessible to those who find Bethesda’s RPGs too overwhelming.

All of the traditional RPG elements are present in Kingdoms of Amalur, starting with character creation. Players acquire experience points, and after accumulating enough they level up and get to allocate points into skills. There are three main character classes – warrior, rogue and mage, and each one has a branching skill tree, again common of most RPGs. But the ability to spread points out over all three classes at any time is welcomed – players are not bound to the choice they made at the beginning of the game. At any time, if a player decides a mage is not for them and wants to be a warrior, they can trade in their skill points and reallocate them. This isn’t anything new or innovative, but it works well with the rest of the RPG mechanics, which are just as streamlined as character creation.

As someone who didn’t spend countless hours grinding bosses in Borderlands 2, I found it difficult to switch play styles mid-game. I may have focused on acquiring gear that would work great with a Gunzerker who would dual-wield pistols, but if I wanted to switch it up and focus on being a tank instead, it meant grinding for new gear to accommodate that new playstyle (or just cheat and duplicate items from fellow Theory writers Nick and Aaron). In Kingdoms of Amalur, there is no need to grind, as in-game money is abundant, meaning that if players switch character classes mid-game, they can easily acquire gear that works for their new class without having to waste hours killing enemies with the hope of finding the right pair of boots or daggers (also unlike Borderlands 2, good gear is easy to buy).

And if buying items seems like a cop-out, Kingdoms of Amalur features and easy to learn and robust crafting system, for everything from potions to weapons and armor. This is where the Skyrim-lite comparisons begin to take shape – all of those same systems in Skyrim are found in Kingdoms of Amalur, but they are streamlined for ease of use. There are considerably less alchemy ingredients, which means it takes less time and energy to master the system, which also means players will actually use all of the alchemy ingredients to make many powerful potions. Same goes for crafting armor and weapons – there’s no need to first find the raw minerals, smelt them and then make the gear – just acquire pieces of gear and combine them at a forge. Enchanting is even easier to learn (it’s called Sagecraft, but works the same), which means players can take full advantage of all of these systems without having to keep a Wiki close by or feel like they are learning a whole new line of work.

Kingdoms of Amalur feels like the best of both worlds – gamers get a version of Skyrim that will not kill their social life, and it happens to play like a dream. It’s an impressive feat, and it’s indicative that 38 Studios was onto something special when developing this title. Unfortunately, these successes did not translate into sales. Many have speculated as to why Kingdoms of Amalur didn’t take off the way Skyrim or even Fallout 4 did, and after spending so much time with the game, and reading about its history, there are a few factors that most likely prevented the title from hitting the three million sales mark that was necessary just for the game to break even.

Disastrous Demos and Marketing

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Selling one million copies might sound great, but new IPs need to be huge successes to compensate for an increased marketing push.

In an industry as crowded as video games , any brand-new intellectual property (IP) has an uphill battle ahead of it. The amount of marketing muscle behind franchises such as Destiny, Dead Space and Gears of War indicates that publishers will often think twice before investing in something new, and if that new property isn’t an immediate success, the chances of a sequel are slim to none. Fans of Mirror’s Edge, hoping for a sequel, have had to campaign almost non-stop since the original’s release eight years ago, and this was a title that had far less financial stakes than the mess 38 Studios found themselves in. Sadly, when publisher EA threw their marketing might behind Kingdoms of Amalur, they didn’t help the game’s cause, leading to a lack of success almost guaranteeing no sequel will ever be made.

Even now, it’s difficult to find people discussing the successes of the title. Gameplay and RPG mechanics are rarely touted – instead, the marketing focused on the canon and world building. Much was made about the fact that 38 Studios was able to hire R. A. Salvatore, a successful fantasy author, to write the story, and that Spawn creator Todd McFarlane was brought in to design the world. Those names are some of the most prominent in their respective fields, but their talents didn’t translate well into this project. But talent of that caliber costs money (even if said talent doesn’t deliver), and EA wanted to play up this fact in order to get the biggest bang for their buck, meaning that their marketing focused on the worst parts of the game, while ignoring the best aspects.

But other games have overcome a bad story or an unimpressive world, going on to find success critically and financially. I’m a huge fan of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and after beating it three times I’m still not sure what the story is about – it’s a jumbled mess, to put it lightly. However, there was an incentive for me to tolerate this poorly constructed story – an amazing atmosphere and stellar gameplay, both of which were highly promoted. In the case of Kingdoms of Amalur, there is no incentive to overlook the horrible story, because the promise 38 Studios made was that, if this game was successful, we would get more of the world and story in the form of an MMO. But since these aspects failed, gamers didn’t flock to support the title the way 38 Studios hoped, or the way gamers supported Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

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The best parts of Kingdoms of Amalur were hidden from the media and gamers who played the demo.

This marketing misstep culminates in one of the most unfortunate instances of corporate synergy the video game industry has ever seen. Even with all of these factors working against the title, there was still one chance that it could find an audience. In what must have seemed like great timing, Kingdoms of Amalur was set to release before EA’s other highly anticipated RPG – Mass Effect 3. EA took this opportunity to tie the two games together – fans could download a free Kingdoms of Amalur demo, and completing the demo would unlock a free set of armor in Mass Effect 3. Like many, I downloaded the demo, mostly for the free armor, but I’m a gamer at heart, and the chance to try out a new RPG franchise was exciting.

That demo, unfortunately, features what is easily the worst part of Kingdoms of Amalur – the tutorial. The introduction to the world of Amalur, the one that comes past the messy opening cinematic, is linear, cliche, poorly paced and, worst of all, just plain boring. Players only get a small taste for each style of combat, and then more exposition gets thrown at them, and it culminates in the most boring section of gameplay I’ve experienced. This demo, meant to highlight the game and introduce it to a fanbase more likely to accept it, did the exact opposite – it turned fans off from the franchise before the title even hit store shelves. Kingdoms of Amalur was doomed from the start.

A Case Study In Project Management

The good news is that the PC port of Kingdoms of Amalur is identical to the console release, and the game (and it’s massive DLCs) are available at a low cost on most gaming sites. This means that, despite the setbacks that eventually overwhelmed it, the lessons of Kingdoms of Amalur can still be learned today, and for a cheap price.

Those lessons are still relevant, and will be for some time to come. It’s a great example of how gameplay-heavy genres and RPGs can coexist. For so long I’ve grown accustomed to the notion that the more open an RPG is, the more disappointing the combat will be, but Kingdoms of Amalur proves this doesn’t need to be the case. In doing so, 38 Studios also showed how developers can make an RPG that taps into the same vein that makes games like Skyrim so successful, without the intricate, overwhelming mechanics that some find cumbersome or off-putting.

Unfortunately, it’s also a lesson in how difficult creating a new canon can be, and how hard it is to build up a new world and fill it with enough content to justify its size. The flaws of Kingdoms of Amalur should not be overlooked, especially when developing a brand new IP. But its successes should also be celebrated and shared. Yes, the debacle that was 38 Studios makes for a fascinating read, and serves as its own cautionary tale, but to overlook the actual game itself would be an injustice.