Darksiders II is mounting up to charge onto PlayStation 3 next month. Before the Horsemen are upon us once more, Push Square caught up with Vigil Games' Haydn Dalton, lead designer on the game, at Manchester MCM Expo to speak about Darksiders II's new systems, how new character Death differs to War and the dedication of cosplayers.
Push Square: What do you feel that the team learnt from the first game?
Haydn Dalton: I think the biggest thing our team learnt from the first one was how a Darksiders level is constructed from a level design point of view. That took us a lot of time to work out in the first game. I mean, obviously we're all games players, we've seen games that've done the same sort of level design that we do. But I think the biggest thing is that we got that much earlier this time around. It allowed us to do more levels quickly, and be able to blue room them and test them much more quickly than we did in the first one.
They got closer to being the finished products earlier than they did the first time. The first time we'd revise a level many, many times, sometimes tens of times, even more. This time around it's more like we get it in and there'll be some slight refinement or some minor change. We actually hit the mark much better this time around. So the level design... having a team that understands that type of level design is pretty important. Because it was the core level designers from the first one that carried on with the second one, that was a big plus. We learned a lot about that. And obviously we learnt what it was to do good combat, I think, melee combat.
PS: Obviously with that confidence then, that you've taken into the second one, you've amplified the scope quite a lot.
I think if I'm a player coming in, I'm gonna be very surprised with the amount of extra stuff there is to do in this one compared to the first one.
HD: Yeah, I think it's basically a trait of Vigil Games as a whole, is that we tend to overshoot the stuff. When we did a demo for Xbox Live, we didn't do a small 20 minute demo. We allowed players to have an entire dungeon, a 90 minute experience for people. So we tend to go a little bit further than expected. With Darksiders II we could have quite easily gone [and]... got War again, changed the skin of the game, given it a different story, added a few things here or there, said 'right, okay, here's Darksiders II'. But we've added... we've taken a kind of strange route. We changed the main character. We added some huge, massive additional systems. It feels more like Darksiders 2.5 to me. I think if I'm a player coming in, I'm gonna be very surprised with the amount of extra stuff there is to do in this one compared to the first one.
PS: You've got a loot system, skill trees as well. At what point in development did you decide to add these whole new systems?
HD: It was really very early on, because it was some of the stuff we wanted to do in the first one. We always knew that we kind of liked the idea of doing side quests and having more NPCs in the world. NPCs allow us to give additional story elements to the player, to enrich the world that the player's in. Side quests allow players to have side things to do when they don't want to push on with the course. They can go off and do all their little mini adventures that are in the game.
The loot was something we were kind of interested in, but that came in just a few months into the start of the game. We said 'okay, let's commit to this if we really want to do it'. We did a bit of toing and froing about it and said 'if we're going to do it, let's do it properly, let's do it big'. So we've got tiered loot in there, and basically it's dynamically generated, it's random. We also have set name pieces, we have the possessed weapons. And it scales with the player, so as you go up, new, nicer levelled loot comes out, visually different loot starts to drop. So that became a whole big system that we had people dedicated to throughout the course of development.
And then the skill tree, that was something we always wanted to do very early on. The only thing that changed within that were what skills were in it. Trying to find out which would be the good skills from a gameplay point of view.
PS: With the loot, and the possessed weapons – you can feed them other items to evolve them, right?
PS: It feels a bit like an MMO idea.
HD: Somebody called this a Mag. [Phantasy Star's companions, which evolve when they're fed items.]
PS: Yeah, that's what I was thinking.
HD: I didn't really recognise what that means. But somebody explained it on a forum, and well, it is kinda like what we're doing. But we didn't actually take it from that. We just thought, 'what's a good way of'... at first it came about as 'what would be a good way to get rid of trash?' You know, the stuff you've got and you don't really need it any more. We've given fast travel to the player now, so you can jump to a vendor, jump to a location, go there and sell it. But it is a bit of a hassle for the player. So we said 'what can we do?' We don't want a player just having to drop everything into the scene or always have to figure out which ones they want to drop. So we thought, let's just create an item [that] we can just dump tons and tons of items into.
So that's where it came from. And it was like, let's give it a bit more of a purpose. These things actually level up. Depending on what type of loot you feed it, it gives you different types of stats to assign to it. So if you see something with a lot of strength – you get a selection of stats to choose from — strength'll be one of those things you get to apply. So if you really like a weapon and think 'this'd be really good if there was a bit more strength on it', then you can focus your loot dropping into it on strength. Or you can just feed it whatever you want and let it decide and average out what the stats are.
And as it goes up the levels, you can also name that item as well – it becomes a personal thing. If you keep feeding it and looking after it and max it out, you can use that weapon for a good four or five levels. In a game like this that's pretty good, because usually your turnaround of weapons is much quicker than that. It becomes something like a very familiar item for a player. If you manage to get one – because the loot drop on a possessed weapon is really, really low. You don't usually get that many of them.
PS: So you're levelling up your character as well as your weapons?
PS: How long is it going to take to max out your character? Is it going to take a new game plus as well?
HD: Yeah, you have to do new game plus to max it out. You can gain 20 levels from the first playthrough, and then if go through new game plus you can gain another 10 levels to max him out at 30. That's where it caps out right now, on a new game plus. That's the only way you can do it. We made sure to put a lot of extra content in the new game plus. There's certain levels of high tier loot you can only get on the second time through, because it's based on your level. As you start hitting into the high 20s you start seeing even more new loot, even that late on in the game.
PS: You've gone with a completely different character for the sequel. How did you approach Death differently to War?
[Death] was always a really popular choice, he was very nearly the main character in the first game. So when we came to do the second one we knew we wanted to use a different character, it was kind of easy for us — it's gonna be Death.
HD: We looked back at the stuff that Joe [Madureira, Darksiders creative director] drew originally, because Joe's drawn a picture for each one of the four Horsemen. So we looked at Death – he was always a really popular choice, he was very nearly the main character in the first game. So when we came to do the second one we knew we wanted to use a different character, it was kind of easy for us — it's gonna be Death. We knew that he was a more flamboyant character, a more rebellious character. How would a guy like this move through the scene? And it seemed to make sense that he had a very athletic build, that he was going to be a lot more fast, agile, fluid through the scene. So adding more on the traversal side would suit somebody like this.
We wanted to do a little bit more with that in the first game. So we're expanding out something that we'd already kind of started a little bit in the first one, which allowed us to do more elaborate environments so players can go in and read a room and see that they'll be able to wall run up there, be able to jump across those beams, swing across... And it allows for a much more interesting visual environment, and it also gives the players a different component of gameplay to consider and use in the game. We like to switch up the frequency, so if it's not combat it might be questing, or it might be loot, or it might be doing traversal. Players have got a lot of different things that we can throw at them in different levels throughout the game.
PS: In the demo it seemed like there was about as much vertical traversal as there was horizontal. Is that something common throughout, that sort of balance?
HD: It really depends on the level. Some levels are a lot more vertical than they are horizontal. It really all comes down to the theme and concept of the level. The reason why there's a relatively similar balance in this one is that we want players to get used to the vertical and horizontal stuff before we start them out in the real world of the game. This is a relatively straightforward first level: it's small, compact, it's focused. We just learn all the basics, and then what [players] take from that gets a lot more complicated. They've got all the basic components for what the game is about in that level.
War started the apocalypse in the first game and is then thrown into the Abyss for a hundred years. Sometime within the hundred years is when Death starts his adventure.
PS: Does the storyline run simultaneously with that of the first game, or is there crossover, or is it after?
HD: It's kind of in parallel. Obviously War started the apocalypse in the first game and is then thrown into the Abyss for a hundred years. Sometime within the hundred years is when Death starts his adventure. This is based on the question 'what were the other Horsemen doing?' And this particular question is 'what was Death doing while War was going through this?' Surely they weren't just sat back, smoking cigarettes, or whatever these guys do.
The Council controls everything, but Death is just sort of like: 'I'm just going to clear my brother's name no matter what it is, I'm just going to do this unsanctioned, I'm just going to go ahead and try to clear his name.' So this is basically his travel, his quest. It's really hard to put an amount of time on how long he's actually doing this. War obviously gets out of his hundred years in the Abyss, and he starts his own personal thing. So they're kind of running slightly off-skew, but parallel.
PS: When you were making the first Darksiders, did you have a vague idea what the other Horsemen were doing at that point?
HD: Not really at that point. We were very confident in the game that we were making; we thought it was a fun game, the sort of game we'd like to play as gamers. But we weren't really sure how the public would take to it. So a big thing at the end of a game selling like this for a new studio, it was just like, 'we have to wait and see where this takes us and see if people are going to buy this sort of game'. When we started seeing the reviews and we started seeing some of the numbers, and it was selling okay, that's when we really started thinking, 'okay, what's the story and where are we gonna go next with it?' That's when we really started throwing [out] lots of ideas and seeing what stuck, throwing things around and then we decided on the story pattern. 'Right, that's our focus now, that's what this game is going to be all about.'
PS: Having that feedback between the first two games, have you maybe considered what the other two Horsemen are doing while you've been making Darksiders II in case you do future sequels?
HD: We've not really thought about what they're doing, but we've thought a lot about what kind of characters they are and how they fit in with the dynamic of the first two characters. That's important, because we want them all to fill a certain archetype, a role. War's the barbarian, Death's the agile assassin type of role, type of character. The others will fit different archetypes. We've thought about that and how they differentiate, and what their base characters are like.
War was relatively quiet and methodical, toes the line, whereas Death is rebellious. The other guys are going to have different dynamics than those two, so all four of them have this nice mix of characters, so it's compelling to the player. So we already know what that dynamic's going to be like, but what we actually do with the game – that's something different. We could go a lot of different directions here.
Obviously people [talk about] multiplayer co-op and things like that, rather than doing another single player-focused action game. That's all up in the air right now. Again it's going to come down to, do people really want this type of game? Apparently, from word of mouth and what we've seen from reviewers and the forums about the game, we definitely get the feeling that there is still a niche for this type of game. I guess they'll show us when they go out and buy the game, right? So we'll see from there.
PS: A lot of games tie multiplayer in now, and this hasn't gone that direction at all. Did you have any pressure to add any multiplayer components, or was it like 'we're doing a single player game, that's it'?
HD: Thankfully THQ pretty much let us go the direction that we wanted to go in. We knew that we had to do this game quicker than we did the first game, that was one consideration that was taken into account. We also had to look at... if we were doing something like that we'd have to basically re-think the kind of team that we've got and how it's structured, because it's a completely different game once you add the element of just one extra player in there. It completely changes the dynamic; how do you do puzzles? So if you're doing multiplayer co-op puzzles, if that other player's not playing, what do you do? Do you have an AI-controlled guy that comes with you now? So now you need a more advanced AI system.
There's a lot of thought processes you've got to go through just by doing that one simple choice of saying 'let's put another guy in there'. We thought it was a little bit too much of a risk to do it, and we thought it might've maybe pulled away too far from what we did in the first one.
Or can you switch to different characters on the fly? That requires something different as well. Having all those guys in memory at once, that's another issue that you've got to conquer. If you're looking at current gen, now you've gotta sacrifice and chop up your memory so all four guys can be in at once, doing all their attacks and all their crazy things, and having all whatever they might have in memory at once along with them. Then you might have to reduce what you're doing in the background.
So there's a lot of thought processes you've got to go through just by doing that one simple choice of saying 'let's put another guy in there'. We thought it was a little bit too much of a risk to do it, and we thought it might've maybe pulled away too far from what we did in the first one; too much of a jump from a single player action-adventure experience to 'oh, now it's co-op'. What people like in the first one, it's incredibly hard to do something like that in multiplayer.
PS: There's a Wii U version that's coming out later; how's that progressing?
HD: It's going well. Obviously we see builds pretty regularly, and from what they're doing with the game, we're pretty happy with it, yeah.
PS: It's got the same feature set as the other versions, right?
HD: Oh yeah! It's the same game, but then obviously we'll be taking advantage of the unique power that the Wii U has to offer us. It's in our best interests to get the most out of that.
PS: What sort of things are you doing with the Wii U GamePad?
HD: Well, we can't go into it in any detail. People have already seen that, heard about the fact that we're going to use it from an inventory point of view. That's all we've talked about. Allowing players to access stuff on the fly rather than jumping in and out of the menu, they can actually see the choices right there on the GamePad. I mean, that's one small thing, but we're going to be using it in a lot more interesting ways as well. That's just one small part of it.
PS: What's your absolute favourite feature of Darksiders II?
HD: I'd say the loot. I think it's added a whole different feel to the game, but I don't think it's moved it too far away that people will feel isolated from what people loved in the first game. I think the level design and the puzzle design is the heart of the game, and that's still there, that's very prevalent all the way through the game.
In the first game if you saw some creatures off in the distance, you could ignore them and carry on if you didn't want to fight them. But now there's a slightly added draw, where you're not quite sure what [loot] they might drop.
What loot adds for the player is a small little eco-system; they can spend as much or as little time as they want doing it. Visually you can change your character, ability-wise you can change your character. It's as much effort as you want to put into it. I find that very interesting. And it also gives a different draw in combat. In the first game if you saw some creatures off in the distance, you could ignore them and carry on if you didn't want to fight them. But now there's a slightly added draw, where you're not quite sure what they might drop.
There's always that little... it's not quite addiction, but there's always a little draw where they might drop that really rare item that I want, or they might just drop something with that kind of stat that I want. There's always that little draw. Just one more creature. That's good, I think that's a good thing to have, particularly in our sort of game where we have ambient creatures which are optional. Now there's maybe more of a reason to go and kill them than there was in the first one.
PS: It encourages you to do more side quests and battle a lot more.
HD: Yeah, actually there's some loot you can only get from side quests, some pretty decent legendary items. We leave that for the side quests, a bit of dirt for the player. If you want all the legendary stuff you're gonna have to do some side quests.
PS: And since we're at a comic con, have you seen any Darksiders cosplay?
HD: I haven't actually, I'm pretty disappointed! I've seen pretty much everything else under the sun, but nothing based on Darksiders. I've seen pictures from other places where people have done Death and War, pretty impressive, but nothing here. Mind you, I've been pretty much around the stand most of the day, but I'd imagine if someone was in Horseman get-up they'd come around to the Darksiders II stand to show it off. But no, I haven't seen anything today.
PS: I don't know if you've seen the person walking around in an Okami costume, as Amaterasu the wolf. They were walking around on all fours.
HD: Oh right! (laughs)
PS: So maybe in the future you'll see somebody walking around as Death with somebody as his horse.
HD: Yeah, who knows? I've seen a guy who was wearing a Death outfit, which was kind of interesting. He'd built his own mask and everything like that, which was kind of cool. There was a really, really impressive War one that somebody had done – I don't know where it was, it might've been in Japan – but it was very impressive. They'd got all the details in the armour and everything.
PS: So you've got Death ones being done already before the game's even out?
HD: Yeah. Somebody sent me a picture. I don't know where it was. It was hard to tell where it was from, but it was a picture of a guy dressed up as Death. It was hard to see in context, I don't know what country he was in or whatever. Just seeing that was like, well, somebody's already interested enough to go out and do that, to commit their cosplay to Darksiders II, which is awesome.
PS: That's a very good sign!
HD: Yeah it is, it's a great sign before it's even out!
PS: Thank you very much for your time!