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03.06.2011 14:00 [Interviews (english)] Gamona talks with Björn Pankratz
When you meet with the developers from Piranha Bytes, you pretty soon end up in a lively discussion about this nostalgical “Back Then” and about how roleplaying games have changed over the past few years. During a Risen 2 presentation in Berlin, we chatted a while with project lead Björn Pankratz.

gamona: Hello Björn. Firstly: After the presentation of Risen 2, I really felt the urge to explore that world, to discover and move along in it. As always with you, many things regarding architecture and design appears to be carefully crafted by hand. Do you think it a compliment when I say that it reminds me a bit of “The Witcher 2” which was released shortly ago?

BP: Yes, it is a compliment for me, definitely. Because I know that “The Witcher 2” is a game produced with much effort. We always strive to offer a good look and combine it with our Piranha-typical mechanisms. We also try to make the graphics as good as possible and when we get compared with “The Witcher 2”, it surely is a big compliment for us.

gamona: What do you mean with “produced with much effort”?

BP: Back in the day, you had that wiremesh on which you slapped a texture and you suddenly had a character. Today, you have to make the game five times, so to speak. Bump maps, diffuse maps and all that stuff. I don't know that part too well myself because the technology does not wait for me. What I mean in relation to Risen 2: If we make a pirate setting, then we want the game to be designed for it. Not just the story and characters but the entire world.

The city, everything around it, it has to look like pirate buildings made of a few wooden shacks, like a provisional home. Around these shacks, they [the pirates] placed stones and hence, everything seems organic and intricate. This feeling, that pirates came and that they build their houses like they do, this must be transported to the player.

gamona: Regarding the liveliness of the world; I get the feeling there has not been much improvement over the years. Nowhere. Previously, guards reacted to theft and so on. They still do that. But not even in every game.

BP: Displaying a living world is always a difficult thing. What is “living”? And how far can you go away from it to enforce certain mechanics onto the player (e.g. “walk down this way, then left, then right”)? Then there's a character who always sits on the same spot because you won't find him otherwise.

It's possible that some of these mechanics work and are not recognised as enhancement. Example: A character behind a bar is a barkeeper. It I'm looking for rumours or searching for someone, I go to him first. Hence, he must not move from that place. In this case, game mechanics take effect that are proven to be successful.

You say that there has been no improvement in matters of liveliness. In my opinion, a lot has happened. Simply the fact that our characters have a much better independent existence, that they sometimes interrupt dialogues and get involved in discussions – those are new functions we are experimenting with in order not to endanger our reliable concept and enhance it.

Liveliness is not achieved by looking at someone with a magnifying glass and saying: “Oh, look! He moved!” but by that what the player perceives as movement and liveliness. The preferences are very different in that matter. Some players like to go to the beach, look at the sunset and enjoy the atmosphere. For them, it's a living world if they hear the crickets chirp and flies are buzzing around them.

Others expect certain character reactions to something they did. And as quickly as possible of course. E.g., I draw a sword and them put it away after I get threatened.

gamona: Are narrative and those liveliness aspects virtually exclusive? Let's take a typical BioWare game. Well told story but a lot of salt pillars that don't move even one inch.

BP: Daily routines of characters are supported and valued differently in different games – depending on what the developer wants to achieve. For us, the playful part is in the foreground. That which the player expects, the impression that a location makes on you when you enter. How much work do you invest to make a living world and let characters react to your actions? I am under the impression that we found a good compromise.

gamona: In the times of the four-people-developer rat shop, would you have thought that “Gothic” would still be used as an example for good character behaviour ten years later?

BP: Yes. Because even back then, much was possible. Think about “Ultima Underworld” where you could do anything that is still usual today: Shoot a bow, magic, look up and down, jump around, pull a lever, summon a monster and let it fight. Everything that's typical for RPGs you could already do back then.

Now you could say: “Make a game like Ultima Underworld, it was soooo cool back then!”. Everything looks good today but the gaming part gets left behind somewhere. And that is the core of your critic, too. But not only for me as game designer but the entire business, other things are also important. Like the narrative presentation of the story. There are much more cut scenes implemented, many things are chewed for the player.

gamona: Chewed for? As in: You don't have to think for yourself?

BP: Yes, that is a trend which we as developers observe. And to find a middle way through it is the important thing. Between the stuff that is chewed for you and that where the game pulls me in, where I can explore it freely and live in it. With “Risen”, we often received the critic: “I arrive at the beach, the game starts and shortly after, I somehow lost the thread and just run around the landscape.”

To find a mixture in that matter is an art. And it is in the perception of the player whether the arc of suspense takes effect or whether he is annoyed somewhere so much that he stops playing. It is a very complex topic.

gamona: Beach is good, the waking up there less so. How are things going with the hero? On the pictures he looks a bit more quaint, has an eyepatch, shaggy hair and a three-day beard. Again a bog-standard type or will he be more palpable as a person?

BP: He will definitely be more palpable as person. And we reformed him a bit more in the direction of the player. Meaning he will show more emotion, more reactions in the way the player wants him to be. That is, for instant, reflected in the dialogue options you get access to. But also in the references to the predecessor. E.g., there will be characters who you already know.

The story will be continued [from R1] and you do not have to know the previous part to unterstand “Risen 2”. The second part primarily tells the story of a soldier of the Inquisition who becomes a pirate. And that's a story that even newcomers will understand.

gamona: Some months ago, Jowood released a game which – shall we say – missed the expectations of the players a tiny bit. I don't want a statement from you about that but I am interested in what you make of the reactions of the fans. That rejection.

BP: We opened a new chapter by making “Risen” with Deep Silver and that's what we kept at so far. We saw it as a chance to make something new, something we always wanted to do. For instance, that you can travel to several small islands and so forth. You always have to move within the bounds that market creates.

And we noted the reactions of the fans to “Arcania” but somehow, it passed us by.

gamona: What? The reactions or the game?

BP: The reactions of the fans.

gamona: But you did watch it, didn't you? Maybe the entire team and a bottle of Vodka?

BP: (smiles): That not. Every one for himself. There are some who watched it – including me. I wanted to get an impression of what they [Jowood] were making there. But there are also those who ignored it. It's a potpourri, there's not that one Piranha Bytes opinion.

gamona: But the brand remains in your possession. It would be a shame if it were to just waste away for all eternity...

BP: If you see it that way, that's great. It means it's still worth something.

gamona: Why don't you give it to CD Project? “Gothic” is a major brand in Poland and they sure could make something good out of it.

BP: (thinks some time): No idea. You tell me.

gamona: If you don't use the brand, nobody shall or something like that? No idea, I just think that this roughness, this dirtiness, this living world, there are some parallels.

BP: Ok, it's like this: We focused on our future. We still do. What we get back with this brand [Gothic] is an option which we have not really thought about so far. We are comfortable in the universe we are now in. We have a core team of 20 people and their full attention is now focused on “Risen”.

gamona: If you look back on the last 10 years in your company: What has changed? Where did you evolve? In matters of workflow, organisation and so on?

BP: Back then, we ate books and tried to realise what bright statements we found in them. We stumbled over our own incompetence and ideas about how things had to be. Partly, that was written in those book, but there was also a lot of junk in them that lead to some over-bureaucracy.

Those books were written by people who did not know the business because it didn't exist yet. It was a chicken-egg-problem. By now, other people know more about certain things and we can copy them. But we are also veterans by now and others copy things from us. It's a give-and-take.

We have to try to keep open for new developments but must not forget our strengths. The responsibilities are for more spread around these days. We always had flat hierarchies, many people who had a say in things – something which we intensified. Our specialists, as I call them, specialised even further. The development is getting more and more complex. Sometimes, you have to be able to delegate things. And we do that.

gamona: If too many people have a say, does that not result in an overflow of opinions and disagreements?

BP: No, quite the opposite. The final decision rests with the meeting of the different area leads, not one single person. Things that can be decided democratically, are decided that way. Always depends on how important they are. Some things are not that important. For example, to place characters in the world and give them quests and dialogues – I'm going to call it vegetables – that's always the same. You don't have to explain that to people who have been doing it for years.

But there are certain quality aspects that a game has to fulfill and in which you have to put some power. There, we always make collaborative decisions. The short-term “implementing features as we go” has been drastically reduced because we know now more about what we do.

gamona: Implementing as you go?

BP: Yes. Or remove it. An example: With Gothic 3, we planned on making horses. The size of the world reflects that. The horses got canceled but the size of the world remained because it was already there. That was a grave mistake we made and we try to avoid things like that in the future.

gamona: Which perfectly fits to the console version of “Risen 2”. You weren't exactly lucky with the predecessor. How does the porting work this time, was will be better?

BP: We now regularly merge our development environments together. That was not the case with “Risen 1”. At some point, we just handed over our (PC) development environment. And they [WizarBox, french developer of the Xbox360 port of Risen] just reduced everything where they meant to save performance – because of the limited memory. For example, the textures. Because the guys over there are pure technicians, they could not check whether a roof or a floor will become blurry. Or if the eye-catchers looked sludgy because they were placed on one big texture. So it happened that visibility range and other things were “optimised away” in an unlucky way. If we at PB had been involved and had had the time for it, we might have achieved something better.

We now do that with “Risen 2”. In regular intervals we look at everything and evaluate it. We help with the design of the gamepad interface and create it simultaneously with the PC version. Hence, the result will be much better in the end.

gamona: As developer who made PC games for years, don't you feel a bit constrained by all that limitations?

BP: We don't think of it that way. We are console players ourselves and see the advantages of a console game which gives you the opportunity to such put the controller in your lap and play on the couch in front of a large screen. And we will make the game so that PC and console gamers will have the same experience.

gamona: “Risen” for the Xbox 360 was something as a baby step for you. How important are the lessons you learned there?

BP: We now profit from the experience we gained back then and are now in a better position to port our content to the console – because we planned with it right from the beginning. Not as with the first part. Many parts of our engine remained the same or use similar mechanisms as in the first Risen. Hence, the position is now much better.

gamona: Obsidian makes an espionage RPG, Troika's tragic story is known to everyone, BioWare also thought about making an RPG in modern times. Can you imagine to do something similar courageous?

BP: We got attested to be very bold to even touch a pirate game. Today we had the question for naval battles, for some things that you link with pirates and that we offer but not in the way some of you might imagine. You always have these problems when you make something new. We can imagine many things but we must have fun with it and it must be doable. We can't just sit down and make a racing game because we simply lack the skill for that.

Besides, I think the idea of pirates, the change to firearms, the extend of the outsourcing with a team of 20 people, the rework done to the animations, the change of the setting, the rework of the skilltree up to the characters, that's a bold change.

gamona: What details did you talk about when it came to new ideas, new settings?

BP: (thinks for a while): With the first Gothic, we had the idea to make a multiplayer game. That was an idea we carried with us for a long time and always threw away. Mage Milten was “PC_Milten”, Gorn was “PC_Gorn” and the hero was “PC_Hero” - those were the IDs in the engine¹. Everything was planned as great multiplayer game, I don't know (grins).

But we went away from that. With the first Gothic, we did not even plan on making dialogues. Everything was to be done via “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” as reactions for “Yes” and “No”. There also were no experience points and many of what you see today was realised only in the last year of development. Which means: The game as we know it today was created in the very last year.

gamona: And what beyond Gothic did you think about?

BP: We thought about everything. About shooters, some abstruse multiplayer online things and so on. The past has shown: Even if we made a shooter, there would at least be different characters with whom you'd have to do some quests and to whom you could reply impudently or nicely. The language in the game would also be very rough and before you know it, we'd be back at what we can do best.

gamona: You mentioned that early “Gothic” draft. There are some very old pictures of the game on the internet – are they all from that time?

BP: Yes, that's all from the time. For example, there's a still photo of Carsten Edenfeld's head because every character had that. Carsten is a programmer who worked with us for a long time. We made a photo of him, put it on all characters and dressed them up. The mana bar was made of little aztec heads, the health bar of little hearts.

We experimented with a lot. The vision we had was: We'll make the coolest game that was ever created. And we were lucky that we decided on the right things that were accepted by players.

gamona: That's a good closing. Hmm... and a good headline.

BP: Finally (laughs).

gamona: Thanks for the interview and Good Luck with Risen 2.

¹ Actually, the IDs were PC_Mage, PC_Fighter, PC_Thief and so on.

This interview was originally conducted by Sebastian Thor for Gamona. Link to original version: http://www.gamona.de/games/risen-2-dark-waters,interview-pc:article,1940500.html
Translation to English by foobar

  written by foobar