Nosgoth – Interview with Design Director Bill Beacham

After getting some hands-on time with Square-Enix’s upcoming Nosgoth, I sat down for a quick interview with Bill Beacham, the Design Director for the game whose previous credits include 007: Nightfire, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

When Nosgoth was part of a then-upcoming Legacy of Kain, what inspired you to separate it and release it as its own title?

I think it’s a matter of public knowledge that Nosgoth was the multiplayer side of a larger project that had both single-player and multiplayer. The single-player, for various reasons, wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but we really liked the multiplayer. Normally that could be a problem, but because of the way it was conceived, because it was always going to be a very standalone entity, and we talked about releasing that separately as a standalone product, because we know different people like different games.

It had different mechanics, different characters, a different setting, everything about it was different. We wanted a team that could do some proper, creative heavy-lifting. It wasn’t just taking the single-player man and putting him in an arena with a gun, we wanted someone who could come up with a whole game. That’s why we wanted to go with someone like Psyonix; they’ve got that multiplayer expertise, but also a creative hunger and ability to deliver.

We looked at the multiplayer and we said “this is fun”, and this was very early as these things go. It was very fun, and it was a game in its own right. We liked it, and from there it just kind of grew.

How much did you have to change once you made that decision to continue development?

I think it gave the multiplayer guys a bit more freedom, because inevitably a multiplayer game has different requirements. In terms of making it fun, you want to do things that are a little bit different from a single-player, whether that’s characters or mechanics or whatever, you need more content to start with. It gave them a good insight into the world we were trying to build, but then we could ultimately go on to ask them “okay, if there’s anything you feel you couldn’t raise before because it wouldn’t have fitted, tell us now”. There wasn’t much, I think, actually, but it just meant that we could go “let’s make the best possible multiplayer game we can now”, and looking back, that’s a very good thing, because it’s given us what we have now.

How much control did you have over the canon of the series?

We had, well, I was going to say we had complete control, but then there are the fans. So, when we first pitched the game, we spoke to Crystal Dynamics, we spoke to the wider group, and Legacy of Kain was an IP we felt we could do with what we wanted. That comes with a lot of caveats, because there is this pre-established lore, so we had this complete freedom, except that we didn’t want to annoy the fans and go “you know all of that stuff? Nah.”

We have upset some fans, we know that, but by engaging with them early, and making sure that key members of the community were the first people to play the game, even before we’d gone alpha, even before we’d shown it to anyone outside the company. We brought them in, explained to them what we were doing, and showed them we were being sympathetic. They’ll look at aspects of it and go “oh, this symbol!” or “that helmet!”; one person even said they wanted to play as the Alchemist class just because of their back-story. When they’ve got that level of passion and knowledge, I’m just in awe.

So, by working with them I feel we were really able to make it true to the world they’d seen before. It’s a different type of game with different types of characters, but we’ve made sure they belong in the world of Nosgoth, and we’ve seen a really positive reaction from a lot of them. We’re never going to win over everyone and we know that, but we’ve got those guys helping us out, we ask for their insight on arcane lore, we take their knowledge from stuff.

We were already talking with Daniel Cabuco, who was the art lead on Soul Reaver, so he’d created some of these iconic characters, I’d worked with him in the past and he was keeping the series alive on his own website. So we spoke to him and said “hey Danny, would you be interested with working with us to design some new character skins?” and he was like “yeah, awesome”. So there’ll be more character skins for the vampires, and that’s something we have as a direct result of fan feedback. This is what I hope that we’re showing, that we’re listening, and where we can we’ll make changes.

But, at the same time we’re bringing in new players who are unfamiliar with the series, and we have to be receptive to that, and some of them are reading the blog posts and joining the forums and asking questions because they want to learn more about the world, and we’ve got thousands of years of lore to draw from. There’s a very rich history there and it puts us in an awesome position to make a game that has that depth and richness behind it, which informs what we’re doing and creating an immersive world for any time of game.

How did you originally approach the asymmetric design of the humans versus vampires conflict?

That was the driving principle from the start, that it was necessary to do justice to both sides. Our biggest concerns earlier on were that we were fairly confident – and by ‘we’ I mean the people of Psyonix, they’re doing all the hard work, I’m just there to help them – was that if we could solve the problems of traversal, could we make that work in a game?

The vampires were always going to be cool, they can leap and pounce and leap and they’re cool, but how can we make humans compete with them in terms of fun and aspiration and wanting people to play as them? I think they’ve done it, I love playing both sides. I’ll be playing one side, love it, then swap sides and love it as well. I don’t have a favourite side. So, asymmetrical design and more importantly team-based asymmetrical design, not just one big guy versus lots of little guys. That can be a fun experience, but again, it’s been done, it’s being done. We wanted to make a properly team-based game. Was it the easiest option? No, but I think it was the best option. I think it means we’ve got something now that was a lot of hard work, but it totally paid off.

Do you get much information on what the play-testers prefer to pick in terms of classes and factions? Do you know if they tend to pick a class and stick with it, or do they swap them around a lot?

For our paid play-testers we tend to encourage them to try everything out, but out in the open, in terms of beta players, it’s up to them to decide how they play. We have a lot of metrics and do a lot of analysis, we look at that data and see who’s been played the most, who’s been getting the most kills, what abilities are being used most.

There are clear differentiators, but what we then do is look and say “if more kills are being made by this class, is that because more people are playing as that class, or are they unbalanced?” That’s another level of research and analysis, though.

We do talk to individual players and we and the developers spend a lot of time talking to fans on the forums, so we get that as well, but while that kind of subjective feedback can be really useful, we need to look at the bigger picture and combine that with the kind of slightly less exciting but critical data analysis. We need to look at those stats to see what players like or not. If they don’t like it, then we reach out to them, we reach out to the leading players, the community leaders, and they help us filter out a lot of the noise. It’s potentially all valuable, but there’s a lot of work there.

If something’s less popular, we’ll then ask “why not? Is it not readable enough? Is it not fun enough? Does it look cool enough? Have people not noticed it? What is it that isn’t working?” Then we can start making changes again.

Do you have a preferred play-style yourself? What tactics do you tend to use? So for example, if you pick the Sentinel class, do you like swooping around more or do you prefer being sneaky?

I like swooping around, but then I get shot! I’m not the world’s best Sentinel player, I’ll confess! I like his ability to strike from above, so whether that’s actually dropping a chemical explosive on players below or me slamming down into the group. I don’t actually have the patience to swoop down and carry players off, some players do, and they can dominate doing that. I’m a bit too much like “get in there!”

I think with the vampires I probably spend most of my time playing a Reaver, but that’s just me. I really like his ability to act as a hit-and-run. I know the Sentinel can do that as well because they can fly, but I will harass, damage, evade, climb away, recover, then attack again. I may not get as many kills, but I get a lot of support kills, and we reward those with experience. I don’t get as many pure kills, but that’s how I like playing. I see a group of humans, I break them up, and I may not kill them because I’m not as aggressive as other players, but I will push through and maybe get some more kills because I’m more cautious. I like playing the Tyrant because he’s great at breaking up crowds. I might not be very good at it, but it doesn’t stop me trying.

As for the humans, I like them all. I like playing the Scout, I’m not as good a Sniper as I used to be, my Counter-Strike days are long behind me, but I love the Alchemist. What I love about her is that you can keep mixing her up, you can be a damage dealer, you can be an aerial denial, you can be a support, you can heal your team-mates and I like that flexibility. That keeps her fresh.

My favourite tactic was to blind the vampires with a grenade then set myself on fire and run away…

That’s what I mean! We very rapidly see people come up with their own tactics, and there are a lot of them for every class. Then there’s always something you didn’t know you could do, either. We were looking at some gameplay footage of a Sentinel who had swooped in, grabbed someone and then dropped them, and before they hit the ground a Reaver took them out with a pounce in mid-air. I’d never seen that before, I couldn’t do it if I tried and someone had just done it effortlessly.

When I talk about the depth and complexity of the game, it’s stuff like that, like that tactic you came up with, and then someone will come up with a counter to that, and then we’ll introduce a newer class or another ability that gives you another level. From a balancing and QA point of view it’s a nightmare, but it keeps making Nosgoth more and more interesting, which I love.

Nosgoth is currently in closed beta. Its release date is still to be determined.

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