Get ready for a new breed of Action-RPG! The much anticipated Maxis game Darkspore is now available on PC.
As a fugitive in the galactic hive of Darkspore domination, you’re a surviving Crogenitor who’s awoken from eons of sleep. Your only guide is HELIX, the AI who’s kept you in safe hiding since you entered suspended animation. Now, using HELIX’s exhaustive DNA database, you must reconstruct the Genetic Heroes using stabilized E-DNA. Make these Heroes more powerful than their original incarnations to lead them into an apocalyptic battle against the Darkspore.
To celebrate, we grabbed the Senior Systems Designer Paul Sottosanti and asked him a few questions about his past at Wizards of the Coast, the influence of Spore on Darkspore, and where the idea of Darkspore came from.
Describe your day-to-day role at Maxis?
My official title at Maxis is Senior Systems Designer, and I'm one of the lead designers for Darkspore, focusing primarily on the gameplay and systems side of things. I designed almost all of the heroes, enemies, abilities, loot, and other reward systems in the game.
A typical day consists of answering a lot of email, tinkering with one of my numerous spreadsheets, reading our Darkspore beta forums, and delving into Lua (or occasionally C++) to implement tuning changes or fix the occasional bug. I also work closely with the gameplay engineers and visual effects artists to ensure that the design vision is preserved throughout the process of creating a new enemy or ability.
You have an interesting background designing at Wizards of the Coast working on card games. How did that experience help while working on Darkspore?
It was invaluable to have the experience of working on a complex system like Magic: the Gathering, where there are thousands of tools that you're putting in the hands of the players, and you're responsible for making sure they're all balanced when put together into the millions of potential combos. The skills that I picked up working on those teams will be useful to me throughout my entire career.
The other aspect of Wizards of the Coast that really stands out to me is how design-focused the company was. At Wizards, I was surrounded by a large group of incredibly smart designers, and there was a constant stream of interesting conversations that you couldn't help but overhear. This wasn't ideal for getting work done but it was more than ideal for learning and growing as a designer.
Finally, you can see some influences from Magic: the Gathering in the Darkspore design, like the system of five genesis types, and there were other projects that were inspired by Wizards experiences, like the various paper prototypes that I constructed to test out some of our early mechanics.
What games do you like to play in your spare time?
Almost too many to count. Like many others, I enjoy AAA titles like Borderlands, Portal 2, Dragon Age, and Call of Duty. I'm also a huge fan of the indie game scene, with games like Spelunky, Desktop Dungeons, Atom Zombie Smasher, and SpaceChem taking up a lot of my spare time. And finally, board games like 7 Wonders, Small World, Dominion and Pandemic are great to play with friends after work.
Can you give us an overview of Darkspore? What’s the game all about?
Darkspore is an online sci-fi action RPG. Unlike traditional RPGs, you don't level up a single hero over the lifetime of the gameplay; instead, you collect up to 100 different heroes (25 completely unique heroes with 4 variants of each) and bring squads of three of them each time you beam down to a planet. Each of those 100 heroes can be customized in a modified version of the Spore creature editor, giving players a level of customization that's unprecedented in the action RPG genre. The game supports up to four player co-op when playing through the campaign and both 1v1 and 2v2 matches in PvP (Player versus Player).
Where did the idea for a game like Darkspore come from?
After the launch of Spore, three members from the team (Stephen Lim, Thomas Vu, and Tom Bui) were tasked with figuring out what project they wanted to work on next. It was clear from looking at Spore that the Creature Editor was an amazing piece of technology, and seeing as they're all big fans of the action RPG genre and of co-op games in general, they soon figured out that adding that sort of customization to an RPG was a perfect fit. The only problem was that Maxis didn't have any experience making games of that ilk, so they hired engineers who had worked on Diablo 3, as well as me from Wizards of the Coast, to flesh out the team. Essentially, they wanted to make a game that they'd be excited to play every night.
I know a lot of beta testing was done for Darkspore. What did you learn from the beta testing and what did you differently afterwards?
The beta test has been a huge success for Darkspore. Maxis doesn't have a lot of experience with public beta testing, but we've been thrilled with how it turned out. The volume of feedback and bug reports that we've received from beta testers has been phenomenal. We've had numerous patches already that have addressed issues found during the beta, and we've added features like randomized objectives and item selling in the editor in response to requests from the community. We've also adjusted the difficulty of the game numerous times based on beta feedback and telemetry.
One of the coolest parts about Spore is the editor? Is that feature included in Darkspore, and if so, has it changed at all?
Absolutely. The creature editor from Spore has been included and modified to suit action RPG gameplay. There are now stat bars off to the side which will show the potential stat changes whenever the mouse pointer is over an item. Heroes now have six specific slots to fill so that players are forced to make choices about which stats they want to enhance for gameplay. We've also added the concept of detail items, which address a common problem in RPGs where players have to replace items that they think look cool because newer items have better stats. In Darkspore, stats can be stripped off of items, creating an item that can be added to a hero and will never become obsolete. The popularity of threads in the beta forums where players post screenshots of their heroes has already shown us the flexibility of the customization in Darkspore.
How is Darkspore similar or different from Spore? Do you think people who liked Spore will also like Darkspore?
Darkspore was never intended to be a sequel or an expansion pack to Spore. What it does share with Spore is the creature editor, the procedural animation system, and the procedural paint script system. Darkspore differs from Spore in that it revolves around strategic choices (centered on what items to equip as well as what heroes to use in your squads) mixed with casual, fun hack and slash gameplay, and a high degree of creative expression. Four player co-op means that players can easily show off their creations to an appreciative audience. I think Spore players will find a lot to like in Darkspore.
I’ve heard lots of people talk about the Dynamic AI Director in Darkspore. Can you explain what that is and how it works?
The AI Director was inspired by Left 4 Dead, a game with a limited selection of maps that players are happy to play over and over again since it provides a difference experience each time. We wanted to focus on replayability because we know that people like to play action RPGs for long periods of time, in some cases hundreds of hours over the lifetime of a game. Individual missions take about 10-15 minutes, and each time you start a level, the AI Director will select 6 out of a possible 96 enemies for you to face, giving a huge number of potential combinations. Then, during gameplay, the spawns are completely different each time, and the Director will ramp up the intensity or ease off based on the experience of the player. We've already seen players playing for 50 or more hours despite a rather low level cap during beta.
And finally, what’s next for the Darkspore team?
We haven't officially announced any post-launch plans yet, but I can say that the majority of the team is staying on the project, and we're looking forward to continually improving the game.