The winter movie season means both big films, and the inevitable movie games based on those films. There was a point in time when gamers could simply assume just about any movie tie-in game was terrible, and many still are. Sierra's upcoming Eragon game for the PS2, Xbox, PC, and Xbox 360 looks like it's going to be one of those exceptions to the rule. Eragon is an action-adventure game in the vein of StormFront Studios' The Two Towers action title, but with deeper gameplay, sharper graphics, and pick-up co-op play in the vein of the Lego Star Wars games. The title's been in development for well over two years, essentially from the moment that production on the movie began.
WP: How difficult was it to turn the Eragon license into a video game?
Gresko: I've worked with licenses most of my career, and not all are easy fits to a game. This is an easy fit to a game. This guy learns magic, he uses a sword, he has a dragon that shoots fire and flies around... it's perfect. It's been really easy to translate the character. When you work with a license you want to have it true to the license and not affect the allies in a negative way. So the allies have unique abilities, but magic is unique to Eragon. He's still the main character, him and Zafira.
WP: How did the Eragon project happen?
Daglow: We were lucky getting a start so early with any license game. Even with Lord of the Rings, the first film was nearing completion when we started production on The Two Towers. Sometimes we had to wait on things, and that's endemic to movie games.
Gresko: It's very helpful having a novel to reference and being fans of that novel. No matter how the film is interpreted, there's an emotional core and a story core that we know has to be part of that film. We know he'll bond with Zafira, and he has to ride her and learn to use her sword.
Daglow: With Lord of the Rings we didn't have the ability to fall back on the book, and with Eragon we did. We also got to see the first script and see it evolve, and we could go through and harvest things from it. There may be the logistical issues that are kind of a pain, but for people like Ray who really enjoyed that world and were fans of the characters, to be able to watch them come to life from the inside was particularly fun as these kinds of games go.
WP: What sorts of game design lessons do you think StormFront learned in moving from the Lord of the Rings license to Eragon?
Daglow: I think that on Lord of the Rings we were figuring out ways to take emotion and energy in the movie, and people's commitment to the characters, and build it into gameplay in a way that both gamers who bought two games a year and games who bought twenty games a year could enjoy equally.
I never put it this way exactly before so see what you think, Ray. I think a big part of where I saw growth and change, is that we knew how to reach people who buy two games a year. But how do we reach people who buy twenty games a year? In Eragon we could spend more time on them, and how the depth and variety unfolds. I think it got a disproportionate amount of time and energy compared to Lord of the Rings.
Gresko: Deeper gameplay, yes. I think we knew from Lord of the Rings how to have a game that came out on time and was good, which was hard, but also how to make the game cinematic and visually impressive.
Daglow: The other interesting thing, I think, is the integration of people with a film background into the game art time. It wasn't just relationships among technical people. I'm thinking of how some of the artists in Two Towers who did level design, who merged in with artists from ILM and Disney. They each bring different things to the party and inspire each other. You get one plus one equals three out of that. The fact that the game artists and movie artists closed ranks so fast was a really pleasant thing to see.
WP: How did Eragon's gameplay evolve through the process of making the game?
Gresko: We knew some of the things we wanted to do pretty early. Especially in the combat system and with dragon flight, those are the areas where it took some work to make things feel right. The controls between flying a huge winged beast and a guy walking around with a sword are pretty different, and it almost feels like two different games. We have artists who do nothing but fine-tune character control. A lot of times when you pick up a game and the controls don't feel right, it comes down to animation details and timing. It doesn't work until you've made the tweaks. I think we have an advantage in that we have tools for trying things out quickly. I'm sure even you saw, even now with the 360 build, some characters still have placeholder animations.
WP: Actually, why did you go with two totally different game mechanics in the main Eragon title? You easily could've turned it into two games.
Gresko: Certainly there's some different mechanics, in sword-fighting and flying. But we think the game mechanics all build on each other naturally. First you use your sword and grapple, and then you get magic. Really, who's going to have fun playing just one kind of game for twenty levels? We wanted to do all kinds of things, light stealth, big puzzles, battles. Eragon is a resourceful kid and I think it speaks to the depth of the character as created in the book. This is why we went with the more grappling type of gameplay. He fights elegantly, he fights smart. He's not going to beat orcs strength-wise, he has to beat them with brains and skill.
Daglow: It was a case of wanting to make the traditional art of storytelling and game design match well. In storytelling, you want change and growth. You don't want endless sameness. We think games should be the same way.
Gresko: It also comes down to environments. Some games, it's all in one building. Eragon starts with a farm boy out in the sticks who gets chosen and discovers that he is going to be leading a quest to save the whole world. As he progresses through the story, the world becomes a wider and wider view, and he becomes part of that big world story. The locations chance so much, in the citadel or the heart of a nemesis's stronghold. That was one of the most fun things to do with the game, imagining what you'd do in the steep cliffs or the parapets of a castle. That's another thing that I think helped create such a wide variety of gameplay.
Daglow: And it's why each level is a little different. Like with Misty Gorge, you could maybe brute force it, but it's more fun if you can make it a push-pull sort of game with magic.
Gresko: Yeah, one of my favorite things in The Two Towers was knocking guys off cliffs. So in Eragon there's height and depth to different areas, and we just play off of that. It's an inherently simple mechanic that's fun. There's a throw mechanic, so now you can throw guys off cliffs. You can use magic attacks to do it. So there's all these opportunities to try these tricks in a level for a player. Like all things, I think design has very simplistic, easy to understand concepts, and then it builds to more complex mechanics that require deep thought. But in the end, you ask yourself, is it fun to push guys off cliffs? Hell yeah! So we do more than that!
WP: Did Fox want certain gameplay elements?
Daglow: There's always some give and take. When you walk the corner of a movie set, they don't show you what's back there. It's plywood. But in a game, you have to be able to walk through that corner. Also we don't have to restrict ourselves to two hours and can show more. It's all pragmatic, we just try to make sure everyone is in synch. There's no high drama to it. The only high drama is in taking 10,000 production details and working them all in, in the right order.
WP: Did Fox specifically want StormFront to handle the games for the Eragon license?
Daglow: We knew each other even before the movie began, so there were already relationships.
Melchior: StormFront, it's safe to say, was specifically requested by Fox for this property.
WP: How did StormFront happen to end up working with Sierra for this title? Was it a difficult relationship to work out?
Melchior: It's always easy when someone has a history of being a license publisher and doing it way. They have credibility and visibility with gamers. It wasn't too difficult once we had a minute to put a pitch together. We were after the license when it was still just a book.
WP: So was it a surprise when you found out there was going to be a movie license?
Melchior: Tim and I both came over to Vivendi from Fox, and it was a pleasant surprise. We were just investigating after we read the book, and then we found out 20th Century Fox had the movie rights. We were pleased. We knew what they'd want out of the game. So then it was just a matter of beating everyone else out of the license. It was very sought-after.
Ramage: We really benefited from relationships. We established a relationship with StormFront prior to the Eragon license, and that helped us work with our relationships with Fox as well. Everyone knew each other, knew all the parties involved, and it made it a great opportunity for all three parties to work together.
Melchior: Tim and I had just finished Simpsons Hit & Run before that, and Road Rage, so they knew we could have success with them. It sort of leads into another topic, Hit & Run works on many levels, but it worked because James L. Brooks and Matt Groening were involved from day one. Feeling that was the best version of the license, everyone was on board to make sure the creators of Eragon were on board with the game from day one, and how we wanted to approach the character and gameplay.
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