Interview with: Jon Van Caneghem, President and founder of New World Computing and designer of the Might and Magic series.
Some Questions about the Plot:
Desslock: I understand that plot of Mandate of Heaven begins in the Kingdom of Enroth with the Ironfist Dynasty on the brink of ruin. Floods, earthquakes, demon invasions - You're having a bad day. Can you give us a few other plot tidbits concerning Mandate of Heaven? Does the story begin shortly after the end of the Xeen games?
JVC: No. The world of Enroth and the world of Xeen are two distinct worlds in the same story "universe". Some of the same elements that were in previous Might and Magic games are retained in Might and Magic VI, and veteran Might and Magic players will know what I mean by this. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for newcomers to the Might and Magic story by describing them here!
This Enroth, however, and the Enroth of Heroes of Might and Magic are the same world. The story takes place roughly ten years after the Succession Wars of Heroes II, and things are not going well for Roland’s kingdom (Yes, the good guys won). Disasters, floods, demonic invasions, all these things have caused the people to question the legitimacy of the Ironfist dynasty. People have begun to say the Ironfists have lost the "Mandate of Heaven"—the divine right of kings to rule.
Desslock: One of the more interesting aspects to the storyline of Mandate of Heaven is the potential for the plot to branch in different directions depending upon the actions of your party. Can you elaborate on how your party's actions will affect the development of the plot?
JVC: As with all previous Might and Magic games, the Mandate of Heaven will permit players to go pretty much anywhere they want in the world, even if their characters aren’t up to the challenge. Obviously, we can only create a few endgame movies, but there are many legitimate ways to finish the game. Players are pretty much free to be good or evil and to pursue their own character development goals at their own pace.
Desslock: Will there be multiple endings to the game?
JVC: Yes! Besides death, there are three distinct ends to the game. More, I cannot reveal at this time.
Desslock: Will there be any characters, locations or items that will be familiar to Might & Magic veterans?
JVC: Actually, the most familiar characters will be the ones that have shown up already in Heroes. There will be some story elements that will put in an appearance for this game that have been used in the past. Specifically, Guardians come to mind as the most memorable story element we’ll be using.
Desslock: Does the game take place entirely within the Kingdom of Enroth? Will time travel or science fiction elements play a role in the story?
JVC: I can tell you the Mandate of Heaven story takes place entirely within the Kingdom of Enroth. I can also safely say we do not intend to use any time travel. More would be spoiling our secrets.
Some Questions on Gameplay:
Desslock: Have you made any significant changes to the character creation system compared to the Xeen games? How much of an opportunity will gamers have to individualize their four characters?
JVC: Gamers will be able to pick faces, classes, skills, and distribute statistic points for our standard seven character stats. We’ve taken a step away from the recent gaming trends in that not all characters will be able to do all things. Knights, for instance, will never be able to cast spells, and sorcerers will always suck when it comes to fighting.
Desslock: I've got to admit, I'm particularly impressed with the manner in which you intend to breathe "life" into the non-player characters ("NPCs") featured in Might and Magic VI. Can you elaborate on how NPCs will interact with your party and pursue their own "autonomous agendas", as your press material has stated?
JVC: NPC’s will have knowledge on topics that are appropriate for their professions, and will receive and transmit news about topics they are "interested" in. They will in many cases be willing to hire on and follow you around, or let you hire them to go and perform a specific task. They have personal schedules and travel itineraries, close their shops at the appropriate times, and refuse to speak to people they don’t like. Some of them are willing to take bribes, or are susceptible to begging or threats. Some only talk to characters with high fame or rotten reputations. We have all types.
Desslock: I understand that up to two NPCs will join your party. How much choice do you have over which NPCs tag along with you?
JVC: It is possible to have more than two followers, but if you have more than two, the excess will be quest NPCs that you are escorting or rescuing or arresting. You can hire up to two NPCs on a weekly basis. These hirelings will have some sort of benefit for having them along (usually) and you can fire them any time you like.
Desslock: I understand that there will be over 300 NPCs in the game? Will there be different types of NPCs (i.e., relatively static, minor ones as opposed to "major" characters)?
JVC: Absolutely. Our basic rule is this: Anyone walking around can be hired and is expendable as far as winning the game is concerned. Otherwise, it would be possible to ruin your game by killing an important NPC before you got to talk to him. On the other hand, many NPCs that you will speak with in what we call "town events" will be indestructible because we have no combat in such areas. These are the ones who will hand out important quests and be given complex text.
Desslock: I understand that certain NPCs may treat you radically differently depending upon the nature of your previous actions in the game. Can you elaborate on the manner in which your actions can affect the behavior of NPCs?
JVC: If your reputation is low, or the NPC you are speaking with has actually seen you commit some heinous crime, that person may refuse to speak with you unless you strong-arm them somehow. If you are known to be a horrible mass murderer of innocent peasants, most people will attack you or run from you on sight. Exactly how they react will be dependent on their personality, their profession, how powerful they are compared to you, and whether they are good, neutral, or evil.
Desslock: Can you elaborate on the manner in which M&M VI will be playable in "real time" mode, as opposed to traditional "turn based" mode (which is also available)? Is the default the "real time" mode, which essentially can be stopped and played "turn by turn"?
JVC: The default is real time. Whenever you want, you can quickly hit the enter key and start turn based mode, which means that you don’t have to make combat decisions based on reflexes alone. Unless you are rather powerful, you won’t want to fight monsters in real time because you won’t have time to react to their attacks with anything but readied spells, bows, and swords.
Desslock: Can you elaborate on some of the changes you have made to the "skill based" character development systems?
JVC: Our character development system is, in my humble opinion, simple, yet elegant. Characters begin the game with a few skills appropriate to their class and a few development points to spend on them. To get one rank in a given skill costs the same number of development points as the rank you’re advancing to. For instance, increasing your skill in Swords from rank three to rank four costs four development points.
Skill ranks are used to make all sorts of calculations. Everything from the chance to hit with your sword to the damage you do with a fireball is covered. It is also possible to become an expert or a master in a given skill (independent of skill rank). Expert or Master status comes with additional abilities, such as being allowed to use a dagger in your left hand and a sword in your right, or repair magic armor, or expand the radius and duration of your fire spells.
Desslock: I understand that you hired an architect to help you design some of the layouts of the dungeons and certain other locations in the game – an outstanding idea, by the way. One of the worst aspects of some role-playing games is the manner in which dungeons and other locations are strewn together illogically (but of course that orc wants to live next to that gargoyle, next to the skeleton, next to the dragon, next to Richard Simmons, etc.), ruining the immersive nature of the gaming world, in my opinion. Can you elaborate on the contributions of your architect?
JVC: One of the primary level designers has a background in architecture. And, we hired two graphic design specialists with lots of CAD experience, and they’ve helped quite a bit with getting the look of the dungeons and towers up to snuff. We’ve had a lot of experience designing dungeon levels, so rest assured that we won’t be putting the dragons next to the Richard Simmons’.
Desslock: How many different enemy or monster types do you anticipate including in the game?
JVC: There are a total of more than 180 types of monsters. This does not include different kinds of "human monsters" that you’ll run into, such as bandits, bounty hunters, and other kinds of miscreants.
Desslock: How many spells do you anticipate including in the game? What changes have you made to the spell system since the Xeen series?
JVC: There are 99 spells in the game, and the spell system is very different from previous Might and Magic games. There are 9 schools of magic (fire, air, earth, water, light, dark, spirit, mind, body) that are accessible to different classes of spell users, and it is possible to know each school to different skill and expert/master rankings. There are no material components necessary to cast spells, and your spell points regenerate after a sound night’s sleep. By sound, I mean at an inn. Camping is worse, and being hungry when you rest is worthless.
Desslock: Can you elaborate on how the new combat system will work?
JVC: That’s a pretty broad question, but I’ll take it to mean "How does your turn-based combat system work?" Taking any action in combat requires a short period of recovery. Skill in the weapon will shorten that period of recovery and better your chances to hit. Different characters will be allowed to take actions at different times, depending on their individual speed statistics and how slow their previous action was. Monsters will attack on their turns based on their own speed and recovery rates. There are no real "rounds" in our system—combatants simply take actions when it’s their turn. Quick fighters will eventually end up taking more actions than slow ones, and this can get as extreme as taking three dagger attacks to every one axe attack. Spells are considered attacks under this system, so each spell has a recovery rate associated with it. Sometimes expert and master status can reduce the recovery penalty from a weapon or spell.
The real-time combat is more of the twitch model using whichever default attack you have set for your characters and their speed is dependent on their rate of recovery.
Desslock: How interactive is the world of Mandate of Heaven? I understand that certain buildings will open into 3d environments, while others will simply "open" to a graphical depiction of the inside of the building. How detailed is the object interactivity in Mandate of Heaven? For example, will there be 3d objects you can interact with, such as bookcases with real books?
JVC: We really have three places you can be in the game. You can be outside using our Horizon engine (similar to a flight sim engine), you can be inside using our Labyrinth engine to explore dungeons, or you can be in a shop or other special location that is a simple graphical representation of a place. If you are in the either of the game engines, you are able to pick up and manipulate any reasonable item. Physics are modeled accurately for purposes of falling objects, light casting, and objects bouncing.
Desslock: I understand that your characters will both have an "actual" reputation, based upon actions they've done, and a "perceived" reputation, based upon NPCs knowledge (or perception) of your characters' actions. Please elaborate on the role reputation will play in Might & Magic VI.
JVC: True. Sometimes a NPC will not have heard of your crimes or your good deeds before you speak with them. This means that it is possible to outrun your reputation, although eventually everyone will have heard about the things you’ve been doing.
Desslock: I understand the "word based puzzles" from the earlier Might & Magic games will be making a return in Might & Magic VI. How big a role will they play in the game?
JVC: Yeah, you should expect to see at least a few word games in Might and Magic VI. Word games have always been a hallmark of the series, and we wouldn’t think of not including some in this game.
Desslock: You have indicated that the world of Might & Magic VI will truly be "dynamic", with locations growing, becoming re-inhabited, etc. Can you give us a few details concerning how the world will change throughout the game?
JVC: Just because you clean a dungeon out doesn’t mean that some other enterprising monsters looking for a new home won’t move in at some later date. Also, we will have weather, fluctuating shop prices, and a small population of traveling NPCs. Time marches on with or without you, so quests given out will sometimes go sour if you wait to long to finish them.
Desslock: How many hours of do you anticipate it will take the average gamer to complete the main story in Mandate of Heaven?
JVC: We have been pondering that ourselves as all of the elements are coming together as a whole. With the new real-time aspect of the game we really won’t know until we get a chance to play a complete build. Previous Might and Magic games have had broad ranges that have taken people anywhere from 30 hours to 200+ hours. We are shooting for 50-100, but it may take longer to complete it, depending on the player’s skill.
Some Questions about the Graphics, Sound and Interface:
Desslock: Might & Magic VI features not one, but two new 3d engines, the Labyrinth engine (for indoor locations) and the Horizon engine (for outdoor locations)- both of which look very impressive. Can you elaborate on the differences between the two engines? What are the relative advantages of the different engines? Will the change between engines change the manner in which your characters interact with the gaming world?
JVC: The Horizon engine allows us to do tricks with the terrain that we otherwise couldn’t have done with a single engine. I think the biggest difference this engine makes is allowing us to have complete towns that you can walk through without having to do some sort of simple town representation on the map. The Labyrinth engine permits a much more constricted viewpoint than the Horizon engine would allow, so it permits us to build dungeons with it. As far as the player is concerned, however, there is no real play difference between the two.
Desslock: You've been demonstrating some pretty impressive AVI cutscenes with Might & Magic VI. What's the role of these cutscenes in Might & Magic VI? Do they occur just as part of the Introduction and at the Ending?
JVC: No, there is one other place in the game where we use a lengthy movie scene. In other circumstances, we use the same technology that created the movies to illustrate shops, temples, throne rooms, and other miscellaneous, complex scenes with animation, only more conservatively.
Desslock: What kind of music to you anticipate including in the game? Will it be Midi or CD digital? Any particular type or style of music?
JVC: CD digital, of course. And the style is medieval or classical using the same musician who did the Heroes II music. No opera this time.
Desslock: There's no doubt that between the Labyrinth and Horizon engines, Might & Magic VI will definitely be the most graphically impressive game in the series. I noticed at the e3 that weather effects, animated water effects and dynamic lighting were all supported. One of the things which gamers may not appreciate from looking at screen shots is that there's virtually no pixelation of the objects in the 3d environment. What trickery is this <grin>? How'd you do that?
JVC: We use big textures and we don’t allow the player to get so close to a texture that pixels blow up enormous size. We also mip-map (resize) distant objects and textures so they appear better at long, medium and short ranges.
Desslock: I understand it that the engines will create a true 3d environment although, like most games of the genre, the monsters, etc. will appear as "sprites", and not polygonal objects?
JVC: Correct. We don’t think monsters and objects look good enough as polygonal objects to build an engine around that yet. When that technology finally catches up the quality of a simple sprite, then we’ll switch over.
Desslock: I understand that Might & Magic VI will include a detailed automap feature. Is there any "note-taking" feature to keep track of conversations with NPCs?
JVC: Of course. If an NPC says something significant, notes will be taken automatically. Maps, as in all Might and Magic games, are also handled automatically.
Desslock: I'm sure you realize that you just can't have a first person perspective game these days without getting asked the following question (even though it is more appropriate in respect of action based games with lots of polygons): Are you contemplating any support for 3d accelerator cards? If so, will you support specific cards or general APIs such as Microsoft's Direct 3d?
JVC: Yes. We will be supporting Direct 3D and through it the cards Direct 3D supports. [Editor's Note: Since the interview was conducted, 3DO has decided to nix the 3D accelerated version.]
Desslock: What are two features (perhaps among many) which you believe will set Might & Magic VI apart from other computer role-playing games?
JVC: I would say the most important feature is the technology of the two graphic engines. With this split in focus, we are able to get excellent models of both the indoor world and the outdoor world. Most first person games have to choose to focus on the outdoor world or the indoor world (usually the indoor) and the depiction of the other suffers.The second item is our skill system. We think that it smoothes out the progress of the game so that it is nearly equally difficult to play all the way through. Often a game is either very easy or very hard for certain levels of characters—usually very hard in the beginning and then ridiculously easy at the end. Might and Magic VI won’t suffer from this.
Desslock: How close is the game to commercial release? What is your current target release date?
JVC: March ‘98
Desslock: Hey, what's with that Minotaur king guy we keep seeing around?
JVC: Marketing seems to like that monster a lot, and I guess we in development are notorious for resisting their persistent requests for more graphics…so they reuse it a lot. I guess.
Desslock: You’ve announced that you’re working on Might & Magic Online. What do you have planned for this ambitious project?
JVC: Not ready to talk much about Might & Magic Online right now. What I can tell you is that it is a collaborative effort between New World and the Internet group from 3DO that have been working on Meridian 59. We are excited about the project given the expertise at 3DO and the RPG expertise at New World. The combination, we anticipate, will lead to a phenomenal "massively multiplayer" FRPG experience. Stay Tuned!
Desslock: One last, long question coming up, which ties into the theme of this RPG article on upcoming games. Deep breath: A lot of role-playing game fans are concerned that there have not been many RPGs produced over the past several years. After all, it has been several years since the release of the Xeen series, for example (although you've made two very well regarded Might & Magic strategy games), and there hasn't been a release of a core "Wizardry" or "Ultima" game for several years either.
One of the reasons cited for the recent dearth of role-playing games is the perception that such games only appeal to a limited, although devoted, number of gamers. In other words, the commercial market for traditional style role-playing games is perceived to be smaller than the potential market for computer games of other genres, such as first person action games or strategy games.
Given the fact that you've decided to go back to the core Might & Magic series and create another role-playing game in this environment, what did your development team do in order to entice more gamers to try a role-playing game?
JVC: We know the role-playing audience is unhappy about the low numbers of good games aimed at them. There is a feeling that role-players are a small audience and some game companies think there isn’t much money to be made selling to them. We think the role-playing audience is quite large. You just have to make a game that people want to play. Build it and they will come. So we’ve done that. And we make no assumptions that our players have played a role playing game before. We obviously want to draw in as many new players as we can while holding the interest of the veteran RPGer’s. It’s a tight wire to walk, but it can be done. Wish us luck!
Desslock: Thanks again for taking the time to consider these questions.
JVC: No problem! Always happy to answer a few questions.