CDV Editors Day '08: Mario Kroll and Mike Tata on Sacred 2

by: Randy -
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San Francisco’s hot, and the DJ on the radio agrees.  “It’s so hot outside that my only suggestion is you stick your head out the window of a moving car and sing this!”  Immediately, Jordin Sparks starts complaining that there’s “No Air.”

The Bay Area is tinted the color of baked clay with all the smoke from
California’s usual summer forest fires.  Sweat trickles down the back of my neck and it’s only a quarter to 10:00.  I’m trekking up three trolley-stuffed blocks to the University Club on Powell Street, just a stone’s throw from West Coast shopping Mecca, Union Square.  On the vaulted University Club’s fourth floor, I’ll soon receive an unexpectedly bone-crushing handshake from CDV Software Entertainment’s Ted Brockwood, PR Account Manager for the video game publisher’s North American branch.

I thank Ted for the invitation to CDV Editors Day ’08, and that’s when I realize that I need to develop a much firmer handshake the next time I meet him.  He’s ready to talk shop, but I’m already eyeballing the oversized hi-def screens positioned around the room.  Representatives from PC Gamer, IGN, 1UP, and Destructoid are filtering in, and everyone’s making requisite commentary about the hilly climb.

Ted’s got bigger fish to fry, and I’m about to entrench myself in hours of hands-on time with Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, today’s center-stage beauty from German developer Ascaron...
Ascaron is first and foremost a PC developer.  This is their maiden voyage into console development, although an immense portion of the game is already stable enough to allow dozens of players to teleport at will across its 22-square-mile map.  (For comparison’s sake, Oblivion’s map was 16 square miles.)  That’s not including two more levels of wormy underground tunnels in the Sacred land of Ancaria.  Early reports stating that Sacred 2’s underground levels “double” the size of the map are grossly exaggerated, but there’s no doubt that the dozens of cavern entrances make for plenty of spelunking opportunities.  Additionally, every square inch of the topographically-dynamic map is handcrafted.  Every swaying pine, every frog pond, every stretch of beach sand, and every hillside hike is carved, placed, stretched, shrunk, and smoothed into place, one piece at a time.  No overrated random dungeons here.

By nightfall, a full workday later, QA and Customer Support Manager Mike Tata (pronounced Tay-tuh) has already had a long day, not to mention the even longer days he’s had leading up to this event.  Regardless, he’s been bouncing around the game rooms, helping people through a few known bugs, a few unknown ones, and a fair but not unexpected amount of freezes and crashes.  But that’s what crunch time is for, right?  That’s why, even though Ascaron’s offices in Germany are ten hours ahead of us, they’re probably still in there, midnight oil burning, or coffee pots gurgling the start of yet another early-to-rise day.  Guten morgen, I bet.  CDV has been working closely with Ascaron since February, so, compared to the average publisher, they’re rather intimate with the game’s progress, though they’d only recently cracked open today’s latest build from the developers.

Mike has kept his chin up, soaking in people’s feedback, some of it constructive, some of it not so much (the first thing one journalist says:  “Grid-lined inventory system?  F***, I thought we were past this”).

At one point during the day, I grab Mike by the shoulder and walk with him into the PC room where four monstrous desktops and four powerhouse laptops have been buzzing with drop-in/drop-out multiplayer matches since we arrived.  Later, I also snag the gregarious and sharply-dressed Mario Kroll, Director of Marketing and PR, and ask him for a moment of his time, too.  Most of the questions I’ve heard from the other journalists today are centered around game technicalities, embargo dates, and the like.  There’s plenty of joking quips to go around as well.

IGN’s Jason Ocampo asks, “So will there be mounts in this game?”

“Yes.  In addition to horses, each character will have a unique mount,” Mike says.

“Will there be ponies?” Jason raises an eyebrow.

“No, but there will be, uh, horses.”

“But no ponies, you say?”

Everybody has a chuckle, but it’s apparent that, at least since
2:00 this afternoon, visitors have been taking greater advantage of the full bar in the next room.  As for me I’m pretty sure the bartender wanted to floor me with a single Cape Cod, so I’d had to switch to water pretty quick.  Before that vodka and cranberry mix started making my monitor wobble, the bartender had punked me for ordering “just” a soda earlier.  I contested that the rum part could wait until after lunch, but thank you.

Cape Cod had me pushing through the rooms like I was being moved by WASD keys.  And Mike, being more of a first-person shooter fan than a role-playing game fan, hopes against hope that WASD movement can be integrated into the PC version before the game ships.  Having the option would be brilliant -- agreed -- but probably won’t mesh well with Sacred 2’s click-and-hold combat on the PC.  The consoles require a touch more skill; since there’s no auto-targeting, the much more natural analog movement is balanced by having to continually reposition footing to face your opponent.

Mario, however, having spent egregious amounts of time playing RPGs (he names off about 12 of them before he goes on), feels that Sacred 2 is full and complete in and of itself.  He also acknowledges a certain “luxury” CDV has as a publisher, in that they have the power to push back dates until they see what they like in the final product.  “We’re not just some publisher that shoves the game in the box and sets it on the store shelf,” says Mario.  “To be on my team, you have to be a passionate gamer.  You have to love games.”

We’ve all seen the effects of games castrated by poor localization:  Inexcusable misspellings, poor grammatical structure, or linguistic idioms lost in translation when they cross the Pond.  CDV recognizes this, and they’re determined not to let their developers’ products fail from wanton oversights like those.  “Something I’ve always said,” Mario clarifies, “is that Coke and McDonald’s sell worldwide, while bratwurst and lederhosen do not.”  I think I know what he means, and now CDV’s purpose and intent gains clarity.  CDV isn’t micromanaging their developers just so they can feel better about themselves.  Like German-American alchemists, CDV is there to exchange local coinage into global currency.  “Sure, we could just leave developers alone and adopt a hands-off policy, but I’ve lived in the
United States for 20 years.  I have a better connection with this culture than they do.  We’ll look at a game and maybe say, ‘Hey, this has got a cool core, but this is something you need to tweak to make it more palatable for an American audience.’  We want to make this a joint brand.”

This attention to cultural nuance -- and having a strong base game to begin with -- is why the original Sacred was translated into multiple languages, selling over 1.8 million copies globally, and being named PC Gamer’s RPG of the Year in 2004.  Yes, 2004 was also the year of Fable and Knights of the Old Republic II, heavy hitters if ever there were some. 

But what about 2008?  It’s arguable that Action RPGs have settled themselves into a cozy spot and haven’t budged far outside of their own box.  With forum boards recently aflame in a Blizzard-fueled fire, some naysayers would completely write-off Sacred 2 after seeing nothing more than a 20-minute gameplay video of Diablo 3 (it’s smashing, there’s no doubt).  Still, after watching that gameplay video multiple times myself, I’m still not convinced the genre is pushing any envelopes, and especially not by Blizzard.  They may be the best refiners in the business, but they’ve never been accused of sourcing their peons for the cultivation of raw materials.

I carefully load an 800-pound-gorlila-sized question into the chamber before aiming it at Mario’s forehead.  "Tell me, Mario, why will people still be talking about Sacred 2 in two years?  Why is Sacred 2 is going to be a Diablo 3 killer, even though Diablo 3 likely won’t be around for a long time?"

Mario becomes noticeably hesitant for the first time all evening.  He stares out from the University Club’s balcony, looking at the TransAmerica building but not really seeing it.  He sucks in a breath between his teeth before continuing.

“It’s not,” he starts slowly.   “It not going to be a Diablo 3 killer.”  But he wasn’t saying that in a way to disparage Sacred 2.  “Our character development is much deeper.  Diablo 3 has more action, but not necessarily the depth we have.”  He turns back towards me.  “I have no doubt Diablo 3 is going to be a kick ass game.  But Sacred 2 can totally stand on its own.  It’s not a me-too title.  It never was.”

And then we turn back towards the dusky cityscape, inhaling the forest-fire fallout.  From having played the Diablo games as well as sizeable handfuls of other lazily-labeled “Diablo clones,” Mario finishes by simply stating, “I’m convinced,” when considering whether Sacred 2 will indeed stand on its own.  “I’m convinced,” he said again. "I mean, after all, football fans can play both Madden and NCAA.  Shooter fans can enjoy both Battlefield: Bad Company and Call of Duty 4.  Why, if you're a fan of RPGs, would you not want to buy a role-playing game shipping in a few months, rather than sitting out all year, waiting for another title?

And with those comparisons beginning to clear up, it becomes more obvious that there will be enough air to breathe for both Diablo 3 and Sacred 2 in the same atmosphere.
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