In science there’s a concept called mutual discovery. It’s the idea that two people working independently of one another can come up with the same discovery, theory or invention at the same time. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the theory of natural selection. By the middle of the nineteenth century, evolution was an idea whose time had finally come, and it was discovered by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace at the same time.
More than 150 years later it’s weirdly fitting that a game named for Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory is at the center of what feels like another mutual discovery. Evolve was the darling of E3 2014. Its four-versus-one conceit stood out at a show otherwise dominated by conventional thinking about multiplayer. But developer Turtle Rock isn’t alone.
At Gamescom BioWare unveiled Shadow Realms, another title that hinges on the principle of one player taking on four others. Then of course there’s Lionhead, whose next take on the Fable series sees – you know it – four players take on one player-controlled villain. It seems that asymmetrical multiplayer is an idea whose time has come.
BioWare Austin general manager Jeff Hickman remembers the moment he first heard about Fable Legends.
“I can remember a year ago, we were literally sitting and playing four-versus-one Shadow Realms and the Gamescom news is coming up, and it’s like: blah-blah game, four-versus-one. We were sitting there and we were like, ‘You’re kidding me.'
“We don’t talk to those guys, they don’t talk to us, and we were top secret, nobody heard about us until a month ago really. So it’s interesting.”
Shadow Realms is an action-RPG in which four players square off against a player-controlled dungeon master, called a Shadow Lord, who must attempt to stop them by using monsters and traps.
Like so many BioWare games, Shadow Realms draws plenty of inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons.
“We all hang out together and we’re all friends, and we were playing a couple of different board games, reading a couple of different books,” says Hickman. “We were all talking about the same books, and we were all on this nostalgia hop, we’d all been playing first edition Dungeons & Dragons again.”
While many BioWare games had captured the essence of party-based roleplaying, “We hadn’t really captured the Dungeon Master aspect,” adds Hickman, “That feeling of having another person who’s controlling as much of the adventure as he possibly can.”
The game’s setting is also new territory for BioWare. Shadow Realms is set partly in our world and our time. As BioWare tells it, our world has been connected to another human planet called Embra. Where Earth is technological, Embra is magical.
The humans on Embra have been fighting and losing a war against the daemonic Shadow Legion for millennia, and in a final, desperate bid for survival have opened a portal to Earth. In doing so they’ve awoken latent magical powers in some of Earth’s population, and paved the way for the Shadow Legion to attack this planet.
Hickman cites The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman as an important source of inspiration for Shadow Realms. “We’ve done fantasy, a lot of the guys have done sci-fi, and the stuff we were reading at the time was a lot of stuff about modern day, normal people becoming heroes in different ways – some of them discovering magic.”
“What would it be like if we had a wizard with a machine gun, or a bomb squad guy with a big axe? Throw it all together. What would it be like if you discovered you had magical powers? Who would you be? How would you fight?”
“Sometimes you’re going to be fighting on the streets of Paris, or the subways of New York. Sometimes you’re going to be fighting in a dungeon.”
Heroes and the Shadow Lord will be customisable and feature skill trees that are both deep and wide, says Hickman. “I might be the bazooka warrior, you might be the battle axe warrior.”
“You might be the Shadow Lord who specialises in traps, or monsters – making them more powerful, possessing them, fighting with them – or a mix of that.”
BioWare isn’t just experimenting with setting and multiplayer, however. The studio is also planning on delivering the game episodically. Players will initially purchase and play a sizeable portion of the game, which will be followed by very regular content updates.
“We talk about it being episodic like a great TV series, and I think a lot of great TV series are week to week, so I can imagine it like that, but we definitely have not decided on the cadence – very frequently, though.”
Hickman adds that Shadow Realms will also feature the consequential, branching narratives, dialogue options, and romances that BioWare is known for.
“It starts at the beginning with you as just a guy or girl whose life is mundane, who doesn’t have magic. It’s discovery of who you are and what that story is.
We lead you through it with choice, the kind of choice you’d expect from any BioWare game, choosing romance or betrayal, saving somebody or letting somebody die.”
“You can play with friends, or your friends can play at the same time, and you’ll all be delivered that episode, and it lasts for 30 to 60 minutes of story plus adventure time, and you’re making your choices. You come out of it, and you may discover that your friends made are totally different to the ones you made. There’s massive replayability.”
For BioWare Austin, Shadow Realms also represents a new beginning. Some developers at the studio had been working on Star Wars: The Old Republic for eight years, and while Hickman now describes the game as successful, it’s no secret that EA once intended it to be a bigger money-maker than it has been.
“The feeling in the studio right now is a feeling of triumph,” concludes Hickman.
“We’ve made it through the hardest times, work is tough, we love it, we’ve got a new opportunity, EA trusts us to do the right thing. Life’s good.”
Shadow Realms is coming to PC late in 2015.