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RPG Codex Interview: Ion Hardie on Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader
Codex Interview - posted by Infinitron on Wed 18 January 2017, 22:08:08Tags: Black Isle Studios; Chris Avellone; Interplay; Ion Hardie; Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader; Reflexive Entertainment
Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader was the last CRPG published by the beloved Black Isle Studios. Developed by Reflexive Entertainment, it is known for being the only (released) game other than Fallout to use the SPECIAL system, and also for its poor reception by both fans and press.
13 years after its release, despite the game’s historical value, not much is known about its troubled development and the decisions that shaped it. Ion Hardie is credited as the game’s Lead Designer, so I figured he’d be the best person to ask.
At first, our conversation was not meant to be part of the interview. The actual interview was meant to be done later, via email, but he was giving detailed answers and it was more practical for him, so we went along with it.
First I tried to make sure he was the right Ion Hardie, and he clarified:
Ion: "Lead Designer" is a bit misleading, as we had a bunch of good people that contributed to the overall design of the game...but I definitely worked a bunch on it.
Fairfax: I said lead designer because thats what the MobyGames info said. [Note: Ion Hardie is credited in the game as Lead Designer, Co-Producer, Writer and Additional Sound Effects and Editing.]
Would you be willing to do a Lionheart interview for the RPGCodex? I actually liked many parts of Lionheart, and I've always been curious about its development and design.
Ion: Lead Designer is probably the most accurate of all the possibilities. It's what the game credits say too, so it's not wrong, I just like giving credit where it's due. Sure, doing an interview for it would be fun. It's the hardest I've worked on a game in my 19 years in the industry... though we got some flak for it not being all that it could be.
And in a familiar mantra "if we only had 6 more months..."
Fairfax: Not to mention how badly Interplay was doing, right?
Ion: Yeah, that didn't help...fans were upset that they didn't fund something else as one of their last games.
Fairfax: I think the game didn't get enough credit for how crazy it went with the story and the setting.
By the way, there's a CRPG book project being made by a Codexer (Note: shoutouts to felipepe), and I wrote the Lionheart review.
Ion: Thanks! We were definitely hopeful...I personally thought the Don Quixote side quest was creative, and I never saw anything about it, or any of the other historical twists we put in.
Hahaha...I agree with your conclusions too. Glad you enjoyed the parts we spent our creative time on.
[Lionheart spoilers: In Lionheart, Cervantes will tell you that he's being stalked by "la bestia". He claims he summoned it near a windmill, using a magic quill stolen from da Vinci. When you go to there with Cervantes to confront "the beast", Don Quixote shows up, telling you Cervantes is a madman. With a high enough Speech, you can convince Don Quixote to merge with Cervantes, otherwise you have to fight him.]
Fairfax: Yes, most reviews focus on how the game got worse after Barcelona, and I agree, but the game deserved more credit.
Ion: We should have just made the game shorter, cut out England entirely and focused on the ending scene. We tried to do too much in the time we had. Black Isle was going under and was late with just about every milestone payment...we had to hire people that we didn't have their first paycheck for, which is always fun.
Fairfax: Did you get the milestone payments later?
Ion: We had to withhold the game eventually...at the end, they asked us to trust that they would pay us, but we had too many bad experiences for that. We did get the money, but only because we played hard ball...and Feargus was on our side.
In hindsight, it's one of the better stories of the development of the game, though we didn't think so at the time.
Fairfax: Is it OK if I take questions from the Codex?
Ion: Please feel free to ask whatever you like... I am curious what kind of questions people have this long after release. They weren't so nice at the time, and I can't imagine that's changed very much, but that's OK.
Lionheart was the game that pushed me into being a producer for many years (out of necessity) but I'm actually a sound designer now at my current job. On Lionheart I wore a few hats: I was also the co-producer and did sound design. I was working 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week for quite some time. We needed more people to create our vision, but we couldn't afford them.
Fairfax: Dont know if you're familiar with the Codex. It’s known for not being very nice, to say the least, but only because everyone’s so passionate about CRPGs. Its been so long I doubt anyone's bitter, though. Probably more curious than anything.
And that sounds like it was pretty rough.
Ion: It's just the way it was...people and teams can find their way through adversity to make greatness, and there are lots of good stories that way too... that's just not our story with Lionheart. However, the Reflexive story still worked out, as we made a small downloadable game at the time called Ricochet...we convinced Interplay to put the demo on the Lionheart disc for us. It did so well, we were able to "go it on our own" and make smaller, independent games until Amazon.com purchased us in 2008.
I worked for Amazon as a game producer and sound designer(working on some really interesting R&D projects) until earlier this year...and I have to admit while I've heard of the Codex, I don't really know much about it. My passion for CRPG's has waned over the years as the time I have to commit to them has decreased. The most intense game I play nowadays is League of Legends, as the games only usually last about 30-40 minutes.
Fairfax: Nice to hear the team found success afterwards.
Do you ever feel like you have a sort of unfinished business with CRPGs? As in, do you feel the urge to make the game Lionheart could've been, even if it's in a different world?
Ion: What we saw in our heads was so much more. Barcelona represented a good step in the right direction, but we wanted more interconnectivity and more famous characters to interact with and thus change your character... we had wanted big reasons to replay as an inquisitor or Templar knight, and we didn't really have the time.
Really, we needed at least 2 more months of planning time on top of more development time...the quests were more seat of the pants than we wanted, but there wasn't much more blood we could squeeze from the Interplay stone.
Fairfax: A lot of people who really disliked the game recognize Barcelona had good parts. I liked it a lot, and I felt it was a glimpse of what the game could've been under different circumstances.
Did the payment issues with Interplay kick in while you guys were still developing Barcelona?
Ion: It started right as we signed the contract...they had issues getting us the initial payment. However, we were about to let a lot of people go as our "hand to mouth" development strategy wasn't working very well. As dire as Interplay's situation was, ours was at least as much so. We were literally one day away from making some really hard choices that might have shut us down for good when I heard we got the contract. As hard as it was to get money from them, Lionheart still kept us alive, and I credit Feargus for that.
To this day, I still buy whatever Obsidian makes to support them/him for helping us get the Lionheart contract. I bought one of the signed copies of Pillars of Eternity through Kickstarter for a few hundred dollars, and it sits on my shelf, unopened. I'll play it someday...when I make the time.
Fairfax: And when did that happen? I've never found information on how long the game's development took.
Ion: It took 18 months from story ideas first being thrown together to gold master, and we had to hire people in the middle, and sometimes without their first paycheck (as we discussed). We revamped the story with "the Disjunction" a few months in, and that changed everything (for the better).
Fairfax: So February 2002 - August 2003, is that right? Was Brian Fargo still Interplay's CEO when you signed the contract?
Ion: I believe so. Our CEO, Lars Brubaker, had worked at Interplay years before, and that was helpful in convincing them to give us the contract. It is amazing just how powerful "who you know" is in this industry.
Fairfax: Indeed. Feargus, MCA and the other folks at Obsidian got their first contract (KOTOR2) because the BioWare doctors knew them and recommended them to LucasArts.
In terms of budget, how did it compare to the other Black Isle games, for instance? And do you know how many copies were sold?
Ion: I could have told you those numbers at one point, but they've vanished in the mists of my memory. However, I do know we got the contract because we said we'd do it cheaper than just about anyone. Another remnant of our failed "hand to mouth" strategy and a sign of how desperate Interplay was that they took it. In retrospect, we bid way too low…
Fairfax: Do you remember if it was profitable?
Ion: I don't think it was profitable. The fan backlash was loud and hard to miss. They saw it as a treasured developer dying a slow death, and they wanted something to save them...and Lionheart wasn't it.
Fairfax: You mean Interplay wanting to save Black Isle?
Ion: I mean the fans wanting Lionheart to save Black Isle. The writing was on the wall that trouble was brewing. In the end, Feargus offered to make Black Isle work for an ownership stake, but Interplay said no. Probably better for Feargus that it didn't work out.
Fairfax: Yeah, he would've got himself in the middle of Interplay's legal troubles.
Ion: Yep...and missed out on a lot of things Obsidian got to do.
Fairfax: I'm sure the game's reception hurt, but did you find any comfort in the fact there wasn't much you could about all these problems?
Ion: In my mind there are only good results, no matter the issues faced to get there. Some solace, but not much.
Fairfax: I'd like to ask about the creative aspects of the game.
Two users (RK-47 and Apan) asked something I've always wondered as well: why the decison to go with an Action RPG real-time combat system?
On one hand, with the SPECIAL system and the "Fantasy Fallout" codename, one might've expected turn-based combat. On the other hand, the vast majority of Black Isle games used real-time with pause. Unlike the other Black Isle games, in Lionheart the player cannot issue combat commands while the game is paused, which brings it closer to Diablo and similar games.
Ion: We had just launched Star Trek Away Team, and Black Isle wanted to create something that was an action take, and they thought we could do it, based on our Star Trek game. As we went along, sadly, we actually thought that issuing commands while paused would have been better (much better). However, our programmers had told me we couldn't go back and just "add that" without completely missing our development schedule.
Fairfax: Interesting, I don't think that was public knowledge.
MotherMachinae had another question about the combat system:
"If they went with real time then why they choose so high speed? You had to be under influence of some drugs that make slo-mo effect or something. Even with patch that slide speed it was still unbearable."
Ion: Honestly, I don't remember why we went with the exact speed that we did. The development schedule that we agreed to didn't leave us much time for experimentation, and we really needed it. When you are creating something brand new like that (and not just copying something else verbatim that works) there needs to be time to see what feels good and what doesn't, and then adjust. We really had to just start running pretty quickly.
I do want to be clear that we were still responsible for making a better game than we did. There were plenty of reasons you could point to that provided less than ideal conditions, but that's life. Overcoming obstacles is what it is all about...and if we were so dedicated to quality, we could have chosen another path. It was just tough when that path was probably going to lead us through some even rougher financial hardships.
It's only now, with so much more experience behind me, that I see the probable failure that awaited us. At the time, there was still hope that we would tie it together, somehow, into something fun.
Fairfax: That's an admirable way of looking at it.
Apan asks: how did you come up with the setting? And I add: what were the main inspirations?
Ion: As I recall, we were originally thinking of "generic medieval", but we were trying to think of a way to spruce it up and add our own stamp. I was getting nowhere, even bouncing ideas off of assistant creatives like Chris Avellone and Chris Parker wasn't giving us the magic...it wasn't their job, it was ours, and I just couldn't corral the hook... then at Black Isle's request we hired a writer.
This was one of the people that we did not have their first paycheck when we hired them, but it was obvious to us, and Black Isle, that what I was coming up with wasn't enough. We needed someone who had more ideas and was dedicated to only this. We got Eric Dallaire, who wanted to try and set the game in the real world. "How could we do that and still fight dragons and go on interesting adventures?" we asked.
After a bit of brainstorming, Eric eventually came up with the idea of The Disjunction...a rip in time that allowed demons into the world. Once we expanded this to include other powerful forces, like dreams, the sky was the limit. This allowed us to pull in literary characters like Don Quixote and join forces with Leonardo DaVinci many years after his death.
At the time, Eric had said he had always wanted to make a "what if" kind of messed up history, and Lionheart provided a great venue to do that in. I'm not sure what gave Eric this inspiration originally, but he said he had wanted to do it for a long time before coming to work for us. (We're still friends, and I'd recommend his latest book, Shades, available on Amazon)
Fairfax: Messed up history indeed, which I thought was the most fun aspect of the game. (Spoiler alert) For instance, Nostradamus as a huge tree-like thing being defended by monks and ogres against half-demon assassins and yuan-ti like monsters was quite bizarre. Still, I got the impression it never took itself -too- seriously, which I believe can be good for such a crazy story. Was this wackiness deliberate?
Ion: It was meant to be a bit off kilter, so you wouldn't be sure what could happen...but not too much. We didn't want to violate the fourth wall, for example, we just wanted to get a bit crazy...Nostradamus was definitely one of the most off the wall things. We wanted to keep people guessing.
Fairfax: It was fun to have some of these historical figures as temporary companions. Some can stay longer than others, but still just temporary. Why the decision not to allow permanent companions?
Ion: Programming challenges. All sorts of things popped up that seem like they would be easy to fix in retrospect, but at the time getting the temp ones were a big win.
Fairfax: Question from Sacred82: Easier question, who came up with the absolutely botched skill system?
Ion: Hahaha...I don't remember who was responsible for the skill system. I seem to recall trying to figure something out with it, so I know I was involved, but I really couldn't say who fleshed it out and finalized it. I don't think it was me... however, the buck stops here, as they say.
Fairfax: Another one from Apan: And maybe ask about their addition of magic and spirits to the special-system. How did they balance that against other skills?
Ion: The addition of magic and spirits were initially discussed with Avellone and Parker to see what some good ideas would be, since they knew the Special system so well. We went back and forth a bit with the design. Now, this was a good start. The difficulty came when we just had to run with what we thought were the best ideas without tons of iteration... a common theme with some of my answers.
Fairfax: Speaking of which, who decided to use SPECIAL? Was it requested by Black Isle?
Ion: Yes it was. I think it was just a starting assumption of the project. Maybe I'm misremembering, but I don't think it was even a discussion. SPECIAL was just what we were using.
Fairfax: KodexKommieKomrade asks: On what parts did Black Isle work? Barcelona?
I believe he means guys like Chris Avellone and Josh Sawyer, who are mentioned in the credits. Chris said he helped a bit with dialogue in Barcelona, but couldn't remember much else. Do you remember what they worked on?
Ion: They definitely helped with polishing the story with Eric as well as the initial Leonardo dialogue. The dialogue of the different factions (Templars, Wielders, etc) when they were first met by the player probably benefited from their attentions as well. While we tried to do as much of the dialogue up front as we could, our pre-production phase was rather limited because of our monetary/time constraints.
We were writing a lot of dialogue as the game went along, to fit scenarios under development. While they were as generous as they could be with their time, especially Chris, they could only be in so many places at once. In other words, we all wish we had more time to polish the dialogue.
The early stuff had more of their attention and shaping than the later parts. I think we were all hoping that upper management would see Barcelona and want the rest of the game to get more time on it too (i.e. More time and money) but we gave up on that dream after they kept missing milestone payments.
Fairfax: Do you think Interplay didn't see that or they were just in so much trouble they couldn't afford it even if they wanted?
Ion: They were desperate. They worked with us on Lionheart because we represented a relatively cheap roll of the dice, and the amount they committed to its development turned out to be more than they really wanted to spend. Just getting what they said they would pay became our focus...yet we still tried to make something great. I can't tell you how many times Eric would write and implement half of something and I would have to finish writing the closing elements and tie up the loose ends because Eric had to move on to something else.
I do know that Feargus and Parker and Avellone saw the potential and were constantly pushing that potential... but a stone can only be squeezed so much...which is to say, not at all.
Fairfax: After Lionheart, the studio managed to stay afloat and was purchased by Amazon in 2008. It went on to make games until 2010, but never anything like Lionheart. Was it for the lack of opportunities or a conscious effort to avoid going through a similar situation all over again?
Ion: We equated large games like Lionheart with our inability to control our own destiny and our failed hand to mouth development plan. The early hope was that we would make a "hit" and then be able to increase our contract amount and invest more money in the business...however, Ricochet showed us we could make money and be independent of the big publishers. Once I/we started creating games without having to convince a publisher how great our idea was, or agreeing to do whatever they wanted whenever they said "dance, monkey, dance", I/we didn't want to go back. Selling directly to customers is fantastic.
We eventually had to sell Reflexive to Amazon because we, again, trusted a large publisher...except this time, it was with our own money. We were 7 figures in to development of a 360 title when Microsoft said they wouldn't accept the game without at least 6-8 more months of changes...and we thought we were almost done with it and almost out of cash. Amazon purchased us because we created an online affiliate game-selling network they could use, but they were able to lowball us because we needed the money.
I left Amazon earlier this year, but up until then I felt that Reflexive was still around, because we still had an internal identity within Amazon as Reflexive. I really just started mourning the loss of the company last January. I've talked about this with many people who used to work at Reflexive, as a lot of us are still friends, and the company "died" for different people at different times. For my wife, who used to run the affiliate network, it died almost immediately after Amazon bought us.
Fairfax: When do you think it died?
And can you talk about that cancelled project with Microsoft? I don't think I've heard of it. Couldn't find anything on Unseen64 either.
Ion: When Double Helix assumed managerial control in 2015 and my friend, Ernie Ramirez, who had run the division for the last few years, left. That's when the magic died. I still go out to lunch with my friends at Amazon though. Good people...we had good hiring practices.
The cancelled project was a multiplayer competitive/co-op game codenamed "Axiom" that we were developing internally that was a series of futuristic micro games meant to be played in short play sessions....though there was a story mode a single player could play through as well.
Fairfax: On a different note, CRPGs had a "dark age" in the last decade or so, but Kickstarter gave new life to the genre, with many projects being based on games from the Black Isle era. You said your passion for CRPGs waned over the years, but they're in a much better position now. Do you ever see yourself working on a CRPG again? Perhaps with former colleagues from Reflexive and Black Isle?
Ion: I played a lot of D&D as a kid. Heck, we were even working with Atari for a while on a Ravenloft game that, honestly, was looking pretty good before it got cancelled because Temple of Elemental Evil didn't perform to expectations. I kinda thought I would work on more CRPG's, but it just didn't happen. Now, I like quicker game play sessions that are less involving. Besides, I finally got enough experience with sound design to do only that full time...I used to do it part-time and be a producer or designer. I now work at a successful mobile game company as a senior audio producer creating sound effects...and I love it. I'd be surprised if I did anything else going forward, but I've been surprised before.
Fairfax: If you were to take on the role of Lead Designer again, RPG or not, what would you do differently? In other words, what did you learn from Lionheart?
Ion: I learned not to bite off more than I could chew. What we attempted to do with Lionheart was borne out of necessity to keep the company going, but we also mixed in an unrealistic amount of "hope sauce" to spread on that gargantuan mouthful to try and get it to go down.
We still clung to the belief that, even with reduced time and reduced resources, that we could make our big dreams great. We needed to reduce scope and invent less (stand more on the shoulders of giants) to have a hope of greatness in that situation.
Fairfax: Do you have any advice for people who are starting their careers or want to enter the industry?
Ion: Think about why you want to work in games. I've seen people burn out from the (potentially) long hours and the fact that it's an actual job. The stress can be palpable, and unless you get lucky, you will change jobs multiple times, many times not of your own choice. Realize that this is an attractive career, and many other people want in too... my current company hires less than 2% of the people that apply...and they are very motivated to hire. If this still sounds good, and you have no experience, start making games in your spare time. Partner with others, even if it just feels like messing around. Every time we hired someone with no experience, and we did that sometimes at Reflexive, they had to have made games on their own. It shows a passion for the work.
Also, this is a small industry. It might seem big, but you will be surprised at how often you run into people you know, or worked with before. Our CEO at Reflexive, Lars Brubaker, worked his way up the ranks at Interplay at the same time that Feargus Urquhart did, and they became friends. Years later, that friendship was key in us getting the Lionheart contract. Lars had also worked with someone at Activision years before, and that was key in us getting Star Trek: Away Team. Who you know can be super important... so don't burn those bridges! I got my foot in the door at my current job because I had worked with two people that already worked here, and they vouched for me.
Fairfax: Definitely sounds useful, and I think it ends the interview on a high note. Anything else you'd like to say that I didn't cover?
Ion: As a game creator, I'm happy when someone wants to talk about one of the games I helped create... even if it wasn't some of my best work. I actually think you can learn more from the things that went wrong than the things that went right. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to dive back into the past with me on Lionheart!
Fairfax: It's a game and a team that deserved to have their story told, so thank you for sharing it. I hope you find success and have a good time in future endeavours.
* * *
I sent the interview above to Chris Avellone (who I'm also interviewing) to get some feedback, and he ended up sharing some of his experience working on the project:
MCA: To clarify - Eric Dallaire was on the project when I got assigned to it, so I don't recall doing any pre-work (bouncing ideas) with Reflexive before Eric, but Eric and I did talk a lot when I was put on board, although I'm not sure how helpful I was to him. (Although some folks appreciated the dialogue and dialogue structure/scripting suggestions.) Eric and I still chat to this day, as he's writing novels and short stories, you could probably find him on LinkedIn, I'm sure he'd have a lot to share.
I did love the Reflexive editors, though, very smooth. It was so smooth I think it made an artist at BIS want to defect.
I don't know how involved Chris Parker was, even though he assigned me to the project (along with 2 other devs - 1 design-scripter on items, I believe, and 1 programmer). On Black Isle's end, I felt a little lost in terms of what I was on-site for at Reflexive, and while there I didn't feel like BIS was communicating with Reflexive much, but as Ion said, Interplay and Black Isle was going through its share of problems, I just didn't realize how dire it was.
BTW, I do not know whose idea it was to use SPECIAL. (It wasn't mine.) I believe it was done to try and help boost sales by leveraging Fallout fan interest, but who made that call I couldn't say. The same thing was pushed with TORN in some respects, if I recall.
It was good (yet weird) to see what was going on even though I was there - I didn't know about half that stuff from production's end. Jeez, what a mess. Those poor guys.
BTW, Ernie Ramirez in the interview - that guy was solid. He was a great scripter, too.
Fairfax: I think you said you saw the writing on the wall when BG3 was canned and they lost the D&D licence, is that right? I vaguely recall something like that from an interview.
MCA: Yes, agreed, although the writing on the wall when BG3 was canned was different than not paying Reflexive - the writing was more like, "no matter how hard we work, this will fail because of a managerial decision (or mistake) that is out of the team's hands." The seriousness of the finances was not fully transparent, however, although we did feel the repercussions by rushing IWD2.
BG3 was so sudden and random (to appearances) that it was a real blow. A lot of hard work was lost. And when Van Buren came up next, it almost immediately began showing signs of going down the same road - it felt like a desperation move, not a well-planned transition. And I loved working on Van Buren and I'd put a lot of years in it, but the BG3 cancellation was a strong indicator that VB was unlikely to happen.
Fairfax: Must've been rough, but at least you didn't stay for VB's cancellation. One thing I've always wondered: did people at Black Isle even know the D&D thing was due to unpaid royalties or was that revealed later?
MCA: I recall it was explained to us as an "accounting error." I never got a more detailed explanation (internally).