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RPG Codex Report: The Vision Behind Might & Magic X Legacy

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RPG Codex Report: The Vision Behind Might & Magic X Legacy

Editorial - posted by Grunker on Fri 30 August 2013, 15:19:11

Tags: Julien Pirou; Limbic Entertainment; Might & Magic X: Legacy; Stephan Winter; Ubisoft

The Passion of the Developer: The Vision Behind Might & Magic X Legacy
written by Grunker, edited by Infinitron

Julien Pirou, creative designer on Might & Magic X Legacy, is an interesting guy. I've been at Gamescom for almost an hour, and all the people I've talked with are community managers, PR people, business people or fans. They're all nice people, they all know Might & Magic, and they can all provide a general overview of Might & Magic X Legacy, how it came to be, and how work is progressing... just like I can, because I've been following the development myself. Only when I meet Pirou do I finally get a sense of what the game is really all about. Pirou is a red-haired, red-bearded, geek-with-glasses kind of guy. A man of average height, he has a round face and a tendency to look at the floor during conversation. The conversation I have with him is slow to start, as I ask questions and he answers them in a reserved manner. But when we start to discuss Might & Magic, everything changes. Passion practically bursts out of the man, and in between anecdotal stories of his time with Isles of Terra, World of Xeen and Might & Magic VI to VIII, he laughs and jokes, emerging from his shell as a light-hearted and outgoing individual. Pirou can speak endlessly about World of Xeen or any other Might & Magic game, taking delight in remembering and discussing every little secret and every little nook and cranny of their worlds. A pleasant shadow of the past glides over his face whenever the conversation topic wanders back to the older games.

Halfway into the conversation I begin to realise that this guy knows just about everything about Might & Magic. Other than our own Luzur and Sceptic, it is probably safe to say that I have never met anyone who knows so much about these games. Hell, Pirou has even played the notorious Might & Magic IX from start to finish, completing everything in the game. He dissects most of it during our conversation, even pointing out that it actually had one or two excellent ideas among all the crappyness.

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Ubisoft's Might & Magic booth at Gamescom

“How did Ubisoft come to produce a blobber with turn-based combat and grid-based movement?” That is my first question for anyone I meet from both Limbic and Ubisoft. Pirou himself is modest. “Well,” he starts, “I guess it was a question of the right place and the right time.” Stephan Winter, managing director at Limbic Entertainment, and one hell of a nice guy, is less humble on Pirou's behalf: “Basically,” Winter begins, “like so many companies, Ubisoft has this system where you can pitch your funky stuff internally, to encourage people to be creative and come up with original ideas. So anyone can make a draft for a project they'd like, and perhaps Ubisoft will fund it. Usually you make the draft, you pitch it, and you hope for a yes. Otherwise, you find something else to pitch next time or you just take a break. Anything else would be fruitless.” Winter laughs as he recalls the anecdote and continues: “Not so with Julien. He pitched that thing for 3 years straight.” Again he laughs. “Finally, I think the guys at Ubisoft just said “ah, fuck this, just give the man his project already.” Winter's eyes twinkle as he tells the story. It's a landmark tale for the guys at Limbic, considering that they are now working on what some would have called an impossible game.

Of course, the real story is a bit more complex than that. According to Pirou, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic was originally supposed to have been Might & Magic X, but as the game changed more and more, it was agreed that it was probably not a good idea to name a real-time, single character action game as the tenth episode in a beloved series. Pirou says: “Dark Messiah was actually a pretty good game, and it was nice that it wasn't framed as a true Might & Magic sequel.” Later on, as the company evolved, they decided at one point to sit down and ask “look, what are our IPs? What is classic Ubisoft? What solid brands have we got?”, and of course, the Might & Magic franchise was mentioned. Pirou explains what happened, roughly at least: “So a couple of guys went down into the basement and dug out all the old stuff, finding out what Ubisoft owned and what they could do with it.” That was when Pirou first got the idea to pitch Might & Magic X... but first, he asked the boss of his department whether she would OK a turn-based, old-school follow-up to the Might & Magic series. Pirou doesn't remember the conversation word for word, but he does recall his boss saying something along the lines of “over my dead body.”

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From left to right: Arnaud Fremont - Frank Sawielijew [JarlFrank] - Casper Gronemann [Grunker] - Julien Pirou

At first, Pirou was disheartened, but when said boss moved on to other things and a new one took her place, he immediately thought “alright, this is it.” That's when he started pitching Might & Magic X Legacy.

As Winter said, that went on for three years. At this point in my conversations with both Pirou and Winter, I asked whether Legend of Grimrock, the successful old-school, tile-based dungeon crawler by Almost Human, played a role in the final fate of Might & Magic X Legacy. They nod and express complete confirmation. Winter says “yeah, it was huge. You know, Ubisoft kept telling Pirou “this is not the time” when he pitched the game. Then Grimrock happened and I think the guys in charge looked at each other and went “hmm... wait, wasn't there a guy who pitched something similar?” and the next time Pirou came with Might & Magic X Legacy, they OK'ed it.”

The complete story behind why a giant mainstream publisher would end up funding a turn-based blobber is, of course, complex, but I get the sense that there were two main driving forces behind it. One is, as stated, the success of Grimrock, but the other is Julien Pirou's indomitable drive. This was the game he wanted to make, and he has focused all of his efforts on it. I get the sense that if Ubisoft had told him to do what the Dark Messiah team did and make the game real-time, or less complex, or anything else of that sort, Pirou would have told them “no thanks.” From speaking to him, it seems like the only people who could make him compromise or change the design of his game are the fans.

Speaking of fans, Might & Magic X Legacy is being developed in a very interesting manner. The community is directly involved in the process, designing dungeons and actively commenting on each design decision, and more often than not the development team has changed the game's design based on their feedback. There's even a closed VIP forum for select Might & Magic connoisseurs from different fan communities (RPG Codex user Luzur is our own agent behind enemy lines). When I came to Gamescom to visit the team, I knew all of this, but nothing could prepare me for the wellspring of knowledge these guys seem to have about what the various communities thought of their game. As soon as I introduce myself to Stephan Winter as Casper Gronemann from RPG Codex, he smiles and asks “Hi, Casper, who are you on the RPG Codex again?” When I tell him my username, he chews on it a bit, and suddenly says: “ah..! You're the guy who is wary of our decision to go with grid-based movement because you're worried the game will play too slow!” As I nod in astonishment, Winter continues: “Well, I tend to agree with you a bit currently. Our current animation is sort of a small jump for each step on the grid,” he says, and does a gesture with his hands to illustrate the animation, “which doesn't really enable fast movement like in World of Xeen, so we're talking about a setting that allows for more fluid “flowing” movement as well as a speed slider.” At this point I was baffled. Granted, he may have done the research on me and my username on RPG Codex given that he knew who was coming, but even that would have been impressive. That notion too is quickly dispelled when he mentions other users from both RPG Codex and other communities and links them to their opinion of various game elements. And it's not just Stephan Winter. Everyone at Limbic seems to know what each of their communities represents, including the positions of individual users, and most of them seem to be reading their Might & Magic X Legacy threads.

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Grunker plays some Might & Magic X Legacy (in German, for the extra challenge)

Winter points out that, from the start, they knew that this was a game they couldn't develop without bringing in the community: “We rely on you guys. All these little communities, they represent a very big part of our customer base, and our customers are very active compared to other gaming communities. You guys have to be satisfied, you're our core.” That doesn't come without challenges for Limbic, however. Both Winter and Pirou agree that while it is often a blessing to work so closely with your consumer base, it poses unsolvable dilemmas as well: “You know, it is impossible to please everybody,” Winter says, a look of genuine worry on his face: “you visit one forum, and they want something done in some way, and you think “hmm, we could do that”, and then you go to the other, similar, forum and everyone wants the exact opposite. So often, we go with our own design, and mostly that will be a design from some of the old games or sometimes a twist on that which we liked. But sometimes, three, four or five of the communities will all agree that something should be changed. That's when we go: “OK, we should probably change that.””

I bring up the concept of Kickstarter, which also relies heavily on consumer participation, when Winter speaks. He and Fargo must feel pretty similarly regarding this subject. Thinking back on our conversation about what circumstances made this game happen, I ask Winter whether Might & Magic X Legacy is a risky game for Ubisoft or not. I don't need his reply to divine the truth, though. I just need to look around. The huge hall I'm standing in has booths for the vast majority of Ubisoft's products. In a nutshell, Ubisoft's main revenue generators are the Assassin's Creed, Just Dance and Far Cry franchises. Might & Magic X Legacy is a drop in the ocean for a publisher that is both powerful and expanding. It is not, by any stretch of the word, a 'risky' venture. Winter breaks my train of thought: “I gotta say though, and this is me informing you of my personal opinion... Ubisoft gets a lot of bad rep for a lot of reasons. In the end though, it is one of the only big publishers who are willing to let their people run rampant with their creativity sometimes. Some publishers don't even take the smallest of risks no matter what. What Ubisoft did here – I'm not entirely certain it could happen with other publishers their size.”

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The inventory screen of one of the demo party members

I spent quite a while at the Might & Magic booth playing the short demo on display there. Of course, that short demo is a piece of the game the developers wanted me to play, but I cannot say with a straight face that it doesn't feel like Might & Magic. Simply put, except for the minimap, the graphics and the fact that warriors have active abilities and can use scrolls, the game is entirely faithful to its oldschool roots. When I ask Pirou what his favourite new element is that wasn't in the older games, he mentions the new warrior abilities. “I never liked that for all the strategic options every member on your team had, warriors had next to no tactical options in combat. So we changed that. Some of the bosses are probably nigh unbeatable if you don't use them well. At least, you'll be far worse off.” To the question of which of the games he favours, the answer is clear: World of Xeen. The game is a staple for many people at Limbic Entertainment, it seems.

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The final boss we encounter at the end of the Might & Magic X Legacy gameplay demo. Grunker and JarlFrank both die on the first encounter as he uses a gust of wind to push their party off the edge of the platform, much to their surprise.
When I leave Limbic and the Might & Magic booth, I'm left with one main impression: You can say what you want about the game, and you can certainly say what you want about Ubisoft, but what you can't question is the genuinity of the folks at Limbic. These guys want to make a true sequel to Might & Magic. What I was afraid of when I saw the announcement that Ubisoft would be producing a new Might & Magic game was that this would be yet another case of someone whose plan was to take a series of games that I loved, tack on modern game elements, and ship it to an audience that didn't include me. They would claim to “stay true to the old games”, but also “update them for a modern audience” at the same time. After visiting Gamescom, I have confidence that this is not the case. Julien Pirou and his team are both dedicated to and have a deep understanding of their core audience and the games they are creating a sequel to. Whether that will be enough to produce a worthy Might & Magic X, I don't know, but their hearts are definitely in the right place.

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