Looking Back... Jade Empire
10th Jun 2007 | 14:26
Bioware are best known for their interpretations of existing franchises: Knights Of The Old Republic remains a classic RPG that took Star Wars in more interesting directions than it had ever been before, and Neverwinter Nights makes fine use of the Forgotten Realms universe.
They're also a company who love to tell a story, and with Jade Empire they invented their entire world; sure, it's lifted from Chinese mythology and history, but they were only constrained by what felt right. We spoke to Jade Empire's senior producer, Diarmid Clarke, about the development process of the game they've been wanting to make for aeons...
Diarmid Clarke: It's actually a game we very much wanted to make from way back - the original idea is ten years old. It's one of those ideas that was there at the beginning of the company, and we've had to wait for the technology to get to the point where we could make it. The guys here are huge martial arts, kung fu and Chinese action-flick fans, and we wanted to make a game that was a more action-oriented adventure-RPG. With all the history we could use from ancient China, we knew this would be a great one to finally make, and the Xbox 360 gave us the lift of power we needed to make the game we wanted to make.
Diarmid Clarke: One of the things that the designers were looking forward to the most was not having the restrictions of a licence. A licence is really beneficial when it comes to structure and the framework of a game, and you can take a lot from research. Star Wars was a great example of that - we were really able to reinterpret it all. However, just to be able to do anything you want, and know that you're not contravening the rules or someone else's idea of how it should all go is cool. It's nice not to have to worry too much about that."
Diarmid Clarke: Within 24 hours of us registering the name for Dragon Age, one of the fans had found it and posted on our site. He was saying: "Hey, guess what, BioWare have got this Dragon Age, and boy, is it gonna suck." Immediately, we had someone replying: "You've got to be kidding, it's going to have thousands of dragons flying around everywhere." All we'd done was register a name that at the time, we may or may not have been going to use, but yeah, some people get pretty fanatical. I think you could just post the name, and the fans would just design the game for you - the speculation is unbelievable.
LOOK AT THESE
Diarmid Clarke: There was a lot of interest beforehand in the martial arts and the Chinese movie mythology. Not just in the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but
our designers and writers would go down to the level of Five Fingers Of Death, Seven Samurai and the kind of things I've never heard of - the real hardcore stuff. We also sent our art team over to China in an attempt to keep the background fairly accurate. Then there was a lot of research into Chinese myths, so we felt free to borrow equally between myths and history. I was working with the art team on the original research, and you're booking four guys to go to China for two weeks and take photographs of bits of old brick - it's not a bad job at all.
Diarmid Clarke: Not being constrained by other peoples rules means you can be a lot more imaginative with the kind of things you can do. We didn't want to be constrained by a real universe. Once you step away from the real world, you can just do things because it feels cool or it looks nice, and you don't have to worry about people complaining that it never really happened. For us, it's the escapism of games, and telling the stories you want to tell. We made a fighter simulation once, called Operation Overlord. A guy phoned up to complain that Biggin Hill landing strip is 15-degrees further north than it should be. It makes you think, 'It's also just a vector graphic rectangle', but people get very defensive when it's meant to be true.
OPEN PALM, SLAPPED FACE
Diarmid Clarke: There's a mixture of karate, kung fu and around five different real-world martial arts styles included in the game, and we used motion capture to make sure it was accurate. When we wanted to add different moves, we borrowed from other sources. Things like the transformation styles - we borrowed some stuff from Chinese mythology, things like the cat demons. Then we added things we thought fitted in - that weren't taken from the mythology, but fitted in with what we were doing. Also, we were able to develop the Iron Palm style a little bit further and put it into the PC version.
The first style I ever played in the game was the Leaping Tiger style. Just for that reason, that's probably my favourite style, because it's the first one I ever used. Although I love the transformation stuff too - getting the Jade Golem and kicking the crap out of everything was probably one of the best feelings for me in the game. I'm rubbish at Drunken Master, though.
Diarmid Clarke: What we wanted to do is tell stories through character, so you want to build up a varied cast with their own histories, who relate well to each other. If you look at BioWare games, there's always one there for light relief - that's Henpecked Hou. He gets pretty much all of the best lines, he's absolutely the character I'd use, just to listen to him. He's absolutely useless in combat, but I'll use him, just to hear what he says next. My wife's not so keen on him, because he's constantly complaining about his own wife. He's definitely a man's character, and Henpecked Hou is a well-known character from China.
Diarmid Clarke: The Outlander is a composite of different European explorers. His helmet is Spanish, his breastplate is German and he's obviously very English - he's an amalgamation of the European explorers who wandered over to China. Getting John Cleese was just one of those fortuitous moments. We were recording in Los Angeles, John Cleese was there, his agent was there and he was really open to the idea. We asked him if he had time, he said yes and it was all done in an afternoon. You'd expect something like that to take months, but it couldn't have been more simple.
MOUSE AND KEYBOARD
Diarmid Clarke: Actually, I'm probably proudest of the PC interpretation of the control system in the whole project. From the outset, we were adamant that the game had to play well on keyboard and mouse, otherwise there's no point in making the game. We threw a dummy control system in at the outset of making the game, so we had the whole development process to perfect the controls. Personally, I think it plays better on keyboard and mouse, because your ability to jump between styles is a lot more fluid than it was on the Xbox.