Taking on a legendary story is an inevitably daunting task. Legends are retold through millennia by creative legends in their own right – Tennyson reimagining the ending of the Odyssey, James Joyce defamiliarising the Odyssey, the Coen brothers making a comedy Odyssey… (okay, there are loads that aren’t the Odyssey, but that’s all that came to mind, sorry).
The tale of King Arthur is a specific challenge. Tennyson retold that too. William Morris as well, plus a bunch of pre-raphaelite painters. Then you get all the modern retellings, countless, from Disney to Monty Python. The next up in this long, illustrious lineage: Kabam.
We’re on the ground at GDC 2023, and after seeing Epic’s State of Unreal 2023, we sat down for a chat with some of the folks at Kabam, developers of Marvel Contest of Champions and Disney Mirrorverse. So, how does Tyler Black, Vice President of Product at Kabam, feel about joining those legendary artists in taking on the legend of King Arthur?
“We’re trying to gather stories and versions of stories from all over the region,” he says, “and blend them together into a new take and mix in just a little bit more high fantasy into that as well. While it’s recognisable, there’s a very original story here. We’re sticking to the beats but not necessarily to the script.”
For Nick Anderson, Kabam’s Head of Publishing, it’s about time someone took on the challenge. “The notion is that it’s due for a new retelling. There’s so much rich lore and content around Arthurian legend itself that has been unexplored, and it’s an opportunity to explore that here.”
Now, it’s not like the Kabam team chose King Arthur merely for the fact that people would recognise the story. With games like Marvel Contest of Champions and Disney Mirrorverse, the team are great at creating games with a large cast.
“There’s also a phenomenal cast of characters, which for Kabam, we’re such a character-based game maker that it was just a really good match, a really good opportunity,” Tyler says.
This cast of characters leads to a core aspect of the gameplay in King Arthur: Legends Rise – character collecting. It’s a self-described turn-based collection RPG, but there’s more than just simple collectathon mechanics we’ve come to expect from mobile games.
“So there are the heroes themselves and then there are the relics,” Nick explains. “You have Excalibur and then you have Breath of Diana, which is the wind element. For many of our characters, they will have many of these additional relics and those relics will dramatically change the performance and behaviour of those characters – new skills, new abilities, new ways of developing all those characters.”
“With the heroes and the relics, we’re trying to give players a toolkit to really choose how they want to approach these puzzles or these battles. We want to give them the flexibility to play with a style that they like,” says Tyler, before Nick offers a final word on the ethos behind the design; “agency is definitely key.”
So, you might now have a little imagined videogame in your head, having heard about the story and how the collection mechanics intertwine – a rough picture. One gap in that picture that definitely needs filling is monetisation. How’s that gonna work?
“We’re still working on it,” says Tyler. “A lot of that is some of the aspects of the testing that we’re going through now, so we haven’t settled exactly the monetization model, and we’ll have more clarity on that, I think in the coming months. But we don’t plan to change our philosophy around monetizing fairly.”
Both Marvel Contest of Champions and Disney Mirrorverse have fair monetisation models, so this is reassuring to hear – though of course, any final judgements will have to be reserved until we actually see the game in action.
While we have a broad cast of characters, a high fantasy reinterpretation of Arthurian legend, and a cautiously optimistic idea of how monetisation will be implemented, one thing is missing: locations. So much of Arthurian legend is about broad, epic landscapes. And Kabam has its eyes there, too.
“We have invested a significant amount of time trying to bring to life various iconic locations, be it Sherwood Forest in certain chapters or Avalon itself,” says Nick. “I cannot give you a number of the number of places that we have needed to build in order to tell a compelling story at this point. But we tend to do each thing with love and detail.”
This detail is, as in any game, assisted by the tools the creators use. For Kabam, its partnership with Unreal is the focus of the company’s time at GDC. “Unreal has a really, really impressive tool kit, and they make for really good partners,” Tyler says. “Working with the team at Epic has been really, really great for us. They’ve been super collaborative and very helpful. So, they’ve helped us accelerate.
“What we wanna try to do is focus on gameplay and the creative aspect, and that tool set from Unreal just gets a lot out of the way and helps us spend our time on the creative side, not on the tinkering with the tools side of things. The bar that they set right out of the gate is, is excellent.”
This tool set has also helped Kabam develop a game for both mobile and PC with seamless crossplay. “The toolkit enables us to deploy to multiple services without having to make great concessions. It’s the same high level of fidelity,” Nick explains.
Does this ease also mean we can expect Kabam titles to make the jump to Nintendo Switch? Many of the company’s games seem like a perfect fit. “So cross-platform is a huge part of our strategy, absolutely”, Tyler tells us. “We can’t speak to, beyond mobile and PC, what the plans are for this game. But we will have some updates on that relatively soon.” So, the answer is no, but sounds like it won’t be a no for long, at least to me.
And with a roadmap ahead that includes additional roundtable members and new quests, it feels like the future is a busy one for King Arthur: Legends Rise. But it seems like it’s in safe hands. Both Nick and Tyler seem genuinely enthused by Arthurian legend.
“I would say my favourite character outside of [King Arthur: Legends Rise], it’s maybe a little too stereotypical, but Lancelot, for me, is always great,” says Tyler, “because he’s this excellent, best-of-the-best swordsman, but as a flawed or tempted human, right? He could be perfect, but… I love that kind of dichotomy in a character trying to be a leader and, and just, just falling short for some reason.”
“My answer is relatively easy, from [Arthurian] legend itself probably Mordred,” Nick says, “because the various stories, they’re either really dark or they’re really hopeful or they paint Arthur in an interesting light. So, those narratives have always been very fun for me. There’s not that many, but there’s been a lot of great expressions of that.”
This genuine passion comes from a place of love and practicality, as Tyler offers as a final note: “You gotta write what you know.” Exactly.