We recently caught up with Blazej Krakowiak, Techland's International Brand Manager, to have a chat about upcoming digital title Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, which will see the series returning to its dusty Wild West roots after the mediocre misstep that was The Cartel. In this latest interview, Krakowiak talks storytelling, upgrades, and why going digital has set the series free.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): Techland have gone back to the Wild West in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger after flirting with a modern setting in The Cartel. Why go back?
Blazej Krakowiak (International Brand Manager, Techland): I think it's obvious. [Laughs] The series belongs in the traditional Wild West, when you look at the modern Wild West, the modern frontier, it's a different type of story. It's a dystopian setting that's more about the breakdown of society, where the characters are fighting for survival. We wanted to do something very different with the modern setting and some things worked, some things didn't, and we received a lot of feedback from fans of the series over that game in particular.
Matt Gardner: Would you say perhaps that The Cartel was something of a mistake, then?
Blazej Krakowiak: It was a learning experience, certainly, and I think we very quickly discovered what fans wanted to see more of in the series, and also what they didn't want to see. So we had that modern setting where characters are gunslinging to survive and to get by, and that wasn't the type of emotion or sentiment that the fans told us they love about Call of Juarez. So we've gone back to embrace the core elements of Call of Juarez – the historical Wild West, with its exploration of new territories, where you have those strong characters, those gunslingers, going into places where there is no justice and forging their own justice at gunpoint, building something new. It's a completely different attitude, and we had so many stories still to tell since Bound in Blood, so we're really very happy to be back in this setting. It also gives us a certain freedom, we can go to places and explore ideas that we might not have been able to in a modern setting.
Matt Gardner: “Returns” can often feel like a step backwards, how are you avoiding that with Gunslinger?
Blazej Krakowiak: Well, it's not just a return to our roots. Yes, we're bringing back the Wild West setting, the high-quality FPS gameplay and Concentration Mode that the series is famous for, but we've also added in things like the Sense of Death feature, we have that narrator-as-protagonist framework for the story, telling the story of his life as a bounty hunter and allowing the player to engage with those stories and “celebrities” of the Wild West as he narrates. We've got a few more thing to announce over the coming months too, and the digital nature of the game itself, you know, bringing a high quality FPS experience to the digital marketplace, that's new ground too.
Matt Gardner: Incorporating that narrator element provides some very interesting opportunities indeed, especially considering that what we know of the Wild West is often a mishmash of fact and fiction...
Blazej Krakowiak: Exactly, and there's a kind of Romantic appeal to it as well. It's like pirates! It's a mix between truth and legend and myth. There were no camera phones, blogs, or TV newscasts, we only know what people wrote about it at the time, or from stories that have been passed down through generations in bars and saloons.
The bounty hunter is a guy who lived through all of that, who met the most famous men in the Wild West, got mixed up in all of these famous battles and confrontations, and he survived. So he gets to tell the story as it was, through his eyes. But we really did our homework. I don't think anyone really questions our expertise when it comes to that historical knowledge, and we pay attention to those facts, and the legends. So the first mission – that story of meeting Billy the Kid, and how he was besieged in Stinking Springs by Pat Garrett – that actually happened. But the nature of stories is such that they grow, and maybe the number of enemies increased over time, or the scale of the battle was bigger and bloodier, this is what happens. And in our game we have a story within a story – we have the narrator, telling his story in which we find plenty of other little tales as well. It feeds into everything, so we have the comic-book style slides that link the chapters, you can hear the narration and the characters in in the saloon talk mid mission, so we're really trying to craft a storytelling experience, combined with great FPS action gameplay, of course.
Matt Gardner: Presumably, having a fallible narrator allows you to create your own embellishments and provide your own slants on historical action?
Blazej Krakowiak: Oh absolutely, and we're going to be having some fun with that, I can assure you. There'll be plenty that's not quite what it seems to be, but I'm not going to reveal any more on that just yet.
Matt Gardner: He's a morally ambiguous man as well. It might arguably have been easier to go for a sheriff approach – the one last good man scenario – and have him hunting down famous outlaws why choose such a fundamentally flawed central character as an (anti)hero?
Blazej Krakowiak: Well, most of the things in life are morally grey. You look at the most famous Westerns and the bad guys aren't always completely bad, and the good guys are often cold, ruthless men. Identifying one from the other in this setting is rarely easy, and we wanted to have these complex characters. So much of what we know of these outlaws and lawmen comes from warped, untrustworthy material and sources. Take Billy the Kid, for example, killed by Pat Garrett in fairly dishonourable fashion, Garrett wrote the first biography of Billy the Kid but of course he wanted to make himself look good. This is the case with many events and characters, and of course then we add our narrator into the mix, and this makes for a very cool story setup. He's a bounty hunter, he has a reason for mixing with these types of people, but he's also going to mess with the player's head bit, so you won't be able to separate out fact from fiction unless you do your own research.
Matt Gardner: The other big change here is the plans for a smaller, digital release. Why go through the marketplaces rather than retail?
Blazej Krakowiak: Well, as you know, Ubisoft really believe in the digital format, they were one of the first big publishers to really set apart digital games of high quality and we're happy that our brand is part of this digital revolutions with a high-quality offering. But we have high ambitions, we really want people to look at this game and see that it stands out because of its high production values, content offering, and high standards for digital. Someone needs to do this.
We knew from the start that we wanted to tell a really immersive story, and digital gave us the freedom to do so. With retail, you're often going through a checklist, ticking off boxes of features that you don't want or don't need, like a bloated multiplayer with a huge number of modes competitive, co-operative, and lots of other features as well. It can distract and divert resources to the point where the game to end up with is perhaps not as good as it could have been had it been more focused. We just wanted to focus in on what was important to us, and this format lets us do that.
Matt Gardner: So how does development on Gunslinger compare to that on The Cartel?
Blazej Krakowiak: Well, we now have a chance to deliver the game that we want to deliver. We have an opportunity to move the series forward and raise the expectations for digital games. We shouldn't be happy treading water on the same level, we need to be pushing the barrier in terms of the quality that digital can provide. The future is digital so somebody has to make this leap with a big, interesting series, which Call of Juarez is, so we hope it works out.
Matt Gardner: It certainly looks like Techland have done a lot of work in terms of aesthetics with this game...
Blazej Krakowiak: Very much so. We've really tried to deliver a striking art style, it's a little cel-shaded,a little hyper-realistic which is easier and slightly cheaper to develop for rather than photo-realism, and of course we have those comic-book elements in between chapters.
We thought it would be a perfect fit in a number of ways. As well as this being a game where you are being told a story, comics have those larger than life elements, they tell stories of myths and legends and unbelievable things set in the real world at times, and we certainly drew parallels with the Wild West. Forging your own destiny, weapons as defence and justice, these are things that feed the legends. Vigilante heroism really began here, and so many of our modern myths that we read about through comics start I the Wild West, so we wanted to kind of create this circle.
Matt Gardner: Although every player will be working his or her way through the narrator’s story, there is a chance for some player choice and customisation through the upgrade system. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Blazej Krakowiak: Well, as you say, it's about offering the players some choice, so that you can upgrade and develop our skills to suit your own style of play. You can diversify of course, and you won't be penalised for that, but equally there's no way to unlock everything with one playthrough, and we wanted to encourage players to tackle the game multiple times with those upgrade branches and also the scoring system. If you do decide to specialise, we're making sure that there are some really cool things to unlock at the high end.
Matt Gardner: Will players be able to respec mid-game?
Blazej Krakowiak: That's one of the things we're still weighing up at the moment, so I'm not able to comment either way on that just yet.
Matt Gardner: The demo ended on a teasing note with the narrator squaring off against Pat Garrett. Can we expect Western staples such as duels, horseback action, maybe even some cattle herding to return?
Blazej Krakowiak: Well we're not saying anything regarding duels for the moment. As for animals, well there are one or two things that might get PETA on our backs again. The chicken shooting from Bound in Blood is back, make note of that – killing chickens is back. But seriously, we do have some really cool ideas that we'll be talking about at a later date.
Matt Gardner: Finally, can we expect any sort of multiplayer functionality, be it through game modes or social features...?
Blazej Krakowiak: Well we're not talking about game modes yet, but with the scoring system, leaderboards would be a natural extension of that, providing plenty of replayability and score attacking competition between friends. Our main focus, though, is certainly the deep, immersive singleplayer experience. The historical tourism aspect is key for us: this is an adventure in which you get to meet the legends of the Wild West, and it's an FPS so it's more immersive, and it will be at a cheaper price point than a full retail release, though we haven't locked that down yet, it's still too early to announce that.
Matt Gardner: Brilliant stuff, thanks for talking to us today.
Blazej Krakowiak: Thank you.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger will release on PC, PSN, and XBLA in Q1 2013. Check out our preview here.