Shadow Realms interview: BioWare sending out alpha invites next month

Shadow Realms will be playable sooner than anyone expected. BioWare only announced the 4v1 action RPG at Gamescom on Wednesday , but speaking after the EA press conference BioWare Austin General Manager Jeff Hickman revealed that alpha invites will be arriving in players' inboxes next month. "I've never put a game into a player's hands as early as we're putting this game into players' hands," he told PC Gamer.

Shadow Realms' reveal didn't give us much beyond the broad strokes of its story and the gist of its action RPG combat, but our interview with Hickman helped sketch in some details. We talked about Shadow Realms' D&D roots, how the shadowlord will affect the story, and BioWare's take on episodic storytelling.

The classic BioWare storytelling will definitely show up in Shadow Realms, which mixes a modern day Earth setting with the more classical fantasy world of Embra. But as Hickman explained, the story and adventure parts of the game will be separated. "You're going to get the feel of a BioWare game and a BioWare story, just like any other," he said. "Story with choice, story that hopefully evokes emotion in people, betrayal, saving your love, romance options." that story will be told through singleplayer experiences, but the bulk of the game will be spent in the 4v1 shadowlord mode, where four players team up to take on a quest, and one player fills the D&D role of a dungeon master trying to stop them.

"As you're getting your story missions, they're developing the backstory of the game, and you come to these cliffhanger moments," Hickman said. "I've read probably the first 30 episodes now, and each one has this awesome cliffhanger moment where you're making a choice and the episode's done."

Hickman said BioWare is still experimenting with how long each episode should be, trying to find the right mixture of story and gameplay. The developers also want each adventure sequence to be replayable with different hero combinations, specializations, and shadowlords. Finding that balance is part of the reason BioWare will start allowing players into the game at the alpha stage of development.

There will be at least six classes in the game—warrior, cleric, wizard, assassin, ranger and warlock are the ones BioWare has listed so far—which can be specced differently, have different specializations, and varying equipment thanks to a loot system. The shadowlord is essentially another player class, who spawns with the hero party as a phantom and runs around manipulating the environment. The idea for Shadow Realms really grew from that dungeon master role.

"James Ohlen, our creative director, said that [despite how amazing some RPGs are now], we still don't have that thing we had in D&D—a dungeon master sitting at the edge of the table creating things and changing things and being dynamic in the game. We have AI, it's awesome, but imagine if you enhanced it with a dungeon master."

From that starting point, BioWare built out the capabilities they wanted their DM to have: spells that affect the heroes, the ability to spawn monsters, controlling the overall monster makeup of a level, spawning tricks and traps. "That was the pretty straightfoward stuff," Hickman said. "Then you get into: can we allow him to change the world? In its simplest form, as players are passing through [a level], the shadowlord says: there's two doors in the room. That door will open, that door will not. Or there are two destructible walls, or whatever—he makes a choice and says that one won't open, that one will. By giving the shadowlord those kinds of things to do, we can change the flow of the environment."

Hickman also hinted that BioWare has ambitions about how the shadowlord may even be able to affect the story. "The shadowlord is part of the story. As of right now, he can't change the story directly, but he definitely has an impact on the story in some ways...[that's something] we're going to continue to experiment with."

BioWare plans to use the Shadow Realms alpha to get feedback on the 4v1 shadowlord gameplay—the feel of the action RPG combat, difficulty, balance. "When we get to the point where the players and us think it feels good, we'll put the progression system in, and the loot system, and the story," Hickman said.

Stay tuned to our Gamescom coverage for hands-on impressions of Shadow Realm coming soon.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).