Jeff Gardiner, a Bethesda veteran of 15 years and most recently the project lead on Fallout 76, has announced a new studio and open-world occult RPG with it.
The studio is Something Wicked Games and the project is Wyrdsong, pronounced "weirdsong", or at least that's how Gardiner pronounced it on a phone call to me. It's going to be set in Portugal around the forming of the Knights Templar.
Something Wicked was co-founded with Obsidian veteran Charles Staples in April this year, who led design on Outer Worlds. And the studio is funded by NetEase courtesy of a $13.2m "seed" investment, which means it's not all the money Something Wicked will need but a wadge to get going with.
The aim is to go pretty big, then - to do the sort of single-player, open-world RPG you'd expect from Gardiner's and Staples' backgrounds. It's a game Gardiner says will have around 70 people working on it, once they staff up from 13, and is still years away - there's no date attached to it nor do they want to put one on.
In other words, it's super-early in the development process. This announcement is as much to alert people to the existence of Something Wicked Games, and attract talent there, as much as anything else. All there is to see of Wyrdsong is an animated trailer with a limited amount of artwork, but which exudes a dark and ominous atmosphere - the kind of thing they're going for in the game.
"Wyrdsong is a preternatural, occult, historical fantasy game," Gardiner explains to me. "We're setting it in Portugal around the 12th century. Portugal is the origin of the Knights Templar - a lot of people don't realise that. There's a lot of discussion about where they actually originated. A lot of documentation seems to indicate that the Templars originated there.
"We're going to dig into that mythological history of the Templars, going into the creepy vibe of the trailer. We're going into the darker elements, the secret society and occult elements of Templar history."
Without prompting, he adds: "You're going to be able to play whatever you want, wherever gender identity, we're not forcing- This is a fantasy setting based around Portugal just for the architecture and the sweeping landscapes and the coastline and the Arid mountains."
The Templars, you see, can be a problematic symbol because of their associations with far-right and fascist groups, particularly in England. "It definitely is on our mind," Gardiner says when I mention it. "We want to play into, again, the fantasy idea of what the Templars are. Again, you can play any gender Templar you want, any race Templar you want - we're not getting into that. We're not a historically pure game ... But I do agree that has been a tough conversation."
The other tough conversation revolves around the game Gardiner previously led: Fallout 76. And it's not so much that it wasn't ready to launch, at all, and shouldn't have, so much as the conditions under which people allegedly worked. A Kotaku report this summer painted a picture of mismanagement, crunch, and a project which burned people out - "ate them", to borrow one quote.
If Gardiner was one of the people overseeing that, how can he expect people to want to work for his new outfit Something Wicked Games?
"My personal perspective...." he says when I ask about crunch: "I worked hard on 76 and it demanded a lot of us. At the same time, I was, again, very grateful and honoured for the time I had there.
"I think there was a difficult perspective on that game [launching] in a difficult state. So people sort of remember the harder times when things didn't come out as well, if that makes sense? I've had several kids - obviously not me personally but my wife! - and you don't remember how hard they are. When you have the second, it's like, 'What were we thinking? This is so hard!' So it's easier to remember when things didn't go well. Again, I just have nothing but good things to say about Bethesda and I appreciate my time there."
Something Wicked Games will have "very narrow five-hour core hours", Gardiner tells me, and "no-work Fridays" where staff get together to play games (they're currently playing Valheim). And he's keen to encourage critical feedback through "open and honest conversations", though whether junior members will feel confident enough to air their opinions there, I don't know.
To spell it out: "We are not a crunch studio," he assures me.
"Let me just be clear: I'm a big believer in staffing projects properly, scoping them appropriately to fit within the time and budget you've given them. And then if things get difficult, making smart cuts and decisions to prevent these problems. And also, NetEase and I agreed - we have set no hard milestones or timelines so that offers us the freedom to make smart decisions now to avoid these difficulties later. I'm a big believer that scheduling is a tool, not a weapon."
Everything else about Wyrdsong, such as who we'll be in the game and the adventure we'll be on, is under wraps.
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