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The secret history of ‘Kingdoms of Amalur’

Five years was barely enough for 38 Studios to produce its first game - and weave the backstory of a magical world

Tony Avelar/Bloomberg News/File 2010

Curt Schilling, the former Red Sox pitcher who founded 38 Studios, unveiled the company’s first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, at an event in California last year.

How do you build a 10,000-year epic adventure story?

You start with the storyteller.

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For Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the first release from former Red Sox pitching ace Curt Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios LLC, that storyteller was best-selling fantasy author R.A. Salvatore.

A Leominster native and author of 50 novels, he spent five years writing the multimillenia history of a magical, medieval world for game players to explore. And five years was barely enough.

“It could take you 10,000 years to fill in 10,000 years,’’ Salvatore said.

It is too early to tell if the game is a commercial success, but the evidence is promising. Reckoning rang up 300,000 pre-orders.

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While the attention paid to Reckoning has focused on Schilling’s involvement, it is the team he assembled that has done most of the heavy lifting: Salvatore, the storyteller; famed comic book artist Todd McFarlane; and veteran video game developers like Ken Rolston and Ian Frazier, who designed the playing experience.

Reckoning is a role-playing fantasy game in which players become a character - perhaps a warrior or a sorcerer - and journey across the fictional landscape, battling monsters and seeking treasure.

To populate that world, Salvatore authored characters that would seem familiar to fans of JRR Tolkien, author of the “Lord of the Rings’’ saga.

“Elves and dwarves and things like that, those are things people are familiar with,’’ he said. “If you stray too far from those broad archetypes and tropes, you’re just not going to be commercially successful.’’

Salvatore wrote the basic history and geography of Amalur, then turned the story over to teams of writers in Providence, where 38 Studios is based, and Baltimore, home of the company’s subsidiary Big Huge Games.

“I set down the guideposts,’’ he said. “One day I realized I hadn’t once said no to anything they were presenting. These guys had taken ownership of the world.’’

Each writer was assigned to create quests and characters for specific portions of the game.

They posted their ideas on an internal network, building a catalog of game lore similar to the online reference work Wikipedia. Every new plot point was debated. That’s a critical aspect of game design because the story lines must remain consistent with one another and with the central legend of the game.

McFarlane, best known for creating the comic character Spawn, was in charge of turning Salvatore’s characters and settings into on-screen images. The artist had barely played video games and knew nothing about designing software, but he knew how to create a distinct visual style.

“I’m the guy with the least experience,’’ he said. “The dumbest guy in the room.’’

McFarlane oversaw 15 aspects of the game’s design, from scenery to sound effects, insisting on having final say over everything the player would see and hear.

“My job was to guide a group of artists, to have as much impact visually on the gamer as possible,’’ McFarlane said. He peppered the writers, game artists, and software programmers with rookie questions that served to push the boundaries of the design. “If you ask enough questions, you get a pregnant pause,’’ he said, “which basically means, ‘We can try it.’ ’’

The work done by artists and writers was taken up by video game designers, who determined how the characters would move and fight, and software engineers, who wrote the computer code that runs the game.

Schilling’s New England team was focused on Project Copernicus, a plan to build a sequel to Reckoning: a huge fantasy game to be played by thousands of people over the Internet.

Reckoning’s simpler, single-player concept was built at Big Huge Games in Baltimore, which was acquired by 38 Studios. Big Huge’s Ken Rolston became creative design director for Reckoning.

“We were already making a role-playing game’’ at Big Huge, Rolston said, but that project was abandoned.

The company adapted the software engine from the failed game, and now it drives Reckoning. It was just what 38 Studios needed: an “open world’’ program in which the entire game occurs on a single, giant, virtual map. Many popular games, like the Call of Duty series of military games, use lots of smaller maps.

Open world games make it easy to add subplots that can be played out over huge landscapes, but they require lots of processing power and memory. That forces certain compromises. For instance, faraway objects are rendered with lower visual quality; this saves badly needed memory and computing power.

“It’s a huge technical challenge,’’ Rolston said.

Such modifications are resisted by artists and designers, who cling to their ideas about what the game should be. “It’s a tug of war’’ between creative forces, said Reckoning’s lead designer, Ian Frazier, a former designer for game maker Iron Lore Entertainment in Maynard. “We have some interesting fights.’’

The game landscape features rivers spanned by bridges, and Frazier insisted that each bridge be wide enough for giant monsters to cross. He had to overrule artists who wanted to build frail, narrow bridges because they looked more interesting. “There was much feather-ruffling over that,’’ Frazier said. “We’re a very passionate team.’’

It is too early to tell whether the game is a commercial success, but the evidence is promising. Reckoning rang up about 300,000 pre-orders, suggesting that the game will do well.

The multiplayer Internet version is still under development. And if both become hits, 38 Studios hopes to establish Amalur as a fantasy franchise to rival Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

That was the thinking all along: to create a world that would translate to novels, comic books, toys, and perhaps a movie franchise.

“We are determined to make a good world,’’ Salvatore said. “A world worth saving.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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