How Elder Scrolls-like The Wayward Realms will change RPG games
Sometimes there’s a video game project so ambitious that it’s hard to imagine how it could become a reality in today’s industry. In 1996, for example, we never would have believed that an open-world RPG with multiple continents and thousands of cities was possible, but Julian Le Fay, Todd Howard, Ted Peterson, and the rest of the Bethesda Class of ’95 did just that with The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, expanding our understanding of the genre and all that was possible within it.
26 years later, several Bethesda alumni, including Le Fay and Peterson, have gathered at OnceLost Games to work on something they hope will shake up RPG discourse once again.
Their game, The Wayward Realms, will have some similarities to Daggerfall. Set on a vast archipelago, it will also use procedural generation to create hundreds of cities nestled in diverse environments whose architecture and topographies reflect their place in the world. The map itself will be handcrafted, but much of it will be procedural.
One of the valid criticisms of Daggerfall – and procedural generation as a whole – is that it can be soulless, lacking the human touch that shapes the most memorable places in the best RPG games. It’s one thing to procedurally generate trees to flesh out the landscape (even Hidetaka Miyazaki admitted to doing this in the tightly crafted Elden Ring), but it’s another to entirely outsource buildings, cities, even entire questlines to algorithms.
But Wayward Realms CTO Julian Le Fay says the AI generation can do a lot more than before.
“You don’t want to just have a bunch of houses, rotate them, change colors and slap them in there. It’s boring,” Le Fay told me. “Our algorithm will go further. Cities should be shaped by things like the climate, the history of the region, war, conflict, disease, trade and, very importantly, the level of poverty.
World lore, which is heavily handwritten, will also affect the algorithm, helping it create cities with culturally and regionally appropriate architecture, people, and social circumstances.
As a fantasy RPG, The Wayward Realms will provide many opportunities for the player to impact the world. But rather than just relying on scripted consequences depending on whether you make one dialogue choice or another, there will be something akin to an AI DnD-style dungeon master reacting to every action you specifically take.
The idea is that everything you do can be its own algorithmic key in the workings of the game world‘s systems, dynamically creating bespoke experiences that – if it all comes together – we haven’t really seen in support yet. . Le Fay wants the world to be incredibly responsive. “When you’re a general manager and you’re building an adventure, there’s a process in your mind,” says Le Fay. “The steps you take, the things you look for, and how you go about it can all be simulated by a computer. It’s difficult and it takes time, but it’s doable.
When we talk about how this emergent playstyle might manifest in gaming, Le Fay demonstrates a sequence of events that begins with one of the big flaws of most RPGs: enemy AI. “If there are about 20 enemies and you’ve killed 19 and there’s one left, why is he still fighting when he’s clearly not going to win?” thinks Le Fay. “They should get a sense of self-preservation, maybe live to fight another day and learn from encounters.”
In The Wayward Realms, an orc may flee upon seeing you slaughter their friends and continue to exist in the world. Later in the game, this means you may come across a village that is being razed to the ground by that same orc, now in charge of a warband bent on destroying the humans. This is the kind of complexity that Le Fay aims for. “Systems and procedural generation aren’t hard, but the trick is to make them do the kind of thing a person would do,” Le Fay tells me. “It has to have meaning, it has to have consequences.”
Le Fay is acutely aware of the blind spots of modern RPGs, which he seeks to address in The Wayward Realms. There will be no overarching “karma” system in the game, and your reputation will only be affected if people see you stealing a shiny jewel or murdering a hapless peasant in an alley.
Le Fay believes that the way news and gossip spread should also be systemic. “If someone saw you doing something you shouldn’t, what are the chances of it spreading, who hears about it, how long does it take?” explains Le Fay. “It’s another way to break away from traditional RPGs. If you do something and quickly travel to a city two weeks away, people won’t immediately know what happened. Information should scatter through the world, given certain conditions so to speak.
And on the fast travel note, it’s no surprise to hear that Le Fay thinks modern RPGs have made things too easy. He does, however, reserve praise for Fallout 4 for allowing players to fast travel using a Vertibird. “I like this system because it was reasonably fast – you can see everything while you’re traveling, but you have to use a flare and wait a bit,” he says. “There was a cost and a bit of time, but it wasn’t boring. I wish I had something like this in The Wayward Realms.
When I suggest that gamers may have been spoiled a bit by the conveniences of modern RPGs – as well as popular “RPG-lites” like Assassin’s Creed – to have the patience for a fast-paced, immersive journey, Le Fay responds with casually: “Yeah, fuck ’em. The problem is that people don’t always know what they want,” he says. “They say they want it to be convenient, like ‘I want a lot of loot, I want to travel anywhere right now, a button to do this and that’. I’m like, ‘OK, at this point , how about a button that would win you the game?
Le Fay doesn’t want everything in The Wayward Realms to feel like a slog, but also thinks some friction is essential to retain a sense of scale and time flowing in the world. It’s a good balance between calming and the kind of disruptive, pioneering experience that Le Fay helps create OnceLost Games, “but somewhere in between those two things,” Le Fay tells me, “lies the truth.”
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The Wayward Realms is still a long way off, but it’s a prospect that seems to challenge the formulaic systems genre and current ideas of what procedural generation and a systems-driven world are capable of. It’s clear that something of such ambition will take time, but to create a game with a seemingly endless array of possibilities, does a few years really matter?