Björn Pankratz is a project manager and designer at Piranha Bytes. In his portfolio you will find co-creators of Gothic II and Risen 2: Dark Water. He was also one of the leading producers of the third part of Gothic. Right now, he’s trying to define – especially for you – the concept of a settled-down gamer!
Settled-Down Gamer: Your new games always invoke Gothic, your debut and big break. How do you ultimately feel about Gothic and its legacy?
Björn Pankratz: I’m proud to have been a part of it! The Gothic series has played a huge part in my and the team’s professional life for many years. With Gothic we’ve introduced a lot of mechanics we partially still use and try to improve to this day. So yes, Gothic’s legacy still has a huge impact on Piranha Bytes to this day.
Settled-Down Gamer: Are you content with how the series turned out? Are there any regrets?
Björn Pankratz: We’re still proud of the games we made, and are humbled that so many fans still love and play the games to this day.
Settled-Down Gamer: Does this legacy weigh on you when making new titles, or is it a welcome challenge?
Björn Pankratz: I see it as a welcoming challenge. We know that all the fans out there will compare all our new games with our previous titles, and it’s our goal to make games where players say: “I loved Gothic, and this is different, but I love it too.”. Over the years we’ve come to know our fanbase and what they like, and therefore we’re careful with changes. The new setting of Elex and the introduction of the jetpack were two additions for example that gives us still the opportunity to bring in all the features that made Gothic great, and add some more possibilities, instead of replacing mechanics with new ones.
Settled-Down Gamer: You make other games that resemble Gothic to some degree, but do you ever plan to return to the Gothic universe?
Björn Pankratz: We love the Gothic Universe, of course. At the moment, we feel very comfortable with the Elex Universe, but who knows what is going to happen in the future.
Settled-Down Gamer: All your games have steep learning curves – admittedly, I enjoyed the one in Gothic I & II as well as Risen much more than in I do in Elex. How do you approach balance? What is the sweet spot you usually aim for?
Björn Pankratz: We believe that games like ours should be challenging. This is also one of the reasons why the monsters in all our games don’t level with the player, but the world is what it is, and you as the player have to cope with that. We like it that way. We do of course some user testing, and collect feedback from players, but in the end, we balance it in a way that we feel comfortable with, and then add some easier and harder game difficulty levels. But of course we’ll continue to get opinions on board that we’ll take into consideration for our future games.
Settled-Down Gamer: How do you feel about Forsaken Gods and Arcania, games in the Gothic series you did not make? Have you played them?
Björn Pankratz: Of course we’ve all played them. The game found its audience, I guess, but it might have been a different one than our games have.
Settled-Down Gamer: What inspired the atypical art style and world of Elex? What vibe were you aiming for every „genre” you explore in the game? Were your inspirations from other games, or completely different media?
Björn Pankratz: We had many inspirations, and it took us quite a while to get that particular “Elex style” right. Star Björn Pankratz: Wars was one of the inspirations, but there were many more. The movies Equilibrium and Blade Runner, the book and movie of Dune, the games Fallout, Outcast, and of course our own Gothic series, and many more. What Star Wars does very well in particular is that they bring sword combat and laser weapons into one universe in a very believable way.
Settled-Down Gamer: You’ve stuck with open world RPGs throughout your career, which is a remarkable thing in the industry – but will we ever see a radical departure from that formula?
Björn Pankratz: We feel comfortable in that genre, and we’ve built a huge tool set over the years for building exactly these kind of games, so moving to another genre would also mean to start from scratch. Also, the skill set in our team is tailored towards open-world RPGs. Plus: we love open-world RPGs, and I believe you should always only make games that you’d love to play yourself.
Settled-Down Gamer: How do you think the RPG genre has changed since the first Gothic? Is development and design drastically different now in your eyes?
Björn Pankratz: The advances in technology have changed the way these virtual worlds are made and perceived. While we could focus on story and gameplay back in the days, we must spend a lot of time now visualizing everything. This puts a lot of pressure of a mid-sized team that we have, but we’re trying our best to make the game both exciting to play and pleasant to look at.
Settled-Down Gamer: What is the biggest challenge in making open world games in your opinion?
Björn Pankratz: The biggest challenge for the way we make open-world games – meaning true open-world games, where there are no barriers whatsoever from the first minute on – is the fact, that we want to tell a meaningful story in a world where every NPC that you meet could be the first one to talk to. We don’t know where the player starts, must be light on references on what happened so far, and still keep the player interested. This is a huge challenge, but I think we’ve found a good way to solve that problem in Elex.
Settled-Down Gamer: Are you aware of Gothic machinima? There’s been a lot of in-engine videos from Poland, which really helped amp the cult status of the series in our country.
Björn Pankratz: Yes, we’ve seen many of them and are still in awe how much creativity is going into these movies! But often they’re hard to follow for us, because they’re in Polish, but from what I’ve heard they seem to be pretty funny and good!
Settled-Down Gamer: Finally – how would you define a settled-down gamer?
Björn Pankratz: Well, I guess I’m one of them! So for me a settled-down gamer is someone who still values a good story in games, and so maybe the “settled-down gamer” is definitely one of the main audiences we’re making games for.