Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NPCs, interaction and dialogue

In between my testing sessions for The Shattered War, I've been focusing on getting a lot more dialogue written. While the dialogue has basically been planned in general content terms for quite some time, I'm getting down into the details of the interactions with a few of the significant characters.

In terms of NPC interaction, I've taken the Mass Effect approach. Between core story missions, you return to your home base of Fort Velen. This helps drive some key events and discussions vital to the plot, and helps with the pacing and overall flow of the game. The player does get a choice of tasks they wish to pursue, so having them return to Fort Velen allows me as the designer to bring certain essential items to the player's attention should they not have discovered them on their own.

You'll become familiar with the surroundings of Fort Velen

This design means that most of the major interaction between party members will occur in Fort Velen. Outside of Fort Velen, they will generally only provide 1-line responses to any attempt to talk to them. I understand that many players dislike this model, but given the number of potential choices and scenarios they player can be in, I simply can't justify the overhead of the dialogue (particularly VO work) that the alternative would require.

However, in addition to party members, there will also be a number of key NPCs who are part of the campaign against the darkspawn who are based in Fort Velen. Your interactions with them will occur here as well - though in all these situations, you will be given choice. These NPCs may come to you with issues or opinions and ask for your support, and your decisions here will affect how they react to you, and may result in them providing or withdrawing their help to you. You may even choose to ignore them, which could bring its own consequences.

Allies or adversaries? That's up to you...

One thing I am not doing is making the ramifications of those choices blatantly obvious. One of the design decisions I disliked from The Witcher was the way the game informed the player very clearly about a consequence related to an earlier decision. While some players appreciated being told exactly what result their decisions had, I found it an immersion breaking technique. Every choice the player makes should lead to a story that feels unique and accurate - not one of a series of alternate realities that are made blatantly clear. While the illusion can be broken somewhat by multiple playthroughs of a game, I believe that each should feel like it was the "true" story. To do otherwise is to partially rob the player of the power of telling their own story.

So there's an insight into the design aspects of interactions with major NPCs in The Shattered War. If you have any specific questions or things you'd like to know, please comment and I'll provide a response!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Testing issues

As I've mentioned previously, I wanted to create a beta version of the introductory part of The Shattered War for testing by some players while I continue to work on the mod.  While for the most part this has gone smoothly, there have been a few issues that keep cropping up and causing me trouble.

One of the most frustrating is the audio for a particular dialogue not working properly - the character simply does not speak. Oddly enough, the lines work perfectly in the toolset, and I can export the dialogue without hassle. I can then even extract the sounds from the exported .fsb file and listen to them. Unfortunately, for some reason, they refuse to play in the game itself. This occurs with a couple of characters, but I can't identify any consistent issue across the various dialogues or sound files. If anyone has experienced this and/or has a solution, please let me know.

Of course, the other problem is that some characters aren't yet voiced, but that's a problem that I understand and will hopefully get the right people to solve before the final release. I've still have to produce properly annotated scripts for some of the dialogue that still needs to be recorded, which is a significant undertaking in its own right.

Taraz looking concerned (maybe about voicing issues?)

Another hassle appears to be within character creation. Specifically, the game doesn't seem to give the player enough attribute points if the player happens to click "Quick Play". If they do, then a whole lot of attribute points simply disappear into the ether, and I can't find a means to fix this.  If the player decides to create their character by going through the entire customisation process, there's no issue, but it's a potential problem.

Another problem that has come about a number of times is objects not interacting correctly.  There have been several cases where objects to do not react correctly to player manipulation. In some cases this is due to me attempting to use pre-existing mechanisms for interaction in a way that isn't supported. This generally has to be discovered by trial and error, as documentation of many of these mechanism is minimal to non-existent.  The other alternative is to simply code all my own scripts, an option I have been resorting to more frequently, albeit at the expensive of additional time.

At least we can interact with this corpse...

All that being said, testing is coming along quite well, and everything is fitting together reasonably well.  So if you're keen to check out the beta version of the introduction of the mod (and haven't already contacted me) please shoot me an email (I have a gmail address for AmstradHero) and I'll be in touch.

I do work in a bit of a vacuum at times, completing individual segments separately before doing the work that brings them together.  There are a lot of individual parts (particularly dialogue) that are complete, and I can see the end in sight for writing of dialogue.  The Shattered War may be a long time in the making, but a beta version of the introduction shouldn't be far off for those interested. With any luck, people won't have to wait a really long time for the full product!

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Shattered War: Combat Design

Since I've been doing a bit of playtesting of The Shattered War, I'd like to talk about some of the design aspects of the mod.  While I often talk about things like dialogue, choice and character design, in this post I'm going to deal with the crucial gameplay aspect of combat.

The first important decision was to decide which level to start the player. Most players who play mods, particularly a stand-alone mod not part of the main campaign, will be familiar with the Dragon Age mechanics, and know how to conduct combat. Thus I don't need to hand hold people with basic fighting tutorials (as happens within the start of DAO), or how to create a character. For most players, it's also more interesting to not start at the lowest level. As such, The Shattered War starts players around level 9, and gives them some basic supplies suitable for this level.

Of course, there will be enemies to match your level...

As the player starts as a more powerful character, their companions must also start at a higher level. Because of this, there is the possibility that the player will decide a particular playstyle is not working, or that they don't like it. As a result, I'm also going to include the possibility of re-creating a character - by adopting the re-spec mod. This has been on my to-do list for a quite a while and I've only recently begun to look at it. This is a crucial part of having an adventure starting at a higher level, as it allows the player to redesign their character and their companions to create a balanced party. This is also essential because of the limitation in the mod of there only being four companions, meaning there is not necessarily the ability for the player to simply "take a different character" if the existing character build does not suit them.

The next point is to attempt to introduce new mechanics or combat scenarios to enhance the gameplay. Due to technical and balance considerations, I am trying to avoid creating new abilities or spells for players to use. Despite this, I trying to introduce new mechanics through usable items and placeables, as well as enemies with slightly different behaviour to the default game. It is important to understand that increased difficulty does not come simply from adding more monsters, but at the same time, I do not want to introduce effects or situation that seem far fetched compared to the original campaign.

So there's a short discussion of the combat of The Shattered War, if you have any questions about the combat (or maybe even some suggestions), please feel free to comment!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Level reuse guidelines

I thought I'd go into a bit more detail on the subject of level reuse and cover some rough guidelines on things that work and things that don't. I'll use some examples to compare and contrast different examples where possible - as level reuse has been present in games for quite some time.

Don't reuse plot critical areas
This is Dragon Age 2's main failing. Areas that are home to crucial areas of the plot are locations the player has visited potentially dozens of times before as meaningless and nondescript places  used for sidequests. It ruins any sense of exploration and the sense that something new is occurring, because it's simply reminding the player of the sidequest they did 30 minutes ago... and 30 minutes before that... and 30 minutes before that...  Alternatively, if you consider Mass Effect 1, you'll see that while it potentially featured just as much level reuse as Dragon Age 2, all of the generic levels (with slightly different arrangements of crates) were for side-quests. Optional content that while interesting, wasn't part of the main plot and climatic events of the game. This is why I found the original Halo dull after the halfway point, because the second half of the game was mostly just traveling in reverse of what you'd already done.

Use it as background
Like Sundermount in Dragon Age 2, try to use larger (outdoor) areas as different components. Dragon Age Origins did this with a number of its random encounter areas - several were part of the one "map", but the player could only see a small part of the map at any given section. The additional areas were merely background - area that the player could see and made their current surroundings real, but not accessible to walk. By doing this, none of the effort of level design is wasted (because all of the walkable area is used), but because the different component areas form the vista (partially) visible from the others, each area will feel unique rather than feeling like the same cookie cutter areas. Of course, if it's combined with the above point, then you're even more off the hook.

You saw that wall and mountain in the background from a few different areas

Limit reuse
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it warrants saying. Don't re-use levels too much. If player keep seeing exactly the same terrain over and over again, they're going to get bored. It doesn't matter how pretty it is, they're going to find it tedious. When we're talking a single player experience, especially a narrative based experience, you have to present the player with something new, because otherwise it doesn't feel to them like the surroundings are progressing with the story. Even if the setting is set in the same location over a long period of time, it should undergo cosmetic changes to demonstrate the effect of previous events within the story.

Reuse segments, not everything
Wherever possible, try to avoid reusing an entire level wholesale. If you can fragment a level and potentially present the player with those segments in a different order (or even leaving out bits entirely), then the player will likely see the deception, but is more likely to accept it as a reasonable effort to keep things interesting. Missions within sandbox games (e.g. GTA series) do this brilliant, as do many driving games. They have the player travel through part of a level they've already seen, then introduce new segments that they haven't seen. Designers can also get the player to come through the area from a different angle; have them go backwards through the level instead of fowards. Dragon Age 2 attempted to do this to a degree, but due to failiings in the above areas, it's reuse still grated on players.

This outdoor setting was used in its entirety every time

So there's a few simple pointers in terms of how to manage level reuse in games. Reuse isn't always bad, but if you're reusing levels, make sure that it is a conscious choice and reasoned decision to reuse an area rather than simply "we didn't have the time/budget to do a new level." If you're doing that, then you're game already contains one design flaw that could have been avoided.