Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stages and Previews

I'm sure I've extolled the virtues of stages in Dragon Age modding previously, as they are an incredible useful way to save a lot of work. Using these, it is possible to have the toolset automatically generate poses, gestures and camera cuts for your conversations.  Another excellent tool is being able to select an NPC line, then go to the edit menu and select "Convert Line to Cutscene", which enables you to make short cutscenes that blend in seamlessly with the dialogue as it is happening.

When using stages, it is useful to be able to preview the dialogue without going into the game.  So select the root node of your conversation and click on the cinematics tab, and select the specific stage blueprint you wish to use. You also need to type out its (unique) tag when you're using multiple copies of the same stage for different conversations within the same area. Finally, fill in the relevant positions for the various actors in your conversation. Note that your choices for both the cinematic and preview tab (which we'll be using next) will propagate to all children nodes, meaning you can set up the entire conversation by just editing the root node. However, you can change the stage (and preview) for specific nodes under the root node should you so desire.

Once this is done, you can then set up the preview tab so that you can configure a stage to view the conversation inside the toolset.  However, this part is a little bit buggy in that it doesn't deal with updates to the stage or its location within its parent area.  If you're using a generic stage and trying to position it such that you have particular items in the background, this can be a significant problem. The trick is that using "First Match" doesn't update the stage location for your preview, as it seems to remember the location the stage was in when you first selected it.  It also doesn't update the numerical value of the stage's location in the drop down menu.

As such, if you adjust your stage's location in the area, while still in the area editor with your stage selected, highlight its location parameter, hit Ctrl-C to copy it to the clipboard, and remember its angle value (to the first decimal point should be all the granularity you need).  Then go back into the preview tab of your conversation, Ctrl-V paste the location over the existing location, and then manually edit the angle.  You should also select the appearance of your various actors in the preview screen, particularly if your dialogue involves anyone not of "standard" human/elf height.

With all of that done, you can now right click on lines in your dialogue tree and hit "Preview Line".  You'll also want to select the safe-frame button (the square below the playback buttons) so you can see what it will actually look like in the game itself.  And no, I have no idea why that isn't set as the default option, as I can't see any time when you wouldn't want it to be on. Even in an ideal world where I have multiple 24" monitors on which I can float various windows, I'd still want to see the framing of the shot.

I should quickly cover the "auto-generation" I mentioned earlier.  Again, we want to go back to the root node. But this time you want to right-click on it. The three options you're interested in are: "Generate Poses for Children", "Generate Gestures for Children", and "Process Cameras for Children". Voila! Instant semi-cinematic dialogue.  Unfortunately, the system isn't perfect, and on some lines you'll have NPCs gesturing (sometimes wildly) when they aren't talking, and you might not like some of the camera shots... but it still saves a lot work you'd otherwise have to do manually.

One thing I'm still confused about with stages is the use of "functional shots" as described in the wiki. I have no idea how these are implemented, despite the information presented there. If anyone knows anything more about these, or has used them, I'd love to hear from you.

Know When To Stop

When you're doing modding, it's essential to keep in mind when to stop fiddling with something. This can particularly be the case when it comes to level design.  The temptation to keep tweaking landscaping, texturing, decoration, lighting, and all the other elements that make up a level is extremely high.  As such, I've forced myself to consider the level that I've been working on complete.

It may have some minor tweaks done to it once I start working on the actual area itself, populating it with creatures, items and various interactive items, but for the moment it is "finished".  As I am somewhat of a perfectionist, making this decision to stop working on something is a difficult one. There comes a time when the extra effort of tasks like finessing the exact location of vegetation becomes more an exercise in obsession rather than useful design.

Unfortunately, I don't believe I have any hard and fast rules to determine when it is time to stop. It is going to vary from person to person, and potentially from task to task.  Face morphs in particular are something I find very time consuming, especially when I'm aiming for a particular type of appearance.  It probably doesn't help that I don't seem to be very good at doing facial morphs. I have been envious of the skills of people in the "prettiest character competition" thread on more than a few occasions.

But, as a general rule, if you find yourself going over the same ground for a few hours and making repeated tweaks on those final touches to make something "perfect", or second-guessing your work, then it's probably time to stop.

Anyway, it's time for a small look at the completed level in-game:

Given the number of screenshots I've posted of this area, it feels as though a short description is in order. The following is part of the codex entry on the area:

Patren's Gorge
A rocky scree bisecting the North and South of Patren's Wood, Patren's Gorge is a particularly dangerous area high within the Frostback Mountains. Named for the Ferelden explorer Patren, who in 4:89 Black, made an attempt to explore and map as much of the Frostback Mountains as possible. The previous Orlesian invasion of Ferelden prompted the Arl of Redcliffe to send Patren to explore other possible routes across the Frostback Mountains.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Types of Choice

In my recent articles about replayability, I have been talking a lot about choice in games. I have been focusing primarily on RPGs, but that's because when it comes to giving players the ability to make a choice that will affect a game world, RPGs are pretty much the king of genres at the current point in time. Even so, the ability to make big choices that will affect the outcome of a game are still a relatively new thing. Note that here I'm focusing on choices that have consequences rather than purely "cosmetic" dialogue decisions that have no real effect on events.

There is still a long way to go before we have game worlds that truly react in a seemingly organic fashion to our actions, at least in a single player experience. Regardless, designers should carefully consider the types of choices they present to their players. By using multiple decision types, the designer can develop the player's roleplaying experience in different ways and offer a more believable gaming world. Here are five key types of choice that are presented in RPGs:

Good or Evil
The classic dichotomy of Good versus Evil, Light Side vs Dark Side, Law vs Chaos, etc, etc. Two diametrically opposite schools of thought, and the player must pick one. These are generally straightforward for characters/players, and help provide a basic disposition for the character.

The Blind Choice
With very little information, the player is forced to make a decision one way or another. This forces the player to go with their gut instinct rather than attempting to overthink or "meta-game" a decision. These can be very effective in getting a player "into their character's head" if used well, but also pose the danger of frustrating the player by confusing them through lack of information. They are also less effective in subsequent playthroughs, as the player has additional information to guide their choice the second time around.

Pick One Benefit
The player is presented with a number of different options, and picking one will provide a different positive effect depending on the decision. This is typically a means for a player to further their character's development, or further their personal relationship with a character. This could be as simple as choosing to support one party member over others in a verbal argument, or making the decision of where to allocate resources to rebuild a castle.

No Good Option
The opposite of the above. Some of the best choices that I feel have been presented in video games are when I have had to pick between a lesser of two evils, or make a choice where neither choice is desirable. BioWare and Obsidian are the only two developers I can really think of off the top of my head who have presented choices like these. I won't give specific examples because of the spoilers involved, but if you've experienced them, I'm sure you'll know what I mean.

Grey Morality
Possibly a superset of "No Good Option", a "grey" choice is when there is no clear good or evil decision to be made. Either options has its benefits and drawbacks, and arguments could be made for either side. These can be very hard to craft for a player, and will often cause large divisions in player communities - case in point is Loghain in Dragon Age, where people both staunchly oppose and support him with their own reasoned arguments. Some would argue that it is not a "grey" decision at all - on both sides - which simply serves to demonstrate that it is.

If you have any other categories of choice you find interesting or effective, please comment and let me know!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cliffs = more usable space

In my continuing look at level design and texturing, I've got two more screenshots to demonstrate how to improve area layout. When designing an area, the usable space is something that is very important. This is the area that is able to be used by the player or other characters for movement, or for other interactive objects. In general, you want to maximise the usable area within a level.

In exterior levels, hills and mounds serve multiple purposes. Firstly, they limit the player's movement, forcing them along the set paths that you the level designer want them to travel upon. Making the player travel through a level in a particular path allows you to deliver information in a set sequence, which is highly useful for plot development. They also serve to reduce visibility. Yes, this is a good thing, because it prevents the player from seeing too far ahead, (never underestimate the power of the reveal) and it also reduces the polygon count on screen, thereby improving performance.

However, looking at the above picture, there is a distinct problem (aside from the muddy texturing). The problem is that the amount of usable space is a very low percentage of the available space because of the rocky hill/mound in the main part of the shot. It segregates the walkable areas nicely, and does a good job of blocking of the players view, but it occupies an awful lot of room. It also looks a little funny from a landscape point of view, such mounds aren't really all that common, at least not quite so thin and evenly peaked. The solution is to simply turn it into a cliff, like so...

Even ignoring the obvious texturing improvements, the area is now a lot more visually appealing and significantly more practical in terms of usability. The open space provides a good vantage point from the top, while still maintaining a somewhat claustrophobic feel in the tight canyon at the foot of the cliff. The amount of space has increased dramatically, allowing this to be a reasonable area for a fight or a cutscene. There's also increased room for vegetation, which is a very important part of the overall appearance of a level.

The only drawback is the extra effort required to make the cliffs look organic, as lots of straight lines do not exist in nature, and tessellation is required on the cliff faces to increase the vertex density so it is possible to introduce more variance into its shape. In this case, the payoff was more than worth the additional work required.

Blending: Take 2

So after my article on texture blending, and the two comments (I'd love more opinions on all of these posts... really!) I received, I thought I'd post a direct comparison of texture blending on my level.

The screenshot that I posted last time was like this:

But I've since reworked this section of the level as a small trial to determine whether the stronger texturing look is better. As such, here is a second comparison shot:

So which do you prefer? And why?

Monday, May 24, 2010


Unfortunately I haven't been able to do much modding today. However, in order to get another update (yes, I'm trying to do them more regularly) I'm doing to do two reviews.

The first thing I'm going to discuss is Return to Korcari Wilds, which I mentioned in passing a few days ago. Now, given it's been out for a month, and already had more downloads, just as many endorsements and twice as many comments as Alley of Murders in one quarter of the time, I was expecting something pretty special. Now, I'll happily admit that I'm jealous of its statistics, but I'm more disappointed by the fact that it doesn't deliver.

Put simply, Return to Korcari Wilds is a 'dungeon' romp. It's a short and linear adventure where you kill a whole bunch of darkspawn. You're expected to encounter the three sets of NPCs in a set order - and in fact, the third one doesn't even appear until you've talked to the other two. There's no real roleplaying to speak of, and the dialogue is filled with spelling and grammatical errors. Yes, I understand that the creators speak Spanish as their first language, but there is barely a sentence that doesn't contain an error.

The combat of the mod seems like it would be very challenging for the most part. I played with a fairly high level warden and got through the majority of the fights without too much hassle, but I imagine it would be nigh on impossible for someone attempting it early in the game. An abundance of boss monsters, often with two in a fight, means that it would be very challenging.

There are a few cutscenes, notably featuring music from Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, which are reasonably well done. There are a number of pieces of custom loot, which are balanced apart from a few overpowered items; a two-handed sword with +30 spirit damage is the worst offender here. There are two companions, one of whom has a nice side quest to kill a Dragon, but again the quality control is lacking. See the mystical floating mountains of Ferelden...

However, all this said, Return to Korcari Wilds isn't a bad mod. For a straightforward combat-fest, it's fine, but the overall lack of polish made it trying for me. Given how well it has been received, I was expecting to be impressed by an adventure that integrated smoothly into the main campaign, but I was ultimately unsatisfied. This isn't to say I don't appreciate the effort that's gone into creating it, and I'd happily encourage the modders to improve upon their efforts. However, I suggest you play it expecting just to kill a bunch of enemies. With that expectation, you'll probably be happy.

The second thing I'd like to review is Warden's Fall, a short Dragon Age machinima. It's apparently going to be a series of videos telling the story of the Warden Kristoff, who seemingly takes his duty of killing darkspawn very seriously. The production values on this work are extremely high, and the people involved deserve credit for all the hard work they've put in. The only real complaint I have is that the directing during action suffers a bit from Michael-Bay-ism, or rapid-fire shots that reminded me of the second Bourne movie. However, I only comment on that because I can't find any other really constructive criticism at this point in time. The music, voice acting, cutting and sequences are well crafted and put together nicely. Seriously, go watch it if you haven't already.

I'd love to get some of the animators doing cutscenes for The Shattered War...

PS Please, give me your opinions on the texturing post I made yesterday, and vote in my poll!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Texture Blending

Despite my recent posts regarding how I don't replay games, a series of events led me to find Matrix Cubed. This game is a nostalgic favourite for me. Looking at it now, the graphics are bad, roleplaying choice near non-existent, combat simplistic... but I can't stop help feeling it is fun.

When you've grown up with something and played it dozens of times over (I played it so much that I hit a bug that prevented warriors from levelling up due to not being able to allocate a weapon specialisation point), there's something about it that means you overlook its many flaws. If I could determine what causes the feeling that keeps you playing a game even though you can see it is somewhat shallow... well, I imagine I'd be selling that secret to gaming companies around the world.

Anyway, I haven't been entirely wasting my time playing Matrix Cubed. I've actually been doing quite a lot of work on an area for The Shattered War. However, looking at it in comparison to BioWare's original levels, I think I've perhaps done a little too much texture blending. What do I mean? Let's do a quick comparison.

The above screenshot is from a portion of my level. This level is very rocky, and as such I've used quite a number of textures in order to stop it from looking too monotonous. BioWare's level artists are typically very strong in their use of textures, whereas I've done a lot of blending. That's not to say that BioWare's artists don't blend, as they carry out blending very well, but they are willing to use a large section of the same texture at 100% and then blend small patches of a related texture. See the reference screenshot below:

Looking at my level now, I wonder whether I could or should have used less blending. I think the level might have been to boring if I hadn't tried to use that many textures, but at the same time, I realise it is something I may need to keep in check in future. As it is said, less can be more.

I guess I'm curious to hear from people as to which they like more? Do you like the complexity of a landscape with a lot of textures, or do you feel it gets far too cluttered and you'd prefer a more simplified approach to texturing?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mountain/Hill Creation

Get yourself a cup of coffee people, because this is a long post. It's been a while since I've written a tutorial, so I thought I'd focus on something people find hard with the Dragon Age toolset - level design.

If you're creating outdoor levels, soon or later you're going to have to create hills or mountains. Not only are they essential for acting as a natural border to prevent people from seeing past the edge of the terrain mesh, or to control line of sight within the level, but they also look pretty. Level design is a combination of functionality and aesthetics, and you need both in order to make a truly great level.

For this post, I'm just going to focus on creating a nice hillside in the Dragon Age toolset, using an example from a level I've been working on. This isn't a demo of a walkable area, but just for scenic hillsides the player only gets to look at. Also note that I'm not going to cover texturing in this post, as that is a lengthy topic in itself. I'm going to assume that you understand the basics of navigating the level editor and using the terrain deform tool.

However, here's a couple of quick tips when dealing with the deform tool. The first trick when dealing with the level editor is to get used to using the "-" and "=" keys to the right of the number keys. These will decrease/increase the size of the brush you're using to deform the terrain. I also find that you typically want to adjust the "Max Strength" parameter down to 30 when you're doing your "detail" sculpting of a level. Reducing the "Max Strength" parameter means your mouse clicks will affect the terrain less for each click, allowing more precise control, which is what you want when you're trying to add complexity into the terrain mesh. This is what you do once you've got your basic hillside structure created, like the picture below. (As per usual, click for a higher resolution screenshot)

So from the above picture, I've got a basic hill/mountain shape. It's fairly bland at the moment, and needs a fair amount of work. If you study hillsides you'll notice that large uniform patches of gradient don't really occur. So you need to take a medium sized deform brush (Outer Radius of 4/5, set to Raise/Lower), and accentuate the natural ridges in the terrain. You need to create elevated ridges that run with the lie of the land using the left mouse button, and then the right mouse button to lower the areas in between. The idea is to create small hollows or "ruts" in the landscape, just like the ridges that form in natural landscapes. Note that while the ridges should trend in roughly the same direction, do not have multiple ridges perfectly parallel to each other. Perfect straight lines are very rare in nature, so if you find you have a parallel ridges, put a slight bend in one of them. Don't be afraid to "link" it with an adjacent ridge if it comes close enough.

With the key ridges in place, we're now able to decrease the brush size slightly and further tweak the terrain. For particularly prominent ridges, you will want to create "sub-ridges" running perpendicular to the main ridge. This will break the uniformity of the main ridge and give the terrain a far more realistic look. You also need to put some variance into the gradient of the main ridges. Don't allow them to continue down uniformly, but put in small plateaus. Ideally you'll only be using the deform brush, for this purpose, as the plateau brush itself is prone to creating very steep cliffs, which are harder to make look good, especially for a beginning level builder. The idea is to have small mounds or depressions within most of the "core" ridges of the hillside, many of which will have their own sub-ridges leading off them.

One thing you need to pay attention to when using a smaller brush size is to avoid terrain "spikes". The Dragon Age toolset features a "tesselate" option, which allows you to further subdivide the terrain mesh in particular areas to help avoid this, but extra subdivisions are not always required. With some close up and subtle use of the deform tool, it is possible to fix these spikes. See the picture below for a spike and a sharp line-width ridge. I've increased the "Grid Opacity" to make the mesh shape more obvious for this image. This is often useful to do if you need to examine the mesh structure more closely.

Using a deform brush of size 1 and the "Max Strength" set to 10, I first lower the height of the "spike" vertex (where point the green lines meet) and raise the height of the vertices to its left. This creates a more natural peak/mini-plateau instead of a spike. For the line-width ridge, I do a similar thing, raising the height of the adjacent vertices. I also drop the height of the bottom part of the "ridge" and raise the height of the vertices adjacent to it in order to have a less dramatic height difference along that line. As a result, the ridge is far less prominent and looks much better.

The last image I showed of the full hillside isn't the finished product, as there's still a few ridges that are too close to being parallel that I need to fix, but this should give you an idea of how to go about creating your own hillsides or mountainsides. Also, don't worry if you don't feel like it looks like much of a mountain side while you're creating it, and resist the urge to start texturing as you go. You'll end up with a more interesting landscape which will look far better once you actually do apply the texturing.

PS Not so subtle reminder to vote in my poll to tell me what you want from future blog posts.

PPS If anyone knows the guys who made Return to Korcari Wilds - please put me in touch with whomever did their PR! In one month they've got more downloads than Alley of Murders has had in four months. Tell me how they got the word out about their mod!

Friday, May 21, 2010


Some of you may have noticed the addition of a poll on my blog page. If not, why not? I want to finding out what you, my readers, are interested in reading.

Ideally I'd love to be able to blog everyday and tell you about all the exciting modding I've been doing, but unfortunately I don't get to mod everyday. I'm also unsure of how interested the average reader would be hearing about how I've been fighting with the scripting and plots involved in getting NPCs added to the player's party and making character approval ratings work.

This is why I've been posting on general design related issues, and I'm glad to see that people actually seem to be interested in these posts. However, I have also received a bit of interest in toolset/modding tips or tutorial articles, and I'm more than willing to share advice or experience with other modders. I certain don't consider myself the most talented modder out there, but I imagine I've picked up a few things along the way. If people have any specific areas they think would be good for me to post on, tell me. So please cast your vote, and comment as necessary!

However, in order to demonstrate that I've actually been doing some work on The Shattered War, here are a couple of screenshots with the player and Taraz doing some good old fashioned adventuring.

Area design is something that I love doing; turning that mental image of a shot in your head into a tangible location for characters to explore is really rewarding. This screenshot below captures a view of a winding path between rocky hills and dense trees - you can see the path up in the top left and curving away to the right around the torchlight, with Taraz and my character in the foreground.

Of course, when playing a hero, you have to get your hands dirty from time to time. Next you can see a genlock battering Taraz while my hero supports from the side with his bow. You can click on either picture for a higher resolution screenshot.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Replayability Factors

Following on from my last post on the replayability of games, I thought I'd raise two key factors I see as helping or hindering the chances of someone playing through a game again. As with my last post, these are simply my thoughts - so if you disagree (or agree!) then I'd love to hear your opinion.

For me choice, closely times in with consequence. If you make a choice, but there are no real consequences as a result of that choice, what was the point in making that choice? Now obviously there are certain things that have to be set in stone. Game engines can't dynamically create content to react to the player; there are going to be certain antagonists that we are going to have to fight, certain key plot points we have to experience. Yet the player will still be given choice in terms of their dialogue of how they wish their character to react to these events.

So we have the "roleplaying non-choices", the decisions in dialogue which ultimately have little effect on the overall game except for allowing the player to accurately represent the personality of their hero. These are still essential to a game, because they allow the player to empathise with their character, to really get into that "role" that they are playing. Admittedly some people just play (a hero version of) their own personality, but being able to dictate the character's tone when talking to people is a big part of making the overall roleplaying experience more believable and immersive.

But what about real choices? Deciding which faction to side with, whether to break the law to kill a villain or spare them, or choosing to save one friend instead of another. For me, these are the choices the have an effect on the game world that truly add depth to an RPG and make me want to replay it. The ability to change a world through my actions as a hero (or anti-hero/villain, should I so choose) adds a great deal of interest to me as a gamer. When these choices subsequently have an effect on the plot later on, that is even more potent.

I find that one counter to the replayability of a game is its length. Now, complaining about a game being too long is something that seems ridiculous, because gamers typically want "MOAR!" of everything. I confess I love a long game. I love being immersed in a vibrant game world for hours and hours on end as I explore everything and read every bit of information I can find.

So when as a player, I'm investing many dozens of hours in a single playthrough, it becomes harder and harder to replay each time. When there are long segments of the game that are always the same and there is very little choice about the order in which you can perform a task, or the events that occur within (e.g. The Fade in Dragon Age), then it is less enjoyable to replay. Length can diminish choice, which is ultimately a big part of what makes modern RPGs enjoyable for many people.

This isn't to say I'm advocating having shorter games. I love getting content. But say we had a professional game studio release an RPG with a game that took about 12 hours to play through. Then add in lots of choices and decisions within the game that could cause it to progress down an entirely different path. What if the plot could potentially change between playthroughs? What if, in your second playthrough, the villain was actually a complete different character because of a decision you made early in the game? Now that sounds like a replayable game.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Replayability Myth?

One thing often touted by game developers is the replayability of their games. Particularly in RPGs, the ability for players to make different choices and have lots of different outcomes as a result of these is marked as a selling point.

When I began thinking about the replayability of games was that there are very few games that I have played through multiple times - particularly in recent years. Even some of my most favourite games I have only played through 2-3 times at most.

The aspect of replayability largely seems to be an issue for single player games. Multiplayer games frequently have replayability because their game mechanics are such that much of their interest comes from pitting players against each other. Ever since Doom's deathmatch facilitated people killing each other in real-time glorious fun, gamers have enjoyed hours of (arguably repetitive) multiplayer gaming.

The notable exceptions are things like Diablo 2 (yes, I know it has multiplayer too - but I didn't care about it), where you're using the same character to replay segments of the game in order to gain XP or get better items. But technically in those cases, I suppose you're not replaying the full game like you would in a traditional single player game.

I understand that there are some players that play through the same game many times. I recall hearing that one of the hosts on the Neverwinter Nights podcast had played through NWN2 about a dozen times, and the Mask of the Betrayer expansion about half as many times. I'm not sure I would end up playing a game quite that many times - perhaps I am not quite the hardcore gamer I make myself out to be?

I would be interested to know how many players replay games, how many times they replay them, and does the genre of the game make a difference? Please, readers, let me know your opinions! Yes, that means you. Really. :-)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Are you paying attention?

One thing that I'm always interested to know is how much attention gamers pay to the game that they are playing. I'm not talking about how much gold they have, the amount of damage they are doing, or where their next enemies are, but the small details.

I want to know if player notice that the soldiers in Redcliff have worn armor, or shiny fresh armor made by the blacksmith, whether they spot the subtle play of shadows across the landscape, see the details in the modelling of the architecture of a building, or smile at an NPC remembering how you treated someone days ago.

To me, it seems like many gamers miss these small details because they're focused on something else. So many small details are missed by players simply because they're too engrossed in something else. I'll confess I'm guilty of it as well. The real question is, if those touches weren't there, would players then notice and then complain about it?

As a modder, I confess I get pedantic about the small touches. I care if there's a spelling mistake in a dialogue or description. I care if a character in the background of a cutscene suddenly jumps, and that the sounds in an area accurately reflect its environment, and that the music helps reflect the atmosphere. For Alley of Murders, I customised the automatically generated animations for about 80% of the dialogue so that they would fit better with the words being spoken, though admittedly sometimes it was also to prevent characters from waving their hands while they weren't actually speaking. I imagine that for most players, that was "invisible work"; they had no idea that it was done. Yet I still imagine I'll be doing a lot of it again for The Shattered War.

The reason I bring this up is because today I undertook the time-consuming and tedious process of manually editing the .plo files for the majority of the codex entries in the single player campaign. I have made these files available in a project on the BioWare social site. Why? Because this way, standalone mods can have their own set of codex entries, without having to force the user to see a horde of blank entries that exist because they are part of the main campaign.

Because of the way the codex entries are made, without these files, standalone mods would have a large swathe of empty codex entries that will never be filled because they're used by the main campaign. This way builders can add in their own entries without forcing the user to scan through a horde of blank entries. I wanted this for The Shattered War, and thought it would also be useful for other modders.

Will players care about this? Do players notice the small details? Or would they only notice them if they weren't there? So I ask players (and that includes modders), what small details do you notice? What are the things that you pay attention to and appreciate? And what omissions or mistakes annoy you?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Hidden Choice

I must preface this post by saying it contains Mass Effect 2 spoilers! If you have not finished Mass Effect 2, please tune out right now!

I read an interesting post today of someone complaining about the possibility that your crew can die in Mass Effect 2. Specifically, it talks about the attack that occurs after the Reaper IFF mission, where your crew members get abducted. Unless you immediately rush to the Collector Base, then your crew gets turned into synthetic reaper paste. The player concerned was not happy that they had no warning that this would occur.

My initial response was to reply that the player is warned repeatedly that they need to prepare for the IFF mission. This prompted many players to do everything they could before undertaking the IFF mission, allowing them to save all the crew. However, it can also be argued that urgency is pressed upon the player for many different sidequests that have no repercussions should the player not immediately undertake them. Not pursuing the collectors is the only situation in which mission choice has a tangible in-game effect.

The complaint raises an interesting RPG design point, in that the player is making a choice, but they do not necessarily realise that they are making a choice. In many cases, the player is asked to deal with something as quickly as possible, but this is the only one in which that actually matters. Should the player suspect that something might be amiss? Certainly a lot of dialogue reflects the potential need to build up a team before doing the IFF, and also rescuing the crew immediately after they are kidnapped.

Arguably the reason some players consider it an issue is because it was unexpected, and players assumed they could carry out jobs in whatever order they want without penalty. However, this isn't necessarily the case in sandbox games with time like Oblivion or Fallout 3, and even Baldur's Gate 2 had some in-game time/date dependent occurrences.

Yet the screenshot above indicates the clear difference between Mass Effect 2 and those games. Time was obviously and clearly worked into all three of those games. You have a clock and a calendar and the appearance of areas changed from day to night, giving you the clear indication that time was actively passing and you were in a timely game environment. In Mass Effect (and Dragon Age), there is no dynamic lighting - even if you stay in an area for an entire real-time day, it will remain exactly the same.

Should a player be expected to realise that there is a time dependent quest in a game that does not indicate the passing of time in any significant manner? Arguably not, despite the multiple verbal warnings they receive. Time is never impressed upon the player as something that matters, and has little effect on the game as a whole.

Alternatively, we could accept this as a new "standard" RPG mechanism, and players can now expect more effects to come as a result of which quests or exploration they pursue at points within a game. Obviously this presents a massive overhead on developers. Now designers not only have to cater for the "active" choices that players makes (whether to kill an NPC, or pick a good/bad dialogue choice), but also "passive" choices like whether they pursued a particular quest line "in time". So I don't expect that it will occur on a large scale - perhaps a few key instances at most.

A "macro" level time limit imposed by quest choice presents an interesting dilemma for players. Even used sparingly, if the player "suffers" as a result of delaying a quest, no matter how small that effect, it now places a seed of doubt and urgency into their mind. Players are typically complacent when it comes to most quests, simply because they know as a function of accessibility and choice, quests can typically be left as long as the player likes to complete. If this isn't the case, the player could miss out on content, which tends to upset players, so game companies (typically) don't do it.

Yet even a few quests which present consequences if not performed in a timely manner will impress a sense of urgency upon the player. They will potentially feel torn about which quest to pursue next, rather than trying to pick which quest will give them the most xp/best loot/romance/etc.

Of course, it's still possible to cheat this system. Gamers can find out which quests have these effects, complete them, and then explore and quest freely to their heart's content when they are able. But in a general sense, a few well implemented quests that have consequences if not completed in a timely manner could be a great boon, and significantly improve the overall realism of the fictional world of an RPG.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


If you haven't heard, the lovely people at the Dragon Age Podcast decided to do an interview with me on their great show! They asked me some really nice questions and I hope that you find the interview interesting and maybe even entertaining. We talk about Alley of Murders, modding in general, my modding activities, and even a little bit about The Shattered War.

The podcast guys, David and Matt, have got some interesting and funny stories about Dragon Age and gaming in general, and have already had interviews with several talented modders on the show in past episodes. If you're interested in Dragon Age, and in Dragon Age mods, then I highly recommend you check it out.