Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy 2010!

Happy New Years, everyone. May 2010 be as good as 2009 if this year was good for you or better if it wasn't.

I also get to mark another year gone without TMGS seeing the light of day. The good news is that it's now close and getting closer all the time. The major bugs are all out and I don't imagine I'll need to add any more content. I like the way it plays, my alpha feedback was generally good, and I've already finished the adjustments to account for the few significant suggestions for improvement I received. I'm now to the point where I can say it will be released as soon as I am confident in its level of polish.

That's where the beta-testing comes in. Yesterday, I got the campaign to my lone beta-tester. Yup, that's all I've got for now, so most of the beta will be me, and I've simply got to take a short break before I play through it all again.

In the interim, I've been playing through SoZ again... oh, and watching football and eating, etc. And then I've received my copy of Tudors Season 3. Gotta get through that!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Schadenfreude

Well, all my changes from Alazander's comments are incorporated and I'm well into my next play-through. In fact, I just started Act III, which means I should be finished in a day or two. Right now I am at 124 comments, and that will almost certainly reach 160 or so by the end. Granted, most of these are very minor things like dialog formatting and very few at this point are genuine bugs.

However, it's disheartening that not a play-through goes by in which I don't find 100+ items to fix. I don't want to release a non-polished module, and I don't think I can feel really comfortable with a final release until a play-through only finds about 10 to 15 items, all of them minor.

Nevertheless, I'm not going to let this stop my beta phase from proceeding. Once I correct the comments from this round of testing, it's on to the beta. I still have room for other beta-testers, by the way, if anyone is interested. (And it would still be appreciated.)

So switching gears, what does the title of this post refer to? Another question will yield the answer, and that question is why is this man-boy crying?


Well, it probably has something to do with that top line and the fact that 13 < 32. Actually, in mathematical terms, 13 << 32. Any sports fan in the US who has not been in a cave these last couple weeks knows one thing: that Tiger Woods has ruined his image. But if they know two things, then it’s that the so-called best college football team in the country got DEE-STROYED a couple weekends ago, leading to the copious quantities of tears that emanated from the face of the tough guy above.

And I have to admit, I soak it up. Why? I hate that team, and I'm not fond of the goofball who leads them. That would be Tim Tebow, who the media obsesses over almost as much as they do/did Tiger. I blogged about Time Tebow before, for those with a good memory. If I'd been there, I'd have licked the tears off his face because to me that's the nectar of the gods.

Thankfully, the Alabama Crimson Tide saved my favorite sport for me. I was really starting to hate football...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I'm Back

So updates have been scarce recently. Lot's of reasons for that, but my time-table for testing TMGS is still on track. I'm working through a couple remaining issues from one of Luke's comments that required some reorganizing of a few dialogs, but progress is steady, if slow. I do think the end result will be better.

Caribbean Cruise
So my wife and I went on our first ocean-going cruise this past week. There was some good and some bad to it. Overall, I wasn't real thrilled with the lack of flexibility and the comparatively small amount of time in the countries we visited, but having the hotel essentially move with you is nice. We spent a couple days in Mexico, one in Belize, and one in Guatemala - very different from our other trips. We got to see a few Mayan ruins and zipline through some rain forests. Pictures included.

Our next trip is shaping up, and we're pretty much 100% set on spending a week on our own driving through Ireland. Should be fun with that whole left-side-of-the-road thing. Be scared, ye Irishmen and women.

So as we're going to be free-form and the itinerary is currently wide open, I'll put it out for the faithful readers who are either Irish nationals or familiar with the country. Is there anything that is considered a "must-see" in the country? This could be either a city or a specific site. Hopefully, we'll find some really great things that aren't necessarily in the guide books. We'll obviously fly in and out of Dublin, but anything else is open.

Cleopatra and Antony
One of my big reads during the cruise was Cleopatra and Antony by Diana Preston. I won't review the book here, but it was one of my selections following my viewing of the second season of Rome. It did a great job of filling in the gaps in the very fast-paced narrative of the final episodes and made several of the scenes make more sense. It also confirmed the number of small details that the TV series included that were absolutely true. (For example, Antony really did challenge Octavian to individual combat after his defeat at Actium.) I'm still going to read a few other books before I settle on my opinion of the depiction of the Egyptian court.

Overall, it was a very easy read for anyone interested in the period. In other words, it was written for the general enthusiast as opposed to a scholar.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The End of NWN2?

So Dragon Age arrived... finally. And it had to come just in time for me to release TMGS. Oh, well. Truth to tell, I'm getting more and more eager to just finish the damned campaign. I'm looking forward to moving on to other projects (non-modding-related), or maybe I'm just in a pessimistic mood today.

The truth is that NWN2 has been in its death throes for maybe a year now, but it's been allowed to linger on because there was no CRPG successor. But with Dragon Age out, the dagger's just been driven through the heart of the NWN franchise. Honestly, it saddens me. NWN was a fantastic community that thrived for five years. NWN2 flashed for half that long... maybe. It could have been so much more and so much better, and I guess I'll never understand why some things went the way they went.

But enough of the vague lamentations. It's not like I can divulge anything more than I have, so complaining about it serves no point. Maybe Dragon Age will revitalize the genre because I don't see much else in the pipeline. That said, let's move into more positive directions.

Alpha Testing
I got feedback from one of my alpha testers over the last couple days, and I'd say it was generally positive. There are a few bugs he noted as well as a few suggestions for improvement. As I agree with nearly all these suggestions, I have some work to do. There's nothing that's going to take an obscene amount of time to implement, but a few of them aren't trivial either. That will serve as my work for the next week.

So who was my alpha tester? Ossian lead designer Luke Scull. Most of his comments are specific and therefore contain too much spoiler information to reveal, but some of his general quotes about the overall campaign follow. Before you think that the whole review was glowing, most of the specific comments regarded things that needed to improve (as one would expect).

"Let me just say that was a fantastic adventure ... it took me a good 18 hours overall. The whole thing was excellently designed and really well written. In fact, the last third contained some of the best writing I've seen in a game in a long while."

"Overall, the game was a really terrific piece of work; probably the best module I've played for NWN2."

I've been working on the project documentation as I've waited for the alpha testers to finish, and I'll be releasing the Character Creation Guide shortly. As a head's up, one issue that did arise is that the start level for the game is going to move to 6 with the ending level being 10.

So the schedule: The next week will be spent implementing improvements. The week after that (Thanksgiving week here in the States), I'll be on vacation and out of the country. When I return, I have 3+ weeks until Christmas vacation. That will be spent target-testing the new material, playing through the entire campaign again, and then implementing fixes from that play-through. By Christmas break, I anticipate releasing the Character Creation Guide to the general public and getting 2-5 beta testers to try out the campaign. I have a couple people in mind already, but if anyone else is interested in joining the beta group and playing TMGS over their Christmas and New Year break, let me know. Note that it won't be all fun and games; I will expect detailed feedback if you join up, and the payment will be sincere gratitude.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rome, Season 2

While I'm awaiting comments from my alpha-testers, I'll review the second season of HBO's Rome, which I recently completed. As I wrote in my review of the first season, the series is a mixed bad with some bad and a lot of good. Overall, I would recommend it to any who are interested in this period of history.

The second season begins within minutes of where the first season left off with Julius Caesar's body still warm on the floor of the Roman Senate, and the ten episodes take us through the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra and the final triumph of Octavian, a span of about 17 years.

Rereading my review of the first season, most of my comments still fit. The series is still magnificently shot with lavish sets and a grand scale, though not too grand. The DVD commentary makes it clear that they didn't show Caesar's funeral or any battles because keeping true to their vision was simply out of the budget. Therefore, they chose to cover the events by having the characters simply talk about them in a number of ways, often by montaging several conversations together in a quick succession of scenes. This isn't a criticism; if the money truly wasn't there, then it's an approach I agree with. I was especially impressed by some of the directorial decisions by John Maybury, who directed episodes five and ten. His use of overhead shots and the first person depiction of Antony's drug-induced haze in episode ten made his episodes stand out in a good way.

As an aside, the Egyptian court is shown as one of complete decadence with near continual orgies and copious drug use. In fact, the commentary for episode 10 even admitted that they hired actual porn stars to play the extras in most of the Egyptian scenes. I'm not remotely qualified to comment on the accuracy of the portrayal, and the commentary leaves little doubt that the writers did much research, but in my case the series did what it was supposed to. It intrigued me enough that I have already picked out several books on the subject and will be receiving my shipment from Amazon shortly. Whether it's accurate or not, it was compelling and made interesting viewing.

Several performances are noteworthy. I wasn't fond of James Purefoy's Mark Antony in season one, although I appreciated the character's depiction. Indeed, Antony is shown as little more than a "strong man," essentially a thug enamored only with sex and violence and, though he engages in the political process, he is mostly unable to appreciate the nuances and instead opts to kill those who oppose him. For the most part, the depiction holds true this season as well, although I came to admire Purefoy's acting a bit more. His final scenes in episode ten run the gamut of anger to overwhelming grief to false bravado to drugged-out lethargy. The entire performance runs dangerously close to ham territory without ever going over the top. Instead, it all works as an extension of a man who is utterly incapable of keeping his emotions and base desires under control, a trait that ultimately proves his downfall when pitted against the seemingly emotionless and ruthless Octavian. As an aside, listening to Purefoy's commentary of episode nine was a real treat, and it showed that the actor had a keen grip on the history and how he was trying to portray it in his performance.

The two "average joes," Pullo and Vorenus, played by Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd, respectively, gave solid performances and didn't seem to be quite in the center of the political whirlwind as much as they were in the first season, probably because they were given their own independent storyline of trying to gain and maintain control over the gangs of the Aventine that only tangentially involved the major political figures... although Vorenus did predictably get to share Antony's last night on Earth with him and ended up being the one to hold the sword on which he committed suicide. Anyway, these two really are strong actors and end up giving a nice double act for the bulk of the series. Given their storylines, which are often more reminiscent of a soap opera than a period drama, both get to run the gamut of emotions, and both do so very well. McKidd does an exceptionally good job of portraying a father who knows his relationship with his children isn't right but doesn't know how to fix it. The awkwardness, missed moments, and frustration and final devastation when he realizes he's been betrayed by them can all be seen poignantly written onto his face. Stevenson's instant turn from grieving lover to cold-blooded killer at the end of episode nine is his moment that stands out for me. The ease with which his tears turn to a look of seething rage as his hands clasp around Gaia's neck is chilling indeed.

I can't go far in my discussion of performances without mentioning my favorite from season one, Max Pirkis as Octavian. Unfortunately, Pirkis gets little air time, for by episode four, the narrative is fast-forwarded several years and the part is recast with Simon Woods portraying the older, wiser, and colder version. As I noted before, Pirkis always portrayed Octavian as a bit emotionless with ruthless streak that bubbled just under the surface, but Woods takes it to a whole new level. In his portrayal, those trait have completely overwhelmed the character to the exclusion of virtually anything else. There is barely a scene in which the new Octavian does anything short of stare intently at his target and speak in a monotone. Even his one explicit sex scene, he simply stared at his wife with the same look and went through the motions with the same intense emotionless demeanor. Frankly, though I enjoy the depiction of Octavian as supremely competent, it was a bit too one-note for my tastes.

The recasting of Octavian really highlites the second season's primary weakness: namely the wildly uneven pacing. There is a good reason for this. The second season was originally meant to bring the narrative up through the defeat of the republicans led by Brutus and Cassius. The third season was to center on Egypt and end with the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. However, halfway through the second season, the crew learned the series was being canceled, and so they quickly wrapped the story up.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the "progression" of Antony and Cleopatra's love. In episode 2 when Cleopatra comes to Rome, the two clearly don't like each other. At the end of episode 8, Antony still professes his love for Atia before being banished to Alexandria. By the opening of episode 9, however, Antony and Cleopatra have already been lovers for some time. By the middle of episode 10, they are committing suicide together. After slowly building up Antony and Atia's affair for a season and a half, we're suddenly told to just accept that Cleopatra is the love of Antony's life, and we're never told how two people who originally loathed each other came to fall in love. It's understandable given the behind-the-scenes circumstances, but it nevertheless weakens the series.

I'm also left wondering why the second season only had 10 episodes while the first one had 12. Perhaps it was cost again; as they were planning a third season, it certainly wasn't because of a lack of something to write. I have to believe that another two episodes would have greatly helped the pacing of the final part of the season, although it still wouldn't have been perfect.

One characterization that does progress nicely is the afore-mentioned Atia's. In my season 1 review, I mentioned that Polly Walker succeeded in playing the somewhat-likable bitch fairly well. In series two, she still displays that side, but many more facets come out. In the wake of Caesar's assassination, she is clearly worried over what will become of her now that her great protector is gone. Desperately she clings to Mark Antony, her "sex buddy" who becomes the de facto lead of the Caesarian party. Even when her son, Octavian, is formally named Caesar's heir, she dismisses him as incapable and does what she can to bolster Antony instead.

By the time Antony and Octavian come to blows, she is clearly falling for Antony beyond what political prudence dictates. She eagerly agrees to be Octavian's envoy to Antony in a bid to seal their alliance against Brutus and Cassius. Later, when Octavian suggests a marriage between their two houses, she happily chatters away about wedding plans, assuming she will be the one Octavian chooses. She is devastated in Alexandria when Antony refuses to see her, and her grief at the news of Antony's death is palpable, even as she puts on a brave face. The tears just beginning to well up in her eyes in the final scenes as she attends Octavian's triumph during which a likeness of Antony is paraded around to jeers from the crowd is perhaps the most emotional scene of the entire two seasons.

In the commentary for episode 10, the creator of Rome, Bruno Heller, stated that he considered the series to be in many ways Atia's journey, and after thinking about it for a while, I agree that hers is one of the most important. The one-time scheming bitch has gotten her fondest desires: her rival, Servilia, and Servilia's son, Brutus, are both dead, her son has attained the preeminent position in Rome, and she stands as one of the city's richest and influential citizens... and yet, she can't enjoy her triumph because of the steep price she has paid for it. The old proverb "be careful what you wish for" has come true. Overall, Polly Walker does such an outstanding job of bringing a sense of pathos to the role that she simply must get the standout performance of this season.

It's really a shame that the HBO brass ended up canceling the series before a third series could be made. I can only regret what might have been had they allowed the show to progress naturally. As it stands, season 2 - and Rome in general - is a fun, if flawed, adventure that should please anyone interested in the period and even many who are not.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Alpha-Testing Commenced

Good news! I was able to play through the entire campaign from start to finish, so woo hoo! There were, of course, many minor bugs, but these fell into the category of journals not updating properly and so forth. Nothing major.

So I have now turned the campaign over to two alpha-testers to see what they have to say about it. I think the campaign is a good one, but am I full of dung? Have I made a flop? Are my characters horrible? Am I right about it being good? Something in between? They'll let me know, and then I may pass along some of their comments.

As it turns out, the alpha-testing comes at the perfect time. I leave tomorrow for yet another business trip to Alaska for two weeks. I am going to take a break from TMGS, but at least some work on it will still be getting done in my absence.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Act III Finished!

I'm a little behind the schedule I had hoped for last post, but that's it. I'm calling Act III done. The last playthrough was largely successful, though it generated several small issues (misspellings and the like) which are now all taken care of.

So last night I started through the entire campaign and have already come across a couple show-stoppers that I need to clean up. I haven't really looked at Act I in a great many months (years even), and it's obvious that one of the patches did some damage. Luckily, Act I is rather small in comparison to the others, and most of it seems to work just fine. I think I'll only need a little bit to get all back in order and then proceed onwards. Acts II and III have been largely completed and tested since the last patch came out, so I don't expect anything similar to crop up later.

The other source of possible issues is that I'm doing my campaign-level testing with a male PC and the majority of my testing to date has been done with a female PC. The only difference is that the companions are different, have different dialogs, and have a few different interjections. I don't expect much to go wrong because of this, but it's likely to be a bit rougher than a female PC would be at this stage. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mongo Progress

It's been a while since I've been both highly motivated and had lots of time to work, but this past weekend was one of those times. I finished incorporating the comments for Act III that I discussed last time, and I then completed another play-through that got all the way to the final fight before a game-ending bug. However, I'm pretty sure the "bug" was actually a result of playing Act III as a module instead of as a campaign, as the problem was in the transition to another module.

That said, I still had 65+ comments I had made up until that point, some of which were pretty serious. For example, I didn't like some of the pacing and so I had to rearrange things in some places and add some content in others. However, this has all been done, and I've also shuffled some maps between modules to reduce the number of module transitions. Last night, I managed to do some targeted testing of the new areas and reshuffled maps to ensure it all works.

So I'm ready for another play-through of Act III, and I have every reason to believe it will be the first to be successfully completed with no hitches. I'll fix whatever issues I find, of course, but if all goes to plan, I'll be done with Act III testing come Sunday. Then I just want to play through the whole campaign from start to finish to make sure it all works together - it should, as I've independently verified all three acts and both internal transitions - and then I enter alpha testing with a couple chosen reviewers. Once I get their comments incorporated, it'll be time for around five beta testers.

Hold tight. We're getting there!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Westgate: Behind the Scenes, Part 4

As always, beware of MoW spoilers below.

A Word on Official Product "Editting"
One of the comments last time got me thinking that maybe it would be good to give some incite into how the internal review process goes, or at least went in the case of MoW. Every word I wrote went through three levels of review before it made it into the game.

The first level was Ossian, who generally wanted to guarantee that nothing we submitted would be embarassing to the company. This meant verifying the writing was of professional quality and that the topics and language were appropriate. This was the level that weeded out Gracie's possible suicide in the Tortured Hearts quest, although this was done early in the design stage, probably because Alan knew from experience that it wouldn't pass the next level of review...

The second level was Atari, whose sole interest seemed to be to eliminate anything that would garner a mature rating for the game. I remember this level as being pretty benign, probably because the Ossian brass did such a good job of self-editing.

The final level was WotC, who cared mostly that their intellectual property was respected and accurately depicted in-game. There was a lot of discussion about allowing the player to become a vampire at the end, as the powers and limitations had to be strictly enforced according to the official rules that governed that transition. This was also the level that required the change in Porthyria's illusionary race in The Knot of Shou Lung quest. There were a slew of comments that came back about changing the genders and races of several characters, I guess in the name of maintaining diversity within the Realms. That Porthyria comment was the only one that affected one of my quests, but I remember several characters were changed from male to female, though I don't remember exactly which ones changed in quests that weren't mine. I've always admitted to being human-centric, but I guess a dude-centric adventure is the result of having all dude designers.

Random Elements
I'm sure that everyone already knew that the designers handled the side quests, the companions, and the layout of the main path (though the main path was done long before I came on board), but the list of other things designers handle is pretty extensive. For example, there are over 100 unique items in the game - I think it's more like 130 items - that all have individualized descriptions. There are the landmarks around Westgate, the ones that give the Tourist feat if you visit them all. There are the curiosity items in Mintassan's shop. Then we had to do the descriptions you can read when examining every creature and clickable object. Finally, all the ambient characters and one-off encounters you see throughout Westgate that make the city seem alive. The designers are also the ones that decide where the loot is to be found and how it's to be spread around the campaign.

There are so many of these little bits that I wrote that it's impossible for me to remember them all, though I certainly can pick them out as I'm playing through the game. In general, if an item is found in one of our subquests, it's one we designed. One item I do remember clearly is Mordecai's Mesh, a suit of armor found in the Trouble at the Track quest. Originally, the armor was infused with spider glands that gave it the On Hit: Web spell property, which I thought was a really cool idea. However, when Alazander was playing testing the quest, the spell went off so often that the insane graphics slowed his computer to a crawl. So now it has the Hold Person spell instead. It's not nearly as cool, but people won't have their computers explode playing the game now.

There is one ambient character I created that I became rather fond of, and that is Bohemund the Beligerant, the street "entertainer" who had multiple vitriolic exchanges with his audience. The idea came to me from all the entertainers you see throughout many of the larger cities in Europe. I've always wondered what kind of outrageous acts you might be able to get away with, and I've thought about an over-the-top insult comic... a guy who thinks he's smarter than everyone else, and so he insults them because he hates that he has to demean himself for money by performing stupid tricks for the great unwashed... (Note, this is not to say street performing is demeaning; this is simply his take on it.)

Anyway, this thread in the MoW forums is rather funny (scroll to the bottom two posts). For the record, Bohemund was never intended to be a companion in MoW; he was always a one-off, BUT... I came to like the character so much that in one of Ossian's now-defunct proposals for another project, I suggested using him as a companion, and the suggestion was accepted. So yes, there was a point in time in which he was slated to join the PC in future battles. This, of course, necessitated a complete character concept including a reason why he was in Westgate in the first case. So, in short, Bohemund is one of those seemingly vague one-note characters that I now have four pages of background for. If you want to know the true background of Bohemund, just drag your mouse below.

Bohemund, originally hailing from Halruaa, is actually a loose ally of the Harpers (though not a member of the organization). He is in Westgate in pursuit of a Priest of Cyric who is escorting a very dangerous child to the eastern lands and plans to catch a ship across the sea. His Harper allies have rented a house across from where Bohemund performs and are scanning the crowds attracted to his act. Not long after the events of MoW, the Harpers are ambushed and killed, leaving Bohemund alone and in need of allies.

Main Path Characters
At the putset, the main path characters were all divied up to the designers by Alazander. The first toolset work I did for Westgate was Captain Merrig's dialog, meaning he was written in February of 2007. I was quite nervous at the time, as (1) he was the first character I had ever written that had been invented by someone else and (2) it was the first "official" toolset-level work I did for Ossian. I ended up going through the Westgate design document twice highlighting every word I could find about Merrig. That amounted to about 3-4 sentences, so the character was still pretty undefined. However, one of the things that Alan had mentioned to me on the phone during my interview was that there was a character named Merrig who he envisioned as needing to spit to clear his mouth every two sentences. I don't remember that detail being in the design document, but I included it in the game anyway.

An additional consideration is to economise every dialog that had to be VOd. Merrig was alotted 750 words of VO budget, and that meant that everything he said had to be condensed into 750 words. That's not a lot to be able to get all the plot in and still give a flavor for a unique character. Alan's spitting idea helped with the latter, though, and I also thought a while on coming up with a good, yet cheesy, pirate-themed joke to start the conversation off. Writing for a VO budget is a not-inconsiderable restraint, but hearing the actual words you wrote out loud is a thrill, so it's a net positive in my view.

Other main path characters I wrote include Kajeel, the illithid (including baby Kajeel), Latasha, Orbakh's female vampire henchman, and Rumboldt's butler, cat, and safe. In fact, it was I who made the suggestion to add the ability for rangers and druids to ask the cat for the safe's combination. As far as Latasha, the Westgate document called for meeting her three times over the course of the adventure: in the ship, in the safe house, and finally in the catacombs. I was certain I wanted the player to be able to brag about already beating her twice upon meeting her for the final time, but that then necessitated the need for a good retort. That's why writing her final dialog was a bear. It's frankly difficult for someone whose ass had been kicked twice already to believably have a sufficient amount of bravado about round three.

Voice Over
One of the most commented on aspect of MoW is the lack of voice over. I can't speak to the exact cost of VO, but I know it was expensive because of how strictly controlled it was compared to everything else. A 750 word budget on Merrig, for example, didn't mean exactly 750 words, but we couldn't be far off.

This was especially problematic with the companion quests. We were given 750 words to introduce the companions, so all their initial introductory dialogs are completely VOd. Luckily, this only had to cover a few plot points and the flavor of the character, as we'd be able to continue developing them later. However, we were only given 1000 words for their related quests, and this didn't remotely cover everything for the Tyrran Enclave. I tried outlining what I thought was important, but it wasn't long before I was Skyping Alan begging for a bigger budget. Eventually, I wheedled another 500 or so words out of him. I also inquired as to whether there was a male actor I could use for a few words. As it turns out, one of the male actors had a few words left over because someone else's dialogs had come back a little lite. This allowed me to voice some of Sneed's dialog exchange with Charissa, but I still only had enough of a budget to cover the lines that I thought were most crucial to the character development arc, such as when Charissa argues with herself over Sneed's eventual fate or her reflections on her actions after leaving Sneed's chapel. People have argued that the in-and-out VO was distracting, and I agree somewhat, but I can honestly say I argued for as much as I could get, and Alan stretched what we could do to the limit.

As an aside, the VO was done by a professional studio Alan had worked with while at Bioware. I think the same studio had done the VO on a lot of the BG series including ToB. Early on, a copy of some of the early takes of the dialogs was passed around to the Ossian team. These contained some bloopers, some of which were hilarious. I rememberthe actresses for one of the female companions (I believe it was Charissa, actually) was trying to make the death gurgle for her companion sound set - something like "aargh!" - when she just busted out laughing and said, "Boy that sounds pornagraphic!" And it really did. That was not the death sound that made it into the final cut. In fact, I remember probably a 10-15 second clip that was just a concoction of different death sound attempts by the actors involved that was rather humorous. Maybe I'll see if Alan can put that up on the Ossian download site.

The Schedule
For those interested in how long it took the team to accomplish certain tasks, my recollection is as follows. I came on board on just about Feb. 1, 2007, at which point toolset work had been going on for two to three weeks. I guess story development and approval and project planning took from around October 2006 to just past New Years of 2007. We were pretty much done with the main path writing by the middle of March and had a couple weeks of testing just that. Throughout April and the first half of May, we finished up all the sidequests. The second half of May and June were filled with the extraneous design stuff I outlined above. From July through September was play-testing, fixing bugs, and adding stuff that had been overlooked. That means that by July 1st, the heavy work for the designers was largely concluded, and we became extra play-testers on occasion. The level designers and scripters were still working hard through August. By October 1st, 2007, the project was more-or-less in the can. One year from the initiation of project discussion to ready for distribution. That shows what a talented and highly-motivated team of around 15 people can do. The delay after that I won't discuss.

Questions?
So I think the four parts together are a pretty good representation of what was going on from my vantage point, but there's obviously only so much I can put on a page, and I've tried to write only the most interesting bits. However, if there's anything I've left out that any of you are curious about, feel free to ask. The only thing MoW-related I know I won't answer at this point are questions about the delay.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Westgate: Behind the Scenes, Part 3

As before, spoilers for MoW follow.

When I first came onboard in early 2007, my second initial task done in parallel with the development of my companion concept was the creation of several sidequests. These sidequests were broken down into four categories: companion, "fed ex", minor, and major. These categories are pretty self-explanatory, but a couple comments are in order for the last three.

"Fed ex" did not mean literally what we think of: i.e. bring me a book or deliver this wood to the shop at the corner. Rather, it meant a quest that could be done in 10-15 minutes using only one or two encounters with "encounter" meaning either a battle, a trap, or some kind of character interaction. Contrary to the traditional fed ex quest, there was supposed to be some kind of twist to it that made it interesting. Minor quests were to be around 30 minutes and major quests around 45.

I was fortunate to come on the project late in that I could peruse the sidequests already developed by the others and so try to do some different things from what had already been done. For example, if I had found a lack of hack-and-slash quests, I would have written a couple. Had there been a lack of skill-heavy quests, I would have focused in that direction. As it turns out, with one small exception (outlined below), I didn't really find any inbalances, so I could proceed with the type of quests I like with an easy conscience. Beyond that consideration, the only instruction I was given was that Alazander thought Undergate was a bit bare and so wanted me to direct some of my quests to that quarter.

Minor Sidequest: Trouble at the Track
I finished Saleron's Gambit, Part V in the summer of 2006. One of my sidequest ideas for that module was to place a halfling village in the Hullack Forest that the PC would pass en route to the penultimate showdown with The Priestess. In the village, the PC would meet a halfling who had made a drunken boast - followed by a sizeable bet - that he could outrun a deer, a bet he would have to pay off if he couldn't somehow rig the race. Que the PC... I had visions of a cutscene with the halfling hasted in some way allowing him to speed across the finish line ahead of the deer.

Ultimately, I decided the quest was out of place. At that point in the module, the player was rapidly moving towards the end, and it didn't make sense for someone to stop to help someone rig a race. But the core idea was one I still liked.

Eight months later, Ossian gave me the opportunity to resurrect the idea, but the different setting of Westgate demanded that the specifics be changed. The seediness of the city allowed gambling readily enough, not to mention the idea that people would try to rig the races, but the deer had to go. Fortunately, dog racing was common enough in civilization. The idea of a gambling house in a city filled with criminal elements led me to change the one rigging the race from the quest giver (in the original SGV quest) to the entity the quest giver is racing (in the final version). One nod to the original idea was that I kept the quest giver as a halfling.

I immediately envisioned the house owner being a thug of the fighter class. The new idea that the house was magically rigging races naturally led to the inclusion of an arcane caster that could brew the potions. The need to maintain the animals led to the inclusion of a druid. With this, I only needed a rogue to complete a balanced enemy party for the player to battle. In my design document, I therefore gave the tavern owner a brother named Haman, a rogue who formed his connection to the Night Masks and explained how his profitable business could be allowed to operate without molestation. These four, then, would form a suitable final boss fight.

However, I generally love to include ways to utilize character skills in the completion of quests. This led to some of the design choices for the other encounters. First, the player has numerous skill-based ways to get past the half-orc door guard: bluff, lock pick, and so forth. Second, players can brew the antidote to the speed potion if they have the Brew Potion feat. Third, there is a guard that the player can talk into giving up the antidote with any of the talking skills.

In my envisioning of the inner workings of the gambling house, I pictured a slave-goblin doing all the menial cleaning. This led to the encounter the player has with the goblin when it witnesses the player tampering with the dog bowls. The goblin runs away no matter what the player does, but I thought it was a cool flavor encounter that might ramp up the tension that maybe the party will be discovered.

One pain that the sidequest presented was the obvious thought that the player could just slide a potion of speed into the dish, so why go through all the rest of the work to come up with a specially-made potion? This necessitated the confiscation of all potions of speed by the door guards. While at first I thought that made things unnecessarily complicated for relatively little added roleplay value, I came to appreciate it because it did remove the ability for the player to use one particular buff (potion-wise) during the final battle.

As an aside, I was incredibly pleased by the work the map designers did on the Track. It looked better than ever thought it would and far better than I could have done. I do know that there were several rounds of cursing on the scripters' part as they tried to get the racing cutscene right. I guess the pathing proved problematic at points, so all I can say is thank God it wasn't me!

Overall, my satisfaction with the way this quest turned out was a 10 out of 10. It was pretty much exactly as I envisioned. As I'm not going over the Tyrran Enclave again here, I'll say that my satisfaction for that quest was a 9 out of 10. In case you think I'm being too much of a homer, my grades for the next two I designed will be decidedly lower.

Fun fact: Originally, I wanted to call this quest "The Amazing Race," but the title was vetoed due to copyright concerns regarding the popular reality TV show of the same name.

Fed Ex Quest: Tortured Hearts
It may seem odd, but making a fifteen-minute quest unique and fun is actually incredibly hard. There are, after all, only so many unique one-off encounters you can do without blatantly ripping off old ideas. I'd actually rather just do a full sidequest than a so-called fed ex quest. Anyways...

Back when I was young - I'd say in the range of 10 to 12 - I remember watching an episode of the old Twilight Zone in which a woman has been in a tragic accident that required extensive reconstruction surgery. Her face is entirely covered in bandages with only slits for the eyes, nose, and mouth visible. The whole episode is essentially a series of home-life vignettes and trips to the doctor's office in which the doctor tries to prepare her for how she'll look disfigured and deformed when the bandages come off. The episode is unique in that the view is always shot so that only the woman's bandaged face is visible. Everyone else is seen from behind, standing in a shadow, at an odd angle that only shows their lower body, and so forth.

Finally, at the end of the episode, the bandages come off to reveal a total hottie, but when they give her a mirror, she screams in disbelief at how ugly she looks. Then the camera pans back to show the doctors and nurses staring at her, and the viewer sees that they all have the same series of disfigurations, meaning that in this world, the disfigured is normal, and what we see as normal is disfigured.

Place that idea in the Forgotten Realms and add a magical rationale for the "disfigurement," and you have Tortured Hearts. Two factors went into the exact form the quest took. First, the fact that I could use almost any race for the protagonist was what ultimately allowed me to use the idea without the need for bandages, etc. Simply, to a lizard folk, humans must be ugly. Second, the use of lizard folk as the important NPCs in this quest also played into Alazander's request that I utilize Undergate as much as possible.

In the end, I can't help feeling the quest is incomplete, but I think that's a general aversion to fed ex sized quests in general. Therefore, I can't give this quest more than a 7 out of 10 in satisfaction.

Fun fact: In the original draft, if the PC revealed to Gracie that her love, Sarl, has already moved on, her body would later be found in a sewer with evidence that she had killed herself. However, in an official product, suicide is a no-no, so in the final version, she ends up wasting her days away drinking and gambling at the Track. Apparently, killing thousands of bad guys is ok, but killing yourself is not.

Major Sidequest: The Knot of Shou Lung
This idea sprang from the legend of the Gordian Knot, the great Turkish puzzle that promised conquest of Asia to any who solved it. I knew that I did not want the same answer that Alexander the Great used to solve that puzzle, but otherwise I started only with this historical kernel, ideas from a book I was reading at the time on the organization of medieval European guilds, and the idea that I again wanted to take the quest into Undergate if at all possible. Additionally, the only shortcomings I noticed in the list of sidequests already confirmed for the game was that there was a shortage of puzzles, so I tried to add some in here.

And that was key. At heart, I wanted the quest to be what the actual Knot was: a big puzzle. This led to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the trophy's dissappearance, the riddle in the case, and the puzzle door lock in the lair of the riddler. The prominence of the riddle led to the idea that a sphinx would be the quest giver, but there were no sphinx models in the toolset, and creature models are simply too expensive to do for just a single sidequest. Therefore, the sphinx became polymorphed into bipedal form. The poem itself went through a few iterations, and the final form was heavily influenced by Hugie, who turned out to have a bit of a poetic streak in him.

Undergate necessitated an enemy or faction who would be at home there. As I thought - and still think - the drow are overplayed, and I'd already used monstrous creatures for Tortured Hearts, I settled on the duergar. Once I had the final enemy, the backstory of the Knot began to formulate as an artifact of the wars between dwarven factions, and once the artifact became dwarven in origin, the truth that the Knot is simply a marvel of ancient dwarven construction popped out.

The duergar also brought to mind another game in which they were prominent: Icewind Dale 2. I remember in that game that as the party exits the cellar of the Black Raven Monastery, they are ambushed by several duergar who had aided the party earlier. The first time I played the game, I was just clicking my party towards the door, and some unfortunate pathing issues left my party scattered when the ambush was sprung. The resulting battle was brutal and required all my wits to survive... and almost ten years later, I still remember the immense satisfaction I got when I beat those bastards with only two characters left standing. With the duergars slated for The Knot of Shou Lung, I decided I wanted to replicate that battle if at all possible. To do that necessitated a situation where the duergar could appear to be helpful only to then ambush the party.

Originally, however, the party had to penetrate the duergar compound, and I specifically requested some interesting battles up front. In my quest document, I didn't specify what they were, and so I was dismayed when I didn't see any battles at all in my initial play-through. It was Alan Miranda of all people came up with the solution when I pointed this out. The crossbowmen on both of the raised platforms as the party tries to fight their way to the ladders are all his idea.

That also illustrates one of my design philosophies. I hate making upper-level enemies by simply making superhero versions of lower-level enemies (like the Thayan Gnolls in MotB who must be 15th level). I would rather increase difficulty level of battles by giving lower-level enemies superior position, numbers, or some other advantage. In this way, the player gets to keep the "specialness" of his advanced levels while still being challenged. All of the duergar in that battle except the bosses are 5th level, though some of them are rogues which gives extra oomph to their blind-side attacks.

Incidentally, that same philosophy applied to the fight in the main room of the Thayan Compound of the Tyrran Enclave, in which the player must bash through crates, navigate a grease-covered walkway, and dodge explosive barrels, all while getting pounded from all sides by elemental-arrow-wielding 3rd level rogue archers.

With all the twists and turns, the quest ended up being a very long one. Nevertheless, I do not feel it offers enough variety in how one can solve it. I don't have any ideas for other options, but I normally favor quests with a great deal of openness to them, so I can't really say I'm more than 7 out of 10 in terms of satisfaction at how this turned out.

Fun fact: Originally, Porthyria's polymorphed form was a human woman, but WotC's insisted she be changed to an elven woman, as they sought to increase the racial diversity in the game. As far as I'm concerned, she's actually a sphinx, so who cares what she looks like.

So these are the four quests I wrote. Of the 17 total sidequests, I believe the breakdown is as follows: Alan Miranda - 1, Hugie - 2, Me - 4, Nemorem - 5, Alazander - 5. Sorry to anyone I might have short-changed.

Next time, I intend to discuss a hodge-podge of other topics regarding Westgate.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Westgate: Behind the Scenes, Part 2

Well, I can now reveal that my wife and I went to Las Vegas for her birthday this past weekend. It was a first time for both of us, and we had a blast. We're not big gamblers, so the only cash we lost was on the entertainment and meals. I bought us tickets to see Cirque du Soleil: KA at the MGM Grand on her actual birthday, and it was an amazing show. Other than that, it was just experiencing the city, which is rather unique in my experiences.

And then I got to update my US graph below to now include Nevada. Moving on...

Mysteries of Westgate
So last time I told the story of how Charissa came into existence. Now I'll give my take on the character and describe what I was trying to accomplish with her. Note that there are MoW spoilers below.

One of the things I try to do with most of the major characters I write is to make them three dimensional and lifelike to the extent that can be done in a game. Note, I said major characters, which describes only a very few, but Charissa definitely fell within this group.

Many people who play MoW and spend little time talking to Charissa will probably view her as opinionated, caustic, judgemental, and rigid in her thinking, and she would no doubt be proud to know she projects that image, but the crux of her character is that she is profoundly unsure of herself. In fact, she is in the throes of a deep internal philosophical crisis. It's what I now call a "Charissa moment." I recently had one, and I bet most people have one at some point in their life.

Essentially, this occurs when two "truths," often formulated during the simplistic idealism of youth, become no longer compatible in a single world. For Charissa, these two truths are that (1) her parents are innocent of the crime they are accused of (aiding in the kidnapping of Falucca Ardabrent) and (2) justice is an absolute principle. When her parents were arrested, she inately believed that they were innocent. When they were then found guilty, she began to search for answers, eventually arriving at the Tyrran church that promised justice would triumph. She has tried to merge these into a single universe, but over time, these two competing principles have proven unable to coexist, and no matter how long she searches, she cannot find a way to force them to. Fundamentally, if justice is universally true, then how do her innocent parents sit behind bars?

This, then, is the core of her restlessness. She believes that if she can find the pirate captain, Pharros Sneed, he will have the explanation as to how everything can be made right. He is the one who can prove her parents' innocence and allow justice to prevail. That is her sole mission, and anything else she engages in either is a means towards that end or serves as a proxy for it. (In other words, by destroying other evil-doers, she vicariously destroys her own.)

Charissa has, of course, reacted to this profound self-doubt by giving off an air of supreme confidence. She is determined to allow no one else to see her weakness. That is why, contrary to what one might expect, she lambasts Mantides and goes easy on Rinara. In Mantides, she sees a reflection of herself, and she handles that reflection the same as she does everything else she doesn't like: by bludgeoning it to a pulp. Though Rinara's world view is one she can never agree with, the certainty with which Rinara holds it is calming to her. As she says during one of the companion exchanges, "she'd rather be around with someone who knows what they believe - even if it is wrong - than one who is wavering in their belief."

This also explains one of the most controversial aspects of the character: namely during the Tyrran Enclave quest, why does a lawful good character abandon the slaves to their fate simply for vengeance? That's not lawful good! It's more like evil!

First, one must understand the Tyrran mindset is one that stresses justice first, so I never believed the choice here is all that clear-cut for a Tyrran. That being said, I would still think saving the slaves first is the more preferable choice. However, and this is key, Charissa is not a perfect example of her religion. Regardless of whatever principles the religion espouses, in this instance, the shock of at last finding Falucca overrides any thought of right and wrong. Here is a woman who can prove her parents' innocence, and she will apprehend her regardless of the consequences. I guess I could agree with giving her an alignment shift in the evil and chaotic directions, but I wouldn't agree that temporarily allowing one's passions to overcome one's mind is a reason to change alignments entirely. This is perhaps Charissa's most human moment in my opinion. The world is full of imperfect people who imperfectly live according to the values of their religion, even when they legitimately hold those values dear.

I have over time become wary of what is often termed "navel-gazing" characters, so there is no point that Charissa ever actually spells any of this out. Rather, one would need to talk with her often, look for subtle clues, and use their own human intuition to glean any of it. For those who simply want to get to the adventure and forget talking to the companions, they'll never get more than a surface-layer view of any of them, and that means the image Charissa projects will be the only one they see (just like real human relationships). But those who spend time with her should pick up several clues, such as the one mentioned above with Mantides and Rinara, that should reveal there is more to the character than just the bombastic, self-righteous priestess.

As an aside, Charissa's quest, the Tyrran Enclave, explores many themes. The obvious one is the fate of Charissa's parents and the beginning of her final resolution of her "Charissa moment." But there's something else for Charissa there. As her two key principles begin to come together, a third one gets added: compassion (or mercy). No matter which way she deals with Sneed, she has begun a process, which she articulates immediately after leaving the Tyrran shrine, in which she begins to think about the roles mercy and compassion have in her religion. The player isn't meant to be able to guide her along to think exactly as they do; Charissa's already too experienced and independent an adventurer to be led around by the nose. But she has begun a process of introspection that will lead to greater wisdom (important for a priestess).

There are other themes as well: love, fate, redemption, justice, and questions of the greater good. The first two are explored in the story of Falucca and Sneed, the third and fourth in Sneed's subsequent life, and the final one in how the player chooses to deal with the slaves and Falucca. Sneed's ultimate fate is not meant to be an easy choice for the player. (Obviously, Charissa is the one who makes that choice, but the player gets to advocate one way or the other.) As a pirate captain, it can be assumed that Sneed engaged in all kinds of theft, rape, pillaging, and murder, even if he is innocent of Falucca's abduction. However, he changed his ways several years ago and has since acted for the benefit of mankind. Does any future good he might do outweigh his past crimes? Is there any good to be done in punishing a man who has a clear track record of having mended his ways? Does that even matter since his past crimes have thus far gone unpunished?

As for the question of the greater good, many people probably view that as saving the slaves. It's certainly the more immediate good, but if Falucca escapes to set up shop elsewhere, there may be hundreds or even thousands of people who are sold into a lifetime of slavery as a result. So which is worse: killing ten people or enslaving thousands? Of course, there are other considerations such as the definite knowledge that the ten will die versus the hypothetical scenario that thousands will be sold into slavery, but that only adds a further dimension to the dilemma. One of the things I really wanted for this quest was to present choices that weren't easy or obvious. Hopefully, I succeeded.

Next time, I'll give some incite on the origins and intents regarding the other three sidequests I designed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Westgate: Behind the Scenes, Part 1

Maimed God Update
Progress has been slow. I was sent on another business trip to Alaska last week, which meant zero progress was made. At the end of this week, I'll be taking my wife somewhere for her birthday. It's a surprise, and she sometimes reads this blog, so I'll have to reveal exactly where later on. Then it looks like I might have another business trip after that.

But yesterday I did manage to thoroughly test one of the areas I hadn't tested all that much yet, so I think it's pretty good for now. In addition, I finished writing a new dialog for a new "flavor NPC." Essentially, after working to add content to Act II, I thought some of the areas in Act III were bare in comparison. So more content got added.

Anyway, I have some more targeted testing this week, and then I think I'm going to do one more complete pass-through of Act III and then it's on to campaign-level testing.

Mysteries of Westgate
Since progress on TMGS is slow and I can't post screenies of Act III anyway without spoiling the hell out of the adventure, I'm going to turn to a subject I've been patiently waiting to write about: some behind-the-scenes of the Westgate development. Note that this is not going to delve into the whole "why was it delayed" saga. I almost definitely don't know everything, and what I do know is secret. However, I will reveal how I became involved and what my thoughts were as the project came together: essentially a Developer's Diary but after-the-fact. Right now, I envision this being a four-part series, but this could change if I think up more interesting content.

The Beginning, or How I Became Involved
It was January, 2007, and I had just handed in my resignation for my previous real-world job. During the time I was cleaning out my desk and ticking down my final days, I had little to do, and so on a whim, I logged into my hotmail account and - a very rare event - I checked my trash bin to see if any legitimate messages had been caught by the spam filter. Yes, I was very bored.

Well, in between all the advertisements for penis enlargements and new methods to make my girl happy, I saw a note from Alazander. Thinking back, it was odd that it got flagged as spam, as we had exchanged a couple e-mails previously in regards to some comments he made about "Saleron's Gambit," but there it was. Fortunately, it was only a couple days old at that point, so I could still answer in a reasonably-timely manner. Opening the messgae, I was surprised to learn that he was now involved in Ossian (like everyone, I had played DoD), and there were some openings coming up. They needed a scripter, but they also might need a new developer, and would I be interested? After a few e-mails, I had a phone interview with Alan Miranda, who mentioned that, though he hadn't played the SG series, he had noticed that SG V was rated right under DoD on the new modules charts (#1 and #2 - yes, I remember). By the end of the conversation, I was in. It was only left to decide in what capacity.

Of course, I would have done either the scripter or the designer jobs, but I mentioned I'd rather be a designer. As it turns out, one of their designers ended up leaving the team later that week, and I was slotted into his place. Honestly, I don't remember who that was, but I do remember he was someone pretty well known in the NWN community at the time, and he had developed some mods on his own that I had heard of. Thanks to him whoever he was...

The Birth of Charissa Maernos
So within days, I was in heavy planning. The storyline for Westgate had been finished for a while, and most of the sidequests were planned as well, but very little content had actually been done in the toolset. I was probably only one to two weeks behind in actual toolset time. Anyway, I needed to quickly come up with a companion and several sidequests, get them approved, and start writing.

I already knew that two of the companions were a fighter named Mantides and a rogue named Rinara, so I thought up a character concept for a wizard, but when I spoke with Luke, there was silence on the other end of the phone, at which point he said that because of the heavy undead content in the story, they'd rather have a divine healer.

As an aside, prior to my involvement, the third companion was going to be a female bard named, I believe, Eudice. Because bards have access to healing spells, this was agreed to even though bards are not technically divine casters. I got the impression, however, that bard was not the preferred class for the third companion (strictly my impression here), and they didn't need to worry with me. At the time, I didn't much care for bards, although my feelings on the class have modified recently for the better. What it did do was pin down the gender of the companion. As Eudice was female, a female voice actress had already been hired, so that placed an additional restraint on my companion.

So it was now back to the drawing board. Keep in mind that this was all pre-MotB, so there was no Favored Soul or Spirit Shaman, so the list of divine casters (minus bards) was Cleric, Druid, Paladin, and Ranger. Rangers aren't much in terms of spell-casting. Neither are paladins, and this would have trampled on Mantides' back-story anyway, so that left Cleric and Druid, and I just decided that Cleric worked better in a city-based adventure. Honestly, this didn't thrill me, as I was then writing a novel centered around a female cleric, but I set to work doing what I could.

It was around this time that I decided I didn't have the patience to write a novel and so changed TMGS to be a NWN2 module instead. However, I liked the protagonist I had envisioned, Sheridan Steele, and so I took most of her mannerisms and ported them over to the new companion. In TMGS, the novel, Sheridan was a tall, blonde, Amazonian, tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners enforcer who had trained with an elite cadre of paladins in her home town of Neverwinter. There, she had learned to use both a tower shield and a warhammer. In the only battle scene I had written to that point, I had envisioned one of her favorite battle tactics as essentially bull-rushing opponents with her tower shield, pinning them up against walls, and using her weight to bash them into submission. She was also left-handed (unfortunately unable to be duplicated in NWN), and this made her tough to handle, as her blows came from the opposite direction that most adversaries expected. In demeanor, Sheridan was unyielding and merciless... at least to begin with. This created the basis for tension with her companion, Tancred, who was deeply distrustful of the Tyrran church.

So those who have played Westgate can see how Sheridan became Charissa, but only externally. I was determined that I would not give Ossian that character in case I wanted to come back to her in the future, and so I resolved that the new character would have a different name and a different backstory. When I release my character creation guide for TMGS, one of my hints will be to not make the character from Waterdeep because the story doesn't work if the character already has contacts in that city. I already knew this, of course, and so I deliberately chose Waterdeep as the home of my new character, as this would force me to think beyond the character I had already created.

So I downloaded the Waterdeep source book from the Ossian server and began to just read. I'm not sure I can really outline how all the ideas began to come together from there, but the pirate theme from Westgate's lore combined with the Waterdhavian nobility to coalesce into a new backstory that featured both aspects as well as slave-trading. Looking through the businesses of all the noble houses of Waterdeep, I saw that the Maernos family had once specialized in slave-trading, though it is now illegal in Waterdeep I believe. From there the name and backstory just worked itself out.

Because I was already working on TMGS in a couple forms, I didn't want Charissa to be a Tyrran. Originally, she was a Lathanderite, but this was vetoed by Alazander because of the heavy inclusion of the Lathanderite church in MoW. On my own, I tried to work Charissa into the churches of Ilmater and several others before reluctantly coming to the conclusion that, because her backstory dealt with the theme of justice or lack thereof, Tyr made the most sense. Thus, in a sense, when Charissa mentions to the player that she tried several different churches before settling on Tyr, it's the truth.

So by mid-February of 2007, Charissa had been born in her final form. Next time, I'll give my interpretation of the character. Despite her apparent one dimensional nature, she is actually the most complex character I've written to date, though some in TMGS will best her. But all that's for another post.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Musings

I returned from Maryland a few days ago and got right back to work on TMGS. I've finished my last play-through and have already handled most of the issues I noted. There are a few left, including a couple rather serious ones. For example, there was a bug I found by handling quests in a different order from what I originally envisioned; a needed character for one sidequest leaves at a certain point in the core path making the sidequest unworkable. That's pretty much a "DUH!" moment, but it's amazing how blind you can be when you're so used to thinking about the adventure in a certain way. It's easily correctable, though I will need a bit of time to implement the change.

Still, overall I was very pleased with how polished it was. Release is getting closer all the time.

Thomas Cromwell
One thing that my trip to Maryland did for me, though, was that it forced me away from the computer and therefore made room for me to churn through some of the books I've been meaning to get to. Actually, I got through one book: "Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister" by Robert Hutchinson.

I can't remember where I saw the comment now that caused me to buy the book, but in the back of my mind, I had the impression that one of the author's ideas was to present a case for Cromwell being much more active in Anne Boleyn's downfall than is generally accepted. Having read the book, I don't really see that as his case; he pretty much took the standard line on the subject... to the extent that Anne even featured in the book, that is.

My biggest gripe is that the author didn't seem to know what he wanted to do. As a quick explanation, there are two extremes to historical writing, either of which is valid and useful. On the one hand, you can write for a professional audience, in which case you present a clear, logical case with copious notes and well-documented sources for any argument you present, no matter how small. The only things that are not documented are facts so universally accepted as to not be in dispute. This type of book is tedious for any but the most interested reader.

The other extreme is what is sometimes referred to as "popular history," in which the author uses notes sparingly or not at all. Often, these are written almost as a narrative or story designed to hold the attention of a reader who is potentially only mildly interested. In the latter, the book is written for a reader who will mostly assume that the author is a superior authority on the subject and so will just accept what is written as true. In the former, the audience is likely not to consider the author a superior authority on the subject and will need convincing if they are to agree with a view different from the one they already hold.

With the book in question, however, the author seemed to jump back and forth a bit too much for my preference, though he obviously tried more for the former style than the latter. As such, it's hard for me to recommend the book to a serious scholar and impossible for me to recommend for those merely interested.

"Thomas Cromwell" is certainly negative in tenor towards Cromwell, as could be gleaned from the title. This is another big sign that the author isn't entirely interested in an academic treatise, as he has no problem interjecting his opinion of the man. Oddly, however, the epilogue then credits him with several useful and even positive changes in English government. These include reformation of the tax system and a curbing of some government abuses, though the author points out that this did not extend to Cromwell himself. Indeed, Hutchinson claims that Cromwell so enriched himself, both legitimately and illegitimately, that by the end of his life he was the third richest man in England after only Henry himself and the Duke of Norfolk. (Incidentally, if the claim is true, then that would make him wealthier even than Suffolk, which would be quite the accomplishment.)

What I do find interesting is that this book seems to be one of a recent slew of offerings on the subject of Thomas Cromwell, which leads me to believe he is drawing increased interest lately. It might make an interesting juxtaposition with another recent publication, "The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant." The strange parallel in the titles, publication dates, and even the similarity of the covers make it look like two neighbors got together and decided to have a sort of mini-debate in the presses.

Friday, July 24, 2009

John Adams

TMGS Update
I'm pretty excited about "The Maimed God's Saga" right now because the end is definitely approaching. I've worked out the module transitioning issues and have heavily debugged the scenes that bridge the second act which takes place in Navatranaasu, and the third which takes place (nominally) in Waterdeep. In addition, I've worked a bit on the intro into Act III to sharpen the opening moments and fix a couple issues that must have been introduced with the later patches, and I'm now ready to really buckle down and finish up the play-testing of Act III. As long-time readers may remember, I've already done serious work on the final act, so it should go faster than previous acts. And when that's done, I move into campaign-level beta testing!

I also made one other decision. Originally, the adventure started at 5th level and would take the PC to 8th level, meaning that 8th level would be achieved right after beating the final bad guy and gaining the last big chunk of experience for the adventure. After some play-testing, I realized the full adventure was going to last around 14 to 15 hours. After some thought, I concluded that 3.75 hours per level advancement struck a better balance between leveling too fast (and levels not meaning anything) and leveling too slow (and players becoming frustrated) than 5 hours per level. This decision then necessitated increasing the difficulty of the later encounters including virtually all of them in Act III.


Travels
I will be slowed next week, though. I have a week-long trip for work to the Baltimore area (Fort Meade), so work will be zero for several days. Bummer.


John Adams
Looking at the IP map of my readers below, the heaviest concentration - no surprise - is from North America and Europe. However, it is interesting to see the spots from some more exotic locales (from my perspective). Hello to whoever's in Sri Lanka, Siberia, Iceland... And it looks like there's only about one person each in New Zealand and Mauritius that cares, but they come back a ton by the size of their dots. But I digress...

Where I was going is that John Adams will be of limited interest to half my audience, but for those who have no reason to know, he was the second President of the United States. Among the first few Presidents and their associates, collectively called the Founding Fathers, he is among the lesser known even to Americans. His administration, the only one of the first five to last just a single term, is nestled between two of the giants of American history: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

To briefly place Adams a bit more into historical context, several of the first few Presidents are generally considered among the best there have been. Washington, of course, established the basis of almost everything that the office entails, and his revolutionary credentials as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army lends him additional historical weight. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and, as president, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, which gave the geographic impetus to the unofficial U.S. policy for most of the 19th century known as Manifest Destiny. James Madison wrote the Constitution and, as president, oversaw the efforts in The War of 1812, which confirmed the results of the American Revolution, even fleeing into exile as British soldiers burned Washington D.C. James Monroe was the youngest of the group and had limited Revolutionary credentials, but his eponymous doctrine set the philosophical basis for American foreign policy in the 19th century. In between all these is John Adams, who did what, exactly?

Several years ago, David McCullough wrote the definitive biography of Adams, and his reputation has seen steady improvement over the last decade. It was this book that led to HBO's production of John Adams, a seven-part miniseries that details the events of Adam's adult life. Last night, I finished the seventh part and have mixed feelings on it.

The series opens during the Boston Massacre of 1770. I did not remember until I watched the series, but Adams was the lawyer who defended the British soldiers in the incident, eventually winning their acquittals. This made him tremendously unpopular among Bostonians at first, but it eventually played into a reputation that he was a man of principal, a reputation that helped him get nominated as a Massachusetts representative to the First Continental Congress where he would meet and befriend many of the men who would become the core of the Revolution only a year or two later.

Up front, my biggest gripe with the series is that it was too short for the subject matter it wanted to cover. From 1770 to Adams' death in 1826 is a long time to cover in seven episodes of an hour and a half each. This results in break-neck pacing that makes the episodes feel more like a series of vignettes than a complete narrative. The producers made the choice to cover all the important stuff, but as many of these events were years apart, it means the viewer often careens wildly from one situation to the next, often with very different political backdrops that aren't well explained. Friends in one scene are enemies ten minutes later without any explanation as to the events that led there.

I also think there were some pretty horrific casting choices, the worst of which was Rufus Sewell as Alexander Hamilton. Now, I've seen Sewell in other work, and he's a competent actor, but Hamilton he is not. He simply fails to convey the notion that he's a financial wizard, instead appearing flighty and intellectually vapid. Incidentally, Hamilton's relationship with Adams is the basis for my comment above about friends becoming enemies in literally ten minutes for no apparent reason.

As bad as some casting decisions were, others were brilliant. The two leads, Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail, completely nail their roles. It is their relationship, more than any other, that defined Adams and his career. In a series that too often took a strictly factual approach to its narrative, these two managed to get the lion's share of characterization moments, and they made the most of them. The two laugh together, argue, exchange knowing glances... in short, do everything necessary to show that, whatever we may think of marital relationships in the 19th century, these two were both the best of friends and intimate confidants. They cry with each other through the bad times (the deaths of two children) and bolster each other through the darkest days of his administration. It is not for nothing that Abigail Adams is considered among the most influential first ladies of the 19th century.

For example, in part 6 Adams is contemplating whether his course of neutrality between Britain and France is wise. (In Europe, Napoleon was quickly rising, and the two nations were already openly hostile to each other.) He is contemplating giving in to those in his party who want war with France and is wrestling with the decision during a sleepless night following news of the American ambassadors' humiliating dismissal by Talleyrand in Paris. News of the dishonor is rapidly being disseminated in the press by those who desire war and are trying to apply pressure to Adams. Yet it is Abigail in the dark of the night who hugs him and urges him to stand firm in his conviction.

But the support also goes the other way. In one scene, Abigail reads an editorial in the paper to John as they sit for an afternoon tea together. Ever more irritated, Abigail is practically screaming as she gets to the finale, in which the writer calls Adams (essentially) "an ugly, vain, toothless, and condescending cripple." She throws the paper down in disgust, at which point Adams only peeks out over his teacup and proclaims wryly, "Well, I'm not crippled." Abigail smiles but is not really mollified. She returns that they would never have said the same about Washington, to which he again looks at her over his teacup a bit mischievously and replies, "They would have called him toothless." (Washington had notoriously bad dentures.) The tact finally works, as Abigail looks him in the eye, realizes he's winding her up a bit, and then the two begin to laugh together. These scenes are just two of many that illustrate the deep bond the two share.

However, as good as these two were, on a personal level I was most struck by Stephen Dillane, who played Thomas Jefferson. While he obviously got no where near the screen time that the leads did, he nevertheless stole what time he got. Most amazingly, he did so without saying very much. Jefferson was notoriously quiet, choosing to listen much and speak little. A shy man more inclined to introspection and solitude, he still managed to achieve the Presidency, a fact which argues for incredible personal magnetism. Dillane managed to achieve all of this, conveying most of it with very few words and a quiet, yet powerful, voice. I had never heard of Dillane before, but if his other work is anywhere near the quality of this, I'm a fan.

There are many striking moments in Dillane's portrayal, but I'll pick just one to illustrate. In an early scene, Adams and Benjamin Franklin argue over the words of Jefferson's initial draft of the Declaration of Independence. They eventually decide that Jefferson's phrase "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable..." should be rewritten as "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." and then look to Jefferson, sitting some ways off apparently lost in his own thoughts (see the last picture), for approval. He only shrugs nonchalantly. Taking this as an affirmation, they turn to the next phrase before he quietly inserts, "Every phrase was chosen with utter precision." Dillane manages to deliver the line with a subtle sense of authority that perfectly conveys a sense of how the quiet Virginian would become the basis for a political party and an entire movement.

I don't normally comment about make-up in my reviews, but the work here was striking in this case. Seeing as how the actors all had to portray their characters from the thirties on up in some case to their nineties, the make-up artists had their work cut out for them, and I must say they did a spectacular job. (Of course, the actors all did a good job as well.) With only a single exception in the last episode, I was overall amazed by how seamlessly and believably the characters aged, and the last episode gets a pass a bit as it covered the time after Adams' presidency (almost 26 years.)

That said, I do look forward to the historical series that doesn't feel the need to show how grubby life was by having the obligatory surgery scene where some poor soul is getting a body part sawed off without anesthetics. Liquor him up and have him bite on a rag while we saw through bone... It was new in "Gone with the Wind," but eighty years on I think I've got it. We should all be thankful we live in the 21st century. Ah, well... Two scenes, but mercifully, they were both short.

The costuming was plush, although not on a scale of "The Tudors" or "Rome," but then it never could be. Life in colonial America was never going to possess the color or richness of life in the Tudor court. It certainly got the job done.

The music didn't stand out for me. I'm noticing that this is a common note in my reviews, which is strange seeing as how I love music. That said, most of the time I notice music is when it detracts from the show, and it certainly didn't here. I thought the main theme was suitably majestic and "colonial American" sounding, but my wife didn't care for it at all. So the vote there's 1-1.

As a side note, to any who watch the series, there's an especially well-done scene about midway through when Adams is appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain (under the Articles of Confederation). I didn't realize he had been, so when this scene came up, I looked to my wife and said, "Boy, is that going to be awkward!" And it was. The point where he is first introduced to King George III, played by Tom Hollander, was one of the most deliciously pregnant pauses followed by a series of unsure glances and exchanged "ummms" in the history of television. Who knows how the moment actually went, but the two participants in the scene certainly provided a memorable moment that will stick in my mind for a while.

Overall, I'd recommend the series to those interested in the subject matter. It's certainly not flawless, but it is entertaining and well worth the ten or so hours you'll sink into it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Places I've Visited

As I surfed the net, I found a couple cool applications that allow one to track the places he or she has been. On a whim, I checked off my travels and included them at the bottom of my blog. What I learned is that there are so many more places to go. Actually, I already knew this, but a graphic representation really brings it home.

This coming November, I'll hit Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. My wife and I have gone to Europe a number of times (and I went several times before I met her), but we're excited to be going somewhere a little different this year. Eventually we'll get to Asia. But the Atlantic seems to take forever to cross; I can't even fathom the boredom associated with crossing the Pacific.

John Adams
As a heads up, my wife and I have been chugging through the HBO miniseries "John Adams" on DVD. I'll review it when we've finished. Thus far, I'm impressed. It might be of limited appeal to those outside the U.S., but then again, good TV is good TV, and if you like history...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I Hate Cutscenes!

I hate cutscenes worse than any other part of mod making, but I sucked it up and finished the major one I spoke of last time. It's still not quite what I envisioned, but it certainly works, and I think it remains pretty compelling. That finished my work on all notes I had from my last playthrough of Act II.

I then turned to Act I again. I rewrote a couple dialogs, cleaned up some scripting, and added another encounter. Then I started another play-through from the start of Act I intending to go through the end of Act II and even into Act III. As it turns out, I need to look into some issues regarding changing between modules within a campaign. It should be easy to figure out.

During the play-through, however, I managed to find about twenty issues, mostly misspellings or bad punctuation, and I wiped all but one out already. I still have a little polishing of Act III that I know needs to be completed, but the bottom line is I'm getting into campaign-level testing at last. The light at the end of the tunnel is definitely approaching!

So I have another screenshot from a recent playthrough. Nothing exciting, but it's part of the dialog the PC has with Tancred as the two investigate an especially grisly scene. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Taking Stock of the Situation

It's been about a while since my last update on TMGS. Unfortunately, my progress has been somewhat slow, but as it has been a month, there's still quite a bit to talk about.

Up front, there've been a couple tough decisions. The first is that I'm about 99% sure that my hope for original music is gone. I'm not going to go really in-depth on my rationale, but I will say that given the current economic outlook as well as my own shifting priorities, I just can't justify spending the kind of money on the software that it will take to get it done. I'm going to try to find some suitable music in the public domain instead. Frankly, I took a long time to come to this decision, and I'm not thrilled about it. Most of the major themes for TMGS are running around in my head even as I write this, so it's not a matter of not being able to come up with them. Disappointing, but life goes on. Maybe one day...

Second, I've not looked incredibly hard, but I have looked a bit and I followed up what leads were suggested to me in various forums. However, I've not found a 2D artist that's willing to contribute around 15 drawings for free, so the intro and final movies are in jeopardy. I've been looking through online images to see if I can get enough to cobble together a movie that looks to have a unified drawing style. I'm close, but there are a few gaps. Amazingly, the gaps are actually what I would think are the easier drawings. For example, I'd like to find a silhouette of a man and woman walking into the sunset holding hands. There are several that I've found online, but all of them have people wearing what is obviously modern clothing, and that won't work. It makes it kind of hard to have a movie that depicts the PC and companion "living happily ever after," and without that slide, the ending movie would be really lame. So, if anyone reading this is willing to try their hand at about 4-5 pictures (and can draw), I'd appreciate it if you piped up.

So what have I done? I finished the play-through I talked about last time and took down 163 notes, 162 of which I have now corrected. The last one is a big one that will take some time. Just yesterday I finished the 162nd note, which concerned a nagging doubt I had in regards to the final dungeon of Act II: namely that it was too short. Initially, it was just a series of three rooms, each of which had an important encounter, but that seemed a little too rushed. After playing it a couple times, I finally gave in and redesigned the whole dungeon, including adding a couple more encounters, a new puzzle (of sorts), and some hopefully interesting things to investigate. To give you an idea, I've included the overhead map of the renovated dungeon. In the top left, if you look hard, you'll see three rooms surrounded by a red box. Those were the original dungeon, and all the rest, including area design, dialogs, scripting, etc. has been the task of the last week or so. I am much happier now with the final product.

The final note from my last play-through is in regards to a crucial point where the PC finally uncovers the identity of the opposing deity. It's done via a complicated dialog that's supposed to be full of pyrotechnics and very dramatic... only I have to admit that it falls completely flat. The idea in my head absolutely does not translate at all into the NWN2 medium, so I'm going to have to do a lot of rework. It might even require a whole new rewrite of the scene. I'm not looking forward to it, but it's necessary.

Other than that, I'd say Act II is now in a pretty high state of polish and fairly bug-free. Of course, I'll probably never be happy with the polish, even after release, but it has to be done some time...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

MoW Activation Limit Removed

The title says it all. As recently announced on both the Ossian website and the BioBoards, the much-maligned activation limit on MoW has been officially removed. Contrary to what many believe, it seems Atari does actually listen sometimes.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Thinking of Another Snappy Title...

TMGS General
Since my last post, I've done a ton of work. As a quick run-down:

  • I've spot-tested all of the sidequest locations in the outlying areas and now have them as polished as the core town.
  • I've implemented and tested the last remaining sidequest. By way of explanation, there's been an idea I've had since the beginning for a puzzle-based sidequest in the mansion library that I've been struggling to figure out how to implement satisfactorily. I kept putting it off hoping that inspiration would just come to me, and it finally did. So the bottom line is it's finished and in the game.
  • I finalized the algorithm to determine the romance state with the companion. More on that later.
  • I implemented two ambient encounters in Navatranaasu I've had on my wish list for a while. Both are designed to further characterize the town. One will allow the PC to utilize another skill they may have, and the second will really bring home the fact that the PC is the only priest in the town. (Incidentally, there's no temple to go to for healing. You're the healer here!)
  • Finally, I'm about three hours into my next play-through with everything looking pretty good for now. I've switched to a male PC to verify that everything works as well with Verona as it did with Tancred. I've got a few extra polishing notes thus far, but nothing that could be classified as a true bug.
My plan is to finish this play-through, handle whatever notes come from it, implement the last two things on my "wish list," and then play through Act II one more time before moving on to Act I again. I'll need to make some minor corrections there to account for post-1.21 patch changes, and I'll want to verify that Act I transitions smoothly to Act II. Once that's finished, I'll need to finish up Act III, which is already in an advanced stage of completion. After that, it's just campaign-level testing and then release! The light at the end of the tunnel's getting bigger!

Romances
So what's this about romances? I've added tons of influence shifts. There are something like 90 throughout Acts I and II, some of which award or subtract more than one point. The full range of potential influence states is around +85 to -55. These shifts are not for things like what I've derisively refered to as "say you like my hair six times and I'm yours." Instead, they're for things you say or do which reflect similarities to the companion's background, thoughts, feelings, and values, and no, you won't know these up front. For example, there is a point where the companion will ask where you are from, and you get +1 influence if you're from the same area of the world and +2 if you're from the same city. Fair? No, but the truth is people are more likely to trust others if they share the same background. You also gain influence by asking for their opinions and advice. You can gain or lose influence by how you treat others in front of them, but don't assume that treating someone candy-sweet is the way to gain influence. You'll just have to read how they react to others and gauge accordingly.

In addition, there are what I call "flirt points" littered throughout the adventure. These are chances to fan the flame and show interest. Sometimes, they will initiate these encounters and sometimes you can.

Finally, there are shared experiences. In one sense, of course, the entire adventure is a shared experience, so this should mostly be covered automatically. However, there are a few things that aren't necessary to do but can be done ayway to build up the pool of "shared experience" points.

So after everything is said and done, the game will look at how much influence you have modified by the flirting and shared experience, and this will determine whether the romance will begin. Of course, it can also be shut down by the PC expressing a clear desire not to partake.

The Role of Religion in TMGS
Obviously, TMGS deals heavily with Faerunian religion. Of course, the PC is a Tyrran cleric, but the enemies are also followers of one of the evil deities, and there is a dastardly divine plan in the works centered on Navatranaasu.

One of the design choices I've made in Act II is to force the PC to pray every day at a chapel in order to have their spells and abilities restored. In Act I, the PC is assumed to pray when they rest, and Tyr obviously recognizes that the PC can not perform the normal rituals while on the road. But once an altar is available, the full treatment is required. Therefore, you can sleep in the bed in your suite to regain HPs, but you must then pray in the chapel to receive your spells. Oh, and while you can pray whenever you want, your spells only replenish once per day!

I realize that this might seem onerous at first, but as I've played, I've verified that it isn't. The design choice actually has several reasons and benefits.

  • First, I've always wanted this to be a uniquely cleric-based adventure, and one of the things most often glossed-over when playing clerics in D&D CRPGs is that their powers do come directly from their deity. So this is partly to enhance role-playing.
  • Second, it forces a strategic way of thinking for the player. Whatever choices you make in terms of your spells, you're stuck with for a day. Add to this that I've made a conscious effort to utilize many of the less common spells in unique situations throughout the adventure, and this creates an important element to the game. If you concentrate on only buffing spells for battles, you will miss large parts of the game and even slow your progress drastically.
  • Third, it adds another strategic element by forcing the player to use their spells judiciously. There are no huge dungeons in TMGS, but there are several smaller sidequest areas that contain 2-4 encounters. These have all been designed for one cleric and one ranger to be able to handle with one "batch" of daily powers.
  • Finally and most importantly, it is a game mechanism through which the PC can have visions from Tyr that allow me to drive the plot forward at certain points.

Screen Shot
With the above discussion in mind, I give you the next screen shot. Here the PC approaches the altar in the VanGhaunt mansion chapel for his morning devotional. This chapel is conveniently located next to your suite. The altar is also the scene of your first sidequest upon reaching Navatranaasu, but I won't spoil that for now!