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.

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.


Anonymous said...

This has been an interesting read. I for one am always curious about how these sort of things get developed, so thanks for putting this out there! It's obvious you all put a lot of work into MoW, and I wish Ossian much success.

. . . and now I will go back to pining for TMGS, lol.

Igor said...

Wonderful read Tiberius, especially about Bohemund the Beligerant. I swear those dialogues remind me of Monty Python and that's something awesome to me.

Also the tech support from you guys for MoW is exceptionally high. If only other games, like Sacred 2 (just to name a game that could use it), had the same.