Sunday, February 27, 2011

Obsidian angling for Icewind Dale 3

My next screed - which I was planning to post in the coming days - was to be titled "Why we need Dungeons & Dragons." It's been percolating in my head ever since I read Tiberius' post on the prospects of a Baldur's Gate 3. I was going to go over the various reasons why there's no substitute for the D&D ruleset and settings, and lament the fact that Hasbro and Atari are locked in court battle over the rights. I just wanted to finish a couple of posts on Dragon Age 2 (the topic du jour) before getting to work on it.

Then I saw this:
Obsidian is also pushing on updating a former Black Isle property: Icewind Dale 3. "I was talking to Atari last week," [Feargus Urquhart] confides, "and said why don't we do this?" The old series, he says, didn't end because of low sales. "They stopped being made because of licensing issues, and Interplay going out of business, and BioWare moving on to console, and a whole lot of things. So a part of it is, why not go make Icewind Dale 3? You can't spend $20 million on it, but why not go make it?"
I actually don't know how newsworthy this is. My impression is that developers and publishers throw around a lot of ideas, the vast majority of which never result in a game being made. Given that, I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Mr. Urquhart chose to disclose this. Good sign? Bad sign? You decide.

One thing's for sure: If Icewind Dale 3 is going to be made, Obsidian is the obvious choice to do it. They have the old-school RPG cred and a history with this franchise in particular. It's interesting that the last time they ventured into the Forgotten Realms was for the Storm of Zehir expansion, in which they brought Icewind Dale-style party creation to Neverwinter Nights 2. Hmm...

Icewind Dale is no Baldur's Gate, but it's still fun to speculate on what a sequel would look like. To me, the essential elements are:
  • Set in the Icewind Dale region (duh)
  • Full party creation
  • Hack-and-slash style, with tactical combat
  • More dungeon crawl than sandbox
The most interesting question about an Icewind Dale sequel is, what engine do you use? To me, Icewind Dale is the game that's hardest to decouple from the Infinity Engine due to its emphasis on combat. Players don't revere it for its characters (Baldur's Gate) or writing (Planescape: Torment). To the extent they revere it at all, it's for the way it puts the D&D combat mechanics and character advancement system through their paces. It would take a special game engine to recapture that feel.

Anyway, if you're interested, there's a lot more discussion about this over at RPGWatch, which is where I picked up this "news" item.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Things I learned from the Dragon Age 2 demo

So, as you've probably heard, the Dragon Age 2 demo is out. If for some reason you haven't played it yet, you can find it on Bioware's Dragon Age 2 site. But wait! Don't forget to come back here and read this post while you're waiting for the 1.9 GB download to complete.

Judging a game based on its demo can be tricky, especially when many of the features that will be in the final product have been disabled. But of course that's not going to stop anyone, including me. However, for this post I'm going to try to avoid sweeping statements and stick with things that are safe to say about Dragon Age 2 based on the demo.

So here it is, the Internet-style top 5 list of things I learned from the Dragon Age 2 demo.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dragon Age 2: Who's in charge here?

Dragon Age 2 has gone gold, the demo is out, and Bioware-fashioned hype has descended on the RPG-o-sphere like darkspawn on an unfortified village. In an attempt to inflame the passions of forum-dwellers on Valentine's Day, Bioware confirmed the love interests in Dragon Age 2 and - if that weren't enough - posted short stories demonstrating the badassery of the characters. That kicked off a 169-page (and counting) thread mostly revolving around the sexual orientation of the love interests, including some speculation that all of them are bisexual.

Totally unfounded, surely. Only an Internet forum could air such a wild notion. But wait...
And please don’t close off all those options to players of the wrong gender. Great as it is, Mass Effect is not such a literary masterwork that it would completely ruin a delicately crafted character to check the bisexual flag. And we know that’s all it takes, because modders have already done it.
That's from a recent PC gamer article 15 things we want to see in Mass Effect 3. For comedic value, I'll point out that the quote is an addendum to item number 5: "More convincing romances." Because presumably it's "convincing" when all the love interests aren't picky about the gender of their partners.

Personally, I would prefer zero bisexual love interests. It's not that I think it's such a rare phenomenon. Rather, it's the meta. It's the knowledge that the sole reason bisexual characters are being included is so that they can do double duty as love interests. That sort of thing bothers me, though I admit my perspective probably isn't representative of players at large. If it does turn out that all love interests in Dragon Age 2 are bi, I will probably skip romances entirely. Yep, I'll take my ardor and go home.

But I (like just about everyone else) have said enough about romances lately, and the larger issue here isn't about love interests per se. To illustrate, I'll throw in another thread from the Bioware forums, in which some players lobby for being able to select the talents and skills of their companions - even those that were logically "earned" before the character joined the party. After all (the argument goes), why should I be forced to turn away an otherwise desirable character just because his or her stats don't fit my party's needs?

In both cases, what players are really asking for is more power to shape the game world to their liking. In the case of bisexual love interests, players don't really want characters who go both ways, but rather characters who go their way. In the other example, they want control over a more humdrum aspect of the characters - their statistical makeup.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dialogue Trees: The art of deception

A common complaint about dialogue trees is that the player's choices don't matter. No matter what option you pick, you wind up in the same place. The choice of words is just a nod to geeky roleplayers who imagine their characters outside the confines of the game - or worse, a deception meant to fool players into thinking there's more to the game than there really is.

To which I reply: Yeah, so what?

Sure, there's an illusion here - just like there's an illusion in movies, plays, and TV. However, it's an illusion created with the assent of the audience. Does it bother anyone that Two and a Half Men is filmed on a set with flimsy portable walls? Of course not. We want to be deceived. The only time the phoniness of a show bothers us is when it's too obvious, interfering with our ability to believe in what we're seeing.

The same is true of all aspects of game design. In the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolset, there are flat buildings and tree models that look just like stage props. They're for placing at the edge of an area to create the illusion of a bigger world. Similarly, if you pop open an area from Dragon Age, you'll probably find things like towers floating in the air far from the playable area - meant not to be visited, but to fill out the skyline.

But this is the last post in my series on dialogue trees, so I'm going to focus on how you create the illusion that the player's dialogue choices really matter. Of course, sometimes those options do matter. Sometimes they determine a course of action, such as whether to attack an NPC, or open a store, or do any number of other things. However, by necessity most options are Roleplaying Responses that don't have a direct impact on the game. Its those options - the stage props of RPG conversations - that I'm going to focus on.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rotted Report 06: Grrrrrr!

If you think the title of this post is a flavor quote from Ogress, the PC's Mabari companion in The Rotted Rose, you're wrong. It's a quote from me, expressing my feelings about how modding went last week.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How NOT to deal with criticism

Indie game developer Jeff Vogel is pretty good at writing controversial blog posts. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to personally controvert one of his recent dispatches, titled Three Reasons Creators Should Never Read Their Forums. The actual post is more tempered than its title, but I still found plenty to disagree with (even though I realize I don't have the fabled "15 years of indie game development experience"). Here's a taste of his argument:
When I read the forums for, say, World of Warcraft or xkcd, I'm always amazed at how nasty things get. It makes me think, "If you hate it so much, why are you there?" But that's just the way it is, and excess exposure to insults can really get under your skin, make you doubt yourself, and interfere with your work. It's very sad, but you sometimes need to just protect yourself by staying away. Keep your brain clean.
I think this paints an accurate picture of what it feels like to receive criticism. Player feedback can be either affirming or demoralizing, but the latter variety often has a much bigger impact. I think this is especially true in modding, where you aren't charging or being paid for your creation. While making the mod is often fun, finishing it is often work, and the positive feedback you get from players is a small compensation for the long hours you put in fixing bugs, tweaking combat balance, and performing all the other tedious finishing touches. Therefore, when the mod is finally released and you get a negative comment - particularly if roughly delivered - it can easily get under your skin.

However, disengaging your audience is not the answer. It may be good for your psyche, but it will also embolden your critics to know that the person they're slamming isn't around to defend themselves. You don't need years of game development experience to understand this. You just need life experience.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who believes in paranormal activity?

You won't catch me going off topic very often, but in this case I can't resist. Last night I finally managed to see Paranormal Activity 2, a movie I'd been wanting to see since back when it was in theaters.

I was initially impressed. The setup seemed more intriguing than the original, with its extended cast of characters, additional security cameras to more fully document the goings-on, and an interesting wrinkle where some of those who witness the spooky events - notably the baby and the dog - can't tell anyone about it. Unfortunately, as the hours of video footage fast-forwarded by, my excitement about the possibilities waned with the realization that I wasn't being scared.

Boredom gave me an opportunity to think about the underlying assumptions at work here. As the movie progresses, more and more characters come to believe that the unexplained phenomena in the house are paranormal in nature, until finally the most skeptical of the lot is convinced. The order in which the characters turn into believers offers a case study in stereotypes. Here, according to Paranormal Activity 2, are the people most likely to perceive (and thus believe in) the supernatural:
  1. Animals
  2. Children
  3. Minorities
  4. White women
  5. White men
Depending on how you would like to be offended, you can substitute "religious people" for "minorities" as #3, as the character I'm thinking of was both Hispanic and a devout Catholic. Incidentally, a character with the same profile appears in the recent horror movie Devil, and guess what? He's the first to recognize that something strange is happening (there were no dogs or kids in that one).

Now, you could argue that Paranormal Activity 2 actually inverts the stereotype, because after all, the people who believe in hauntings turn out to be the smart ones! But you'd be wrong. The film doesn't make the case that demons are real. Despite the pseudo-documentary trappings, this is pure fiction, with its implied "what if?" As in: "What if my dog were barking his head off over an invisible demon, instead of the sound of a plastic bag blowing around in the backyard?"

Am I off-base here?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dialogue Trees: Rules to bend and break

There are a number of rules I follow when modding. Fortunately, none of my rules of modding prohibit me from talking about modding,* so that's what I intend to do in this post. Specifically, I want to discuss some of the rules I follow when writing dialogue trees. My last post provided an overview of dialogue trees and the different types of PC responses. This one is going to delve into greater detail, with the sort of concrete statements that might be found in a standards document for a game company.

* That's a Fight Club reference, and obviously not a very clever one since I feel the need to point it out.

Before I start, I should mention my last rule of modding, which is to break every one the rules at some point in the game. This rule is a paradox, because it requires you to break it, which means there are rules that should never be broken, which is actually true. But never mind all that. The point is that slavish adherence to rules tends to make games predictable, so once in awhile, it's good to break up the pattern.

With that, here are some rules, guidelines, pieces of advice - whatever you want to call them - to consider when creating dialogue trees.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Building a better video game romance

Ever since Baldur's Gate 2 introduced players to the charms of Aerie, Jaheira, Viconia, and Anomen, romances have generated more discussion than just about any other feature I can think of. It's almost gotten to the point where the subject deserves its own Bioware forum, where players can knock themselves out speculating about who's romanceable, sharing tips on how to get the "best" results, and generally engaging in a lot of fantasy kissing-and-telling.

I, of course, am above all that. Sure, I have romanced all the female love interests in every Bioware game I've ever played, but that was just for the sake of cultural awareness, scholarly interest - you know, that sort of thing. Moving on...

One of the most interesting things about romances is the very fact that people find them so interesting. The knee-jerk reaction to this is that people who enjoy RPG romances are either sex-starved nerds clutching their 20-sided dice, or female. However, it's become increasingly obvious that not all RPG romantics can be pigeonholed that way.

For me, the inclusion of romances in RPGs seems natural. RPGs are supposed to offer the opportunity to live a different life - why shouldn't that include one of the things that makes life worth living? In fact, you could argue that a game like Dragon Age - with all its romantic content - doesn't go far enough. If it truly and accurately modeled human needs and desires, we'd be spending a lot more of our time working on our relationships with Morrigan or Alistair, and a lot less time working on our Herbalism skills.

But I'm not advocating for that, exactly. Rather, I'm advocating for better romances. Because as interesting as they already are, there's certainly room for improvement.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dialogue Trees: From roots to branches

RPGs come in many forms, but almost all of them have one design element in common - the dialogue tree. This method of constructing conversations has been around for a long time, and while it's reviled by some and mocked by others, no one has yet come up with anything better. Even the dialogue wheel used in Bioware games is just a shiny interface hiding the same underlying structure. It brings to mind what Churchill said about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

Yes, that just happened. I quoted Churchill on a blog about video games.

With dialogue trees being ubiquitous in RPGs, I thought it would be worthwhile to spend some time discussing their structure and some best practices for creating them. Much of what I'll say represents solid RPG standard, which I've learned either through playing the games or from following the standards set forth by Ossian Studios. Other points - perhaps the more contentious ones - are based on my personal experience writing RPG conversations over the years.

I can't cover everything in one post, so let's break this up into three parts. In this first part, I'll focus on PC responses, which create much of the "branching" in dialogue trees. Specifically, I'll talk about the different types of PC responses and how to approach each.