Monday, April 25, 2011

Mysteries of Westgate: A (not so) brief look back

When you blog two or three times a week, eventually you get around to talking about everything. Given the number of topics I've run through already, it's almost miraculous that I haven't devoted a few words to Mysteries of Westgate, the one commercial game that I've worked on (that actually got released). With the two-year anniversary of the game's release coming up, now seems like a good time.

The game itself is old now, and my involvement in the project is much older. That's because I was there from the start of the long process leading up to release, a process that was made much longer by a publishing snafu by Atari. Little did I know when I started working on MoW back in 2006 that the ultimate mystery would be "when the @*&$! is this thing going to be released?" I mean, I can remember being in somewhat of a rush to finish my quest designs before my daughter was born. Now she's almost old enough to play MoW (slight exaggeration - she's 4 1/2).

Because of the frustrating delay, I never really felt like I got closure on the project. There was never a right time for a post-mortem, as MoW just sort of lingered in a unnatural state, like the undead who were the subject of its story. And while I accept the criticisms of the game when it did come out, I also never really felt like MoW got its proper due.

But I'm not here to make excuses. I just want to jot down what I remember about the project. My fellow Ossianite Tiberius has already weighed in with his perspective, and lead designer Alazander also posted an admirably honest retrospective on his blog. Now it's my turn.

Way back in 2006, I was plucked out of the Neverwinter Nights builder community shortly after winning the Bioware Writing Contest (Judge's Voting) for my module Myranni's Magic. At the time, Ossian Studios was putting the finishing touches on Darkness over Daggerford, which was intended to be a Premium Module for Neverwinter Nights before Bioware canceled the program. I pitched in as a beta tester on that game, which was eventually released to the community for free.

Darkness over Daggerford - oh yeah, I playtested the crap out of that.
During and after that, I did some brainstorming for a couple of projects that seemed on the verge of getting the green light, but didn't pan out for one reason or another. Ack, it still saddens me to think about it. Those were heady days for me as a newbie, and we had some killer ideas that never materialized.

Some of those ideas did eventually make their way into Mysteries of Westgate, but that story proposal was mostly the work of Ossian CEO Alan Miranda. By the time I saw Alan's proposal, it was already quite polished. However, there were a few changes made based on the team's feedback - most notably the addition of a major story branch at the suggestion of Alazander. The story also called for lots of sidequests to be slotted in later. So, while the initial proposal was essentially the work of one person, everyone ultimately got to chance to contribute.

This design, a sort of homage to the legendary Athkatla portion of Baldur's Gate 2,  made more sense than I probably realized at the time. It allowed Ossian team members to work more or less independently on different parts of the game. Considering we were spread all over the globe, that was a very good thing. Had we attempted a plot that was more intricate, things might have been a lot tougher.

The MoW world map. A map showing the locations of Ossian team members would not fit on one screen.
There were three main writer/designers on the team (including lead designer Alazander), each of us responsible for designing one companion and an assortment of sidequests. Since MoW would have only three companions, the roles strongly suggested themselves - tank, healer, rogue. The rogue fell to me, and I ended up creating Rinara, a coldblooded half-elf who used to work for the Night Masks, the criminal organization at the center of MoW's story.

Here's Rinara about to be eaten by a quelzarn. That's what she gets for standing in chum.
As for the sidequests, each of the writer/designers got free reign to do what we wanted, within certain guidelines. In each case, we created a design document, which, once approved, became the blueprint to be followed when implementing the quest. In addition to Rinara's lengthy sidequest and various minor contributions, I came up with quests about a pirate bounty ("Head of the Pirates"), a bizarre underground cult ("Cult of the Faceless"), and an oppressed merchant from Kara-Tur ("Okuzo's Honor").

After the design phase, there was one more delay while we waited for final approval on everything. Then it was go time, and we started writing dialogue for the critical path. Each of the writers was assigned a set of characters and, because many of the prominent NPCs would be voiced, given a word count limit for each. My set included Altama, leader of a group of wererats, and Tobias, a creepy halfling monk who ran a monastery.

MoW brought wererats to Neverwinter Nights 2. You're welcome.

Writing for the critical path seemed to be over in a blink, and we moved on to writing our own sidequests. While it was nice to be working on my own designs, it was also the most intense period of work. Sidequests come with a lot of overhead, as you typically have to introduce a completely new plot with completely new characters. Plus, there was no voice acting for these quests, so there was nothing to stop us from being as verbose as we wanted to be. Whereas I might have written 1000 words a week when working on the critical path, my average was probably over 5000 for sidequests.

We didn't have to keep up that pace for long, though. Before we knew it, the writing phase was over and we moved onto various "odd jobs" - consulting with scripters who were trying to implement the quests, filling out the game world with merchants and other NPCs, and of course, testing. Loads and loads of testing. There was always a little more of everything to be done, right up until we called it done.

Then the game sat on the shelf for 20 months.

I have little to say about the delay (and even less that's fit to print). I was a bystander like everyone else, helplessly waiting for Atari to implement a DRM scheme that nobody wanted. As the debacle unfurled, we started doing weekly features on the MoW forum to try to keep interest up. But by the end, we had run out of things to say, and probably overhyped the game to the five or so people who were still paying attention. Yeah, it was ugly.

When the game was finally released, it garnered attention from a surprising number of gaming sites and publications. The reviews were mixed. I'm tempted to insert my own critique of the game's design and story here, but that wasn't really the problem. It was more about looks, presentation, and expectations - in short, it was due to the fact that the world had changed by the time the MoW time capsule was finally popped open. In the alternate reality where MoW is released as intended before Mask of the Betrayer, it's a meaty, crowd-pleasing city adventure that shrugs off the niggles of professional critics. Unfortunately, in the reality we live in, MoW was the last hurrah of Neverwinter Nights 2, as well as a sort of curiosity due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its release.

But while my experience with MoW may have ended on a sour note, that's not how I want to end this post. I can honestly say that it was a great experience for me. Before I had joined Ossian, I was spending a lot of time toiling in isolation, over much longer periods, on mods that were much smaller in scope (Dastards Morrow, for example, took me two years to complete). And I did all that for free. MoW gave me a chance to work with some awesome, talented people to bring something huge to life in a very short period of time. I don't think I can adequately sum up my feelings, so let me just say this: It was totally worth it.

Oh, and did I mention that I got a sweet Mysteries of Westgate t-shirt for my efforts? It's a bit holey now, but I still wear it. With pride.


  1. It was a great game :) Rinara was a unique npc.

    I really don't understand why more of the great authors from nwn1-2 aren't actually making money in the game industry. I'd think that the talent would be enough.

  2. Thanks, Corey.

    Yeah, it is kind of weird that Alan Miranda was seemingly the only person smart enough to tap into the NWN modding community (OK, Bioware did have the writing contest and, I believe, hired at least one NWN1 modder). What frustrates me most is that the Premium Module/Adventure Pack model never took hold. It just seems like a no-brainer for a DnD game, especially for NWN2 when a lot of the great builders were already well known.