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Mat Williams interview - Prelude to Darkness

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Mat Williams interview - Prelude to Darkness

Interview - posted by Saint_Proverbius on Wed 20 November 2002, 00:25:49

Tags: Mat Williams; Prelude to Darkness; Zero Sum

1.) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Zero-Sum? Why was Zero-Sum founded? What are the goals you have with it?

Mat Williams: Zero Sum was a result of my being stuck sitting next to my future partner, CP McBee, while playtesting at Impressions Software. We found we had a lot in common and he'd spent several year in the industry and studied entrepeneaurship at Babson with the goal of someday having his own game company. About six months later the foundations of a development team fell into my lap through a theatre project I was working on and we got things going after we graduated in 98.

Or goals have changed a bit from the start. At first we were full of ourselves and had grand schemes and ideals. Eventually that changed to finish the damn game and make it fun. Some things haven't changed though, we still feel that the RPG audience is underserved and that people aren't making enough games for a more sophisticated audience. Quality writing and storylines are really important to us. We've got a lot of stories to tell, but we're focused on one at a time now.

2.) Can you give us a brief history of Prelude to Darkness's development? What inspired the game? Why did you make it? How long did it take?

Mat Williams: We didn't actually start out to make Prelude. We orginally we focussed on doing some small games for Palm Pilots, but after a summer working on them we were all just uninspired and realized we really wanted to make an RPG. This was in late 98 and several members of the team left for more lucrative or educational experiences elsewhere and CP and I continued working on our own for a year or so before being joined by two more designers. Then it was the four of us off and on for quite a while before our artist joined up again with us after his stint at grad school. This was about two years ago at the same time we decided to make the transition to 3D. Another designer and some help from some canadians and we were off. In the end Prelude to this point has been about three years give or take.

The inspiration comes from a lot of places. I worked out the basic background for the world and it's history during college and it's influenced by a lot of the reading I was doing then, i.e. Gene Wolfe, Peter Hamilton, George RR Martin, Glen Cook. Also at that time which was before the release of Fallout, there'd been a severe drought in RPG's and then many that were coming out left behind a lot of things I wanted to see in games like NPC schedules and turn-based combat. From a game perspective, it's probably most influenced by the aforementioned Fallout and one of my personal favorite RPG's: Darklands.

3.) Prelude of Darkness uses a proprietary 3D engine that was developed in house. Why was the decision made to use a 3D engine as opposed to a 2D one? How does the 3D engine benefit gameplay?

Mat Williams: We actually spent a couple of years developing a 2D isometric engine. While it looked pretty good, there were a lot of things that are much more difficult to do well in 2D. Things like switching clothing and weapons on characters. Animation is also more difficult and requires tons of rendering time and tweaking to get at least 8 angles from every model for every action. And things like hills and slopes and diagonal walls are tough as well. The 3D engine allowed us to create much more complex architectural environments easily. Some of that's not so apparent in the trial area, given that it's just Kellen, but it really makes a difference in the rest of the game. There's no way we could have given each area it's own feel in 2d without a significantly greater amount of artwork than what Travis could produce alone. Of course 3D introduced its own issues from hardware compatibility to camera angles and selecting objects.

Once we made the move to 3d we actually released our old tiles into the public domain. The curious or those in need of isometric tiles can get them at our tileset page.


4.) Can you give us a little bit about the setting of Prelude to Darkness? A little history? What types of people make up The Valley?

Mat Williams: The Valley is the intersection of three cultures. The Children of the Flame have the most history outside of the Valley and only arrived about 1300 years ago after fleeing from their own world. They journeyed across several worlds for over a century before arriving at the Valley. They came at a time of war and were able to help the People of the River driver the invading easterners (the VanGesh) back across the mountains. This initial assistance led the founding of the Barrier and later to the Citadel. The two cultures lived (until recently) at peace and were quite compatible, each filling different niches in society.

Archetypically the Children of the Flame are Greco-Roman, highly organized and militaristic, tall and fair skinned. The People of the River are medieval peasant stock, druidic by inclination, dark and swarthy in appearance. The VanGesh are nomadic desert tribesmen. Prelude doesn't deal extensively with the VanGesh, but we have some plans to go across the mountains in the future.

5.) Can you tell us a little bit about what types of creatures live in The Valley? Any creatures for which you have a particular fondness? Any that you hate to see coming for you?

Mat Williams: There are several I hate to see coming at me, but I can't mention them without giving things away! The Valley and Prelude in general aren't quite as fantastical as a lot of RPG's, so it's slightly more typical animals and such that one encounters above ground, of course the typical animal is a little different from it's earthly counterpart. And then there's a whole species of underground dwellers.

Personally, I'm particularly fond of the bingo's which live in Ironwood. They almost have a history unto themselves. But maybe I just love monkeys at heart.

6.) Prelude to Darkness uses a skill system as opposed to the traditional level schema that most CRPGs employ. Can you tell us a little bit about the advancement system? Why did you go with this as opposed to the traditional model?

Mat Williams: We wanted a system which had a feeling of continuous improvement, but also had specific "levels" to obtain as goals. I also wanted a system based on the actual use of skills, not the kill-a-monster-get-better-at-picking-locks that's standard. After a lot of in and out-of-game play-testing we arrived at what we have now. Improvement through us, but also through spending XP, so the player has some choices. Practicing skills to certain levels through use or XP gives specific benefits, sometimes in the form or attribute improvements, or special attacks and abilities.

7.) Can you tell us a little bit about how the attributes affect the gameplay? What do they do in general? How are they handled in combat?

Mat Williams: Attributes have a wide-ranging effect on gameplay. Some are pretty direct, i.e. Speed and Action Points. There's a lot of situations in the game where your leader's attributes have a significant impact on conversation options and results. Your weak merchant might be able to talk a lot of people into things, but he's not going to be as successful at intimidating someone as a brawny fighter. Some NPC's are shallower than others and will react to a low charisma. In some cases people react to the best or worst attribute in a party, someone with an extremely low charisma might scare a small kid or burp in the middle of a lord's dinner.

In combat just about every attribute is directly examined. Dexterity combines with skill for chance to hit. Intelligence is used to calculate improvement chances. Speed is used for action points, but also helps avoid attacks. Many checks within the game are resisted, i.e. it's not so much what your speed or skill is, but how it compares directly to an opponents. Endurance is used for hit points and recovery and also affects Flame Magic. Willpower affects Thaumaturgy and River Magic, but also affects how well a character performs when facing multiple or over-powering enemies, i.e. it affects a character's "courage". A brawny fighter with no willpower facing 5 enemies is going to experience some significant penalties, but it may be worth it for the extra damage or speed. It really depends on play style.

8.) What's been done to assure that daggers and unarmed remain viable through the game since armor tends to absorb damage? How about other small but fast weapons?

Mat Williams: Well, building up daggers and unarmed skill gives powerful unique attacks. The advanced attacks for daggers can have a character striking 4-6 times in one attack. Even with the armor absorption, the chance to get a critical hit goes way up and criticals ignore armor.

Unarmed is tougher than dagger to be useful since an unarmed character can never parry an armed character. But with enough skill the character can learn to disarm opponents and the character's damage improves as the skill gets better. I don't have the philosophy that all paths have to be equal, some combat skills are going to be a little better than others. Unarmed _is_ viable, but it's not as easy. It's a fine line to walk between realism and fun there.

9.) Prelude to Darkness offers a Speech skill. Can you tell us why it offers one? What uses does this skill have?

Mat Williams: It's used primarily and frequently during NPC interactions for convincing. With a high enough speech you may also get extra conversation options. We wanted a player to be able to play a combat or non-combat oriented party and to have a relatively different experience and successful experience with each, skills like Speech are critical to that. Although in the end combat is pretty important and it's difficult to play a party without at least a couple brawny sorts. Of course, those can come from outside the three members that you create at the start of the game.

10.) Prelude to Darkness offers an AP Turn Based system for combat. Can you shed a little light on why you went with TB? What features do you feel make TB better for this type of title?

Mat Williams: I think we all just like TB more than real-time. It's tough to get it to have the immediacy and tension of real-time, but in the end I find it more rewarding to win a combat with well-thought out tactical maneveurs in TB. I find TB to be less frustrating and generally seem less random. I think TB gives more significant tactical choices and makes the results of those choices more obvious. And we were playing a lot of Heroes of Might and Magic during development and were constantly reminded of why we liked TB.

11.) Skills, particularly combat ones, offer more benefits when they get to certain levels. Can you give us an example of what types of rewards players can expect to see by reaching high skill levels in a combat skill? How about a non-combat skill?

Mat Williams: Non-combat skills primarily give attribute bonuses as they get better. We had a lot of other, more active, bonuses in place for them, but it got to be too much of a testing and balancing headache for us. I'd like to get more bonuses in for them, right now I don't think there's any non-combat bonus which compares to the advanced sword-spin attack. All the advanced combat moves are very useful, even key in the late game, and they're different enough to warrant playing with more than just swords.

12.) Are there any locations in the game that you really like? Any that you feel could have offered more?

Mat Williams: I really like the Barrier, it stands alone from the rest of the Valley and has a great feel and some really involved and interesting quests. But then, I like all the areas a lot. Some are very focused on the main plotline like the Monastery. There's less to do there in some ways, but what is there is very important and pretty cool. Althought I like Land's End a lot, I think it's a little tough to get around in because it's so spread out, even using autotravel. And there's always more I feel like we could have offered. More solutions and alternate paths, more quests. Eventually we had to sit down and call some things done and move on from there.

13.) What can we expect in the future from Zero-Sum?

Mat Williams: I hope a lot. I'm working on a patch for Prelude with should add some polish and address some of the issues I've seen discussed. We definitely want to expand the world and take characters to the east and deep into the earth. Prelude (as it's title indicated) is hopefully the first of the Pyrrhic Tales which are going to be an exploration into the history of the Children of the Flame across several worlds. Beyond that we also have a project in mind that's less fantasy and depth oriented, something in more of a console style vein. We'll see what the future holds. Right now it's one game at a time and that game is Prelude to Darkness.


Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Mat Williams!

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