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Mysteries of Westgate interview

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Mysteries of Westgate interview

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Fri 9 November 2007, 15:00:41

Tags: Neverwinter Nights 2

I'd like to introduce you Ossian Studios' Alan Miranda (CEO and Producer) and Luke Scull (Lead Designer):

1) Let's start with our traditional question: What's your definition of an RPG? What features or design elements are important to you in an RPG and why? What RPGs, if any, have influenced you or left a strong impression?

Alan: My general philosophy on game design is to give players choices because it empowers them, and empowerment is very rewarding. All good games (even of the non-computer variety) should prompt gamers to make decisions, and when you make a successful decision, it’s always a great feeling. Conversely, giving players little or no choice reduces them to being the puppet rather than the decision-maker, which is in my opinion, unfulfilling.

I see an RPG being defined as allowing you to play the role that you wish, which is essentially giving you choices. These can be small choices such as to how to respond to NPCs, medium choices such as ways to complete quests and combat encounters, and large choices such as changing the nature of yourself or the world around you. The more important the choices you are given, the larger your role is in the game world.

Aside from the core design element of freedom of choice, I follow “the three Es,” which is something I came across in a Warren Spector article a few years back that summarized my game design thoughts quite well. The three Es stand for three key elements that I believe make video games appealing in general. These are esthetics, exploration, and experimentation. The esthetical beauty of the virtual world is the first step to drawing the player in. The exploration of the world is the second step in making the player believe in it, and know that it isn’t just false house billboards in a bad western. Letting the player experiment with things in the world in order to produce a reaction, whether interacting with objects or talking to creatures, is the third step in retaining the player’s interest to continue playing. Come to think of it, if choice is synonymous with empowerment, then I may have to change this to “the four Es.” 

Lastly, for an RPG, all of these elements should flow from a compelling story, where gameplay ties into narrative. Having the three Es along with the freedom of choice and a great story are what I feel make a great RPG.

It was Ultima Underworld that first got me playing CRPGs (instead of studying for my university exams), and it was its fantastic esthetics (by the graphical standards back in ’92) that had me glued. I love the kind of exploration afforded by the open-ended Elder Scrolls games, like Oblivion, due to the huge size of the world. However, it was the exploration in Baldur’s Gate 1 that endeared me to that game, because areas could be uncovered as you travelled about, and each area was very unique in its visuals and what creatures, quests, or secrets that you found there (this was a great influence when I designed Darkness over Daggerford). And when it comes to experimentation, I would have to say that adventure games are what have influenced me the most, since the core mechanic for that genre of games is to manipulate objects in order to solve a problem. So the Monkey Islands, King Quests, The Longest Journey, etc. have all influenced me when developing RPGs because I like to incorporate a higher level of interaction than just having to kill a few monsters in order to acquire quest object X.

Luke: I could discuss this ad infinitum… but for the purposes of brevity, I’ll settle on an RPG being “a game in which your character gains experience points and levels, and is free to make decisions that have a significant and believable effect on the game world and story.” Obviously, JRPGs occupy their own niche and tend to play more like interactive novels.

For me, a great RPG needs to have three essential ingredients:

1. A good, well-crafted story with interesting NPCs and solid writing. I have very high standards here. Generally they’re met only by RPGs from a select handful of developers. No surprises for guessing that BioWare and Obsidian make up two of them, but CD Projekt’s The Witcher has also recently impressed me with the quality of its narrative.

2. A degree of player choice and the feeling that my decisions have some impact on the game world. Without this, what you have is an interactive novel. With all due respect to those in the gaming industry, there are people out there who are far more skilled and experienced than (most of) you at telling great stories. You only need go to the local library or video store to see their work. And those stories don’t require a 40-hour time investment.

3. Interesting tactical combat. I’m a gamer first, an RPG fan a close second. If I want twitch-based gameplay, I’ll seek it in God of War or Soul Calibur. When I play an RPG, I want to be made to think. I also don’t want enemies auto-scaled to my level. It kills the fun of exploration and the satisfaction associated with gaining a level and the knowledge that you’re just a little bit closer to unleashing a can on Firkraag or the Ravager.

RPGs which have influenced me, or left a strong impression? All of them, since I dissect and store away all the good, bad, and innovative stuff I see in order to adapt/avoid/steal for my own designs. Still, if I had to choose, I’d say that Baldur’s Gate 2 is overall the single best RPG ever created. As a Forgotten Realms-based D&D CRPG, it obviously influenced me a great deal.

Planescape: Torment also influenced me a lot. It’s just a titanic work of imagination and vision. As a game, it wasn’t that hot – it was good but not great – yet for me the story is about the closest to genius that I’ve seen in a CRPG. It still hasn’t been topped.

2) What's Ossian Studios’ design philosophy? To clarify, what features would make it an "Ossian game" and set it apart from, say, BioWare or Obsidian games?

Alan: First and foremost, we aim to do the best job we can in order to make high quality games. It is the quality of what you produce (as with everything in life) that sets you apart, and Ossian maintains a high work ethic to accomplish that. Also, our mission statement is to create epic adventures, so a strong narrative will always play a central part in any game we do. For my own specific design philosophies, see my answer to your first question above. Luke also has great design philosophies that mesh well with my own and Ossian’s.

Because I developed games at BioWare, and our team is composed of people who have played BioWare/Black Isle/Obsidian games and have attempted to emulate them in their own mods, you will come to see similarities between Ossian’s games and those done by the above developers. I think each developer acquires its own distinct style over time with the experience it gains, so only time will tell exactly how the Ossian style will evolve and solidify after several games.

3) What have you learned from Daggerford? What were your best and worst design decisions?

Alan: On Daggerford we attempted to bite off more than we could chew, as Ossian was very much out to prove itself. Despite the difficulties we had in doing a game so large (25-30 hours), the benefits were that we developed something that stood out from the crowd of countless other NWN mods – I think that was our best design decision. On MoW, however, we shifted to a more focused approach with team members specializing on what they’re best at (writing, scripting, or level design) instead of the Wild West approach we did on Daggerford, where designers fully implemented different parts of the critical path of the game by themselves (which was likely our poorest design decision because it forced us to do a lot of cleanup close to release).

We were also very mindful of the expectation that we were building a 15-hour adventure with MoW, and concentrating our efforts instead of spreading ourselves thin as on Daggerford. The day will come, however, where we’ll step onto a larger stage and once again attempt to take a giant bite, in much the same way as CD Projekt has done with The Witcher (which is a great game, by the way).

Luke: I wasn’t involved in Daggerford’s design and only joined the team shortly before release as a beta tester, but I’ll give my opinion on the game as a whole. I think it did a lot of things right and did them better and more professionally than almost every other module out there – which you’d expect from the sheer size of the team and the game’s origins as a BioWare Premium Module. The world map was a terrific addition to NWN and the whole game felt very much like Baldur’s Gate 1, which I know had a massive influence on Alan. It was definitely a fun and absorbing game, which deserved all the plaudits it received.

However, there were a few notable weaknesses: The story was fairly average and diluted by the doubling of the module’s original size by sidequest-creep, and the henchmen were rather generic. I’m sure it was a learning experience for everyone on the team.

4) Will you please describe Mysteries of Westgate to our readers? What kind of game is it?

Alan: On MoW, we really wanted to bring a city alive, and with Westgate being one of the seedier cities in all of Faerûn, we wanted players to be able to savour that flavour and experience some of the best (or worst?) of what the city could offer. So the game is purely a city adventure, which contrasts with Daggerford’s romp across the countryside.

I must admit, I was rather disappointed with the city of Neverwinter in the NWN2 OC – it felt keenly uninteractive as I ran about the streets in some of the districts while getting that “western movie billboard” feel. I wanted to see something very different in Westgate, where the districts would have hotspots of interest (unrelated to the core path) scattered all about, whether these were quest givers, interactive objects, or just colourful ambient NPCs that make you laugh. City adventures are, by their nature, tougher to do because you need to create a higher amount of content in a smaller space to achieve that city bustle, compared to rural areas that are emptier. I’m confident that fans will approve of our efforts.

5) The setting is, basically, a metropolis, which is a bold and brave choice. Why the urban setting? How do you keep it interesting for the mass market? How big is it?

Luke: We chose an urban setting because at the time we began planning the game, there was a distinct lack of them around. While the OC had Neverwinter, it was more like a shell than a fleshed-out city.

We felt that the team of excellent writers we assembled would be eminently suited to writing a complex, intrigue-laden story in a city environment and we wanted to choose somewhere shady enough so that we could allow characters of all classes and alignments to express themselves. Westgate fitted the bill.

How do we keep it interesting for the mass market? I’m not 100% sure what this question means, but our market is the existing NWN2 fan base, which we have a lot of experience with. The game opens with a bang and there’s never a shortage of things to do from the moment the player steps foot into the city.

The city is divided into four large districts, each of which is very distinct and packed with quests and encounters. The player also gets to travel outside the city on a few occasions. There’s a good 15 hours of gameplay there in any one playthrough.

6) Factions. To quote Luke Scull: "myriad factions all tussle for dominance and the player is never sure where his or her true allies lie." That sounds great on paper, but what should we *really* expect in terms of factions?

Luke: There are at least six major factions involved in the story, and the player will ally with or oppose them all during the course of the game. We don’t have a complex faction system: What we do have is a story that keeps the player guessing, and at several points they’re called upon to make a decision to join one faction or another, with huge consequences for the story.

7) The game promises choices and "huge consequences." An actual example would go a long way to back up these claims and fill the hearts of unbelievers with faith.

Luke: I’m sure it would, but I wouldn’t want to spoil too much of the experience for players. Let’s just say that I know the depths of loathing loyal Codex readers reserve for developers that talk the talk but fail to meet expectations when it comes to choice and consequences. I’m not only walking but swaggering, and not just because I’m drunk.

Alan: I will echo Luke on this one, in that we definitely do provide some big choices with significant consequences to the player. We made a conscious decision when writing the core story during pre-production to allow for branches in the story instead of a single linear path. The challenge was to make the different branches as polished as if we had just made one route, since polishing a single linear path would take only half the time. Revealing what these choices are would ruin the story, so you’ll just have to keep the faith. 

8) Dialogues and role-playing. MoW has been described as "very role-play-focused." What does that mean? Also, will the game support different paths? Will there be an interesting evil/chaotic path?

Luke: Almost every quest in Mysteries of Westgate can be solved in multiple ways. We use lots of class and skills-based conversation options to give players as much role-playing freedom as possible. There are several paths through the story, and yes, there’s a very interesting evil/chaotic path.

9) How would Mysteries of Westgate be compared to Mask of the Betrayer in terms of overall role-playing quality? Should our readers expect a similar experience?

Luke: Mask of the Betrayer did a great job of presenting a ton of role-playing options and choices along a fairly linear story. Mysteries of Westgate is more open-ended but maintains a similar level of role-playing quality.

10) Combat difficulty. How challenging will combat be? We all know that NWN2 was disappointingly easy. Will the trend continue?

Luke: Not if I can help it. I also found the NWN2 OC way too easy, but then it needed to be accessible to newcomers and D&D experts alike. I think the challenge level of Mysteries of Westgate lies somewhere around that of Mask of the Betrayer, but what it also has that the expansion doesn’t (at least from what I experienced) is a handful of truly difficult optional encounters. Those will keep the D&D veterans on the edge of their seats.

Alan: I know Luke paid a LOT of attention to the encounters in the game, playing and tweaking them until they were just right. I think players should be very pleased with the combat balancing in MoW.

We'd like to thank Alan and Luke for their time. Good luck with the game.

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