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RPG Codex Interview: Torment: Tides of Numenera
Codex Interview - posted by Zed on Thu 22 May 2014, 21:48:55Tags: Adam Heine; Colin McComb; George Ziets; InXile Entertainment; Jeremy Kopman; Torment: Tides of Numenera
Welcome, denizens of RPG Codex and the rest of the internet, to our interview with the designers of Torment: Tides of Numenera. For this interview, we turned our inquisitive mind-cannons towards inXile Entertainment, and with our magical questions, managed to hit:
Adam Heine, Design Lead.
George Ziets, Lead Area Designer.
Jeremy Kopman, Crisis Designer.
The first part of this interview is all about catching up with George Ziets (currently Lead Area Designer on Torment: Tides of Numenera), with whom I conducted a more "generalist" kind of interview about a year ago. George Ziets is best known for his work as Creative Lead on Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, and has since enjoyed the reputation of combining great creative writing with an emphasis on lore depth.
We interviewed you about a year ago, after you had been stretch-goaled into working on both Pillars of Eternity (previously known as Project Eternity) and Torment: Tides of Numenera. Could you tell us a bit about what you've been up to since then?
I was busily working on PoE until May of last year, pausing only for the Torment Kickstarter. In my last couple months on Eternity, my focus was almost entirely upon the main story arc. Eric Fenstermaker and I spent many long hours on Skype chat, talking through story drafts – gradually iterating, improving, and incorporating the best dungeons, characters, and quests we’d devised. That was a lot of fun, but eventually my contract ended, and Eric continued the story development process on his own.
After that, I transitioned over to Torment. I headed out to Newport Beach in July for the story meetings and then jumped into early Bloom design. The Bloom went through several iterations – partly because it was our first zone, and partly because we were in preproduction and the main story was still in development.
Sometime in the fall (I think), the main story underwent a major revision which required a partial redesign of the Bloom, though we managed to retain almost all the cool elements from the original draft. I finished the 150+ page Zone Design Document in January.
Meanwhile, since I haven’t been full time on Torment, I’ve also been working on other contract assignments – notably some editing jobs for Monte Cook Games and designing part of a sourcebook (in collaboration with Chris Avellone) for the Accursed Kickstarter. Those were pretty cool opportunities, as they represent my first pen-and-paper publications since a Dragon magazine article from 1990.
In our last interview, you mentioned some of your influences and inspirations. Has there been any more recent games, movies, books, TV shows or anything else that has impressed or inspired you? "I want to make a True Detective game!"?
Hmm. In no particular order…
One game that inspired me recently is a game that hasn’t even come out yet – the puzzle-platformer Never Alone, which is based on native Alaskan mythology. I think it’s pretty cool that non-European folklore is starting to be an inspiration for a variety of games, and I’d love to work on one. Never Alone is particularly interesting in that it’s a collaboration between game developers and Alaska Native storytellers, which is a pretty cool idea that I hope we see more often.
Another game that provided some unexpected inspiration was an old game that I recently replayed – Loom. If you’ve never played it, I recommend giving it a try. It’s an old LucasArts adventure game, and while the narrative ultimately disappointed me (it could have been so much more), the idea of a magic system that is based entirely upon musical notes and various combinations of those notes - which you learn by investigating objects and events in the world - remains compelling, and I think it’s an idea that could be further explored.
Then there’s AMC’s new TV show, TURN, which tells the story of spies during the American Revolution. You could say that this show inspired me, but really, its primary function was to remind me of a series of books I read back in the 80s – Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy. I remember it as a really compelling series of books that emphasized the “gray” of a revolutionary setting (much as TURN does)… and shocked the heck out of me as a 10-year-old. I’ve always thought that a morally ambiguous revolutionary setting could make for a fun setting of a CRPG, whether it’s a “fantasy” world like Westmark or a game that takes place during the revolutionary period of the late 18th century (also a fascinating period to me for many other reasons). Plus I think the struggles depicted in a revolutionary setting could have greater resonance for present-day audiences than they did a few years ago, given the Arab Spring, troubles in Ukraine, etc.
Finally, I think the Accursed setting (recent Kickstarter for which Chris Avellone and I are writing a supplement) could make a pretty cool CRPG. The setting puts players in the role of “monsters” – golems, mummies, werewolves, etc. – former humans who were transformed by a coven of witches into monstrous servants. Now the player-characters have broken free from their masters, and they are cast into a world that was torn apart by a war with the witches. The players have greater power than ordinary humans because of their curse, but they are mistrusted by nearly everyone due to their connection with the Grand Coven. Over the course of the game, players can choose to embrace their curse (thus becoming more monstrous) or reject it (and gradually become more human). It’s a setting that encourages interesting choices, it’s reminiscent of Ravenloft (one of my D&D favorite settings), and you get to play as a monster – three things I’d love to see in a CRPG.
The Elder Scrolls Online has now launched, and there was also a lot of beta testing earlier this year. Have you had a chance to play it? If so, what are your thoughts on how they have handled the lore and quest design – and anything else you were involved with at your time at Zenimax?
Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to play ESO yet, though I did skim through some of the new entries on UESP, my old go-to source for Elder Scrolls lore. (I spent countless hours on that site while I was employed at Zenimax.) I was pleasantly surprised to find that the team retained a lot of the lore I wrote way back in 2008. It’s mostly confined to backstory events– e.g., the Longhouse Emperors, the exploits of Varen and the Tharns – though also some of the main story characters, and it was fun to see a bit of my work on UESP. Even if the Elder Scrolls franchise has had its ups and downs, it’s exciting to have played a part in shaping that world.
In your recent Kickstarter update, you talked about your work on area design. You mention how you divide planned content into the A, B or C priority, in order of importance. Can you tell us more about the procedure behind this?
It is fairly common to classify content in this way (at least at the studios where I’ve worked). The goal, essentially, is to ensure that the most important content – the stuff that is critical for the player experience to make sense – gets created first. Different studios define A, B, and C content a little differently. For us, A means that a particular piece of content is critical and will be implemented no matter what. A basic guideline is that if we create only the A-priority content, but we do all of it, then we feel the game will still be great. B content is lower priority, but we assume we will make it, and we include it in the production schedule. C content would be nice to have, but we assume we will *not* make it, and we don’t include it in the schedule. However, if we find that we have a little extra time, we can consider implementing the C content later.
Having said all that, let me give you an example of how it happens in practice.
In my initial design pass on the Bloom, I didn’t worry too much about prioritizing content. My goal was to generate as many cool characters, locations, and ideas as I could. (If I start prioritizing things too early, I find that I focus too much on the content that I *think* is going to be A-priority… when in fact, priorities often change over the course of development. A location that I assumed would be B- or C-priority might become so interesting that we shift content around to make it A.)
Once I had a fully developed zone brief with lots of interesting content, I started looking at everything with a more critical eye. Was a particular piece of content required to tell the main story for the zone? If so, it became A-priority. I also wanted to make sure that the player had multiple solutions to the main storyline quests, so any content that offered those alternative solutions also became A-priority. This meant that the A content could, if necessary, stand on its own - it didn’t rely on us creating any of the B content. This meant that we could more easily cut the B-priority content later if that became necessary. (When you do cut content, you generally create some extra work because it impacts things you’ve already implemented. One way that prioritization can help, if approached in this way, is by making it easier to make certain cuts with minimal impact on what you’ve already done.)
Sometimes I made priority decisions based on location. For example, some of our side content had little bearing on the player’s particular story, but it helped fill out an A-priority location, so it got marked as A-priority too.
Everything else became B- or C-priority. But B vs. C is still a difficult choice. As I mentioned above, we assume that we won’t be making the C content, so when we designate something as C, we’re preemptively cutting it. This can feel a bit cruel to your lovingly-crafted characters and locations, but after you’ve been working in games for a few years, it becomes a little less painful. Sometimes.
In the Bloom, I started with a total of twelve locations (“scenes”), the largest of which was the Vast Interior. (If you saw my Kickstarter update, the accompanying blockouts depicted an earlier version of the Vast Interior.) Eight of those scenes contained some amount of main story content and were marked as A. Two others were not imperative for the story but further developed the narrative for the zone, so we marked them as B. Two more were really cool, but we (Colin, Adam, Kevin, and me) all agreed that they would cause the least damage to the zone if cut, so they were marked as C.
In some cases, we liked (or needed) specific elements in the C-priority scenes so much that we relocated them to other parts of the Bloom. For example, Chris Avellone liked one of the cyphers I’d designed for a C-priority scene and wanted to incorporate it into his companion’s arc. So that cypher received a last-minute reprieve and will now be moved to an A-priority scene. In another case, Jesse and Colin had a great idea that would extend one subplot in the Bloom (and provide us with a setting for one of our Meres), which led me to add a new B area. It was a natural extension of the original design, but not an element I had originally chosen to include.
InXile chose turn-based combat for Torment: Tides of Numenera, largely because of the Crisis system, as I understand it. This seems to have certain implications for encounter and area design. For instance, in the post-combat vote update, Kevin Saunders mentioned how a bigger focus on ranged combat could alleviate some of the encumbrance of turn-based combat. Could you tell us more about how to design areas with Crises and turn-based combat in mind, as opposed to RTwP?
One of the main goals of the Crisis system is to offer the same breadth of choices and possible actions as you’d have in a tabletop RPG. In a tabletop game, if you find yourself in a stand-off with a mercenary squad on a dock you might ask your GM if your character can to attempt to operate a gantry, sending its load of logs crashing down on your opponents. In a TTON Crisis set in a similar area (just an illustration, mind you, not an actual area in the game), you’d be able to use character Skills related to machinery or deft movements as assets in a similar attempt. Or you could use an esotery like Flash to cut the gantry’s line remotely at the cost of some Intellect Stat Pool points. In addition, the space might be laid out so that knocking down the crane blocks a door into a tunnel that would have allowed characters to unlock it with a successful Task and pass through without engaging the mercenaries directly. Meanwhile, a more socially-oriented character could first lower the gantry slowly to the ground, then use their linguistic skills to convince the mercenaries to steal the load of lumber instead of attacking. Or you could go for a tactical assault and use the crates and machinery on the dockside as cover and hiding spots.
Crisis areas are laid out to support all of these options (though it’s important to note that every play style may not be perfectly suited to every Crisis; in some cases, a particular style might be very difficult to employ and encourage you to use unfamiliar options, but no play style will be favored over another across the game). As a result, Crises occur in complex areas that are large enough for such tactical decisions, and often with many paths that can be opened or closed with interactions like those described above.
As to the question about the pacing of the turn-based gameplay, besides just an emphasis on fewer, but more carefully designed encounters, we’re investigating several possibilities to refine the flow to ensure that it doesn’t drag. One such possibility is a class of character abilities we’re calling Defensive Maneuvers. These are off-turn actions that the player can activate, spending Stat Pool points to set up triggered attacks, counters, and other reactions. The simplest of these function like an Attack of Opportunity (or the Overwatch/Ambush actions in XCOM/Wasteland 2). Others allow the PCs to counterspell esoteries, heal party members who fall below a threshold, or redirect an attack on an ally. These abilities keep the party active even on an NPC’s turn. We’re working on the UI to make them as intuitive and fast to use as possible.
The original Torment as well as Mask of the Betrayer are known for their originality and weirdness – at least in comparison to other CRPGs. When talking about why Pillars of Eternity will incorporate dwarves, elves and other fantasy tropes, Josh Sawyer touched on the importance of player familiarity. What's your take on this? Do you think it could ever get too “unfamiliar”? Too abstract?
This is partly a matter of personal taste, but I place much less value upon familiarity in new settings. Audiences are a lot more flexible than we often think. To me, it’s more important that character motivations and emotions feel believable and identifiable, regardless of setting. If you create characters who feel and act in a believable way, have problems that players can identify with, and are likable, audiences will tolerate a lot of weirdness in setting details.
Presentation is also a major issue to consider in a new setting. If you try to throw a lot of unfamiliar setting details at a player in the first ten minutes of gameplay (or, worse, in a convoluted opening cinematic), you’re likely to lose your audience. If, on the other hand, you drop them into a world that is full of mysteries, and the player is learning about the new world as an integral part of gameplay and story, their unfamiliarity with the setting can actually be an asset – it encourages a sense of ongoing discovery that can help keep the player engaged throughout the game.
I think problems arise in new settings when characters are flat and boring, stories are clichéd, the audience isn’t emotionally invested in what’s happening, and the creators are relying upon the details of the setting itself to interest the audience. A lot of hard science fiction falls into this trap. Writers can become so focused on communicating the details of the setting that they fail at job #1, which is creating an engaging story.
Josh is a really smart guy, and he’s right that many gamers place a great deal of value on familiarity so that they have touchstones on which to base their experience with a game. Using standard fantasy tropes is a great way to get people to ease into acceptance of the stranger aspects of the setting – for instance, the novel soul mechanics of Pillars of Eternity. This is the right decision for their game, which deliberately takes on some of the trappings of a magical, medieval setting. Given their vision and the experience they’re targeting, it would be a mistake for them to introduce too much abstract weirdness into the early part of the game.
Our vision was about something else altogether, and I think – I hope! – that we made our backers aware of just how weird and wonderful our setting is. Part of why we chose Numenera in the first place was because we want to deliver a setting that is intentionally strange and mysterious to our players, and one that will come to make coherent, internally consistent sense through the course of the game. We’ve said before that the game takes the player through the life of the Last Castoff, and we meant that. When the player enters the game, he or she will do it as an infant to the world. The world should be unfamiliar, just as it is to a newborn. The player will gain familiarity through experience.
That said, sure, a game could get too abstract or too weird. But I believe that if we create strong characters with believable motivations, realistic choices, and interesting situations, the strangeness of the setting becomes an inextricable part of the pleasure of the game.
The player will be able to choose the gender of The Last Castoff in Torment: Tides of Numenera. Planescape: Torment only had the male character, The Nameless One, with past lives and a surrounding which often reflected a male disposition. How does the gender choice impact reactivity in Torment: Tides of Numenera? How different will a female character playthrough be from a male one?
We’re intending for some significant reactivity with quests that may key off the female choice, but we’re not going to rewrite the whole story to reflect the gender choice. We’ll have some branches available only to females, and some available only to males. We’ll also have some NPC reactivity based on gender.
Sigil felt rather static for a supposedly every-changing city, at least in a visual sense. Will the environments in Torment: Tides of Numenera be more dynamic? Will there be environmental changes in a two-state “fade-out/fade-in” transition á la Planescape: Torment, or will we be seeing animated transitions?
In some cases, our environments will be more visually dynamic than Sigil. In the Bloom, for example, we’ve got at least a couple situations planned where the player’s actions will change particular elements of the environment. These will not always happen via animated in-game events, but you will see a visual change.
We’re also experimenting with time-based events in which certain elements in a scene can change when the player rests. Time doesn’t pass while exploring, and we don’t have any explicit time pressure per se, but when you sleep overnight, the in-game timeline progresses by a day and you’ll see some effects of this. (For example, characters might arrive or leave, the visual state of some objects might change, and events might occur that affect or unlock quests.)
We won’t be implementing a day-night cycle, so we will not have the fade in – fade out day-night transitions from PST.
Planescape: Torment had some very combat-oriented zones, particularly in the late game, while other parts of the game remained relatively combat-free. These combat zones could cause problems for socially-oriented characters. Is this something you're looking to address in Torment: Tides of Numenera?
Because the Crisis system leads us to build fewer but more expansive turn-based, tactical portions of the game, we don’t plan to have any areas densely populated with groups of mobs you are forced to fight. While all Crises present tactical challenges, some are more likely than others to lead to combat, and at times combat will be the most straightforward solution to the problem at hand. But even if the player finds him/herself in a spot where they have no choice but to fight, non-combat build options (Skills, Esoteries, Tricks of the Trade) will frequently offer a benefit. Players can attempt to converse with intelligent enemies, using their PC’s features to broker peace, frighten their opponents into losing morale, or simply distract them so their allies can gain the upper hand. In addition, many esoteries grant Fettles (the TTON term for status effects) that could weaken opponents’ resolve and leave them more susceptible to conversation options, disable them long enough to flee, or even charm them into helping the party. If your party is still in danger, exploration abilities and skills can be used to open paths to escape or inflict damage on the enemy without any attacks (as in the gantry example in the Crisis question above).
As we’ve stated before, we plan for it to be possible to complete TTON without engaging in combat at all. Players can finish or avoid every Crisis using social, stealth, and exploration abilities. Having said that, we haven’t promised that it will be easy. It will likely require very careful decision making and smart character build choices to complete the whole game without throwing a single punch/self-propelled energy projection device.
Sigil had a lot of citizens looking alike, only visually distinguished by their profession (e.g. Dustman) or race (e.g. Tiefling). Like other Infinity Engine games, many of them shared a generic “townsperson dialogue” as well. Are there any plats to diversify the citizenry of Numenera? Can we hope for commoner NPCs to finally become true individuals?
It would be great for every generic NPC to be a true individual, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, the reality of time and resources makes true individuals unlikely (I mean, given the choice between a deeper, more interesting crit-path NPC vs. the same for a generic, there's only so many times we can vote for the latter before the game is more Sim-Numenera than Torment). What we are hoping to have is multiple, interchangeable body parts and components (so we can mix and match, creating more uniqueness among individuals for a lost cost) and "smart" barkstrings (where generic NPCs randomly choose their personal barkstring from a pre-defined set for that scene, and then they keep that barkstring from then on; this allows us to provide some customization so generic NPCs can at least pretend to have unique things to say, while requiring less work than true, individual customization). We're also looking into other ways to individualize generic NPCs without draining resources from more critical areas, but it's too early to talk about those yet.
Torment: Tides of Numenera uses a system called Tides to reflect the player's ambitions. It's basically a very nuanced reputation system, as I understand it. How soon into the game will the Tides system come into play? Will the player be able to choose “starting Tides” if they feel like playing a certain type of character? Also, will Tides always build up incrementally, or will there be choices in the game that completely change their course?
The PC won't have a dominant Tide (or Tides) until a little way into the game, but the game will start tracking your Tides immediately. Some decisions will change the Tides significantly, but many will change the Tides in a small, gradual way. In this way, your dominant Tide(s) build over time.
Your Tides will always be determined by your words and deeds. In a way, choosing "starting Tides" would undermine the purpose of the system. You could say you're playing a Gold character, but what matters is what you do.
Also to that end, the Tides will always build incrementally. Some actions might increase the Tides more or less than others, but there will never be an action you can take that will suddenly swap your dominant Silver for Red. That, also, would devalue the system as a whole. Changing your legacy can't be done on a single action or decision, but on many decisions over time. That doesn't mean you won't be able to change your dominant Tide(s) toward the end of the game, but it will be more difficult than it would be near the beginning. In a way, this is true to life: people generally see you for who you have always been, and it's hard to change their mind with only a single action.
If it were an opposed system, say good vs. evil, it would be easier to argue for choices that flip your Tides completely—like Darth Vader turning on the Emperor after years of serving the dark side. But the Tides are not opposed to each other, so there's really no action you can take that would change the legacy you leave behind so wildly.
In Planescape: Torment, characters were often limited in what items they could use, and many items were restricted to specific characters. For instance, there weren't really any classic RPG “chest armor” pieces, and very few enemies dropped anything but charms (buff and healing consumables) and “vendor trash” weapons. Instead, the player relied on unorthodox items such as tattoos and weird trinkets to increase their power, often obtained through unconventional means. What are your plans for loot and itemization in Torment: Tides of Numenera?
Numenera has no class-based item restrictions outside of combat skills—only nanos are limited from training in certain weapon types, and anybody can train in reducing armor penalties (though obviously the glaive gets a lot of this for free). So that frees things up some already: all characters can use all weapons (and all light weapons without penalty), all cyphers, and many artifacts.
Additionally, a lot of PST's restrictions were based on the fact that the PC (and most party members) didn't wear generic styles of armor. While some of our companions will still follow this trope, some of them won't and the PC, in particular, will be able to wear any kind of armor (though we are maintaining PST's "no helmet's for the party" convention).
And TTON will still have weird trinkets and even a few tattoos to increase anyone's power, because that sort of thing suits Numenera really well, and honestly it was one of our favorite parts of PST's item system.
InXile brought on a lot of writers for Torment: Tides of Numenera. The emphasis on writing seems to be a staple – perhaps the most important one – in Brian Fargo's CRPG production line. I have two questions on this topic:
A) Are there any plans to update us on the contributions of the stretch-goal writers? For instance, I'm thinking of Patrick Rothfuss, Mur Lafferty and Brian Mitsoda, who were only really heard from during the Kickstarter campaign.
We’ve received area design briefs from a number of our writers – Shanna Germain, Mur Lafferty, Natalie Whipple, and Monte Cook, specifically – and are working their contributions into the game. They’ve been fun, cool, and imaginative (I laughed out loud while reading Mur’s). Pat Rothfuss is writing a whole companion and an area, and his initial work has been excellent - since he has more to do he has a longer deadline from us; our discussions with him and what we’ve seen from him have been fantastic. Brian Mitsoda is currently focused on Dead State, so we’re letting him slide a bit, but we have big plans later this year. Tony Evans has turned in some area designs and contributed some companion and general game ideas. Nathan Long has done some preliminary work on one of the companions, but he’s still been mostly involved on Wasteland 2. Chris Avellone is leading the charge on the companion front (and proving out a companion template for the rest of the writers), and has been invaluable in providing feedback to us on the story and characters, as well as all aspects of the game design.
I don’t know what George Ziets has been up to, though.
(This is also the opportunity for me to mention that Thomas Beekers is trying his hand at some stuff, and he seems to be working out – don’t let that stop you from harassing him, though.)
B) Do you see any risks associated with having “too many writers” on a creative project? Too many cooks spoil the broth, as the saying goes.
Of course! Fortunately, since I’m a complete ogre, I’ve managed to stampede over anyone’s objections to my masterful storytelling and have ruled the project with an iron fist.
More seriously, that’s a risk on any creative project. But we helped mitigate that by having a strong vision (see our Four Pillars) before we recruited our writers, and they were all aware of the vision and the project’s tone before they signed on. And of course, Mur, Tony, Adam, Nathan and Ray Vallese all wrote their novellas, which helped us all (and new team members) better understand the setting and the Tides. Since all of us are working toward the same goal, we can recognize what’s essential and what’s not in telling this story. It has actually been the case that having more writers on the project has made the story stronger – we have iterated on the story, stripped out potentially weaker parts, created a more demanding narrative, and closed loopholes in the earlier versions. Having a larger team of intelligent, talented, and outspoken writers aiming at the same goal has helped us craft a very satisfying story.
One of our early tasks was to develop our dialogue standards and how those standards would apply for our conversation implementation. We’ve been using a version of Obsidian’s conversation editor for almost a year, even before we fully licensed the technology late last year, and we’ve been modifying the tools since last fall. Adam and I have been developing some representative conversations to illustrate both the aesthetic and technical aspects of our approach, and we’ve been soliciting feedback from our other team members to make sure we’re on track with the project’s vision. Or, in a less business-jargon sense: We’ve been writing dialogues and getting feedback to make sure everyone knows what we’re doing, and as more people roll onto the project, we’ll have some idea about how successful we’ve been.
To round off this interview with an open question: What are your hopes for CRPGs (and perhaps even computer games in general) in the next couple of years?
I’d like to see more independent studios get involved and succeed in the business. The multitude of platforms available has made game development more accessible, and there’s plenty of room for small- and medium-tier companies to make it in the industry. More choices means better games (even if you go by Sturgeon’s Law), and better games are good for everyone.
My hope is that crowdfunding increasingly becomes the norm in our business. Gamers know what they want a lot better than marketing execs do, Crowdfunding has plenty of benefits, but two that are particularly important to me:
1) Studios that create crowdfunded games get to keep all the profits (rather than surrendering everything but production costs to publishers), so they are rewarded for producing great content and can funnel those profits into more games that they are actually excited about making. (Working on a game you love is far more likely to produce spectacular results.)
2) Crowdfunding may demonstrate that audiences are interested in a wider variety of projects and settings than is traditionally assumed. I don’t expect that to affect big budget projects aiming to appeal to the mass market, but it does mean that we could identify more niche audiences, and smaller studios can develop games to appeal to them. I’d welcome that sort of market fragmentation, which is already underway.
A big thank-you to Thomas Beekers (Brother None) for setting us up with the interview, and of course an equally big thank-you to all the respondents for taking the time to answer.