Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: Storm of Zehir

Yes, I'm a little late deliver a review, but I thought I'd offer my opinions on the expansion. I starting playing on Christmas Day and finished it off yesterday, so I'd say I got maybe 20-25 hours gameplay out of it. I've had a little bit of a look around various websites and noted there are still a few more things I could do, but it seems I've covered the majority of the game's content.

Overall the gameplay was interesting, and the mixture of exploration and building a trading empire held my attention for a while. However, the new feature of the overland map is definitely a double-edged sword. I really do like the idea, and it's very reminiscent of "Sid Meier's Pirates!", but ultimately I found it was a bit tedious. In the lower and middle levels, it either requires you to run around avoiding and encounters that you might fail to hide from, or simply battle your way through a near never-ending supply of enemies. Once you add this to the tendency of the game to force you to backtrack repeatedly across the overland map, and this happens needlessly on a few occasions due to poorly worded or outright incorrect journal entries. The exploration aspect is a nice touch, but it just felt a bit arbitrary, and all the locations or special interactions you could find ended up feeling a little shallow.

I thought the trading system to be a bit dull to be honest, as there seemed to be very little point to trading manually, with the only real benefits coming from establishing caravan routes. This added in an extra hassle on the overland map of having to protect your beleaguered caravans when one of the local monsters decided to prey on it for no apparent reason. However, one thing I was pleasantly surprised by was the means by which it both rewarded you with inordinate amounts of gold, yet required major investments in order to establish and improve it. This, in combination with the new useful crafting system and a few big ticket items in stores, meant that I was never ridiculously rich, at least not until the very end of the game. Obsidian deserve a big medal in this department for managing something that virtually all RPGs get wrong.

Atmosphere and design were a mixed bag as well. Samargol and the Temple of the World Serpent in particular were very nice, but other areas felt a bit drab and pointless. Again, I believe this is a symptom of the overland map, forcing a greater number of less interesting areas rather than fewer better developed ones. I really must commend the music score, although it felt a little bit too grandiose in the lower levels when I was fighting zombies and skeletons to a glorious crescendo. The new crypt theme and ambient hills theme are probably two of my favorite tracks, and major thematic elements of the music provides a really nice consistency throughout the game. The music tracks definitely felt more cohesive than the OC or MotB, though I confess that I greatly prefer the MotB theme to the new SoZ theme.

However, the one area where I really feel SoZ fell short is in the storytelling and roleplaying department. The story never really grabbed me, and it always felt as though I knew the direction in which it was heading. The fact that I reached its conclusion without really knowing anything more about Zehir than "he's a new deity" which I got from the developer videos hammered home this weakness. It just didn't seem as though any story had been told, nor that my characters had achieved anything particularly significant aside from setting up a thriving merchant company. After coming from the epic tale of Mask of the Betrayer, it felt like I was being given very little motivation to do anything within the game.

This lack of storytelling flowed into the roleplaying aspects of the game as well, for while there were plenty of skill checks and extra conversation options due to skills, none of them ever felt important. Many of the skills checks didn't actually have any effect on the overall outcome of a conversation, and after this happened repeatedly, it gave me the impression that they were somewhat useless and peripheral. In my opinion, not seeing any benefit from having the skill checks is worse than not having them there.

Overall, Storm of Zehir was interesting, but very much an "old school" RPG. In the days of the Gold Box games, the focus was on the mechanics, exploration and combat, and there might have been a somewhat interesting plot that accompanied those. SoZ very much fits in that category, but personally, I feel the RPG genre has evolved to something greater since that era. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed and romanticize about the many, many hours spent playing various Gold Box games (I played through "Death Knights of Krynn" over half a dozen times), but times have changed. Mask of the Betrayer was an excellent example of the new world of RPGs, so SoZ felt like a rather large step backwards in contrast to it and Obsidian's previous releases. It's not to say that Storm of Zehir is a bad game, it just doesn't deliver what I've come to expect from the modern RPG. As a trip down nostalgia lane, it's an enjoyable romp, and it offers some nice additions for module creators, but as a contender in the modern RPG environment, it feels a little lacking.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

News: Release - Making a Better Quest

Another small project I've been working on in recent times is a short tutorial and analysis of quest design. The result is a 14 page PDF called "Making a Better Quest".

Making a Better Quest is a short analysis of the components that make quests exciting and interesting for players. Drawing upon examples from many games in the broader RPG genre, the document provides writers and designers with guidelines that will help produce stronger and more engrossing quests and quest lines.

The guideline should appear on the vault before too long, and you should be able to find it here once it has been approved.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

News: Release - Christmas Toy Workshop

Well, despite the toolset crash I mentioned previously, (thanks for that backup batch file, Amraphael!) and falling ill over the past couple of days, one of the things I've been working on is done and available from the vault right now.

Christmas Toy Workshop is a fun little game I developed over a few days, offering players with the ability to help produce toys for the festive season.

While working on the toy production floor, players must deliver colored toy components to the appropriate corner of the workshop and activate the production mechanism at the correct times. Of course, nothing is ever simple, and there are complications in the production: malfunctioning machines, dangerous heat ventilation and vermin invading the production floor!

I hope you'll take a look at this module and embrace the Christmas spirit!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Status: Toolset Crash

Joy of joys, I had a significant toolset crash which caused various issues today. I should have backed up this small project more regularly...

The toolset crash not only managed to destroy a dozen blueprints, but also filled four rather large scripts with absolutely nothing. Even more strangely, it reset all my toolset settings back to as if I'd just installed the game.

I've just recovered the blueprint, and now have to rewrite those scripts before I can finish with this small project - and I was just doing my final pre-release test too!

I guess patch 1.13 isn't so reliable after all... :(

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

News: New and Coming Work

Just a quick update to let people know that I've posted a short pdf with some area proofing tips which gives a quick list of things to check before finalising an area. While it's not a fully-fledged guide to area creation, it's intended to be a useful tool for area builders and prefab makers to use before declaring an area finished.

I thought I'd also mention I have two other small projects in the works that should be released within the next week or so... Keep an eye out for them both here and on the vault!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Design: Principles - Roleplaying (Part 2)

While I was going to respond to the comment in yesterday's post, I felt that they deserved a little more attention, so I'll expand on my thoughts here.

First of all, I probably should have been more specific in defining my boundaries of roleplaying. While I've not played Storm of Zehir, the consensus from people who have is that it's not a story-driven experience like NWN2 or Mask of the Betrayer.
Everything I've read leads me to believe that it's more of a sandbox game. Something akin to Sid Meier's "Pirates!", where there is a plot, but the world and the player's advancement and fame/wealth are the linchpins of the gameplay. That's not to say it's a worse game, it's just different.

The categories I defined were what I felt are key elements of a story-based RPG. This would have to be my favourite type of RPG, as it can make players fall in love with their character and the NPCs they travel with. That kind of emotional attachment is something that will last long after a player has finished playing, and inspires a great degree of nostalgia years later. It's the very reason so many people still feel so strongly about Baldur's Gate 1 and 2. Whether it was Minsc's antics with Boo, a cautious romance with Jaheira, the desire to hunt down Jon Irenicus or simply to bring the end of the Bhaalspawn war, there were hooks to draw the player in emotionally.

That kind of immersion and motivation is exactly what I was referring to in creating an experience for players. There should be that same attachment as when reading a book, that you don't want it to finish, that you want to be able to continue on and keep have experiences with these characters.

And that's my point about the ability to replay a good RPG. It should be like an excellent book that you want to go back and read later on, except that you know that this time you can influence the story in a different direction.

I feel I should address the issue of Planescape: Torment. It is an excellent game, but if anything, its failing is that the story is too strong, hence getting through the game again in a different method almost feels like it would be a betrayal to the essence of the story. But more accurately, much of the suspense and drive of the game comes from a desire to work out what is happening and how it can be fixed. When you've completed the game once, those two aspects are missing, which makes a repeat play that much harder, as you lack those two driving factors.

The trick is to balance the strength of the story against the strength of the characters, so that even if you know how the story unfolds, the characters of the game make the journey a fulfilling experience, even when you know all the twists and turns of the plot. That's why I could replay Baldur's Gate 1 & 2, Mass Effect, NWN2 OC and MotB (though to a lesser extent), but why I couldn't replay NWN1 or PS:T. The characters made the journey fun, even though I knew the ultimate destination.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Design: Principles - Roleplaying

In another post in the series of design principles, today I want to discuss roleplaying. I must admit, I feel in many cases this is an area that is overlooked in community modules, or at least, seems to fall short in its implementation. While I could write a lengthy essay on the subject, I'll just give a brief overview of what I believe are key elements of roleplaying.

First and foremost in any RPG is the story the player is being told. If this does not grip the player and spur them to keep playing, to find out that next piece of the plot, the game is already fighting an uphill battle to maintain the player's interest. An RPG requires just as much depth in its story as a novel, if not more.

Without an exciting story, why does the player even care what happens to their chosen character? It is the story that makes the player care about their character and their choices, why it makes people develop an attachment to their gaming experience that simply does not occur in FPS or RTS games. It is the story that provides the player and their character with a motivation to play.

The motivation of the character is a key component in defining their personality. Many players have an idea of a character in their head when they play an RPG, and the options are many and varied:
· A hero striving to destroy evil at all costs, even if it means their life.
· A lawful zealot, dispensing justice without mercy.
· A selfish scoundrel, trying to make a profit without risking their life.
· A manipulative powermonger, using deception to further their own ends.

Of course, these are just a few quick examples, and there are hundreds and thousands more options. The aim of the RPG is to provide the ability for the player to roleplay their character and its motivations, whatever they might be. Therefore, "the problem is choice".

This is a core element of roleplaying. It is choice that provides the ability to shape a character, to have an effect on those around. It is choice that means the player is not simply on a pre-defined path. The story must be flexible enough to allow the character's motivations to affect it, yet still be strong enough to keep player on a path to its conclusion. Without choice, the player may as well watching a movie or reading a book, but there cannot be so much choice that the story becomes weak or inconsistent. This balance is one of the hardest aspects of the game designer, as it means providing consequences for those choices.

But in allowing the player to make choices, there has to be a reason for them, and more importantly, a consequence. If choices do not have ramifications, then what difference does it make if the player picks one over another? Consequences make the player think about their actions, to make them consider their decisions and to roleplay their character. Consequences reward roleplaying with a believable and engrossing experience – they provide verisimilitude.

Many RPGs are set in pre-established worlds or universes because they already contain the necessary background. More than a year of the development for BioWare's Mass Effect was spent simply creating the intellectual property to provide the setting. If a player doesn't believe the setting they are in, it breaks the immersion and this is one of the things that game designers attempt to avoid as much as possible.

Just as the player has their own personality and motivations, so do all the people in the world that they meet, and this should come through in their speech and actions. This is the means of tying together all of the above points into a cohesive package that makes a player want to keep gaming.

And that is the ultimate aim – to create an experience that the player not only does not want to put down, but to go back and experience it again after they've finished.