Thursday, August 5, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #2 - What Sort Of Game Will This Be?







Here is another long overdue developer diary for our next game, Avadon: The Black Fortress. These articles are about the ongoing process of developing our new series of games. The first installment was about the source of the idea and the basic framework of the plot, which came together fairly quickly.

We recently gave a long interview about Avadon, with a lot of information about the storyline and game system. If you haven't seen it already and want some hard information about what the new game will be like, it's a good place to start.

So I Had the Basic Idea

Now I needed to decide what sort of game I was going to write. So the next step was to decide on the theme, the mood, and the choices. This process took weeks of thought and is worth attention. It might be a little bit technical and vague though, so if you aren't interested in the artsy parts of game design, you should probably wait until the next part, when I get into the game system and the cool number-based hacky-choppy stuff.

Once I had the skeleton of a plot and setting, I think about how the game will "feel". What will the player be doing? How will I get the player emotionally involved? What gripping choices will the player make? You see, I make small budget games. Fancy graphics and sounds aren't going to happen. My main weapon is the ability to tell a good story, so I focus on that. For Avadon to succeed, I have to make it interesting. How do I do that?

The Theme - You Have Power. How Do You Use It?

So first, I need a Theme. This is a set of vague questions and ideas that determine the choices and quests the player will face. When I am designing a new area or town or set of characters, these are the questions I go back to for ideas and inspiration.

So you are a citizen of the Pact, five nations that have banded together to keep the barbarians and monsters at bay. And you work for Avadon, a secretive and powerful force that hunts down and destroys those who would disrupt the safety and stability of the Pact. Avadon's word is law.

Role-playing games work best when they are, at some level, power fantasies. You are a hero (or villain). You have power, and you get to choose how to use it. This has appeal to a lot of gamers, myself included. So the first step is to place the player in a position of power and responsibility. You need to protect your people, and you are given a lot of leeway for how to do it.

But there are also hints that your power is too great. Your word is law, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Well, it's great for you, but not so hot for everyone else.

Maybe you want to play a thug or a bully. Or maybe you want to resist the temptation to misuse your power, which is satisfying in a different way. And the story of Avadon is about all of the same sorts of choices. Avadon can do what it wants. Will you guide it to do the right thing? And, for that matter, should a group with so much power exist?

That is the theme. Power. The option to misuse it. What will you do?

This is a theme I go back to a lot. I think it leads to interesting games, and a good theme makes coming up with ideas and writing dialogue a lot easier.

The Mood - How Does the Game Feel? Light or Dark?

The next thing to decide is how the game will "feel"? Will it be dark and grim? Bright and cheery? Will there be humor? Will there be detailed descriptions of horror and chaos? How many nice people die?

Based on the theme, Avadon could go very dark. Mass Effect 2 dark, easily. But I decided early on that I don't want that. I like writing humor, and I think games that are too unrelentingly grim aren't very fun.

I decided that Avadon will have a lot of humor and some areas that are fairly cheery. Some of the characters will actually be happy. Sometimes, you will be able to squish evil and make choices you actually feel good about. There will be more confused, cynical moments, of course, but a little of that goes a long way.

A lot of this will show up in Redbeard, the all-powerful master of Avadon. He has much responsibility and power, but I am making him a cheery character, with a lust for life, a macabre sense of humor, and someone who takes true delight in his reach and authority. This character will be the spine of the series, so I want him to be fun to write. And he is.

Of course, these are big games. That makes it easy to have some areas that are light and some areas that are grim. And I will. But, when you are laying down the whole plot, knowing what mood you want at the start helps you get the balance of Neat! and Yuck! right.

The Choices - How Does the Player Change the World?

Finally, choices. I think the most important quality of my games, the thing that adds interest and keeps me interested in writing them, is the ability to make choices that affect the ending. Of course, I'm not the only developer that does this. Bioware is better at it than I am. But it is still something very important to me.

Happily, now that I have the setting and theme, the choice comes naturally. Avadon has almost limitless power, and it can use that power however it wants. Sometimes it uses it for the good of the land, but sometimes corruption sinks in. Avadon has many enemies. The player's choice will be whether to serve Avadon or reject it. Whether to work for Redbeard, master of Avadon, or fight him. Or even plot to replace him.

Choices like this make writing a game much easier. Whenever I design an area and the conversations in it, it provides me a North Star to sail toward. I always skew the choices and conversations toward that final choice, the final destination.

And Then I Have To Write a Game

All of this is a little vague and metaphysical, I know. It is supposed to be. This is all stuff that has to get settled before I write a single line of code. It takes months of thought. But when I'm lost in the wilds, when I have a thousand bug reports and fifty dungeons to design and I'm going crazy, that is too late to figure out what I want the game to be like. I need to put firm clear principles in place so that, when I am exhausted and distracted and just trying to wrap the game up, I have as many questions already answered as I can.

The next diary will be about the next step, the game system, the actual nuts and bolts mechanics of what the game will be like.

39 comments:

  1. I agree, Jeff.
    I think it's analogous to real life as well.
    Better to put philosophy down first, then get to the grind.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jeff, when you say "our next game" do you mean you and your beard? Or do you refer to your hands as individuals?

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  3. Hi Jeff,

    Do you ever get discouraged when writing multiple story lines, knowing that many players will only see a subset of the content?

    I know that choice is a mandatory aspect, and that it has to be real (at least sometimes) to matter, but still, it would be difficult to write content that you know people are unlikely to see, especially with such limited manpower.

    How much of the story in your estimation does a typical player of your games see in a single playthrough? (50%, 80%, ...)

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  4. @Erez: "Jeff, when you say "our next game" do you mean you and your beard? Or do you refer to your hands as individuals?"

    Spiderweb Software has three employee, several freelancers, and many testers. For me to refer to it as simply my game would be arrogant, egotistical, and, of course, just plain wrong.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  5. @Jacob: "Do you ever get discouraged when writing multiple story lines, knowing that many players will only see a subset of the content?"

    Actually, I get a huge kick out of it. If the player's choices make that much of a difference in what they experience, it means I'm Doing It Right.

    "How much of the story in your estimation does a typical player of your games see in a single playthrough? (50%, 80%, ...)"

    Depends on the game. For Geneforge it's much lower. For AVernum and Avadon, much higher.

    - Jeff Vogel

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Spiderweb Software has three employee, several freelancers, and many testers."

    A painter doesn't (usually) mix his own paints, nor does he saw his own canvass, build his own brushes etc. they have managers, agents, they don't own the galleries and museums where their work is presented, and some of them have secretaries and PAs. Yet you never see them refer to "our latest paintings".

    It seems that there's this thing where you can't refer to your work as "I" because people don't take products of a non-company seriously. But it is you who make the games. You have others who make the art, and your distribution company has three employees, but there's only one person who is "making the game".

    ReplyDelete
  7. Erez, what I would like to know is why you're trying to neglect the people working with Jeff. What's your motivation?

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Erez: Amazingly, some people consider the making of a computer game, a hugely collaborative art form, to be different than making a painting.

    If you were actually ever in our office and saw the process, I think you would find that it is, while mostly me, not just me.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  9. Let me clarify. I do not believe that multi-employees products such as Starcraft II or Dragon Age are anything close to an art form. However, a single-person's work, especially someone like Jeff, or like Vic Davis (Solium Infernum), can, and in the case of these two individuals, should be called art.

    I'm also not saying they did everything by themselves, but no artist does. A violinist does not make his own violins, an actor doesn't build his own theatre; Jeff did not create C++ or manufactured the computer he's using. Other people also made the game's art, the tools he builds with, the fonts, etc. But it is his story, his ideas, his themes and imagination. I do not neglect, or trying to detract from the work of others, but to magnify and focus on Jeff's work. I believe that, as long as creators, like Jeff, refuse, for whatever reason, to refer to their work as "their work", you can never call video games a form of art.
    I'm not privy to the creative process of Jeff's games, but I can't stop wondering why one of the only people who can actually relate to his games as "his art" refuses to do so.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I know this is off topic, but I was wondering whether you ever plan to port any of your games to the ipod or ipad?

    I really enjoyed your Exile games way back when, and the geneforge series looks awesome. I have a lot less time to play video games these days, as I have a job and stuff, but being able to play them on an iphone would give me a lot more opportunities, as I always have that with me.

    The app store also seems to have the piracy issue solved pretty well, so I have to imagine that there would be potential for pretty good returns vs shareware.

    ReplyDelete
  11. >>>Let me clarify. I do not believe that multi-employees products such as Starcraft II or Dragon Age are anything close to an art form. However, a single-person's work, especially someone like Jeff, or like Vic Davis (Solium Infernum), can, and in the case of these two individuals, should be called art.

    Ooh, time for an art semantic fight! I absolutely believe that something like StarCraft 2 counts as art just as much as something like Avernum. Same goes for movies and good architecture or any large collaborative project. There's usually a director responsible for the overall vision, which is a kind of art, and then various artists responsible for individual pieces/sections. I see no reason why each individual piece is not art, nor why the process of combining those pieces wouldn't be.

    The only possible exception might be things that are churned out to essentially meet factory specifications. FPS-with-practically-no-innovation--nor-compelling-storyline-#453... if the creators really want to claim they are making art I'm not going to argue with them, but neither am I going to use them in an argument with Roger Ebert.

    @catphive - can't speak for Jeff hear, but porting a game to iPad is a big deal. (porting it to iPod is even bigger). In addition to technical requirements, you need to really consider what kinds of gameplay actually work well on that kind of device. The worst iPhone games I've played tried to fit all the complexity of an RPG onto a 3 inch screen. The best ones have 3-5 buttons, total.

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  12. 不會從失敗中找尋教訓的人,成功之路是遙遠的。.................................................

    ReplyDelete
  13. >A lot of this will show up in Redbeard, the all-powerful master of Avadon. He has much responsibility and power, but I am making him a cheery character, with a lust for life, a macabre sense of humor, and someone who takes true delight in his reach and authority.

    Hmm. Might he be based on anyone in particular...?

    ;)

    ReplyDelete
  14. OMG - just spotted this in the other interview:

    "We are also looking hard at other platforms. Specifically the little ones that you carry around everywhere."

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jeff, I just wanted to say that I've actually always found the choice systems in your games to be a lot more interesting then Bioware, mostly because you don't draw as strong of a distinction between "good" and "evil" and each choice moving you up or down a binary slider.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Interesting that you say that introducing choices (and thus branching the storyline) makes the development process easier for you. Why does Bioware avoid branches like the ones common in your games (fe. choosing a faction which determines how do you shape the world, what quests do you receive and with which NPCs do you communicate etc)? Do you think it might have something to do with production values?

    Each branch in a Bioware game would result in additional tasks for the graphics department, more need for voice acting and other expensive stuff. Perhaps technology does stifle game design.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Nice!
    Once a marketer said - that writers block is just lack of preparation and planning. Made sense.

    Setting the skeleton is actually very important. Any good "how to be successful" book and advice will give some sort of fixing desires and then filling out the rest.

    From experience I can confirm it works wonders.

    ReplyDelete
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