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.