Monday, 30 August 2010

Project A Day 5 - Our Past Defines Our Future

Wow, so now I'm up to 11,700+ words on the Falling Skies document. I dread to think how many words I've written talking about it on this blog. And today I'm going to add some more commentary, this time about the extensive history of the Raelian Plains (ie the region in which Falling Skies is set).

Timeline (well, part of it)
I may have mentioned I had already written a timeline for Rael, from the end of the previous age through 1150-odd years up to the time when the campaign takes place. I already had a rough idea of what I wanted to have happened during that time and went through, century by century, expanding my notes and adding in new events for detail. There's a mix of major Raelian events, notes of construction of key landmarks and indications of major cultural trends. Each point is only one or two sentances.

The corresponding history
(Oh, for the record, the reason the first event doesn't have an exact year is because I don't know how long the Fifth Age was: no timeline has yet been written for the standard Niam campaign setting.)

In the past couple or few days I have been expanding this timeline into a fully fledged history which adds greater detail and flavour and, I think more importantly, tells a real story. Events are put into context and given motivation. Let's take a specific example:

6.875 - The first open conflict occurs between individual citadels, between the houses of Bael and Tathin. Alhrazad VI steps in to force a peaceful resolution. It does not last.

... becomes ...

The conflict finally exploded into public view in 6.875 when the houses of Bael and Tathin declared each other traitors to the crown and declared war upon their respective houses. Their two citadels were piloted into position to launch barrage after barrage of fire and stone like a pair of great warships. Before either could be brought down, however, Lord Alhrazad the Sixth (descendant of Lord Varell) flew out from his palace-citadel upon his yacht, a fusion of Raelian steam-ship engineering and Caethi magic. He placed his yacht between the two warring families, who daren’t risk injuring their lord and ceased fire long enough for him to force them to come to a settlement.
So as you can see, the timeline note gives the key point of the event and the names of the central people involved. Other notes don't mention people in similar roles, but in this case Bael, Tathin and Alhrazad VI are very important in further events.

The history paragraph talks about the same things but in a much more - cough - dramatic style. It not only tells you that these three figures had a fight but in what manner and why. It gives the event weight, conjures an image (imagine a citadel-war with Avatar's budget!) and helps to weave the story with future events, ie a later all-out war of the three factions.

Of course, not every event or note has been expanded. Doing so could fill a book by itself, but the key events describing the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Rael are included in the history.

Okay, so that's a relatively short post today - thank goodness. It seems likely that the next element I'll work on is general wasteland culture, how people get by day to day. Looks like I'm writing the Wasteland Survival Guide here.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Project A Day 4 - No, Mr Bond, I Except You To Roll


You'll notice it has been a few days since we've had a project update. It is not that I've not done any work on Falling Skies, it is that I have not had anything new worth writing about. I have already talked twice about designing locations and what would be the point in doing so again? I have written the Trade Quarter and started on the Noble Quarter but (and isn't this becoming a theme?) I was quick becoming tired of developing the City of Phire. Inspiration was coming hard to come by and the work was becoming more of a slog than a joy. And when that happens the product becomes merely functional.

Anyway, so I gave it up for the day and fell in to my nest of cushions in the sitting room to watch Man vs Food (damn I'm hungry). I have this old wheeled coffee table that I understand my Mum nicked from her Mum - I have my laptop resting on it as I type - and it's usually got a notebook and pen lying on it too. Not really thinking I picked up a pen and started scribbling. What I ended up with was a bullet pointed overview of the Big Bad's plan, and thus the overarching plot.

What you need to know is so far I hadn't really thought about the overarching plot. On the day I thought up the setting, I needed a combat encounter, a way to get the characters into the future and a vault-like dungeon. What just kind of happened was the heroes went to a temple dungeon (ostensibly seeking out some travellers who had been kidnapped) and got caught in the middle of a ritual where the travellers were being sacrificed one after the other. The evil cleric at the centre of it kept them at bay until the ritual could be completed and time froze. From the heroes' and players' perspective one moment they were in the middle of battle then the chamber was empty, dark and littered with ancient skeletons. The cleric was gone, his purpose complete.

But by the end of the second session it was clear the game was seriously lacking in direction. While half the fun of a Fallout game is in the open-world do-anything-you-like style, that does not always work in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Besides, in Fallout 3 you always have a goal hanging over you. When you walk out of the vault, even though you know next to nothing about the wasteland you know that somewhere out there is your father you need to find. My players needed a similar (of course optional) goal.

So what did my stream of conciousness notes read? Nothing more or less than the below:

Haerwich Starbringer
* Started as loyal cleric of Essel until he discovered the Far Gods.
* Learned the power he needed would arrive on Niam 600+ years later so found a way to freeze himself in time until then.
* Overshot thanks  to heroes distraction.
* Now goes between Fallen City and Phire's royal compound gathering dark crystals and Caethi artefacts to summon a Far God.
* Ends with moving a citadel over the palace?

Let's examine this point-by-point, and I'll try and explain what I was thinking at the time.

* Started as loyal cleric of Essel until he discovered the Far Gods.
As I'm sure you're wondering, Essel is the Niam CN god of secrets (seperate to the god of knowledge, but The Lawforged isn't worshipped at all). The Far Gods are essentially the Elder Gods, the most famous of whom is the great Cthulu himself. The Manual of the Planes talks of the Far Plane, a place of madness, where such entities come from. The Niam cosomology is somewhat different but if you imagine the planes orbiting a central point, like planets around a star, then Niam is way out near Neptune. Currently, I've just thought this up so it might chance, I envision the Far Plane as equivalent to some asteroid with an erratic, elliptical orbit measured in lightyears. It crosses Niam's orbit only once in... a very large number of years, and when it does the Far Gods can travel across the inter-planar space. When that happens Bad Things ensue.

Now that you know what I'm babbling about: the subtext to this bullet point is that Haerwich was once a normal man and was corrupted by contact with the Far plane. Corruption is a key theme of Falling Skies so this is fairly neat. Also, as the taint in the wasteland comes from the power of the dark crystals which draw power directly from the far plane, it indicates the influence of the far plane was felt long before the dark crystals appeared above the Rael planes. This might connect in with, say, citadels appearing in Niam way back around the time of the Fifth Demonic Incursion, the standard setting for Niam campaigns.
* Learned the power he needed would arrive on Niam 600+ years later so he found a way to freeze himself in time until then.
An explanation for why the time-freezing ritual was necessary, and so how to get the players too from the Fifth Incursion into the Falling Skies time period. Yeah, short comments for this bullet.
* Overshot thanks to heroes distraction.
Why did Haerwick not arrive when the Caethi citadels were still in the air like he intended? The classic ragtag team of unlikely heroes. Poor guy. This might also explain why the players don't come out of stasis at the same time as Haerwick: essentially the ritual goes slightly wrong and the effect isn't the same over everyone involved.
* Now goes between Fallen City and Phire's royal compound gathering dark crystals and Caethi artefacts to summon a Far God.
This one bullet point has so many possibilities. Haerwich has a goal that takes a long time and requires the assistance of goons and maybe even heroes. The DM has plenty of flexibility with how Haerwick goes about gathering the items. The heroes may not hear anything about it until he's finished, maybe they'll find themselves in the middle of a veritable gold rush as Haerwick very publicly offers a fortune for crystals or something a little more subtle as rumours spread of someone (a secret assistant or Haerwich in disguise) paying top-tips. This process can last as long or as short as desired.
* Ends with moving a citadel over the palace?
Every action-based story needs a grand finale and nothing screams epic fantasy climax like a flying fortress soaring over a ruined city. It gives the heroes two (forgive me if I say so myself) fantastic settings for their showdown with the Big Bad. Do they fight through the heart of darkness in the streets and palaces of the noble quarter? Or do they somehow make their way onto the citadel itself and fight Haerwick and his forces on his own turf?

Right, I think this enough of an essay for one day. I am going to do some writing putting this story plan in detail and talk about other ways you might introduce the players to the setting but for now, goodnight.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Your New Dose of Amnesia Is Ready

The new horror-puzzler, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, has gone gold as of yesterday (Friday) and has a confirmed release date of September 8th.

Developers Frictional Games have already delivered dread and darkness with their previous games which formed the Penumbra series. Amnesia goes further from the preconceptions of a first person adventure game and makes the player completely defenceless and promises 'an interactive nightmare where reality is a fragile concept'. Sounds like just my kind of kind.

You can still pre-order the game from its website with a 10% discount. A Steam release is also expected (pre-order codes should also work on Steam) and the site indicates a demo will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Project A Day 3 - Variety, Spice and Stereotypes

Today's progress was filling in and completing the Transient Quarter of the City of Phire. Like I described in the previous blog post, this involves an overview, the people, the places and story hooks (in that order). Today I will go into some detail about the thought processes behind the location's design and look at creating a location from the bottom up (starting with its mechanical purpose, leading through locations up to people). While I may fib a little about the order in which I completed the designs this is only for the purposes of making the logic clear.

The City of Phire is of such a size that to describe it in detail, corner to corder, would take forever to do all at once and be very confusing for both myself and any potential readers. A real city cannot think that way, either, and so city planners and inhabitants find ways to divide the concept of the 'city' into manageable regions: suburbs, districts, blocks and the like.

Phire and Transient Qrter Overview
Which style of division depends upon how the city is formed. Many British cities are a series of suburbs surrounding a city centre because of the way European cities tended to grow from a single town until it encompassed neighbouring villages for miles around. American metropoli, however, we constructed or re-constructed with a Plan in mind so they have a grid system of horizontal and vertical roads at regular distances from one another (bar the occasional pattern-breaker like the Las Vegas strip).

The Sapphire City grew around the local centre of government, a palace built against the edge of the sea. As the city's wealth and population expanded, the stone-built areas expanded in only a few sudden, orchestrated phases of construction. Each time the city walls are extended around the new city limits and, inside, stone buildings are erected to suit the city planners' needs. Meanwhile the slums are pushed further out, beyond the city walls. This has resulted in a series of walled districts called Quarters. In world terms, each quarter has its own distinct historical use and cultural emphasis (a trade district has a lot of warehouses and merchant's offices, while the noble district has a lot of stately homes and ornamental for example). In terms of game mechanics, each district can be though of as analogous to a game level or zone. The Transient Quarter is home to vendors, quest givers, and maybe player housing, with encounters suitable for characters of level 1-5 (just as an example) while the Noble Quarter is a combat zone where quests usually lead and encounters tailored for characters of level 8-15 with regular loot and coin drops to match. That is not to say that the Falling Skies document describes them in such terms but hopefully I am making myself understood.

Places: Gateway and marketplace
The Transient Quarter is designed with social interaction in mind. It should feel safe to the players and their characters while not losing the threat of danger all around. A sense of dread is important to a setting where people are regularly sent mad by scavenged artefacts and are eaten from within by corruption in the food they eat. With this in mind, the location design gravitates around three key points: the market square and the two gates which lead to the more dangerous Trade and Noble Quarters.

The gates are easily highlighted in a game by their very existence (as opposed to there being no wall and thus no clear barrier between zones) and the presence of guards that are not a large influence in the rest of the area. The market requires a little more work. First, the desired goods and services must be identified. In a small settlement you might have one trader that sells a wide range of common goods but only a little of each type of item, but in a larger town or city residents will require (and players will expect) several different traders specialising in particular kinds of stock. To fill this need I listed five different groups of items using headings from the Player's Handbook equipment chapter, each bullet point representing a different stall at the market.

But heroes can't get everything they need from market stalls so a few real structures were required: a smithy for the powerful weapons and armour they will need as they increase in experience, and a couple of inns to eat and sleep in (and in which to talk to shady hooded figures who sit in the corner staring into an empty glass). Any decent sized settlement requires two inns or such to provide a choice for the discerning adventurer and to emphasise differences in social groups. A society with, if not conflict, at least friction between two sorts of people is far more interesting and fertile for adventure than one where everyone gets along. In the City of Phire the two groups served by the different drinking establishments are the common wasteland survivors who drink at the Sand Pit and the more wealthy and usually-magically-inclined crowd who frequent the Star of the East Hotel.

People: The Hotelier and the Shopkeeper
Now we have the places, we need people to fill them. There are stalls in the market so stall-holders are required. There is an inn and a hotel so proprietors and bar-flies need creating. And what town would be complete without the criminal element? Rogues always need someone who talks on their level and, besides, writing crooks is a hoot.

An innkeeper, however, is never just an innkeeper. Well, yes, they are but you cannot think of them like that. Even if the only thing the character does is provide the heroes with beer and a bed, having a clear and... flavoursome character in mind when you portray the surly barkeep dragging their tips across the work-surface and shouting at a hireling to take the adventurers to their rooms will improve the sense of place and depth of the setting. So much better, too, if you avoid stereotypes and cliches in your characters. Yes, yes, sometimes a cliche is a cliche because it is so perfect for the role but you can usually get a better response from your players by providing them with fresh and interesting characters to play off against. When I found myself writing a Dwarf weapons and armour trader, an Elf magic goods seller and a Halfling rogues equipment distributor I had to shake my ideas around and force myself to work a little harder. Now the market place has a Dwarf selling adventurers gear, sandwiched between a Halfling light-arms seller and a Half-Orc woman who carries heavier weapons while the humans, one selling magic goods and the other alchemical items, verbally snipe across the square while resisting the urge to throw themselves into one anothers' arms.

See? Character! While I can't claim they will astound the world with their brilliance or originality at least I hope old archtypes have been shaken up and restyled into new and interesting forms that will be both relatable and novel to players' eyes.

Now I'm not sure I'm making sense any more as I am in dire need of some decent sleep so I will cut this short (hah!) and say goodnight for now. Tomorrow... well, we'll see what I get up to.


Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Project A Day 2 - Residents of the Wasteland

Locations - Overview
Today was devoted largely to expanding the Falling Skies campaign setting notes. I expected to have a chance to expand the setting through play but tonight's regular gathering didn't work out that way. Man, I love that I can add stuff like this to my CV or portfolio - it's essentially games design when you get right down to it, like writing a level design document. Exactly the kind of stuff that I spent last year's Games Design modules doing at uni.

I concentrated on typing up and filling out the existing notes on general locations, the town and people of Ketai and the city and residents of the City of Phire (shortened from the original Sapphire City). For the record, I don't believe I mentioned yesterday but that day was spent primarily in setting down the setting overview, economy (currency, common trade goods etc) and 1100+ years of history.

From the top, then! I started by looking over my (really sketchy and unpublishable) map of the region and making a list of the important locations identified so far, in no particular order. I then reorganised these into alphabetical order and went through them, again fairly at random, writing a paragraph or two for each location. Browsing this chapter(?) should give a reader a good overall image of the wasteland and know the important places they have available. It also serves to remind me of the intent and purpose of each location when it later comes to developing them in detail.

Key Locations : People
Which is what comes next. Each 'key location' has its own chapter, or sub-chapter whatever, which is further segmented into People, Places and Hooks (ie story hooks or potential quests). People and Places tend to be thought up together: for example, a shopkeeper and their shop naturally form as one idea. Hooks come later when the others are filled in. How can you have a solid quest idea if there are no places for it to occur in or people to initiate or be involved in it?

Seeing as I already had a bunch of notes on it, I started with the eastern town of Ketai - which you will realise is an analogue of Megaton from FO3, though there is not exactly a quest to destroy the town or render the tower at its centre safe. I started with my list of existing characters and began fleshing them out one-by-one. One note reads 'Martha - Guardswoman' and that's it. I remember from Sunday's session that she'd been the watch captain, sharp with the heroes, sounded tired and I had decided to use her as a vehicle to introduce firearms (though never directly calling them as such). A little thinking and a little writing, just letting my fingers work of their own accord, and I'm left with the following:

Martha – Human female Ranger 6 - Captain of the Watch
This tough, no-nonsense woman began life in the toughest streets of Phire City. After some now unmentioned event in her early life she was forced to flee into the wastes, where she was picked up by a raider gang. Several years later she turned up in Ketai, seriously injured and clearly traumatised. See was allowed to stay and when her combat skills became clear she was invited to join the town watch. Now in her late 30s, Martha has risen to lead the watch as captain. Her skills with the town’s one musket rifle are legendary and Martha’s reputation alone has fended off several would-be town raiders.

Which should be more than enough for now, and for any Dungeon Master to work with. Should her precise statistics be required, the DM in question should be able to devise a suitable stats block from the description, knowledge of their campaign's requirements, and the heading line: 'Human female Ranger 6'.

Key Locations: Places
Next came Places. The town description identified a few locations: namely the 'solid defensive wall', the fallen citadel and stores where trading might occur. Others had appeared in the gaming session, such as Liara's water bar and hotel. Again a list was made and in their turn the places were described in enough detail to suggest their general appearance, purpose and use. In the case of places of trade, some particularly common items were listed with their cost and how much of each item can be acquired in a given period. And I've just remembered I meant to add how many tips a vendor has available for trade: Liara the hotelier only has a hundred or so tips in liquid assets, while Felix the trader may be able to gather together a lot more given a little notice.

Finally, as mentioned, comes Hooks. These came from just looking over the places and people and jotting down the ideas that came to mind. I try to find around five hooks for any given location, in a range of styles - five combat-oriented ideas are less interesting than a couple of combat ideas, a couple mystery and one political just to pull a few out of the air. More than any other element, Hooks are there largely for inspiration for DMs to create their own plot points rather than hard-and-fast facts of the location.

In dangerous locations, like the raider-controlled Oasis or the crime-ridden City of Phire, hazards and threats would also be mentioned under a fourth sub-heading. As it is Ketai has its own dangers but they are so few they can be described under the relevant place or person.

Well, I hope this has been of interest and even better it would be nice to think someone could take an idea from this and use it in developing their own games and settings. For myself, this is a lot of fun and I hope makes a worthwhile addition to a future portfolio. The next step is to put some serious effort in to the City of Phire.

Au revoir mes amis!

Going Underground: Take a Trip on the Metro

More than five months after its release, Metro 2033 has got itself a demo. It seems to be funded/sponsored by hardware manufacturer MSI but no-one's interested in The Money, right?

Metro 2033, as you might remember, is a Russian-made FPS based upon Dmitry Glukhovsky's novel of existential horror in post-apocalyptic Moscow underground. To save the remnants of humanity from mutant hordes you must travel from your home station to the centre of the metro system, fighting neo-nazis and communists and venturing above ground into the nuclear winter.

The stations are as packed with atmosphere and incidental detail as they are packed with people, in stark contrast with the empty loneliness of the tunnels themselves. Combat is tough and mostly enthralling though in the end it is a linear shooter with the requisite stealth sections and over-powered bullet soaks that start appearing 2/3 of the way through. I don't imagine you'll see those in the demo though: can't tell you exactly as I've not downloaded it.

The demo is only being distributed on FilePlanet so far so you'll need to be registered with them to download it. Hopefully it will spread to other sites and Steam. Download here.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Project A Day 1 - A New Fallout Fantasy

And now for something a little different.

Since last time I have done some work on Khalith's Cell Level 2, cluttering and lighting the reception room, hospital hall and surgery room. Damn they're complicated, and I don't know if I'm making them any better than the early work on Level 1 but they certainly feel more complicated at this point. Is that a good sign? All I know for certain is that I had to do something different to stay interested in it in the long term.

So, last night (probably two nights ago by the time I finish writing this bloody thing) was a night of D&D with my core group. The group fluctuates between four of us up to, oh, nine on a busy night. I ended up DMing so we played this campaign that I honestly thought we wouldn't get a change to continue.

The campaign and its setting are called Falling Skies. It is a new region for our - apparently 8 year old now - existing classic fantasy world set about a thousand years after our standard time and inspired by Fallout 3. So it's post-apocalyptic with bands of raiders and bandit. The remains of a large city dominates one corner of the map. What is left of the army have set up base in a fortress on the other side of the main river. Ketai, the first settlement the players visit, is a ramshackle town built around a crater in the middle of which is a large artefact giving off invisible corruption. The mountains are riddled with once-sealed crypts that were at times used to keep many families safe from the dangers of the wasteland. While there are no direct copies of things from the DC wasteland, there are many analogues.

Because I didn't expect to run it again I had only the original session's notes, including a rough regional map and some ideas for NPCs to use in Ketai. Usually I prefer to be very prepared for a session but sometimes winging it is fun and can result in a wider experience for the players. It is of course a greater challenge but coming up with eight fully fleshed, differentiated and original NPCs and an entire city quarter on the fly was very rewarding.

If I left it like that, it would be mostly likely I would forget everything and maybe lose the notes or leave them to collect dust at the back of my world campaign setting folder. I of course don't want that so I spent the evening starting to write up my notes. That started well but I soon found myself writing entirely new content - the timeline of the region to be precise. If this were a well structured, well managed team project that might have been a problem but I find it best to go with the flow. If you work on what you're interested on, you'll not burn out so soon and your work will be just plain better.

Note I've designated this Project A. This is because Falling Skies isn't exactly computer games design and I may not post about it again but it's fairly relevant and worth mentioning, right?

Tata boyos.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Project 1 Day 6 - Number Crunching

Rooms and portals w/o statics
Short post today, I feel. Largely because I haven't done so much work today, and none yesterday, but also feeling rather unnecessarily wrecked and spending more time on other projects right this minute.

Anyway, what I have done is optimised Level 1 as best I can. This involves applying room makers to each room and corridor and connecting these blue cubes with portal markers, which are the grey rectangles in the graphic to the left. These markers tell the engine what to render at any given time, so only what is near the player is rendered, thus increasing the frame rate.

Rooms and portals w/ statics
Creating the markers is rather fiddly. Correctly aligning and sizing on the z-axis is a right pain, especially as I made each one individually, not realising they can be duplicated like other elements. Like I said in the last post, because I realise these things now, it will be faster and smoother the next time around.

Oh and there were a few little fixes including getting a working world map marker.

Right, tomorrow is a start on Level 2. Unless maybe it's time to start on a new project... no, definitely got to get this mod finished.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Project 1 Day 5 - Give My Creation Life!

No blog post yesterday? No, but I do need to take some manner of break sometime. Still, I managed to get started on one of today's tasks: developing the NavMesh for Level 1. Actually everything I've done lately is for Level 1 alone - I wanted to get something fully playable quick. Plus learning the full level development process on a limited area means building levels 2 and 3 will be so much quicker. Well, that's the theory anyway.

So, NavMesh! What is it? A floor-hugging sheet of red polygons that tells NPCs where they can go. It follows the walls and skirts around the larger clutter like tables and barrels. Fairly simple process but fiddly and time consuming, so it was good spending some time yesterday starting it instead of spending a full day on it. Then cover elements must be identified, which is far simpler: just click two icons and hey presto, done.

Next was choosing sensible NPCs (I've gone with a few various Talon fighters). They will mill around, attack and chase if left like that but further touches are required to add some real life. With a combination of 'idle markers', which say where a person can sit, lean, do push ups or whatever, and navigation paths the NPCs can be made to live out little facsimiles of intelligence. For example, one of the characters in Khalith's Cell spends some time typing at a terminal in the office, wanders down the east corridor, pauses in the central hall, leans against a wall and then returns to the office. If the player is sneaking their way around and not disturbing the Talon Company thugs, they will see such silent plays, where as purely randomly walking figures would break the sense of immersion.

In order to finally get this cell working, players have to be able to get in to it. It took a while trying to work out where to put the access point, including a whistle-stop tour of the Wasteland looking for blank walls or cliffs and the like. Eventually I came across a suitable looking rocky nook to the NE of Vault 108. And then things got weird.
Somebody had already put a cave entrance there. Hidden behind a single large rock was a perfect cave door, neatly aligned with the surrounding cliff face and, now I looked again, with a rough sort of dusty pathway leading almost up to it. Perhaps it was the way in to the nearby Vault at some point during the game's development? Or maybe it was to be part of some other location cut in its entirety? Either way, I counted myself lucky and wondered again that I came to the same conclusions as someone in Bethesda.

So that should be enough for today, I think. What to do tomorrow, hmm... ah, yes! Optimise! And then move on to Level 2! And do all this over again. Oh boy.


Monday, 16 August 2010

Project 1 Day 4 - Clutterizer 2000

So much for a day of rest, though today was a few hours shorter - 3 till 9pm, not 1 till 9 (ridiculously long blog posts not included). Today's time was mostly devoted to completing Level 1's clutter pass. I started with a list of the rooms, listed by letters which reference their matching rooms in the original map layout, and each had a brief description with maybe a note of particular features I wanted to include. For example, the top three looks something like this:
Level 1 - Lit

(No 'A' because A is the exterior on my map)
B - Complex Approach - motorbike?
C - Hall & General Stores
D - Cave Approach - traps!

Then I went from room to room using a mix of OPALs and the Object Window to add in first big clutter (desks, tables, chairs, lockers) then small clutter (pencils, paper, bottle caps, weapons and ammo).

So what problems did I come across this time? Remembering when to use containers instead of statics. Static versions of cupboards, desks, chairs and wardrobes exist in the game world but cannot be interacted with in any meaningful fashion. To be take loot from these pieces of furniture, you have to use versions of them from the 'containers' list. Easy enough so long as you keep that in mind, especially as there are pre-setup versions of most containers appropriate to different locations: if you have a locker in an office, it's likely to have different contents to a locker in a military bunker so in the former you would place a Locker01Office (which holds some caps and maybe some pre-war money and a finance clipboard) while in the latter you would use Locker01Military (which might hold some ammo and a combat knife instead).
Level 1 - Unlit

It also became apparent that so many similar, 10x10 rooms with a door on the SW side adjoining the West Corridor was going to make for confusing and repetitive level design. The corridor itself was largely a mass of doors with no plain space. Something had to change, so the middle room on the North side was removed. This also allowed for a patch of dimmer light in the corridor, giving the other doors - especially the one leading to Level 2 - more importance.

It seems I like to spend a little time on appearance and a little time on mechanics. The mechanics learned today were related to traps. Another quick look at a video tutorial and I was away. Including basic traps in Fallout 3 is a simple matter of copy-and-paste from a cell called WarehouseTraps, where everything is laid out for easy viewing. Clearly someone or some people at Bethesda think a little like me because that's exactly how I'd set it up. (Easier living through laziness, yay!)

Bear-traps are just copy-pasted in and away you go. Same for grenade-bouquets. Trip-wire traps are only slightly more complicated: place the wire, place the swinging skill/engine-block/girder where it will hit the player and they're going to be left with a nasty concussion. Shotgun traps are fiddly, though, as the exact positioning of the pressure-plate and the shotgun itself must be refined through a process of testing so the player is hit if they follow the predicted path.

Containers and traps

Right, I think that's everything. Tomorrow... yeah, tomorrow I think I'll have to add in enemies and navigation points for them. Ciao!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Project 1 Day 3 - Scattering the Clutter

What a way to spend a Sunday, hey? Stuck behind a laptop, surrounded by a nest of pillows and bean bags with House Series 5 boxset on the TV. And up to my elbows in thick, detritus-filled GECK.

Level 1
First off was fixing a couple of errors noted in yesterday's blog: sorting out overly straight paths, empty boring halls, missing rooms and various other minor errors/omissions I later spotter. It is very helpful to have regular walk-throughs of the level in development, so that errors like this can be sorted early on when everything is relatively simple rather than be stuck with them or have to work out fixes around clutter, enemies and the like already in place.

Level 2
Examples: A chicane was added to Level 1's East Corridor. The staircase heading off the West Corridor had its middle set of stairs switched out for an alcove, which added just a little variety and blocked the previously clear view right from top to bottom of the stairs. It also meant that running right down that path didn't result in the avatar apparently skipping over the stairs and floating his/her way down. Finally, it allows for a point of interest - ammo, a trap, aid pickups etc - to be placed in the alcove, slowing the player's descent.

Level 3
Several alcoves were added to corridors on Level 2 (perhaps too many, but they work) and the ridiculously long West Corridor leading towards the door to Level 3 has been violently kinked over near its North end. As for Level 3 itself, that long Underground tunnel ramping downwards had to go. Now the two levels would actually intersect each other if they were constructed in reality but they aren't going to bore a player to death.

A weirder problem occurred in the central hall of Level 3. When standing at one end of the room or beyond and looking at the far side, surfaces stopped being affected by the lighting. Specifically the walls were unlit and the door was totally lit. This I guess is a result of the engine's interior Level Of Detail programming. Quickly fixed by shortening the hall drastically, to a more entertaining size anyway.

LOD fail (Temp lighting)
More interestingly I got started on proper lighting and clutter for Level 1. To be honest the lighting arrangement was borrowed from Fort Bannister's file, with a little variation in places. But it works. Off in one corner of the cell, out of view of the player, I have a patch of light pieces pre-arranged for quick and easy placement in the level, which speeds things up.

Lighting Test
Clutter is a pleasure to add, though time consuming. With a hint from the Bethesda video tutorial again, I looked up the OPAL (Object Pallet) pack on Fallout 3 Nexus. Object Palettes are collections of commonly used items compatible with an easy-place tool which includes custom random alignment. It makes adding in things like believably messy and complimentary general clutter, posters, blood stains, ammo and furniture nice and simple. It is, however, still fairly time consuming at the moment. I am sure it will get quicker with a little experience.

Terminal, Safe and Key Test
To break up the day - and because my mind wanders off investigating tangents - I ended up teaching myself how to create keys, safes and terminals AND get them all working together. So, in the screenshot above, you see a locked safe with random cheap contents. The terminal, once hacked, can be used to unlocked the safe. Inside the safe is a key which is used to unlocked the door to Level 2. I know, not great gameplay - what happens if you break the terminal or break the safe lock? - but it is just a test of concept at this point.

Right, I think that's everything. I think you're also probably falling asleep here just like I am. Tomorrow... might just be a day of rest, except I don't have anything better to do so how about I finish off Level 1's clutter?


Saturday, 14 August 2010

Project 1 Day 2 - Laying Out The Level

Day number two! We're on a roll!

Level 1
Today's work began with a realisation that the existing work was going to be unsuitably large as a single cell (which has the problems of long loading times and sluggish performance). And in order to make it work as two cells I had to first teach myself how to connect one cell to another.

It turns out the process is marvellously easy. All cells are connected by doors, entirely standard doors, which have been set by an option in their Properties window to teleport the player to another door in another cell. So just a quick note of the relevant door's unique ID# from one level, input into the teleport target field for the other level's connecting door and essentially... bingo! Though the arrival point and direction have to be slightly fine tuned.

Level 2

However this wasn't the goal of the day. Recreating the layout of the dungeon known as Khalith's Cell was, so I began with that. A little experimentation and thought showed the Vault (Rusted) tileset was limiting and inappropriate, so I switched to (mostly) the Utility tileset, with a smattering of Underground and Cave.

Toilets were the most diffi... oh, crap, I just noted some missing small rooms on the West side of Level 2. I'll make a note to fix that tomorrow. Anyway, toilets. Using the UtlRm (Utility Room) series didn't seem right. All those thick pipes running vertically in the corners and tubes looping around the ceiling? What toilet has stuff like that? Apparently the ones in Fallout 3's utility tunnels, judging from a little research in Fort Bannister.

Level 3
Transitions from small to big hallways (UtlHallSm and UtlHallBg) were also problematic. Just finding tiles that fit neatly together was a pain, but not nearly as much as with the Vault tileset, one of the reasons I dumped it. Not many different sets fit to many others, but just about everything fits to Utility.

At this early stage there are already things I see that need fixing. Following the original plans to the letter may have been a little reckless. There are far too many long, straight and at least so far featureless corridors and stairways. Even looking forward to their cluttered and combat-prepared state, I can't see them being much fun without serious adjustment. Similarly, there are two large chambers - one on level 2 and one on level 3 - which take a long time to cross and suffer the same problems.

Anyhow... tomorrow, I think I will be adjusting the layout in the mentioned places and adding in ambient testing lighting, the lack of which you can blame for the absence of any actual screenshots.


Friday, 13 August 2010

Project 1 Day 1 - Learning the GECK

I said I'd be here today and here I am. Frankly I'm pretty amazed myself. What amazes me even further is that I (gasp, shock, horror) actually did some work.

Once I got the windows arranged nicely and familiarised myself with the major keyboard shortcuts and camera controls, the GECK was quite easy to work with. My one complaint, which may lay in my inexperience with the software is that it is difficult to position items vertically. I would prefer it if new meshes would appear on the same plane as the previously selected item, rather than X many units directly in front of the camera.

So with that done I jumped in with arranging a few rooms along a long corridor (the right hand side of the above image), glancing at Bethedsa's video tutorial when I got a little stuck. I don't like to always follow tutorial through to the letter, rather seeing what I can do along the same theme.

Actually, wait. Backup a little. I actually began with trying to recreate the stretch of cavern that approaches the giant cog doors of a vault. It was perhaps a little difficult to begin with, especially as I couldn't seem to get the meshes to line up right. I suppose I was using mixed sets.

The meshes are the best bit, from a quick-development point of view. The Oblivion/Fallout engine is based around segments of (about) 5 foot cube, each very carefully arranged to fit well with the rest of its set. That measure of 5ft is interesting, echoing the engine's pen-and-paper roleplaying roots. Surely that is how much of the world of Cyrodil was developed: through tabletop gameplay on the grid.

The only other engine I am familiar with as a design student is Unreal 3 and the editor that comes with Unreal Tournament 3. Like Fallout 3, much of that game's level architecture is built from static meshes but comparing the two I now realise how limited UT3's meshes were, designed for very specific uses. The mesh library in GECK feels huge and fairly adaptable. The transition pieces (such as a break in an office wall leading to caves) will be especially useful.

So far I have really just been experimenting, getting a feel for the system. In tomorrow's session I think I might adjust and re-arrange my vault, or even start again, and follow a pre-existing design of mine. This design is actually a Dungeons & Dragons subterranean temple, a favourite of my gaming group, but the layout should transition quite nicely to a vault or similar. Anyhow, we'll see. Same time tomorrow, children!

Bethesda GECK Tutorial #1 (YouTube)

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Lazarus From The Pitt (And DC)

I'm not even going to look at when my last post was. I've begun a few posts since then, languishing abandoned in some digital vault never to be looked at again.

Speaking of vaults, guess what's been taking up my entertainment schedule for the past many weeks. Yup, Fallout 3, which I've played through in its entirety at least three times now for various reasons within the past couple of months. Let's count them: Retail; retail with no fast-travel; Steam GOTY; Steam GOTY with Fallout Script-Extender enabled... yeah, so that's four. Steam informs me I've played in the irradiated sandbox for almost 100 hours in what can't be longer than three weeks and frankly that can't be healthy. If someone held a Geiger counter to my hands, I fear it would explode with the strain. When Fallout: New Vegas comes out, well, I'm just plain screwed.

I have been thinking about why I enjoy this game so much, why I have spent so many long days and hours and weeks on it to the exclusion of actually doing something productive (which I'll come to later) and I have decided it is because of this: Fallout 3 is my ideal MMO.

A vast open world to explore? Things to collect? Vast range of clothing items and weapons to choose from? Quests by the bucket to complete, or not, at your leisure? A colourful and clearly imagined setting and history? All present and correct. And the best part of it? No other people to spoil it for me.

Anyhow, I could go into this in ridiculous detail but I'm sure you either already know what I'm going to say and think it obvious, know what I'm going to say and think me a fool or don't know what I'm going to say and don't care in any case.

What I am trying to say is I have FINALLY kicked myself into gear (second, perhaps, or bicycle fifth - I don't have a driving license). In preparation for a life and career of games design, and more immediately an internship in the 2011/12 academic year, I will make one significant accomplishment in games design-related projects every day.

And, messily tying the two topics together, my first project will be a location mod for Fallout 3. Starting tomorrow I will work my way around the GECK and arrange a series of rooms and corridors then add mechanic-based items like doors, computers and locks, following with NPCs and such... and so on and so forth. Maybe you'll be interested to read along as I keep this blog updated with my notes and thoughts on my progress and difficulties.

So, I'll see you tomorrow. Night.