George Ziets on joining inXile, Torment combat
These are some fairly old Formspring entries but better late than never, here’s lead level designer George Ziets answering some questions:
We already know that in Torment: Tides of Numenera traditional good-bad/lawful-chaotic distinction will be replaced with Tides own system. Will they only affect dialogues and the final legacy of our character or perhaps will they a have greater meaning?
Adam Heine: The Tides will affect some dialogues, items, and ability bonuses and unlock certain content (not a lot, but enough). We want them to have a subtle effect on almost everything, with an obvious effect on a few things. For example, a certain percentage of the population is “Affected” by the Tides, even if they’re not aware of it. In talking to these NPCs, then, you might find that your Dominant Tides change their attitude toward you or make them more amenable to talk. If you know what Tides they are most aligned with, you can use that to choose arguments that will be most likely to influence them.
As for meaning, the Tides and Legacies are a major component to the question of what does one life matter? The themes of the Tides will be explored throughout the entire game.
With all its inquity, Torment: Tides of Numenera still remains a classic RPG. How did you approach character progression – one of the most important aspects of this genre? Will there be a traditional, level-based system with some cap or something else? How will we gain experience anyway?
Adam Heine: A lot of TTON's character progression is based on the Numenera tabletop game. It is a level-based system, but not as stringent as traditional RPGs. Character spend XP on different aspects of development: skills, stats, etc. And after every four aspects they develop, their character goes up to the next level or Tier. At each new Tier, they gain new abilities from their class (called their Type in Numenera) and their Focus.
The tabletop game caps characters at 6th Tier. That sounds low, but given the way XP gains and expenditures work in the game, it works out pretty well, timewise. Torment will probably stick to that same cap, but we can’t say for sure until we have more of the game built and can really start to balance things.
XP in Numenera is gained through “discovery.” In a lot of ways, this is what you’d expect: you gain XP from solving quests, finding out cool things, fixing problems, etc. One main difference between Numenera and other RPGs is that you don’t gain XP just from killing bad guys. Killing is just a means to an end. It’s a valid means in a cRPG, of course, but the end is where you get the XP, regardless of how you got there. So if you kill, it’s because that’s the way you choose to solve your problems, not because you wanted more XP.
Having no advanced character creator worked just fine for Planescape: Torment. Will we able to create our own hero with an unique portrait and name in Torment: Tides of Numenera or are you going to impose same looking protagonist on everyone?
Adam Heine: PST focused on the story of a single, unique protagonist. The Nameless One’s story wouldn’t have worked as well if every player got to choose their own name, portrait, and backstory. It was part of what made PST a Torment game.
TTON follows that same tradition. We have a specific story to tell, and that requires a specific protagonist. We are, however, breaking from PST’s tradition a little in that we are allowing the player to choose between a male or female protagonist, which will affect the portrait (obviously) and some reactivity throughout the game. But regardless of gender, you are still the Last Castoff, and your story will start the same.
Put another way, Torment cares about the choices you make in the game, not before it.
.@gziets on my Oasis design: “This city felt very Book of the New Sun to me, like Severian’s first journey through Nessus.”
Per the most recent Wasteland 2 Kickstarter Update, the Wasteland 2 beta is now available to all backers due a copy of Wasteland 2, which includes Torment backers. But do note this Steam key will turn into the final retail version on release, and as such counts as your digital copy if you use it.
Backers of Torment who are due a copy of Wasteland 2 can receive their keys as a part of this staggered release. You’ll be able to find it under the Donations tab on your Torment backer system account. Kickstarter backers who pledged an extra $25 for a copy of Wasteland 2 won’t have the key visible in the Torment backer system yet. We are working on making it available to you so please keep an eye on our tumblr for more news.
Part 2 of the massive interview with Kevin Saunders, Colin McComb, Adam Heine, George Ziets from Rock, Paper, Shotgun is available now.
RPS: What’s your process for designing an area? What do you prioritize? Can you give me a concrete example of how this plays out in an area you’ve designed so far?
Ziets: I’ll address this from the perspective of designing a zone, one of the large sections of our game that contain many individual locations, or “scenes”. For example, in Planescape Torment, the Hive could be considered a zone.
My first step in designing a zone is always to read the design constraints provided by our narrative lead, Colin. This is a usually short document that describes the high-level vision for the zone, as well as the story events that need to happen there.
With that in mind, I usually plot out the main narrative for the zone first. How can I string together the critical story events into a fun and interesting experience? What will the player’s main objectives be? How can I provide multiple paths for the player to achieve them? Simultaneously, I’m brainstorming cool locations for the player to explore and how I can incorporate those into the zone narrative.
Once I have a rough plan for the zone narrative and locations, I start fleshing everything out. I spit out as many cool locations and characters and encounters as possible, trying to find ways to fit them all together, and I don’t worry much about scope or prioritization. If the narrative is cool and exciting enough, it’ll spawn lots of ideas for side content. I try to craft side content that arises naturally from the overall context of the zone – the story, themes, and conflicts – so that the whole zone feels like a coherent whole. This is a messy stage in zone development, when some of the ideas I initially thought would be critical get pushed to the side, while other (more exciting) ideas arise and become more central. But it’s all on “paper” at this stage, so it’s a great time to iterate.
When I finally have a coherent plan for the zone, with lots of characters, quests, and events, that’s when I start thinking about prioritization. We have three levels of prioritization on TTON. A-priority refers to critical content that will be implemented no matter what. B-priority is not as critical to the core experience, but we assume we’ll make it, and we include it in the production schedule. If we find we need to cut content for a specific zone in order to achieve our quality bar, then some B-priority content may be left out. C-priority content would be nice to have, but we assume we *won’t* make it, and we don’t include it in the schedule. In other words, C-priority content is pre-emptively cut, unless we have time later to give it a last-minute reprieve.
So I think about all the content I’ve laid out on paper, and I ask what’s critical to the main narrative of the zone including multiple paths to complete it. That content becomes A. The rest gets prioritized as B or C. It’s a somewhat brutal process, since I just poured life into all sorts of characters and locations and events that I now have to de-prioritize… but when you’re developing games, you need to have thick creative skin.
Here’s how it all played out for the Bloom. As always, I had a high-level conception of the zone from Colin, as well as story events that had to occur. Since the Bloom is a somewhat unusual setting, I spent a lot of time just thinking about how the Bloom worked. The whole zone is a living thing that creates portals to other worlds… and it’s also highly dangerous because it’s a predator that eats people, thoughts, and ideas. So how would inhabitants interact with this thing? How did they survive inside it? What would players need to do to navigate the city-creature, learn about how it worked, and potentially manipulate it to get what they want? What different ways could players do that? I also came up with various factions and characters who lived in the Bloom, thought about how they’d interact with one another, and how they’d become involved in the player’s narrative.
Once I’d figured out the basics of how the Bloom worked and who lived there, I crafted the player’s narrative around them, making sure that the Bloom itself was a central “character” in the zone. Then I started fleshing out the locations and “neighborhoods” within the Bloom, populating them with characters and quests. Since I already had a solid foundation for what this place was and how it worked, ideas came fast and plentiful. Ultimately I had far more than I needed.
Finally I prioritized everything, spending a lot of time determining which elements were critical to the main narrative, which would lead to the coolest events and encounters, and which hooked into our themes most effectively. To give an idea of the final breakdown – I started with twelve scenes in the Bloom. Eight of them contained some amount of main story content, so I marked them as A. Two others were not crucial for the story, but they further explored the narrative for the zone, so I marked them as B. Two more were really cool, but the leads all agreed that they would cause the least damage to the zone if cut, so they were marked as C.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun has interviewed project lead Kevin Saunders, creative lead Colin McComb, design lead Adam Heine and lead area designer George Ziets. Part 1 of the massive interview focuses on systems like combat and skills, story rewrites and processes and backer influence.
RPS: You decided to make some pretty big changes to the game’s story. Without spoiling too much, what was it like initially? What did you decide needed changing?
Saunders: Despite the major changes we’ve made to the story over the last year, what we said about the overarching story during the Kickstarter is still accurate. Perhaps today’s synopsis of the story would emphasize some different elements, but the premise and flavor are the same. Some of the finest details are, too – though most of what we revealed during the Kickstarter is uncovered by the player in the first 10% or so of the game anyway – we want to make sure our backers have plenty of surprises. Colin had strong core ideas; he has a story he wants to tell and that hasn’t changed.
But in our efforts to achieve the player experience he’s envisioning, we’ve adjusted some of the specifics of how the story unfolds – how and when the PC learns various pieces of it, for example. Chris Avellone, George Zeits, and Nathan Long all provided input here, which Adam, Colin, and I (mostly Colin) used in figuring out how to enhance the flow of the narrative. One aspect we spent considerable energy on was detailing the motivations of the various characters, including the PC. We challenged the “why” behind people taking certain actions and looked for ways to improve the pacing through the PC’s own motivations.
RPS: What will your story design process be like once you enter production? How closely will designers and writers be working together? Also, since it’s such a small team, will many people be wearing design and writing hats?
Ziets: From our perspective, story or narrative design can mean a few different things. First, there’s the main story of the game, which has already been written by our narrative lead, Colin McComb. This may sound obvious, but it’s incredibly important to mostly finalize your main story and central themes before you start designing the rest of the game – you’d think that would always be the case in CRPG development, but it isn’t. Minor elements will always shift around as production moves forward, but with a solid story in place, a design team has a unified vision of the game they’re making and what themes to address in their content, which goes a long way toward making a game that feels like a coherent whole.
Second, there’s the high-level story in each of our zones. In other words – what’s happening in the zone, what goals the player needs to accomplish, who the major characters are, etc. That part of our story design is either finished (e.g., for the Bloom, a zone I designed earlier this year) or currently in development. Our goal is to have all the zone-level narrative design finished before we enter production, so that we can jump straight into implementation.
That leaves the final piece of narrative design – writing all the dialogue and implementing the quests – which will occupy us throughout production. Most of the zones are being designed at a high level by our off-site writers. Once the zone designs are completed and approved, they’ll be handed off to our in-house area design team for implementation. While the area designers are busy building the levels and scripting the gameplay, the writers will generate dialogue for their zones. This means that our writers and area designers will be working very closely together, bouncing ideas off one another, and ensuring that both narrative and gameplay elements are fun for players.
In practice, the roles of writer and area designer will blur together somewhat. Because most of our writers are offsite, they don’t have access to the level design tools, but lead designer Adam Heine is an (awesome) exception – he designed our very first level from scratch, wrote all the dialogue, and also worked on its implementation in the tool. Similarly, some of our on-site area designers have showed an interest in writing, so we’ll definitely want to give them a chance to do that, in addition to laying out levels and implementing our gameplay content. And as lead area designer, I’ll be doing a little of everything.
The Bloom zone is an example of how collaborative the process is likely to be. I did the high-level design, some of the combat/Crisis design, and I’ll be writing some dialogue. Jesse Farrell has been doing most of the implementation, but he’s also been coming up with great ideas to expand and improve the zone, and he’ll probably write some dialogue, too. And a bunch of other people – Adam, Colin, and gung-ho line producer Thomas Beekers – will also be contributing to the writing effort.
I love working with InXile on #Numenera. They get the Ninth World. They get the weird. They get the wonderful. Going to be an amazing game.