NWN2: Mysteries of Westgate Interview
Atari recently announced the first Adventure Pack for NWN2 - the expanded successor to the Premium Mod program for NWN1. Mysteries of Westgate is being developed by Ossian Studios, who released the award-winning Darkness Over Daggerford module for NWN some time back. We had the chance to send some questions over to Ossian to delve into Mysteries of Westgate, with answers from...
Alan Miranda: CEO of Ossian Studios, Producer and Co-Lead Designer on Mysteries of Westgate
Luke Scull: Lead Designer on Mysteries of Westgate
Mat Jobe: Writer on Mysteries of Westgate
RPGWatch: To get started, tell us about the story and why you chose the cursed treasure scenario.
Mat Jobe: As the story opens, the player has arrived in Westgate seeking information about a cursed item they picked up somewhere in their travels. The player has already learned that this item is linked to the Night Masks, a criminal organization known to wield considerable power up and down the Dragon Coast. As the player begins asking around, they get drawn into a struggle between various factions vying for power in Westgate. The player must choose sides, and choose well - while plenty of people offer to help the player break the curse, not all of them have the most altruistic of intentions. As the story progresses, the player finds that the curse ties into a much wider conspiracy; much as their own fate ties into that of Westgate itself.
Okay, marketing spiel aside, we chose the cursed treasure scenario because it neatly ties the player into the story without assuming too much about their background. We wanted to make the game for mid-level characters who might be taking a detour from the Official Campaign or continuing their adventures from community modules. One thing that tends to irk players is when a game breaks the continuity they've built up around their character by adding significant details to their past. The cursed item seemed like the least intrusive way to get the player personally involved in the plot.
While this device does require a little cooperation from the player, it's fairly easy to imagine picking up a cursed item somewhere between Dank Dungeon no. 13 and Dingy Tomb no. 34. The player may not remember picking up said item, but hey, it seemed inconsequential at the time!
RPGWatch: The Adventure Pack concept has been promoted as an evolution of the Premium Mod program - what sort of improvements can players expect over the previous generation?
Alan Miranda: The NWN1 premium mods ranged from about 2-15 hours of gameplay, so what we wanted to do with the adventure packs was to set their gameplay length baseline as starting from the premium mods' upper limit. We felt that 15 hours would be a sizeable campaign when compared to the 20-25 hour MotB expansion pack. Actually, one of our beta testers played everything in Mysteries of Westgate and it took him 22 hours, but then people's play speeds can vary (some slower, some faster).
Our goal was to also make the new adventure pack experience more elaborate, such as having different branches and endings along the main storyline, as well as adding complex sidequests. The sidequests we did in Darkness over Daggerford (our former NWN1 premium module) were a big hit, so we wanted to make sure that we included those kinds of optional adventures and that players were given a lot of alignment and moral choices, skill-based paths, etc. in Mysteries of Westgate.
We very much considered MoW to be a small game instead of a traditional module, in terms of the great lengths we went to develop content for it, as well as balance and polish it. We wanted to set the perfect ambience for the city of Westgate, and even with audio, we went the whole hog by adding more than 25 minutes of music to the game, which is more than what we did for the BGII: Throne of Bhaal expansion back when I was the producer on that at BioWare.
RPGWatch: Mysteries of Westgate is set almost entirely within the city of Westgate itself. Alan, in a recent interview you said Neverwinter in NWN2 lacked interaction and had a "western movie billboard" feel, which I can understand. In practice, what are you doing to make the city feel more alive and complete and what sort of interaction are you looking to include?
Alan Miranda: I did indeed say that. :) We include several kinds of interaction for players. Firstly, we've added some ambient NPCs that you'll meet on the street who have a lot of character. Some are just for colour while others perform a service, like the merchants in the cluster of tents in the Market Triangle whom we wanted to be more than just functional item dispensers. You're also likely to encounter the greedy hands of the thieves of Westgate, and may find yourself pickpocketed by someone and subsequently chasing after them down the street attempting to get your money back.
Secondly, buildings aren't just a backdrop in Mysteries of Westgate, so you'll be able to enter a number of optional ones that have nothing to do with the critical path, and meet the occupants within, some of whom will be rather perturbed to see you. There are also interactive objects scattered throughout the city that players can simply have fun with. It's all part of our goal of giving people more things to click on, because that is what our development team (as players) would want.
RPGWatch: Cities can sometimes feel drab with repetitive scenarios and limited scope for real exploration - how much freedom will players have in moving around and making discoveries outside of the critical path and how do you keep the setting fresh and engaging?
Mat Jobe: Players will have a lot of freedom to explore the city and pursue adventures unrelated to the critical path. Players who have played Baldur's Gate 2 may find the experience reminiscent of exploring Athkatla in that game - it's that wide open.
We really wanted to create a "big city" feel, which meant including loads of sidequests and unusual characters that have nothing to do with the main story (or, in some cases, any story). In a bustling city - especially one as diverse as Westgate - you're not going to find everyone focused on one event or series of events, no matter how big they may be. If Lathander himself appeared in Westgate and did a tap dance atop Morningstar Haven, there would still be commoners in the Warrens worrying about the price of fish, and sailors in the docks doing their best to have a good time before shoving off again. In any large population, you'll find people focused on their own day-to-day interests.
We also wanted to make the city seem dynamic. That's one thing that probably makes some cities seem drab - they're missing that sense of constant change that makes them seem alive. In Mysteries of Westgate, we have various triggered events that can happen after the player has already visited a particular district one or more times. In some cases, players may be caught off guard and find themselves scrambling to deal with an unexpected situation.
RPGWatch: You've said alignment will play a greater role - can you expand on what this means in gameplay terms? Speaking of alignment, how do you write a more intelligent "evil path" and avoid the stereotypical "rude jerk who extorts money from old ladies"? What about chaotic or even chaotic good?
Luke Scull: An "evil" player gets cast into the role of rude jerk because rude jerks might inappropriately ask for more gold to solve a kingdom's problems. A "real" evil character might use the political instability in the region to stab everyone in the back and wrest power for themselves, thus securing more gold and power than the previous rulers of said kingdom could ever bribe the jerk with.
Of course, implementing the options for the "real" evil character means a ton more work on the developer's part for ever-diminishing returns. Or it means the same amount of work with other aspects of the game suffering, because there are only so many zots to go around. This is the dilemma we faced while designing Mysteries of Westgate. Fortunately, due to a rare coming together of various factors, it actually became feasible for us to give players the chance to role-play a real evil character without any loss of quality in any other aspect of the game. So that's what we've done. I'm proud of us for sticking our necks out.
We've tried our best to really allow players to role-play their character through a situation wherever possible. The evil path works because the benefits make sense to anyone of suspect morality, not just the outright psychopaths and sadists that even among those of "evil" alignment probably make up only a very small percentage.
One thing I love about our joinable factions is that most of them encompass shades of grey. A good but highly chaotic character might elect to join a faction that's outwardly more evil than another simply because other aspects of the faction don't gel at all with the chaotic side of their personality.
RPGWatch: I've recently been playing an RPG that has a number of recurring NPCs and you really get to know them over the course of the game. How much emphasis is there on characters and character development (in a literary sense)?
Mat Jobe: Well, a lot. I guess when you talk about character development, you have to start with the companions. Each of the companions has a full character arc that plays out over the course of the game. In one case, there's the potential for a companion to undergo a fundamental change. In other cases, the changes they go through are more subtle. However, in all cases, the player is in the middle of things - using their influence to steer the companion in one way or another, or acting in ways that impact the companions' story in a less predictable manner.
Beyond the companions, the player will encounter a wide variety of characters with distinctive personalities, and storylines that weave in and out of the core plot. The Mysteries of Westgate plot centers around a grand conspiracy with a lot of different factions and individual interests in play. That's why character development is so important. When the twists happen - and there are a few of them in Mysteries of Westgate - the player has to understand the reasons characters behave the way they do. Very few characters are forthcoming with their intentions, but their actions have to make sense in hindsight. It's a fine line trying to make characters do surprising things while staying in character - and really the only way to walk that line is through outstanding character development.
RPGWatch: You've explained there are six factions the player will deal with but you haven't implemented a reputation system, so the factions presumably take a story-based role. Do the factions break down into a couple of sides or is it more complex? Can you give an example of how joining or dealing with a particular group affects the game?
Luke Scull: You are correct in that the factions take a story-based role and react to choices made in the overall plot rather than a complex reputation system. However, it's certainly more complex than the factions falling into one or two sides: Each of the six factions mentioned has its own believable goals, which become clear as the story progresses. I think players are going to be impressed with the way all the factions interact to form a complex story that can nonetheless play out in different ways.
To address the requested example… At the risk of sounding like a question-dodger, how specific do you want to get? I wouldn't want to spoil the game for anyone. Let's just say that perhaps roughly half the critical path plays out entirely differently depending on how you deal with certain factions. Half the critical path is a huge chunk compared with most other modern CRPGs.
RPGWatch: We've recently seen the spirit-eater mechanic in Mask of the Betrayer and your own Daggerford module for the original NWN included a world map before that was implemented in NWN2. Are you planning any unique system mechanics or gameplay modes for Mysteries of Westgate? Any influence or impact from the upcoming D&D 4th Edition?
Luke Scull: We don't have anything as drastic as the spirit-eater mechanic. However, somewhat similarly, the cursed mask has powers that the player can evoke at risk to themselves. We also have a very pretty world - or more accurately, city - map.
To depart briefly from the original question, I thought the spirit-eater mechanic was integrated beautifully into Mask of the Betrayer, but these kind of game-altering mechanics are not something to be taken on lightly. They inherently change the nature of the gameplay, and given that the game in question is based on the oldest and most popular role-playing game rules system in existence, that's a risky path to go down. Given the epic nature of Mask of the Betrayer and the wonderful way in which this mechanic was tied into the expansion's plot, I think it succeeded for Obsidian, but the reaction to it from the community has nonetheless been mixed. I'm sure there are lessons to be learned there, for Ossian and other developers.
D&D 4th edition wasn't even announced when Mysteries of Westgate was hitting the testing stage, so it hasn't affected the product one way or the other.
RPGWatch: I remember the mage battles in Baldur's Gate 2 with some fondness and although NWN2 reintroduced a party, the combat was generally pretty easy. What are your thoughts on difficulty and keeping combat interesting?
Luke Scull: I also remember the mage battles from Baldur's Gate 2 with a great deal of fondness. The thing I liked about them was that they forced the player to understand the combat system and bring every power and skill at the party's disposal to bear. In contrast, I'd agree that the combat in the NWN2 OC was fairly mild and rarely required the player to rethink their tactics. While that undoubtedly made it more accessible to "casual" players, the downside is that the player's sense of achievement was dulled and combat became somewhat repetitive.
We've taken a more old-school, BG2-style approach with Mysteries of Westgate. Players who don't buff or equip their party effectively, or make any effort to strategize once combat begins, are likely to be hit by total party wipes pretty quickly. Indeed, I had several e-mails from fellow team members during testing where it was mentioned that certain fights were "impossible." I tested them with the correct preparation and didn't run into any issues at all. The difference, in my opinion, was merely a small but essential shift away from the simplistic NWN1 combat mentality, towards the more tactical, and ultimately rewarding, party-based combat of the old Infinity Engine games.
RPGWatch: The questions everyone wants answered are pricing, dates, DRM and the exact distribution details. We know the development is substantially complete and the DRM is well underway - can you give us some insight on any of these or when will the details be unveiled? Will the recent restructuring announcements at Atari have any impact on this or future Adventure Packs?
Alan Miranda: We can't discuss the distribution details at this point, except to say that distribution and pricing will be comparable to what was done for the NWN1 premium modules. As our publisher, Atari is the one who decides when exactly these details will be unveiled, but you can be certain that Ossian wants you to play Mysteries of Westgate as soon as possible!
Our thanks to Alan, Luke and Mat for answering our questions and we look forward to following Mysteries of Wetgate as we move along. Thanks also to Lucky Day for input on the questions.
Information aboutNeverwinter Nights 2
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
SP/MP: Single + MP
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2006-10-31
· Publisher: Atari