Iron Tower Studio - All News
Monday - March 15, 2010
Iron Tower Studio - The Art of Spellcasting
An excellent piece at Iron Tower by Vince and Gareth Fouche examines the history, development and function of spellcasting in cRPGs. Here's a sample:
When Jack Vance was writing 'The Dying Earth' he probably didn't realize the spell memorization concept that he developed would influence role-playing for decades to come. Gary Gygax decided to adopt the system for his fledgling wargaming system and the rest is, as they say, history. Fragile, grey bearded wizards who painstakingly memorized spells and waited for opportune moments to unleash magical mayhem became a staple of the role-playing genre.
Fast forward in time and a change begins to take place. The RPG genre begins to migrate from the tabletop to computer. But translating the RPG from a slow paced game that can be played a couple of times a week, when all your players can fit in the hours required, to a game that can be played every night by a single player on a computer that crunches the numbers at lightning speed, well, that results in problems. The PnP systems of old weren't designed for this new environment, they were designed for smaller doses of content dished out less often. So computer RPG designers pad the experience, adding in vastly more combat encounters than any PnP game would have.
Tuesday - March 17, 2009
Iron Tower Studio - Designing Worlds with Brian Mitsoda
VD and Obsidian's Brian Mitsoda talk about various design aspects in an interview spun off from Iron Tower's Roundtable Interview from some time back because of Mitsoda's lengthy answers:
Setting is an important RPG element. It's a foundation of a game and sometimes even a pretty good reason to play one. So, how do you create and breathe life into new worlds?
Hmm… You know, this is a tough one to answer, and it’s because I don’t think settings matter at all. I think some settings can appeal make the designer’s job a lot easier like an apocalypse scenario or alien/unfamiliar world where there is no expectation of order or society or even physics – this can be interesting, but often times it is lazy and adds to magical anything goes/lack of internal consistency design.
Some settings can make a designer’s job difficult, like real world settings. The expectations of recreating the world around us is, well, everyone knows what the real world’s like and has expectations that are impossible to faithfully recreate, not to mention the realism impacting the design.
Quite a few settings have been done to death (Tolkien fantasy, space marines in high-def warehouses, World War II) and I suppose some players want to play them because they keep making them, sometimes if only because of the setting.
Chiefly, I think you should start with a solid game idea or two and figure out what kind of setting works for it. And then you prototype the hell out of it until it is fun as a daiquiri waterslide. In some cases, your game mechanics trump the setting. My favorite game last year was Saint’s Row 2; I’m kind of tired of the gangster/crime setting, but the game is just solid and it seems like the team tweaked missions and diversions until they were a joy to play and doled out rewards satisfactorily. When it comes to their gangster fantasy, they firmly planted their tongues in their cheeks, and set up a world where you could do things like throw yourself in front of traffic for insurance money while wearing a diving helmet and prom dress and it wouldn’t feel out of place. If the setting had been any concern at all, I never would have bought it.
Saturday - March 07, 2009
Iron Tower Studio - An Evening with Annie Carlson
Vince D. Weller continues his knack of gathering interesting interviews with a nice little discussion with ex-Obsidian writer, Annie Carlson. The conversation ranges from her experiences with Obsidian bouncing around different projects to industry issues:
What's wrong with the industry? Simple question, I know.
Man, how long do you want this interview to be? Jeez…
…It’s not just one thing, obviously. I have my own pet concerns, but the thing that keeps coming to mind for me is that companies pour money into games to get the latest everything, and turn out an industry that’s AAA or Bust. Either a game is a huge success, or it tanks and the team gets laid off. There seems to be less and less room for investment in games that are out to be modest successes, that don’t try to excel on every single artistic level but create something solid. More modest, mid-range titles that may not be the very best-looking thing out there, but are fun as hell to play. I feel like that’d offer up a lot more opportunities to take risks and offer up unique concepts – if you don’t have to sign up a massive budget to it and can make good use of existing technology you’re familiar with, everybody saves money, and the gamer wins in the end.
As far as smaller, more affordable projects go, CRPGs have the advantage in many ways because it’s far easier to develop for them than multiple consoles – but due to the technical demands (whether in terms of raw power or simple dedication to troubleshoot the damn thing), many people don’t invest in computer games. It’s odd that there seems to be this split in computer gaming between the very hardcore and the very casual, with MMO players often bridging that gap. I think one of the things that made World of Warcraft so successful is that you can play that on anything, and it’s very easy to troubleshoot. Sure, not every game can have a virtual army of Game Masters on hand to help with issues, but I think there’s a kind of stubborn pride among hardcore computer gamers in that they have the patience to install the patches, to investigate the bugs, to tweak the settings, etc. Your average gamer will simply not give a toss, and while I do tip my hat to those who have braved the wilds of unpatched games, I think taking that for granted is hurting the PC-only titles out there. Actually bothering to come up with something that’s as technically intact as possible (and I’m not talking bugs so much as make the freaking thing easy to patch and provide actual support) would, I think, go a long ways to helping with that.
And piracy. You guys don’t even know how horrible piracy is to PC sales. You can go “oh it’s a victimless crime” as much as you want, but when publishers look at sales as a way of giving business to developers (and even royalties), it is a huge problem. If you Torrent a game, you may be saying “oh, I didn’t hurt anyone,” but the game industry isn’t like the movie industry, where everyone gets paid no matter what, and you have multiple investors. Especially with smaller or self-published studios, there’s a lot more at stake. Not to sound like your mom or anything, but it is a problem, and handwaving won’t fix it. I don’t know precisely what will, but right now I’m erring on the side of speakin’ the truth from the developer’s perspective. I know what it’s like to be poor – when I was a college kid I had to beg and borrow my games from friends – but please, don’t steal shit. Shut down that Bittorrent link and give some poor dev that pizza money you’ve been saving. It’s what helps them make more games you enjoy.
Tuesday - February 10, 2009
Iron Tower Studio - DragonRage Forum Response Generator
A bit of silliness at the Iron Tower forums with Cyclopean developer Scott offering another Flash application - this time a tongue-in-cheek "forum response generator". You won't have to look too hard to figure out what game is being parodied but don't take it seriously.
Wednesday - December 31, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - The Magic of Magic
A few days ago, Vince D. Weller kicked up this nice piece about the generic nature of the (potentially) most fantastic of fantasy elements - magic. Here's the opening:
What comes to mind when you think about magic in RPGs? Medieval Europe-like place with pointy hats wizards firing brightly colored "magical" projectiles at various creatures. That's all magic is apparently good for as it doesn't seem to offer any benefits to the setting, local industries, and the player.
You don't see wizards transporting goods and golems employed on construction sites. You don't see improved communications ("Crystal Ball News Network"?). You don't see anti-magic defenses and I'm not talking about protection against fireballs. I'm talking about protection against enemy's wizards entering towns and opening portals for troops waiting a thousand miles away. What you do see are firebolts and fireballs, ice storms and chain lightning, magic missiles and meteor swarms.
The problem is that magic is not integrated into settings. It exists in vacuum, nothing more than a meta-gaming feature with the single purpose of providing the player with a different, more colorful way to kill things. At best we are offered creative explanations of magic and its origins, but gameplay remains the same.
Friday - September 12, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - Cyclopean Revealed
Iron Tower Studio has revealed a new title in early pre-production, to be created by a second team. The new game is Cyclopean, a Lovecraftian, isometric, turn-based CRPG lead by Scott Hamm, who posts on our forums as screeg and is an experienced 3D modeler - we've seen his work on the screens from the ToEE conversion Keep on the Borderlands. Here's the initial post:
Cyclopean is the working title for a turn-based RPG project currently in the design phase. The game is inspired by, and to a large extent based on, the stories and mythos of Howard Phillips Lovecraft http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._P._Lovecraft, and takes place in 1923 Western Massachusetts. Based on the strength of the concept and some samples of the writing, Vince has offered me the lead designer position for this second team of Iron Tower Studio. I’m calling this second team “Team Omega”.
I chose the name Cyclopean because it was arguably Lovecraft’s favourite adjective, meaning “big” in the context of his stories, not “one-eyed”. I like the way it sounds and I don’t want to call the game “Shadow Over Arkham”, “Look Out, It’s Cthulhu!” or something else entirely predictable and lame.
The player starts out in Lovecraft’s most famous fictional town, Arkham. Over the course of the game the player will travel to several other locations in and under the State of Massachusetts, and come in contact with cultists, law enforcement, hapless citizens, shadowy organizations, criminals, otherworldly creatures, and if he’s lucky, horrors beyond imagining. The game will concentrate on dense, quality writing in Lovecraft’s style, thrilling dialogue, and stimulating turn-based combat versus people and other things. Emphasis will be placed on quests with many possible solutions and outcomes. Players will not be restricted to fighting evil, but may ally themselves with those who wish to bring back the Great Old Ones, as well as various other organizations. Details to follow. The player will be able to pick up autonomous NPC support, a la Fallout, during the game. Influence over ally’s basic AI will be available, but equipment changes will be limited.
A concern already raised is that Lovecraft’s canon does not suit itself to a computer game. I think the locations, creatures and atmosphere established by Lovecraft are entirely adaptable, not just as a colourful background to the same tired old RPG themes, but as an entire game experience. Any established body of work translated to a computer game, or any other form of media, will have to be bent somewhat to accommodate its new form. It is my belief that a more faithful translation of Lovecraft’s world can be implemented as a fun and worthwhile CRPG.
Finally, here are a few things which will not be in Cyclopean: immortal and chatty NPC’s with abandonment issues, elves, giant rats, sewers, black and red hellscapes, and Monty Python references.
...and keep a watch on the official forum. We'll try to catch up with Iron Tower on this as soon as practical.
Monday - August 11, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - Designing Character Systems with Josh Sawyer
Iron Tower's Vince D. Weller has a fascinating discussion with Josh Saywer on desgning character systems. Here's the first question, which has an Aliens reference:
Let's start with attributes. What are your preferences? DnD-like 3 physical, 3 "mental" stats or something more complex? Should you be able to increase them through levels, trainers, or gadgets or not? Why? How should stats affect gameplay? Which character systems influenced you?
These days, I tend to err on the side of simpler, more abstracted systems. I try to think from the perspective of player action as the foundation for the system. That is, I think "What should the player be able to do in this environment?" and "What will the player want to be able to do in this environment?" and then try to build a system to support it.
For example, in the Aliens setting, there is a heavy emphasis on a character's ability to deal with stress. So I've thought about that in terms of the differences between learned skill and something innate to a character in the setting. It's arguable that the ability to resist the sort of mental trauma in the Aliens setting is a learned skill (the equivalent of Combat Cool in Cyberpunk 20/20's "Friday Night Fire Fight") and some of it is more inherent to the character, a fundamental part of who they are that isn't likely to change much over the course of the character's time in the game. So I think "Should this be represented in the game?", "How should this be represented in the game?" and "By what mechanics can the player mess with this representation?". You can see a similar sort of approach in games like Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu and even in the 2nd Edition AD&D Ravenloft supplemental rules. But in other settings, those sorts of mechanics and stats aren't really necessary. The specifics depend entirely on the game, though I approach those specifics from the practical perspective of supporting low-level core gameplay instead of satisfying a high-level set of mechanical ideals.
Sunday - July 13, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - RPG Dialogue Systems
Iron Tower's Vince D. Weller has joined forces with Gareth Fouche (Scars of War) to explore dialogue systems in RPGs:
This desire for more complex shades of meaning resulted in dialogue trees, trees whose delicious textual fruits would serve as the mainstay of RPG gamer diets for over a decade, through to the modern era. Attempting to imitate natural conversation flow, dialogue trees offer the same back and forth discourse one would expect from another human being. The power of strong writing to convey tone and subtlety opened doors for whole ranges of previously impossible or infeasible interaction with characters. Combined with scripting, skill checks, and text adventure elements this system offers incredible flexibility for a cheap price, the cost of a few written lines. Perhaps no finer example of such power and flexibility exists than Planescape: Torment. Here is an RPG whose deep dialogues enable the player to do more than simply talk to characters, they can interact with them through the medium of text. The dialogue became an adventure, a game, in and of itself. Nestled within it were puzzles, scripted events, even character development. Want to break someone's neck? Cut some stitches on a zombie and see what's inside? Catch a thief when he's picking your pocket? Replace your eyeball with an eye you found in a jar? Tinker with your equipment? All these were achievable thanks to dialogue trees and skilled writing.
Wednesday - June 18, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - Leonard Boyarsky at the Roundtable
Iron Tower's rountable on setting, story and characters has added another developer to the impressive list, with ex-Troika-ite Leonard Boyarsky responding. Since it was Leonard's inspiration to add the 50s-back-to-the-future look to Fallout, let's take a quote on setting:
My first experience in world creation, Fallout, started from an art standpoint. I was heavily immersed in retro 40's and 50's art with a twisted edge at the time (including but not limited to things like the original Batman movie, the City of Lost Children, Brazil, the Hard Boiled comic book) and I became intrigued with the thought of basing our look on the aesthetics of the world of the future as envisioned by the culture of the 1940's and 50's. Once that initial vision was agreed upon, we knew it needed to bleed through the entire feel of the world.
On Arcanum, it definitely started from a more intellectual level. We became enthralled with the idea of an industrial revolution upending a Tolkien style world. That initial inspiration immediately started us thinking about how the politics of a world like that would play out, and how that would inform our quests, NPCs, storylines, etc. While the early heavy industrial machinery look was very inspirational to us from an artistic standpoint, it also became a fitting thematic element as it was literally crushing the magic out of the world.
Thursday - May 29, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - Updated Roundtable
CD Projekt Red's Michal Madej has added to Iron Tower's recent RPG developer roundtable, with his entry added at the end of each section. Here's a bit on setting, and you can find links to the story and character parts in the article:
I think our case is really an interesting one. From the beginning of the project, we were aware of how a good setting is important for RPG, and that’s a large part of why we decided to use The Witcher license. As a result we got a very rich background, full of vivid characters, hundreds of stories and foremost the unique idea of modern fantasy without the 'good vs. evil' cliché. On the other hand, Sapkowski didn't ever pay great attention to making a detailed, complex and comprehensive setting - for many years he even refused to draw a map of the world. That’s a really unusual approach in fantasy literature, completely different from what Tolkien did - but the writer did that on purpose, he didn't want to reveal all the lore and strip the world of mystery and secrets.
We started with the main quest. It required a "fall of an empire" setting where the past is more advanced (technologically and magically) than the present. The fall of the Roman Empire was the first thing that came to mind. It fit what we needed perfectly, including even the Dark Ages period (which is where AoD takes place, basically) between the fall of the Roman Empire - which was also the fall of the Western civilization (frequent wars, population decline, limited written history, exodus from urban centers, loss of knowledge, technological and cultural), and 1000 AD when mankind decided to crawl out of the gutter and start playing civilization again.
While our game has very few things in common with the actual Roman Empire and the post-fall history, it's very helpful to have such a great reference material allowing you to trace and understand the fall and the period that followed. Not for realism as that was never our goal, but for the in-game logic.
Saturday - May 24, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - RPG Developer Roundtable
Iron Tower has collected an impressive 15 developers for a sweet roundtable discussion on setting, story and characters. There's too much to do justice here but let's take a grab from each section. Chris Avellone on setting:
Before beginning, we usually have a sense of what the engine will be for the game and what "type" of RPG we're creating (action, turn-based, 3rd person party, etc.). Following that, I try to absorb as much about the genre as possible, including any tangential or off-the-beaten path explorations of that genre (for example, I studied the Expanded Universe in Star Wars extensively, and for the Aliens genre, I also made sure to cover all the Predator vs. Aliens material as well as all the Dark Horse books and novels). The reason for this is pretty simple – one, you don't want to do a story or character someone else has already done in the field. Second of all, it lets you start listing all the hallmarks of the genre and what the core appeal is.
So, let's take Aliens as an example. What's cool about Aliens?
Well, it's scary. But why?
David Gaider on story structure:
Tough call. Taking control away from the player isn't always a bad thing -- complete freedom to wander can be great, but it isn't always compatible with a strong narrative -- yet it can be tricky. It's like in a tabletop game, I don't really mind if the storyteller is guiding me with a strong hand so long as we're heading somewhere interesting. I suppose a large part of it is the unspoken contract you make with the player at the beginning of the game. If you imply that they will have complete freedom to do whatever they like and go wherever they wish, and then suddenly they're restricted on all fronts, that's a turn off. If, however, you are up front with the idea that this is a directed story about a particular person or a particular event a player can be more forgiving with some linearity. I think the thing that you can't compromise on is the idea that the player has some ability to direct their part in the story's events, not without losing that part of the game that makes it an RPG. How they react, if not always everything they do. A player may not need to make choices about every single thing in the game, but when those choices are made the game should acknowledge them... And occasionally those choices should result in some kind of significant consequence. Or why am I bothering? Why give me those choices in the first place if all you wanted to do was tell me YOUR story?
...and George Ziets on writing characters:
Character development is a pretty organic process, and it almost never happens in one fell swoop – not for me, anyway. Characters emerge gradually, as design documents are created, as I’m writing their dialogue, or as I’m musing about them over breakfast. In initial documents, they’re usually nothing more than a name and a role in the story – and then they flesh themselves out (as quests, setting, and other characters are developed), a little at a time. By the time I’m sitting down to write their dialogue, I often know a good deal about them… but not always.
The full cast is Chris Avellone, J.E. Sawyer, Kevin Saunders, George Ziets, David Gaider, Alan Miranda, Luke Scull, Mat Jobe, Russ Davis, Jeff Vogel, Thomas Riegsecker, Jay Barnson, Jason Compton and Gareth Fouche.
Monday - May 19, 2008
Iron Tower Studio - Creating an "Immersive" CRPG
Over at the Iron Tower forums, Vince D. Weller has opened a new section called the Depository to hold reasoned RPG design papers. A handful of articles from Vince are already there (older ones we have mostly linked before) but Scars of War developer Gareth Fouche has added Creating an Immersive CRPG. Since we've agued about that dirty word here before, let's start with his intro:
So, immersion. Immersion's really great, isn't it? To immerse. To be immersed in...stuff. Who wouldn't want that, am I right? Certainly marketers and PR people know this. Every game that comes out these days promises to immerse your pants right off you. That's right. Your pants. Immersed right off your body. That is the kind of powerful...force we are talking about here.
Well, it would probably help to define immersion a bit more specifically so that I can stop using ellipses. The dictionary defines immersion as the "state of being deeply engaged or involved". Hmmm. Deeply engaged? Clearly this is a state of being that can only be induced via Pixel Shader 3 effects. DirectX 10 must be required, surely? Perhaps not. Certainly good graphics help, just as great audio does, but are those aspects all or even most of the story? I don't think so. Books can certainly immerse you. It's easy to find a good book, one that grabs you and plunges you into a world where you forget that it's 3 o clock and you have to go fetch your kids from school, and then the school councilor wants to have a chat with you and the people from social welfare. You can also certainly get immersed in your pen and paper role playing game, with nary a "bumpmap" in sight, unless you count the pockmarked skin of your obese cousin who is, disturbingly, roleplaying a dainty female elven ranger.
Given these facts I am convinced, despite the enthusiastic claims of our friends in PR, that great graphics are not the be-all and end-all of "Immersion". They aren't even necessary. So what is? I'm glad you asked, because otherwise I'd be without a topic for my article.
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