Props, Textures and Lighting  

This past weekend was spent mainly in adding props to the existing levels to flesh them out and playing around with the textures.

It is embarrassing to admit but I only recently discovered the UVTile setting in the terrain mesh properties. I had been going back and forth between my levels and the official ones to figure out why my terrain looked so blotchy, for lack of a better word. I had just decided to post in the BSN forums for help when Eguintir Eligard created a thread about the very same thing last week. After setting the UVTile to a higher number for the levels, the effect was instant. If only everything else in the toolset was so simple to fix!!

I also went in and played around with the atmosphere settings and lighting to get that misty morning effect since the area the players start out in is at the top of a mountain. I might add some fog effects on the ground later too to firm in the idea of a Misty Mountain...then, all we need is Bilbo to complete the picture.

Below are a couple of screenshots before and after the texture and prop/vegetation work done this weekend (you can open the images in a new window to see the full-sized image).

Camp Before
Camp After

Start area - Before
Start area - After

I am really pleased with the effect and have exported the atmosphere settings to maintain some semblance of consistency between the immediate areas the player can transition to. Obviously, there will be certain areas that will have a both day and night version (including the start area) so the time frame of the transition should also be taken into account.

All in all, a good weekend's worth of work given that I was tied up with RL (Woodbury Days took up almost an entire day and I was too tired after that to do any work) and Divinity 2 (still haven't finished it but am close)


When can I call the story complete?  

If I were a Blizzard employee, I would probably say 'When it's done'. If I were employed in the game industry, I would probably be bound by contracts, deadlines, etc. However, as a hobbyist working on a module in his spare time, where should I draw the line?

When I started writing the story for this module, I had a very clear objective in mind - the story should progress in a very organic manner and the character driving the story (you, the player) should never feel that the story is taking a backseat to some inane side-quest. Of course, there will be times when the story takes precedence over the player's actions - the bane of every RPG in the eyes of the hardcore role-player but that is a limitation of the process.

As the plot progressed and I started making the levels and writing dialogue, so many possibilities sprung to my mind - why is this character behaving like this? Should he have a back-story? Should I have a side-quest where the player uncovers the truth behind the NPC's actions? After spending a week revising the story, I realized - why would the character, undertaking a critical task that is of personal importance, take the time to learn about every person he meets? It just didn't seem logical; the flip side is, without a convincing backdrop against which the player-NPC interaction occurs, the experience can turn out to be shallow, to say the least.

Then, I had what can only be termed as a serendipitous moment - in my attempt to provide many of the NPCs a background, distinct patterns had emerged. Taking that a step further, I revised the story again to introduce multiple factions into the story - each with their own objectives - and while they might collide with the player's story at some point, the ends are distinct.

...and then came DA2 and a brief PM chat with David Gaider.
After the initial DA2 announcement, I hadn't been following that too closely. I needed some clarifications on certain things I was including in the module and wanted to make sure it would fit in with the lore so I pinged David. Between the PMs and the initial promos for DA2, I realized some of the story I was including would vary from minor interpretational differences to portraying a completely different world. That resulted in the final revision which I have decided I won't change, come what may.

That defiant stance is primarily because most of the areas where I have applied my creative license to the lore would likely be delivered in a sequel to the current module - more on this later (it's all in a flux in my mind right now)


Short update on the blog  

AmstradHero pointed out that the Comments feature wasn't working on my blog. I had been wondering about that for some time now - the stats show that I am getting new and old visitors consistently and yet, no comments!
It seems this is a fairly common problem with custom templates on blogger. I remembered switching the Comment posting option to a 'pop-up' in my earlier template; after switching it on this one, it is finally working now! Made a mental note to test the comment functionality every time I change templates.
So, go ahead and post those comments!

I've also done some minor changes to have the Comments and Email link on separate lines and increased the line spacing to avoid the clustered look.
Since this is a custom template, I couldn't get the Reactions widget to work out-of-the-box too. I've added the required code in but for the life of me, I can't get the damn reactions left-aligned. Looks like I will have to ask Google for help on that one.

Lastly, I have added 2 more blogs to my reading list (well, Daeltaja's blog has been there for some time now).
Craggy Island is a stand-alone module being developed by Daeltaja and the levels are looking just fantastic. Check out his blog for some excellent screenshots.
The Dark Times Chronicle is a newsletter penned by MysteriXOX and is set in the Confederacy of Malkuth. It is an excellent source for all kinds of information on the DT:CoM world - interviews, culture, weather (yes!) and even classifieds!

Happy Reading and expect an update on BaL in a day or two!
Till later...


Tying things together  

This weekend was a good one. In-game testing revealed that the level I had termed as 'functionally complete' in my mind (the one mentioned in the last post) had some issues that had to be ironed out. One major problem was that the important interactions and areas were all in one side of the area - which means there was no reason to have the rest of the level. I spent some time reworking the structures and adding a small sub-quest to the area to accommodate that.

The other issue was that the level almost extended to the edge of the level grid - which meant I needed to have some way to block the player from going past the green box without it being too obvious. One simple option was to place an area transition there but it didn't make sense. I ended up with a solution that, if I say so myself, makes me quite happy! It is one of those instances that go against the player mentality when playing games like these. I am throwing around ideas to see if I could tie this in later with subsequent plot points but that's undecided at this point.

Here is a screenshot of the level - it is now officially complete except for texturing and additional vegetation work. Comments welcome!

Leeward, as you see it when you enter it
Next up is to do 3 more cutscenes in this area. Now that I am relatively comfortable with the cutscene editor, things should go along pretty smoothly. One of those will be a very complex scene and I am not even sure if the animations exist for those. If not, I might have to get creative with the camera angles but I will be asking for help in the BSN forums before I go that route!

Till later...


Making good cutscenes....  

... is a lot of work, I've come to realize.

The problem is that the conceptualization keeps changing when the cutscene is being developed and sometimes, that involves reworking a few seconds completely and then, making sure it blends in seamlessly. As an example, I had initially planned for an actor to pour wine from a cup he held in his hand but later, I felt it would be better to walk to a nearby table and use a bottle. A very simple change but the blending with the previous and subsequent animations took some work and not least because I am still not that experienced with the cutscene editor.

The first really big cutscene I am working on involving 4 actors

I also had problems with the cup (and later bottle) as I was initially animating them separately. I thought, what the heck, let's post in the cutscene forum to see if there is an easier way and presto! there is! Sunjammer and Eshme pointed me to the 'Link to Actor' option and SJ, in particular, gave a very detailed post that was very helpful.
However, there were still issues with that - for one, the Use Offset is not really that useful as you still have to pretty much set the orientation in a lot of frames (I believe that is called 'bracketing'). The other one was that DA doesn't really come with a decent cup - there is a goblet that will look totally out of place in a tavern and a huge mug straight from the Prancing Pony in LotR (which was another reason to switch to a bottle)

Anyway, the cutscene is almost complete - after another minor rework once I realized you can't have a conversation cutscene if there are dialogue options.

Till later...


The Dark Times Chronicle  

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time on the BSN forums - not browsing the actual forums but taking a shot at the various riddles and puzzles being posted in The Dark Times Chronicle group. Created by Team Z, which is a dev team for the Dark Times: Confederacy of Malkuth, the group plans to release regular newsletters to keep the folks interested in learning more about the DT:CoM universe entertained. And so far, they've done that rather splendidly!
The Team Z logo

With lots of riddles, puzzles and threads dealing with weird happenings, truisms, etc., the group has been an enjoyable place to go to for a break and MysteriXOX is almost always around to keep the momentum going! The most important thing, though, is that the first edition of The Dark Times Chronicle is being released in 2 days so keep an eye out for it. It will contain information on the DT:CoM module and interviews with the developers as well as more riddles and puzzles.


A lot of small things...  

In the last post, I had set a target for myself to complete the exterior level I had started earlier by the past weekend. Unfortunately, that didn't happen due to a variety of reasons. One thing I realized after putting all the structures in was that some of the interiors didn't match the exterior portrayed in the level. This may be a minor thing but once I saw the discrepancy, it just became a niggling thought that just wouldn't die!! Below is an example of what I mean -

The interior shot of the room
The exterior of the same room
(Sorry about the exterior shot but that's the best I could salvage from an earlier screenshot I had taken - all my 5 backup saves have the updated design)
If you look at the exterior shot closely (you can enlarge it), you would see that the door is set in a small alcove and there are two corners were the edges are not perpendicular and instead have another wall at around a 120-degree angle between them. Neither of those were reflected in the interior area.The other minor thing was the windows' placement but that really was a very minor difference.

Changing the interior level would have meant reworking a lot of things - more/less space which I would have needed to fill/empty, rearrange NPCs and tables and most important, rework a cutscene that takes place inside. Changing the exterior meant using different models in the same space - I had been too lazy before and just put together two house models back-to-back. Instead, I just put together the walls and windows as in the interior - didn't take too long to do that either :)

As I am writing this, I *think* I could have got away with the cutscene if I had just enlarged the interior to accommodate the differences but oh well, what's done is done and I did have to rework more than that one structure anyway. The level is close to completion now; I need to fill out the level with more props and do the lighting but at least all the required pieces are now present to test in-game.

Alongside this, I have also been working on dialogues and one big cutscene in the interior area shown above. I had mentioned earlier that the module will require a Dalish Elf player and the cutscene should help set the tone on how certain NPCs within Orlesian-occupied Ferelden react to Dalish - keeping in mind the historical tensions between Orlesians and Dalish.

Till tomorrow...


Back to level building  

After a weekend spent in rewriting and polishing up the first act-and-a-half, I decided to take a break and do some level building. There is still a fair amount of work to be done on the story though. To give you some background, when I initially started writing this story, I had a clear idea on what the end-game should be - the setting, the areas, the story-arcs in those areas and even a few quest lines were already semi-finalized.

The problem was - getting the player to the end-game. For reasons that will be clear when BaL is released, I couldn't just ask the player to go to the end-game areas via direct questing because that is not possible given the setting. Instead, I came up with various story arcs that would eventually lead the player there and these are driven by different factions each having their own agendas - with one manipulating the other, sometimes unwittingly; some with common ends but different means to get there, etc.

So, at this point, I have a very well-defined start and a semi-finalized end-game. The details on the transition between the two are being worked on as I find time - this will be the point in the game where some factions' lives are ended and other factions gain notoriety. Or something like that.

This week has seen the re-emergence of the level editor in my 'Frequently Used Tools' list. I've been working on the exterior village level that I started before going on vacation. I hope to finish it by this weekend and get it into a state that can be submitted for Community Contest #1. I've also been tweaking some of my earlier levels as I play through them and identify the one in the screenshot below with the tree prop stopping short of the ceiling.

The tree prop has been neatly sawed off to prevent structural damage :)
The second one to enter the 'Frequently Used Tools' list after a long time is the conversation editor. I went back and modified all the earlier conversations to use my own plots for skill/stats checks, generic functions, etc. As part of the story update, I also fleshed out all the interactions in the first half of Act 2 which has resulted in a lot of conversations penning themselves. I still have to put them into the toolset though *sigh*

In between, I have also been playing Divinity 2: Ego Draconis, the sequel to Divine Divinity (I really didn't like Beyond Divinity that much). It's been a fantastic ride so far and I am close to unlocking my dragon form which should make it even more enjoyable. Really, there is nothing like a hack 'n' slash to kill an hour or so of free time and Divinity 2 is doing great in that regard!


Storyboarding and Phaenan's Crafting GUI  

I come back from vacation and open the word document containing the various details of the story I had put down earlier. The one month I never opened it turns out to be crucial as a lot of things I had thought plot-critical were contrived means of forcing the player down a particular path and a lot of things I had thought to be quite creative were in fact, not.
The past week has been a sobering one as I went back to the basics and started re-writing large parts of the storyline. Additional options, both in dialogue and actions, were added and the motives of the different primary factions were given more depth and meaning. While doing this, I was conscious not to add something for the sake of choices - a trap all too easy to fall into. I also made sure I wasn't playing the story mentally while writing so that particular choices appeal more than others - a factor in the earlier version when some actions were upgraded to be 'plot-critical'.
You would have noticed that I haven't added any screenshots for quite a while. That's because I haven't run through the areas in quite a while as I had been coding and testing in a small bare test area. However, this weekend, it's back to the level editor and testing areas in-game so you can expect more BaL shots soon.

The one thing I am excited about is Phaenan's new customizable crafting GUI. For those that don't know, Dragon Age uses Scaleform for its UI which means it cannot be modded easily without the source files or the SDK (or so we thought!). I had been talking to Phaenan and FollowtheGourd about changing the crafting GUI for BaL to accommodate the additional crafting recipes - since that is far more elegant than doing it via conversation or via placeable interactions. I had even resigned myself to learn some flash coding to modify the default crafting GUI to read my crafting ability IDs instead. Then, Phaenan announces the Flexible Crafting GUI - now I don't have to worry about writing a bunch of scripts to do the work that the GUI will handle using M2DAs. Thanks, Phaenan!

Till later...


Community Initiatives on BSN  

The hangover from a long vacation is always bad - unpacking, a ton of work waiting to be done and on top of all this, several interesting happenings on the BSN forums.

One of the exciting things is the new Community Contests initiative started by mikemike37. The idea is to hold content-creating competitions on various aspects of DA modding with the entries being available for the entire community to modify and use - freely. It is an excellent idea for generating community content, which has been extremely scarce in the DA.
The other interesting part are the prizes - in the absence of material prizes for now (there are talks underway to get them), interested community members can devote a fixed amount of their time as a prize to help the winners with their projects. This will definitely help bring together community members and provides an option to help people who are lacking skills in a particular area while also giving exposure to those who are proficient in their own areas.

Go here to read more about this effort - Community Contest Wiki Page and sign up here if you are interested in helping out. Two contests have already been announced - a level building one and a prop design.

The other 'happening' I want to touch on is one that is generating a bit of controversy - the Open House initiative started by Proleric. The idea is to make freely available all the projects hosted on BSN with a wiki list to make navigation easier. The ultimate goal of the project, while good, has led to some friction between community members due to the way it is being implemented. While I endorse the idea of open content, putting the onus on project creators to classify their works as 'not open' is a bad idea. The stance that 'open is the default mode' for projects seems to be driven by community members coming from the NWN/NWN2 modding scene - which, to my mind, is against most of the other modding communities I have seen. It's still in the early stages though so it might mature out to be a palatable option for all content creators but then again, it might not. We just have to wait and see how it evolves.