Creature Scaling  

This past weekend, I came to terms with WoW. Yes, I know - another post on WoW. Well, not really. I like the game. Like it so much I've already got the first two expansions and a game card to keep me playing till March. I also realized one important thing - there is no need to finish the game. In fact, it can't be finished! So, why devote all my time to playing it? Weekend nights are going to be WoW time but other than that, I'm going to focus on getting this module (and the second part) completed. I mean, this is just an assurance that I am not abandoning this module - the lack of regular posts recently might have given that impression and I just wanted to get the expectations straight.

So, what's been going on with BaL, you ask? Encounter design. More specifically, creature design. Even more specific, boss creature design.
Now, I am not a fan of this auto-scale system at all. Frankly, I think it's wasted effort. Now, some might argue that the non-linear design of the campaign made this a requirement but in my opinion, it wasn't needed even there. My recollections of the OC might not be 100% accurate but by the time you finish Lothering, you are already at level 7 or so. Looking at the area-data file, except for the final quest chains and battles, almost all areas are scaled between levels 7 and 10. Where's the need then?

I wouldn't be going on so much about this if I hadn't been disassembling the autoscale scripts over the weekend. There's just so much code in there for so little gain!
Just to determine the scaled level (let's not even go into the subsequent work done to actually initialize the creature),

  • check against the min/max level for the area
  • check against the player level
  • check against the LevelScale in autoscale sheet
  • check against the max level for that appearance
  • check against the min_level in the creature table
  • check whether appearance level limits are disabled in the module and area

Going through all those 2DAs and setting up the variables isn't something I wanted to do. It's just too much work!
If I want to remove auto-scaling, it pretty much meant gutting out the entire logic in there and writing my own creature core script. This is what I have started doing this weekend. My vision for BaL involves some complex boss battles, based on the difficulty level in-game and I don't want auto-scaling to botch it up. So, I need to add my own version of auto-scaling - the difference being only the difficulty level selected in-game counts. This way, regular players who don't want very involved boss battles can play on Normal while Hard will pose a definite challenge. Nightmare isn't in the plan yet since doing this IS a lot of work.

The result of all this will hopefully be a definitive combat experience that the hard-core players like because, let's face it, combat design in the OC was never a strong point for Dragon Age.


Preparing for the lull ahead  

The lull at work, that is. We have one more deployment this weekend which should take a couple of hours at the most but other than that, there's not much going on at work. I've started compiling a list of things to complete over the next 2 weeks since this will be the time when I can focus on developing.

Towards that, I've been concentrating on wrapping up Craggy Island as best as I can and barring one issue where ambient animation is not resumed once combat ends, everything is good to go from my end. Sometimes, even the smallest thing that you know you could probably get to work while you are asleep gives so much trouble and that was the case here with codex entries not appearing. After a lot of debugging, it was due to the infamous duplicate GUID bug. Anyway, all's good now.

The focus for the next 2 weeks is going to be tying things together in the new areas and creating NPCs and ambient behaviour for them. And then, finish up the remaining abilities for the custom classes since those will be needed to play-test these areas.
I do have to spend some time to finish my PBEM tourney for Shadow Magic. Now that I am at the semi-final stage, I want to make sure I go all the way through and regain my Championship crown! So, I'll have to spend some time to map out the strategy for the finals - assuming I win the semis, of course!

Till later...


Behind the Scenes Work  

Past few days have have seen a lot of behind-the-scenes work, both on Blood and Lyrium and Craggy Island and mostly on Skype.

I think I've mentioned this before, DahliaLynn is working on an important cutscene for BaL and so far, it's looking absolutely terrific! We've been going back and forth over it but it is mostly complete now except for some fine-tuning. Today, we got the revised voice samples for that scene and will be integrated into the conversation shortly. After this is done, I hope to retain her services for a few more cut-scenes; frankly, the ones I've done so far are not good. Of course, I've received a lot of suggestions and advice on cinematics from her but going back and re-doing them will not be a quick task and with the amount of things still left to be done, they will have to wait.

How do you know this is from the Toolset?

The good news on the progress side of things is that the Evermist re-work is complete (well, except for the final polish but that's true for all my levels) and I've started integrating the area work done previously. There is also an extremely cool side-quest in that area, if I do say so myself. One that's innovative in it's use of the game resources; I got caught up in implementing it and while it's not working as intended currently, it's just a question of hacking away at it because that's primarily what it is ;)

I also fixed most of the big issues with Craggy Island, including that auto-level up templates for companions. I was kicking myself for not double-checking everything after finding the causes - the character template had a min-level and preset abilities that was screwing up the final output. I was calculating the XP needed to level from Level 1 to 7 and the min-level was already set to 5. So, what happens? The game bumps her up to level 9. I tell you, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure this out.

In addition to the fixes, some more cool VFX effects have been implemented that gives the scene that authentic touch. I know I said this previously too but these ones are way better, trust me! One more day will be dedicated to CI to code in the character pre-set and fix some niggling issues but after that, it will be time to beta!

For those out there wondering, I have not completely succumbed to the temptations of WoW...yet! But the pull is strong! :p


Combat Design - The role of a Tank  

When Dragon Age was first released and players were talking about having a tank in the group and discussing whether Alistair or Shale was a better tank, I admit I really didn't understand why you'd need a tank in the group. In almost all encounters, a couple of mages in the party will wipe the opposition before the tank even has time to pull aggro. In rare cases when it is required and the tank goes in first to draw threat, the battle is anyway over soon enough. Couple that with the fact that party members cannot die and I didn't see any role for a tank in Dragon Age.

Now, most of my gaming has been with single-player games and the ones I have played multiplayer (Unreal and Shadow Magic), the concept of a tank is non-existent. Well, maybe a little in Shadow Magic but since that was PvP always, that didn't work as expected.

Enter World of Warcraft. Yesterday, I did my first dungeon run - two actually. Being the first time, I didn't even know every member had to talk to the quest-giver to get the quest to show up in the log; just assumed it was handled on a party basis. Even worse, I had a full inventory (I was out doing the regular campaign while queued) and couldn't pick up the items I needed. Second run, I died and couldn't remember the path to get to the other members (this was in Blackfathom Deeps). Anyway, the thing that really struck me about these runs was the importance of a tank. The tanks really played a part here - unless they maintain aggro, it usually leads to a wipe. The mages and other DPS had to make sure they are not drawing too much threat or it's back to spirit form - I learned this the hard way the first time.

Transposing this to Dragon Age, one gets similar skills in the Warrior Shield tree. However, the effectiveness is vastly reduced due to two important factors -

  • threat calculation missing/removed from a lot of rogue/mage talents. These classes, primarily DPS, can do damage without being at risk most of the time.
  • the mobs (and even bosses) are too weak or too few for the tank role to really shine.

I must say, those dungeon runs were a revelation. As I've said before, Blood and Lyrium will feature custom classes for the player and most companions. In fact, except for the Warrior least, till yesterday. The warrior class in BaL already has no access to the 2H tree so this gives a perfect excuse to maximise the utilization of the Shield tree and design the combat around the concept of a party as in WoW. Since the classes for most companions are fixed, I don't have to deal with the possibilities of a significantly gimped party due to player choice and can pretty much anticipate how strong the party is going to be at key points in the story. I tell you, this is going to become very interesting.


Steady Progress  

As mentioned in the last update, I've been working on two things primarily - finishing up the scripting for Craggy Island and reworking the Evermist level.

The work on Craggy Island is almost done. We've added some VFX to the final area to make things seem a little more coherent. The actual VFX that was to be implemented is not present in the default VFX_base worksheet. For now, a similar VFX has been added and while it does look fine, I think the original one (fxe_mist_p) had a 'blowing-out' animation that's missing from this one. In the end, we might just have to extend VFX_base and use the VFX that was originally intended to be in the area.
There is also an annoying issue with the auto-level up template for the companions - just doesn't seem to work. I'll have to spend some time tomorrow going over that and trying to fix it.

This weekend, I spent a considerable amount of time on the Evermist level. Even if I do say so myself, it is starting to look much more like a proper village than a random collection of houses on elevated ground. I've taken pains to bring in some distinction to the various areas within the level - for example, rich farmers will have shingled roofs on their houses and the immediate area around them will look better with cobbled pathways and bigger houses, the poorer sections will have thatch roofs, closer-spaced houses, patch-worked walls.

I had planned to take some before/after close-up shots to show the difference but didn't have time yesterday night. Maybe in the next post :)
Here is a screenie of one of the streets that is near the entrance; still need to add a few more props but I also have to make sure not to overdo it. As it is, the level is prop-heavy due to all the constructed structures!

Oh, and I managed to spend only a few hours on WoW - enough to advance my gnome by about 7 levels. Reading about the latest patch on the WoW forums, it appears that the initial leveling process has been made faster ;)


World of Warcraft  

That's right! THE drug, going by what I've read and I must say, it's true to an extent!

I saw a BF deal for a free monthly pass for WoW and decided I'll give it a shot. I got one of those 10-day trial invites so I can decide whether to sell that pass or not and it looks like I *might* subscribe instead. I should have taken a screenshot of the first time I entered Eitrigg. I guess it was a busy time in the realm - there were scores of characters around! That first glimpse sucked me right in though I couldn't log on to that realm after that (almost always full!)
Instead I created a gnome mage in Norgannon and it's been a blast playing that little 'un. I don't know about others but I find the graphics extremely appealing. It's so colourful and lively, compared to DA.

The starting area for a gnome character

The other thing I noticed was that even for unimportant quests - simply to go to another place, for example - you get a detailed reason. Far more detailed than any of those Chanter's Board/Blackstone Irregulars/many other side-quests in DA. I really liked that there is a story behind all these fights against the Troggs, Rockjaws and Frostmanes.
The other important distinction from DA that I immediately noticed were the ambient animations. Here is a screenshot (badly taken) of a guy carrying another. He actually goes and lays the guy down on a makeshift bed and goes back and waits for another survivor!

Anyway, as much as I am enjoying this game, I am making a conscious effort not to play for extended lengths of time. I still have a module to finish; make it two actually. I am in final stages of scripting for Craggy Island and after that, it's just going to be bug-fixing (which we've already done a lot) and polishing. Hopefully, it gets out around Christmas; last I heard, VO is in progress.

Meanwhile, while re-working my Evermist level, I've also been taking breaks on and off (it feels like I've been working in the level editor most of the time!) and re-working dialogues to change references to the locations that have moved. I'm also working on fleshing out the setting with a lot of ambient dialogues during these breaks so it doesn't get boring - which is quite easy when re-working a level as huge as this one. I'm also making sure some of the buildings fit more into a village setting; an example is the marketplace which was very big and spacious under a huge tent-like awning previously. Now, the shops are more closely-packed and cluttered with make-shift roofs.

Re-worked market
Once I finish this, I have around 4 cutscenes I need to create in this area. That will definitely take some time! Till later...