A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

25Mar/13Off

Neverwinter: A Review

Before I continue, I need to state a disclaimer:

1) I don't remember the last time I wrote a review about anything. So this may not be the most perfect of reviews; it's more of a brain dump, if you will.

2) I have never played World of Warcraft. My recent MMORPG experience is only Everquest II. Well, except for when I beta tested Ultima Online (before you ask: yes, I was in Britannia when Lord British died)

3) I am extremely weak when it comes to Dungeons and Dragons lore. For example, I know there's a city called "Neverwinter", but that's pretty much all I know about it.

Anyway, here goes...

He's a big one, ain't he?

He's a big one, ain't he?

This weekend marked the third beta test weekend for Neverwinter, so I got the opportunity to experiment with it.

All in all it was a rather enjoyable experience but I think the product is going to suffer because of the way it is presented: it's being billed as an MMORPG at the same level as World of Warcraft, but it clearly is not and should never be considered as such. To me it looks like a single player experience - something like Neverwinter Nights, Kingdoms of Amalur, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, etc. - that just happens to have a LOT of NPCs in it.

And I mean LOTS... Compared to other multiplayer games I've seen, the engine manages to handle over a hundred players in one zone amazingly well. You wander through Protector's Enclave and you are simply surrounded by dozens of other players. This gives the environment life and makes it feel like an actual city, not like the barren wasteland that cities are in most other games. Granted you can't interact with each and every one as if they were an NPC, but it just feels grander. I remember walking through the "great" city of Qeynos in Everquest II and wondering where the hell anyone is; you certainly won't feel that way about the city of Neverwinter.

Beyond that, the game progresses like a single player experience; I pretty much solo-ed the entire game all the way to level 30. At the end of each zone there is a "party only" event that requires you to have 5 players, but it's really optional and isn't required to proceed along the original quest line. So if you're looking for the true multiplayer experience, the thrill of 20 man raids or interaction with teammates, I'm not sure if Neverwinter is for you.

The Good

1) The game runs remarkably well, all things considered. Granted, my machine is as low end as you can get, the video quality was abysmal for me and there were certain areas where I felt I was watching a slide show than playing a game (the zone with the "mad dragon" was unplayable due to frame rate), but running through Neverwinter with a hundred players around me ran pretty well.

2) If you liked the single player games I mentioned above (specifically Neverwinter Nights and Kingdoms of Amalur), you should enjoy this game. It's really nothing more than a single player game that requires an Internet connection; there are multiplayer aspects of it (not many that I saw) but they're not an obligation. A majority of the zones along the main questline are instanced and not shared so you'll be all alone most of the time.

That crumpled heap at the bottom? Yep... That's me.

That crumpled heap at the bottom? Yep... That's me.

3) It feels like D&D. It may not feel like 4th Edition, or any edition for that matter, but there's no doubt about the fact that you're playing a D&D game. The first time you get attacked by a mimic or the first time you plow in to a gelatinous cube will be memorable (I'm not sure if either one can be detected prior to attack; it all happened so quick). And once you get to the 30s, you can experience a rather large green dragon (that crumpled heap at the bottom of the screen is me).

4) Some of the zones are beautiful. The Plague Tower, with huge chunks of stone floating in mid air, is a sight to see.

5) I was concerned to a point about the "free to play" model and whether there would be "pay to win". In the 30 levels I've played I managed to accumulate two companions (can only have one active at a time though) and a horse without having to spend real world money, so that says something about it. Granted, I can imagine certain things would be a lot easier had I shelled out some money - I'm betting I wouldn't have taken such a beating with the green dragon if I was buffed with stuff I bought - but that doesn't mean I can't play the game. You can still enjoy it without shelling out a dime.

The Bad

Plowing in to a gelatinous cube and getting instantly engulfed was rather alarming.

Plowing in to a gelatinous cube and getting instantly engulfed was rather alarming.

1) If you're looking for a true MMO experience, I don't know if this will be your cup of tea. I'm sure you can team up to do quests, but even so it's very personal and doesn't feel like it's designed for massive raids other MMORPGs tailor to.

2) The main questline follows a very linear progression: do everything in zone "X", then move on to zone "Y". At least in games like Everquest you sometimes have the need to go back to old zones, and in EQ there are cases where an instance of a differing level than the surrounding zone exists, but here as soon as you're done with a zone forget about it. For example, if you finish Blacklake and move on to the next zone you can never again do the dungeon or skirmish missions that were there and have no reason to ever go back to Blacklake.

3) Because of the linear progression, I can't help but wonder what's going to happen once you hit the level cap. At least with Everquest you have things to do: zones to explore, raids to participate in, thousands of quests to complete, etc... but it doesn't quite feel like that will be the case with this one. I question what there will be to do besides retire your character and make another one. Time will tell.

4) All the zones don't become available until you complete necessary quests and unlock them. I would prefer that all zones be open; if you're level 1 and you blunder in to a level 60 zone that's your problem but that's also your choice. They mentioned zones like Icespire Peak which I can't even go see if I wanted to.

5) Inventory management becomes an issue quickly. Unidentified items are worthless and cannot be equipped, but the only apparent way to identify items is with a Scroll of Identification which is extremely rare. At level 30, I was constantly running around with a pack busting at the seams with unidentified items that I would have to discard now and then just to make room.

6) Expect to run around a lot. Most zones only have one main entrance in or out, so since there's no fast travel I've found that the quickest way to go to another zone is to kill yourself (diving in to the Rift in Neverdeath Cemetery was particularly entertaining, especially when my companion dove in after me a few seconds later). Eventually you get to buy a horse but it doesn't feel that much faster.

7) Monsters don't appear to be tied down to a specific spot. In Everquest you can be chased by monsters up to a certain point where they will break off the attack and return home, but here you can train dozens of monsters across the entire zone. Since every monster in the zone has pretty much the same level it's not that big of an issue; you won't have problems like Fansy the Bard dragging a boatload of high level creatures over to pound you in to batter.

8) The voice acting is pretty bad. And, in some cases, really bad. The fact that they won't shut the hell up when they're standing near you really doesn't help.

The Ugly

1) This. Just... This.

NWPatching

Every time you enter a new zone - and sometimes while you're playing - you get hit with this. It's "Patching"... What it's patching I don't honestly know, but it got to be quite infuriating. On some zones it's quick, but on other zones it took upwards of 6-8 minutes. My longest wait was 496 seconds.

What is that for? I would much rather wait an hour for the game to patch itself on launch before I even play it than to get constantly interrupted every time I zone. And, quite honestly, if I invite you to a zone and it takes you ten minutes before you even show up I'm going to kick you from the group.

2) This has been touched upon by others much better than I, but women's armor has some... issues. I mean, this is my female halfling rogue:

Armor

What the hell kind of armor is that? It's better than chainmail despite the bare midriff. And what is that, a duck crammed in to my toon's cleavage?!?

I recently tried Wizardry Online and was immediately turned off because every female player looked like a prostitute. This isn't as bad, but it's pretty damn close. And I'm hoping that wardrobes will become considerably more diverse; for now, considering everyone on the main questline gets the same rewards, expect every level 30 rogue to have pretty much the same appearance.

3) There are bugs, which can be expected. But many have said that Perfect World has a tendency of not fixing things and launching anyway which is somewhat disconcerting. There technically weren't any actual "showstoppers" but there were some really glaring issues that I feel should have been dealt with on the first beta.

Conclusion

All in all it was an enjoyable experience, and I think it's a game that captures the feel of D&D and shows some great promise. Whether this will have the necessary longevity to keep players playing has yet to be determined, but in lieu of that if you're looking for a long single player experience this might be worth it. If you're looking for a hardcore MMORPG, I question whether this will give you that.

I look forward to the next beta weekend!

Filed under: DnD, Games, Neverwinter, RPG No Comments
13Mar/13Off

The Kobolds are Coming!

OK, so maybe my cover needs a little work...

OK, so maybe my cover needs a little work...

Today I decided to try and get Revenge of the Kobolds finally out the door. It's been sitting on my drive for some time, and I think it's time it get some air and some feedback on whether the mechanic I put together actually works.

Here is the intro:

     For as long as you can remember, you have been victims. Even after reducing the senseless attacks on nearby villages and trying to lead a peaceful, isolated life they still came. Every few weeks another group of “heroes” would barge in to your lair just because it was there, and they would not hesitate to try and kill everyone in sight and take all the precious things you’ve struggled to collect. Sometimes your clan was able to beat them back, but other times you simply weren’t so lucky. When your clan is going on their ninth chieftain in the last six months, you know you have a problem.

     Most of the time you and your group of warriors were there to try and fight them, and sometimes you managed to kill one or two of them before having to inevitably retreat, but now it’s different. It’s as if they waited for you - the clan’s latest and most highly trained protectors - to leave on a routine scouting trip so they can waltz in and ravage your lair. The ninth chieftain and the remainder of your clan didn’t stand a chance this time.

     Enough is enough! Your clan may have been decimated (again) and your latest leader may be dead, but there is no way you are going to let these paltry “heroes” get away with it this time. It’s time to go in there to take your lair back, and show these gutless intruders what a proud, fearless kobold is truly capable of!

-=O=-

     Revenge of the Kobolds is a Dungeon and Dragons™ 4th Edition “challenge” adventure designed for between four and six 1st level characters. This adventure is designed similar in concept to the Lair Assault series of mini-adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. It is designed to be used within a single game session with characters specifically made for this challenge.

In this adventure the players are all kobolds who return to their lair only to find it occupied by “heroes”. They must reclaim their home by killing every intruder they find.

I would have published it already but it lacks art. Not for the PDF that is... I don't have any art for the listing on Drive thru RPG. So I'm going to spend a day and see what I (or someone else that's willing) can come up with.

As promised here, I intend to also release this product FOR FREE here and on Drive Thru RPG.

Once I get this out of the way, I can focus entirely on Return of the Crystal Scion (for Pathfinder) and an extra-special secret project that I'm hoping to complete for early April.

Stay tuned... The kobolds are coming in a matter of days!

2Mar/13Off

As Seen In Dragon Magazine…

Yesterday the Table of Contents for Dragon Magazine #421 was finally published, and it contains somewhat of a surprise: my co-authored article is finally going to see the light of day!

...and I don't quite know how I feel about that now.

The article was written over a year ago (my source file has the "last updated" date of 1/9/2012, but the approval for the article occured as early as November 2011), and quite honestly I've changed a lot since then. In retrospect, I don't quite know how I feel about the article in question; it's been a long time, and my design style has changed considerably in the past year. There are parts of it I'm not all that thrilled about, but I admit I've felt that way about everything I've ever published so I assume that's just the write in me panicking about the quality of everything I type.

For starters, if it's the bio I think I wrote it's really... and I mean really... weak. To be honest, I had a harder time writing the bio than I did the rest of the article. For those of you that haven't tried it before, it's actually fairly difficult to describe oneself without getting all preachy and while trying to maintain a little bit of humor. When asked to do it for this submission I kind of panicked and didn't know what the hell to say, so I wrote who I was and even mentioned my own company (Darklight Interactive). At this point I'd be surprised if WotC even published a reference to my own company (they did, after all, C&D me at one point).

Secondly, I've never had to fill out an art request before. In the past I always had a certain level of faith in artists in the same way as people have faith in me as a programmer. I never expected to have to go in to vivid detail on exactly what I wanted for art; I figured I'd give them a general idea and let the artist use their own creativity to come up with something that fits. Rather than tell them "draw me XXX", I had to go in to vivid detail of the scene I would have liked to see... Even going as far as capitalizing key words that I thought important ("... ELEMENTAL CHAOS ... MOLTEN LAVA ... THIN WINGS ... SHARP CLAWS ..."). If a client of mine went in to that level of detail when asking for a program I'm supposed to write, and even went as far as capitalizing keywords like that, I'd probably tell him to stuff it.

Finally, and I've said this many a time before, I suck at writing lore. I can create monster stat blocks until I'm blue in the face and can work on crunch text for weeks on end, but I now had to come up with lore background for the article. Luckily I was told up front that the article was going to be co-authored (at the time I didn't know who the other author was), so I prayed that the other author would be much better than I in terms of introducing the article and providing the necessary top level background lore.

But, regardless of that, I still needed to write the lore for the parts of the article I did write. So off I went to do research... After several hours of searching I managed to dig out the original Fiend Folio out of storage and I even spent a stupid amount of money to buy the UK5: Eye of the Serpent adventure module on eBay because that's where some of the creatures were introduced.I even dug out the D&D 3.5E Monster Manual and the Pathfinder Bestiary to ensure I had every bit of information I needed to do this right.

Why go through all this effort? Well, there's a big difference in creating something from scratch and creating something that has thirty years of history; I wasn't about to create something that the die hard D&D historians will immediately identify as being flat out wrong.

I was worried. Part of me created the stat blocks with the absurd amount of detail I normally put in to doing such a thing, but I was still concerned that these new creations of mine would not fit in to the established history of the creatures. In addition to the history across multiple editions, I had another concern: these creatures had already introduced in 4th Edition in an article by Logan Bonner. They were familiars then, but even if they weren't represented in the same style as previous editions they were still considered existing 4th Edition canon - they are in the DDI Compendium - so I technically couldn't create anything that went against that either.

It took me over a month to write the article. Actually, let me be more specific on that: it took me a few weeks to build up the courage to write the article, then spent a few days writing, then spend another few weeks staring at it and thinking "is this really good enough?" It was my first article to be published in Dragon/Dungeon, so I was nervous as hell. I think I even had my wife hit the "Send" button in the end because if not it'd still be sitting in my "Drafts" folder waiting to go out.

But regardless of all that, there it is... my name as an author on the Wizards of the Coast website. It's not a stellar, earth-shattering article I admit, but it is a personal accomplishment. Technically, I can now add "published in Dragon Magazine" on my resume. That's got to count for something, right?

Hopefully now I'll get the chance to fulfill another bucket list item of mine: getting my article errata-ed by WotC!

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Monsters, Publication, RPG 1 Comment