Sunday, May 8, 2016

A note on WoW and Nostalrius

I've written before of my increasing dissatisfaction with the direction that Blizzard took WoW with each expansion. At one point I started making a list of all of the RPG and flavour elements that I had liked, more and more of which Blizzard systematically removed from the game with each expansion. I even witnessed the removal of some of it, as I was trying out some of the Cataclysm content with a free starter account at the time when the Mists of Pandaria expansion was released and forcibly applied to my installation. It is no exaggeration to say that the game in its current state is a very different game than the one I paid for in 2007.

I write today, a month after the shutdown of the private server Nostalrius, not to lament the loss of a functioning preservation of the game as it was in 2006, but to address an argument that I've seen parroted unchallenged in many places.
"People who played on Nostalrius weren't there because they preferred vanilla, but because it was free."
I don't understand how this claim continues to be repeated, when it doesn't stand up to even the most casual of scrutiny. There are many private servers maintained by fans, and they represent a wide range of preferences. Some focus on specific expansions, while others include the most current content. Some focus on PvP, and have little care for quests. By far, the majority of them feature accelerated leveling, accelerated gold and skill gains, and overpowered gear, and are intended as playgrounds (small wonder, considering faithful recreation of the quests and scripting takes a great deal of effort). A minority strive to be "Blizzlike", with quests, leveling, and content as close to the source as possible.

Nostalrius was a vanilla Blizzlike 1x server with no accelerated leveling and no special bonuses, made to resemble WoW as it was as closely as possible, and it existed in a sea of servers that support Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, and yes, even Warlords of Draenor. If people were only playing on a private server because it was free, why did they specifically pick a vanilla server instead of the "latest and greatest" of the expansions?

Obviously, they weren't playing there because it was free. The reasonable conclusion is that they were playing there because they preferred vanilla.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

More Neverwinter Nights 2 modding

One should not take my lack of updates here as a sign that I'm not gaming.  The truth is, I play other types of games as well as RPGs, and I'm not sure that they'd fit well on this blog.  After finishing the module that occupied much of my time over the past couple of years, I expanded back out into a wider variety of game types, and played many other games to completion, though I did also find the time last year to add a Halloween expansion to my campaign.  At any rate, the itch to play and mod Neverwinter Nights 2 has returned.

I've played many modules recently too, of course, and I've even written reviews of them, but I'm not comfortable with posting those reviews.  As a reader may note from my previous reviews (including of NWN2 modules), I can be a harsh critic, and I have rather high standards.  Those standards have only risen higher since those last reviews, since I've not only played a good number of exemplary modules, but I've also seen for myself exactly what can be done in the toolset.  I want my criticism to be constructive, but it's hard to disguise the frustration I sometimes feel at certain common mistakes that cause problems in modules, especially when they're reported to the author and are never fixed.  So as yet I've remained silent.

I've started on another expansion to my campaign, but it's very preliminary work so far.  I've made some new custom content.  One is a recreation of the green devil head, the iconic trap in the classic Gary Gygax module Tomb of Horrors.  This has no real use outside of that module, and I'd hate to see such an iconic trap being used for generic decoration, so the only point to creating this was to test out a sculpting method in Gmax, which was cutting shapes out of a plane and moving vertices around.  It worked very nicely, so I can see myself making more interesting objects now.

Another is a new shiny tintable floor, which was inspired by a description of the evil cleric's room in the classic pen & paper module The Keep on the Borderlands.  Most NWN2 assets suffer from poor texturing.  Low resolution diffuse maps, overwrought normal maps, and very little specularity.  My content is intended to make up for that.

Another is a set of tile floors based on the dungeon floor tiles in the official Wizards of the Coast map tile packs.  These are also shiny and tintable in several ways (you can tint them in ways that make them appear less shiny, and can optionally tint them in a checkerboard pattern).  The scale is not the same as the original official map tiles, however.  The original dungeon tiles were a single tile to represent 10 feet, aligning it with one of the standard measurements (the other is 5 feet).  However, since NWN2 tiles are 9 m to a side, I decided to have 12 tile squares per 9 m, which makes each square approximately 2.5 feet.  This means that a set of 4 tiles creates a 5 ft x 5 ft square, or 8 of them makes 10 ft x 10 ft.  This makes it easy to map out interiors based on the old D&D maps.

Although I have some ideas in mind for my expansion already, I've decided to go through some old Dungeon magazines for inspiration and details, especially for special encounters, traps, treasures, etc.  Each room is a set-piece in many of these older adventures, each containing something new to see or do.  This sort of design goal fits in well with one of my other design goals, that of spectacle and discovery.  Then again, there are also some adventures that contain plain empty rooms.  I'm not particularly concerned with this kind of realism.  I want the rooms to have things in them that are interesting for players to do in a game, whether or not it's more realistic to have empty, looted rooms in a place that's supposedly occupied, or to have traps and puzzles in each room, or just to have rooms piled high with junk or objects too large for an adventurer to move.  Likewise, in a world where everburning torches are a common enough item, there's no real need to play the "realism" card in terms of lighting.

Anyway, here's to more fun times ahead.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bioware: "Gaming's moved on from Neverwinter Nights, we've moved on from Baldur's Gate."

I read an article interviewing Cameron Lee, producer of Dragon Age: Inquisition.  It's a year old, but it was recently linked in a topic on the Neverwinter Nights 2 forum.  Due to its provocative content, I thought it would be better to comment on it here, rather than on Bioware's own forum.
"Gaming's moved on from Neverwinter Nights, we've moved on from Baldur's Gate."

This quote jumped out at me, even before I saw that the article author pulled it out to highlight it later in the article.  It confirms what they had been avoiding saying for many years, that they've abandoned much of the audience that they attracted with their earlier games.  "Moving on," as if one of the best games they ever made were a bitter, failed marriage, or at best a death of a loved one, much as the article's author opines in the text leading up to the quote.

Showing the quote in a little more context, the most relevant part says:
Inquisition allows me to move into a tactical camera view and control my party from overhead, but BioWare prefers to show the game from its third-person view. [...] But I also suspect that BioWare wants to distance itself from the games of its past--Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, namely--and be mentioned in the same breath as Elder Scrolls. Lee's words reinforce this notion. "Gaming's moved on from Neverwinter Nights, we've moved on from Baldur's Gate," he says.

I do remember a much earlier interview in Wired magazine that supported the author's suspicion, specifically in regard to Skyrim.  Commenting on the poor reception of Dragon Age 2, Ray Muzyka was speaking of plans for improving what would become Inquisition, saying:
“We’re checking [Skyrim] out aggressively. We like it. We’re big admirers of [Bethesda] and the product,” he said. “We think we can do some wonderful things.”

More like admirers of the product's financial success, I'd wager.  And so Inquisition features a zoomed-in perspective and a seamless open world, both noticeable features of the Elder Scrolls games.  At least they didn't copy the Elder Scrolls' solo, one-man-army gameplay style.  But, then, Bioware's Neverwinter Nights didn't have the controllable party that Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age: Origins had.  Obsidian gave us that proper party system in Neverwinter Nights 2.

Back to the more recent interview, producer Lee continues after mentioning NWN:
"Neverwinter Nights, when you think about that is a transition point from Baldur's Gate, being 3D at that point. So that would have had a similar question, just from the change in perspective, and the change in the pacing. So it's more of an evolution in being immersed in the world, and I think that this kind of freeform movement to the world, giving you a massive place to explore, is just an evolution of the world."

What is he talking about here?  This, combined with the first part above, is the entirety of the quote.  Perhaps it would have helped if the author had mentioned what the "similar question" was referring to, but he didn't mention it because he found the bit about NWN and BG more interesting.  Is he talking solely about graphics or style, and not the game?  That their games have "moved on", first away from 2D, then away from a long-view party-focused gameplay to an Elder Scrolls-style up-close single character gameplay?  If so, it's hardly saying anything.

But, then, he didn't just say that Bioware was moving on.  He claimed that gaming, as a whole, had moved on from Neverwinter Nights, and by extension from Baldur's Gate as well, which lends itself to the way that I and the article author took it: that gaming as a whole has moved on from that sort of game.

I have to say that I disagree with that statement, given the renaissance of RPGs of a class similar to Baldur's Gate starting a few years ago and continuing today, with games like Divinity: Original Sin, Wasteland 2, Shadowrun Returns, Pillars of Eternity, and more still in production, not to mention the successful re-releases of the Baldur's Gate games in "enhanced editions".  To me, it looks more like gaming had a period of famine caused by the big publishers' lack of interest in serving the needs of that customer base, which was finally relieved by crowdfunding and other similar means.

Thanks to this renaissance, it's been a while since I (and others in this particular audience) have had to "settle" for the smaller and smaller scraps the larger publishers deigned to throw us.

I have not yet played Bioware's latest offering because of how much I hated the Dragon Age 2 demo.  From videos and demonstrations of it, though, it looked like it was closer to DA:O than DA2 was.  I was willing to see how it came out.  It seemed that they were no longer quite so confident that it would be more profitable to abandon the fans of the original in pursuit of a newer, presumably larger audience.

However, when one of my relatives happened to get DA:I as a X-mas gift, I watched him play it, and I determined that it still had strayed too far away from the kind of game I want to play.

They had it right before.  They don't now, and that's fine.  Others do.