I had an opportunity to ask George Ziets (MotB creative lead) a few questions about Mask of the Betrayer design aspects. If you missed the game, here is my review
* * *1. I've heard rumors that you are tired of "medieval fantasy" RPGs. I'm pretty sure that I know what you mean, but I'm curious about your reasons. Also, what exactly did you do to separate Mask of the Betrayer from such games?
I think this depends on whether I’m thinking as a player or as a designer.
First, the player’s perspective. When I open a new book, or sit down to watch a movie, or purchase an RPG, I want to be introduced to a world that I’ve never imagined before. I’m drawn to fantasy and science fiction for the thrill of discovery - to peel away the layers of setting and learn the “rules” of a new world. Some writers are brilliant at this. George R. R. Martin and Scott Lynch are two of my more recent favorites.
Now, it certainly isn’t impossible for an imaginative and intriguing world to be set in medieval Europe (or some facsimile thereof). The two authors I just mentioned base a lot of their material on real-world European cultures, and I found that The Witcher also presented a fresh take on some old formulas. But many, many games (and less effective novels) seem to be mired in the same old formula. As soon as I see elves, dwarves, and orcs, I can pretty well guess how they relate to one another, and what the world is going to be like… and I’m usually right (The Witcher notwithstanding). Once my curiosity has faded, so has my interest in the book, movie, or game.
That brings me to the designer’s perspective… and now that I think about it, the two perspectives are pretty closely related. As a designer, I need to be inspired by my game’s setting. Even when I’m the author or lead writer, I’ve got to have that sense of discovery. That’s what gets me out of bed for a long day of building levels, designing quests, or writing dialogue. It’s all a process of discovery. If I’m drawing my inspiration from, say, Slavic mythology - not something I knew much about, before I worked on MotB - then I’m truly learning and discovering something new. And that leads to all sorts of new ideas and connections. But if I’m working in the same old fantasy setting that I’ve been reading and playing for twenty years… it’s awfully difficult to come up with fresh and exciting ideas.
I think that was my first realization on MotB. To craft a story that I’d feel excited about, I needed to move the player into a new and previously unseen part of the Forgotten Realms. The Sword Coast felt like a pretty generic setting - one I’d seen many times before. Rashemen, on the other hand, was an interesting pastiche of Slavic and Japanese elements, with animistic undertones. Once I’d immersed myself in Slavic, Japanese, and animistic mythologies, the basic ingredients of MotB really began to take shape. I’d never have been able to craft the story of Mask if I’d “stayed” in the Sword Coast. Creativity requires fresh ammunition.2. I guess you and Kevin Saunders really pushed the game into a different direction from NWN2. What was behind this decision? What are your thoughts, as a designer, on NWN2?
NWN2’s biggest sin was probably ambition. The team tried to do too much in too little time, and everything suffered a bit. It’s an awfully common story in the games industry, as anyone who plays a lot of games probably knows.
So when Kevin Saunders and I started preproduction on MotB (before NWN2 had even shipped), we ended up being pretty conservative… and that was for the best. Credit goes to Kevin for this - he recognized early that we had a short development cycle, and we had to focus on what we knew we could achieve, and nothing more, lest our game feel unfinished in the end.
For me, as creative lead, my unabashed focus was story. That turned out well from a production standpoint, since we could implement story with existing tools and tech. I really wanted to tell a personal story - more on that below - in a different part of the Forgotten Realms. So we devoted our efforts toward telling that story as thoroughly as we could, and we kept the core gameplay largely the same. There were some things we knew we wouldn’t have time to implement properly, like the NWN2 stronghold and a “full suite” of companions, so we dropped those features. (In fact, Kaelyn the Dove - my personal favorite companion - very nearly got cut. Timely assistance from Chris Avellone was all that saved her.)
That strict sense of focus taught me a lot. As developers, we should identify early what we can achieve in the time we have, and we should focus on those features. It’s better to build a game that delivers a smaller number of features at a higher level of polish than to build a game that tries to do more than development time allows, as NWN2 did. 3. Tell me about MotB story. How was it chosen and designed? Why no ancient evil and world-saving? Why the focus on "you"?
I’m pretty strongly against “save the world” stories. For one thing, they’re incredibly cliché, and as a player, I’m just plain tired of them. For another, they tend to generate unrealistic characters and villains. But perhaps most importantly, does the player really care? If players are dropped into a fantasy world, in which they’re essentially strangers, does the fate of that world matter to them? Sure, many players will battle their way through the game regardless, but does a world-saving story actually reach them on an emotional level? Sometimes, if NPCs are presented well, and the player gets attached to them, it might… but that brings me to my next point.
Human emotions aren’t wired to comprehend the idea of saving an entire world, or a galaxy. We developed in tiny groups and tribes, and it’s personal stories that resonate best with us, on an emotional level.
But small, personal stories rarely lead to epic battles, hideous monsters, and interplanar travel. And let’s face it, that’s the stuff that usually creates fun gameplay. So in my opinion, why not marry the two - craft a personal story that will resonate with the player’s emotions, but set it against a backdrop of epic events.
That’s what I set out to do on MotB. I wanted players to be drawn into the story from the start, so I directed the initial threat against players, themselves. No empathy required, at first - if players wanted to survive, they needed to figure out the curse that had been placed upon them, and how they could get rid of it. Then, as players set out to unravel the mystery of the curse, they begin to uncover a very human story that led to an epic, world-shaking event. My goal was to give all the major characters, both villains and heroes, believable motivations. These characters all had good reasons for what they did, based upon their own values. As players learned more about them, I hoped they’d be drawn into the story emotionally, sympathizing with some of the NPCs, and hating others.
Players had to resolve their curse, one way or another - otherwise they’d die - but everything else was left up to their own judgment. They could choose one side or the other in an ancient ideological conflict, they could sympathize with one or another of the major characters, or they could choose a selfish path and let the world sort itself out. Ultimately, players got to experience epic places and events… but they were just a backdrop for a very personal storyline, and players got to react to that storyline on their own terms.4. The game can be described as "story-driven", yet it was non-linear and filled with choices. Few questions here:
a) How did you manage to pull that off? Was it difficult to balance all the options without breaking anything?
The secret was careful control. Important choices - the ones that were really meaningful - were only offered at a few critical moments in the storyline.
For the most part, I relied on choke points - major game moments where the player learned critical story information and the plot moved forward. I made certain that every player would pass through those choke points in order to progress through the game. So the choke points were a perfect opportunity to offer critical choices to the player, and also to “pay off“ on previous choices.
What were some choke points in MotB? Well, here are the most important ones:
The emergence of the spirit-eater curse, when the player chooses whether or not to devour Okku.
The conversation with Myrkul, which can end in any number of ways, and is probably the most important moment in the game.
The conversation with the Founder, where the player learns the truth about the curse and must decide how to react to her story.
The parley at the gates of the City of Judgment, where the player decides whether or not to join the Crusade.
And of course, the final battle with the Faceless Man.
Notice that the player makes major decisions at each of these choke points. There are other decisions to be made in the game, but most of the repercussions are relatively minor. The decisions made at these critical moments have far-reaching and highly visible consequences.
The decision to spare or devour Okku is an example. That choice had repercussions throughout Act II of the game - the way the Witches and Rashemi react to the player, the nature of numerous side encounters like the uthraki and the bear spirits, and even the availability of a companion, One of Many. b) The industry firmly believes that choices are confusing (tyranny of choices?) and non-linearity is a puzzle that nobody wants. What are your thoughts on that?
Hmm. Maybe it’s the studios I’ve worked for, but I’ve actually found that nonlinearity is a goal of many developers. There’s a definite recognition that players want nonlinearity, and developers want to give it to them… especially with the success of games like Oblivion and the GTA franchise. But “nonlinearity” is usually interpreted as a nonlinear world, not a nonlinear story.
Take the example of Oblivion, which offers a huge, nonlinear world. There’s plenty to do, and the whole world is open to the player from the start of the game. If players want to ignore the storyline and pursue guild quests, or enrich themselves through burglary and assassination, they can. But the main storyline is linear. At its core, Oblivion’s story is a series of quests that must be tackled in a proscribed order.
Player choices and nonlinear storylines complicate the picture. On the one hand, giving players important choices that affect the direction of the game is a good thing, since that improves replayability. On the other hand, implementing player choices can lead to bugs if it isn’t done properly, and no one wants to ship a product that is perceived as buggy.
On the whole, I’m fairly optimistic that we’re going to see more and more nonlinearity in RPGs. (I can’t speak for other genres, having only worked on single- and multi-player RPGs). We’ll certainly see more nonlinear worlds. And as designers learn how to implement them better, I think we’ll see more player choices with meaningful outcomes, too.c) Mutually exclusive options raise concerns that players would miss a lot of content, remaining unaware of everything a game has to offer. How do you deal with that stress?
On MotB, we knew that we had a very limited budget, and we weren’t going to be able to create encounters and quests solely to support one player choice or another. So the story events were the same for everyone… but they played out differently, depending upon the player’s prior choices.
The conversation with Myrkul, for example, could begin and end in many different ways, dependent upon how the player had handled the curse, what information had been uncovered, and decisions made during the dialogue. But at least two thirds of that encounter was theoretically the same for all players, which allowed a good balance between universal and tailored content. d) Any tips for aspiring developers who wish to make story-driven, non-linear games with choices & consequences?
One of the most important things you can do, as a designer, is to determine your key story moments as early as possible. These are the moments when the effects of previous decisions should be clearly felt, and new, meaningful decisions should be offered to the player. These decisions shouldn’t be arbitrary - they should relate directly to the central questions and themes of your game. In MotB, for example, the player’s critical choices always came back to the relationship between the player and the curse.
Once you’ve identified your critical choices, make them “pay off” in as many ways as you can. If the game responds clearly to the player’s critical choices, players will understand that their choices matter in your world.5. I think that Mask of the Betrayer is one of the few games that actually do offer a genuine, well supported "evil path" through the game. How did that happen? Any personal rules/preferences on designing evil options and party members?
We were helped a lot by the nature of the player’s curse. There were so many cool (evil) things that the curse allowed players to do: devour the soul of a dead god, construct an undead servant from the ghosts of a hundred mass murderers, shatter the thousand-year-old dream of oracle-hags… It gets back to something I’ve heard Chris Avellone say - find ways to let the player do something incredibly cool that they‘ve never done before. For us, a lot of those cool things were decidedly evil.
But we also set ourselves a goal that evil PCs wouldn’t be second-class citizens, and (maybe more importantly) that they wouldn’t be presented as mindless thugs. A lot of us felt like the “evil path” in many RPGs was given less attention than the “good path” (sorta like the Horde vs. the Alliance in WoW, but I digress).
The usual portrayal of evil in games is pretty one-dimensional. Evil equals psychotic. Evil PCs are presented as brutal thugs, and “evil” choices involve mortal threats or outright murder… and as storytellers, there’s only so much mileage we can get from random acts of violence. If that’s the extent of a game’s “evil path,” it’s no surprise to me that it would be poorly supported.
Personally, I wanted to portray a more realistic sort of evil in MotB. Evil can mean a lot of things. It can be manipulative, selfish, cowardly, vengeful, cheating… not just thuggish. What’s more, evil people don’t think they’re evil. Usually, they’re reacting to challenging events, just like the rest of us. It’s their means of dealing with those challenges that are good or bad.
In MotB, we put players in a very challenging situation - we gave them a curse that would 1) make them social pariahs, 2) ultimately kill them, but 3) give them incredible power. That’s a weighty combination. By putting the player in a more ambiguous moral situation, we created more opportunities for evil choices that made sense.
I should point out that we tried to portray a more multi-faceted sort of evil in our villains, too. Was the Founder evil? Or Akachi? Or the hags of the Coven? They certainly didn’t think so… but players got to hear their sides of the story and decide for themselves.