I've run into Kevin Saunders and Tony Evans the other day. Tony says "Hi".
* * *1. Storms of Zehir is a very different, one might say very un-NWN game. Why did you decide to take a break from story-driven gameplay and try something new? Sure, Soz has a story which manages the game flow to some degree, but it's not a main feature, which is a departure from NWN2 and MotB. Tony Evans:
Both Neverwinter Nights 2 and Mask of the Betrayer focused on having epic story-lines. I love good story in games, which is one of the reasons why Planescape: Torment is my favorite RPG of all time. However, as important as story may be for an RPG, I have always felt that the most important thing a game needs to have is great gameplay. So after spending five years working on story-driven games, I decided that Storm of Zehir would be gameplay-driven instead.Kevin Saunders:
To be blunt, one practical consideration is that, typically, each expansion has a smaller financial budget than the original title and than previous expansions. "But wait," you may say, "I pay the same for expansions/games made with smaller budgets? That's not fair."No, it's not. It's also not fair that developers and publishers get no $ from used game sales or game rentals. It's part of how capitalism works, which is, incidentally, one of the themes in Storm of Zehir.
Anyway, to create the same or greater entertainment value with a smaller team, you have to either be more efficient or more innovative or both. With SoZ, we took some calculated risks and these really paid off.2. The design of the game is very close to PnP DnD games, which, ironically, is very different from computer DnD games where everything is epic, every temple is a Taj Mahal, and every dungeon is bigger than the Undermountain. Naturally, that led to some disappointments. What are you thoughts on that? Tony Evans:
Storm of Zehir is a very polarizing game. Many people seem to either love it or hate it. I think we could have done a better job of making sure people knew what to expect (or what not to expect) with Storm of Zehir. Despite all the interviews, previews and forum posts where we talked about the ways in which Storm of Zehir is very different from Neverwinter Nights 2 and Mask of the Betrayer, a lot of fans were surprised at how Storm of Zehir turned out. Many were pleasantly surprised and thought Storm of Zehir was refreshing and original, but others were disappointed because of all the ways in which it was not like Neverwinter Nights 2 or Mask of the Betrayer.Kevin Saunders:
My thought on it is that Tony made a decision to make Storm of Zehir more like traditional D&D and I think it was a good decision for this game. 3. The overview map is brilliant and I definitely hope it will become a standard RPG feature. How do you see this feature evolving? What are the possibilities, in your opinion? Was there anything you wanted to do with it but couldn't due to time constraints? Tony Evans:
One way in which the overland map could be expanded is to add vehicles you can ride (ie. horses, carts, hot air balloons) and boat travel across the sea. I’m eager to see how the modders will use the overland map. Though it may take a while for some major mod projects to incorporate the overland map, it would actually be fairly simple for players to open up the Storm of Zehir overland maps in the NWN2 Toolset and add their own new encounters, adventure areas and towns into the game.
We wanted to have more/bigger overland maps for the player to explore, but we chose to focus our efforts on the northern Sword Coast and Samarach/Chult so that we could fill those to the brim with interesting encounters and adventure areas.4. RPGs are notorious for turning poor adventurers into millionaires, which rarely goes well with trading and trying to make an honest buck. Any design thoughts on that? Which trading game does it right, in your opinion?Tony Evans:
There are many, many good trading games that we drew inspiration from for Storm of Zehir. Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Caravaneer and the Merchant Prince series were probably the most influential.
In Storm of Zehir, the trading aspect of the game was one of the ways to reward the player for exploration and travelling across the overland map. If you devote some time and love to it, you can make a lot of gold through trading in Storm of Zehir. Because the player is not intended to spend all of their time trading in Storm of Zehir, like they would in other games that are all about trading, we intentionally balanced the rewards of trading to be high. That way players can exchange their trading profits for better gear, training at the Adventurer’s Guild and other things that will benefit them in their adventurers.Kevin Saunders:
It can be challenging to make trading compelling in a game where you can kill and fight for rewards. Sid Meier's Pirates! is a very well designed game, but even it is lacking if you're just a trader - the rewards just aren't high enough for the effort. The Merchant Prince series is excellent for trading. When I was about 9, I played a game on the Apple IIe called Tai-Pan that was a terrific trading game. [I made my own version of it in high school in Pascal called Vlad Vladikoff (I think you can infringe on copyright if it's just for school =) ).]
I think Nathaniel Chapman and Tony did a good job with the trading system design in Storm of Zehir. It allows the trading system to support the other things you are doing in the game, adding another option without forcing it upon you.5. How would you evaluate SoZ trading system? Pros and cons, if possible. What would you have done differently given more time and resources?Tony Evans:
Storm of Zehir’s trading system served the purpose of helping to “sell” one of the game’s predominant themes: Capitalism. We did not set out to make a full-featured trading game within Storm of Zehir. I’m happy with what we ended up with, though it could have been improved further with additional polish time.6. The tab design of the party members dialogue interface is great. It lets you quickly see who has what to say and pick a designed speaker, which makes sense. However, this design also makes it very easy to have all or most skills present in dialogues, which, in turn, makes your skill choices less important, since at least one of the party members is bound to have what you need. I don't think that keeping party members silent is a better option, but I'd be interested to know what you think about this. Tony Evans:
This is one of the ways in which we encourage/train players to build a balanced party (which is not common sense to everyone), which will benefit them outside of dialogue as well. People are still free to make a party of four Half-Orc Barbarians. In fact, there are plenty of conversations throughout Storm of Zehir that have special response options for less-conventional party configurations that those who play with a balanced party will not see. ;-) Kevin Saunders:
Our choice might reduce replayability a bit, but it increases our ability to entertain. And you still do have some replayability because even though you'll have many of the options available, you can only pick one of them. The best thing about the new Party Conversation System is that it helps you give each of your players some personality and a part to play in conversations. It really helps you role-play your party if you have a little imagination. This system was one of the more brilliant things about Storm of Zehir (credit goes to Tony) and programmer Anthony Davis implemented it well.7. The game has a LOT of skill checks in dialogues, much more than one would expect from an exploration/combat/trading game. The trade off is that many are flavor-only. It seems that if you want to talk tough, you invest into Intimidate. If you want to sound like a reasonable guy, you invest into Diplomacy. In other words, you invest into developing a personality. Is it a new thing Obsidian is playing with? Any thoughts on SoZ skill checks? Tony Evans:
In the past, we’ve had to keep player responses as generic and homogenized as possible to avoid alienating players by giving them choices that they don’t want to choose. In Storm of Zehir, we opted to concentrate on providing a lot more responses based on skill, class, race, gender, deity, and ability scores so that players felt rewarded for customizing their party members. That approach allowed us to add more personality to certain special responses. For instance, if you are a Half-Orc Barbarian with an Intelligence of 8, we can assume that you will sometimes have something stupid to say.Kevin Saunders:
All I have to say is that I ordered Tony and the designers to not have deity checks (I felt there are too many deities and it would create too much work) and they brazenly ignored me. George ignored my same demand for Mask of the Betrayer. Bastards. 8. How did the gaming public react to a more challenging combat and mortal party members? From where you are sitting, does the majority of gamers want more challenging games or less challenging games? The reaction to new Prince of Persia, which is devoid of any challenge whatsoever, suggests that challenge isn't ready to become an obsolete concept just yet. Tony Evans:
From what I have seen, the majority of players appreciate the increased challenge. I think most players want variable play difficulties (Easy, Medium, Hard, etc.) so that they can determine how much of a challenge they want the game to be.Kevin Saunders:
The key is to make the game hard enough to almost defeat the player so that there is frequently a sense of accomplishment. That is, you could have lost (or gotten a worse outcome), but you are so awesome that you beat that damn game and won anyway. The challenge for designers is creating systems and games that can achieve this experience for a variety of player skill levels. A D&D game has additional challenges because it's a very complicated game system for those who aren't familiar with it. Until a player understands how the game works (masters the controls, for example), they will have trouble succeeding. 9. According to GameSpot NWN 1 is a fantastic masterpiece worthy of 9.2 score; NWN2 is a good 8.6 game, Mask of the Betrayer is a decent 8.0 adventure, and Storms of Zehir is a 6.0 game (even though the readers rated it much higher). It sure seems that if Obsidian wants to get high ratings, it should forget about 'xperimenting and stick with vanila fantasy. Any thoughts on this situation in general and GameSpot's Storms of Zehir review in particular? Tony Evans:
GameSpot’s review of Storm of Zehir was reminiscent of the original 1-Up review of Neverwinter Nights 2. 1-Up realized shortly after publishing the review that it wasn’t very good journalism to have someone review a Dungeons and Dragons role playing game who was neither knowledgeable of nor a fan of Dungeons and Dragons or role playing games in general (the author actually admitted this in his review). The situation was rectified by Editor-in-Chief Jeff Green (whom I have enormous respect for dating back to his Greenspeak columns in Computer Gaming World) when he re-reviewed NWN2 himself, giving the game a higher score.
The main reason GameSpot’s rating for Storm of Zehir was so low was probably because of who they assigned to review the title. Neverwinter Nights 2 was reviewed by Greg Mueller, a veteran reviewer who left GameSpot in 2007. Mask of the Betrayer was reviewed by Jason Ocampo, another veteran, who left GameSpot and went to IGN, where he reviewed Storm of Zehir and gave it a pretty good rating. Storm of Zehir was reviewed by a freelance writer, whom I won’t name because there are enough negative remarks about that poor soul floating around on the internet. Now, some freelance writers are very good, and I certainly don’t mean to dis the entire lot of them. I think it is fair to say though that, in general, it's very difficult for to verify the amount of time a freelancer spends on a game. A few years ago GameSpot actually had to retract a review for an online strategy game after the developers discovered that the freelancer assigned to the review had only been online for half an hour. Unfortunately, it would be easier to know what exactly went on during the Dark Ages than it would be to know for certain how long the reviewer spent playing Storm of Zehir. Most of the new screenshots with the review seem to have come from the first hour or so of gameplay, but that doesn’t prove anything. And to put myself in the shoes of a struggling freelance game reviewer… if I was paid the same amount of money to review an 6-hour long action game as I was paid to review a 35+ hour computer role playing game, I’m not sure if I would go the extra mile to thoroughly review the role playing game, especially if I was not a fan of computer role playing games.Kevin Saunders:
You are right in that the market can be punishing to experiments. Better then to experiment with a second expansion than a huge next gen console title. =) You get to learn a lot and appeal to a new audience. Lessons learned in Storm of Zehir will be applied to future Obsidian games. In this case, I think we executed well, so I have no regrets in our experimentation. I can certainly understand why some gamers wouldn't enjoy Storm of Zehir and I don't discount those opinions.
All I'll say about GameSpot is that I've always liked them and have a lot of respect for that site. They helped make my career by giving the first significant game I led (Shattered Galaxy) awards in 2001 for Most Innovative Game and Best Multiplayer Strategy Game (and runner-up for Best Game No One Played =P ). Though now in the distant past, I bet that recognition helped me get at least one of my later jobs. So it makes me sad that they gave Storm of Zehir such a poor score.10. Now that the game is out and you've gained "20/20 hindsight" feat, name 3 things, no matter how big or small, that would have made SoZ a much better game. Tony Evans:
1. More time to polish.
2. Better marketing.
3. A dedicated writer to oversee the game’s story.
4. More Wendersnaven.
1. We should have done just one Overland Map area and made it that much better. That is, we should have made a somewhat smaller game so that we could have polished it more.
2. As Tony noted, investing more resources in the story would have made the game stronger and allow it to better appeal to some who were disappointed with the direction we took.
3. I wish it had been a standalone title with a bigger budget. If we knew how well the Overland Map was going to work out, this would have been a no brainer. We ended up with a full-game idea and an expansion-sized team to execute it. They did an awesome job, but the potential for a landmark RPG was there - we just didn't realize it soon enough.
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