Saturday, August 20, 2011

Trouble in Rainesfere, my first quest mod

Making a mod for Dragon Age: Origins was a very spur-of-the-moment decision -- a decision which I made shortly after successfully building a pleasant landscape in the toolset after following one of Mikemike37's video tutorials on Youtube. I documented the whole process over two weeks on the Nexus forum and the Bioware Social Network, so there's no need to retread that ground here, but if you're interested in a behind the scenes look at the process of making a mod in the Dragon Age toolset, you might enjoy the read. There are plenty of screenshots there, too.

Download either on Nexus or BSN.

I'm generally satisfied with how it came out, with the adage in mind that "the perfect is the enemy of the good." Users can expect a relatively small download and a short questline that doesn't take itself too seriously, in brand-new locales.

I imposed time restrictions upon myself for it, to ensure I would get it finished and available for people to play while I still had the free time to spend on it. I know that if I left it as an open, unplanned schedule, it could have become one of the countless abandoned entries littering the "Projects" section of BSN with high hopes and broken promises.

Early on in this process, I was taken by how easy it was to create new landscapes (much like in Oblivion), with the sculpting and texturing of land. The placement of vegetation was also fairly simple, though it wasn't very intelligent about the height at which the scatter tool placed them. I had to adjust the height of every shrub, grass, and tree so it wouldn't be floating above the land (and then of course there was a strange export problem right at the end that resulted in extra floating trees anyway).

I thought the ease of new landscape creation was a strong argument against the reuse of areas in the Dragon Age games (especially in the second game), and in some senses it still is, despite my troubles with other aspects of it -- namely the light mapping. Since we modders didn't get the same lighting software Bioware used, one would expect that Bioware employees didn't have quite the same problems as I did with the rendering of the light maps after the design of the land was done.

The necessity of rendering baked lighting with EclipseRay made the experience excruciatingly slow and full of problems I didn't understand. It's enough to make me want to avoid any future mod that would involve that process. So I could probably fill my new lands up with new side quests and characters, but not make more lands, unless I could pass them off to someone else to render the light maps. The dialogue and quest/plot system is actually very nice, and a positive first experience for me in quest modding.

Anyone examining the code and dialogue trees in my mod (if they can do such a thing with the files I released) might find numerous tangential story elements that did not make it into the mod as released. I "commented out" those elements (by setting conditions that couldn't be fulfilled) because of problems getting them to work correctly or because it would have required too much more alternate story development for too little justification. There are still some unresolved bugs in conversations which I can't figure out, in regard to party members, but since they didn't interfere with the gameplay, I considered it an acceptable flaw for the sake of people having something to to play. There's also some "ghost" code in various scripts where I wanted something to happen, but nothing did, and I just left the code in without even commenting it out.

When faced with such problems in the code, I devised workarounds so that I essentially got the desired effect, albeit through different means.

A good taste, but an appetiser for something more?

"The depth of the Dragon Age toolset, with Bioware's long history of community innovation, will ensure that the Dragon Age community is a thriving centre of creativity and content for years to come."
--Jay Watamaniuk, Bioware Community Manager

I wasn't aware until I started this mod that the toolset was no longer receiving support from Bioware, but I suppose that should have been obvious by the fact that they ceased further DLC or expansions of DA:O long before the time that they promised at the outset that they'd do so. I pre-ordered the game partially due to their promotion of it as a platform for gaming, with its powerful toolset and the promise of expansions for years to come, as it was promoted in the beginning. "The future of gaming mods", they called it in their promotional video. While perhaps true, that future didn't last long before the company moved on. The abrupt abandonment of that "platform" and the quick release of a sequel shifted it away from that concept, and the cessation of expansions means that it will not receive any new official assets that can be used in modding.

In my catch-up feast of old forum posts on the topic of Neverwinter Nights 2 (a game which I had previously overlooked due to my dislike of its forerunner), I've recently seen that many of the names I got to know from Dragon Age modding had originally been prolific or otherwise well-respected modders for NWN2, and I see that they moved to Dragon Age with the understanding that it would be as long-supported and expanded-upon as the NWN games had been. With that promise broken, and compared to NWN2's sheer variety of creatures, spells, placeables, and the rich and detailed lore to draw upon, I can see now that the paucity of Dragon Age's bestiary and sundries makes it a far more restrictive system to work with for telling the variety of stories one can tell in NWN2. Perhaps, like me, others might notice this, and take another look at Neverwinter Nights 2 as a modding platform, as these experiences (and my subsequent playing of NWN2) have led me to revise my previous opinion that Dragon Age: Origins is the best modern game engine to create Baldur's Gate-style adventures.

My next post will be about Neverwinter Nights 2.