What’s next?

Now that I’m largely done with the work on Wasteland 2 (apart from some iterative work, clean up, and reactivity adds), I wanted to think about where I’m going next. I’ve found it’s useful to take stock when looking forward.

I’ve written a lot of things in my life, but there a few that really stand out in my memory (apart from my fiction).

Though I was a big fan of my early work (just because it was my early work, and evidence that I was working as a game designer) one of the first things I was truly proud of was TSR’s Birthright, my first published world, which took AD&D into a lower-fantasy setting and let you take the part of a ruler of a realm. Second was my work on the Planescape campaign setting, which allowed a huge degree of creative exploration. In that body of work, Monte Cook and I (along with our able editors, Ray Vallese and Michele Carter) were able to flesh out a significant part of the cosmology and background of the planes, defining and creating a foundation that would lead to my next big gig (and to Monte’s; not only did he help design D&D 3.0, he also produced an amazing string of successes, the latest of which is his Numenera setting).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, was Planescape: Torment. That’s almost certainly the work that people remember best, even if they don’t necessarily remember my name. Working on Planescape: Torment was… well, let’s turn on the Wayback Machine.

I came onto Torment as, I think, the fifth or sixth person when my Playstation Planescape game was canceled. It was a blow to lose my first lead designer gig, but it turned into a real education. The first members of the nascent team had been working on the game’s preproduction for a few months. At that time, it was called “Planescape: Last Rites”, a name that had to change because of the game “Last Rites.” But the concept remained largely the same, though it grew stronger and stranger as we progressed.

I must have been only about six or seven months out from my TSR gig, so Planescape was still fresh in my head, and I became the go-to guy for matters of Planescape lore. The team grew significantly as we ramped up production, and I became Chris Avellone’s second for a lot of issues; he and I worked closely enough that we’re still good friends, though we haven’t seen each other regularly for 12 years.

I learned a hell of a lot from Chris: how to structure a dialogue, how to build in some real reactivity, how to condense ideas and stories to deliver maximum impact. The best part is that he didn’t sit down to show me–he just did it near me. And even though he and I both loved the setting, we saw ways that we could tell the story better by deviating from it.

But that’s not really the point of this post. The point is that of all the games I’ve written, the one that I keep circling back to is Torment. And now that the bulk of my work on Wasteland 2 is largely complete (with some iteration work that still needs to be done), I can start thinking about Torment seriously.

TORMENT
What was most memorable for most players of the game? Based on the conversations I’ve had with friends and fans, the answers (at least from a design perspective) boil down to these. It:
* Turned RPG tropes on their heads (e.g. death is bad and requires a reload).
* Had a rich, amazing story.
* Displayed memorable, unique characters, especially the companions.
* Took place in a hugely different fantastic setting.
* Allowed small player choices to make real differences in the game world.
* Wasn’t about an epic battle between good and evil, but it did ask serious questions (like “What can change the nature of a man?”).
* Created strange, even living, items that you can talk to or interact with

The Planescape setting allowed us [or the player] to explore a deeper array of philosophical questions. But I think there are many settings that could host the Nameless One’s story or a similar one. Any setting that rewards the player for internal exploration (certainly deeper than, “Can I hit it? How much loot does it have?”) could host a similar story. As long as there’s a fantastical element to the world–whether straight fantasy or science-fantasy–these questions become possible and desirable. The farther away we stray from comfortable routine, the more likely we are to challenge ourselves, trying to define our place in the world. A boring setting frequently leads to boring questions; we know the drill and don’t have to examine it closely. But a fantastic setting forces us to re-examine the world, to take it in a fresh light, and to see that our fundamental truths may be flawed. *That* is at the heart of a Torment story.

The first step in designing a new Torment story is to ask the primary question. I’m older than I was when I worked on Torment, and my questions now are different than they were. I have children now, and I look at the world through their eyes and through mine, and that’s changed me – in fact, the intervening years have changed me so much that I have new answers for the central story in the original Torment. So now that I know what can change the nature of a man, I ask: What does one life matter? … and does it matter at all?

Then I’d re-examine the fundamentals of the setting. I’d put it someplace other than Planescape (and I’ll explain why in a followup). I’d use a system other than D&D, because I’d want to align the player’s story axes along different lines than Good/Evil or Law/Chaos to something more subjective. The core of Torment is, after all, a personal story, and while we can be judged by others on the basis of our actions, arbitrarily aligning those actions on an external and eternally fixed line removes some of the agency from the player’s game.

I have a lot of ideas about what to put into a new Torment game, but my primary goal would be to help the player tell a story that was evocative of the original Torment without aping it. To be faithful to the odyssey of the Nameless One, and to recognize that it has ended, and that stories of Torment are ongoing.

What would you want to see?

Kickstarter fatigue?

I’ve seen a number of articles lately in which various people decry Kickstarted projects, and most of them have rubbed me the wrong way for one reason or another. The one that finally pushed me over the edge was Cliffski’s, in which he wrote:

Gamers say they hate in-game product placement and advertising. It compromises the game design for the sake of money. I agree. So why are we deciding that the best way to name our planets or design the appearance of our NPC’s is to put that part of game design up for auction? Why should gamers who are wealthy get more influence over a game that those who flip burgers for a living? The cold hard economic reality of the real world is bad enough without shoehorning it into games too.

I want to address this in a way that doesn’t sound flip or condescending, and if it happens to read that way, I apologize in advance.

Cliff says that he is all for hitting the big publishers in their vulnerable spots, but he doesn’t offer an alternative to the current model. As things stand, there are four options for indie game developers who want a more expansive scope for their game than garage development can generally bring – and three of those are generally out of reach for most devs or directly contrary to what Cliff suggests is the optimal goal for indie games. If there’s another choice, feel free to let me know in the comments.

1. SELF FUND: The first option is to self-fund entirely. Unless you’re creating a small game, are devoting your entire life to it, or can assemble a team to work for you on the promise of future profits, this is not a feasible option. Most indie developers are not wealthy, and the game space is generally not strong enough to convince a traditional lender to commit any significant funds toward a loan to create an unproven product.

2. PRIVATE EQUITY: Alternately, a developer could go through private equity channels quietly. This has the potential to cut out moderate-income fan involvement altogether and requires the developer to create the game in a vacuum or (worse) entirely with an eye toward *only* what their wealthy patrons want. Further, only a small percentage of private equity deals make any money, so they’re generally looking for 5x to 10x returns, and most games don’t get anywhere near that if they’re not traditionally published and marketed.

3. TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER: Most traditional publishers won’t touch a game of the size Kickstarters generally fund. Brian Fargo got almost $3 million for his Kickstarter. 61,000 backers. How does this compare to Black Ops 2? 11,220,000 in the first week. There’s just no comparison to that scale. There is no reason for a publisher to look at the numbers for WL2 – a non-console game – and think that they need to start considering funding similar games. This is a blip on their radar. Consider: Halo 4 had a budget of over $100 million. $3 million is practically an accounting error. It’s a few months of development time. Why would a publisher turn away from their lucrative franchises and blockbusters to develop an indie game?

4. CROWDFUNDING: That brings us to the last option: crowdfunding. While it’s certainly admirable to want to open the game’s possibilities to all backers, no matter how much or how little they contribute, it’s a simple fact of human behavior that people want to get value for what they put in. Telling someone who contributes $10,000 that they can have a downloadable copy and a special digital pet is not going to motivate them… especially if someone who contributes $20 gets exactly the same thing. Consider: if you back a project at $20, don’t you want to know that you’re getting more bang for that than a $5 backer? I don’t know how to incentivize a higher-level backer other than offering them something that is not available to the lower-contributing tiers.

Sure, it might be a little strange to see names in the game and know that they came from wealthier patrons – but is that worse than *not* knowing where design decisions came from? And more: the names in a game are hardly real design decisions. They are essentially window dressing. They are not dialogue structures. They are not combat mechanics. For the most part, they do not fundamentally alter gameplay.

And what’s more: Higher-level backers are not different from the rest of the gaming crowd: they are just as enthusiastic and excited about a new game, and they’re in a position to make those games a reality. Rather than complaining about their involvement, shouldn’t we be happy that they’re helping to realize a developer’s dream?

California

Hello, California!

It looks like I’m going to be hanging out in you. There’s this Wasteland 2 narrative design meeting for a few days, and then there’s also this IGDA panel I’ll be sitting on with Brian Fargo and Nathan Long where we talk about the narrative design process of Wasteland 2.

The rest of the family is going to stay behind, sharpening their knives for my eventual return. I assume that some sort of blood sacrifice tops off the week.

Miscellanea (a fancy way for saying “stuff”)

Because I am a fan of lists, here is a list of the things I want to talk about:
1. Wasteland 2
2. Pixel of Ink
3. Oathbreaker 3
4. Unnamed Future Projects

1. WASTELAND 2
Work continues apace on Wasteland 2! That is a totally generic progress update, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises I have in store. It’s fun to read some of the forums talking about the game and think, “Oh man, am I going to disappoint the crap out of you!” (note: if the game actually does disappoint you, then I should note the previous sentence is entirely meant in jest – in fact, it’s just a lead-in to the following paragraph).

I’d forgotten how difficult it can be to do a design with multiple choices and approaches for each encounter. I’m not saying this as a complaint, mind you; it’s exhilarating and endlessly fun, like solving a puzzle at the same time you’re creating it. But players are crazy and inventive (and I mean that in a good way), and I know that some won’t feel like the game is complete unless they can assassinate someone using a homemade pigeon launcher. Actually, this just inspired me to put in an event about a boy and his dog. Spoiler: Someone has to die.

The writing is fun; the alternate scenarios are delightful; making up the crazy stuff that can happen because of the player’s actions is a hoot, and I mean that entirely in the old-timey way.

2. PIXEL OF INK
Yesterday, Pixel of Ink linked to Oathbreaker, Book 1 as a free giveaway.

My perfectly respectable 200 copies downloaded from Amazon to this point in October suddenly look a little shabby. Last night the downloads were at 2800. Before I went to bed they were at 3100. As I write this, they’ve topped 5250. That’s 5000 downloads in a single day.

I hope you will understand my reaction as being: HOLY. CRAP.

This is not intended to brag. This is my sincere appreciation for that link, and the realization that I am incredibly fortunate to have had that attention pointed my way even briefly. The sales of Book 2 have picked up, though sadly not correspondingly (I kid; I’m not sad about that at all – at least, not a mere day out from the original link). Frankly, converting 10% of those free downloads into sales would send me into gales of joy-fueled laughter, and even if the conversion doesn’t happen, 5000 new people have seen the book and may remember it in the future.

I’ll take it. Thanks, Pixel of Ink. This little post and these two words are not adequate, but they are fully true: YOU ROCK.

3. OATHBREAKER 3
Yes. The Ecclesiast’s Tale. Probably not out this year; hopefully early-ish next. Depending on what happens with…

4. UNNAMED FUTURE PROJECTS
It is nice to be wanted. It is very nice to be wanted for one’s professional skills. At least, I’m assuming that it’s my skills and not my stunningly and unconventionally good looks, my roguish charm, and my inescapably foul mouth.

But I have bad news for those who want me: If I have not given you a written commitment of something, I think I’m off the table for next year. That’s because I have the aforementioned Wasteland 2, the also-mentioned Oathbreaker 3, helping produce the Numenera app, a couple books, and… well, we want to save some surprises for the future, don’t we?

And I’m not going to tease the future any more than that.

So. In summary:
None of this would be possible without people being interested in my words. I am acutely aware of this, and I am also incredibly grateful. Thank you.