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Mask of the Betrayer Ten Year Anniversary Retrospective by George Ziets

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Mask of the Betrayer Ten Year Anniversary Retrospective by George Ziets

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Wed 3 January 2018, 02:29:09

Tags: George Ziets; Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

This past September was the ten year anniversary of Obsidian Entertainment's Mask of the Betrayer expansion campaign for Neverwinter Nights 2. For most of the gaming world, it's an obscurity, an expansion for an underwhelming also-ran title that itself is barely remembered. But for a knowledgeable few, Mask of the Betrayer was the brightest spot in a dark era for the roleplaying genre, a masterpiece that many will argue has yet to be surpassed. The man most closely associated with Mask is its creative lead, George Ziets, who is now the lead designer of Wasteland 3 at inXile. In an unexpected end-of-year post on his rarely updated blog, George has penned a retrospective of the game's development, with the aim of explaining the factors that helped make it so great. Here's an excerpt:

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Mask of the Betrayer… actually, at the time I’m writing this (in the final days of 2017), the ten-year anniversary has just about passed. After all this time, Mask remains the most fun project I’ve ever worked on, and I wouldn’t want to let the moment go by without spilling a few secrets about why the game worked pretty well (while others didn’t).

Mask had the benefit of low expectations… and no external interference.

When “NX1” (Neverwinter Expansion 1) was first described to me, it was pitched as a simple hack-and-slash adventure. Neverwinter Nights 2 was expected to do reasonably well, and the expansion would be a quick, relatively low-cost way to provide a followup product to fans. (Expansions never sell as well as the original product, so their budgets are proportionately reduced.)

I was not particularly excited about making a hack-and-slasher, so I pushed back on that particular point. To the credit of our lead, Kevin Saunders, he allowed me to pursue a much more expansive vision that required more work and longer hours. (Our schedule was not going to change, but if we could get more work done in the same amount of time, we could deliver something grander. Of course, not every lead would have trusted their team enough to give them a shot.)

Also, because Mask was expected to be a simple hack-and-slasher, the publisher paid little attention to what we were doing. Effectively, we operated under most people’s radar. This was great because we were able to pursue a vision that was shared among the team and didn’t suffer from interference from outside.

As in any industry, outside interference is a reality of game development. Sometimes it works out fine, as when higher-ups are heavily invested in a franchise, understand the core vision, and give well-informed feedback that improves the product. But the more a publisher or executive is separated from the project, the more likely they’ll give direction that doesn’t strengthen the game.

Case in point. Years ago, when I was working on Earth & Beyond (a science fiction MMO) for EA-Westwood, executives would occasionally fly in from California to play the latest build of the game. On one of these visits, the executives decided that they didn’t like the existing story and wanted the main narrative to be focused on a war instead. This meant that the lead writer (not me) had to rewrite everything she had done so far. The resulting story was fine… but the massive change invalidated many of the quests that the team had already built. So with months left on the clock before release, we had to create all new material to replace what was lost, which meant that we didn’t have enough time to finish the rest of the content we had originally planned. When Earth & Beyond shipped, one of the biggest complaints was that we didn’t have enough quests and other things to do, a problem that could be traced directly to that outside interference.

Mask never had a problem like that. Everybody on the team knew the vision, it never changed (apart from minor improvements along the way), and our schedule played out as expected.

We were able to focus on quests and narrative… not new game systems.

Designing the core systems of a game has one thing in common with designing a story - it can take a lot of time and iteration to get it right. But unlike story design, systems design requires multiple people – designers to write documents defining the gameplay and programmers to implement those designs. Then they play and test… and iterate… over and over again until the gameplay feels fun. It can be a long and unpredictable process, and if you start designing levels and quests before that process is finished, you might have to redesign those levels and quests when the gameplay changes. I’ve seen many games run into problems because their gameplay isn’t finalized before the design team starts building levels.

And if the game systems are new, level designers may not know how to build fun content with the new systems. That’s why expansions are sometimes more fun than the original game. Over the course of development, the team has figured out what works and what doesn’t, and they can apply all those lessons to the expansion.

Dungeon Siege 3 is a great example of this. DS3 diverted from the standard gameplay of the previous Dungeon Siege games, and it took us a while to figure out how to make fun levels using the new systems. By the time we developed the expansion, we’d figured out the winning formula - but by then, most people had written off the game.

Mask of the Betrayer, on the other hand, had no new systems. The core design team (Eric Fenstermaker, Jeff Husges, Tony Evans, and I) had all designed levels, combat encounters, and quests for NWN2, and we knew what worked and what didn’t. Three of us (Eric, Jeff, and I) had shared an office. We didn’t have to worry about learning new tools or figuring out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Instead, we could focus all our energy on creating great quests and narrative, and that gave us a big advantage.

We let the themes arise naturally.

Some writers will disagree with me here, but I’ve found that it’s better to avoid thinking about themes and deeper meanings until after your main story is written. On Mask, I didn’t write a “themes” document at first. I let the themes arise naturally from the work… as they almost always do. Your subconscious will seed your work with recurring ideas and motifs, and as long as you’re attentive to them, you can identify and reinforce them later.

For example, the most obvious thematic element in Mask – the idea of “masks” – didn’t appear until after I’d written the story and decided to set the game in Rashemen. I started to notice that masks – in various forms – were cropping up in the narrative I’d written, so I reinforced that element (in names, like “The Veil,” in dialogue references, in items, etc.) as I fleshed everything out. The title of the game didn’t appear until close to the end of development, when Kevin asked me to propose some names for the expansion. Until then, it was just “NX1.”

In my experience, starting narrative development with a theme – rather than a fun or emotional story hook – can lead to a story that feels preachy or emotionally empty. That may not be the case for everyone, but I do think it’s a harder road to tread.
I daresay there's a bit of shade being thrown here, especially in that last paragraph. George's lack of literary pretension might be surprising to some, but it does dovetail with his past confession that he was only trying to write a Baldur's Gate 2-like story and somehow ended up making something more reminiscent of Planescape: Torment instead. It'll be interesting to see if that method of design can work again.

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