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The Broken Hourglass interview

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The Broken Hourglass interview

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Mon 12 November 2007, 22:05:41

Tags: The Broken Hourglass

Our interview with Jason Compton, the lead designer of The Broken Hourglass.

We had a chat about The Broken Hourglass about a year ago. So, let's start with an update. Tell us what important milestones were achieved, and how much closer we are to playing your game.

The bad news is that we continue to blow through any sort of optimistic estimates I ever had about completion dates and budget. The First Bank of Jason was not initially prepared to extend quite so much credit to Planewalker Games LLC...

The good news is that we continue to make progress for all that. Principal artwork is long since done, although we are still engaged in the occasional "for-a-few-dollars-more" addition of a unique interior to better suit a quest, or a unique character avatar to better suit a scenery NPC archetype, or another visual effect or projectile. We have been working with the actors of Red Monkey Theater on our initial voiceover requirements — they have done our PC soundsets for us and are soon to start on scenery/enemy archetype sets and quest character voicework. Principal music is finished, with sound design/SFX well underway and sounding good.

And, of course, we have made a great deal of progress getting the game to actually look like a game, which means playable content in fully playable form. A goodly amount of our material, both critical path and otherwise, is in the game and looking strong. Our serious internal QA effort is well underway on the individual quests, which will cut down on surprises and delays when the game is content-complete and enters full testing.

What little innocence I cling to is aiming for content-completeness within a quarter.

Let's explore the urban setting a bit more. The game takes place in a single city, which is great, interesting, and even innovative, but ... what exactly does that mean? Why should someone be excited about it?

Well, being in an urban setting means something to the type and variety of people you expect to encounter--fewer wayward lumberjacks and nymphs, and more candle makers, weavers, and artists. More significant than the actual location, I think, is the fact that the PC is cast as a resident of Mal Nassrin. Many RPGs put the player in the role of the Eastwood-esque Stranger. That's all well and good, but rather than dropping the PC from 5000 feet into a strange environment and teaching them the local mores as a newcomer, we are able to join more activity "in progress."

Do you think candle makers, weavers, and artists will be able to
generate enough excitement for players?

The more important thing to make clear here is that I don't think every single square inch of the game is there to tangibly "generate excitement." Some elements of a story contribute to that story without, themselves, being "exciting." Sometimes a trip to the brewery is just a trip to the brewery. You may meet someone who gives you a better sense of "Mal Nassrin as a real place" or "Mal Nassrin, a place with real people who need help," and if that heightens the overall excitement I hope we generate every time you start the game and hear the theme music, so much the better.

Now, our candle-making shop just so happens to contain a brief existential encounter, which may amuse or satisfy or enlighten on its own merits, but I don't look at every one of the areas and say "What generates excitement here?" I say "How can this contribute to the story?" Sometimes that means a major, plot-advancing encounter, and sometimes that means just providing a little glue.​

Casting the PC as a resident of the town they are trapped in also adds an element of belonging. The PC isn't just encountering a city on hard times—those hard times visited their doorstep and obliterated it. So when the player encounters other characters in the gameworld who can say, "That was a terrible thing we all went through," or "Hey, neighbor, I'm glad you made it out alive too!" or "You may think you have it bad, but at least you didn't have to sell yourself into slavery like I did", hopefully that will resonate more strongly than it would if the PC were just a "wandering hero" type.

Interesting. Well, the main reason for making PC a stranger is to make it easier to tell the player about the gameworld and local lore & customes via questions his/her character asks. Now, a local resident would obviously have no reason to ask questions like "Why is this town under siege again? What invading army? Why do you have three eyes?" How did you handle it?

Because the PC has been in an injury-induced coma for a few weeks, they missed some of the excitement. That sets the stage to give the player a brief "here's what seems to be going on" narrative at the beginning, and of course justifies the PC feeling motivated to ask for more details once out in the city proper. And once the PC is up to speed, there is the angle of "Tell me what you THINK about what's going on," to try to get different interpretations or reactions from others in the gameworld.​

Although it wasn't an intentional consequence, a city setting does let you stack different types of interiors, and different types of encounters, into a comparatively tighter space. A wilderness would look odd with a row of six different barrow doors leading to six different types of dungeons, but you think of any big, old city, and a walk down just one block reveals all sorts of different storefronts and residences mixed together.

The difference is, dungeons tend to be more a bit exciting than storefronts and residences. Anyway, what do you have in the urban dungeon department? Discovering a well hidden, ancient door in some basement leading into unknown darkness somehow sounds more exciting then discovering a cave in the middle of nowhere, so tell us all about it.

There are three sequences in the main game which could be considered "urban dungeons." One is the old caverns beneath the Arena, where forgotten rubbish—and the occasional forgotten monster—is discarded. Another is an ancient tomb, cracked open by diggers hoping to tunnel their way out of the city. The creator of the tomb is still down there, so you can ask him all about how it was built, if you don't mind the smell. The third is a sequence which takes the player through a long-forgotten and roundabout path between two city districts, including a trip through the buried catacombs and a sewer system. The endgame also has aspects of "urban dungeon." All three certainly have their share of combat challenges, but the tomb and the catacombs sequences in particular are much more of a balanced adventure than a monster-bashing crawl.​

The enclosed-city setting also makes everything you do significant to the kind of place the character wants to live in, so we certainly hope that will guide the player's thinking when it comes to finding quest resolutions. All that said, we are not making any attempt to simulating a complete city economy, or the movement of its labor force throughout a 24-hour period, or any such thing. SimCity with dialogue trees, this is not. (And, honestly, what we're doing is challenging enough for us as it is, thank you.)

I'm giving you C+ for your answer, but I know that you can do better, so let's try that again. What does urban gameplay mean? What should we expect? How is it different from playing a generic fantasy RPG # 4251 with caves, tropical forests, and other cool shit? So far, your answers were:

A) you get to meet candle makers
B) you are not a stranger
C) areas tightly packed with buildings
D) quests solutions are integrated into the urban design

I think that we should explore D a bit more, don't you think? Tell me more

The game takes place in a city, so you won't encounter things like two lumberjacks arguing about splitting a haul of timber, or two demons arguing about splitting up a unicorn carcass—instead, you encounter things like two business partners arguing about splitting their profits on a balcony. That's the pragmatic consequence.

Conceptually, it means that there are a lot of conflicting interests packed into a comparatively small area. When "neighbors are at war" in Mal Nassrin, they can quite literally be neighbors. The city has a lot of old grudges and professional disagreements and power plays half-realized, waiting for an opportune moment to be further exploited.

We have tried to design the city in a way that makes some kind of consistent sense, and not just in terms of "not finding the richest people in the slums." Some of the different vocations may be able to help you with certain tasks, or to obtain certain items which are specific to their craft.

I like that "a lot of conflicting interests packed into a comparatively small area" part. Tell us more and be generous in your descriptions.

The two I'll talk about now are both noteworthy as they are "critical-path" problems.

In addition to the party members, the PC needs to enlist the aid of various outsiders to perform certain tasks in order to achieve victory. One problem requires the aid of both the stonemasons and smiths, and the two have a long, long history of detesting one another. So not only do you need to win them over, but you need to win them over on a project they need to collaborate on. This takes a fair amount of "sweat equity" on the part of the player to accomplish.

There is also a sequence in which the player needs to enlist various security forces. Two mercantile houses have been stockpiling arms and armed soldiers in what is, essentially, a gang war between them. The player needs to convince at least one of the houses to stop worrying about the other house and help out with the protection of the city. The two different heads of the household want different things... one seems hell-bent on destruction but she will accept a couple of shocking compromises, under the right circumstances. The other is easier to guide towards peace, but his own people aren't so sure that's the right course to take.​

How about a quest example? Something to tear apart and criticize your design skills?

One of the side quests we recently completed pleases me on a number of levels. It makes good use of the opportunities we created with the fact that the normal flows of time and space have been compromised, offers a range of different solutions and resolutions, and overall is just a slick way to spend a few minutes while tromping around Mal Nassrin, including a couple of unintended consequences. Its internal title is "The Price of Friendship."

While walking down the street, the player overhears an argument taking place between a man (Hekton) and woman (Ezara) on a nearby balcony. We join the conversation in mid-stream but the upshot is that the two seem to be former business associates, he accuses her of stealing from him, she denies everything and in turn accuses him of fraud, which he denies as well. Things are just starting to boil over when she waves goodbye... and disappears in a burst of light. Infuriated, he stomps back into his home.

If the player follows him to investigate, he is agitated and rambles a bit about theft and deception. If the player shows some interest, we get the bigger picture—an explanation of their business relationship (they ran a cleaning-and-repair business together. He provided the capital, she provided the management and the ideas), and an explanation of the problem. Although he clearly remembers buying out her minority stake in the business years ago, after which she moved far away from Mal Nassrin, she has been appearing to him recently in abrupt bursts, alternately berating him for cheating her and gloating over the money he now seems to be losing as his business mysteriously deteriorates. The PC gets a chance to volunteer to help, so when next she appears, a runner is sent to fetch the party.

Werkan and Ezara are having another row when the player walks in. She makes her case—he took unfair advantage of her, only giving her a minority stake in the business when she did most of the work and then buying her out for less than "fair" value. She explains that she is from a time somewhat before the buyout, when their partnership was still young and the business not so successful, but learned of these actions after discovering a small rift which, for limited periods, takes her forward a few years into the future. So rather than be cheated (as she sees it) again, she has been using the rift to steal information about the business and retroactively poaches customers from him, making him a comparative pauper in the present day. Werkan, meanwhile, maintains that everything was handled fairly and he could have been successful without her.

After some exposition, we give the player a chance to use that fancy mind and fancier dialogue skills he or she has invested in. In all, there are six different outcomes to the quest:

- If the player doesn't answer the summons, or is completely passive in the "showdown", or is otherwise unconvincing, then Ezara's plan continues unabated and Werkan loses more and more of his business.

- If the player convinces Werkan to pay Ezara what she considers to be a fair share for the business in the present day, she takes it back to the past... and uses it to buy out Werkan instead, meaning that in the present day she is the abusive employer and he the underpaid, underappreciated lackey.

- If the player convinces Ezara that meddling with time is dangerous, she stops her attacks—but she doesn't do anything to repair the damage, either, so Werkan is still no better off than he was when we met him.

- If the player successfully plants the seed in Ezara's mind that Werkan might find a way to retaliate against her, manipulating time to *her* undoing, she agrees to leave him be—but instead of going back to the way things were, she abandons Werkan in the past, and we find out that despite his confidence that he could have done a good job without her, he is unable to run the business successfully, and is going through bankruptcy in the revised present.

- If the player decides to end Ezara's meddling through violence, Werkan is appalled (he wanted her dissuaded, not killed) and doesn't get what he wants in any case. It turns out that he did need her after all, and losing her guidance and talent too soon meant losing control of his business. A new character, Hekton, appears and is the "new" owner of the company, with Werkan merely his aide.

- Finally, if the player convinces Werkan and Ezara that the only way to solve the problem is to ensure that Werkan-in-the-past treats her better, in the present day they end up friends and equal partners, and live as happily-ever-after as the resolution of the rest of the game allows.

Looking over the list I just wrote, it occurs to me that in no resolution does Werkan actually get what he asked the PC for, which was a successful future free of Ezara. Either he gets success and the unexpected benefit of a renewed friendship, or ends up (at best) no better off than before the quest started.

Did Werkan really "deserve" to end up made whole by the end of the quest? It's unclear. I think we did a nice job leaving it up to individual interpretation just how in-the-wrong both of them are. History is littered with friendships put in jeopardy by business partnerships, and he-said-she-said is a huge part of that. And the heart of the matter is a question as big as "does he who puts his capital at risk really deserve the biggest share of the proceeds?" which is far, far bigger than a humble video game can really answer on its own.

How do these outcomes affect the gameworld and the player? Let's say I picked the first option where Werkan loses more and more of his business. What happens next?

You don't get the satisfaction of a job particularly well done, or a reward. That particular quest doesn't have any special endgame or epilogue implications (tempting though it is to give absolutely everyone an epilogue, it's fairly plain what happens to him from the quest resolution, whichever it may be.) How you chose to resolve it will have some impact on the way your party views you as well.

What about smaller consequences, i.e. you kill the guy's business and
suddenly the prices are up or certain items are gone from stores? Nothing major, but enough to make you notice.

There are some global events which affect things like store pricing, but not that particular quest. It might be cute to, say, have somebody break their neck because they slipped on a slick patch of flooring somewhere which one of Werkan's people would have cleaned up had they still been on the job, etc. But there's cute, and then there's *too* cute.

Then again, if I ever find myself trying to shirk real work while still appearing to put effort into the game, maybe I can work that in...​

Thank you for your time, Jason. Looking forward to playing TBH one day.

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