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Editorial Mask of the Betrayer Ten Year Anniversary Retrospective by George Ziets

Infinitron

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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.
 

MRY

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I daresay there's a bit of shade being thrown here, especially in that last paragraph.
That would be antithetical to everything I've ever seen with George. The only things I've ever heard him disparage were his own work (unjustly). Maybe for some reason he decided to accumulate go Renegade in 2018, but I doubt it.
 

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I daresay there's a bit of shade being thrown here, especially in that last paragraph.
That would be antithetical to everything I've ever seen with George. The only things I've ever heard him disparage were his own work (unjustly). Maybe for some reason he decided to accumulate go Renegade in 2018, but I doubt it.

Well, in a sense "throwing shade" is a stated goal of this retrospective:

(while others didn’t)
 

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Except that he's specifically referring to his own experience on it, as the first part of the sentence indicates:
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).
Anyway, Kremlinology isn't really my thing, I just thought it would be a shame if George's thoughtful post were used as a way of stirring up trouble. (Surely not on the Codex...)
 

a cut of domestic sheep prime

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Here's my retrospective:

One of the best RPGs of all time is just an expansion pack to one of the worst RPGs of all time.
mystery.png
 

Roguey

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That would be antithetical to everything I've ever seen with George. The only things I've ever heard him disparage were his own work (unjustly). Maybe for some reason he decided to accumulate go Renegade in 2018, but I doubt it.

Wasn't Georgey the lead area deisnger on Tides of Numenera? :)
 

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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.

I can confirm - this line wasn’t written as a rebuke of TTON. (To be honest, I always had the impression that Colin came up with the story of the Changing God before he settled on a thematic question, but I might be wrong.)

If anything, the line is a reference to an experience I’ve had a few times in my own work and witnessed with struggling novice writers.

For example, in the early days of one Obsidian project, when I was beginning to develop the main story, it was suggested to me that I start with a theme or central question. I tried it, but everything I came up with felt preachy and sterile. It was only after I tossed aside any attempts to start with a central message that I began to generate ideas that excited me and others. (That project was sadly cancelled for business development reasons, and the team moved onto DS3.)

I’ve also chatted with several young writers (both in and out of games) who were trying to come up with a story based on a theme, political cause, or philosophical idea, and they were struggling to make them emotionally engaging. In all those cases, I suggested that they discard the theme they had in mind and just write a story that got them excited – themes that they *really* cared about would arise naturally from the work. I have no idea if they followed my advice, though.
 
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Preachy an sterile is almost exactly what i've heard some folk call Kaelyn ironically enough, though to my mind shes right, and being good for fear of punishment or hope of reward isn't anything but the actions of a child courting the praise of a parent. I guess you'll never know what audience'll make of your work, just like a battle plan not surviving contact wi enemy, neither does a product survive unscathed when meeting consumer.

Gotta wonder whether other thematically strong games, say Ultima V and its moral absolutism, were planned or it just arose organically from an adventure to save old British? Garriot's probably answered that somewhere mind you.
 

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Deliberate but also a bit self doubting: You could become an avatar, but it was a never ending quest. You could save the world and find your home in ruins. The virtues had no real clear answers, were easily broken or twisted, and were torn down almost as quickly as they were raised up. I suppose thats why I didn't find em too narrow, they seemed like asked questions rather than answers told.

Subjective though I suppose.
 

Jaedar

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I can confirm - this line wasn’t written as a rebuke of Torment. (To be honest, I always had the impression that Colin came up with the story of the Changing God before he settled on a thematic question, but I might be wrong.)
HNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNG
Using Torment to refer to tides of numaderpa :x

Also, motb is really cool.

That anecdote about EA-Westwood is a startling example of just how completely dysfunctional the games industry can be. Is there no pushback when this sort of request comes through? "We can do it, but we'll have to throw away 3 months of work. Should we?"
 

G Ziets

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Using Torment to refer to tides of numaderpa

Fixed. :)

(We always call it Torment internally, but I often forget that the distinction isn't so obvious outside the walls of InXile.)

Re: EA-Westwood - That decision falls into the category of "executives who are too far removed from the project making poor decisions." The guys who made that decision probably never talked to the team about it... when I worked at EA, there were always multiple levels of management between the execs and marketing folks who made the decisions and the designers, artists, etc. who had to implement them. I suspect (though cannot confirm) that the mid-tier executives who received the orders didn't know what the cost would be, and since the protests came from the bottom, it was assumed that 1) the low-level employees were overreacting, or 2) the low-level employees could just work a bit harder to get it done. (Remember that this was EA in the days of the "EA Spouse Blog.")
 

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Interesting read, thanks
 

Bohrain

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I can confirm - this line wasn’t written as a rebuke of Torment. (To be honest, I always had the impression that Colin came up with the story of the Changing God before he settled on a thematic question, but I might be wrong.)
HNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNG
Using Torment to refer to tides of numaderpa :x

Also, motb is really cool.

That anecdote about EA-Westwood is a startling example of just how completely dysfunctional the games industry can be. Is there no pushback when this sort of request comes through? "We can do it, but we'll have to throw away 3 months of work. Should we?"

It surprised me that the guy actually bothered to play the game. I've heard stuff about corporate committee members wanting to turn the game characters to monkeys because they thought animals sell shit regardless of the genre and artstyle.
 

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Always nice to hear from the monocled, floppy-haired gent that is George Ziets. I'm actually part way through another MotB playthrough as it happens. I don't think I've ever finished an evil playthrough. I struggle with it - being evil in MotB is so much more evil than other RPGs made in the same period.

As he is lurking in this thread, I have a question for G Ziets. Some time ago you said you wanted to allow players to actually bring down the Wall but were stopped from doing so because of fears that WotC wouldn't allow it. You found out afterwards that they were lighting a fire under 3/3.5 E and might have allowed you to do it anyway. Is this still your thinking and is there anything else you might have done with additional time or resource?
 
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Darth Roxor

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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.

:slamdunk:
 
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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.

[...]

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.

If only the direction of Numanuma had their senses to follow the better example. The tides, the crises and all that contrived silliness that came before anything else about the game was even mentioned or materialized, just never really fit in now, did they? The silly obsession with the Big® silly question. It is a shame. Numanuma had a ridiculously unnecessary amount of creatives involved to begin with, in my opinion. And what good did it do?

Ironically, I liked the vague idea of the main plot in Numanuma better and unless I am wrong, it came after a lot of that silliness was established during the development.
 
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Roguey

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I checked and Ziets was partially correct.

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?

Where do you begin making a successor to Planescape: Torment when you don't have the weird Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of Planescape? You go big. You create your own world and as ambitious a story as you can manage.

That story had a Changing God even back then, although as an actual god rather than a man who discovered a kind of immortality through cloning and consciousness transfer. "He basically fractured," says McComb. "Your job was to go and retrieve his pieces before the Angel of Entropy - which became the Sorrow - destroyed them all and wiped out ... the universe." Problem was, "it was too epic", he adds. "It's not just save the world, it's save all of creation." It just wasn't Torment. But then, what was?

In pondering the answer, McComb and Heine created their design pillars and nailed their essential question, 'What does one life matter?'
 

Cross

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I checked and Ziets was partially correct.
What part would that be? The two statements you quoted were made half a year apart. The first quote is the first time T:ToN was announced.

T:ToN was always pitched as a spiritual successor to PS:T. InXile interpreted that as meaning sharing a 'philosophical' question, a 'weird' setting, lots of text and a main character with some form of immortality and amnesia. Those aspects, while not quite themes, were set in stone before T:ToN began development.
 

Jaedar

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Re: EA-Westwood - That decision falls into the category of "executives who are too far removed from the project making poor decisions." The guys who made that decision probably never talked to the team about it... when I worked at EA, there were always multiple levels of management between the execs and marketing folks who made the decisions and the designers, artists, etc. who had to implement them. I suspect (though cannot confirm) that the mid-tier executives who received the orders didn't know what the cost would be, and since the protests came from the bottom, it was assumed that 1) the low-level employees were overreacting, or 2) the low-level employees could just work a bit harder to get it done. (Remember that this was EA in the days of the "EA Spouse Blog.")
This just makes me even more convinced of what I already believed: Organizations should be as flat as possible in order to allow easy flow of information to the people who need it.

Also that EA is and was completely mismanaged, but that's about as controversial as saying the sky is blue.

Looking forward to November's ten year commemoration of Storm of Zehir.
:honourblade: sozzy :honourblade:
 
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What part would that be?
Yes, McComb came up with the story of a Changing God before he started cracking down on a theme.

Their decision to use the Numanuma PnP RPG, and all the baggage that comes with that setting & system, eg. the themes springing from the tides and the crises, preceeds the Changing God story by a long shot, I believe.
 

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