Updated our Journal (27): Extra Effort
TL;DR: Skills and exploration; story revisions; the benefits of a lengthy preproduction; Adam Heine promoted to Design Lead
Just a quick update to talk about where we’re currently at as we enter the holiday season.
As you may have heard, the Wasteland 2 Early Beta went out to eligible backers last week and is now available on Steam as an early access title. The Wasteland 2 Beta was not part of any of our Torment tiers, but if you selected access to the Wasteland 2 Beta as an add-on, hopefully you saw one of our early announcements about this, received your beta key through the Torment pledge management system (pretty much all digital rewards for Torment pledges will be distributed through that system), and are playing it already. (If not, please write our support team and we’ll get it taken care of.)
Congratulations to the entire Wasteland 2 team for reaching this point!
A Few Words on Preproduction
I wanted to speak a bit about how Torment is progressing. The last round of major story revisions has been completed (more on that below) and we’ve resumed fleshing out and designing specific areas. Artist Aaron Meyers (who was also an artist on Planescape: Torment) has been making great progress on an environment prototype, proving out our art pipelines and helping us assess how the density of our design content will feel in the game. We don’t have any new art to share yet, but expect us to have something for you to see before winter’s end.
For a while now, some of you have been asking when we’d be transitioning from preproduction to production. With Wasteland 2’s recent early beta release, you may be aware that the inXile team will be spending more time on that game to get it done right—one of the fundamental benefits of Kickstarter is that we have the direction from our backers to emphasize quality over punctuality. This decision impacts Torment because most of the production team (e.g., programmers, artists, animators, etc.) will be moving onto Torment later than originally expected, which means we’ll be in preproduction for a longer period of time.
Believe it or not, this is the best situation from the perspective of Torment. When you’re in production with a large team, trying to incorporate any new idea can result in a lot of wasted work and confusion. (An “idea” in this sense could be many different things: an improvement to how conversation data is authored that enables a new type of dialogue reactivity, a new technique for handling shadow-casting lights in environments, a major change to an existing companion that improves the overall party dynamics, etc.) So when considering the new idea, you either accept this negative impact or discard the idea.
With a small preproduction team, the negative impacts have a smaller effect and the values of the ideas are more about the benefits they provide. Fewer people also means fewer miscommunications and greater flexibility both to experiment and to iterate. The closer you can get to your final design and technology before you are creating content at a rapid pace, the better the final result will be. So extra preproduction time is very beneficial, as long as you that time includes prototyping in-engine and iterating on the design instead of expanding the game’s scope.
We approached our preproduction aware that we might begin production later. On a traditionally funded project, you can ultimately be forced to make some decisions that you know are bad for the overall project to meet a specific schedule, but because we are free from external milestones, we can flexibly adapt, keeping our focus on the overall quality of the final game. It can be challenging to think that far ahead, but it’s even more challenging if you have rigid short-term goals binding you.
It’s true that if you just extend preproduction without any making any other changes to your plans, you’ll go over budget and over schedule. But the productivity improvements you gain through a longer preproduction period make up for the added cost of having a small team in preproduction for longer. (This is one reason, for example, that expansion packs are much cheaper to make than full titles – the development cycle for the original title is effectively part of the expansion’s preproduction.)
We’ll let you know if we ever determine that Torment’s release will be delayed beyond the first half of 2015. Thus far, our extended preproduction has been a very good thing and at this time I don’t anticipate it will push us out of that release date window.
Skills and Exploration
Adam here. It's been a while since I've gotten to tell you about system design, so today I wanted to talk a bit about skills in Torment and how they feed into our exploration gameplay.
Skills and Difficult Tasks
As you may recall from our talk about dialogue, skills work differently in Numenera than in most RPGs. In Numenera, skills don't define what you can do, but they do make success more consistent in related tasks.
Instead of designing with skills in mind, we design the tasks first. Anything you want to try to do – lie to an Oorgolian soldier, activate a long-dormant intelligence, manipulate an unfamiliar beam weapon, or dodge the lethal bite of a steel spider – is considered a Difficult Task. Every Task is assigned a difficulty level, a stat the Task is based on (Might, Speed, or Intellect), and an optional skill (or skills) that can apply. (In the tabletop game, difficulties range from 1 to 10; unmodified difficulties from 4-6 are tough (> 50% chance of failure), and difficulties of 7 and up are impossible without the modifiers discussed below).
Skills have four levels (Inability, Untrained, Trained, and Specialization). Training in any applicable skills lowers the difficulty by a step and specialization lowers it another step. (And as you might imagine, inability increases the difficulty, though inability is something you have to specifically choose through perhaps your descriptor or focus, and some skills don’t go lower than untrained). You'll notice that tasks at the highest difficulty are impossible even with specialization. Either multiple skills would have to apply to such tasks, or there must be another way to lower the difficulty.
And there is. In Numenera, another way – at higher levels, the primary way – to reduce the difficulty of a task is Effort. You can apply Effort by using points from your related Stat Pool (Might, Speed, or Intellect), up to a maximum Effort level determined by your character’s Tier (or level). Each level of Effort you spend lowers the difficulty by one more step. (There’s another stat called Edge that reduces the cost of using Effort, making lower-level tasks easier or even free as your character advances, but that’s a topic for another time.)
What this means is that anyone can have a chance of success at most tasks, if they're willing to spend their resources on Effort. Characters with applicable skills do not have a monopoly on related tasks, but they do have two advantages: they conserve their Stat Pools (saving Effort for the tasks that really matter) and they have a greater chance of success at previously impossible tasks.
The concepts of Difficult Tasks and Effort feed into every aspect of gameplay. Take the common exploration-style task of disabling traps. Like any other task, disabling a given trap will have a Difficulty associated with it (and you will be notified of this Difficulty, at least in an abstract way such as "Hard," "Very Hard," "Impossible," etc.). By spending Effort from the associated Stat Pool, you can lower that difficulty (probably Speed, though it could depend on the kind of trap).
And it will have skills that apply. Torment won't have a Disable Traps skill, but the Quick Fingers skill applies to this kind of task (as well as others). Training or specialization in Quick Fingers will lower the difficulty even further. But more than that, certain traps may have other skills that apply. For example, the difficulty to disable a mechanical trap might be lowered if you are trained or specialized in Lore: Machinery, but a transdimensional trap might allow Lore: Mystical to apply, or Lore: Civilizations if the trap has shifting runes for you to decipher, etc.
You might find that, for certain special traps, the nano in your party is just as equipped to disable it as the jack (one being trained in Lore, the other in Quick Fingers), so if one fails, the other can take a shot at it (because each character's first attempt is free, but further attempts will cost you something—assuming your disabling attempt doesn't set off the trap, of course). For some traps, maybe the nano is even better equipped, or at least doesn't have to spend as much Effort to achieve the same chance of success.
Other Exploration Tasks
If you can't (or don't want to) disable a trap, maybe you can jump over it? Not jumping like a platform game; it would be a specific action you take—like bashing a door or picking a lock—where you end up on the other side of the trap when you're done. We're talking about this and other alternatives (levitation, anyone?). Jumping would be like any task: Might-based Effort for which the Jumping skill can apply. Some traps might be extra tricky to disable but easy for your whole party to jump over. Other traps might be harder to jump over, but the means to disable it lies within easy reach on the other side, such that one party member can spend some Effort to get over the trap and turn it off.
The flexibility of Numenera's skill system gives us extra options for environmental puzzles. For us, a "puzzle" isn't an attempt to divine the will of the designer, but rather an obstacle with multiple solutions involving various Difficult Tasks and their applicable Effort and skills. To get at the beating heart of some ancient machine, you might smash through its cardiac gate, bypass the whisperlock, persuade the machine's custodian to give you a key, use a cypher to walk through the gate, etc. All of these are different tasks with different applicable skills, any of which you might try based on your party's skills and available Effort.
And if we're being true to our philosophies, different solutions can each have reactivity of their own (smashing down the gate might trigger extra defenses, persuading the custodian could mean you've gained a friend or used up a favor for another quest, using the cypher means you won't have it for a later task, etc.), ultimately resulting in more interesting replayability across the board.
Colin here. You may have seen this picture of Adam, Kevin, Steve, and I standing in the inXile office together at the culmination of our intensive meetings there last month. But we weren’t just standing around smiling the whole time (we almost forgot to take the picture in fact). In actuality, much of what we were doing was hammering down the last stray nails of the upgraded story—
::record scratch:: “What do you mean, upgraded story? Like, you re-wrote it?”
No. We *revised* it. It's different.
Like game development, writing is an iterative process that requires occasional sledgehammers... and we wanted to make sure our foundation was as strong as possible. On this project in particular—a thematic successor to one of the most beloved CRPGs of all time—we want to make sure we get it right. It’s a rare writer who can spit out perfection the first time (and if you know one, please send him or her my way).
As the Creative Lead on this project, it’s my job to make sure we don’t settle for “good enough” on the story. To that end, we took the original story, examined its component pieces, and reassembled it in a different (and better) configuration. We kept all the elements we described in the Kickstarter—all the characters, all the items, all the *everything* except the fine details of the narrative. This was a reorganization of our elements in a way that is more focused, clearer, and more entertaining.
Which is to say, our original story was good, but now (if I may be immodest for a moment) I think it’s pretty great. With the combined talents of Adam, Kevin, Chris Avellone, Tony Evans, Nathan Long, and George Ziets, it had better be.
Anyway, as I was saying, much of what we were doing was hammering down the last stray nails of the upgraded story and making sure that we are ready to bring our outside writing talent to bear on a number of different areas at once. We now have a unified set of documents that will bear the combined scrutiny of some excellent writers, effectively share our vision for the story, and help us gauge the player’s experience throughout. These are our Story Spines.
That sounds a little creepy and maybe a bit murder-y, so let me explain what I mean: a spine is a firm through-line of the story, the pieces on which the rest of the experience hangs. The first and most important is the PC’s Spine. This is the narrative of the game as experienced by the PC (and thus you, the player), from the very beginning of the game to the end, laid out from point to point. We took our design doc and stripped out all the extraneous details and the information that the player might never know—even if this was information that would inform the motivations of the other major characters in the game, if the player didn’t know it at the time, we moved it to where the player would learn it or removed it from the PC Spine altogether.
Doing this exposed some potential problems in the plot of the game, and it was invaluable to us in making sure we have written a whole and cohesive through-line for you to experience. We did the same thing for other major characters in the game: what’s their history? What do they know, and when do they know it? What are they trying to achieve at any given moment in the story?
We had these spines written and ready for the meetings we had in November, with significant input from George and Tony. Then we borrowed the talents of Chris Avellone and Nathan Long to tear them apart, and we rebuilt them again—faster, stronger, better. After making sure we had all these details fully ironed out, we had several more meetings, in which I gave a summary of the improved game to a variety of teams, starting with Brian Fargo and Matt Findley. After that first meeting, Brian said (and I paraphrase): “This is awesome. This is the story for this game. Go.”
We then presented the story a few more times to several other groups—the art team, the programming team, the designers—and I upgraded my Fast Talk skill to Specialized [Adam: not a real Torment skill], tearing through a high-level summary of the game in about 10 minutes (Kevin and Adam took over the meetings after those speeches while I recovered with a tank of oxygen).
Barring a few minor changes and detail fixes, these spines form the core of the Torment story. We’ve provided four writers with some design constraints for their areas and these spines, and I’m anticipating some very cool ideas back at the start of the new year.
Oh, and maybe I should mention down here that we’re working on quests and storylines for multiple particular areas, and as soon as I’m done with this post, I’m back to crafting the first player experience in the game. It’s looking... pretty good.
Kevin again. It’s my pleasure to announce that Adam Heine has accepted a promotion to the role of Design Lead for Torment. From the beginning he has played a key role in the design of the game, and he has repeatedly demonstrated to everyone involved in the project that he has a strong command of the sensibilities that will make this game great. Adam’s ownership of various aspects of system and area design has grown over the past months, and when he visited inXile’s office last month, I formally recognized his contributions by promoting him to Design Lead. In this role, he’ll be leading the design vision of the game much as Colin is leading the creative vision. Though honestly, Adam's work hasn't changed very much – the promotion is largely an official acknowledgement of what he’d already been doing.
Colin brought Adam onto the fledgling project last year and wanted to provide some backstory and share his own thoughts:
“Adam came on board Planescape: Torment early during the development process, when all we had was a Mortuary. We desperately needed scripters to create the rest of the Planes. He quickly distinguished himself as an agile thinker, extremely creative, and able to solve problems by approaching them from multiple different angles. He showed his excellence in catching bugs, in creating scripts, and in delivering new ideas for quests and characters.
After PST shipped, he became a designer on Black Isle's TORN. But eventually he had to succumb to reality, realizing that as a newlywed, he shouldn’t be commuting an hour and a half (each way!) to Irvine from San Diego every day, and that 60-80 hours a week of work wasn’t a recipe for a happy marriage. So he left Interplay and took a standard programming job closer to home... and eventually he packed up and moved to Thailand to foster orphans.
Years passed. In that time, he has continued to flex his creative muscle by writing novels and short stories, all while raising as many as 10 kids at once. He’s also continued to design board and computer games in his spare time, but without a production team, they’re mostly thought exercises. Fortunately, you don't need a production team to write fiction.
Last year, Eurogamer had a small PST retrospective with Chris Avellone, Halo 4’s lead designer Scott Warner, Adam, and me. At the end of it, Adam said that he’d love to get back into games. I said I’d love to work with him again sometime—I had nothing but positive experiences with him on PST.
It was shortly after that that Brian Fargo asked me if I’d like to work on a new Torment. And it was mere moments after that I strongly suggested that Adam be involved. Adam has proven the wisdom of that decision over and over again on this project. He has helped me shape the story from the outset. He has delivered reams of excellent design work: from loot to inventory to crafting to area design to... well, he’s been touching almost every system in the game.
And while we were out in California a couple of weeks ago, his hard work and insight paid off. Kevin offered him the position of Design Lead, and Adam accepted. Adam is an extraordinary designer, and I’m proud to be working alongside him.”
Congratulations, Adam! (And thanks!)
Hope you all have a great holiday season!