Updated our Journal (30): George Ziets Joins Full Time
TL;DR: George Ziets returning to California to join Torment full time; Jesse Farrell joins; area implementation progress
Hello, all. It’s been a while (almost exactly a year, in fact) since I last spoke on Kickstarter. Last time, I was announcing that I’d be working as a contractor on Torment. This time, I’m announcing that I’m joining the team full time. Or at least, I will be joining the team full time, just as soon as I move back out to Orange County.
My new role on Torment will be Lead Area Designer. Until now, this position hasn’t really been necessary, but with production starting soon, area creation will become a major focus for our team. We’re in the midst of detailing our plans for area design in Torment (including aspects of pacing, layout, and reactivity). I’ll be making our approach more concrete, establishing standards for our area designers to follow, and then leading the area design team for the remainder of the project.
My role might be surprising to those of you who know me as a narrative designer, but in truth, a lot of the things I’ll be doing on Torment will be similar to the things I did on Mask of the Betrayer. I’ll be making sure that you have multiple ways to solve quests, that your choices are meaningful, and that the repercussions of those choices are felt in many places throughout the game. I’ll be designing characters and quests to reflect both the themes of our story and the fundamental weirdness of the Numenera setting. And I’ll be working with our art team to create cool and bizarre locations to explore, like the floating corpse of Myrkul from Mask of the Betrayer.
So what convinced me to come back to an in-house job? After all, I’ve been a freelance designer for the past two years, and that’s not a bad gig, especially when my commute consisted of walking up the stairs to my (not at all creepy) attic.
First of all, I love the Infinity Engine games – they’re still my all-time favorites – and this is a chance to work on a thematic successor. While it’s satisfying to contribute to a game like Torment from afar, nothing beats the hands-on experience of designing areas on paper, blocking them out in the engine, working directly with artists to make them look great, and seeing the game world take shape before your eyes.
What’s especially great about Torment is that it combines the design sensibilities of the classic Infinity Engine games with a setting that’s weird and unpredictable. As designers, we’re not bound by the conventions of reality. The original Torment could have a giant anarchist golem, a brothel of intellectual lusts, and a pregnant alleyway. Buildings and levels could come in all shapes and sizes. Characters were never conventional archetypes, and inspiration could be drawn from almost anywhere. Numenera gives us the same kind of creative freedom, and that’s typically the sort of environment where I function best.
Another big incentive: we’re putting a part of the old Mask of the Betrayer team back together. That includes Kevin Saunders and me, of course, but also Jesse Farrell, who was a content designer (and our QA lead) on MotB. Notably, he was responsible for the awesome “soul contract” dialogue in the Chamber of Dreamers. At present, Jesse is blocking out levels and implementing basic quest mechanics for the first zone we’re fully implementing – the Bloom (the one I described in my Kickstarter video).
Oh, and the InXile studio is a block away from the beach, so there’s that too.
I’ll be back in the future with more updates on area design, but for now, let me leave you with a summary of what we’ve done so far. Back in update 22, we talked about our high-level design process for zones. We start with a Zone Design Constraints document, written by Colin, which provides the high-level vision for the zone and describes any critical path or story events that must happen there. Then the zone designer writes a Zone Brief, outlining quests, major characters, and the various interior and exterior locations that comprise the zone. Once that is approved, the zone designer writes a Zone Design Document – a detailed expansion of the Zone Brief that details every location (including map layouts), every quest and NPC, and all the assets that will be needed to make the zone, including sound assets, art assets, special animations, dialogues, items, and scripts.
In January, I completed this documentation process for the Bloom. It took longer than it ordinarily would – partly because we were running through the process for the first time and ironing out the kinks, and partly because I was only working part-time on Torment. When the document was finished, I ended up with about 150 pages (47,000 words), which surpasses even my infamous 100-page design document for the Mulsantir module in Mask of the Betrayer (modules in that game are analogous to zones in Torment, though on average a Torment zone is larger). I don’t expect all the ZDDs to be that long, but for the first zone, we wanted to be sure to document everything we would need to build a zone in Torment. (And admittedly, I had a lot of ideas I wanted to include in the Bloom.)
Not all of this content will necessarily be implemented. Most of it will be, but some of the design is B-priority, which means that we can safely cut it (if we need to) without greatly impacting the area. And some is C-priority, which means that we don’t plan to include it, but we can consider adding it later if we’re able to make the time. It’s important to us that the content we include in the game is of high quality, and accounting for possible adjustments to the scope helps us keep the quality bar high.
Not long after I completed the high-level design, Jesse used my design document to create blockouts for all the critical path locations. The blockouts are rough layouts in the Unity engine (powered by Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity Technology), with simple cubes and spheres standing in for important features. They don’t look pretty, but they give us a sense of gameplay space, and they allow us to place entrances and exits, NPC locations, encounter locations, and so on.
Now that the initial blockouts are done, Jesse has moved on to implementing bare-bones versions of the quests. These won’t include any dialogues (which will be written later), but they’ll allow us to get the basic scripting and functionality into the zone. It’s an exciting moment – the first time the Bloom will begin to come alive.
Only a few weeks remain until I ship out to Orange County. Should be a lot of fun to get back to in-house game development after two years away! I’ll see you all in a future update.
Lead Area Designer