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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

The Neverwinter Nights Experiment: Player-Created Content

Posted by Ortwig Saturday June 30 2012 at 1:50PM
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One of the more interesting experiments in computer gaming was Bioware’s Aurora toolset for the single-player RPG, Neverwinter Nights.  With the toolkit, players could create their own adventures within the game and make them available to other players in the online community.  The tools proved surprisingly popular, and many modules sprung up.  And even though Bioware no longer supports the toolset, the community continues to develop adventures using them, even to this day.
The experiment harks back, once again, to tabletop roleplaying, where players were always encouraged to create their own adventure scenarios.  Sure, many commercial modules were available, and these were always available to groups who didn’t have time to write up their own stories.  But creating your own adventure, running it for your friends, was at the heart of roleplaying—nothing was more satisfying.
The Aurora tookit was created in 2002, and another, the Electron toolset, was released in 2006 with Neverwinter Nights 2.  Although Electron added support for multi-player and persistent worlds, it didn’t catch on as well, quite possibly because NWN2 wasn’t as popular as the original.  Now, Cryptic Studios is working on the Neverwinter MMORPG, and recently announced that The Foundry toolset will be released as part of that game, currently in development. 
I’m not positive, but this could be the first time tools such as these will be available in a true MMO.  Cryptic has said they are introducing a peer-review system, which would allow players to rate and review adventures others have created, allowing the best content to be seen by the most people.  The jury is out as to whether a marketplace will be set up around these adventures, but this all strikes me as great news, not only for the players who wish to create these sorts of adventures, but also for the industry.
The current model for MMOs is for new players to leap in, on the day of release, and play as much content as they can.  For game developers, that same day is the day they begin working on content for the next big update.  Players are always hungry for new content and features within their world, and one of the major attractions to an MMO is that those updates can continue as long as people are interested in the world (and the game company is making money). 
But what if game companies could exponentially grow the number of developers for their worlds by taking on volunteers?  Simply put, they have a whole new source of content that, while possibly not as professional as an official update, has the sheer advantage of numbers.  If 1 out of 10 submissions are pretty darn good and players have a way to find that good submission, you’ve got additional content that players enjoy, while freeing up the development team to work on major features and official content for the world.  Everybody wins.
And I wonder if these player-created adventures might actually teach developers and other players using the tools a thing or two.  Perhaps a unique way of using characters within the game, or an especially challenging way of setting up the terrain for a battle, or an intriguing mystery will make their way through; we all learn a bit from each other about how to craft better stories.  You really only need look at the iPhone AppStore to see how opening up a marketplace can release a well of creativity.
For it to work, though, the tools have to be up to the task.  If the audience for the tools is hardcore programmers, the output will be limited and I would predict, not as diverse.  It looks, however, that the audience for the Foundry will be all Neverwinter players, and that the tools will be accessible in game. 
What are the kinds of things players would want in a toolset?
Dungeon Creation
This one’s a no-brainer, and it looks like out of the box, players will be able create underground maps and such.  My guess is that these dungeons will be instanced, and only enterable by those who have downloaded the dungeon from the marketplace.  Scenario writers should be able to add traps, loot, NPCs, objects (furniture, room features, etc.), and, of course, monsters.
Outdoor Areas
On top of dungeons, writers should be able to create outdoor terrain.  It might be a lot to ask for all the terrain tools that the game developer have at their disposal, but perhaps a subset of these that are easy to select and manipulate would be fine.  Being able to select the locale within the larger world, and inherit that area’s weather effects and other properties would be excellent.  Scenario writers should be able to populate outdoors areas similar to dungeons.
Monster and Loot allocation
If the game is level-based, writers should be able to draw on a stable of creatures appropriate to the level.  Monsters might have additional abilities that can be assigned, or they might be of the generic variety.  The loot budget could also be based on the level, and perhaps the targeted number of players for the scenario.  Writers should also be able to create a number of superior bad guys, or “bosses,” and this would almost be the same as creating a player character.  Special abilities would be assignable to the boss, and you should even be able to give them scripts or speeches, possibly triggering events.
Triggers, Timers and Events
There should be a feature that allows players to assign timers to certain events.  Perhaps a trap triggers 30 seconds after a door has been opened.  Or an alarm triggers a squad of monsters that will arrive shortly after a chest has been opened.  You could even assign deadlines for the players to do something, and if not completed, a change in the environment takes places.  The idea here is to allow scenario writers to be creative in the use of timers, and provide as many options and abilities as possible.
Non-Player Characters
Adding other characters that provide information to players through interactive dialogue or scripts is essential, as is the ability to add characters that can assist players in parts of the adventure.  Of course, audio tools that allow you to record character speeches would be fantastic.  Not sure which would be better—using your own voice to create character (hopefully you are a decent actor, or know someone who is), or a text-to-speech engine that has great voice acting.  The latter might be asking for a lot, but perhaps there are already products already out there that could be used.
Objects of Interest
Besides simple loot, items that can provide information or clues to players is important.  A scribbled note, an ancient tome, a tablet with strange hieroglyphics—these are all things that players should be able to assemble and place in key locations to advance the plot.  It would be amazing if writers had the access to a variety of fonts, letting them create unique looking-objects.  Perhaps a standard object—let’s say a “musty old tome” could have an entire history written into it that is key to the scenario, or maybe it’s just an interesting red herring.
Assign Disposition
This is an odd one, but I think a key tool.  If scenario writers can assign any NPC or monster, “friendly,” “neutral” or “hostile,” they can also switch those dispositions to something different based on player actions, in-game triggers or a timer.  This can play a huge role in creating plot for the adventure, and will make for much more interesting adventures.  Imagine an NPC who is triggered to betray the party at right as they are encountering the boss, or a monster that has reasons to be helpful.
Many of these features were available in the previous Aurora and Electron toolsets – it will be interesting to see how they play out in The Foundry.  What are some things that could push them to a new level?  It might be asking for the sky, but hey, might as well throw a few out there:
PvP Mode
What if a referee and/or friends had the option of playing the monsters and NPC’s real-time in game?  If you really wanted to replicate the tabletop experience, you could play the scenario in “PvP Mode”, which would divide the players into 2 teams – one playing the NPCs and one the adventuring party.   With a voice chat client like Ventrilo, the referee could roleplay the monsters in game, and the party playing their own characters.  Perhaps a small icon would appear over the designated party member or monster as they “speak” using the chat client.   The referee might also have additional combat controls, allowing a real person to play the bad guys, turning it into a more challenging scenario than simple computer-generated monsters.  If you have enough players, the referee could enlist friends to play more monsters in the game, making the entire scenario player rather than computer controlled.  By the way, this isn’t actually new—Lord of the Rings Online has PVMP, Player vs. Monster-Player, which basically has players taking on the role of monsters in the game.
Weather and Time Effects
What if the scenario writer really wants to ensure the big confrontation happens on a dark and stormy night?  Or on a sunny morning?   It would be great to ensure that the world effects could be set over the course of the adventure.  The weather would have to be compatible with the weather patterns of the area where the scenario is set, but referees should be able to choose the actual effects inside the instance.  On top of this, the writer should be able to set the overall ambient lighting – is the mood dark and mysterious or bright and sunny?  Again, writers shouldn’t have the full set of developer tools, but perhaps the tools have several packaged settings that are selectable as the scenario writer builds his landscapes.
It’s easy to forget this one, but music plays a huge role in the mood of the scenario – again it would be great if some prepackaged scores (“forboding,” “light-hearted,” “heroic”) were available, or perhaps writers could choose from themes already in the game.  The ability to set a theme to a trigger seems key.
Neverwinter seems to be the only game that’s doing anything in the player-generated content space—Neverwinter was originally a Dungeons & Dragons setting—but it’s exciting to see the tools finally making it to the MMO, where they make the most sense.  Keeping an eye on The Foundry and looking for more news as development of the game progresses—it’s good to see developers remembering online gaming’s roots in tabletop roleplaying.


Zezda writes:

I use to play the original NWN a *lot* online and participated in pretty much every kind of server going. Each different kind of server had it's own unique pro's and cons and even although the game engine itself had some pretty bad quirks (Everything from editing the 2da files to bypass checks or give your character gear to changing weapons to restart the combat round) it shows that providing the building blocks via a toolset for the game itself is the way to go.


I'm pretty sure that some time in the future a MMO with a toolset such as the one used in NWN will be done. More importantly though is that it should be done properly. I'm not sure how it's going to pan out with this release but toolsets like the one used in NWN are the way to go for MMORPG's. It has so many advantages and frees up a lot of the developers time to concentrate on stuff other than regurgitating content for people to rush through.

I think as long as the engine and toolset itself are made well then there is an almost unlimited amount of potential to be had as long as there are people in the community ready to put their visions to the test. And at the end of the day that's what lies at the heart of every amazing RPG.

Sat Jun 30 2012 4:36PM Report
Ortwig writes:

I'm not sure if the folks who are doing The Foundry for the new Neverwinter MMO are the same who as those worked on the single player RPG, but I'm positive they are looking at those tools as a starting point. Completely agree that MMOs are the natural place for those kind of tools, and it makes huge sense for the toolset to be powerful and easy to use. The better and more adventures you have for your game, the more likely people are going to play (and keep the company in business). Crossing fingers and looking forward to seeing what comes out!


Sun Jul 01 2012 10:40PM Report
Ortwig writes:

Hmm, I've since heard about EQ2's Dungeon Maker, so will need to check that out as well -- it does seem to be limited to dungeons only, but love that other folks are experimenting in this area!

Mon Jul 09 2012 8:25PM Report writes:
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