Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007
entrants, today’s interview tackles the modding side of the competition
, as we talk with Alan Miranda, CEO of Ossian Studios, developers of Neverwinter Nights
mod Darkness Over Daggerford
Ossian began work on Daggerford
in 2005, with the intention of releasing the game as part of BioWare’s Premium Module expansion pack project, only to have the project cancelled just months before the title’s intended launch. Nonetheless, they continued with the development, distributing the game through their own website for free in August 2006, and have racked up almost 40,000 downloads.
The company bill Daggerford
as a 25 to 30 hour game “with a strong Baldur’s Gate
feel, and have created a “brand new world map system”, as well as “over 100 new placeables” for the title.
We spoke to Miranda about the mod, its entry into the IGF, where it is a 'Best RPG Mod' award winner and a finalist for 'Best Mod', and how the team felt about the Premium Module project being shut down.
What is your background in the games industry?
I’m the CEO of Ossian Studios, a game company located in Burnaby, Canada, that focuses on creating quality RPG titles. I was previously a producer at BioWare on the Baldur’s Gate
series and Neverwinter Nights
, and prior to that, a designer at Relic Entertainment working on Impossible Creatures
. So my game development background has revolved around creating RPGs and RTSs. With regards to our Darkness over Daggerford
team, all our members were modders from the Neverwinter Nights community who had created their own mods before being brought aboard Ossian Studios.
What fostered your interest in the mod scene?
In the time before starting the Daggerford
project - around GDC 2005 - we were looking for ways to promote the quality of work Ossian was able to do. One idea had been to create a NWN
mod, as it would be a smaller scale project, befitting of a smaller team. Being a former BioWare producer myself, BioWare was excited at the idea when we pitched it to them.
It was at that point that I began to explore how the NWN
community had grown since the game’s release almost three years earlier, and was amazed at the amount of rampant talent there was! With the power of the toolset at their fingertips, there were quite a number of fans who created some really entertaining mods. This is something that has now carried over to NWN2
, and so continues to hold our interest as we’re always on the lookout for the best talent.
When was Ossian Studios Inc. formed, and what brought you together?
Ossian Studios was founded in 2003 by my partner Elizabeth Starr and myself. What brought us together into this business venture on the high seas of game development? Well, for starters, we’re married and have been together for almost 17 years now, so we’re used to working as a team together. We’re lucky that our skills complement each other so well, with my focus leaning towards the creative side and Elizabeth’s to the organizational one. I think a number of new developers underestimate the amount of organizational work required in running a company – all that non-game, non-fun stuff that always has to be churning in the background.
What inspired Darkness over Daggerford, and why did you decide to make it?
I would have to say that the biggest inspiration came from the original Baldur’s Gate
game. I had so much fun exploring the different areas in the world, and coming across fun little sidequests, that I often forgot about the critical path. That was the feeling I wanted us to recreate with Daggerford
– call me nostalgic!
With the new world map system developed at Ossian, along with 15 areas and over 30 sidequests, we were confident that we hit our goal. A lot of our fans have, in fact, told us so, which has been great to hear.
What attracted you to make the mod for Neverwinter Nights?
Versus making a mod for a different game, I would have to say that first and foremost the attraction lay in the NWN
toolset. It is both powerful and very user-friendly for making RPGs, and I already had experience with it from working on the original NWN
. Also, with BioWare’s constant support for the game over the years, it was continually refined, and provided a very stable environment to develop on. The second attraction was, of course, that we wanted to develop and release a commercial product, and BioWare had set up their Premium Module program, whereby they sold NWN
modules from their online store. It seemed a perfect fit for Ossian.
How did the Premium Module project being shut down affect the work on the mod?
The Premium Module program being cancelled came three months before we finally released the game in August 2006. After we got the news in May (right before E3), there was a period of time where we had to sit back and get over the shock of what had just happened. There was some discussion as to how we should proceed next, but it always remained on “how” and “when” we would release our mod, not “if.” If anything, we worked even harder over the next three months, as is typical when finalizing a game. Even though the title was no longer commercial, we were still dedicated to releasing the highest quality game that we could.
What were your expectations from your mod, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?
Our expectations were to develop an RPG with a high degree of role-playing, exploration, interactivity, and attention to detail. Great adventures aren’t built around slaying waves of monsters or running about fetching items for NPCs - they’re about finding ways of pulling players in with their characters, mysteries, and environments, and making them believe in it all. If you’ve heard of “the three Es” for why games are captivating, then we had all three: “esthetics”, exploration, and experimentation.
The aesthetics were the brand new castle, rolling hills, and sea cliff tilesets BioWare gave to us and which we put to very good use; the exploration was the many areas we created to make the world feel like a large place with something happening around every corner; and the experimentation came in the various ways to interact with NPCs in addition to objects. We definitely feel the end product lived up to and even surpassed our expectations, and we’re honoured to have received the IGF 2007 Best RPG Mod award for it. So far, we’ve had 39,000 downloads as well as some terrific reviews, like the one from GamerDad where the reviewer ranked Daggerford
as his favourite out of all the NWN premium modules and favourite role-playing game of 2006!
What do you think the most interesting thing about your mod is?
I think everyone has their own favourite part of what they like best in Daggerford
. From fan feedback, we’ve certainly seen the full spectrum of what they thought was the most interesting, including the area design, the character writing, the world map system, and the originality of the sidequests. My personal favourite is the originality of the sidequests.
How long did development take?
Our development cycle lasted for a solid 12 months, with some lead time prior to that for putting together the team and preparing the story concept.
What was the development process like?
The development process on Daggerford
revolved around each designer taking a hold of a specific part of the game and developing it fully, which would include things like writing, scripting, and area building. However, difficulties in the way NWN1
is set up to handle multiple designers working on the same mod file, as well as working with a new team over the Internet for the first time, both contributed to some major challenges that we faced over the course of the project. We reached our goals, but it definitely required more effort than we anticipated. Based on our experience, we modified our workflow process for our next project, and things have become much smoother.
What do you think of the state of mod development, and how do you think mods fit into the industry?
The mod scene fits like a layer in between players and developers, and it plays an important role in our industry for several reasons. Firstly, mods can be a significant contributor to the longevity of a game by providing more playable content than what the official developer is able to release post-ship. Assuming the game’s editor is both powerful and easy to use - as was the case with NWN1
- then the sky’s the limit for what a game’s mod community will do. It also gives players the fantastic opportunity to become creators instead of just players, which for many can be even more enjoyable. And obviously, for those wanting to get into the game industry, it serves as an ideal proving ground for showcasing their work to that game’s developer.
What do you think of the state of independent development?
I think there’s a real opportunity for emerging independent developers at this point in time. Of course there is always the option of making your own small game and putting it up for sale as a download on the Net, or investing more money into a larger game and trying to get a publishing deal for it (higher risk). But what I find most intriguing are the opportunities small independent developers can get that tie into mainstream titles.
Things like digitally distributed add-on content, episodic content, etc. really took off in 2006, and that opens the door to the small developer that has experience with creating content for a game: in other words, a mod team. I think it makes a lot of financial sense for a large, established developer to hand off that kind of stuff to a smaller group. They just have to be able to find the right team of talented people that they can trust.
Have you checked out any of the other IGF games or mods?
I’ve read about them on the IGF website and there’s a lot that looks innovative and fun, which is great to see! But being busy with our company and next project, finding the free time to play them is a challenge in itself!
Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why?
I would have to say Arena Legions
. Being able to command large armies of soldiers isn’t an easy thing to implement when it comes to AI and pathfinding.
Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?
Indie games like Darwinia
are great to see because they prove that innovation can be financially successful. In a more risk-averse publishing climate, these kinds of games can be a hard sell for an indie developer, but then again, winning the Seumas McNally grand prize can really help with that aspect!
Innovation, however, is vitally important for games, whether indie or mainstream. It’s what keeps us from stagnation by propelling games forward with macro jumps in game design. The game innovators are the modern explorers of our time, so I have a great deal of respect for developers who succeed with this. A game like Spore
, in particular, strikes me as one of those rare games. And because I love strategy games, I’m really looking forward to trying out Supreme Commander
to see what new design mechanics it has added to the RTS genre.
Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?
To the other IGF Best Mod finalists – good luck everybody! We know the amount of work and dedication that it takes to make a mod, and we want to congratulate each of you on winning your category awards. To all IGF fans, thank you for your continued interest and support of the IGF’s mission to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers!