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A summary of some of the things I learned while working on a popular Neverwinter Nights Persistent World mod.

Cody Miracle, Blogger

June 7, 2012

7 Min Read

A few years ago I was a part of a Persistent World built using the NWN toolset called Higher Ground: Paths of Ascension. I had stumbled upon the server with a friend of mine after we had finished playing through the campaign. It had been running for several years and was highly customized and completely seperate from the original campaign. I was a dedicated player for a couple of years, became a fairly well known player, and was nominated to be a Dungeon Master(DM). 

Higher Ground was run strictly through volunteer work by a core number of developers and players.  Each DM was either promoted through community nomination, or were responsible for helping design, balance, and create new content, or a combination of the two. Everyone on the team was encouraged to take part in the creation process, and this was my first step into the world of game design. 

The structure of Higher Ground was similar to any other MMORPG you will find online. You create a character at level 1 and pick their race, class, starting attribute stats such as Strength, Dexterity and Wisdom. If you were to login in to the servers today, you would find a series of quests that you can complete from levels 1-40 (max level is 60) that help you explore the game and obtain a variety of useful stats that scale even into the end game. These weren't originally in place when I first joined the server however. 

One thing that I think is important to mention is that when referring to "low level" quests, I am strictly speaking about levels 1-40 of the game. At 40, you can become immortal and the quest line of the game changes drastically, opening up an entirely new set of areas that you can explore that ultimately lead to exploring The Nine Hells and The Abyss from D&D lore when you reach level 60. 

I'm just going to summarize a few different things that I feel I learned while watching and helping develop the Higher Ground server you would see today. 

--Quest Rewards should be meaningful at end game--

If you complete a low level quest in most games these days, you will typically get some sort of monetary prize for completion, or an item that may or may not help you at the level you're at. While playing the Torchlight 2 beta I enjoyed that each quest offered you a choice from a set of items tied directly to whichever role you were playing, relatively close to your level. However, some times the item is worse than what you may have (a risk when working with random loot tables) or is too high of a level to wear and you might uncover something better before you reach that level. 

On Higher Ground if you complete one of the low level quests you won't receive an Electrifying Longsword + 10. You won't get a Cloak of Hiding + 6.  You will gain stat points or resistances that stay on your character permanently. While not every character needs +1 sneak or +1 concentration, I feel that these are more meaningful in a world where the end-game content is going to be the most important to the player, which is the case of most MMOs. I'd rather get 5% fire resistance than a weapon I'll only use for a couple of hours. 

--Keep loot interesting to both old and new players, randomize it!--

Before I started playing on the server, the end-game content of The Nine Hells already had random loot drops off of monster spawns, and some times a loot container might have something inside, and the next time it might not. Some runs produced more loot than others, and that was part of the thrill of playing. However, while the item you find might be random, the properties of each item was set. You -always- knew what the item had on it. 

One of the big problems with a long running game with a pool of players who have been around nearly as long as the game itself is creating content that satisfies the veterans as well as new players. The fact that each item had a static set of properties, and each player could store as much loot as they wanted in the server, this meant that long time players had accumulated enough loot to never need anything from major "raids" in the end game content anymore. 

This forced us, the dev team, to revamp our entire item system that had been in place for years and create a way to randomize the properties on all of our items within a set of parameters. It was the only way to keep things fresh on a long term basis, as we added new areas over time. 

We also added Augmenters, a simple way for players to "fill holes" in their equipment that they couldn't otherwise account for. The end game was very much meta-gamed to an extent with loggers that gave you damage output/input, a log of what was hitting you in real time, and so on any particular run you had to make sure you were immune to certain affects or spells. Randomized loot made this both more difficult and easier at the same time. Previous to randomize, there was always an "optimal" setup that a player could realistically never change, and randomizing loot changed that for the better. 

There are still some set items in the game, but only those that drop from specific bosses and that is the only way to obtain them. Though which pieces they drop is random, much like other MMOs. We also added an option to randomze loot you currently had, but no one was forced into taking the chance of randomzing their current items for better or worse. (I lost a lot of really good stuff to this form of gambling myself) 

--Not every player is going to like change, thick skin is important--

Being a Persistent World, Higher Ground got semi-regular updates about once a month or every other month, a part from the odd times when our main programmer was swamped at work or some other real life event. No one was getting paid to do this, and we all had real life jobs to account for as well. 

When big changes came out that affected someone's favorite class, an ability because one form of playstyle was far too powerful, or we implemented something like randomized loot properties, people get upset. I think humans as a whole are prone to dislike change. As a DM and someone who helped make some of these decisions I had to adapt from being a well-liked player by a majority of the players (I was nominated for DM by the players and approved by the DM team)  to someone who had to constantly defend the decisions we made as a team and take a lot of negativity on the forums and in-game. 

However, over time I learned that I would rather have passionate disapproval than apathetic silence when talking to players. I would rather see them get riled up over something they love than sit quietly and possibly stop playing because if they stop playing we did something wrong. 

I learned an incredible amount while working with a number of very smart people. While I may not have been a huge force myself as much as I'd have liked to, I will always have this game in my mind when I look back at how I decided to go into video game design. 


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