NWN2: Mysteries of Westgate Interview with Alan Miranda

Suzie Ford had a chance to talk to Alan Miranda, the CEO of Ossian Studios, who is at work on the Mysteries of Westgate adventure pack for Neverwinter Nights 2. The former BioWare dev answered a slew of questions on the add-on.

WarCry Q&A: Ossian Studios
Mysteries of Westgate Adventure Pack
Answered by Alan Miranda (CEO of Ossian Studios, Producer and Co-Lead Designer on Mysteries of Westgate)
Questions by Suzie Ford

Much has been written about the adventure pack, Mysteries of Westgate, which Ossian Studios is developing. NWN 2 WarCry would like to take a slightly different tack with regard to this interview.

WarCry: What is the background of Ossian Studios? When was it founded and by whom? How has it grown since its founding?

Alan Miranda: A couple of months after BioWare shipped Neverwinter Nights (in June 2002), my wife Elizabeth and I decided to return to Vancouver, which is where we had lived the previous decade before coming to Edmonton (where BioWare is) for two years. After I left BioWare, we both had the idea of starting a company together, as I had the development and production experience from working at BioWare and Relic, and she had the great organizational expertise to handle the more administrative aspects.

Neither of us had any previous experience in running a company or truly knew the extent of the work required (you’ll only know if you’ve actually done it). But the thought of working together really appealed to us; now we could support each other through the tough times as we were both part of the process. So we founded Ossian Studios Inc. together back in early 2003, an incorporated company in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Ossian started off with a team of people from the game industry in Vancouver to develop a new PC game that was a mix of an RPG and a strategy game. For a variety of reasons, we weren’t able to start production on it, but during that time we decided to simultaneously branch into doing something smaller: a NWN1 premium mod for BioWare called Darkness over Daggerford.

Development on Daggerford was difficult because Ossian hadn’t built a NWN1 mod before, but over time we found good people from the NWN community to bring onto the team. Unfortunately for us, the premium mod program at BioWare got cancelled, so we released Daggerford for free. However, we think it gained far more accolades that way (such as the IGF 2007 Best RPG Mod award) than if it had been released commercially.

Even as we were wrapping up Daggerford, we recruited the best people who had been working on the other cancelled premium mods to start work on our next project, which was NWN2: Mysteries of Westgate for Atari. It was at this point that we began to expand and hire more people from the NWN community, and we continue to hire them for the other projects we’re working on. Ossian has grown considerably from the time it was founded by Elizabeth and myself (just 2 people), to a company employing 16 people. We’re happy at how far Ossian Studios has come and very proud of our teams.

WarCry: What was the original philosophy with regard to development of adventure packs for NWN 2? Has it changed since the studio’s founding?

Alan Miranda: The philosophy behind the NWN2 adventure packs was to make larger and more complex downloadable role-playing games than what had been released as the NWN1 premium mods. We really wanted to make an expansion-quality adventure but on a smaller scale. This viewpoint hasn’t changed since finishing Mysteries of Westgate (MoW), except for the fact that we continually like to challenge ourselves at Ossian, so to that end, we would like to create a larger amount of content for the next adventure pack.

Underlying that philosophy, which is specific to the adventure packs, is simply the directive that all our games be games of the highest quality. Our goal is to always give fans epic adventures to play, and we succeeded in this with both of our games, Daggerford and Westgate. In their May issue, PC Gamer said MoW was “top-notch” and “a real gem,” which is fantastic to hear because that’s exactly what we strive for. The fact that it took the RPG reviewer (Desslock) around 20 hours to play, instead of our official 15 hours, further reinforces our adventure pack philosophy of larger, more complex downloadable games, because it puts MoW in the same gameplay length and quality category as an expansion.

WarCry: Originally, Ossian Studios was going to work on “free” modules for the community. What was the timeline/process for being considered for professionally developing a module for Neverwinter Nights 2?

Alan Miranda: Actually, that’s a misconception. Ossian has never planned to work on free mods for the community and was never a mod group in the sense of a community group of fans getting together to build a module purely for fun. We started Ossian Studios as a professional game development studio to be run as a business, and we just happened to develop a commercial premium mod for BioWare (Darkness over Daggerford).

Because the premium mod program shut down, we decided to finish working on Daggerford for another couple of months and release it for free. It would have been a great shame to abandon or shelve that game because it was such a great adventure and the team was very proud of all the work they had done. Something that you work hard on for over a year isn’t something that you simply drop – you want to be proud of it and put it out there for the world to enjoy. So that’s exactly what we did.

For developing the NWN2 adventure pack for Atari, they contacted us shortly after we released Darkness over Daggerford back in August 2006, and we started talking with them about what Ossian could do for Atari with NWN2. Since BioWare had been the driving force behind the NWN1 premium mods, and not Atari, it took a little while for both of us to work out the details for doing adventure packs. We started pitching ideas to Atari and WotC (Wizards of the Coast) during the fall and began production on Westgate around the start of 2007.

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WarCry: How did Ossian Studios come up with the idea for Mysteries of Westgate or was the decision for the location of the adventure pack made by Atari?

Alan Miranda: Ossian was the one that decided to do a game located in Westgate, although ultimately, it’s up to Atari and WotC to approve the idea. It was Luke Scull, our lead designer on MoW (and well known for his AL series of Hall of Fame NWN1 mods, one of which was to have been a premium mod), who came up with the idea of setting a game in the city of Westgate.

From my experience at BioWare and working with Rob Bartel on the premium mod program when we were doing Daggerford, I knew that city adventures were a lot tougher to do versus rural adventures. This is because so many people and buildings are packed together in a city, that you have to design more quests to fit in that smaller space (call it quest density). If you don’t have a high quest density, then your bustling city will be devoid of interaction and feel completely empty.

So doing a city adventure was going to be a lot more difficult, and I was initially hesitant because I thought that we might be biting off more than we could chew (something we’d had far too much of on Daggerford). But, in the end, we felt that the location was the ideal one out of our list of locations, and we had expanded our team since Daggerford, so we decided we were up to the challenge.

WarCry: Have Ossian Studios developers had much contact with Obsidian Entertainment developers? If so, with whom and covering what topics?

Alan Miranda: We talk with Obsidian every once in a while, and our relationship focuses mainly on NWN2 technical support. When we started working with the NWN2 toolset in September 2006, there were quite a few quirks that made development of a module difficult. So we sent Obsidian plenty of feedback about this and over the course of MoW’s development they implemented fixes for us, as well as sent us internal builds of the game to test things out.

WarCry: Who are the primary developers for Mysteries of Westgate and from where do they hail?

Alan Miranda: Aside from Elizabeth and myself, who work on all our projects, as well as managing Ossian Studios, all of the internal MoW development team comes from the NWN community. Many of them have worked on some top-notch NWN1 and NWN2 mods, which is why we offered them positions at Ossian. I’ve listed below what mods our different team members have worked on previously, although it should be noted that many of our members have also released other things to the community such as scripts, plugins, placeables, areas, etc.

Luke Scull (aka Alazander) – Lead Designer, Writer
(AL1: Siege of Shadowdale, AL2: Crimson Tides of Tethyr, AL3: Tyrants of the Moonsea)

Kevin Smith (aka codepoetz) – Lead Technical Designer
(Kiss of Fate, Hand of Fate, Tales of the Sundering: Hub)

Mat Jobe (aka Nemorem) – Writer
(Dastards Morrow – Maiden Voyage, Myranni’s Magic – BioWare Writing Contest Winner)

Russ Davis (aka Tiberius209) – Writer
(The Sign of Four, Saleron’s Gambit: Chapter 1-5, The Maimed God’s Saga)

Alex Hugon (aka Hugie) – Writer
(Moonshadows, Tale of a Mage Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, The Island, The Art of Death, Perchance to Dream)

Leonard Bedner (aka Challseus) – Technical Designer
(The Rose of Eternity Chapter 1, The Rose of Eternity Chapter 2)

Lee Hogg (aka Sir Elric) – Technical Designer

Raphael Faccioli (aka O Observador) – Level Designer

Alex Wagner (aka EvilShade) – Level Designer

Brian Dunn (aka Brother Roth) – 3D Artist

Brian Watson (aka MadWombat) – Cinematic Artist
(Runes of Blood)

Zach Holbrook (aka Maerduin) – Beta Tester (now Writer)
(The Birthday, Harp and Chrysanthemum)

Rich Barker (aka Phantasma) – Beta Tester (now Technical Designer)
(N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God)

WarCry: How did you all come into contact with one another?

Alan Miranda: For most of our team, we either searched, or received applications from, the NWN community for good writers, scripters, artists, and level designers, and hired the people we thought were talented, experienced, as well as a good fit for Ossian. We’re also always on the lookout for new talent!

WarCry: What is the typical development cycle like at Ossian Studios?

Alan Miranda: When it comes to Forgotten Realms D&D projects, we start off by finding a location to set the adventure. There are certain spots in the Realms that have been done to death, so it’s always a bit of a challenge to find something unique but popular at the same time. Once a location is decided upon, we run it past Atari and WotC in order to clear it, and then have our designers brainstorm some ideas for a story. Mixed in with this brainstorming (and very much linked to it) is figuring out what art assets to create, such as creatures, tilesets, and placeables.

When this pre-production is finished, we have our writing team start work on dialogues, and our level design team start work on areas. The technical designers (scripters) will then take these components to start implementing the critical path and, later on, sidequests. Generally, it’s a good idea to have your tilesets ready early on, so that implementation isn’t held up by area creation.

The end of the process focuses on testing the critical path and sidequests using our own testing team, as well as working with Atari’s QA team, and we fix any bugs that are encountered. In fact, our whole team participates in the game’s testing, and throughout development anyone is able to suggest improvements to any part of the game.

WarCry: Is it difficult to bring together developers from different parts of the world and/or the US?

Alan Miranda: I think working remotely over the Internet, as is our setup at Ossian, has an excellent advantage over moving people to an office at a central location. For example, not everyone is able to move, or is even interested in moving to a new and particular location. Working from home also has a tremendous advantage, in that you get to work in your most comfortable environment. And being able to hire people from anywhere in the world allows Ossian to hire the best the world has to offer.

It’s not a simple thing to do, and definitely more difficult than a bunch of people getting together in one office every day. But after two projects, we’ve definitely made it work and are continuing to improve our tools and methods for remote development. As a cohesive team though, we come together very well, which is a sharp contrast to the first few months of Daggerford’s development in the Spring of 2005 where finding the right people for the team, and then having them keep in touch and working well together, was a challenge.

WarCry: Does Ossian Studios have any further plans to develop adventure packs for NWN 2 or for any other games?

Alan Miranda: We definitely do have plans to develop add-on content for other games – we are, in fact, developing them right now. 🙂 Expect to hear more about them in the future.

WarCry: For others considering module development and forming their own companies, what advice can you offer?

Alan Miranda: There’s probably plenty of advice I could give on this, but the one key piece of advice I will focus on is to stay realistic on the scope of projects you wish to do. It’s always good to dream, and that’s a requisite in this kind of creative business, but don’t be unrealistic about it when you actually have to attempt it. It will only increase the odds against you when you have to carry those plans through, and hence increase the chance of failure. You may still be successful, but the tradeoff will be the amount of pain it will take to get it done.

We learned this the hard way on Darkness over Daggerford, where we set out to build an expansion-sized NWN1 mod with a very small team. Granted, we were luckily successful and it gained a lot of acclaim (it’s still downloaded around 225 times a week), but it took us through the grinder to get it done. We definitely created a superior and more polished product with Mysteries of Westgate, while staying a lot more realistic.

WarCry: Please add any other information that you wish readers to know either about the adventure pack, the studio, and/or the developers.

Alan Miranda: NWN2: Mysteries of Westgate is a fantastic adventure pack, and we really hope that RPG fans have a great time playing it. The MoW team worked extremely hard on it and we are very proud of them.

Ossian Studios continues to grow as we take on new projects and bring more people onto our teams, and we will always focus on making top-quality epic adventures, especially RPGs. We really can’t wait for you to play them!

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