Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines Designer Diary #5

Joint CEO Leonard Boyarsky explains what goes into turning a game like Vampire into a nonlinear experience.

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While most traditional role-playing games put you into an adventuring party that's full of wizards and knights who seek to slay dragons and hope to recover treasure, Troika Games' Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines will be a bit different. Troika's upcoming game, which will be powered by Valve Software's Half-Life 2 engine, will let you play as an up-and-coming vampire in a seedy, near-future setting in which you will be able to side with (and oppose) the vampire clans of White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade. In this installment of our designer diaries, Leonard Boyarsky discusses how the developer is going about making a nonlinear game that doesn't just go from point A to point B.

The Nonlinear RPG Experience

Leonard Boyarsky
Joint CEO, Troika Games/Producer

For this designer diary, I'll be focusing on the nonlinear RPG experience--hence the title. Pretty creative, huh? Since it's impossible (or it would take way too much time and funding, at least) to make seven different games in one, nonlinearity is all about branching both in dialogue writing and level design. In this diary, I'll explore the avenues we use to achieve a nonlinear feel, and I'll explain how we're using them in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.

There are several ways to create the feeling of nonlinearity in an RPG, and these are through character interaction, level design, and consequences for players' actions, primarily. Nonlinearity is not the same as completely open-ended gameplay, but rather, it's the feeling that your actions and choices change the course of the game (though you may still need to perform specific quests in a certain order). On the flip side, in an open-ended game, you can do anything at anytime.

In terms of character interaction, we have a long list of factors we can consider when writing dialogue. For instance, players can choose to join a "clan" of vampires with specific abilities. And from the players' choice of clan, to the choice of "feats" (persuasion, intimidation, and others), to the actions that players take in the game, we can choose to branch a dialogue that depends on any one of these factors. Some of these branches might be significant and some may have serious consequences for the player, while some might simply play differently for different player types. Basically, the game truly seems to react to the choices that players make.

Los Angeles will be breeding grounds, and stomping grounds, for new vampires.
Los Angeles will be breeding grounds, and stomping grounds, for new vampires.

Another way we like to give the feel of nonlinearity is through letting players have their own motivations for going on certain quests in the game. Let's say there's a main quest that players need to accomplish in the game. If everyone needs to do it, won't that make the game seem like a linear experience where you have to do the same thing every time? Actually, the way we add variety to this type of scenario is to let players choose their own motivation for performing the quest. Are they doing it to garner favor with someone? To pay off a debt? To betray someone down the line? In dealing with a main story arc, quests like this come up a lot, so we feel it is important for players to have clear-cut choices as to why they are doing something in the game. The worst thing is for players to feel like they're going on a quest simply because the game dictates it. Motivation is extremely important in drawing players into the experience. The reasons that players have for doing things in the game can create a completely different feeling in the gameplay experience.

Likewise, we also like to have our games present consequences for the choices that a player makes with his or her actions. Who did you side with, and why? This could become a major point in your interaction with certain characters down the road, so you'd best be careful whom you trust or side with. Other characters may change their attitudes toward you, or they may not offer you certain quests, depending on the various choices you've made in the game.

Another chance for nonlinearity comes from the setting you choose to set your story in. This was one of the main reasons we chose Los Angeles as the location for Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, because it was a perfect breeding ground for political intrigue and deceit, which opens up various avenues for players to explore. In the game, a new "prince" (a vampiric leader) has just come into the area to take over a former "anarch," or free state. Apparently, there seems to be no end to the amount of characters and factions who can get angry with you! There's so much fun to be had! This enabled us to play the factions that were vying for control of LA against one another--thus forcing players to make choices about who they would end up siding with and why.

Of course, nonlinearity has a lot to do with how we design our levels. We like our levels to have several ways through them rather than simply being presented in a linear fashion like you'd find in most first-person shooter games. As with our dialogue writing, we start with a list of things that need to be accounted for, such as stealth, disciplines, feats, and so on. For instance, we need to make each level viable for characters that rely heavily on their vampiric powers (Are there enough characters, as well as combatants, to feed on?) or those who rely on firearms (Are there enough places to get ammo in this level? Will players have enough firepower to accomplish this level?) or those who rely on melee weapons (Will there be adequate weaponry? Will it be possible to close in on an opponent without being massacred?) or those who rely on stealth or any combination of any of the above.

The game will account for players with different specializations. However, whether you choose to focus on guns, like this one of the submachine variety, is up to you.
The game will account for players with different specializations. However, whether you choose to focus on guns, like this one of the submachine variety, is up to you.

Obviously, not all levels can take into account all the factors associated with each character. For instance, a crypt probably won't include computer hacking, but we try to have a good spread for each level. The core design of any given level starts with the stealth path, and then more direct paths are added, depending on the level of difficulty and where in the game it occurs. The stealth route takes into account patrolling guards, what level of stealth or obfuscation players are likely to have, and what other disciplines players may have to help them out. The more-direct routes obviously have a larger concentration of combatants. And, of course (where applicable), we include talking paths through some of our levels as well.

So to sum up, the way we get to a nonlinear, open-ended game involves a combination of many factors, from how we design our levels, to how we design our dialogues, to everything in between. Troika believes that a good RPG is one that delivers this nonlinear experience.

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