Developer Interview 4

Meet with Bryan Hansen, Game Designer for Westwood Studios’ Nox, to get more information on this upcoming game.

We spent over an hour chatting at the Nox Event hosted by IGN on Saturday in Seattle, Washington. He is one of those I would call “The Original Three” which includes Michael Booth, the game’s creator, as well as Colin Day. They started working together in Colorado years ago. (Bryan denies it was in Michael’s garage, calling it “an office,” but we know better. That garage is the stuff of legends!) When Virgin bought the rights to Nox, Michael announced one day “We’re moving to California, want to come along?” and Bryan packed his bags and headed off to Irvine as part of the growing Nox team.

That team now numbers 23 people, divided approximately two-thirds engineers and programmers, and one-third artists and designers. They cranked up to that number in only about four months, and as Bryan said, “We were very lucky to get the guys we have on our crew. They’re a great group.” For many of the Nox staff, this is their first title, and the excitement level runs very high. They’ve been working 6- and 7-day weeks for the last two months, and many are putting in 12-hour days at that. One guy recently computed that the amount of time put into this game equals 25 man-years! (Oh, and for those amongst you who are “game company employee wannabes,” nearly all the staff have formal schooling: All the engineers have CS degrees; the design staff have related college degree, and the artists have art school degrees.)

Bryan said that one of the ways to keep on track and be most efficient during development has been to have one person focus on each character, or having an individual work a single act at a time. Bryan’s work has mostly been in the area of the Conjurer, and in addition he’s been very involved in developing the multiplayer side of the game.

Interesting sidenote: Nox is the only game we could think of where the multi-player game was actually nearly fully complete prior to starting work on the single-player mode. When I asked “Isn’t that the reverse of most game development? Don’t most development teams go from single-player to multi-player?” Bryan responded “Yes, but you don’t have a lot of good multi-player games, do you? (laugh) When you look at a game for multi-player and develop that, and are comfortable with your characters and your world, you can then construct a really good single-player game.”

Where is the game as far as development, as of today?

The game is “feature complete” as of this week and is now in alpha testing.

How long will the alpha and beta tests last? Are they both being done exclusively on site, as usual for Westwood?

*ponder* I’m not sure, really, when the testing will be complete, but we’re confident we will make our February projected release date. And yes, as usual, all testing is being done in-house at Westwood Studios

I’m noticing some rather splashy visuals, as compared to what I saw in Las Vegas earlier this month. For example, finding a spell book now results in a huge spray a sparklies and the book’s mini-icon slowly moving down into an available speed-key slot at the bottom of the screen. Could you talk about that?

Yes, we have a guy working full-time on just those sorts of visual things, like putting in more visual clues, and making things generally more spectacular. We want people to be very aware of it when something important happens, like reading a spell book. Since we’re now “feature complete” we can take the time to add the special effects

What about a Nox Series? Do you think such a thing would go towards an expansion pack or a whole new game? And what is the timeline for that sort of thing?

Well, first of all, decisions like this are always made after the first game is released, and are based on its success. But I think Nox will be very successful, so continuing is probably going to happen. If it were up to me, I’d make it a second game, completely new and different, and not just an expansion pack. And the timeline for that sort of thing is probably about two years.

Replayability is an issue with games, and a random level generator is one way to keep a game fresh. Is there such a feature in Nox?

No, the ability was there-the ability IS there in the coding-and we worked for about six months with random levels in the game design. But this is a tightly scripted game, and events and characters like ours are difficult to set into a randomly-generated map. Precise control and flow are critical in the game. Therefore, we chose to disable that part of the code and stick with a repeating map. We feel that with three characters who follow completely separate paths through the game, we have a lot of replayability right there.

How difficult would it be to get that “random generation” code to work? Could someone hack into the game and enable it?

It would be extremely difficult, even with the code existing in the programming, to enable random level generation. It’s buried deeply inside the programming and probably wouldn’t be workable even if found.

Cheating-hacking of character stats, duplication of items, creation of items not originally in the game-has been a major problem in other games. Some claim this alone has “ruined” internet playing for some titles. What measures have been taken to assure that Nox remains a fun, fair, competitive game when played on Westwood Online?

We have a system that heavily encrypts the programming, and uses extensive detection hardware so that if someone hacks the game, they are not able to play on Westwood Online. The hacked product will be detected and disabled immediately. This doesn’t mean that someone can’t hack it and play on LAN, of course, but it does mean that the hacked game will have to be uninstalled and a pure unhacked copy installed in order to play internet games.

So you have what I call “reality checks?” The scanning hardware looks at the game, the character level, skills and so forth, and says “Wait a minute, that level character couldn’t possibly have those high stats” or “that piece of equipment isn’t even in the game” and it declares it a hacked game/character and disables it?

Yes, exactly. It looks at all sorts of things to make sure they all add up right. If they don’t, it’s disabled immediately.

Do you have multi-player questing games, or other cooperative team play against the computer, and not against other human players?

No, we do not have games where teams can play against bots or against the AI or just go kill monsters together. Michael Booth, the creator of Nox, is really into AI, though, and it’s possible that we may have such a thing in a future game.

What types of multi-Player games have you included? Anything new?

We are options that allow player vs. player or team vs. team. Our newest MP game is Flag Ball, or NoxBall. (We haven’t really decided what to call it yet.) The closest way to describe it is it’s sort of like soccer, where you have a ball and a goal, and the ball can be passed from player to player, and bounced off walls and that sort of thing. We have the traditional Capture the Flag and King of the Hill. Our Elimination Game is where up to 32 people on a LAN, or 8 to 10 on the internet play until only one is left standing. You have two lives, so when you’re killed the second time, you’re out of the competition although you can stay in as an observer and watch the rest of the game.

Do you have observer mode for all games?

Yes, although among the 8 to 10 playing in a game on the internet, an observer will count as a player. So if you have a capacity for 10 people in a game, and there are a couple of guys observing, then you can have only 8 people actually playing.

Are there difficulty levels in Nox?

Well, you know, that would be really hard – having difficulty levels but keeping it balanced? How could you do that? Make more monsters to kill? Increase their strength or their damage? Make them regenerate faster? We looked at it, but we decided that difficulty levels do not work in Nox.

What about game resolution? Some games allow a single resolution, some give a choice. If the sprites are the same size, then there are obvious tactical advantages if one player is playing at merely 640 x 480 when another is playing at 1024 x 768, since the person with higher resolution will see more of the playing field. Are the sprites the same size, and how can a player handle this problem?

Yes, the sprites are all the same size. If someone thinks that’s going to be a problem, he can always make is so the server limits the maximum resolution of people coming into a game. The set-up of a game is fully customizable. 

What does that mean?

That means that the person who sets up the game can put in a accept/reject on a particular resolution, like “Only people playing at 640 x 480 can enter this game.” 

Why is there no female character in Nox?

We had a female character once, long ago. But the programming is heavy for each character. Our three characters, all being male, are interchangeable as far as body shape and height. So you can use the same model for all three. But with a female character, we’d have to vary the body shape, features, options, maybe even height. We did some counting the other day and discovered that each player character, with its overlays and renderings, is comprised of about 75,000 individual pieces of art. To create a completely different character to that sort of depth would set back our release date.

We’ve asked about monsters and characters in other interviews, but could you tell us about NPC’s (Non-Player Characters)? Do they serve a function, or are they often like Baldur’s Gate, where so many were “just taking up space?

We have more than 100 NPC’s in Nox. They are all relevant to the game; nearly all perform a needed function. NPC’s will give the characters quests, side-quests, items, etc. Sometimes the NPC’s are “for” you, and sometimes they are “against” you, so you have to be alert. The NPC spellcasters are really something – great graphics there.

How do you protect the gamecode, and keep the game itself sequestered, so an illegal copy of it doesn’t hit the black market even before it is in stores?

We have a very intense method of safeguarding our alpha and beta copies, including heavy encryption and coding that means that certain copies of the software have to be played on a certain computer. In addition, each copy is thumbprinted, so if a copy did somehow slip through the cracks, we could trace it back to its source immediately. We’ve been lucky about getting our games out on the worldwide release date we set.

What kind of documentation will come with Nox? A game manual? A strategy guide as well?

A game manual has already been printed. We have to get that finished early, so we can have it translated into several languages, including German, Japanese, French, and several others. We contracted a writer to work on the manual, and he was working right at our offices, which meant that when he had a question, he could just walk down the hall to get an answer. It will be a good game manual – he writes well and has a good sense of humour, too. I’m not sure about a strategy guide, but I think so, yes.

Interview by Gaile