Arden: World of Shakespeare Interview

You may recall way back in Episode 24 (“The Word Is Regurgitate!”) that we took some time to talk about the cancellation of an in-development Shakespeare MMO called “Arden.” One of the game’s former staff, Arden’s former Lead Artist Rory Starks, took us to task for bashing the game, which played out in our blog comments for the episode. Remarkably after all that, Rory was good enough to turn things around and participate in an email interview, giving us a detailed look into the challenges the Indiana University-created game faced.

What follows is a fascinating look inside Arden’s development from Starks’ point of view, and the seemingly insurmountable trials an upstart dev team– funded or not– face when setting out to make an MMO. We gamers seldom get opportunities to see behind the development curtain of any game unless through a mass media outlet, so “the M team” is proud to present this exclusive interview.

[Noah] What were your primary responsibilities as Lead Designer of Arden? What decisions did you help make that determined the framework and/or structure of the game?
For clarification purposes and for a bit of backstory, I was initially the Lead Artist on the project. When Arden began we were working with the Multiverse engine. As production went on, the needs of our project differed from what the engine was able to provide. Multiverse was and still is in development and while it is a very powerful tool, it would have been impossible for us to continue production on that platform given our ideal timeline. I do not think that switching from Multiverse to Neverwinter Nights was an easy decision for anybody. For one, it meant that the artwork that my volunteers and I had been creating was basically useless. While there are certainly ways to get custom content into NWN, at the time of our transition there were more important matters (like the whole team immediately learning how to use Aurora). Also, switching to NWN (yes, the first one) seemed like a giant step backward for a lot of people. Sure, it’s old as dirt, but it has a well-established community and the software was easy for us to acquire.

When we switched to NWN, our lead designer created a large map of grid-based areas that were divided into four separate modules. Over a period of three or four weeks a small group of us worked at a very hectic pace recreating Arden in a new engine – essentially trying to get back to where we had been previously.

Anyway, back to the question. At the point of the engine switch, my role was up in the air. Since my research assistant position was related to Arden, in order to remain viable I decided to learn the ins and outs of the Aurora engine. I did a lot of work translating the map into NWN modules as well as scouring the old Bioware community forums for information on making persistent worlds with the engine. Some of my contributions to the game included the questing system as well as placing a TON of mobs. I also had a log of quests that I implemented into the modules. Most of my decisions involved some technical aspects of the game (e.g. how to track variables for quests, which types of scripts were needed on mobs, NPCs, NAMING CONVENTIONS, etc.)

[Noah] What was it like working on a start-up MMO while juggling college responsibilities?
I think I can speak for everybody on the project when I say that it was tough. Some of us worked on Arden as part of an assistantship, so we were required to work on the project for 20 hours a week. This was doable, but pile that on top of other classes and you get a crazy schedule.

[Noah] How many people working on the project had experience working or playing MMOs? Were there any “MMO junkies” on the team? What was the favorite MMO amongst the team? What MMO influenced the design of Arden the most?
There were a few MMO junkies on the team. The lead programmer is a HUGE fan of Final Fantasy XI. I really can’t stress how infatuated he is with that game. The lead designer and the project manager are both fans of EQ2. The rest of us play a hodgepodge of MMOs. I tried a few different games but I eventually settled on Lord of the Rings Online. I can’t say that there was a single favorite amongst all of us.

I think that EQ2 had a bit of an influence on Arden. Like EQ2, Arden had an immensely complex crafting system. By the time players finished crafting everything they would be building cars from iron ingots because so much gametime would have passed.

[Noah] Would the player always act as a peripheral “cast member” to Shakespearean storylines and thus participate as an accomplice to major plot points, or would gamers ever get to take the role of established Shakespeare characters?
The player would typically act as a peripheral character in the story. There were some instances where the player would act in place of an established character but not their exact role.

[Noah] How was the game world structured? The Forest of Arden is a setting from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Was the game’s foundation based around that play or a combination of several plays? Were certain Shakespearean works given larger priority or emphasis in designing the world’s structure and design?
Arden was based around Richard III. One of our ideas was to have a PvP zone that would recreate the War of the Roses. It was our goal to later add other plays as either separate quest lines or as external areas. One of my first tasks as the lead artist was to recreate a large portion of southeastern England as a heightmap. It was about the same size as World of Warcraft in terms of scale – more than enough room for all sorts of Shakespearean stories to be told.

[Noah] How much of Arden’s overall mythology and storyline was original and how much hewed close to Shakespearean stories? How were multiple Shakespearean works, particularly considering the many different storylines and locations they take place in, intended to be interwoven with the world of Arden?
The original intent was to tell stories as they were told in the plays or give players an interpreted “continuation” of an existing tale. We wanted to present the plays in a way that would be fun and familiar for gamers as well as fans of Shakespeare’s works.

While we never ventured any farther than the England part of Arden, we probably would have designated zones or areas for the different plays. The Macbeth and Richard III areas were connected by boat. Macduff visits England in search of supporters to take on Macbeth and players would speak to him in order to join his cause.

[Noah] In your blog you talked about working on Arden with an awareness that funding would come to an end. Was this always an expectation from the project’s start, or was it initially hoped continuous funding would be secured? Once the timeline for the project’s funding was determined, what milestones were required to be reached by the timeline’s end? Was Arden meant to be fully playable at that point or a later date?
I think I might have been alluding to graduating. There was also the expectation that my position would be given to another student when I left school. Funding was not necessarily expected to be continuous.

In our first year of development we had planned to create a working prototype of the game with around 80 hours of content. It was to be fully playable but not done – there still would have been plenty of work to do.

[Noah] Did funding expire before the decision to halt development altogether? If so, what kept it going after funding dried up?
No, as far as I know we had not “blown through” funding as some of our detractors have suggested. The lead writer, community manager and I would occasionally roll up $100 bills and snort coke from prostitutes’ chests, but we put the cash back into Ted’s metal attaché case as soon as we were done.

[Noah] Exec producer Castronovas was quoted in the announcement of the game’s cancellation, “You need puzzles and monsters, or people won’t want to play.” Yet in your blog you mentioned researching, storyboarding and designing an entire quest around the Macbeth storyline. From Castronovas’ statement, it sounds like “quests” were quite different than stereotypical MMO quests. How were they intended to play out in Arden? Were there any other major Shakespeare works intended to act solely as dungeons or quests for the player to engage within?
The majority of the quests I helped implement were delivery and “talk to ____” quests. We definitely had a lot of monsters and a puzzle here or there, but not the typical “heroic” tasks that players might expect from an MMO. I have not spoken with Ted specifically about his “puzzles and monsters” comment, but I think it is more of a statement about what types of gameplay elements are attractive to the common MMO gamer. Shakespeare is great, but let’s be serious; the lip-ringed teenagers who frequent Hot Topic for Warcraft hoodies were not going to cancel their accounts to play our game. I do not think there was a moment when we all sat down and said, “OMFG, Shakespeare! World of Warcraft players will get a total hard-on over this shit!” For some, Shakespeare conjures horrible memories of being forced to read his plays in English class. That is unfortunate. There are MMOs devoted to penguins, World War II and football. There is something out there for everyone.

One thing that I personally experimented with was turning acts of the plays into separate quest lines. Acts could be completed in any order, and each contained any number of subquests (like scenes). It was not a ground-breaking idea, but it was just a method I thought would be an interesting way to carry the player along through the play. The Macbeth quests were based on this idea and they were intended to work like an instance dungeon.

[Noah] Aside from the setting and source material, what were the main elements that were intended to make Arden stand out from other MMOs?
An element that I particularly enjoyed was how we had planned to record every line of NPC dialogue. I’m sure that any experienced MMO designer would laugh at this idea and tell me how unreasonable it is. That is fine, I understand. We recorded a ton of dialogue for the game – some original and some directly from Shakespeare’s plays. This was a nice touch that I believe would have really made the game more immersive. We have a remarkable theatre department at Indiana University and it was cool that some of the students there were able to lend us a hand.

[Noah] How was player character creation for Arden handled in terms of both visuals and character career? Were classes or professions part of the design? Was traditional gaining of experience points and leveling up intended? Were certain areas of Arden reserved for higher level players, and if so, around what plays were they based?
I actually cannot comment on too much of this specifically. Levels and experience were definitely part of the game, and so were classes, but I was not involved too much with designing that aspect of the Arden. Players were supposed to start out as lower-class members of high-Medieval society and then they could work their way up through the ranks. The professions were based on various tradeskills of that era.

The Macbeth portion was leveled as one progressed through the different acts. As I stated earlier, they could be completed in any order, but they were somewhat ordered in terms of character level. The Neverwinter Nights version of Arden had higher level areas placed farther from the main cities although they were still based on Richard III to some degree.

[Noah] What was it like showcasing the game at GDC?
It was a lot of fun. We worked at the Multiverse booth showing off an early version of the game and we had a great time. It was very generous of Multiverse to invite us out there and we are thankful that they did.

[Noah] You mentioned in a comment on our site that, in the end, “we all hated each other and nobody wanted to work on it anymore.” What were the factors that contributed to the team losing morale and focus? Was there a specific turning point?
The big turning point that comes to mind was the self-imposed goal we set last August for the alpha version of the NWN-based game. The whole team was already stressed because we had switched engines and this had a significant impact on the every facet of the project. We pulled an all-nighter, which for some ended up being two all-nighters back to back without any sleep. Our nerves were absolutely fried and anytime someone left to take a break, the rest of us would question their devotion to life in general let alone the project. “Is so-and-so serious? They must not really care about Arden at all.” The 40 hour hell march killed our spirits.

To go back to the first question, although it was the right choice at the time, switching to Neverwinter Nights did cause problems. A lot of “part-timers” who had been working with us on Multiverse-specific tasks probably felt abandoned and quickly began to drop from the project. Brad McQuaid had an opiate addiction and didn’t do ****. Numerous technical and logistical problems affected all sorts of things. A growing amount of skepticism from within our own department also really hurt our morale. In the beginning we had little to no experience and this led to many frustrations for everyone. Like I said on your site, at the end we couldn’t stand each other. Arden had become a sore subject. Some of the team might not want to admit that but I am certain that it was true for all of us.

[Jason] At what point did Mr. Castronovas and the rest of the production team decide that this game wasn’t going to work and did you (and the rest of the design team) feel like you were left out to dry?
This was probably very different for different people on the team. I cannot speak for the other members, but I think our first test with the NWN build was very telling of how the project was going. It was just one damn thing after another. Network stability should have been the last thing we had to worry about – we were still trying to complete the game! The server would crash every 80 minutes. We had a tough time getting volunteers to sign on and work through some of the content. It can be difficult being a beta tester on a buggy game, but with Arden, it was also not much fun. This meant most of our beta testers were not very interested in devoting time to finding bugs (which is completely understandable). On the subject of bugs, we had some funny ones. The first major glitch in the game was when players attacked a mob or critter, every single animal/monster in the game would turn uber-aggro. They would literally travel across 20 zones to hunt down a player. One could be standing in a tavern and suddenly get mauled by a bear. It was hilarious, but eventually fixed.

Departure from Arden was somewhat staggered. Several team members – mainly the volunteers – more than likely left in frustration. It was late summer and grad students had new assistantship duties to attend to whereas others were kept on as hourly employees. By this point in development we were effectively polishing a turd, so keeping people on as paid employees seemed unreasonable.

[Noah] From your blog it sounds like a lot of documentation was made for the project in the expectations or hopes that it would handed off to another team, or at least in your part another Lead Artist, to complete. Was that always part of the game plan? Do you think Castronovas will ever reconsider his decision given all the work already completed?
Arden was supposed to be run like the pop group Menudo. Students could come through every year and contribute to the project and pass their positions to the next group whenever they left. I was in the first group so I felt that solid documentation was vital to giving future members some basic direction.

Whether or not Ted reconsiders his decision is largely up to him. I’d like to see Arden come back someday. Maybe it will.

[Noah] The biggest quote associated with the cancellation of Arden was its lack of fun, yet it would seem the idea of Arden being fun highly motivated the team at the start of the game’s design. If you can take yourself back to that time, and consider your experiences since then, what basic enhancements do you think Arden would need to be more fun in a traditional sense?
Arden has a lot of the elements one would expect from a typical MMO but collectively they feel a bit hollow. I am ashamed to admit that my Macbeth module never made it into the game. I believe its addition would have been a small step in the right direction.

A fundamental approach to the MMO genre would have really helped us. It was obvious that we weren’t going to be making the next big thing; however, we were really trying to create an engaging and immersive MMORPG. This was unrealistic and ultimately part of our downfall. If I could go back to that time, I would suggest scaling down the project and really focusing on a few, key gameplay mechanics. For example, a primitive crafting system coupled with a small-scale PvP arena. This might seem silly and detract from the Shakespearean elements of the game, but I think this approach would have given us the chance to fully develop a few important parts of the Arden rather than try to do everything at once. After a few components were completed and tested, then it would be time to add a few more features. The idea behind this would be to give testers something to test early on even if it wasn’t the complete experience.

[Mark] Were some of the high points you encountered during the process of developing this game worth the lows? Even knowing the eventual outcome, would you have undertaken this anyway just for the experience?
Those are very good questions. We were attempting to do something very difficult and I really think that the project was much bigger than we really wanted it to be. Arden isn’t my favorite thing to discuss during job interviews but it was definitely a learning experience.

I go back and forth on the second question. There are times when I think to myself, “If I had only worked on some other project…” but on the other hand I am proud of the work that I accomplished and I made some great friends along the way. It was good teamwork experience – the good and the bad.

[Mark] Finally, what was the number one lesson you learned from the experience of working on a project of this scale and depth?
If the technology is not working and the team is inexperienced, better technology is needed. Immediately. This is not to say that technology is to blame, but insufficient tools are only going to make matters worse for people who lack significant game development experience.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Be On the Show! Email Us
Podcast RSS
Blog RSS
Current Poll

How often do you play MMOs?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
Blog Categories
Fave Blogs