The Foundry: User-Generated Content in Neverwinter
Dungeons & Dragons has always been a game for creative people. The crude black-and-white illustrations in the original books left about 90% of the game to the imagination. But even as the books got more colorful and slick and descriptive, the core element of gameplay has always been creating new worlds of adventure and magic. Cryptic Studios recognizes this, and has followed in the footsteps of previous namesake titles to ship Neverwinter with a set of content-creation tools: the Foundry.
Toolsets in Previous Games
Way back in 2002, the first Neverwinter Nights shipped with the Aurora toolset, which allowed users to build entire game worlds quickly and easily, and share them with the world through Gamespy. While it was never a true MMO (a server could only hold 96 players at a time, plus DMs, so populations were never "massive"), a number of creators took cues from Ultima Online, EverQuest and other early-generation MMOs to create persistent world servers, which behaved like MMOs.
But it wasn't just MMO wannabes getting cranked out of the Aurora toolset. With the right haks (custom content modules created by the modding community) and a bit of scripting know-how, it was possible to create just about anything. And with Gamespy, it was super-easy to find exactly the kind of game you wanted to play: the tweaked-out uber-gear PvP arenas where you could test your build theories; the adults-only servers that used, erm... "specialized" hak packs; the strict RP servers where it could take weeks to earn a single level and where your charcters could die permanently. Whatever you wanted, you could find it somewhere. And if not, you could build it yourself.
The updated Aurora toolset that shipped with Neverwinter Nights 2 was even more powerful. It was no longer tile-based, terrain could be deformed into hills and valleys with push-and-pull brushes and buildings and other objects could be placed anywhere, facing in any direction. Of course, the increased power of the toolset made the whole system more complicated. The new maps used walkmeshes which had to be downloaded for each server, in addition to any special custom haks. And the walkmeshes could be huge in size, so it wasn't really possible to casually skip from server to server to try them out and get a feel for them like it was with the original game.
Star Trek Online's Foundry
The Foundry in Cryptic's Neverwinter is something of a "spiritual successor" to these older toolsets, but it will be a tool of a different sort. It will more likely closely resemble the Foundry currently employed by Star Trek Online, another Cryptic game that features user-generated content. Instead of D&D-themed Lego, it will be D&D-themed Tinkertoys.
Star Trek Online's Foundry toolset isn't really capable of creating persistent worlds. It comes with a limited selection of pre-made interior and exterior maps, most of which are used elsewhere in the game and are recycled for use in the toolset. These maps can be manipulated in clever ways to make them seem new and unique and different, but not in the same way that maps could be manipulated in the Aurora toolset. In the Star Trek Online Foundry, terrain cannot be deformed with push-pull brushes. Customization is achieved by the placement of objects, effects and monsters/NPCs around the map.
The Foundry in STO is very good at creating story modules, and that will likely be the strongest part of the Neverwinter version as well. Story events (including custom maps and scripted dialogues) are placed like links in a chain, sometimes branching out depending on the choices made by the player. This process was somewhat more complicated in the Aurora toolset, often requiring meticulous dialogue editing and confusing scripting. Planning out a story in the Foundry is a relatively simple matter of dragging and dropping events from the library on the right to the assembly area in the middle, and then editing the details afterward to make them fit together properly.
The chief difference will be that it is highly unlikely that the Neverwinter Foundry will allow users to create space missions.
Current User-Generated Content
During the past two beta weekends, players were able to experience Foundry-built user-generated content by picking up quests at the bulletin boards throughout the city. So far, everything that's been available has been of the "adventure module" variety - short, self-contained adventures with lots of combat or exploration.
These one-shot adventures can be strung together to form campaigns. Campaigns are daisy-chained adventures following a common story arc, and each adventure serves as an "act" in the overall story. There were a few campaigns available during the first beta weekend, and a couple of them were very well done. The second weekend's focus was on other things, though, and the only stuff available on the Foundry was one-shot adventures.
In terms of quality, user-generated content will be all over the map. Foundry missions in Star Trek Online range from sublimely-crafted stories that play out like an episode of one series or another, to ridiculously bad insta-fails created by people with zero command of the written language and/or no idea how the Foundry actually works. Most efforts will fall somewhere between these two extremes.
In the beta weekends, I was able to run through a number of pre-made Foundry adventures - likely crafted by Cryptic alpha testers making sure the tech worked. The first weekend, I ran a 3-part campaign involving drow and intrigue, which was really well done. I investigated an abandoned temple finding clues, and eventually tracked the villains to a nasty dungeon. Thought and care went into the design, and it was reasonably well executed.
For the second weekend, I ran a rather silly one-shot adventure involving a Deck of Many Things and a poker game gone horribly, horribly wrong. It was fun, the fights were challenging, but not particularly cerebral. This one is probably a good gauge against which to measure other Foundry modules, a solid 3-star experience.
Making a High-Rated Adventure
While the Neverwinter Foundry is not yet available to the public, there are some things you can do to prepare for it so you can hit the ground running when it does launch.
- LRN2ENGLISH - Internet and gamer slang makes for quick and effective communication, but sloppy grammar and bad spelling gets noticed and earns negative comments and votes. The Foundry won't likely come with a spell-checker, so if spelling is an issue, compose your dialogue in another program first and copy/paste it once it has been checked and edited.
- Learn the STO Foundry - It's likely to be close to what the Neverwinter Foundry will be, so get some practice. You will need to earn 10,000 Refined Dilithium on one character to unlock it, but that can be earned fairly quickly by running Fleet Actions and such, or you can buy it with Zen.
- Plan Ahead - Know what kind of story you want to tell, and plan it out in small steps. That's how the Foundry works anyway (at least in STO), so knowing what you need to do to move from one story point to the next helps a lot. Tell the kind of story you would want to experience, and other people will respond positively.
- Play Other People's Stuff - This will give you an idea of what is possible with the toolset, what kind of things you enjoy playing and, occasionally, a rough idea of how to make it happen. One creator might have really cleverly-designed dungeon spaces, one guy might have done something creative with dialogue trees, etc.
- Be Concise - You might be proud of the six pages of dialogue you just wrote, and it might be the most awesome thing ever, containing subtle clues leading the reader on a breadcrumb trail to the next objective. But a lot of hasty jackasses will just skim through it to get to the next fight, and get angry when they can't find it easily. Make sure our players have clearly-defined goals and know exactly how to reach them.
User-generated content can be an amazing thing. It keeps the game fresh without placing content demands on the developers, allowing them to focus more attention on bug fixes and improving game systems rather than cranking out new dungeons. With the Foundry, that will be our job.
Are there any old published adventure modules you're looking forward to seeing in Neverwinter? Let us know in our comments!