Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Where are all the modules for Dragon Age?

Looking at the Projects Page on the Bioware Social Network, two things seem perfectly clear: 1) players need a better way to find Dragon Age modules, and 2) the current crop of standalone adventures is sorely lacking. The most popular mod is apparently something called Sappho's Daughters, which I hesitate to even try to categorize. After that, it's a lot of utility mods, some Sappho's Daughters spinoffs, and a remake of the Irenicus dungeon from Baldur's Gate 2. Then, finally, you get to something that could truly be called an original standalone adventure (Alley of Murders).

So what gives? Many people, myself included, assumed Neverwinter Nights 2 builders would migrate to Dragon Age en masse and start producing high-quality mods. But judging from the number of standalone adventures, that doesn't seem to have happened. With Dragon Age 2 looming, it seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the situation and ask why we haven't seen more finished projects by now.

The typical answer is that the Dragon Age toolset is simply too difficult. That's fine as far as two-word explanations go, but a more comprehensive answer might include the following:

Dragon Age development favors specialized roles.
Creating a standalone adventure has always required an all-rounder, someone who could pound out dialogue, hack through code, tinker with 2DAs, and work with art resources - and do it all pretty well. By increasing complexity at each step of the way, the Dragon Age toolset makes life a lot harder for those Jacks and Jills of all trades. On top of that, the game itself sets a high bar for production values, one that's hard for individuals or small groups to approximate.

Just look at conversations. Using stages and integrated cutscenes, builders can create highly cinematic scenes in Dragon Age - just like the ones in the game, and far better than anything you could produce in Neverwinter Nights 2. The problem? It takes three different editors, and a lot more time. And unless you want your characters flapping their lips in silence, you'll have to recruit some voice actors to give a voice to your characters. Unlike Neverwinter Nights 2, Dragon Age doesn't provide an old-school dialogue box for those who don't want to conduct a casting call.

The toolset palette is shallow.
Demons or darkspawn? When choosing monsters in Dragon Age, it's just about that simple. The Neverwinter Nights games included a large selection from the Monster Manual - being Dungeons & Dragons games, they pretty much had to. In contrast, Dragon Age's bestiary seems to be based solely on the requirements of its storyline. Does anybody really want to make another game about darkspawn? Does anyone want to play one?

Unfortunately, with Dragon Age 2 on the way, the current palette is all builders are going to get. While the complexity of the toolset could delay the release of great standalone modules, the lack of resources will permanently limit them.

Players aren't that into it.
It's possible - nay, likely - that fans of Dungeons & Dragons are open to playing mods in a way that other players are not. Certainly not everyone who played Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2 was a fan of Dungeons & Dragons or The Forgotten Realms. However, my hypothesis is that those who were fans were more likely to play mods. Why? Because they were eager to continue their characters in their chosen setting rather than move on to other content, even if it meant playing through less polished, amateur-made adventures.

Not so with Dragon Age, whose most loyal fans seem more devoted to the game's characters than its ruleset or setting. Of course, the fact that some players follow the characters with the zeal of a twihard doesn't mean there aren't also plenty of people out there who are willing to play standalone mods. What it does mean is that the Project pages are currently swamped with mods that add extra dialogue, romances, and nudity to the official campaign, making it that much harder for standalone mods to gain a toehold.

Bioware isn't that into it.
Early on, Bioware did nothing to discourage the notion that it was the heir apparent to the Neverwinter Nights legacy. In fact, it urged builders to transition to Dragon Age, and was generally very supportive early on.

Somewhere along the way, priorities seem to have shifted. Promised fixes for the toolset and Social Network have not come, and Bioware has been ominously silent about whether they ever will. I won't speculate on why this is so. No doubt it boils down to limited resources. The point is, from a builder's perspective, it's another hurdle.

Sound bleak? Oh, it's not that bad. I still expect builders to produce some great standalone adventures for Dragon Age. Maybe the release of Dragon Age 2 will spur returning players to give mods another look. It could also generate interest in modding, especially if the sequel does a good job of fleshing out the setting.

More importantly, I think projects currently in the works simply need more time. Making a full-fledged adventure with all its component parts takes many, many development hours - hours that for many builders have to come in small increments after work and on weekends. As was the case with Neverwinter Nights 2, many of the best mods will probably appear long after the game's release.


  1. I think it's likely that it's a bit of all of the above really. Also, even though we're dealing with a different franchise, I think Dragon Age shares a lot with the two NWN games. I believe it's pretty likely that the builders are just split between the games now, just like how builders were split between NWN1 and NWN2 when NWN2 came out. Some people move on, but many people will feel comfortable with what they have and have learned how to use.

    The difficulty is also a concern I think, and it was one (perhaps *the* one) complaint against the NWN2 toolset when it came out. And while I still consider the modding scene in NWN2 to be pretty succesful, if rather small, it definitely impacted the number of mods. Same thing applies to DA I guess, though it's taken even further.

    But it's also, I don't know... For some reason, it never felt to me like DA was pushed as a modding platform. The focus on the campaign, characters, romances, sequels and so forth was so incredibly strong that... I don't know. Perhaps that is somehow off-putting to modders? NWN2 also had a fairly strong focus on the campaign (when compared to the first game at least), but it still felt a lot more like a "playground package" to me.

    Perhaps the idea of modules is indeed a lot more easy to grasp for the long-term D&D players and so forth. With its STEAM release, I've seen plenty of players new to NWN2 whose idea of mods is solely tweaks to the main campaign, and not at all the stand-alone adventures.

  2. Starwars, I think you're right that NWN and DA have divided up the builders to a large extent. The games do share a lot, and it's not unusual to see builders debating which platform to choose. I would guess that for the most part, the DA modders who *don't* come from NWN aren't really the type to produce standalone mods. If they wanted to make their own adventures, they would have been working with NWN. Again, for the most part.

    I think DA was pushed pretty hard as a modding platform early on. There were builder events. Prominent NWN builders were included in the toolset beta (which theoretically should have allowed them to get a leg up on producing mods). There's a tab on the Dragon Age site promoting the toolset. And a lot of the features of the Social Network seem to be aimed at builders.

    But things did change pretty quickly after release, so I can see where your impression comes from.

  3. I think a lot of it has to do with the versatility of the DA toolset's assets versus that of NWN2's--that, and the aforementioned difficulty. The builder simply has more easily accessible options, making the old "limited only by your imagination" trope far more applicable to building with NWN2 than with DA. You can't even make an autumn forest with DA's native assets.

  4. Nice picture for this post, by the way!

  5. Thanks, Maerduin. I actually wanted to a use a "Module Not Found" error message, which I seem to recall seeing at some point. Couldn't reproduce it, though.

    Level design in DA is the most frustrating thing for me. There's lot of flexibility in how you piece things together, but not enough assets to really take advantage of it. In other words, it's a lot of work for relatively little gain. It could just as easily be tileset-based as far as I'm concerned.

  6. Great post! I believe you've summed up the main reasons the Dragon Age modding community has struggled, at least as far as independent adventures go.

    I found neither the world nor the ruleset interesting enough to warrant more than a cursory glance when weighed alongside the severe creative limitations. The drive to see one's vision fulfilled is the meat that sustains the earnest modder during the long and painful journey to a completed project. I'm not sure there are many prospective modders who marry the skills and persistence necessary to finish a substantial work with a vision wholly (or at least mostly) supported by the available content .

    As you mentioned, the Dragon Age modding community appears primarily interested in exploring the game’s characters. I followed the Tiwhard link and got a wry grin out of that one!

  7. Thanks, Alazander. What you're saying about fulfillment of a vision is true, of course. But just so this isn't a complete DA bash-fest, I should point out that some people will no doubt find DA's cinematic capabilities more important than the lack of art. If you want to make a game centered on politics, emotions, or human drama in general, if you have certain scenes or images in mind, DA will probably help you fulfill your vision better than anything else.

    Also, I think there's an opportunity for builders to fulfill the promise of DA, which was to be a gritty, adult fantasy game (something the official campaign didn't achieve). The lack of resources don't *help* you do that, necessarily, but they don't hurt either.

  8. You're absolutely right. I think the Dragon Age toolset might be perfect for something like A Song of Ice and Fire -- or any low-magic, low-fantasy pseudo-Medieval setting. The creature palette, at least, is perfectly serviceable in that regard; covering as it does the staple fantasy races and monsters.

    Food for thought.

  9. I've written about this subject recently as well, but I came from the opposite direction. I began with Dragon Age: Origins, released a short standalone campaign for it, and then discovered the Neverwinter Nights games in the process.

    The lack of variety in the DA:O resources was a major disappointment and limiting factor for me. I did what I could with what was available. I didn't do anything with the cinematic stuff, or voice acting, because I don't care about those things. I was making a game, not a movie.

    Anyway, I did want to say that not *everyone* who would make standalone mods was already on NWN, because some of us came around more recently. (Though you covered that when you said "for the most part".) Now, I'm playing the NWN2 OC for the first time, as well as Storm of Zehir concurrently, and I just played through NWN1's "Kingmaker" for the first time, as well. If I make another mod, it will most likely be in NWN2, despite some issues with its engine.

  10. IMO, NWN2's toolset hit the "jack of all trades" angle just right. It's a very, very robust toolset and yet still rather easy to use. One of the best parts of NWN2's toolset, IMO, was how many wizards there were and how much easier that made things.

    Yes, Dragon Age is beautiful and there's a lot of really cool stuff you can do, especially with cutscenes and dialog, but it also adds a lot of complexity that takes more skill and effort. There's very little scripting in Dragon Age that is reusable, so you still have to script damn near everything , which can take a lot of menial time and annoyingly switching between editors.

    Even NWN1 eventually had Lilac Soul's script generator, which helped numerous DMs build quick romps and helped a lot of modules get made a lot faster and easier. Especially for those unfamiliar or new to the syntax of NWScript.

    I'm willing to say that roughly 80%-90% of scripts in most modules are nothing more than simple scripts that are only a few lines. In NWN2, thanks to all those wizards, those scripts can be easily banged out with exceedingly little effort. This makes the workflow much more intuitive and easier to manage for the lone module builder. It's also a major boon for those who are less programming-oriented, but still want to make something fairly simple, scripting-wise.

    I really doubt that much of the problem is that most people don't want to move beyond NWN2. I'm sure the vast majority of NWN2 players played DA:O. I think it's more that NWN2's toolset is, quite frankly, incredibly easy to use considering how expansive it is. On top of that, it can deliver a fairly good and modern-looking product with a high degree of content variety. Wanna raid a goblin camp? Not in Dragon Age. NWN2 also provides a very convenient list of fantasy tropes to use as much (high fantasy like Faerun) or as little (low fantasy like Game of Thrones) as the designer wants. Less can be "more," but when we're talking about game-world assets, not so much.

    I'd be willing to bet that if Dragon Age's toolset had made use of wizards like NWN2's had, you'd see a lot more story-driven modules for Dragon Age: Origins. The abundant use of those wizards in the NWN2 toolset is one of the things that really helped streamline module creation, IMO.