The game world moves on without you, or does it? It seems that most games like to give some form of illusion that events are happening around the player with or without their consent or involvement, but the reality is that very few games execute it well. The player comes home after a hard fought battle with the latest bad guy, get’s the rewards and praise and takes a well deserved break. They decide to brush up on their cooking skills and craft some new furniture for their home, or maybe have a sit by the fire and catch up on some in game lore books. The world will wait right?
Skyrim is one of those games which I categorize as “hero worship” (even though ironically everyone treats you like shit most the time, but hey that’s just Nords for you), so maybe “hero-centric” would be a better term. These games are the ones where the player has almost omnipotent control over the gas and brake pedals of the vehicle called that game they are in. They can decide when and how to press the plot forward and if they desire, NOTHING will happen until they will it. This is fine for linear storyline games like old school JRPGs or most of the original Final Fantasy games which rely on lots of forward progress to tell a rich linear story with great character development, but not so much for open world sandboxing games.
This concept gets particularly bad after games have aged a bit and people are on their two dozenth playthrough or more; they know the ins and outs of the game, so that control begins to feel even more meta and all powerful as familiarity of the game grows. When you first play a game, it feels like all events that occur are unexpected and could have potentially happened under many different circumstances, but as you play the game more and more times, you come to find that all of these events are specifically laid out to happen at certain times or places under certain conditions. Sure, that’s to be expected because quest programming has its limitations, especially in a game that is designed as linearly as Skyrim is. The horrible mechanical stability dumpster fire that is the civil war quest arc is evidence enough of that.
Something Odyssey seeks to achieve is giving a more in depth feeling that the world is changing around you based on your choices and that some tasks you may have to undertake may only have a small window to peruse them in. Timed quests seem to be a largely foreign concept in Skyrim and modding as well. Back in the days of Daggerfall and Arena, they had such quests, and they gave a real sense of urgency that the Skyrim “deliver these pelts” quest you’ve had in your journal for the last 2 months in real time, just fails to instill.
In addition we strive to take a little control out of the hands of the player in that some world events will occur with or without your involvement. Of course we are still limited by the confines of the programming and these events will have to be anchored to specific other quests and events that are triggered by the player, but if we are able to execute these elements right, we’ll have world events that happen and physically change the scope of the game; pirates raiding a local settlement and burning half of it to the ground if you don’t make it there to save them, ships that will pull into port and offer some unique goods for sale for a short time before sailing off, never to return that season. All events that the player can be informed of to know to find them, but also can easily overlook and observe later as a bystander.
Of course the challenge lies not in the creativity of our team but in the functionality of the tools available. Quest mechanics are designed in a very linear fashion to where stage 2 is triggered when 1 is done, stage 3 is triggered after 2 is done, etc, but in situations where stage 3 can happen before stage 1 is even started or stage two can lead to stage 3 or 1 depending on choice, things get logistically and mechanically complex. Take Shattered Legacy in Legacy of the Dragonborn for example. In v5 I rebuilt a large portion of the quest line and opened up the mechanics of the “guardian arc” of the quest so that you could follow the guided path by the NPC’s, pickpocket them for more information, kill them and strike out on your own, or even lead them on while working with your stolen info and then giving them the slip. Seems all smooth enough right? Nope…
Having a linear engine to do a non-linear, multi-event factored quest design is a nightmare. I had stages specifically for acquiring particular items, certain stages for death triggers of the NPC’s so many conditions that some of the actual quest stages (that show journal progress) had 16 variant condition options based on the criteria that was true based on your actions. When you have 2 elements, it’s pretty easy; if 1 happened, do A, if 2 happened do B and if neither happened do C and if BOTH happened, do D. But when you have 3 artifacts, 2 things to read, the living state of certain NPC to account for and various states of conversation thrown into the mix, you have a potential mess on your hands.
That was pretty much the result of the rework of Shattered Legacy initially; a mess. It wasn’t until several versions later that I was able to identify the “bad paths” to close any condition loopholes that caused hiccups in the progress. It took a lot of play testing and trial and error to get it sorted out and with the help of my awesome team of testers and helpers, we managed to iron it all out… for now at least. If I’ve learn only one thing in modding it’s that a new bug that has always been there but never reported will always appear one day. Then of course you have the “two steps forward, one step back” issue of patching but that’s a whole other story.