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I hope you’re out there enjoying some Holiday relaxation! As I said on our Facebook page, I’ve been so pressed for free time during this vacation that the blog entries didn’t get posted, and for that I do apologize. Here I’m picking them back up again. Let’s talk about something fun, something simple, something… themey.

Heya Space Cadets,

When making a game or a book or a movie, you are always at risk of writing something down that later comes around to make continuity or canon confusing. For me, it’s mostly the names of things, the way the Dwarfs talk about their world, and the creatures you see. Some of that, like a throw-away line someone wrote about the King seeing a bearded lady, are things that make me cringe now. Tolkein be damned on that point! Then I remember I’m making a strategy game and not a blockbuster novel and wonder why I care so much about the story. But it isn’t just the story, it’s how people are going to remember your game.

…some of it is the story, and I can tell you right now that when you pick your first female Dwarf in DD2, you’re not going to see a beard on that little lady. Tolkein, seriously man, what the hell.

For Delve Deeper’s theme and setting, I think that the sequel is the first time the game is being taken seriously, so this is the time to make things the way they should be. If DD1 was our Hobbit, DD2 is our Lord of the Rings. Mechanically, this means we need to set down the mechanics we want to focus on here out. Narratively, this means we need to get the theme and the setting to where it gives the right feel. To me, the real “playing experience” takeaway from DD1 was goofy madcap action layered onto of a simple strategy layer, so that the interactions made the game complex without making it complicated.

For a neurotic designer like me, setting and theme is a big deal, since as the art guy it also hugely influences the way I’m doing world design. Right now, I’ve been grappling with naming conventions, and trying to make the 11 Dwarf Classes into interesting, rich ones that don’t have absolutely idiotic names. However, as a humorous game, I have a little bit of leeway if I choose to go goofy. On the other hand, I don’t want to make things too goofy if I’m ever going to revisit the setting with a more serious tone.

Something else that has been driving me nuts has been a number of elements not even in the game per say, such as the Elf groups. People just assume that if you have Dwarfs, you have Elfs, and I do not feel the need to buck convention too terribly. I will say that I find the proliferation of Elf flavors to be a bit goofy, and I really hate the D&D style characterization of Elf psychology. I tried to go back to the legendary roots of the Dwarfs for DD2, but with an upbeat society on the rise rather than the fall. This is actually a bit confusing, since both Elfs and Dwarfs seem related as similar supernatural spiritual creatures. Elfs also get mushed up with a variety of Gnomish and Fae creatures, so in Norse and Swedish accounts you can find them being human-sized but of extreme beauty, but in English folk tales they can show up as little green-hatted fairy creatures the size of a mouse who fix shoes. Clearly, the court of public opinion states that Elfs are more interesting as roughly human size, but it says nothing about their personality.

Like Dragons, Elfs are open to a lot of interpretation, since they could be either playful fae or treacherous murdering douches. As a long-time Dwarf player who, no lie, received anti-Dwarf verbal abuse in a few rounds of multiplayer Baldur’s Gate, I’m of the opinion that the Elf is a dangerous beast. I appreciate that Tolkein agrees to an extent, but we’re both drawing on the same source material, so it isn’t terribly surprising. I do wonder why people have taken the whole “Nature Lover” thing to such an extreme when both the Elf and Dwarf nations tended to glorify their natural habitats, and that the Elfs were equally active in smithing and, frankly, more active in woodworking. Elf farms have to exist, as do Elf ranches for horses, so someone out there is knocking down saplings to keep the forest from encroaching on fields. It seems like the crappy day-to-day stuff is ignored deliberately to create a magic fantasy species, rather than just as a common oversight.

I know we’re nowhere where you think the topic should be. “But what about Delve Deeper? Does it feature Elfs now?” Probably not! I haven’t ruled it out, but all this thought is probably going nowhere, except that I’m often stuck developing side thoughts before I can work my way back to the main ones. For a few days I was in creative agony, wondering if I should try go with the original descriptions of Elf critters, or should I go with something a bit more unique? If I turn the Elfs into something goofier, what does that say about the Dwarfs? After a lot of thinking, then watching a bit of Hellboy, and finishing up by looking through a bunch of images of Elf variations, I was able to put the giant mental heap aside and move on forwards. This happens a lot with the class names. The Dwarf that comes with the Bear, do I call it a Bear Tamer? That assumes he tamed the bear, rather than the Tamer being someone else. Do I call him a Bear Knight? But that implies knighthood. Armored Bear-Rider might be the most accurate name, but it kinda sucks. And so on. If I name the Dwarf Ninjas something like “Darkcloak Assassins,” then I need to mentally think up who the hell the Darkcloaks are and if there are other Assassins and if the Darkcloaks also employ other guys with that prefix. It also sounds dangerously World of Warcrafty. See how this can turn a creative person insane?

Why is that relevant to DD2? I have no idea, but I have an easier time designing the Dwarfs when I know what is going on outside of their little corner of the world. Not only that, but crafting a theme takes a bit of set dressing. If you’re the kind of person who can design a class without having to invent a whole world, multiple organizations, and a unique Dwarf Language, then I applaud your ability to focus on simple problem solving. But this kind of neurotic behavior also leads, I think, to a richer story and setting. It may not be important what the Elfs are up to as you’re blowing the mountain into gravel-sized chunks, but I feel like doing your homework the first time and setting up a coherent theme, setting, and feel for your game (or book or movie) saves you a lot of trouble later when you’ve got to go back later and change things. Anyway, let’s talk more about this tomorrow, I’ve got some cookies to bake.

Spacelab Signing Out

The worst thing about changing stuff is the risk of turning off old fans. If someone really loved DD1 because of the tiny dragons, I think they’re going to be disappointed that there are not going to be a lot of tiny dragons in DD2, since big scary dragons are going to be taking their place. Thankfully, I do not think I am going to have to face a lot of hate mail about that kind of retcon, but not every developer has that kind of flexibility. Do yourself a favor next time, and make sure the stuff you’re adding in now doesn’t make stuff you add in later look stupid.

Neil Wickman is driving the horses of the Big Dragon Bandwagon.

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception as one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to him @LunarNeil on Twitter.