Monday, July 28, 2008

Advice and Music from Real Musicians

For several days, my foray into composing music drew no reaction for the most part, which is generally not a good sign. There was one frank comment at the NWN2 boards from someone who wrote, "That is SO weird I feel like I just took drugs or something." My assessment of my own music is admittedly biased, so there's nothing like an honest comment from someone else to bring my opinion back to reality.

Also at the NWN2 boards, I was advised to remove the drum beat from the music. I did that and rearranged the composition a bit to make up for the loss of the drum beat. Two days after I first posted Peccata Mundi, I uploaded version 1.1 of the song at the Vault.

Perhaps the best outcome of my song is that it gave Henry Solberg some ideas for composing angelic battle music. Within a few days, he wrote a glorious piece called Arrows of Angels, Knives of Men. Henry was able to fuse together the renaissance church style with a warlike beat, and he designed the music so that it may be looped continuously. One can almost hear the choir singing "Amen" at the end. (Because Henry was using software to produce the music, he couldn't actually get the choir to voice out an "amen," but if the song had been sung by a live choir, I'm sure that the "amen" would have been there.)

I have also received some encouragement and advice from a couple of people. One of them is Alexis Jarreau, a.k.a. Elf des coquillages at the NWN2 boards. Alexis is working on a remake of King's Quest I using the Electron Toolset. For his module, he has composed some excellent soulful music with a rock edge. His music may be downloaded at his website, Stripping the Muse.

I've also received advice from Travis A. Richards, a.k.a. Darklord Snafe at the Neverwinter Vault. Travis has released a lot of high-quality music at the Vault. I happen to be a big fan of his, so I'm happy that he has also given me some valuable feedback.

Now that I've discovered that I have some musical ability, I intend to follow the advice of Alexis and Travis to develop it some more. At present, however, my music isn't good enough for Faithless. Fortunately, Henry will continue to compose music for this module. I'll create some musical snippets for Henry as a way of conveying my ideas to him. So far, this strategy seems to be very fruitful.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Very Bad Place, Part Four

It is with a sigh of relief that I now declare the area design of the "Very Bad Place" to be complete. All that remains for this area is for me to add encounters, puzzles, NPC dialog, and whatever else is necessary to bring this place to life. That will have to be postponed for another time, though. My current plan of action is to create all the areas of my module before proceeding to other tasks.

As with all areas that I have "completed," I may go back and modify a few parts here and there, but I expect this to be minor tweaking at most.

All told, I have worked a total of four weeks on this area alone (five if I count the first week when I temporarily abandoned the module because I couldn't stand the color combination of the crypt tileset). By the gods of Faerun, never have I spent so much time designing an area for Neverwinter Nights 1 or 2. Technically, this Very Bad Place is actually composed of two areas, the ground floor and the second floor. Regardless, each of these areas has received more tender loving care from me than any other area I have ever worked on.

I should mention that I'm using the RWS Tower Rooms hakpak by Robinson Workshop. No castle is complete without round tower rooms.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

OMG, I'm a Composer

Last week, I tried to explain to Henry Solberg, the composer on our team, what kind of music I had in mind for Faithless. My idea was to have theme songs for the more important NPCs in the module, like what was done in NWN1 and NWN2. Unfortunately, my ideas for some of the theme songs were difficult to pin down. As an example, for one of the NPCs, I wanted the music to convey a sense of both sacredness and profanity. That is easy enough to say, but how does one actualize this idea into music? I realized that my words were inadequate for expressing my vague ideas.

I figured that what I needed was to send Henry my ideas in MP3 form. I intended to "compose" snatches of tunes and arrange the music monophonically. (That basically means having only one note playing at a time, which is what happens when you use only one finger to tap a tune on a piano.) It generally takes talent and/or training to produce good polyphonic music (the ones that have more than one note playing at the same time). I've always thought of myself as being musically challenged, and the only music training I've ever received was two months of piano lessons more than thirty years ago. It has been so long since I've played the piano that I don't even remember how to do it anymore.

Getting software for producing MP3 files is no problem in this day and age of open-source computing. I chose OpenMPT (a.k.a. ModPlug), which I downloaded from SourceForge. Being open-source, the software costs nothing, which is perfect for a non-composer like me.

The real question was whether I could come up with a simple tune that conveys whatever mood I intend. There was only one way to find out. Armed with my new software, I sat down in front of the computer and entered a monophonic sequence. When I played it back, it had little resemblance to the tune that I had in mind. Not only was it a challenge to figure out the correct notes, but it was also difficult to determine the proper timing between them.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated. For me, composing was like solving a puzzle wherein notes are to be arranged in the "correct" (that is, aesthetic) sequence. Arrange them properly, and you will be rewarded with your very own musical composition. I decided to persevere with this task until I came up with a polyphonic melody. That's right, polyphonic. I was so hooked with composing that creating monophonic music was not enough for me. It had to be polyphonic.

From the time that I downloaded the music tracking software, it took me three days to compose my first melodic draft. My composition had one drum beat and synthesized vocals in two voices. I still wasn't satisfied with the result. I added more instruments, more voices, more notes.

After three more days of composing, I asked my wife to listen to my second draft of the composition. She sat down in front of the computer as it played back my music. When I saw her tapping her foot to the beat of the song, I interpreted that as a good sign. When the music was done, my wife told me that she liked it. I was pleased because knowing her, she wouldn't have given me her thumbs up if she didn't like the music at all.

A few hours later, I had completed my first serious composition, which I call "Peccata Mundi". I immediately uploaded my MP3 file to the Vault with the following description:

A celestial host has assembled for glorious battle to cleanse the world of its sins. Hovering over the Earth, the angels sweetly sing while twirling their +20 Holy Avengers. This music is a good choice for getting them (and your NWN2 players) in the mood for righteous fighting.

"Peccata mundi" is Latin for "sins of the world," which never cease to flow from the hearts of men. This song reflects the serene enthusiasm with which a celestial host would face its endless battle.

Although it is supposed to be battle music, Peccata Mundi has a strong religious style to it, especially at the opening of the song. Since the Faithless module revolves around that eyesore of the Faerunian belief system, the Wall of the Faithless, it is only fitting that the music have a spiritual air about it. Peccata Mundi may be downloaded at this link.

Does my music pass muster? Everyone is welcome to download it and hear for themselves.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Very Bad Place, Part Three: The Fright Gallery

Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of sixteen paintings, displayed as NWN2 placeables for the first time. Each is a collectors' item in its own way - not necessarily because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, and suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.

With these words, which I shamelessly stole from Rod Serling, I introduced my latest submission at the Neverwinter Vault, a hakpak that I call the Fright Gallery. This is my first time to create custom placeables, although the ones that I made are basically reskinned versions of the paintings that come with the game. Despite its simplicity, this submission has earned me the right to call myself a custom content developer. Yay.

I created this hakpak because I needed some paintings to hang at the gallery of the Very Bad Place. Although there are many paintings available in the toolset and at the Vault, none of them are edgy enough to decorate a psychopath's castle. You can tell a lot about a person by the artwork he or she chooses, and I wanted paintings that said of their owners, "demented but classy."

To create these placeables, I downloaded a few photos of bizarre paintings by long dead artists. I also made several images of my own by taking screenshots of scenes that I created with the toolset. I enhanced these screenshots by changing the color balance and contrast, applying artistic filters, and (in one particular case) cutting and pasting another image into the screenshot. In a couple of instances, I edited photos that I had downloaded to make them look horrific.

If I wanted to, I could have painted images from scratch. It takes me forever to make my own paintings, though, and I felt that my time is better spent developing my module. Regardless, my artistic ability has given me an innate sense of what color combinations look good, how to compose scenes, and how to paint over existing photos.

Having created the textures, I then proceeded to apply them to copies of the painting models that come with the game. Retexturing is fast and easy with RunnerDuck's excellent tool, MDB Cloner. I also had to edit a copy of the placeables.2da file to include the models that I had retextured. My favorite 2DA editor is Microsoft Excel. I tried a few 2DA editors that are available at the Vault, but I'm not happy with them. Next, I packaged the files together using tani's NWN2Packer. Using the toolset, I also created an ERF file for the blueprints so that other module builders can easily access my placeables. Finally, I zipped all my relevant files together and sent the zip file to the Vault.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then I am its proud father, eagerly showing off pictures of my newest "babies."

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Very Bad Place, Part Two

This week, I created the upper level of the very bad place that I wrote about in my previous post. Although the area that I am making is supposed to be a fortress, I continued to use the crypt tileset with excellent results. This tileset is wonderfully versatile, allowing modders to create sewers, castles, and, of course, crypts.

With the right placeables, lighting, and visual effects, I was able to set the kind of mood that should get players' internal alarm systems ringing like mad. This place is dangerous, no doubt about it.

Despite having poured a lot of my time in developing this area, I haven't finished it yet. There are still a few more rooms that I have to furnish and illuminate. I'm seriously thinking of creating custom paintings to hang on the walls. The ones that are in the toolset or at the Vault are too pretty to decorate a psychopath's castle.

Originally, I envisioned this area to be laden with combat encounters. It's supposed to be a fortress after all, so it should be teeming with soldiers. After taking screenshots of this area, however, I've been having second thoughts about this plan. I feel that I can raise the level of suspense by having fewer but deadlier combat encounters interspersed with lethal traps and puzzles. I'm sure I can get players' adrenalin pumping even more by imposing a narrow timeframe within which they have to accomplish their mission. I'm not decided on this matter, though. It's something for me to think about.