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Hoarfrost Castle

'Quest' Mod for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
(Level design, story/dialogue writing, game design, scripting)


Page contents

- Summary
- Videos
- Screenshots
- Download links
- Design post-mortem


Summary

Hoarfrost Castle is a popular mod I made for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and it is the project I am most proud of out of all my mod-work. I worked on it in my spare time while working full-time, and it took around six months to make, overall (including beta testing).

Hoarfrost Castle is a story-based (or 'quest') mod that revolves around a series of quests the player undertakes to gain ownership of - and restore full working order to - the titular castle for their character. Each quest completed unlocks another feature of the castle that the player can make use of, and the whole thing is tied together by an over-arcing story that deals with the castle's troubled and mysterious history.

With Hoarfrost Castle I attempted to bring together quality level design, dramatic and pretty visuals, enjoyable gameplay, engaging story-telling and characters, and a seamless integration with Oblivion's existing game world, lore and gameplay style. I believe my attempt was very successful, and the more than ten thousand people (and rising) who have downloaded Hoarfrost Castle seem to agree!

At the time of writing, Hoarfrost Castle is in the Top 100 Oblivion mods list on TESNexus, which I understand is the most popular Oblivion mod-indexing site on the Internet. There are currently around fourteen thousand mods listed on this site, so reaching the top 100 is no mean feat!

The majority of the art assets used in this mod are from the base game. Hoarfrost Castle was primarily a level design, writing and (perhaps depending on your definition of it) game design project.

Included on this page (in this order), are some videos I made to promote the mod, screenshots, download links, and a design post-mortem on the project.


Videos

'Castle Trailer' (YouTube link)


'Quests Trailer' (Youtube link)



Screenshots
















Download links

Download #1: TESNexus
Download #2: Planet Elder Scrolls


Design post-mortem

Summary

Hoarfrost Castle had its origins in my thoughts on what would have made the Wolfen Castle mod for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind more interesting from a role-playing point of view (this was during the period when I was writing Frost in Morrowind - I mention this because Wolfen Castle featured in Frost in Morrowind, which is what led me to analysing the narrative aspects of that mod in this way). I identified the relatively minimal story and quest aspects in Wolfen Castle as needing improvement. In my mind there was just enough there to make the user conscious of the possibilities inherent in that aspect of the mod, and frustrated that it wasn't explored more fully.

This was only the initial trigger that made me decide to undertake the Hoarfrost Castle project, however. My thoughts on what the end-product should be developed from there. I'll attempt to describe my thinking on the aims of the project here, and then go on to detail what was successful and what could have been improved - now that the project has been released for a number of months.


Aims

Player-owned home mods are popular in Morrowind and Oblivion - particularly ones that add large manors or castles to the game - but many are simply 'dropped' into the world with no context, and just given to the player character with no effort or emotional/intellectual involvement required.

I wanted to create a player-owned castle mod that fit into Oblivion's world and lore in a believable and immersive way - one that had a story. I also wanted the castle to be an always-available supplement and aide to the player's Oblivion game experience: something that could streamline and ease the management of the game, without 'adding cheats'. I thought that this could be achieved (in part) by centralising in the titular castle several basic 'services' a typical player character would have frequent need of; meaning that if the player desired, less time would need to be spent on potentially repetitive 'player character maintenance', and more time could be spent on engaging with the rest of the game content.

Immersion was a key consideration: for every aspect of the mod I thought "Does this feel true to the setting and story? Does this feel believable as part of the Elder Scrolls world?" Some player-owned home mods might contain every book in the game (including books that grant the player character skill increases for reading them), have ridiculously powerful and valuable items lying around for the taking, or feature lore-inappropriate things like modern toilets and light-switches. Hoarfrost Castle was intended to not be one of those mods: ideally the player would never think "that doesn't make sense in this setting".

I thought that the player would identify with the castle and story more - and find the mod more immersive - if they had to complete quests to gain the castle, and to unlock its various features. They would spend more time interacting with it and thinking about it. Including quests in the mod would also simply provide more content for people to play through, adding to the mod's appeal.

I decided on a quest-reward structure similar to some of the faction quest-lines in Oblivion: an over-arcing story divided into discrete quests, with each quest completed rewarding the player with something. The final quest would of course provide the greatest reward (as well as resolving the over-arcing story in a satisfying way).

Each of these quest rewards would take the form of another 'feature' of the castle being unlocked for the player. Most of these features were designed to be little aides to the player's overall game - useful even after the mod's story was completed - hopefully without overly unbalancing the game. Variations on these features had proven to be popular in other mods (both for Morrowind and Oblivion) - though I had not seen them implemented in an Oblivion mod in a way that appealed to me personally - if I had seen them implemented at all. (It is perhaps worth noting at this point that I designed and began work on Hoarfrost Castle when only 2-3 months had passed since Oblivion's release.)

How I would tie these feature-rewards into the story and lore in a believable and immersive way was something I gave a lot of thought to, and I made a number of iterations to these things in my design documents. In the end I decided on what I hoped would be an elegant solution - killing a number of birds with one stone: the majority of the quests would revolve around hiring (initially reluctant) NPCs as staff for the castle. The staff member NPCs would be the vehicles for most of the player rewards (for example, hiring the blacksmith would reward the player character with weapon/armour trading and repair services, while hiring the 'mage assistant' would provide magic and alchemy-related services - all conveniently located in the castle). These quests and the staff member characters could also all tie in to the over-arching story more easily this way; again adding to immersion.

In level design terms, the layout of the castle itself was extremely important, given the castle was the focus around which the rest of the mod revolved, and was what remained after the quest-line was completed. It was crucial that it was efficient, fast and easy to navigate, in order to be useful to a player using it frequently - as a base of operations. It should be as simple a process as possible for the player to return to the castle, dump/sell some stuff, get their equipment repaired, maybe sleep for a while, and then head back out to resume their adventure.

At the same time I still wanted the castle to appear believable and immersive: not contain a single large room with storage chests lining one wall, service NPCs lining another, and a bed shoved in a corner. In the end I decided on a simple hub design for the bulk of it: a 'great hall' flanked by an east wing and a west wing, with several adjoining chambers to the south. These offshoots from the great hall would contain the various 'services' for the player: simple, efficient and (hopefully) believable.

Another important consideration was that I wanted the mod to provide original content for the game, while at the same time mixing in seamlessly with Oblivion's existing gameplay. Careful study of the gameplay conventions used (such as the type and extent of information recorded in the player character's journal to guide the player) would be necessary.

On a related note, maintaining a visual quality in the level design that would at least match the visuals of the game itself was important to me. This was both in terms of wanting to release a high-quality mod that would speak well of my abilities, and in terms of wanting to maintain a similar level of performance to that of the base game. Someone who could play un-modded Oblivion on their computer should also be able to play Hoarfrost Castle and experience similar performance.

Finally, the story and characters were important. I wanted to challenge my writing ability, and also the quality of dialogue and characterisation seen in Oblivion (both in the base game and mods released by others). I felt prepared for this coming out of the Frost in Morrowind project (which I had completed shortly before starting Hoarfrost Castle), and Frost in Morrowind was no doubt a strong influence on my intended approach to the dialogue and story.


What was successful

Hoarfrost Castle was very well received overall, and continues to be popular. As mentioned above, it is currently counted in the Top 100 mods on TESNexus, and has been for several months now. The Top 100 there is based on ratings (a score out of 10) given by users, rather than download counts, so for a mod to do well there it has to be liked enough that a high number of people download the mod, play it, and then come back to where they downloaded it from to give it a rating.

The level design and game design were successful and very well-liked. There was a lot of overwhelmingly positive feedback on these aspects; the mod being frequently described as fun, engaging, beautiful and of professional quality. Strong and consistent attention to detail was also often cited in feedback I received. Some people even described the mod as "the best of its type", which was flattering.

The writing and storytelling present in the mod was very successful. A common comment from fans of Hoarfrost Castle was that they enjoyed the story and thought it was told very well. Personally I also feel as if I achieved consistently high-quality writing and interesting plot and characters across the mod.

That the mod fit in seamlessly with the lore and general feel of the Elder Scrolls games was popular amongst users. I was happy with this aspect of Hoarfrost Castle too, and I think the approach I took with the story - which referenced a number of points of the established history and setting of The Elder Scrolls 'universe', without impinging upon or radically re-interpreting them in any way - was a part of this.

From a project management and planning point of view, I feel I judged what was realistically achievable in the mod - and the amount of time it would require - quite well. Having the mod planned out ahead of time helped in this regard, of course: I knew how many quests I wanted to make, how much content each would require to meet my aims, roughly how much time that content would take to create, and how I could fit it in around my full-time job without burning myself out. :-)

I am glad that I went to some effort in the promotion of the mod through the measured release of screenshots and trailers. I only maintained one 'Work In Progress' forum thread for Hoarfrost Castle to generate interest in the mod (as opposed to having a number of them spread across different forums to gain wider exposure), as ideally I wanted to spend more time working on the mod than talking about it. However, I did put together a simple template with which to format the screenshots I released (see screenshots above); in order to establish the Hoarfrost Castle name/'brand', smoothly incorporate a descriptive/evocative caption into the image, and simply give them a more professional appearance.

When Hoarfrost Castle was in beta-testing but otherwise finished, I put together a couple of trailers (also see above); one for each of what I considered to be the mod's main features: respectively the castle and the story/quests. They required considerably more effort to create than the screenshots, but all these promotional materials - and especially the trailers - were invaluable in attracting people to download the mod once it was released. Having them available upon release to further bolster the initial rush of downloads a new mod experiences was also a good idea, I think.

Delivering the trailers as embedded YouTube videos can only have helped: it is that much easier to use a promotional video to 'get hooks into' a person when all they have to do is click the play button on an embedded YouTube video.

Overall, I feel I achieved what I set out to do at the beginning of the project. My design and aims for Hoarfrost Castle were all implemented in a way I feel satisfied with, and based on the feedback I've received, users of the mod feel similarly happy with it.


What could be improved

The most common criticism/suggestion I received from users of the mod was that the dialogue was text only: there was no recorded voice acting. It can be argued that this reduces immersion in a way - but I would also argue (as did a number of fans, in fact) that poor quality voice acting - technically badly recorded or just poorly performed - would be just as harmful to immersion, if not more so. From the beginning, I wrote the dialogue in a certain style; assuming that it would be read, rather than spoken aloud. I was open to the possibility of voice-acting being added at some point - and one group did offer to take up the task (I wrote notes for all the characters and dialogue for them to help direct the performances, too), but they dropped out of contact before any work was done.

In any case, the lack of recorded voice acting in Hoarfrost Castle remains (in my mind) the only very noticeable thing preventing the mod from having a presentation nearly identical to content from the base game.

Further on the dialogue in the mod, I think it was possibly a little wordy at times. Admittedly I received no complaints about this, but it's my personal opinion. If the dialogue was accompanied by recorded voice acting it would be more noticeable, I think - it would perhaps feel like some of the characters were droning on a little. The planned absence of voice acting was one reason why I allowed the dialogue to be more verbose, but my economy of language probably could have used some more work.

Hoarfrost Castle could possibly have used better documentation for the installation process for the mod. I did include what I considered to be detailed installation instructions in the readme file, but still the vast majority of the problems reported by users of the mod directly resulted from the mod not being installed properly: because the user in question either did not read the installation instructions, or did not understand them.

These common errors users made were (from what I can gather from feedback I've received) often caused by these users not knowing how to properly use archive programs (like 7-zip or WinRAR) to extract the mod files to the correct locations on their hard-drives. This is an area I'll provide more detail on in the installation instructions for future mod releases - or any further updates to Hoarfrost Castle.

Another possible source of confusion when installing the mod would be the multiple versions of the main plugin file included in the Hoarfrost Castle download. These multiple files provide compatibility for the common different potential Oblivion installations a user might have: notably the presence versus the absence of the Shivering Isles expansion pack.

It was made clear in the installation instructions which main plugin file should be used in which case, but again - based on the feedback I received - some users were still installing the wrong plugin file. A simpler solution - with less plugin files to choose from (there are four to choose from in Hoarfrost Castle version 1.1.2) - may have been possible, but it would have required considerably more work than the multiple plugin approach I decided on. Considering the problems it has caused some users though (and I will stress that only a few users reported having this problem), I will reconsider taking such an approach again, should a similar issue come up in future mod releases.

An extended and/or expanded beta-testing process would probably have been a benefit. The people that kindly volunteered to help test the mod before release encountered and reported some bugs - as did I - and I promptly fixed them. After a while, no further bugs were being found by any of us, so I released Hoarfrost Castle to the public. Soon after release, however, a couple of fairly major bugs were reported by users that could have been caught before release, if I had been more stringent about the mod being tested more thoroughly on a wider range of common Oblivion installations - notably one that lacked the Shivering Isles expansion.

I fixed these problems and released an updated version of the mod quickly (see the change-log in the Hoarfrost Castle readme file for details), but these bugs should ideally have been caught before the mod was initially released to the public.


Conclusion

Overall I am very satisfied with - and proud of - Hoarfrost Castle as a project. My experience with it has certainly informed my ideas on game design generally, and level design more specifically. I intend to build on what I have learned from the project in another mod for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - and at the time of writing I have already begun work on it.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you plan on making a frost in morrowind type story from this as well?

January 20, 2009 at 9:08 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

No, the idea for Hoarfrost Castle was for the story to be experienced in-game, and inter-woven with the player's own story they create as they play. :-)

February 1, 2009 at 2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The profile picture does not do you justice.

February 25, 2010 at 5:03 PM  

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