AFK_Weye Commentaries: History, Part 1
By Dwip April 1, 2019, 8:28 pm Comments (1) RSS Feed for this post

In late April of 2006, Oblivion had been out for about a month, and despite the demands of a very time-consuming job and other gaming commitments, I had been through the game about a time and a half. I really liked Oblivion for the most part, but as with many other mod authors, some things were really nagging at me, and I wasn’t the only one.

In the Beginning

The initial impetus for AFK_Weye came out of three things:

1. I really wanted a merchant with a goodly supply of cash, because I was tired of selling my vast piles of daedric gear for next to nothing. Back in the days of Morrowind, Arthmoor came up with a guy named Thalonias who lived in Balmora, wore full daedric, and had a ton of cash. This didn’t seem like a hard problem to overcome, so I decided to give him a home.

2. At the same time, another friend of mine really wanted a good archery store, much like the Area Effect Arrows plugin from Morrowind. At that point, I started thinking fairly strongly about where to put a shop.

3. Also at the same time, Arthmoor was beginning another playthrough of the game with his khajiit hand-to-hand fighter, Cat-Fu. He really wanted some armored robes, and so I set out to give him some, creating a khajiit named Kane who lived in Chorrol and sold said robes. I also wanted to have a fairly simple quest to get some better robes, with a dungeon and all that, but the whole thing fell through when Arthmoor found another mod to do the same thing. This did, however, get me thinking about dungeons and quests.

It’s worth noting that at the time I had next to no knowledge of the Construction Set. I’d done a few minor mods in the Morrowind CS, but nothing particularly major, and in any event the Oblivion CS was a wildly different animal. What that meant was that for every step of the way I’m going to be describing to you, I spent an awful lot of time in the CS Wiki and attempting to deconstruct vanilla quests. I got a very long way by reading a lot of function reference pages and saying “Well, I want this effect. There’s this one vanilla quest where they do more or less the same thing. Let’s go see how they did it.” It’s a lengthy way to learn, but if you’re new, presuming that the Bethesda developers know more than you do on a particular subject is probably correct, so it pays to see how they do it. Later on, you’ll learn enough to get a bit crazy.

Why Weye?

Merchants have to go somewhere, and I made the choice pretty early on to go with Weye. In fact, I don’t even think I deliberated very much. I mean, look at this:

If there was ever a spot in Oblivion that called for having a bigger village, Weye is probably it. It has all of the roads and space for a village, there’s a dock right there, and it’s right next to the Imperial City, so you’d figure there would be something there, but there really wasn’t. So, in the way of modders everywhere, I resolved to fix the problem.

Here in the beginning, though, I started pretty small, about like this:

Actually, this is somewhat advanced. Thalonias didn’t actually leave the inn for a while, and it wasn’t until some later versions of the mod where he actually went outside. Remnants of that beginning didn’t get purged from the mod until sometime in 2010, which is the downside of learning things as you go – you end up cleaning up after yourself an awful lot.

Lucius’ house has been pretty constant since the beginning of the mod, though I reworked the interior some for 2.0. Of all of them, it’s the one I’m happiest with, because I think it fits in with vanilla better than most. This is something I actually spent a very great deal of time thinking about while making AFK_Weye, because I view integration of mod-added architecture with vanilla architecture as something that matters a great deal. With a lot of mods, you’d see things like Chorrol architecture mixed with Cheydinhal or Leyawiin architecture. This feels very strange to the user because it’s not something the vanilla game really ever does, and it leaves you with the feeling that you’re in a mod, whereas if you go about it right, players can’t tell the difference. My view has always been that regional architecture generally belongs in its region. More on the topic later.

Another thing I did was to pay a lot of attention to alignment and landscaping. This is actually something the Bethesda tutorials on the wiki tell you to do very well, but it turns out that if you turn off the grid, angle things a bit off kilter, and make sure you add some shadows, your buildings look far more natural and less snap to grid. Things aren’t usually aligned with exact precision in real life, either, so it’s important not to do it in fantasy either, which is a mistake many people make at first. It’s easier, but it doesn’t look right, and people notice.

Now, Thalonias’ little awning, there. Looks pretty awful, doesn’t it? It really bothered me, though, and eventually I figured out how to make a much better set of stalls out of Leyawiin dock wood pieces, which is how things stood through 1.21:

This was a big step up, and not particularly troublesome even with my modest skills at the time. I was more or less happy with it for years, and imagine most people didn’t think horrid thoughts about it either. It was good enough for the task.

That said, by the time 2.0 rolled around in 2010, I had a number of skills that I just didn’t have in 2006-2007, one of which was a little skill at 3D modeling in Blender (more on that later). By that time, I had begun to wonder if I couldn’t pull off something with a thatch roof – after all, both the Wawnet Inn and Lucius’ house, not to mention Aelwin Merowald’s house, had thatch, and in the event you’d think that a merchant with the wealth Thalonias has would have something slightly less dingy. So I ended up creating a plaster and thatch set of stalls in Blender as a learning exercise, and so from version 2.0, the stalls have changed:

I think the big takeaway from this particular story is that you don’t always have to settle for what you have. As we’ll establish, a lot of AFK_Weye came about because I wasn’t particularly satisfied with how something was being done, and resolved to fix it. While that kind of perfectionism can lead to frustration and loss of morale as you tell yourself “I’ll never get this right! Argh!” it can also lead to great strides forward if you work through the frustration and ask yourself “Well, what did I do wrong? How can I fix it?” and then go and do that. You’ll be proud of the accomplishment when you’re done.

That kind of perfectionism ended up making me a better modder, and even something as small as a new building made dramatic improvements in the visual look of Weye’s main street, thus helping to tie together all the other elements. A little perseverance goes a long ways, and even small improvements can have big effects and make you feel that much better about your mod.

Enter the Manor

About this time, with Lucius and Thalonias in place, I started giving some serious thought to adding some kind of player residence. I liked the player homes in Oblivion as far as they went, and Rosethorn Hall was a good enough place to hang my hat, but what I really wanted was an Imperial City-style residence that was actually worthy of the name. Tacking in an IC wall house seemed kind of lame to me, and in any case there was this gigantic open space directly at the crossroads of two major roads directly in the center of Weye. If ever there was a place to put a manor, I thought to myself, this was probably it.

This initial manor that I constructed wasn’t the rather gigantic behemoth that you’re familiar with if you’ve played any of the release versions of AFK_Weye. Instead, well, see for yourself:

Kind of dinky, isn’t it? All the editor IDs for the various manor cells are actually named things like AFKWeyeTowerEntry, because until mid-2008, three years after I started the mod, it actually was a tower.

Architecturally, there were a lot of things wrong with this version of the tower. For starters, it’s particularly ungainly because I was essentially forced into it by the way the Imperial City is constructed. There is a grand total of one piece of IC architecture that’s complete in and of itself, and that’s Umbaccano’s manor in Talos Plaza, which is the same building that’s being used as the current Weye manor. If you wanted to do something smaller, you had to hack it together somehow, and with my skills at the time, that cobbled together thing was what I could get done.

Initially, I had avoided going the gigantic manor route, because I thought it looked too massive compared to its surroundings, and in any case just had too much space. As time went on, however, I came to see that I was wrong – as Weye grew, the manor fit better and better, and in any case as I began adding NPCs and things I wanted in the manor, I very rapidly ran out of space. NPCs were walking all over themselves and the furniture, and it just didn’t work very well. Ultimately I ended up needing to do a massive and painful redesign to something resembling the current state of the manor. Some things you just have to work out in that way.

With the larger manor, I started having to make some real design decisions. I had a manor now, sure enough, and Thalonias was a logical place to sell upgrades, but I wasn’t particularly happy with the idea of just selling the manor. It worked ok for the various Oblivion houses, and has a history dating back to Daggerfall, but it was a really boring way to go about acquiring a residence. So I decided to have some kind of quest. That had worked pretty well in Morrowind, and I thought it would work well enough here. From that need was born the quest Death and Taxes, which I’ll talk about in a later post in this series.

This is also the time at which the various characters (Lucius/Thalonias and Hagal/Yrsa) began to develop, well, character, with fully realized AI schedules and things to say to the player. With each character, I sat down and began giving some thought to who they were and what they did.

For instance, I decided very early on that Lucius was going to be a retired Legion Forester, hence the bow shop. I made sure to dress him like a Legion member, and made sure that he would practice his bow every morning. I also decided he and Thalonias would be friends, so had them hang out and eat together in the Wawnet Inn every day to emphasize that. While the merchant characters all had large blocks of time where they had to be standing around in the shop, I tried to be creative with their other time, which is why Lucius goes off and reads to himself by the shore and Thalonias takes long walks and goes to the Imperial City to shop every week. I was very inspired by the idea that, as opposed to Morrowind’s simple AI, Oblivion’s AI could revolutionize how NPCs interacted with the world, and tried to make each NPC have as realistic a schedule as possible.

As far as dialogue, I wanted each and every person in Weye (with the obvious exception of Hagal, who’s mute) to have their own unique greeting to explain roughly who they were. I also had each person give a little blurb about Weye itself, which could be anything from their job to other residents to very little at all. Back in the days of Origin’s Ultima series, people used to joke about their Name/Job/Bye dialogue options, but it was a good system, so I adapted it for Weye and changed the prompts around a little. With just a few lines of dialogue, assuming they were good lines, I could create living, believable characters who the player would hopefully remember. In some cases, I added a little extra dialogue, like Lucius talking about the local landmarks, and Thalonias giving a short blurb about Balmora (this was well before I conceived of Elahai), since this Thalonias was presumably the same guy as the one from Arthmoor’s Morrowind mod. The idea here is that you don’t need a whole lot of dialogue, so long as it’s the right dialogue.

A Larger Village

By sometime in 2007, the early version of AFK_Weye had come together, with the tower manor, Lucius’ shop, a little awning for Thalonias, Hagal and Yrsa’s house, and the whole Death and Taxes quest. And here it sat for about a year because I was busy with other things (read: graduate school). During the interim I had continued to play Oblivion, including a couple of runs through AFK_Weye such as it was, and I wasn’t really satisfied.

I liked the merchants just fine, and used Thalonias constantly, but the manor was a huge disappointment – NPCs didn’t work very well, it was way too small to fit what I had wanted (a really good player home), and the hacked together nature of things was extremely obvious and looked terrible. I knew I could do better than what I had, and in any event I had spent the intervening time asking myself questions – what was really up with this Maxentius Alosius guy and why was he a villain? How to explain Thalonias’ demotion to village merchant after his full daedric gear in Morrowind? What was the relationship like between Lucius and Publius Candidus? What was going on with Milos Dranilu? And what other stuff could I add to the manor? How about a maid?

These were all really good questions, and I decided I should answer them. Over the course of 2007 I had some feverish brainstorming sessions where I decided basically what was going to happen.

The first part I figured out was Milos Dranilu and how to work a maid into things. I created Milos’ sister Mireena and made Milos an agent of the Camonna Tong, a gang in Morrowind, which led to the Steed Stone ambush and ultimately to Madron Orali during All That Glitters.

Having answered that question, however, I had to answer another one – why was the Camonna Tong spying on Maxentius Alosius anyway, and why did they come all the way from Morrowind to do it? Enter the Star of Suran, which I decided had been taken by Maxentius for some kind of patron. But why didn’t he give it up, and what was that patron going to do about it? And why didn’t the patron just go get it himself? Gaius Verres seemed like a good answer to all these questions. As a vampire, he couldn’t really influence the world very easily, so had to use agents like Maxentius Alosius and later Aelius Sejanus (and even the PC to some extent). His intervention and explanation for his quest for the Star of Suran became the basis of Property Rights and ultimately When You Wish Upon A Star, which wrapped up the whole of what I considered the main quest line.

By mid-2008, I had the basis and much of the work completed for a good many quests:

– The “main line” quests of Death and Taxes, Family Ties, All That Glitters, Property Rights, and When You Wish Upon A Star;

– Character-based side quests that explored the personalities of Weye further: Down In A Hole and Forget Me Not;

– Side quests for Weye itself, or the manor: Zombies in the Mist and The Fastest Blade In the West;

– The very first glimmers of what would ultimately become Kerrach.

I’ll talk about these individually in later posts in this series.

With great ambition comes great complexity, and with eight new quests and a host of new NPCs (fifteen total by the end, not counting Nerussa and Aelwin Merowald, both vanilla NPCs) I started feeling that keenly. While I had been keeping some very haphazard notes and change logs up to this point, now I really had to work at it. The solution I arrived at in the early days of Weye was a series of text files, roughly one for each quest, with a master file dealing with NPCs and various other things.. By the time AFK_Weye was publicly released in 2009, this system had evolved into a fairly large Microsoft OneNote Notebook:

Example text file

Example OneNote file

If you look at the notes files, you can sort of see that I spent a good deal of time planning who was doing what where at what time, what quests began at certain times, and who existed in which spots at what quest points. This was all part of planning out a master theme for the mod, or perhaps themes would be a better word. While expanding Weye, I had several goals in mind:

– Weye should feel “lifelike”. There should be citizens around at most hours, and they should be following the sorts of schedules normal people follow. I’ve described this above, but tried to take this a step further at this point in Weye’s development. Lucius, Thalonias, and Elahai are supposed to be friends, for instance, so I made sure they all frequented the Wawnet Inn at the same time and sat at the same place. The manor NPCs generally do the same thing. I also made sure certain NPCs, like Maliq, are sort of village outcasts, so you should see a set of social cliques, which roughly correspond to the merchants, the manor people, and everyone else.

– The manor should be a real center of town. Upgrades should feel like real upgrades, not just things you buy and forget about. If you’ve played Morrowind, you probably have some experience with the various Great House strongholds as well as the Raven Rock colony from Bloodmoon. One of the really great things I thought was missing from Oblivion was the way in which these strongholds worked: You didn’t buy upgrades, but got major increases in stronghold services (merchants, smiths, healers, etc) as you went up in rank in the Great House or completed quests. Indeed, part of my aborted Morrowind modding career was making an expansion mod to both sets of strongholds, so the idea was floating around in my head.

What I ended up doing in Weye was sort of a combination of the two systems. Since you were really your own master and not subordinate to a Great House, the quest thing didn’t make sense, but I tried to make it so that some of the bigger manor upgrades did things for you – Maeron appearing and offering a quest once the garden is purchased, for instance. Ultimately, as you gain more upgrades and more people in the manor, it should begin to seem like the real hub of a growing town, with your people walking the streets and patronizing the inn, and more NPCs who aren’t your people (like Alyssan and Maliq) moving in.

Since part of having a good house mod is having services available, I tried to make sure that AFK_Weye offered a good slate of them. Beyond Nerussa and the Wawnet Inn, you also have Thalonias and Lucius offering merchant services, and ultimately a mage (Elahai), healer/potion seller (Maeron), trainer (Orlando), smith/lockpick seller (Maliq), and various ancillaries. About the only main service that I left unavailable was a fence, as it didn’t really fit my conception of Weye. I also made sure to start out the services basic (general merchants), adding on the more advanced services like magic when the town grew, which I felt would be more natural.

– There should be reasons to come back to Weye. Something that really bugged me about a lot of villages and a lot of homes is that once you purchased everything or completed the main quest line, there really wasn’t a lot of reason to stick around. In a lot of mods/games, it’s possible to blow right through all the quests and do everything there was to do, then leave.

This isn’t something I wanted to do in AFK_Weye. I wanted the player to want to come back, even if the manor wasn’t their main base of operations, although I attempted to make the manor as attractive a base as I could. The first way of doing this was to make all the NPCs interesting to the player, if not via dialogue then via quests. Not everyone in the initial release of AFK_Weye had a quest attached to them, but enough of them do to make it rewarding to talk to people. Along the same lines, I made a few of the quests harder to begin. To begin Forget Me Not, for instance, you have to either notice that Lucius sits up all night, or get enough clues from talking to people that you can figure out to talk to him. To get Down In A Hole to start, you have to finish the entire line of small talk with Thalonias. My feeling is that making the player dig a little (but not too far!) offers a real reward for finding something new, and really rewards people who don’t just zoom through, but take their time and talk to everyone.

The second and probably more important way I added value was to stagger the quests. In the initial releases of AFK_Weye, at the start of the mod there was one obvious quest – Death and Taxes, which started the main quest line, and Down In A Hole, which was available if you talked to Thalonias (or happened to find Elahai in the wild). If you were really observant, you could also find and begin Beneath Your Darkest Fears and Freedom For My People. Pretty much everything else kicks in after you complete Death and Taxes – Lucius only begins his behavior for Forget Me Not after that point, and The Fastest Blade in the West, Zombies In the Mist, and Family Ties (the next main quest) are only available once you purchase various manor upgrades. Since the manor upgrades are expensive, this will naturally take a while unless the PC is exceedingly rich to begin with. After Family Ties, All That Glitters takes some time to really begin, and then Property Rights takes even more time to start after that, though When You Wish Upon A Star, the final quest, begins immediately at the close of Property Rights. The idea is to allow the player to go off and do other things for a while, but with a vague sense of something left undone, and without enough time that they’ll completely forget to go back to Weye and finish things off.

Going Public

By the end of 2008, I more or less had AFK_Weye to where I wanted it to be. The major quests had been completed, the vast dungeon of Kerrach built, and all that was left was a bit of aesthetic work and beta testing. Dissatisfied with the current size of the village, I added Sextus Acipenseris, Spurius Pecuniarius, Murg, and the Aratorius family to round out the population of Weye. Because of their late addition, they integrated much less tightly with the existing people of Weye, partly because they weren’t designed in the same block as everyone else, partly because I actually made them that way for various character reasons. Were I to do things over again, I might do things differently, but that’s part of what you get when you design in waves.

Ultimately, I wound up with the recognizable version of Weye most people have seen:

The better part of the first two months of 2009 was spent almost solely on beta testing. Between Arthmoor and myself, the entire mod was gone through a few dozen times in whole or in part searching for bugs ranging from messed up NorthMarkers to homicidal sheep and an endgame that never happened. Close scrutiny of the AFK_Weye change logs will reveal that there have been an awful lot of bugs in my creation, but there used to be a whole lot more.

Perhaps more than anything else, this experience gave me a real appreciation and empathy for what professional game developers and QA people do. From the player’s perspective, bugs are aggravating, and spawn comments like “Why didn’t they fix that to start with? Didn’t anybody playtest this pile of crap!?” Well, yeah. We DID playtest it. A lot. But because there are potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of things that can go wrong in a mod of AFK_Weye’s size, you can’t catch everything. And because there were only two people testing, you tend to get locked into doing everything the same way over and over again, so you begin to think you have everything, but you don’t, and until you release, you’ll never know. And then the bug reports start flowing in.

Beyond that bit of expansion and beta testing, the question for me in the waning days of 2008 and early days of 2009 became “Now what?” For the whole of AFK_Weye’s life until this point, I had never really considered releasing it beyond a very few people – 5 or 10 at the most. I was also somewhat discouraged at that point by the sheer number of Weye mods in existence. Most of them were small things, but there were also larger efforts like TamaraVico’s Weye: The Imperial City Suburbs and I_Need_Money’s Region Revive: Lake Rumare (which released 3 days before AFK_Weye and really threw me for a loop). I really worried about these larger mods, and wasn’t sure anybody would really want to play AFK_Weye when these other mods were around. It might seem silly looking at it from the perspective of late 2011, but AFK_Weye was a small fish in a big sea at the time.

There were two things that really pushed me to go out on a limb and actually release my creation into the big scary wild. First, I had watched firsthand as Arthmoor released a whole bunch of well-received mods over the course of AFK_Weye’s development, and he seemed to have done pretty well at the gig. Besides that, he was a pretty big believer that AFK_Weye was something the wider world beyond my little circle ought to see. Second, I had gone and played a few of the various Weye mods of the day, and while I thought a lot of them were real quality efforts (and believe me, anybody who picks up the CS has my respect), I nevertheless liked what I was doing more than what they were doing. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

AFK_Weye released to the public on February 26, 2009 to great apprehension on my part. This apprehension was unfounded, because the public seemed to be very enthusiastic about it, although there were some bug reports and some desire for compatibility between AFK_Weye and Region Revive: Lake Rumare. The latter wish was quickly taken care of by a patch from Arthmoor 5 days after release, and the former with relatively frequent patches: AFK_Weye 1.1 went live about 3 weeks after release to fix the first batch of bug reports, followed by 1.2 in June and 1.21 in August, this despite the fact that for large portions of the spring of 2009 I was functionally without a computer to mod with. Download count at TESNexus was gratifying – 3,000 by June, 5,000 at the time 1.21 released in July, 8,000 by the end of the year, which works out to about 800 downloads a month, far more than I had ever really expected. I was also eyeing the top 5 ranks of the Cities, Towns, and Villages category at Nexus speculatively.

This was far more than I ever really expected, and actually a little overwhelming. As a creator, one gets used to finding all the flaws in one’s work, and after a certain point it becomes hard to see the trees for the forest, as it were. Other people really liked AFK_Weye, while I was going “Yes, but that fence is a little off, and that AI is a bit strange, and this sucks. What are you talking about?”

At a certain point, you try to give up and just enjoy it. At the risk of sounding far too immodest, it’s a real rush to know that people really appreciate your stuff. It’s not why I create stuff (I do it for me), but it sure is a nice side effect.

How did all of this happen? Well, I have some theories on the subject.

1. First and foremost, I happened to create something people really enjoyed. I’ve never quite been sure what precisely the tipping point is for people (the changed ambience in Weye and the whole of Kerrach are the two most cited reasons, but who can tell), but somehow I made something people want to play.

2. In the latter days of development and then post-release, I spent a lot of time worrying about compatibility with other mods, including mods that would otherwise be competitors to AFK_Weye. I, and Arthmoor through the patches he made, invested a great deal of effort ensuring that the choice of AFK_Weye wouldn’t mean redoing your entire load order for one village. Not everyone has that kind of attention to detail, and I believe the time spent has really helped the mod become a success.

3. I’m a firm believer in the idea that once you release something, you have an obligation to support it. Part of that means customer service – since AFK_Weye’s release in 2009, only a very few days have gone by where I haven’t checked on my various comment threads at least once per day, usually more. When people have questions or concerns, I do my best to respond in a timely, friendly, and professional manner, even if it’s the same annoying question I’ve dealt with 30 times previously. This is something mod users really pay attention to, and I get a lot of comments thanking me for responding both promptly and even at all. This has a very positive influence on number of downloads and endorsement rates.

4. The other part of supporting something means fixing the bugs. As I mentioned above, the first new version of AFK_Weye came out about 3 weeks after launch to fix several of the immediately reported bugs, with follow on bugfix versions 3 and 5 months later. After every new release, I always see a spike in the number of downloads, and while a lot of those are people upgrading, many of them are new users. In forum threads on the subject, people have repeatedly said that one of the things they look for in a mod is something that’s being currently supported, that hasn’t just been dumped out into the world and abandoned. AFK_Weye sees a lot of support, and in return for my time, people playing mods are willing to support me through downloads, endorsements, and otherwise.

5. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t advertise AFK_Weye much. I never did a WIP thread at Bethsoft, nor do I say much in my threads about anything other than helping people or announcing new versions. In some sense, I think this hurts AFK_Weye’s numbers, since people do respond to WIP threads and the like, and if your project is cool enough, you can get a lot of initial excitement. This series of posts aside, I try to be modest and not self-promote, so that avenue is closed to me. What does help, however, is that people appreciate the quality of the work, and when people appreciate the quality of the work, they tend to talk about it. Thus, AFK_Weye gets a lot of word of mouth advertising on various forums, and as time goes on, makes more and more “what’s your favorite mod” and “I want a mod with X in it” threads. Because those things aren’t me the author talking, I tend to view this sort of players talking to players stuff as much better and more honest advertising. I’m obviously biased towards my own work, but random people for the most part aren’t.

In conclusion, there are some lessons about psychology to be learned here. Like I think most first time modders, I was extremely self-conscious and unsure of my own work. While I liked what I was doing, I was extremely apprehensive about what other people would think about it. In the years since AFK_Weye’s release, I’ve seen a lot of people new (or old) to modding express similar sentiments, and sometimes never release anything because they convinced themselves that their mods just weren’t good enough, regardless of whether they were or not.

While you can never be entirely sure that your creation is going to be a big hit or not, and that can be quite frustrating, I feel that the big difference between me and most of them is that I ultimately chose to have confidence in my work and confidence in my feeling that I had done the best job I possibly could. I feel it safe to say that confidence paid off.

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