Project Treehouse

by kaminazo

treehouse

I finally struck gold.

A mod I created made the Hot Files section of Skyrim Nexus. But it wasn’t without a ton of work, some collaboration, and lots of headaches. I’m very proud of this project because it opened up some new opportunities for me in the future and spawned a new level of expertise for future Creation Kit mods.

To see the mod page click here.

The treehouse of my dreams…or my character’s dreams.

I wanted three things when I started fleshing out this project: a gorgeous yet simple player house, a difficult quest to acquire it (even for hyper-leveled veteran characters), and a unique character with an original voice track.

The idea started when I was watching the Winnie the Pooh movie with my friend’s three year old daughter. Tigger in the movie is searching for his family, and in the process the audience gets to see his beautifully illustrated treehouse quite a bit. “I want to store all my weapons in there,” I thought. “I could totally sculpt that around an Eldergleam tree in the CK,” I started to get excited. Inspiration always grabs ahold of me in the strangest places.

The first step was all aesthetic. I spent weeks making the treehouse interior and exterior in separate empty cells. Working directly in the worldspace locations is a nightmare because of the cell seams and load times of all the vanilla static meshes. Not to mention that it’s super-easy to screw up the vanilla game accidentally if you work in an existing cell. Once the interior designs were finished up, I could just rename the cell and link it to the exterior one in the worldspace. Upon respawning inside it, the player wouldn’t know the difference.

The exterior cell, however, is a whole different story. I designed it to mimic the interior as much as possible, accounting for all the space required for the necessary living components (bed, storage, enchanter, mannequins, etc.). But, the outside was still a bit smaller than the inside. Almost negligible to the average player. We call this a “tardis-effect” because the inside is bigger than the outside like the T.A.R.D.I.S. on Doctor Who. But Skyrim is magic, right? Once the kinks were worked out in the design, adding it to the worldspace for tweaking is as simple as copy/paste. Thus begins the delicate job of tweaking, making adjustments, and testing.

I needed help.

This was already becoming a massive project. I had invested almost 100 hours and there were hurdles coming up that I knew I couldn’t handle on my own. On my previous mod (The Bottomless Pit) I had the pleasure of meeting another modder who was kind enough to playtest the mod for me in several versions. Her feedback and perspective was so helpful that I decided to bring her in on the project. Now I have a design team!

The Treehouse is my first real collaborative mod, and being a project lead was incredibly challenging, but rewarding. This particular pairing was nice because her expertise fell in the places where mine suffered and vise versa. Both of us had experience with player house modding, however. Not being familiar with how to simul-mod on the same file, we decided to trade the .esp file back and forth. Her first turn came when I thought I had nailed down the design of the Treehouse, placed it in the world, and decorated it with all the necessary components, inside and out. I wanted to give her a run at it to playtest and make sure the file operated properly on an unfamiliar system/ with a different savefile. This process was key to our success throughout the collaboration.

Waiting is a bitch.

The process of trading the file was necessary but excruciating. Being at the whim of another person’s schedule is a headache when you’re eager to release a project. But, the upside is that you get to take a break, work on other things, and come back fresh afterward with new perspective and catch things your hadn’t your first time around. Spintochick (her handle) was a stellar collaborator. When I got the file back she had created a work log for us to keep track of versioning and log our changes or any problems we encountered. She also made a list of things she wanted to accomplish on the next runthrough. This gave me a clear goal of what I needed to accomplish before giving the file back to her. Her organization made me a better modder.

I had to learn to balance creative compromise and my own ego.

This was my baby. I wasn’t about to let it fail, and I surely wasn’t going to release something I didn’t like. Working with a second person and letting them wholly enter the creative process was something I hadn’t prepared myself for. When it came time to tackle character creation, I really wanted a female perspective. I took a leap and made spintochick the character designer. I gave her a few guidelines to start with: female, strong-willed, archer/hunter. The treehouse was this character’s property for some reason, and through completing her quest, it would be given to the player. Spintochick knew more about Skyrim lore than I did, and I valued her opinions. She was in charge, from her back story, to her look, to her voice. This is where it got rocky.

It’s not good enough. Now what?

To her credit, she did an amazing amount of work in a very short amount of time. The character design was wonderful: a dark elf, Bosmer, with a cool outfit and bow. She even had a back story about the character, she named her Treebark, that was lore-friendly and quite in-depth. But the dialogue was forced, and the performance was dry. The first change we decided was to add a more relatable first name that had something to do with hunting. Tanner Treebark was born. But what to do about the dialogue?

Editor vs. Artist

I rewrote it. Not from scratch, but I did attempt to make the dialogue more immersive (natural-sounding). Maybe it was the English teacher in me, but I felt it really lacked any genuine emotion. Keeping the setting and information the same I cut the lines in half. Less is more when acting. I also added some flavorful responses; A “You’re useless.” here and there goes a long way toward suspending disbelief in a performance. I’m glad I took the initiative to rewrite the script. Her second performance was better. She even had professional recording equipment to use, masking microphone distortion and plosives. It was acceptable, but I still wasn’t happy.

I know it’s cliche, but British English makes a better elf.

At that time, I lived in the same building as another English instructor who happened to be from Nottingham, England. I recorded the lines myself to get the proper inflections and emotion I sought for each line. Using them as placeholders, Amy and I listened to each one to give her an idea of what to aim for. She blew me away with her performance. Getting someone completely removed from the project to act out the dialogue was a good move. But as part of the compromise, we released the file with both American and British English versions. Let the people decide.

Quest programming, scripting, and boss fights, Oh my!

It was ambitious. It was way over my head. But I did it! Now that the character, story, and locations were intact, I had to drop in some bosses for a fight. I wanted it to be really hard. Afterall, this house was awesome. I wasn’t gonna just give it away! Spriggans are cool. They’re made of trees. Who better to protect a magical treehouse? I manufactured my own unique spriggans from the game template, beefing them up and making their spells stronger. I also added in some leveled wild animal spawn points nearby. Spriggans have the ability to call animals to fight for them. This combination made for a pretty wicked battle. During playtesting I even had one spriggan call out a dragon from the nearby hills. To get it to work properly required a lot of scripting. I felt pretty good when it was completed.

Tanner requires the player to bring her the head of a spriggan as proof that the deed was done. This was partly my frustration with the vanilla game quests. Characters never required proof of your accomplishments. They’d usually give you a reward without hesitation, which is odd. So I got some practice with texture skinning and static meshing. I truncated the head from the spriggan mesh and edited the skin in photoshop. Then I reinserted it into the game and made it a quest object that the boss would drop upon clearing the area of all threats. (It was really hard.)

Navmeshing is the root of all evil.

Luckily spintochick had some experience navmeshing. She was actually quite excited to do it. Navmeshing is the process of covering the walking surface of a level with flat polygonal pathways to tell an NPC character where they can/cannot move in the environment. That way they don’t run into a wall and keep trying to walk through it endlessly. Unfortunately, she did edit some of the original navmeshes that are required by the game engine to function properly on some systems. It works for 99% of all users, but for the unlucky 1% the game crashes. To remedy the problem I’d have to go back and redo the entire outdoor cell (5 of them) from scratch. Maybe some day I’ll get around to it.

Advertising is key.

I started a comment thread on the Nexus forums around this time to figure out what the best ways are to advertise a mod. I needed some ideas of where to start incepting people and get them talking about the mod. I worked in photoshop and iMovie to make a video trailer, and graphic support materials for the mod page. I also reached out to a friend from the modding community Nightskia to take a photo series of the mod.

Packing a .BSA was made easier!

Once we had playtested the hell out of the mod, I packed the file into a .bsa to compile all of the new voice files and meshes for installation convenience. Luckily programs exist to do this for you simply. We did another round of testing, and some friends from the community offered their opinions and we tweaked it slowly until it seemed ready to post.

Hot File section: the best place to get famous.

Within the first few hours, the mod took off like crazy. I had 1,000 downloads before I could blink. Then the site went down! I couldn’t believe my bad luck. Nexus had a scheduled downtime for server repairs for a full 24 hours, which sucked because the new files section on the main page only shows the six most recent uploads. This makes the first 24 hours really important. But thankfully enough people saw it that when the site went back up, my mod was right there in the Hot Files section. From there the downloads were exponential.

Tanner Treehouse was a huge success.

There are still plenty of bugs and the mod is far from perfect, but the response has been incredible. It makes me confident that I could do this for a living in the future and actually be successful. But it is essential to work with a team of collaborators to make the initial release a success. Since the release, I have been approached by Project Morroblivion to work on their game, as well as many other modders looking for skilled game and level designers. Unfortunately I did just start a new job back in August, and it has cut significantly into the amount of game-related projects I can do. Hopefully there will be more to come after the New Year, so stay posted.

Here’s some community response to the mod on YouTube:

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