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Neverwinter Nights 2 interview

Neverwinter Nights 2 interview

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Fri 27 April 2007, 15:04:25

Tags: Josh Sawyer; Neverwinter Nights 2; Obsidian Entertainment

1. You took over Neverwinter Nights 2 development in March 2006, when the game was in an "almost done" state. What was your first impression of the game (design, features, etc)?

Despite having a large amount of design documentation, I didn't feel I had a clear picture of how we were going to get to a finished game. Arguably of more importance, the game didn't feel fun. There's a lot of abstraction in D&D RPGs, so it's never really going to feel "viscerally" fun, but the controls and interface were frustrating. Of course, the framerate was also very low and that was a barrier to understanding other underlying problems (e.g. companion behavior).

2. If you had a chance to lead the development from the beginning, what would you have done differently? An inquiring mind wants to know.

Beware those who come bearing high-minded ideals of what they would do in retrospect. But, since you asked...

In terms of designing the OC, I would have gone for something a lot more open-ended, more about exploration and optional content/companions than critical path game length. I also think I would have asked for engineering to focus on revising game logic roadblocks that prevent modders from extending the ruleset. For example, revising the custom spell list data. Revisions to the resource system and the addition of a manager also would have helped a lot.

And though I know it would have resulted in a lot of resistance and probably less attention from the media, I would have pushed back as much as possible against replacing the renderer. I just don't think we had the time to do it completely and well. It also really screwed up all of our GUI code and changed all of the art asset pipelines throughout production.

But again, this is all in retrospect.

3. What did you change when you took over and why? What did you want to change, but couldn't for whatever reasons?

I usually focus on technical aspects, so I leaned heavily toward examing the technical implications of the features design was requesting. The programming team was incredibly burdened, so I had to "finish the map" and determine what we were going to keep/cut. Class features, feats, spells, and scripting requests took the largest amount of time.

I also re-designed the end battle of the game with the various forms of the King of Shadows. There were a number of conditions in place that made the battle very hard to design and tune: all companions (sans traitors) were supposed to be present in the fight, the ritual abilities were supposed to be important in the battle, and the Silver Sword of Gith was supposed to be important in the battle. I think the final result was "okay" at balancing those elements.

I honestly wish I could have cut the warlock class. I know people were really excited about it, but it took up a lot of my time, programmer time, and artist time. There are a lot of specific detail things I would have liked to address, but in a game with a million details, it wasn't feasible.

4. How would you evaluate the finished product? Any lessons learned there? What worked well, what worked ... uh, not so well? What was the game's biggest strength/weakness?

I think the game as released is a high 7, low 8 title. To be honest, the major issues are due to a lack of polish. There's certainly a lot of stuff in the game, but none of it really looks or feels great. At best, the controls and features feel good, at worst they feel terrible.

For example, the camera. Programming got the camera in and fixed a number of its glaring problems, but for all the various camera modes you could run in, it was hard to find one that felt good. The toolset is also an appropriate example: highly functional, very powerful, not enjoyable or fast to use for many tasks.

The biggest problems during development were an unrealistic scope and a lack of focus on quality/fun from the beginning. It's arguable that the former resulted in the latter. With D&D games, it's easy to become consumed by the idea of adding every feat, class, and race you can find in various books.

5. What was the overall feedback? What features were loved and approved? What features, if any, were disliked and criticized?

People loved the ability to control their companions. Unfortunately, the necessity of that was sort of driven by the default behavior companions exhibited. Players also enjoyed the various sub-races and classes added to the game. And while some builders liked the power of the new toolset, many were also turned off by its interface, slow speed, and clumsiness.

Of course, the camera and "watch a slideshow" features were not enjoyed by a significant volume of people. Forced companions annoyed some players, as did our companion death system. People did like the stronghold for the most part, though its larger effect on the siege was pretty negligible.

6. What do you think of the Highlander-inspired "I'm not really dead" feature in NWN2? Did it add anything (i.e. no need to reload, uninterrupted gameplay experience) or removed challenge from combat?

It made the game easier. Some people view that as a good thing, others don't. Because companions were often required in certain sections, it would have been a tremendous amount of work to allow companions to die "for realz".

My personal preference is for optional companions, "Death's Door" buffers, and full death being a possibility.

7. I would be interested in a fresh take on the Obsidian influence system (TM). I think it's more of a reaction system where NPCs merely react to what you do and the "welcome to the Dark Side, Luke" influence options are never given. What's your opinion?

I don't think there are any mechanical limitations that prevent us from giving influence systems more depth. I believe it always comes back to scope. Each NWN2 companion's dialogue is already huge, and there still many cases where they don't respond to something that seems glaringly appropriate for their input.

I would like to see a reaction system that is more generalized to types of behavior, less dependent on the companion having specific reactions to specific events. For example, a character does not like racism and he or she has a pool of generic reactions to comments marked as racist. It could potentially open up more opportunities for the companion to express himself or herself and adjust opinions accordingly.

And I do think it would be nice to really corrupt/adjust characters' attitudes, but that is a scope issue as well.

8. The crafting system vs the generously supplied loot. What are your thoughts on that? Also, the upcoming expansion will feature a less complicated crafting system. Was this decision based on some feedback you've received?

The crafting system makes better equipment than available drops if you bother to focus on it. On my playthrough, I had customized multi-effect greatswords for every occasion. It took a huge amount of time to process all of the materials required, but once I had the finished product, it was worth it.

You might have to ask Kevin for specific changes and reasons for changing crafting in Mask of the Betrayer. I gave a lot of feedback on the crafting system, mostly that it was tedious. There's not really any "difficulty" in crafting, but the entire process is this weird sort of inductive system that runs contrary to what is found in some other games.

The one advantage to the inductive system is that you can have hidden formulas that the player finds through experimentation, but I'm not sure it's really worth it when the basic system is so convoluted that 90% of players won't use it.

9. Looks like everyone liked the castle thingy. What's your opinion on strategy games' (or any other genres) elements in RPGs?

I think strategy elements are great. They add another layer on top of all the "in the field" party management and tactical combat. But strategy elements have to make changes that are a) visible and b) meaningful. If there are too many variables involved in any given system, it becomes hard to guarantee that what the player is going to do will mean anything.

There were a lot of great visual changes in Crossroad Keep, but in the siege, your party members are incredibly powerful compared to your soldiers. The soldiers helped out somewhat, but they weren't that important.

10. There was some criticism of the party system that forced party members on you. What are you thoughts on this feature and party systems in general?

I generally think that forced companions are irritating, especially when they are a lot of them. Forcing companions ensures that the player will get some aspect of that companion's role in the story, but it does not ensure that the player is going to enjoy that aspect at all. It also leads to "immortal companion syndrome".

I like party systems, but I prefer to keep the maximum number of party members low enough that a player can choose to "go solo" if he or she is skilled in the nerdly arts.

Thank you for the interview, Josh

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