This is the second of ten posts, one for each year that I worked for BioWare.
A new engine, is like, new, you know
After a short vacation and little basking in pleasure over Baldur Gate 2, I moved onto the Neverwinter Nights project. This was my first exposure to a game with an engine in development as opposed to Baldur’s Gate 2, with its stable infinity engine. I quickly realized that working with an incomplete and ever-changing engine was a hell of a lot harder. One major problem with a new engine, especially one started completely from scratch is that everyone has assumptions:
- The designers assumes the engine will do everything the previous engine did, but better, with more stuff.
- The artists and animators assume pretty much the same thing as designers, but with respect to art.
- Production assumes because the company is now more experienced, things will go faster than the previous engine.
- The programmers assume they can fix all their previous mistakes and that no one else has any assumptions.
This causes problems. Designers go ahead and write up design documents for kick-ass, fascinating new systems and new ways to tell better stories. But they maybe forget to full spec out the ‘assumed’ features — you know, that boring stuff they did on the previous engine.
Can’t the programmers just do it that way, again?
No, they can’t.
It is a different engine.
I started on Neverwinter in October 2000. I assumed I’d have involvement with the rules and spells, like on Baldur’s Gate 2, and was more or less correct, though my portfolio would expand into what might later be called the ‘lead technical designer’ position with me overseeing most system development, design-side though Preston Watamaniuk was the guy in the trenches on the spells and the AI. By the end of October I had been offered co-lead designer position on the project (sharing it with Rob Bartel). Just over a year into the industry and already a lead! I was stoked, though truth be told Rob and James managed most of the story/creative bits while I continued to focus on technical details.
The project had good velocity when I came on and though I was a little disappointed to not be more involved with the initial creative design of the project, I quickly became excited by the project — multiplayer gaming mimicking the good ole’ pen and paper days? A toolset that end users could use to build and run their own adventures? But like all games, it was feature-crammed, and it was taking time, too much time, to get the core engine up and running. So sadly, my role in large part became about trimming features… not cutting features but reducing the scope of existing features. Not an entirely satisfying job (nor one that particularly endears you to an existing team) but a necessary role.
Still there were fun times.
Scripters do it without C
When I first started on Neverwinter there was little gameplay, other than some fabricated demos. Most of the engine development had been focused on bringing the artwork to life. There was no toolset at the start and to populate areas we had to make text files indicating which creatures we wanted placed in a level and the x,y coordinates. It was tedious and a setback from my previous work on Baldur’s Gate 2 — and an example of work methodology I tried to avoid on future projects by design-side encouraging the use of similar tools across all projects. Over the next few months things started improving however, and I don’t remember quite when it happened but I wrote one of the first scripts using the Neverwinter scripting language. With Neverwinter Nights BioWare had moved to an entirely different scripting engine, vastly superior to the scripting in the infinity engine but more complicated and with more potential for the designer to script themselves into a mess. But it had math! Oh, that was a happy time (Yes, the Baldur’s series lacked math in the scripting language, I kid you not).
Anyways, those first scripts recreated the game of Tag.
Yep, that classic game of running around and tapping (or hitting violently, depending on your inclination) other players. Except I did it with werewolves. Werewolves playing tag is a lot more interesting than kids playing tag. Werewolves playing tag with kids… let’s just say the possibilities were endless.
I also learned a bit about being a manager. I believe the first employee review I delivered was to Preston, who is now the lead designer on the Mass Effect series. In addition to Preston, working with me on the design team were Rob Bartel, Bob McCabe, and Aidan Scanlan. Later the team would grow much past that, but I think this was the design crew that existed before I joined.
And of course it was on Neverwinter that I learned what crunch time really meant. By mid-2001 I was working at least twelve hours days and usually one day on the weekend, not counting the work I was doing at home. But I was having fun, seeing a fantasy world being built before my eyes as art and code came online, writers began to write dialog and designers began to script events. The project continued to accumulate momentum and there was always something new, something exciting. That’s not to say there weren’t headaches and heartaches as complicated features became reduced and in extreme cases plans were tossed out entirely. But at this point in the project I think we weathered these changes rather well. I still felt like an outsider helping to manage the project and I (hope I) was sensitive to the core team and their attachment to the original plan even as I was having to change it.
I got to do a few interviews including one at Broken Pixel (summarized here) and another in Inquest gamer, a now out-of-business print magazine about various types of games, I remember this one because the cover featured Survivor castaways.
And so the year unfolded. I admit I was a little surprised that a year later we weren’t shipping Neverwinter — not that I had realistically expected that when I started on Neverwinter but I really liked the ‘one year of development and then ship’ experience I had on Baldur’s Gate 2. Anything longer than a year starts dragging on me, hindering my motivation.
But at that time I did not realize something huge was about to happen, something that would shake up Neverwinter (the game, not the place) and give me a wakeup call on how volatile the gaming industry could be.
That story will have to wait for the next time.
Read: BioWare-Brent Year1
“BioWare-Brent Year 2” copyright 2009 by Brent Knowles