Game Reviews,  My Life,  The Lazy Designer

BioWare-Brent Year 3 (2001 – 2002)

This is the third of ten posts, one for each year that I worked for BioWare.

Alien Three Way

Developing a game for an already existing Intellectual Property (IP) is a complicated affair, (probably) not unlike a three way involving different alien species. No one quite knows what goes where but everyone wiggles about enthusiastically. The bedmates for this particular anecdote are: BioWare (the developer) attempting to make Neverwinter Nights whose game world was owned by Wizards of the Coast (the IP Owner) but the rights to produce a video game using this particular region of the game world was owned by Interplay (the publisher).

Of course I barely knew much of this dynamic even into my third year at BioWare and this was still a year or so before the Last Business Phone Call Brent Is Allowed To Participate In*. I was just a happy little designer, chugging away. Of course because I was a happy little lead designer I was in enough higher level meetings to see that some people who were normally fairly relaxed and cheerful were starting to wear their sour faces to work.

Even now, years later, I still only know a little about what happened — much of my understanding of the events was actually filled in by reading gossip on the Internet. But at the time I was busy and until the shit really hit the fan, I just focused on design stuff. As designers, we knew we were getting behind, technology and art coming in late as is always the case on a new engine. Design needed to take another look at the official campaign. What ensued was, to put it lightly, a massive restructuring of both the design department on Neverwinter and a massive revision to the campaign. I was shocked… but over the years I came to understand just how common such restructuring is in the games industry.

Anyways we slogged through it and were putting in long hours. I remember rewriting tutorial plans and getting very excited about the new direction that the game was heading and then… well you know that threesome I started this discussion with… all hell broke lose. Basically there was a big fight and BioWare had to wrestle control of Neverwinter Nights from Interplay. The exact reasons behind it were not known to me at the time, and to be honest, I’m still vague on the whole thing. But what I do remember is us having to shut down our online forums and then needing to photocopy multiple copies of all the existing documentation for the project (and there was a lot!). Greg Zeschuk took the copies and filled boxes and boxes. I’m fairly certain we printed so much stuff during that time that we wiped out a forest or two. As far as I know all the documentation was required as evidence in the legal dispute. All the while we still had to continue working with Wizards of the Coast to ensure our game was meeting the requirements they had for their IP.

Everyone was worried that the project was going to be canceled and lot of people starting blaming each other and/or themselves for *why* it was happening. But ultimately BioWare won and we were allowed to finish Neverwinter Nights. Definitely a stressful time, and unfortunately this change required further revisions to the revisions we had already started as we were forced to remove certain characters inherited from BioWare’s previous Baldur’s Gate games (such as Minsc and Boo) as they were not protected by the lawsuit.

Anyways, we got back to work.

Baldur’s Sword
As an aside, I’m not sure if I got my Baldur’s Gate Sword around this time or earlier. A Baldur’s Gate Sword, you ask? Well some time after Baldur’s Gate 2 was released, we all got a souvenir sword. It wasn’t a great sword by any means (and as a few failed duels in the hallways demonstrated, not particularly durable). But it was pretty cool to have a gift given to us that represented the game that had been made. It was a symbol of what had been accomplished. I still have the sword on the bookshelf behind me in my writing den (yes, I have a den, for the writing). I thought the gifting concept a pretty cool one and with each game released I would get excited about what the gift would be. Except that they all sucked after the sword. We got a jacket for Neverwinter Nights, and another jacket for Jade Empire. Knights of the Old Republic got a usb drive, I think, which was better than the jackets. I don’t know what, if anything, Mass Effect got.

What the people choosing the gifts failed to understand was that the gift needed to be a symbol. Certainly for many people a jacket is more useful than a sword. But the jacket won’t remind you of the thrills and shared experiences you had making the game. A sword, or a light saber, or a shield will. Cynically I still think the crappy gifts were a by product of the ever growing ‘support staff’ that started overwhelming BioWare around this time — people who weren’t really all that interested in making games but were deemed essential to creating a ‘valuable’ company. Anyways I had planned some pretty kick-ass souvenirs for the Dragon Age team… I hope they still end up getting something cool. I’ll be pretty disappointed to see former co-workers walking around with Dragon Age sneakers — though I guess I should be more concerned if I am saw them walking around with axes and crossbows.

Okay, enough about the gifts. What happened for the rest of the year? Well, as we entered the New Year, the pressure to finish Neverwinter mounted. Several times during this period I worked all night. Let me tell you, there’s something bizarrely satisfying to be up at four in the morning, working away at the game and realizing that some of the young gun programmers couldn’t hack it and were asleep at their desks. There were also some disturbing moments like seeing those same programmers walk up and down the hallway in their bathrobes and slippers. And of course there were the hauntings, the bizarres rumbles and groans echoing through the empty hallways.

Fun times
The last few months, leading up to June 2002, when we were finally finished with Neverwinter, were intense. Lots of squabbles, and revisions, and laughs. I had to roll up my sleeves and get back to scripting to help finish Chapters 3 and 4 of the Official Campaign. I am still disappointed that some of the interesting design and writing that Drew Karpyshyn had created for Chapter 4 had to be mothballed (note to any Biowarians reading, that stuff is still probably sitting around on the Neverwinter drive). But such things happen.

And then we were finished. One might think the many battles leading up to finishing Neverwinter Nights would have made me appreciate the completion of the project even more, but sadly that was not the case. Though I am immensely proud of the hard work the team put into the game and the many technological achievements, it was a lacking story experience. And I had come to work at BioWare mostly because I saw the promise of engaging stories told meaningfully through their games. But it was still successful and I am always interested in hearing how end users have adapted the technology for their own projects.

So my third year finished with a second game shipped and a fun vacation to Australia, a welcome break before I jumped back into things with the Neverwinter Nights expansions.

* To be discussed in a later blog

Read: BioWare-Brent Year 2

“BioWare-Brent Year 3” copyright 2009 by Brent Knowles

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Cal

    It is interesting how precarious business relationships can be crucial to a company’s survival, and later, an albatross around its neck.

    It seems that Baldur’s Gate would not have been made without Bio having a publisher ready (interplay). After the success of that game, and the financial misfortunes of Interplay, the arrangement was no longer satisfactory. That lawsuit was a major turning point in Bio’s fortunes, and if they had lost…I doubt very much NWN series, KotOR series, ME series etc. would have seen the light of day.

  • Jason Attard

    The Mass Effect gift was a plaque with a copy of the box art, a release candidate disk, and our name and our job title.

  • Dave

    Interesting read, Brent. I always wondered why, in my five years at BioWare, I never once heard the words “Neverwinter Nights” mentioned by a single person or seen it mentioned in a single press release. It’s like the game never existed, and yet I feel it is by far the best game BioWare ever made.

  • Brent Knowles

    I’m not sure. The technology used to make it certainly underpinned much of BioWare’s future projects and the scripting language really evolved — improving quality and feature potential in later projects (in my opinion). I think for a lot of newcomers to the company (i.e, PR dept) it was not as approachable a game as others like KOTOR which might explain it not being mentioned as much. But from a technology point of view I think it is the bedrock upon which a lot of BioWare’s success grew.

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