BioWare-Brent Year 4 (2002 – 2003)
This is the fourth of ten posts, one for each year that I worked for BioWare.
Neverwinter Nights Expansion Packs
So it was around this time that we started working on the expansion packs for Neverwinter Nights, specifically Expansion Pack #2. Yes, you read that correctly. The team I was leading was focused on the second expansion pack. The intent was to have a third-party developer create the first expansion pack, giving my development team more time to work on the second expansion pack.
That was the plan anyways.
My team was small. I don’t really remember who was with me on the expansion pack from the beginning other than David Gaider. Over time we accumulated more designers, Dan Whiteside, Keith Warner, Yaron Jakobs, Georg Zoeller. Brad Prince and Rob Bartel came on later as well to help us finish things.
But we got interrupted, and with that interruption I learned some valuable lessons.
Shadows of Undrentide
In hindsight throwing a third-party development studio (especially a new studio) on a project as big as an expansion pack is not something to be done lightly.
The developer of Shadows of Undrentide, Floodgate, worked very hard at putting together the first expansion pack. They were real troopers, eventually many (all?) of them were living up in Edmonton and suffering our not-so-warm winters to finish the product. They were some talented folk, including Naomi Novik. She was their lead technical designer but also created art (rumor has it she created many of the art placeables that shipped with expansion pack 1), rewrote the Neverwinter Nights AI system (which Preston Watamaniuk had created) and did level layout/writing. She would also eventually write the Temeraire series of novels and win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2006!
Eventually my team came onboard Expansion Pack 1 to help finish things up. Though that in itself was an interesting process it did derail our work on the second expansion pack, Hordes of the Underdark. Still we persevered and a lot of great content was added to Expansion Pack 1, some of the newer designers to the BioWare team really getting a chance to take responsibility for plots and puzzles and doing a great job with it.
Eventually we’d all finish up on Shadows and then it was back to Hordes.
Unleashing the Hordes of the Underdark
At the same time that we were busily working away on the expansion packs a large proportion of the BioWare studio was on Knights of the Old Republic. Many of the team members I had worked on Neverwinter Nights with were now on Knights. I am a huge Star Wars fan and finding out that some of them got to go down and tour George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch and other cool locales made me quite jealous!
Anyways with the Knights team being busy, borrowing more team members was Not an Option, so those of us on Hordes had to hunker down and get to work. Once again I did a bit of scripting, though mostly in the form of adding extra content to the game in areas where I felt stuff was lacking. I also did a lot of the initial research/hacking into the Neverwinter engine to find out what we could change easily and the designers on the team did some amazing things, especially in Chapter 3.
If Baldur’s Gate 2 was my most satisfying experience in the games industry, Hordes of the Underdark has to be my most rewarding accomplishment as a manager. It was the only product I worked on at BioWare where I was involved from the very beginning to the very end and I think the team (and not just the design team, but the art, programming, QA and others) were all really in sync with one another. The writing was fantastic and the level design contained kick ass battles and some truly amazing puzzle work.
There were hiccups along the way of course. A lot of the original plan and writing for Hordes had to be tossed out to compensate for the lack of time we had to finish the expansion pack, but what we created afterwards was in many ways better — though we certainly didn’t see it that way during the cut meetings! I believe it also during this time that the Last Business Phone Call Brent Is Allowed To Participate In occurred. Let me explain.
We occasionally spoke to Wizards of the Coast, most of our correspondence being handled via e-mail. Occasionally though we’d have a phone call and this one in particular was much amusing (in hindsight). I can’t and won’t get into the details but suffice it to say, the designers for Hordes had an idea of what the expansion pack could be, including which WOTC characters we’d like to use and a basic plot. Unfortunately what we wanted to do didn’t work well with WOTC’s current plans for these characters and there was much ‘negotiating’. During these negotiations me and the WOTC representative (whose name I didn’t jot down and don’t remember) got into a argument about whether a party of adventurers would be able to defeat the proposed end villain. We actually got to the point where we were calling out stats and hypothesizing scenarios in which one outcome or the other would be more likely. We basically played virtual Dungeons and Dragons over the phone, me playing the role of the ‘heroes’ and he playing the proposed villain (and all this to decide the fate of a multimillion dollar videogame).
Seriously. Yes. I am a geek. But I still resent having lost that ‘battle’.
As you might guess having a phone argument with the IP owner is a bad idea. Oddly enough I was never invited for another work related phone conference call, not until years later when I did a few phone interviews for Dragon Age. Anyways my fourth year with BioWare ended a little bit after Shadows of Undrentide was released and a few months before Hordes of the Underdark would ship. Also around this time work was just beginning for Dragon Age (the warm, fuzzy brainstorming stuff).
More on that, next time.
Previous: BioWare-Brent Year 3
“BioWare-Brent Year 4” copyright 2009 by Brent Knowles
When argument over rules ensues it often comes down to interpretation of said rules, and the WOTC has that right… so yeah it’s probably not a good idea.
SOU has the feeling of a classic DnD adventure which I like quite a lot. OTOH HOTU feels epic, and has some fantastic level design. The whole campaign feels tight and complete and is consistent in quality. Begins with a great dungeon crawl and interesting character (pity that Halaster died in Spell Plague), there is not a single dull moment. The ending was most fulfilling since BG2. NWN2 MOTB ending was on par but I still like the true names idea more. One thing I appreciated is that there are a lot of clever scripts throughout the module which add to atmosphere and liven things up. I think newer RPG rely too much on cut-scenes and cinematic and generally pay fewer attention to actual gameplay.
NWN despites its flaws, remains one of my favorite games. It is a extremely feature rich game, I think largely because of it’s implementation of DnD ruleset. The mechanics is sophisticate and the complexity far exceeds every RPG out there, maybe except NWN2. For example, the silence status not only affect spell casting with vocal component, it also preclude listen check. On top of that the affected are immune to sonic damage, bard cannot use their song when silenced etc. So silence can be used offensively and defensively to generate interesting tactics(i.e. rogue with silence aura – virtually undetectable – until a gust of wind dispelled the silence aura. Or a lesser dispel, yes this is a level 1 or 2 spell without vocal component it’s so frigging sly). What is seen as hindrance can be turned into advantage in different circumstances. In this age of streamlining, very few games are designed with such elegance anymore.
Glad you like the expansion packs! I’m certainly proud of them and of the team that built them. And I do agree that gameplay too often plays second fiddle to cinematics and ‘flash’.