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TVG chats to Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart about the RPG sequel his company, and the genre at large...
Developed by Bioware and released in 2002, the original Neverwinter Nights has continued to roll on, with a thriving mod community and a small number of expansion packs. Four years on, and the Neverwinter baton has been passed to Feargus Urquhart's Obsidian Entertainment, which most recent produced LucasArts' Knights of the Old Republic II in 2005. TVG recently caught up with the Obsidian CEO to discuss all things Neverwinter, and his thoughts on the RPG genre as a whole...
Neverwinter Nights is the second franchise to be developed by Obsidian that began at Bioware, the first one being Knights of the Old Republic II; how did that experience prepare you when it came to developing and producing Neverwinter Nights 2?
Well I think a little bit is that the technology is similar in some ways. Bioware gave us the Knights of the Old Republic engine called Odyssey, and Neverwinter Nights is their Aurora engine. They're extensions, and somewhere in the past they came from the same thing, like branches of a tree. So by working on KOTOR2 it helped us understand how the engine works.
Also it helped us in two ways. A third of Obsidian worked at my previous company Black Isle Studios, and we worked with Bioware's previous Infinity engine, which was made to do Baldur's Gate. So because that was made by Bioware, and a company doesn't completely change the way it does things, there are some similarities. It's just some of the methodologies behind the engine and how it was set up were very similar, and so we've been able to take our knowledge from the past and more recently our playing of Neverwinter, but it's not just that stuff it's also our experience in general of making role-playing games.
"I respect everyone that does them [RPGs] because when you launch into doing one they always end up being so much more than you think they'll be."
It's things like all the other RPGs that we've made have helped us kinda know what path to go down and what path not to go down, and so everytime you finish a product it only helps you in the next product. I'm a big believer in short production cycles and not just the standpoint that you can make games fast, but more the standpoint that you learn the most when you go through a full production cycle, so if you make a game over forty-eight months then you you're only learning every forty-eight months. Not exactly, but I think you can learn more if you ship a game every eighteen months. That means you're getting a full lesson in what it's like now like to finish games with the technology and everything, so you can then apply it to the next game. Not that I want to do a game every eighteen months, but some games you can do in eighteen months, and sometimes you need twenty-four months, sometimes you need a little bit longer. By doing that you can make a lot of games, something that we did at Black Isle, and so that also helped us have a lot of experience that we could apply to Neverwinter Nights 2.
Neverwinter Nights 2 has been developed with the Electron engine, which is itself an adaptation of the Aurora engine used in the first game. What does the new engine enable you to do compared to the Aurora engine?
Gotcha. The kinda way that the Aurora engine works in the source code, if you can think of the engine Bioware used in Neverwinter Nights, helps if you think of it in multiple parts. It has its tool set, its rendering engine, it has a multiplayer component, a Dungeons & Dragons component, and then a gameplay component that runs all the scripts and the dialogue.
What we did was take the graphics engine and pretty much deleted it, and that was replaced with the Electron engine, which is ours, so that was written entirely from scratch by our programmers. In essence I cut off a pinky and put a different pinky on, so it was a completely different thing. The same with the Tool Set, although the Tool Set borrows more from what was originally there than the graphics engine. The graphics engine is an entirely different thing, whereas the Tool Set follows some stuff but is pretty much new.
The other things such as the multiplayer and the gameplay components is being worked on and enhanced and not really changed a lot.
Obviously the first Neverwinter Nights had a massive following and a huge community behind it. How much pressure has there been for Obsidian to come into the franchise and ensure that the game has met the standard set by the fans?
Well I think there's a number of ways to do that. One we've been talking to the community ever since we announced the game. Initially we had the forums on our site for about four or five months before being moved to Bioware's official site, and so some of our programmers go up there every single day to answer questions and read forum posts.
We also have a PR agency that we hired which handles a lot of community stuff for us, and again, they're going out there not just for press stuff and feeding information to you guys, but to be on the community side so that we're aware of everything that people want and desire. But doing all this stuff, we're able to figure out some of the most important things that they want not just in the game, but also in the Tool Set as well, and so we try to listen to everything that we can and incorporate as much as possible. On top of that, make sure that we're making a game that has enough new things that it feels like a new game and I think by completing the graphics engine and every piece of artwork in the game helps to do that.
So by doing those things, and of course you can't guarantee everything, we're pretty sure that they'll be happy with it, and on top of that, one thing I can say about the Tool Set is that you can load modules from the original game into Neverwinter Nights 2. None of the art will be there, but all the dialogue and scripting will, and since all we did was enhance and add-on to the dialogue and scripting it means that a lot of the core and hard work that has to be done will be there and will be useable. So it should also give the community a jump-start in making new modules and bringing over their modules from the original game into Neverwinter Nights 2.
The original game had a couple of expansion packs and then the community packs after that, so have Bioware spoken to you about producing an expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights 2?
I think first I need to explain about the different business relationships here. Bioware's job was to provide the engine and that was given to us by way of Atari, so we actually work for Atari we don't work for Bioware; like in Knights of the Old Republic II where we worked for LucasArts and not Bioware.
There's never been a business relationship between Bioware and Obsidian, I talk to Ray and Greg [Bioware's co-founders] all the time, but our business relations have always been with the publishers. So the answer as to whether we would be designing the expansion packs rests with Atari; we've been talking about it, but there's nothing set in stone but it's definitely something that we would love to do and hopefully will be on the cards.
You spoke in your presentation on Neverwinter Nights 2 about the modding side of the game, but can you talk more about what players can expect in the single-player side of the game?
Chris Avellone [Lead Designer on Planescape: Torment and KOTOR2] has been doing a lot of work on this for about a year now writing all the dialogue for the companions and some of the major characters in Neverwinter Nights 2, so we're focusing a lot on the story. There's an over-arcing story in the game but we're not talking about that yet because it's an RPG and you don't really want to go "So there's this bit where you go and kill Tony Blair..."
How the game starts is that it begins in the village of West Harbour, but after you wake up, there's actually an attempted invasion that gets pushed back by the villagers and that they were trying to find you. What happens then is that it harks back to the opening movie of the game that shows a big battle in West Harbor that's the last battle of a war between the Sorcerers and the Githyanki, a sort of a hybrid between the alien head from Alien and a zombie but painted green. So at the end of the battle there's an explosion from a Githyanki artefact called the Sword of Gith, which explodes across the dimensions and what you find out is that a part of it is embedded in you when you were a baby, hence why they came back looking for you. You're not really aware of that, but you set off to Neverwinter to try and find out what's going on.
We really wanted to do a couple of things in Neverwinter 2 in that we wanted to make the story very much about you. When it's just the normal fantasy story of the big bad guy up on the hill and it's your job to go and kill him before he kills everybody else, it's not very compelling. It still gives you a reason to move forward like "ooh, I have to kill the bad man on the hill" but it's the fact that he's obviously going to kill you and whatever. But when you can be persuaded that, "Right, there's a thing in me, and these guys want it out" it gives you more reason to move forward more through the story. The thing also gives you powers as well, so you're kind of special, but as you're beginning to move through the story and you get to Neverwinter, the other change that we've done is not have Lord Nasher come down from his castle, shake your hand, and ask you to save the world - which happens a lot in RPGs as well - I mean, why would that ever happen? So the first thing that you have to do when you get to Neverwinter is to become known, and you have to become respected, and interested in the idea that you have to carry the favour of Lord Nasher, which helps you find out why the Githyanki are after you and how you protect yourself.
"...[We don't have] Lord Nasher come down from his castle, shake your hand, and ask you to save the world - which happens a lot in RPGs as well - I mean, why would that ever happen?"
So that's how we're trying to make the story interesting and making it about you, and then also making it a little different. What I sometimes say is that we're trying to change the convention of having areas of the game that stays still and then you arrive and then it plays and then it stops when you leave. We're trying to make them evolve over time so that when you go back, they're a little bit different, and little things like that.
So the storyline is completely different from the first game?
It's still set in the same area so some characters like Lord Nasher will be in it, but yeah it's a completely different story.
How has it been to develop Neverwinter Nights 2 when other high-profile RPGs such as Oblivion have been released, and how do you see yourselves in comparison?
How do I see ourselves? We're better, no kidding. RPGs are a lot of fun to make and are a challenge, and I respect everyone that does them because when you launch into doing one they always end up being so much more than you think they'll be. So whenever anyone can finish a high-profile game like Bethesda, and Oblivion's great, I know that they've had a lot of long days, long nights, angry wives, and I know that it's tough.
But how do I look at that and look at us? I think that our focus with Neverwinter Nights 2 was different and I think that the game will be different. Because we focus so much on the mod community, it kinda changes how we make the game, and so doing it differentiates the game. In other words by having a Tool Set that is just easy to use and fully allows someone to do anything that we did is interesting.
One of the first things that I did in the industry is that I did the Bard's Tale Construction Kit, and that was a blast. I got to test it but I was sitting around making my cities and dungeons and all that sort of stuff. So by making a tool set that's so easy to get into, I think that's how we can differentiate it.
"You could put down Neverwinter Nights down for like six months but then you hear from your friends that there's this new bit and you're like "Awesome!" so then you go and get it."
I think that by focusing on making the story and expanding on making companions rather than henchmen, help to differentiate it. Now you have these beings that we've put a ton of work into that are travelling along with you that add to the story and flow in and flow out, and you're having to consider them and you have to consider what they're saying, and you have to go along with them or convince them that they're right or wrong and I think that a lot of that helps to differentiate us from other games.
You look at Oblivion, and Oblivion's a great game, but it focuses on creating this big map of this world that you can just run around in and you can look on the other side of every rock. You can play it for ten hours; you can play it for four hundred hours, whereas Neverwinter is a little more directed. The single-player campaign tells a very rich story that tells you you're on this very epic tale, but there's a definite start and end to the tale. But on the flip side there's this mode system, and there's going to be this community building mods and you're going to be able to download very different things. You could put down Neverwinter Nights down for like six months but then you hear from your friends that there's this new bit and you're like "Awesome!" so then you go and get it.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is set to use the refined D&D 3.5 rules over the original's use of the D&D 3 rule set. Can you explain that refinement and what it means to the gameplay?
It's kind of across a lot of different things. Sometimes it's with the classes; there was always some contention with the Ranger from the original third edition so now some of the features are little different in version 3.5.
The resistance and the damage reduction system is a little different so that instead of in the original game when it was either 'five slash dash' or 'five slash one', with 'five slash one' meaning that you had to plus one or better in order to hit the creature or plus one to use a better weapon to do full damage, otherwise you'd have to subtract five in everything that you do. Now in the game with the system that we've implemented is that the weapon system is now more material based so that the werewolf might have 'five slash silver' so if you have silver weapons you hit it normally, but if you don't have silver weapons every time you hit him he takes five less damage. It's an interesting system because it makes you think about the weapons and that you have and how you're going to damage things.
It's little things like that; there are a lot of other things.
"Look at Blizzard; is it the company that makes World of Warcraft or is it Blizzard? It's hard to say."
It's fair to say from the character creation demonstration during the presentation that it's a pretty complex set of rules; how has Obsidian streamlined the experience for newcomers who perhaps aren't familiar with the Dungeons & Dragons rule set?
I think initially with the first part of the game, as you're learning how to play, there's not a situation where an arrow's going to hit you in the skull and you die. In a lot of other previous D&D games, you could die pretty quickly, and whenever you die and you have to go back to a save, or you forget to save and you have to go back to the start, people who experience that a few times aren't going to continue with the game because they keep on dying. If you can teach them all they need to know, and not make it easy just so that they can succeed, that can really help.
We can't make the D&D rules go away if we wanted to, and we don't want to because it's a great rule system once you kinda become one with it, so the biggest thing is to lead people down the path of understanding it and enjoying it before you put them in a position to make decisions where they could really hurt themselves.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is coming out for PC, but have Atari spoken about porting it over to the Xbox 360?
Well we'd originally hoped to do an Xbox 360 SKU and we'd actually done work on the engine, it was an OpenGL render before, whereas Neverwinter Nights 2 is now a DirectX engine. That was done to put it onto the 360, but after we did that and we moved down the road, it turned out that it was going to cost money to do the 360 SKU though everybody knew that upfront, and so it was...yeah. Let's just say that it was on the cards but we didn't have the money ourselves to do it.
At the moment the release date for Neverwinter Nights 2 is '2006'; we're just starting the second quarter so can you give us a more specific time frame for Neverwinter Nights 2's launch?
At the moment I'm under orders to say third quarter...so...
If I can talk about something away from Neverwinter Nights 2 for a moment, and I can already imagine what the answer is going to be; Obsidian has recently signed a deal with SEGA to produce an RPG and whilst I don't expect specific details, can you say whether it's an original IP?
It's an original IP that we came up with ourselves.
Also, staying on the subject of deals, has LucasArts approached you to develop Knights of the Old Republic III?
We have been in talks with LucasArts to do KOTOR3 since August 2004 and we'd had hopes to start on it after KOTOR2. LucasArts are currently thinking about it, but we'd be really happy to do KOTOR3 if that's what LucasArts wants.
But nothing's been set in stone?
Obsidian, and your own background, is all about RPGs; have you ever thought about taking the leap into MMOs?
Um, I don't think so. We [Black Isle] had an opportunity to make an MMO, and I said no. Brian Fargo who was running Interplay at the time was really on it; we 'had words'. My mother's a Cockney so she taught me a few words so when I get angry, I 'have words'. It was a good meeting.
"I would have loved to have made a Fallout MMORPG [but] I believed that Interplay was just not in a situation where they had the resources to do it."
The reason at the time, because I would have loved to have made a Fallout MMO, was that I believed that Interplay was just not in a situation where they had the resources to do it. When you go off to do an MMO it's going to cost $100 million before you get it on the shelf; you've gotta buy servers and you've gotta have service people, and you have to have Game Masters. It's an undertaking, and on top of that, it means that you do have to do all that stuff so what else are you going to focus on? What other games are you going to be able to make?
It's great if it succeeds, I mean the money just rolls in. Who knows how much money is rolling in with World of Warcraft, it's probably ridiculous but you've now created this monster and the monster is never going to go away. EverQuest is still going and that came out in '97/'98 so that's eight years ago. So if I as Obsidian wanted to make an MMO, that we wanted to continue to control, I now have this thing that will grow with my children.
Here's a weird example: People buy parrots and they're around forever, they're these things that you pass onto your children and so when I think about doing an MMO I don't know whether I want to get into that aspect of it. I think they're fascinating but on the flip-side of that I think designing an MMO, and putting an MMO together not just from a game side but from a hardware side and doing all that stuff would be a challenge but it would be a whole lot of fun and a real learning experience. I love to learn things, but if we make an MMO that's what our company is. Look at Blizzard; is it the company that makes World of Warcraft or is it Blizzard? It's hard to say.
Finally, going back off track again, are there any other details about the SEGA title that you can share with us?
Not really, other than it is next-gen so we're doing Xbox 360, PS3 and hopefully PC. We're using Unreal Engine 3, but I can't tell people what to expect; it's not going to be exactly the same as other games that we've done but we hope to bring what we're good at which is characters, story, great game systems and that sort of thing.
Will you be releasing more details at E3?
No, I dont believe that SEGA will be releasing more details at E3. I wouldn't be surprised if it's later in the year or early next year that we begin to talk more about it.
TVG would like to thank Feargus Urquhart for taking the time to speak to us; Neverwinter Nights 2 is scheduled for release in the third quarter of 2006 for PC, look out for further coverage soon.