In a session at Paris GDC, Obsidian lead designer Joshua Sawyer discussed the problems the team faced when creating Neverwinter Nights 2, a game designed to be expanded and changed by users.
A sequel to Bioware’s original Neverwinter Nights, NWN2 had to not only provide a better game than its predecessor but also to expand upon Bioware’s hugely popular Aurora toolset to give users greater modding potential.
"BioWare’s approach to the Neverwinter Nights toolset was to go for ease-of-use, so that people could get small things running quickly and then expand from there," said Sawyer. "Obsidian’s approach was to cater for the hardcore, though – dramatically increase the level of control, meaning that more things could be altered. That would make the barrier to entry higher, but we thought that would similarly raise the quality of what was produced."
As such, Obsidian ditched the tile-based exterior sections for heightmapped terrain – which, while giving a lot more scope for variety and finely-designed areas, increased the construction time by ten times with artists having to hand-place trees and paint textures onto the terrain by hand. "While this is bearable for people who are being paid to do it, many users are put off by the effort required," said Sawyer.
One thing that also limited end-user creativity was that the company didn’t clear end-user use of RAD Tools’ Granny animation middleware, which it had used on the product, meaning that users could not create custom animations.
While there were certainly aspects of the toolset that the team improved – in particular the conversation editor and the toolset’s plug-in architecture – the overall response from the community at the beginning was poor – or, as Sawyer put it, users ‘backlashing’ over a more unfriendly toolkit.
And while it may seem that the company fluffed its chance with Neverwinter Nights 2, continual patches – and improvements brought about during the development of the game’s expansion packs – have helped address some of the issues that disappointed the community at launch, and have helped shape the development of the next generation of Obsidian’s tools now being used on both the un-named Aliens RPG and forthcoming espionage RPG Alpha Protocol.