Saturday, 9 December 2017

Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition: Interview with Beamdog CEO, Trent Oster

Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition: Interview with Beamdog CEO, Trent Oster




The magic of the Neverwinter Nights role-playing game is its Aurora toolset that strikes the perfect balance between flexibility, power and Ease-of-Use. World-builders, writers, coders and artists alike have long since hit the jackpot with Aurora. It's why we players have access to some of the finest role-playing campaigns out there. Masterpieces like those found in the Hall of Fame, for example, many of which can contend with commercial RPG offerings in terms of depth, breadth and polish.

NWN is equally famous for its robust multi-player component: Persistent Worlds, DMability, Coop, PvP and native Linux support means it towers over other titles in regards to the social aspect.

Pen & Paper aside, nothing comes close to the NWN role-playing experience, whether it be past, present or in the foreseeable future. One can spend years exploring the custom content that has been churned out by the most productive and talented modding community ever to grace the genre.

The NWN community has suffered a series of setbacks spaced out over recent years; namely, the plug being pulled on the old BioWare forums, BioWare Social, GameSpy and the IGN Vault. We were hit hard by this. Every time something got pulled, knowledge was irretrievably lost and the player-base dwindled and broke up more and more. Sure, the new Neverwinter Vault became the home for players and builders alike, but the mainstream pretty much forgot about the game without BioWare and IGN to galvanize it. As Trent Oster said, "NWN has not gotten a lot of love lately".

But now, Beamdog's announcement and upcoming release of Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition means everyone will become aware of the game again, and all its wonderful mods, campaigns and persistent worlds. And it is the ardent desire of many that the community experiences a rebirth as a result.

The team at Beamdog have been gracious enough to agree to answer questions put forth by esteemed members of the community (neverwintervault.org), and myself (lilura1.blogspot.com). So let's get on with it, shall we?

Hi to Trent Oster and the Beamdog team, and thank you for agreeing to this interview on your upcoming Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition. Thank you for bringing NWN back, too; the community needed a wave not a ripple! Just how busy have you guys been over the past year? Burning the midnight oil, I would imagine?

Beamdog CEO, Trent OsterWe’ve been busy.  As a policy we try to avoid overtime whenever possible, so no midnight oil was burned, but we have been putting in a lot of work on a number of fronts.

• There has been a flurry of activity on the Beamdog forums with the announcement of NWN:EE, and the persistent worlds are abuzz. How do you regard the public response to your announcement?

Trent - We were excited by the response, the community came out in force and it was a good announcement. Since we rolled the concept out early to bring in feedback from the community there was a limit to the high-visibility improvements we could make in the announce timeline.  We’re looking forward to rolling out new features as we get further into development.

• Speculation of an Enhanced Edition has come up on occasion but then died back down to the point that - even up until just recently - many in the community held only a faint glimmer of hope that an EE would ever come to fruition. Thus, the announcement was a big surprise to everyone. Can you tell us how NWN:EE finally got the go-ahead?

Trent - We had gone back and forth on the concept for quite a while.  We finally reached a contract point where the project made sense to us and to our partners. It took a great deal of thinking about the potential of NWN:EE to make it happen.

• Broadly speaking, what will NWN:EE offer to fans aside from resolving the compatibility issues that plague owners of the original NWN - which I would think is its prime selling-point?

Trent - NWN:EE is a live, evolving platform for the creation of your own adventures or persistent worlds. That is the prime selling point. We’ve opened up the graphics engine side for improvement by moving to a shader-based system, we’ve added support for screens up to 4K, added in UI scaling so the font is readable in those larger resolutions. We’ve taken some good steps along a long road.

• What is a rough ETA on the x64 version and multi-core support? Will there be Linux x64 in addition to the confirmed Windows and Mac?

Trent - We haven’t committed to anything publically as we’re still thinking about what is possible and what is the most important to the game. 64 bit support makes sense we are interested, but we don’t have a committed timeline.

• Companion AI in NWN leaves a lot to be desired, even when the game is modded with Tony K's Henchman Inventory & Battle AI. Is there a chance of employing full party control and marquee selection of party members in the future, à la the Infinity Engine games, or at least the ability to mod it in? This could improve single-player game-play immensely and make Aurora more attractive to your Infinity player-base, too.

Trent - Neverwinter Nights was never intended to be a Baldur’s Gate game. Baldur’s Gate poses the question of “what if you were the sole hero of a D&D adventure and you met interesting companion NPCs along the way”. Neverwinter was much more intended to be a collaborative, multiplayer experience. Neverwinter is “what will you do with your character on a D&D Adventure?” The rest of the party was imagined as players thinking the same thing and running their characters on the same adventure. We added companions into NWN to address playing the game as a single class character and needing access to other skillsets to fully enjoy the game. NWN companions can be improved, but we currently have no plans for a BG-style control scheme for companions.

• You mentioned the addition of a customizable UI down the track. Will the modability be on par with the power and versatility offered by XML in Electron (through which the community has churned out incredibly ambitious UI mods), and is there a chance of getting a Quickcast menu similar to the one found in NWN2 (hotkey: F), standardized by Beamdog?

Trent - UI is blocking a number of things I’d like to accomplish in the game so I’m obviously focused on it. We’re still discussing what we are going to do and how we are going to approach the problem. I think extensibility and modability is at the top of our lists for any UI effort we put forward.

• I hear that you are working closely with Shadooow, a long-time community member who has worked on the Community Patch Project for six years and chalked up around 6,000 fixes over that time. What are the other community-based mods and fixes that you are looking into incorporating, in whole or in part?

Trent - Shadooow and other key community members have been a great help in identifying issues in the game. In some instances we were able to patch the root of the problem. In other cases, the advisory group was able to supply the fixes they had implemented in the community so we could distribute them as part of the base game.

• What do you think of the collection of high-quality haks known as Project Q (which can be installed as a patch hak as per instructions by Pstemarie, PQ pioneer)? Will you employ PQ as standard in the future, along with your own art assets? What are the challenges that you face in overhauling art assets, for which there has been much clamor on the forums?

Trent - I love Project Q. There is some gorgeous work there. The major obstacle right now to improving art assets is establishing standards and making the tool path and game asset path match up. There are ways of creating content today, but we need to build out a standard approach and share the tools with the community.

• Many people were excited by the news that David Gaider joined the crew at Beamdog. What role will he play in the development of NWN:EE? As things move forward, can we expect the announcement of a sweeping epic from the writer of Irenicus, Hordes of the Underdark and Dragon Age: Origins?

Trent - Actually, at the moment David is busy on another unannounced title.

• The original BioWare programme scrapped by Atari long ago, do you have the will to relaunch it as the Beamdog Premium Module Programme?

Trent - We find the concept of premium modules to be a very exciting one, it allows us to build content with a limited scope and we can sell it at a great price point. We can bring the assets at our disposal, such as voice acting, custom music and even potentially add new game features in small ongoing releases.

• As the person who headed up the development of the original NWN, do you recall how the idea came about to develop a toolset for NWN that would empower the end-user and, as you have indicated, "democratize game design"? Also, who came up with the idea for persistent worlds on Aurora? Wonderful ideas, by the way.

Trent - We were talking about what was great about “Baldur’s Gate” and what was great about pen and paper D&D. When we spoke first of the concept for NWN it was with the concept of the red box, the basic set of Dungeons and Dragons. The idea was everything you needed was in the one box. For me D&D was always two parts, playing and DM’ing. I couldn’t imagine an amazing D&D game without both sides. DM’ing for me was always about the creation of new adventures and new settings.

• What is your fave base class or character build to play in NWN?

Trent - I usually play some form of Fighter character. I’d either default to Half-Orc Barbarian or Human Ranger. Later in the game I usually throw some thief levels in there for more combat options.

• Would you like to do a Knights of the Old Republic: Enhanced Edition in the future, perhaps after matching the 5 years of patching and support you have already given the Infinity EEs (currently being patched to v2.5)? This to me seems like a logical progression since it's a BioWare game built on a modified Aurora (Odyssey), with compatibility issues of its own on current gen hardware/OSes.

Trent - Since the game was already brought to iPad by another company, the opportunity for KotOR has passed.

• A question from Rogueknight 333, creator of the award-winning Swordflight series: At this point Beamdog appear to be taking the right approach, by emphasizing backwards compatibility and avoiding being seduced by the lure of feature bloat, but how do you intend to keep that up (if you do) while dealing with the doubtless endless demands for this, that and the other to be added to the game? Also, what modules and custom content did you test out in regards to backwards compatibility (or if you did not actually test it, why not?)

Trent - We’ve based all our work off the 1.69 codebase, fixing many of the community patch issues in the source code. As such the functionality is very tight to the original game. With regards to stepping it forward, we have to ensure we only add to what exists and don’t revise things just for the sake of revision. There will be some issues we encounter where old code libraries simply no longer work and we’ll have to make changes, but we hope to keep those changes behind the scenes. When we re-wrote the renderer, the first thing we did was to re-create the old render path in shaders so the game would function as it previously did.

• A question from Fester Pot, creator of the award-winning Almraiven and Shadewood: Brian Watson of Ossian Studios showed it was possible to incorporate a World Map in Darkness over Daggerford, but having a built-in World Map system in the Enhanced Edition would be welcomed by many builders, including myself. Has there been any discussions on implementing a functional World Map system?

Trent - Funny enough, we just had a conversation about that the other day. As with many of the other features the community has requested, we are putting it into a backlog of work items to be considered.

• Two questions from Stephen L. Nowland aka Savant, creator of the award-winning Aielund Saga: As a shallow artist-type person easily distracted by shiny things, I think the current textures (especially the skyboxes) are going to be quite chunky on a 4k screen, let alone 1080p. How far is your team willing and able to go to improve the visual appearance of the Enhanced Edition? Also, how much work would be involved to upgrade or change the ruleset employed by NWN? Say, 3.5 or some other system?

Trent - The shaders do a good job upscaling the skyboxes, but there are two factors we need to improve. The 64MB texture limit has been revised to be a user setting, which is currently set in an .ini file. NWN now supports up to 2GB in textures (the most we can represent with the original signed integer).  We’ll return later and revise the type of the texture limit, but for now going from 64 MB to 2GB is a big change for the better. The second issue is the source texture size.  When I generated the skyboxes way back in the day, 512x512 seemed pretty huge.  With today’s 4K textures everywhere that now seems quite small. I think going forward we’ll make new art at a much higher resolution. As for the rules system, that is a real challenge. We hard-coded the rules back in the day to ensure a consistent 3rd Edition D&D experience, so the work involved in adding new rules is going to be large. Again, we have discussed this and other rules options, so it is on our mind.

• A question from TR, infamous feline assassin: Given your respect for the community, do you plan to include a link to the Neverwinter Vault in the documents that you will include with the full commercial release of NWN:EE?

Trent - I hadn’t thought of that. While it does seem logical, I think with any release pointing to an external dataset there is always a concern of the site going down or the domain falling into less scrupulous hands. This bears further thought.

• TR has also noticed that the immersion-breaking "spawn stutter" has not been fixed in the EE. Is this fixable by patch or through the x64/multi-core rewrite?

Trent - We’ll need to look at the root cause of the issue and see what can be done. This is likely a stall while resource demand issue and wouldn’t be affected by a 64bit/multicore rework, but would likely be addressed by understanding the scenario causing the behaviour and a rework of that system.

TheBarbarian, an amateur 3d modeler who is extremely into heads (and character customization in general), would like to know: Will we be getting slots for extra head-aligned models such as open-faced helmets and hair? Maybe one for hair/helmets, one for accessories like glasses/jewelry, and one for beards? Or even a fourth one for horns? Maybe there could be a helmets.2da where you can set which nodes a particular helmet will hide. I'm asking because if the answer is "yes", I'm going to get started redoing the standard heads as bald, lore-friendly (but slightly more high-poly and uniformly proportioned) versions. I can do KotOR-style head meshes now, stretch-free and with proper shadows along mouth and nose and all. It'll be neat.

Trent - I haven’t looked into the head slots issue.  If we can expand the system without breaking a ton of content we are interested.

• Questions from DrA, custom content creator: Are there any chances of improving toolset functionality (like running several windows with other areas or dialogues)? Also, is it possible to drop down dds and tga and use other formats for textures? And stereo mp3 instead of bmu? What possible issues could be encountered when playing some modules with custom content? Would it be possible to prevent some of them by simply changing 2da files in the text editor without the new EE installed?

Trent - We are limited in what we can do with the toolset as it currently stands.  As it is built in an old version of Borland C++ builder it is hard to work with and extend.  We can do limited work as required in the toolset, but we have to be cautious as it can introduce bugs into the system.

Thank you to Trent Oster for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. With the advent of the Enhanced Edition, here's to another 15 years of people playing Neverwinter Nights and building in its toolset! Cheers! - Lilura.

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2 comments:

  1. Very good interview, and informative responses from Trent! Look forward to seeing what else they can roll out over the coming year.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Some good questions and helpful answers. I found his response to TR's question amusingly ironic given that the NWVault has now outlasted multiple official sites supporting NWN provided by Bioware or IGN. If past history is any guide it is the NWVault that should have concerns about tying its fortunes to would be official supporters, rather than the other way around (though of course Beamdog's concerns about linking to 3rd party websites out of their control are understandable).

    ReplyDelete

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