Interview of Rob Bartel, part 2 (English version)

Digital Distribution

JeuxOnline : While many companies would have simply developed a sequel or third expansion to a successful title like NWN, Bioware decided to develop a whole new economic model and expand NWN via the Digital Distribution project and their new online store. What is Digital Distribution and why did you set it up? As Lead Designer, what role did you play in its development? And what implication does your online store have for BioWare’s licensing and publishing partners, WotC and Atari ?

Rob Bartel : From the beginning, the core development team and I had designed NWN to support a very specific post-release development model. That model consisted of multiple small, independent modules relying on a steadily-advancing centralized code base. Based on our experiences with the Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast expansion, we felt that a traditional expansion-based model would take too much development time and would focus energies away from ongoing support of the core code base. What’s more, multiple expansions would result in multiple patch streams that would divide the community and proliferate exponentially with each mutually exclusive expansion released. In short, traditional expansion packs would cause all manner of headaches that we felt were not in the best interests of the community.

With the last-minute shift towards a more Baldur’s Gate-oriented design for NWN, however, the decision to pursue the familiar expansion pack model was nevertheless made. While the Shadows Of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark expansions were of great benefit to NWN in many ways, those same benefits could have been achieved much more gracefully had they been handled as originally proposed. Meanwhile, the Live Team was gutted of staff (including myself) and the development of the online store was delayed for over a year.

The Digital Distribution project, then, actually represents a return to the development teams original vision for NWN, where multiple premium modules could be sustainably supported by centralized, incremental patches. While the idea has certainly evolved in the years since NWN’s release, the core idea remains the same. Thankfully, it’s been working very well both for us and for the community. The Live Team is actually expanding quite rapidly now and, based on the new art and features getting added to the engine every day, I would say that this is one of the most exciting times to be involved in the NWN community.

As for Wizards of the Coast and Atari, they’ve been very supportive of the Digital Distribution project and have been working with us to ensure its success. Contrary to trendy conspiracy theories and popular belief, it’s actually in everyone’s interest for us to work together on such an innovative project.

JeuxOnline : To create premium modules, BioWare has sometimes called upon community members such as Ben ‘Altaris’ McJunkin (ShadowGuard) and the DragonLance Adventures mod team (art content for Pirates). How were they chosen and how has it been to work with them? Is this part of a longer-term relationship you are building with them and do you expect to call on their services again in the future?

Rob Bartel : BioWare continues to improve its premium mod-builder selection process, both to accommodate a greater range of community talent and to expand on our ability to support them throughout development.

In general, however, we rely on the community itself to tell us who they would like to see as premium module developers, either through recommendations on our forums or votes and download counts at NWVault. Community members are the ones ultimately supporting the premium modules with their purchases so it makes sense for us to listen to their advice.

JeuxOnline : Patch 1.66 included the new music and portraits first introduced in the initial wave of premium modules: Kingmaker, ShadowGuard and Witch's Wake. Can we expect all of the Pirates of the Sword Coast content to find its way into future patches as well? What about future premium modules?

Rob Bartel : Pirates of the Sword Coast introduced a lot of excellent new art and audio content and we’re working hard to fix that up and get it ready for release to the community in the near future. As it represents a significant file size, we’re hesitant to cram it all into the patch as a required download. What we’ll do instead is release all new creatures and placeables as part of the upcoming 1.67 patch while separating the tilesets out to make available as a free hakpak downloadable from the BioWare website.

And if you think the Pirates content was cool, we’ve got even more in the works. New art and audio content plays a vital role in all of our upcoming premium modules and our plan is definitely to release all of it to the community over time.

JeuxOnline : The Digital Distribution project recently celebrated its first birthday. What’s your assessment of its first year? Are you willing to speculate about what this coming year might hold?

Rob Bartel : The Digital Distribution project has definitely been a success and has achieved its core objectives of invigorating both the Live Team and the BioWare community as a whole. This past year has primarily been one of research & development: We’ve been establishing new pipelines and processes, defining what works and what doesn’t work, and slowly expanding our team size and operational scope.

This coming year will primarily be a capacity test: How do we scale to handle multiple premium modules within the pipeline at once? How do we scale to developing, managing, and testing increasingly ambitious premium modules for NWN? How do we take all of the resulting art and audio assets and make them available to the community? How do we expand our operations to handle projects even larger and more complex than premium modules? How do we start applying the lessons we’ve learned here to other BioWare projects such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age? How do we integrate our operations with our new sister studios over at Pandemic? How do we approach the notion of community development and participation within Xbox Live and the console space?

This next year promises to be a very exciting and pivotal one for the Live Team. All of you are in for a hell of a ride so hang on tight and enjoy all of the exciting new content that will be coming your way.

Pirates of the Sword Coast

JeuxOnline : You worked on the premium module Pirates of the Sword Coast. As the name suggests, it takes place in the Sword Coast region of the popular Forgotten Realms setting. What drew you to creating a module about pirates and why this particular corner of the world? Is it a wink to the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion to the original Baldur’s Gate game?

Rob Bartel : Growing up, I spent three years of my childhood in Jamaica where a lot of the pirate-era history remains preserved to this day. I was an impressionable young lad and have always had a passion for pirate tales of one sort or another as a result. Ever since joining BioWare, I’ve wanted to take the D&D license in some new gaming directions and I’ve always thought that a D&D pirates game along the lines of the excellent Sea Dogs titles by Akella would be a lot of fun. While Pirates of the Sword Coast isn’t quite that ambitious, it was still very much a realization of an old dream for me.

As for the title, it’s definitely a wink to the BG expansion and the old ship-on-a-keg-end logo that went with it.

JeuxOnline : When creating the characters and setting out the plot, did you find yourself inspired by any films or novels? What difficulties did you encounter in designing this module? Do you have any regrets?

Rob Bartel : The wonderful thing about pirates is that there are so many great places from which to draw your inspiration. As I mentioned above, much of it was inspired by my own childhood but I couldn’t go without tipping my hat to so many other sources – Peter Pan, Sid Meier’s Pirates! (old and new), Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, the Monkey Island games, Treasure Island, etc, etc.

The primary difficulties we had in designing the module were tied to limited manpower and limited schedule. We needed to get a module out before the end of June and we only had two designers, myself and Keith Hayward, available to make it happen. We did pull in some technical expertise from QA in the form of Jonathan Epp, who handled the bulk of our cutscenes.

Overall, I’m extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish with this premium module. It’s the longest of them so far, it included some very innovative systems and a ridiculous amount of custom art, and it was very lighthearted and fun to play. It did suffer from some balancing issues, especially in the opening chapter, and there are places were the gameplay experience gets a little thinner than I’d have preferred but, on the whole, it’s our first product to really start realizing the potential of the Digital Distribution model.

JeuxOnline : Who inspired you to create Poly the Parrot?

Rob Bartel : Much of the initial design for the Pirates module actually came out of a design project undertaken by our QA team. Iain Stevens-Guille, one of our testers and the best Ravenloft DM I’ve ever had the good fortune to game with, headed up that effort and I believe the original idea for the character of Poly was his. I took his base idea and initial conversation lines and fleshed it out into the plucky little parrot everyone loves to hate.

JeuxOnline : Pirates of the Sword Coast showcased a lot of interesting new features. Could you reveal some of the design secrets that went into the creation of this module?

Rob Bartel : We definitely approached Pirates as an opportunity to explore some new systems and gameplay ideas. They were a lot of fun to dream up and develop and we’ve received a lot of positive responses from the players. You’ll see a lot of these systems and gameplay ideas making their way into future premium modules and ultimately into BioWare’s future titles (Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc), which is cool.

As for secrets, with the exception of the ability use in conversations and the multiplayer-friendly cutscene system, the bulk of the new gameplay ideas were pretty simple and straightforward to implement. The combat scaling was just a brute force ratcheting of enemy level and item enhancement bonuses, for instance, and the treasure hunt was simply spawning in predefined landmarks along a series of pre-defined waypoints with some vector math thrown in to point the player in the right direction. Poly simply counted things. The neat thing about game design is that simple and elegant systems are often the ones with the biggest payoff in terms of enjoyable gameplay.

To conclude

JeuxOnline : In conclusion, how would you describe your adventures with NWN after all this years? Did you ever have doubts about your ability to complete such an ambitious project? Alternatively, have you ever been surprised by what the community has been able to create and the possibilities that this game has offered them?

Rob Bartel : From the very beginning, NWN has been my dream project and I’ve built my career around its core design. Like any perfectionist, I had a million doubts, saw a zillion faults, and nursed a billion regrets but I’ll always be proud of the fact that I helped create a game that allowed an entire community of players to become co-creators and co-contributors to its success. The Web is evolving more and more into a participatory, two-way medium and games are headed in the same direction. I know a lot of people in the industry today who got their first job as a result of NWN and that’s incredibly exciting to me. Everyone is decrying the fact that mega-teams and soaring budgets are the future of gaming but I see the future of gaming right here in the mod scene, in the sheer number of talented amateurs, in the tumult of brave new ideas, in the diversity of gameplay. Through their efforts, I’ve seen NWN morph into an RTS, a dating sim, a dungeon crawl, a satire, a movie, a comic strip, an MMO, a space opera, a teaching aid, a card game, a fighting game, a coffee house, a research plan, a training tool, and so much more. It’s bewildering, it’s humbling, and I’ve loved every second of it.

JeuxOnline : So what’s up next for you and for the Live Team?

Rob Bartel : Well, we’re almost ready to release Patch 1.67 and it’s the biggest batch of content we’ve ever released outside of the expansion packs. There are a ton of exciting new functions and features that the dev teams needed for our next wave of premium modules and we’re also putting the finishing touches on all of the Pirates art content to ensure that it’s usable by the mod community.

We have a number of new premium NWN modules in the works, both internally and externally. The first of them will be coming up early in the New Year with more to follow in its wake. I can’t talk too much about it quite yet except to say that it’s another systems-driven module like Pirates and will introduce a bunch of additional new content and exciting gameplay ideas.

I’m currently fleshing out the plans for the Live Team’s support of future BioWare titles such as Mass Effect and geeking out over the Xbox 360 and all of the updates to Xbox Live. With the recent BioWare | Pandemic merger, we’re also beginning to look into how we can share the Live Team’s expertise and infrastructure with our new sister studio. In the midst of all of that, we’re still trying to sort out the contractual details surrounding Obsidian’s NWN2 and whether or not we’ll be able to fit premium NWN2 modules into our busy development schedules.

To a certain extent, 2006 will represent the final year of NWN1’s lifespan. While I’ll definitely miss it, I’ve still got plenty of irons in the fire and things on my plate to keep me busy. The future looks pretty exciting and, as always, I’m eager to see what can be made of it.

JeuxOnline : Thanks for answering what must be one of the longest interviews ever.

Rob Bartel : It was my pleasure, Simkin. Thanks for your patience in waiting for my replies.

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