To all good things, a sequel. Or an add-on pack. We're not fussy.
Following on from the success of last year's Neverwinter Nights 2, Obsidian have been working on their high-tech equivalent of drawing dungeons on graph paper and poreing over obscure passages in the Monster Manual. Mask of the Betrayer should be complete in time for Autumn.
However while promising a hugely increased level-cap, new races and classes as well as a full stand-alone campaign, Obsidian are keeping many details close to their chests. So when offered the chance to exchange e-mails with Obsidian's very own Elite-class level CEO Feargus Urquhart, we clearly grasped it and tried to resist the urge to just descending to a conversation about how much we liked Planescape Torment when he was back at Black Isle.
We fail, rapidly, when we ask him what other game does the 15-20 hour included campaign feels most like, in terms of experience. "This may sound strange, but the other character based RPG that I can think of is Planescape: Torment," Feargus notes, "Both of them are character focused, but in different ways. Torment was about discovering who you were, while Mask of the Betrayer is more about saving yourself. Another difference is the focus on combat with Mask being more about fun combats and Torment more about your relationship with your companions."
It also shares with Planescape an interest in the basic elements of role-playing design - that is, character survival and what that really means when you can just reload. "One of the key things that the design team at Obsidian working on Mask of the Betrayer wanted to focus on was how death worked," Feargus explains.
"Initially, there was talk about having death be more permanent than it was in NWN2, but there were concerns about what would have to change in gameplay and in the engine and whether that was worth it. So, the focus moved to how to make death still matter to the player.
"This turned into an entirely new mechanic that makes time much more critical to the player. Certain areas change as day goes to night and while you can rest in most places, there are going to be other things to consider as you use up that time." Which implies that the days when you just camp every ten feet down a dungeon to stay at full power may be behind us.
While they're currently not revealing the exact prestige classes and new races yet, Feargus is happy to elabortate how they go about choosing them. After all, it's not as if there's a shortage of source material to raid.
"It is pretty hard to go through what is now close to one hundred books on D&D and figure out what is the best race or class to use," he explains, "What makes it a little easier for us is that we are trying to make it so everyone has a Base Class or Prestige Class that lets them play the way they want to play. Prestige Classes are where this is probably the easiest, because what it takes is breaking down the different paths that each of the base classes could take and making sure that there is a Prestige Class for that patch." Things are a little easier when dealing with actual character's origins. "As for races, that is much more of popularity contest than anything else," Feargus adds, "After NWN2 came out, we immediately were barraged with the same one or two requests - so, those races got on the list."
However, just because there's this mass of source material, doesn't mean that Obsidian are merely mining it for useful pieces. They've previously talked about designing their own feats for use in the game. Which does beg the question, with so much around to take, why?
"First off, all of us really respect the D&D rules system and want Wizards of the Coast to be pleased with everything we decide to do," Feargus qualifies, "So, why a new feat usually comes about is because there is a hole in the implementation of a class or race due to a feat that just doesn't work well in the context of the game. Or, there just isn’t a way to make the work in the game's engine. For example, we wanted a powerful epic feat for warlocks, but the Eldritch Sculptor feat created by Wizards of the Coast would be very difficult to accomplish in the NWN engine. So we created a new feat called Eldritch Mastery that has a lot of the same appeal, but not the exact same benefits."
One similarity to the previously mentioned Planescape Torment is that rather than having a mass of companions, there's fewer who are more detailed. "We have come up with a whole new cast of companions that both use some of the new races and classes that we are putting in the expansion and really fit within the setting of Mask of the Betrayer," he says, "But, we have also changed their focus a bit. Instead of much of the story depending on certain companions like in NWN2, in the expansion you have much more freedom to have who you want in the party, or no one in the party." Feargus' personal favourite? "I really like One of Many. I kind of look at him like Morte from Torment's evil step brother and I think it's really cool how you get him into your party."
Arguably the biggest challenge facing Obsidian also comes from the material. It's an Epic level campaign, meaning that everyone is throwing around phenomenally powerful magics right from the start. How much harder is this to design or balance?
"An epic level campaign is much more challenging to put together than one for lower levels," Feargus agrees, "Not that a low level campaign doesn't have its own challenges, but you don't have to worry about what kinds of creatures you can send at the player to keep it interesting. In an epic level campaign, you can't just continually send bigger and bigger kobolds at the player with bigger and bigger knives.
It just gets boring. So, what the designers have to do is to craft battles and enemies that challenge the abilities of the player's character and the player himself. What this usually means is focusing a fair amount on the spells that enemies can cast and making the player have to react to them."
Inevitably, this can swiftly become a balancing nightmare. "One design decision we made was to overall make the game easy enough for the new player or a non-optimum character to be able to complete it," Feargus explains a way around the issue, "But we also are designing some specific combats to be extremely challenging. These are generally fights that have other possible solutions to them. So the hardcore players will find some great combat challenges, but the more casual gamers won't be overwhelmed by the game's difficulty. Overall, our goal is simply to ensure that everyone can have fun with the game."
While you can transfer your character over from Neverwinter Nights 2, the game actually stands alone, allowing you to generate a suitably puissant new character at the start. Which leads to an interesting issue. If you look back at Neverwinter Nights 1, its two add-on packs were generally concerned to be superior experiences. People played them who never actually worked their way through the mothergame. Do Obsidian actively plan to help newcomers?
"The start of pretty much every Neverwinter game really helps players that are new to the games," Feargus argues, "Since you generally start with just yourself or yourself and one companion, even with all of the abilities that characters have at close to 20th level, you aren't trying to digest the abilities of your eventual four character party right from the start. Even with that, the beginning of the game is still a challenge. We don't want veteran NWN players to be bored with the opening, but we don't want to scare away new players by throwing too much at them too quickly.
An Add-on pack gives a developer a chance to reconsider where they went wrong in the original game. While some stuff can be sorted in a patch - which they have done - there's still some regrets which Obsidian plan to rectify. "I think the largest regret that I had about the original NWN2 was the overall look of our levels," Feargus laments, "We put a lot of time and effort into the new graphics engine and into the look of our levels, but we just didn't get a few things right. And of those few things, I think lighting was a big part of our levels not being what they could have been. So, on top of some of the things we've done in updates for graphics, like renovating every tree in the game, we are making sure in the expansion that we are spending the time we need to get the lighting right. Since we are spending so much time on it, we are also putting things in the toolset to make using lighting easier for modders."
Which is an interesting thing. Part of Neverwinter Nights' ethos is that it's not just a thing you consume, but something including the tools for you to make your own adventures. So their expansion pack is both an expansion of what tools the players have to make their own content and an example of the potential of the tools. There's some pressure there, clearly.
"Neverwinter is not just about the shipped campaigns but about what players can do with the toolset and that is at the top of our thoughts all of the time," Feargus notes, "We really want the toolset to get easier and easier to use and so we made the decision a while ago to never hold up a new feature or refinement in the toolset for the release of the expansion. Also, as you pointed out, what we use the toolset to create is an example of what it can do. So, there is some pressure to make sure that we show the best of what the toolset is capable of doing. However, I think what we get the most enjoyment out of is when we see things that the community has done with the toolset that we never thought of. It's great to see them make it their own."
Since the community is such a key part of NWN, it leads you to wonder what they've made which have impressed Obsidian specifically ? "There has been so much great stuff out there that I would hate to single someone out at the expense of someone else," says Feargus somewhat diplomatically, "I think the area that I've been most impressed with though is the community's work on the interface, toolset, and spell mods and refinements that you can find up on nwvault.ign.com. We even incorporated some of the work from rpgplayer1 (spell fixes) and evenflw (AI improvements) into updates."