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Veteran's Day: Eight Hours With Obsidian

by Josh "Moxie" Sprague, 2006-10-27

While browsing through my journal, I found an earlier quest that I hadn’t completed. I'm turning the entries over to RPGWatch for a possible reward. I'm hoping for something for my head or cloak slot since Phoenix is starting to get chilly at night.

July 2006

When Interplay sank and Black Isle descended into the deep, a few survivors swam ashore and started a new colony called Obsidian Entertainment. Many will recognize them as the makers of Knights of the Old Republic 2, but gamers may still not realize that franchises like Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale show up in the rosters of the veterans populating this studio. Their current project, Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN2), is the primary focus of a joint visit along with Neverwinter Nights Warcry to Obsidian's studio.

***

An all-night drive that started at 4:00 AM in Phoenix ends at 9:00 AM in Obsidian's parking lot in Anaheim, California. Kalia shows up and we brief for the day. She knows this game inside and out. The questions that I've written down about storytelling and worldcrafting seem even more esoteric in comparison to her list covering everything from prestige classes to weapon specializations. If she gets answers to everything here, I think we'll be able to build the game ourselves.

***

Love for hardcore RPGs oozes out of this place and it's apparent from first contact with one of our point men for the day, Shane DeFreest. For too many game companies, PR staff are only mildly excited by the fact that they're working in the game industry and can have even less enthusiasm for the games they've been assigned to promote. Shane is refreshing. Unhidden passion for the NWN2 project is accommodated by geek street cred. As Shane charts a personal timeline that took him from Dark Horse to White Wolf to Vampire: The Masquerade video games (with a couple stops that include vampire-themed Joss Whedon shows), it becomes obvious that his involvement with CRPGs is a product of personal tenacity rather than the right MBA in Marketing. So, as we ask nerdy questions about Halflings and bo staves, we get thoughtful responses instead of a list of regurgitated feature bullets from the website.

***

Hanging above Scottie Everts' computer is a render of the Nameless One, an artifact from the days of Planescape: Torment. Scottie, like many others here, is a veteran in the world of RPG greats and if you looked through the credits of franchises like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Fallout, you'd find his name. Today, he is polishing the interior of an ill-kempt castle in NWN2.

We sit down beside him and he begins our tour with the lighting. The map of the room is marked with red spheres, showing the scope of placed lights. Scottie zooms into one of these spheres to show a decaying chandelier on which all but two candles have burned out. On the two left flickering, he places two lights and shows us how to change both the color of the light that's being cast and the color of the light as it's reflected off of things like armor. A simple toggle for candles and fires switches reflections to "bounce," changing the steady shine on some chain mail to a patchwork of flickering rings. Scottie points out that the shadows here diffuse into the distance rather than maintaining an unnaturally hard edge. Little things like this definitely add to the realism.

The toolset tour moves on to object placement. Old barrels, disheveled books and similar detritus are strewn about the room of an old keep. We're told that placing objects in a way that looks authentically unintentional is harder than one would think. As objects begin to arrange in a way the designer likes, he is able to save them as a group. This allows him to quickly drop this collection onto a spot next time without having to do each piece individually every time he needs a corner full of junk. Boundary lines can also be drawn around clutter to prevent characters from running into the window dressing and getting stuck as a consequence.

Two additional features, scaling and tinting, provide the artist greater creativity in his design. Scottie shows us a practical application of scaling as he stretches a carpet to cover more of the floor than it would normally. Of course scaling could be more fun than just carpets. Giant bugbears, tiny dragons, levels involving shrinking potions, etc. are all plausible options. I ask how textures are affected by scaling and Scottie says that he wouldn't go over double the original size if he wanted to maintain the quality.

Tinting gives the designer an option for quick color changes. Scottie shows us some books that he changes from red to blue for variety. Creature models can also be tinted and host additional fields for changing the colors of clothes, accessories and skin. World creators are going to have a lot of flexibility. I'm looking forward to what emerges.

***

I ask Scottie about his Planescape poster and he decides to show us some artwork from old projects. The mix of concept art includes a picture of a PIP Boy from what would have been Fallout 3. It's sad that project went down in that form. I wonder what Bethsoft's PIP Boy will look like.

***

At lunch I found out that my knowledge of D&D was vastly inferior to the rest of the group.

***

I have questions for Chris Avellone about his storytelling, but there's an undercurrent of busyness running through the studio. I want to know more about the less-than-black-and-white characters I'd experienced in Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II. Some of the conversations in the latter actually got to me on a personal level. I was talking to an aging Jedi about helping people and she nailed the fact that I might be more of a pragmatic enabler than someone who really does good for others. It kind've blew my mind.

I want to ask more about the choices in NWN2. Rather than just a dark and a light side, D&D includes a scale that shifts between chaos and order. In a previous conversation, Chris had said these would be included in how a characters choice influences his party members. I'm fascinated and want to know more.

Alas, the current of busyness bubbles to the surface in the Outlook inbox behind Chris' head. We exchanged greetings, but time for storytelling isn't available.

***

Josh Sawyer is a techno-poet. At least, that's all I can think as I sit in his office. Dungeon Master guides are contrasted by walls filled with the kind of paintings you would find in a hip, skid row art gallery. As I try to identify Latin-lined icons tattooed on his forearms, he answers Kalia's question, "Will a Halfling be able to use a bo staff?" I'm pretty sure this is the kind of guy I want as lead designer on this game.

He says part of his background includes interface design. This displays itself as he nitpicks near perfect menus in the character creation screens. This is a good thing as it gives me confidence that polish is a priority.

This is going to seem trite, but my favorite detail so far is the starting gear for the characters. As we click through classes, the bard looks like a musician and the priest looks like a healer. Their clothes aren't the generic brown tatters endemic to new adventurers, but look like the fancy costumes one only affords halfway through another RPG. In addition, the names of skills and feats are accompanied by a variety of colorful icons that offer visual cues to their nature. I know some RPG players love the character creation process as a game in itself. I'm one of them and the details here raise my blood pressure, in a good way.

***

Josh had a meeting after two hours, so we meet back up with Ryan. He shows us combat animations and how to make a hot pink, Barbie Dream Dragon.

After another few minutes, Kalia announces that she's actually finished her mammoth list of questions. Unbelievable. Just after finishing questions about the technical details, they bring in two programmers. They're candid and honest about programming challenges with Aurora early on, but they have a lot of confidence in what they have right now. The level of detail we could speak on was limited by my object-oriented ignorance, but programming RPGs seems to be an art in itself.

***

My venture home begins in LA traffic. As unpleasant as gridlock can be, it's a decent meditation tool. Today's theme is something Shane had said early this morning: "People can make a lot more money making other types of games. People make RPGs because they really love it."


To see Kalia's side of the trip and her copious notes, check the links below. Despite being from July, you still won't find this density of bite-sized NWN2 tidbits anywhere else.

Warcry Visits Obsidian:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Box Art

Information about

Obsidian Entertainment

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Country: United States