Earlier this month, Atari and Obsidian Entertainment announced Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, the first expansion pack to last year's acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. Neverwinter Nights 2 was the follow-up to 2002's popular RPG, and it reintroduced you to the fabled Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It also delivered an excellent story (which won GameSpot's award for the best story of 2006), as you adventured around the Sword Coast to save the city of Neverwinter from evil. With the expansion, developer Obsidian hopes to top itself. To get some of the early details on Mask of the Betrayer, which will ship later this year, we turned to lead designer and producer Kevin Saunders.
GameSpot: The story in NWN2 is generally regarded as being both excellent and lengthy, providing plenty of great gameplay. How does the expansion's story compare? Who wrote it and who served as lead designer?
Kevin Saunders: George Ziets is Mask of the Betrayer's creative lead and the architect of our story and characters. The story is brilliant--I think it will be Obsidian's best yet. Mask of the Betrayer (NX1) is shorter than the NWN2 campaign (we're targeting 15 to 20 hours of gameplay), but it will definitely be an epic and memorable experience. I occupy the role of lead designer but fortunately didn't get in George's way too much.
GS: Neverwinter Nights 2 came out in late October, roughly six months ago. Did you start work on the expansion immediately after NWN2 shipped, or was it in the planning stages beforehand? What's the history on this expansion?
KS: We began planning for Mask of the Betrayer last summer. For the first several months, it was mostly George, CEO Feargus Urquhart, and I determining the feature set, storyline, and direction for the game. Toward the end of NWN2, we dropped working on NX1 entirely to bolster the forces dedicated to completing NWN2.
After Neverwinter Nights 2 shipped, many of the experienced artists, designers, and programmers rolled right onto NX1--after a well-deserved break, of course. One of our expert modelers, Glenn Price, began working on NX1 creatures even before NWN2 was done, so we had some new toys to work with right away.
GS: This sounds like it's a high-level expansion for existing players, rather than something that newcomers can jump into and play. Can you transfer your existing NWN2 character into the expansion? Can you create a new character and start from level one in the new campaign, or is that a recipe for disaster?
KS: It is a high-level campaign, and you will be able to transfer your existing NWN2 character. You can also create a new character if you want, especially if you're interested in trying out some of the new race and class options. In both cases, if your character is lower than a certain level, we'll give you enough experience points to level up to where the Mask of the Betrayer expects you to be.
NX1 is intended to provide a continuation of the character from NWN2, but it isn't really a continuation of the NWN2 story and no NWN2 knowledge is necessary to fully enjoy it.
GS: What details can you share regarding the story beyond the basics that we know? The game starts immediately after the events of the first game, and it starts with the character deep underground. What's going on?
KS: The story in Mask of the Betrayer isn't about saving the world. It's an epic story, but it's a very personal one. You awaken in a pool of your own blood. Your immediate goal is survival. The shard of the Sword of Gith has been ripped from your chest and in its place is a dark hunger, a craving that threatens to consume you. The early part of the game involves determining the source and implications of this craving.
GS: How far has the level cap, which was previously set at 20, been raised? What are some of the new high-level skills and abilities in the expansion?
KS: Mask of the Betrayer takes you into the D&D epic levels, up to level 30. All of the base classes are being expanded up to level 30, and you can multiclass and take prestige classes to reach the higher levels. You'll have over 50 epic feats to choose from, some of which provide new abilities that we've designed with guidance from Wizards of the Coast. For example, monks might acquire the blazing aura feat, which engulfs their body in flames, injuring enemies who attack them, and adding to their unarmed strike damage.
GS: What are the new races and prestige classes? What about new items and weapons?
KS: We're not ready to talk about the new races yet, though I'll say that some of the speculation I've seen is accurate. We've paid great attention to what the community's requests have been for new race and class content and have implemented some of the most popular options. As some have surmised given our setting, the Red Wizard of Thay is one of the new prestige classes. We're also implementing two new base classes.
Brand New Friends and EnemiesGS: How is the companion system being improved? Are any familiar characters returning for the expansion? How many new characters are there?
KS: Companions have been a core component of Obsidian's games, and we're continuing to evolve our implementation of them. We want to reach a higher degree of companion reactivity in Mask of the Betrayer. We've revamped the influence system to now provide gameplay benefits to your companions (and yourself in some cases) when they gain sufficient loyalty to you.
We've also increased the depth of the companions by having them also react more believably to poor treatment. If you upset them too much, they will also act appropriately. At first, you'll lose direct control of them (we've improved upon the companion artificial intelligence). Eventually, they'll stop sharing items or carrying around your loot for you. And if you oppose them enough, they'll abandon you. Don't worry, if they annoy you too much, you can kill them, which might bring some benefits....
The cast of companions in Mask of the Betrayer is fairly small, allowing us to better develop their personalities and increase their reactivity to game events. With very few exceptions, you'll never be forced to have a certain (or any) companion with you. None of the companions in NX1 are from the NWN2 campaign, though you may come across the opportunity to learn a bit about the fate of some of your old friends.
GS: What's the setting of the expansion? For instance, are there any similarities to the Shadows of Undrentide expansion for the first Neverwinter Nights because it starts underground?
KS: It's true that you'll begin underground, but you're not in the Underdark, and most of the game takes place on the surface. Oh, except for that part where you're exploring a sunken Imaskari city ruled by an Oracle of Delphi-like coven of paragon hags. (Designed by Tony Evans, who designed several of the planets in Knights of the Old Republic 2 and led the design of Act 3 in NWN2, the area feels like a classic D&D dungeon adventure.)
We've had two main goals in our setting choices. First, we wanted to create new tilesets and terrains that will benefit the mod and persistent world communities. Second, we wanted to accurately depict Rashemen with some stunning visuals, such as the Immil Vale that artist Ed Lacabanne created.
GS: Judging from the first screens, it looks like the graphics may have been enhanced? What sort of technical improvements are there? Has the engine been improved?
KS: NX1 is looking better than NWN2 for a few reasons. First, with support from several of the NWN2 programmers, including Jason Keeney, Adam Brennecke, and Frank Kowalkowski, we've made significant improvements to aspects of the graphics engine, such as the sky box, specularity, and lighting.
Second, our artists spent some time at the beginning of the project experimenting with what the NWN2 graphics engine can do and learning how to get even better results from it. Also, Obsidian's new art director, Justin Cherry (who, among many other things, created the amazing spell effects NWN2 has been praised for), has been adding effects and ambience to the environments to make them feel more alive.
Also, though the screenshots wouldn't reflect this, we made many optimizations to the engine since NWN2 first shipped, and we've improved frame rates and performance across the board. (These improvements were made in the first couple of updates to NWN2 last year.)
All of these improvements will benefit the community's content creators as well. As for the NX1 campaign, our design team has paid specific attention to ensuring that each area has impressive vistas that are both eye candy and important to the gameplay.
GS: Finally, what enhancements to the mod-making tools are being made in the expansion? How about changes or enhancements to multiplayer?
KS: Obsidian, Atari, Wizards of the Coast, and Hasbro all fully recognize the importance of the mod community and are continuously working to improve NWN2 in this regard. Mask of the Betrayer's lead programmer, Rich Taylor, is especially dedicated to improving NWN2 for modders, persistent world creators, and multiplayer gamers. Improvements to the toolset are continuously underway and are available through patches to NWN2. You'll need NX1 to get the new creatures, tilesets, and other content, but we didn't want the community to have to wait for toolset enhancements.
We've been adding many usability features, such as undo for terrain sculpting (courtesy of the aforementioned Adam Brennecke) and a creature appearance wizard (implemented by NX1 programmer Josh Verall) that make it much easier to try out different armor appearances, among other things. Our lead scripter, Charles Mead, who hails from the NWN1 mod community, is constantly adding to NWN2's impressive library of global scripts. We'll continue improving upon the toolset, with most of the enhancements coming directly from the feedback we receive from the various NWN2 communities.
We're designing the campaign in NX1 to be more multiplayer-friendly through various design decisions (fewer cutscenes, for example, which can be disruptive in cooperative multiplayer). And, like with the toolset improvements, we're enhancing various aspects of the multiplayer experience through the ongoing NWN2 updates.
GS: Thank you, Kevin.