D&D may have gone online recently with Dungeons & Dragons Online, but fans of single-player role-playing games need not fear. Obsidian Entertainment is working on Neverwinter Nights 2, the sequel to 2002's hit role-playing game set in D&D's Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Like its predecessor, Neverwinter Nights 2 will feature both a single-player campaign as well as a multiplayer component that will let you create your own virtual role-playing modules and play them online with one player acting as a dungeon master. It's been a while since we last saw the game, so we caught up with lead designer J.E. Sawyer for the latest details.
GameSpot: It's been about four months since we've last seen Neverwinter Nights 2, and the game was in a very early state at that point. How far has the game progressed since then, and what's it looking like now?
J.E. Sawyer: It probably won't be surprising if I say that all of the pieces are coming together. Removing the old Aurora renderer and implementing Obsidian's new Electron renderer required a lot of changes in the code. We're patching all of that stuff together and finalizing the major revisions to the editor. It's been a bumpy ride, but the editor is now an even more powerful tool for both designers and end users.
For our "official campaign," we're taking a good look at where we are and how we can best spend our time to get a quality product out for people to enjoy. We're past the point of content lockdown, so our focus is very much on strengthening what we have and eliminating or revising those things that detract from the experience.
GS: Obsidian's had a history of working with Bioware before with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. Are you consulting much with the original Neverwinter Nights team at Bioware, or do you pretty much have a free hand to do what you'd like?
JES: Not really. The programmers have done so much revision to the engine that it wouldn't be all that productive, and the rest of the content is being generated internally.
GS: What can you tell us about the story? We know that the sequel is set sometime after the events of the original game, and that Neverwinter city is different because much of it was rebuilt following the cataclysmic events in the first game. What sort of new places can you reveal to us at this point?
JES: The story revolves around a dire figure from the history of the Sword Coast known as the King of Shadows. I can't honestly remember a game where the sentient embodiment of shadows is ever a good thing, so that should be a clue about his role in the story.
Your character starts in the village of West Harbor. It's a pretty peaceful town until the King of Shadows messes it up. Your character is caught up in the attack and has to survive through the assault. The events in West Harbor bring the village, and your character, to the attention of Lord Nasher in Neverwinter. Rulers of cities tend to get nervous when nearby villages are overrun with supernatural creatures, so some of Nasher's mental alarms go off. Your character gets caught up in a political and moral struggle that spans a healthy stretch of the Sword Coast, with some planar meddlers thrown in for good measure.
Anyway, it's an exciting thrill ride through the Forgotten Realms filled with mystery and intrigue. Sometimes the intrigue is even mysterious. However, those with weak hearts need not worry about the mystery being intriguing. Obsidian knows where to draw the line!
GS: Neverwinter Nights 2 is supposed to have a much stronger emphasis on story, but could you give us an idea of just how much deeper the story will be? For instance, we've heard that there's going to be a much more "believable" world, or, at least, as believable as a fantasy world filled with elves and dwarves can be. What does that mean, exactly?
JES: Your character comes from a very humble background. West Harbor is a pretty rural community and not a lot happens there. When you first arrive in Neverwinter, people don't think much of you. Your actions help build your reputation among people. Over time, you become increasingly feared and respected. Your role in the story increases in a manner that is believable within the setting. The reactions that people have to you are reactive and sensible. By the end of the story, you're entrusted with matters of grave importance because you have built up a reputation befitting a heroic figure.
Romance in the Virtual AirGS: We've also heard that the henchmen (and women) will be a lot more interesting in Neverwinter Nights 2. But the henchmen in the original game already had their own stories, so what could you do to make them more interesting? Will you have more control over henchmen in general, and will they be more useful in combat? And will you finally be able to manipulate their inventories on a more detailed basis?
JES: Some of the companions are integral to the plot and how it unfolds. They also have quite a bit to say throughout the story. On the technical side of things, they can be directly controlled during combat and their inventories can be manipulated directly.
(You may also be able to get e-smooches from your companions if you play your cards right.)
GS: How are you incorporating the latest version of the Dungeons & Dragons rules (version 3.5)? What sort of challenges does this create? After all, it's difficult to do a straight translation of pen-and-paper rules so that they apply in a virtual, real-time world.
JES: We're upgrading as much as we can. We're switching out all of the major components that changed for 3.5, but remaining issues have less to do with the virtual, real-time nature of the game engine and more to do with how the legacy Neverwinter game logic works. In a nutshell, the rules in the book are less restrictive than the rules in the code.
GS: Single-player is just part of what makes Neverwinter Nights so popular. The online play is just as important. How will Neverwinter Nights 2 improve on the incredibly successful multiplayer in the original? We know that you'll support up to 64 players per server, but what sort of enhancements are there to the gameplay experience?
JES: We're really trying to focus more on the single-player campaign and modding tools. Players and dungeon masters can expect the same level of multiplayer functionality that existed in the original Neverwinter Nights, but I really think that the expanded flexibility of the toolset is what will help make online experiences more enjoyable.
GS: It's clear from the screenshots that you've eliminated the "tile-based" look of the game, at least in the outdoor levels. But will users be able to make their own maps easily? After all, one of the nice things about tile-based maps is that they're simple to create. What sort of improvements are in the game's built-in editing tools?
JES: The height map system used in exteriors is terrific and very easy to work with. Users will be able to construct sprawling, beautiful outdoor environments with ease. The height mapping tools are very flexible and I think people will really enjoy them.
Interior tile sets function similarly to the original Neverwinter system, but the placement and selection of individual props is much easier. You can stack and rotate pretty much any freestanding prop with ease. So if you want to put down a table and turn it into an "alchemy table," you can just stack alchemical props on top of it as you see fit. If you want to make a "butt chest," you can place a chest and then make an item called a butt and put it on top of the chest. Then you can giggle a little bit.
Yes, the possibilities are truly limitless.
There are really a lot of modifications to the Neverwinter Nights 2 editor and we still have more to go. It's been a massive undertaking, but I think people will enjoy the changes.
GS: What sort of system requirements are you currently looking at for the game? Role-playing fans don't tend to have the latest graphics cards or processors, after all, so scalability must be important to you.
JES: Join us in the 21st century, role-playing fans! It's time to throw out those Righteous Monster 3D cards and bump up to the AGP and PCI Express era. At this point in time, the only hard system spec we want to give is this: Get a video card that supports shader model 2.0 or higher. Without it, the game will not run, and you will cry.
GS: Finally, how much work is there left to do, and when can we expect Neverwinter Nights 2 to wrap up development?
JES: There's "a bunch" of work left to do. Dwarves are still mining the gold for the gold master discs, so until that's taken care of, don't expect to see Neverwinter Nights 2 on store shelves. And by that I mean expect it in summer of 2006.
GS: Thank you.