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Guest Feature: Interview with the Project Director of Neverwinter Nights

Learn the story behind one of the true RPG legends' creation.
Bernhard "niv" Stoeckner and other members of the Neverwinter Vault community put together this in-depth interview with the game's Project Director/Producer Tent Oster.
If you're interested in learning about the creation of a legend, you're in for a real treat.
Nowadays, when most people hear the name Trent Oster, they think of him as the CEO of Beamdog and the Enhanced Editions of Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II, Icewind Dale, and Planespace: Torment released on GOG and elsewhere.
But fans of Neverwinter Nights will remember Trent as the Project Director/Producer (and other roles) of the game they love so much. I’ve had the opportunity to reach out to Trent with a few questions about the development of NWN and how it changed in the last fifteen years.

Fifteen years later, Neverwinter Nights is still going strong with thousands of online players every day. What do you think about what the NWN community has done since NWN took flight? What surprised you the most?

Trent: I think the community has done awesome work. The volume of really cool adventures even in the early days was amazing. I've probably been most surprised at the longevity of some of the online worlds and the lengths the operators have gone through to enhance and improve their worlds.

What are the key elements for a pen & paper campaign? Was there ever an adventure you’d wanted to play in? How does that translate to a video game?

Trent: The key elements of a pen and paper game are a fun group, a flexible DM who can tell a great story, and enough snacks to last till the wee hours. When I was younger I would occasionally buy a module and want to play it, but our group was typically too low level. Lost caverns of Tsojcanth comes to mind as one such adventure. I think playing with friends in a video game can translate well, it removes all the logistics management and simulation load from the players and the DM, but computer games impose some hard limitations in what a player can do. Having a live DM and some powerful tools can help mitigate that a bit, but you still don't have the full freedom of pen and paper.

NWN is sometimes considered as a self-owned, self-hosted mini-MMO toolkit. This model might not be profitable in modern times which could be why we haven’t seen other games following it. What do you think about the online gaming landscape in 2017?

Trent: I think we really focused on a simple plan: to give players value for their money. Anyone who buys Neverwinter Nights gets a fun game, the tools to tell their own stories, and the potential to run their own server. When we launched new content, players got an expansion with a new single player story, some new tilesets, new monsters, and new items. I think today the cost/value is still a good metric and some companies are doing well while others are not.

Would you do things differently now, if you had another go at starting NWN? Would it even exist?

Trent: If I started on NWN today I would do a few things differently. In the development of NWN we designed a ton of systems from scratch. If I were to build the game concept again, I'd really try to embrace more open standards. The .PLT files for one are a notorious pain, both for a development team and modding. I still think NWN is a brilliant product idea and I'd do it again if the stars aligned to make it happen.

What was the toughest hurdle to get during the development of Neverwinter Night’s?

Trent: The toughest hurdle was the development timeline. We were in development for 5 years as we built a new engine from scratch and then designed an entire multiplayer game and single player story to all work together. We tackled a ton of challenging problems and in many cases came up with good solutions.

Is there anything particularly satisfying that came of Neverwinter Nights?

Trent: The number of really great user-created modules and the community that developed around the game are both parts of Neverwinter Nights that I'm proud to see continuing on to this day.

Did the creation of this game bring any personal epiphanies?

Trent: Yes, companions are an excellent storytelling vector and AI companions can be the most frustrating thing in the universe.

Can you share anything truly awesome you wanted to have in the game but had to be dropped?

Trent: I wanted to do a lot of things that had to be dropped. An online character vault was a big feature we had to step away from. We had ideas around supporting modules in-game which we backed away from due to concerns around legal content ownership issues (this was pre-DMCA). I think if NWN had made it a lot easier to share modules, we could have increased the community even further.

Do you think the publishing landscape has become more difficult for smaller studios? What is your message to new devs out there?

Trent: It is way harder in some ways and way easier in others. Making games used to be really hard, like capital "H" hard. Now, with Unreal and Unity, you have engines with huge development teams supporting them which have ready-to-ship tools, environments, and models available for cheap. The tech side really has become much easier.
The major challenge now is differentiating yourself from the 11 other games that launched on Steam THAT DAY, or the 290 that launched on iOS THAT WEEK. Gamers are constantly bombarded with information about all these games and connecting with the right audience is much harder than it once was.

Bioware drew some talent from the community when first developing and later supporting Neverwinter Nights. You did something similar for Beamdog's EE titles. How has this been working out? Do you see a change in how some game studios will operate in the future or is Beamdog unique in this regard due to the nature of your games?

Trent: We drew heavily from the community, with almost half the people working on some of the Enhanced Edition games coming from the community. I think the studios that embrace user-created content will drive this approach going forward and we hope to be on the front lines of this trend.

Coffee or tea?

Trent: Coffee. A very big mug of it.

Gnomes or Doppelgangers? I’ve heard you have a thing against gnomes.

Trent: Ick. Both are unpleasant options. Although a doppelganger party member could be useful in some scenarios, whereas a gnome, there is just no hope.

What was it like developing the Neverwinter Nights premium modules compared to the original release? Were the lessons learned during the OC applicable?

Trent: I think it was a breath of fresh air. We understood what worked and what didn't and we weren't constrained to fit into the original campaign, so the writer/designer was free to explore ideas and content that didn't make sense in the larger campaign. I also think not crunching constantly gave us a chance to reflect and make them better.

People have imported Witcher 1 and 2 assets, even whole areas, into their NWN game worlds. How did CD Projekt come to use the Aurora engine? Do you have any great stories to share there?

Trent: We had known the CD Projekt fellows from the BG1 days when they translated Baldur's Gate without external support. They basically reverse engineered the text system and injected their localization.
We later met with the CD Projekt team as they started on the Witcher series. They were interested in licensing the Aurora engine and tools as the starting point for the Witcher game. They pulled together a really impressive internal demo and without much further discussion we licensed the team the engine, which they did a ton of work on before shipping the first Witcher game. I'm certain some of the ideas behind Neverwinter Nights and the Aurora engine live on in their team and their products.

Not too many people have heard of the other uses NWN saw - for example, as an educational tool by AI researchers, and in classrooms and universities. What led to NWN being used for this, and is there anything you think of that can be done to further this?

Trent: I spoke at a few conferences on the topic in the year after NWN released. I think it was a logical platform as it offered an easy-to-get-started toolkit, a ton of documentation, and a very powerful c-syntax scripting language. I think the best way to further the use of NWN or other game engines in research, classrooms, and universities is to keep the game open for modification and to do everything possible to make the tools easy to use.

Is there anything I’ve missed or fun stories you’d like to share?

Trent: Countless stories, but we only have time to touch on one. During the development of NWN, whenever something went wrong on a creature file it would be replaced in-game by a badger. The badger model for some reason became the default fail state for a creature load or spawn. We had a bug that one day where I loaded the official campaign on my computer and the entire cast was replaced with badgers. It was very disturbing having in-depth conversations with badgers while other badgers looked on and then to later be fighting badgers that used special abilities.

People will lynch me if I don't ask this: You've done BG: EE, BG2: EE, IWD: EE, and PST: EE. Is NWN next?

Trent: I hope you survive the lynching process ;-). I've always said I'm not done with Neverwinter Nights and the multiplayer space. At the moment we don't have anything to talk about, but I'm keeping my eyes open for opportunities.
The interview opportunity has been kindly provided by Beamdog.