No sooner than we heard that Obsidian were at work on another NWN2 add-on, with a more party-customisation adventuring approach, we dropped 'em a line. NWN2: Storm of Zehir's producer, Kevin Saunders, took a few minutes from measuring the merit of monsters to answer our questions. Below the cut you'll find a little about what Storm of Zehir's approach allows (And what's lost), his memories of playing early D&D games, what the overland map allows and how the fifteen-hour-main story perhaps isn't everything...
RPS: With its full party customisation approach, it seems to owe more to things like Icewind Dale and even older RPGs (Gold Box and earlier, to Bard's Tale and similar). Most modern party based games go for the pregenerated NPC character model, making it a rarity in the modern marketplace. Why did you choose to re-explore this terrain? What strengths does this kind of approach offer which the pregenerated NPC model loses?
Kevin Saunders: With this approach, you completely own your character(s). This complete customization of who your alter ego is at the core of what pencil-and-paper role-playing is all about. For me personally - and I suspect this is true for many - my first memory of role-playing is creating my character. I was five and my older brother (9) had bought the Basic D&D book - the red set with the warrior slashing at a red dragon on the cover. I chose a halfling - probably because I was about that size - who I creatively named Nivek. I don't even remember what adventures he went on, but I do remember him. With a pregenerated character, you lose that magical sense of ownership that's at the core of role-playing.
There are major trade-offs in making a game that allows character customization. The amount of work required is staggering. Armor, weapons, attack animations, etc. must all be adapted to work with each race. The story must be flexible enough to embrace a wide variety of characters. And there are many other considerations: once you let the player create their own character, you set many expectations that are challenging to meet. It's much easier to create a great game with a specific character/role the player fills - that's part of why so many games go that route. The problems can compound when you're talking about an entire party instead of a single character. But it's not what D&D and the Neverwinter Nights 2 franchises are about.
Obsidian's past games have given great customizability in terms of your character. With Storm of Zehir, we wanted to expand that to an entire party (as was done in the older CRPGs you mention).
RPS: Reading between the lines of the press release, Zehir seems to be embracing the old school D&D of dungeon crawling and adventure. Would this be a right impression?
Kevin: I would say that your interpretation is accurate, yes.
RPS: Equally, reading about the encounters in the wilderness... while you talk about a fifteen hour campaign, I get the feeling that refers to the central arc involving the Yuan-Ti, and there's lots of room for random hack and slash. Am I reaching or onto something?
Kevin: Again, I'd say you're on target. =)
RPS: Heh. Okay - what sort of strengths does the new exploration map offer?
Kevin: We initially experimented with the Overland Map as a novelty. Toward the end of Mask of the Betrayer, designers Eric Fenstermaker and Jeff Husges played around with the idea a bit just to see what would be possible. As the feature developed (primarily through the work of both Jeff and Nathaniel Chapman), we realized how much value it could add to the game.
The first appeal of the Overland Map was the exploration aspect and how it would support a more open-ended type game. We wanted Storm of Zehir to still be story-driven, but to allow more flexibility and be less linear than Neverwinter Nights 2 and Mask of the Betrayer (MotB). Having a world to wander around was a great way to embrace this direction. And, as you've noted already, the exploration aspect embraces some of the classic D&D and CRPG feel that hasn't been emphasized in a Neverwinter Nights game before.
The Overland Map also freed us artistically. Neverwinter Nights 2 and Mask of the Betrayer established a fairly realistic artistic style. While we're increasing pleased with the areas we've been able to create, because the Overland Map is its own "mode" we could stretch our artistic creativity further and develop a different style and feel for it.
Another benefit from the Overland Map has been our D&D rules implementation. We've never been thrilled with the role Skills have played in Neverwinter Nights games. They are not as well integrated into the gameplay as we would have liked. On the Overland Map, skills like Spot, Survival, and Listen could all be given gameplay effects that would be fun and interesting, clear to the player, and more faithful to their D&D implementation.
RPS: Basic questions, which I suspect you won't be able to answer, but I have to try - what classes and playable races are you planning on adding? Why did you choose them? What about the Party Feats?
Kevin Saunders: Yeah, we're not really discussing this sort of thing (races and classes) just yet. Having party-centric feats seemed like a natural extension of the party-based campaign. Neverwinter Nights 2, especially with Mask of the Betrayer, already has a fairly robust selection of normal feats and we felt we could add more to the game by looking into Teamwork Benefits. We're still working on them, but expect they will work similarly to how they are described in the Player's Handbook 2.
RPS: On a racial question, what attracted you to the Yuan-Ti as an adversary?
Kevin: We felt that the southern jungles would be a great area to explore in a second NWN2 expansion - this choice of a future setting was one we made long before we even knew if there'd be a Storm of Zehir (the astute noted references to Chult in Mask of the Betrayer). Jungles would open up a new terrain for the mod community and would give us an excuse to add dinosaurs to NWN2. =) The yuan-ti are a key player in that part of the world and are also an interesting and classic (if slightly exotic) D&D opponent.
RPS: Finally - the economic trading aspect sounds a fascinating thing to try. How will that work in the game? What inspired you to try such a thing - I've been very interested in Indie games like Mount & Blade which works with similar dynamic systems, so it all sounds enormously interesting.
Kevin: We're also not ready to talk about the details of the Trading System just yet. It seemed like a natural way to develop and utilize the Overland Map. For example, it helps us tie traditional NWN 2-style quests into Overland Map gameplay.
RPS: And I suspect that's more than enough. Before I go - flipping it around, a previous question - what sort of things have you lost which you kind of miss?
Kevin Saunders: Insightful question. Perhaps the biggest thing we "lost" was the involved companions we've had in previous Obsidian titles. Storm of Zehir will have Cohorts, each of whom has their own background and personality. But they are much more optional and are not integral story components. They also do not have the expansive dialogues that some Knights of the Old Republic 2, NWN2, and MotB companions have. There will be quite a few to choose from and they'll comment on what's going on in the game (as the Mask of the Betrayer companions did) and bolster your custom-created party. This approach with Cohorts felt like it fit the Storm of Zehir gameplay better and allowed us to expend more creative energy on creating a reactive and interesting world to explore.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
We'll bring more on Storm of the Zehir as we approach its release near the end of the year.