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Neverwinter: Behind the Curtain, Part 2
Dragon's-Eye View
By Jon Schindehette

L ast week I told you that I would be pulling back the curtain on the development of the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Neverwinter action massively multiplayer online roleplaying game release. This has been a fun, yet challenging, title to develop. Why fun? Because it's D&D! Seriously, can you ask for anything better than a living and breathing D&D world? Why challenging? Well, there are a lot of issues to resolve when taking on a title of this scope. And when the scope changes in midstream, it becomes even more challenging. Luckily, Dan and I were blessed with working with a skilled and talented creative team at Cryptic Studios.

I asked Joe Jing, the lead artist at Cryptic, to help me pull back the curtain and talk a bit about creative development of the title. I think you'll enjoy this romp through the studio. It is much cooler than anything you'll read in one of the industry rags.

Joe, what was the process of creating the game like?

We drink Mountain Dew and eat Cool Ranch Doritos while we play video games all day long. Kidding, of course—more like Starbucks, food trucks, and making the same game each day for literally years.

To kill any misconceptions, it is work. First of all, development costs millions of dollars—it's a serious business. There are highly trained and skilled individuals working on the project from a wide range of specialization ranging from programming to audio. There are strict and serious deadlines. There are unavoidable problems and crises that arise on a weekly, or even daily, basis. There are many "lively debates." There are many late nights. There can be a lot of stress and pressure.

But, if at all successful, there can be immense satisfaction in creating something as interactive as a video game. Taking part in creating a world that a person can explore, a story in which they can partake, and a forum in which they can meet existing friends and make new ones—this is all awesome! Luckily (well, just a little luck—mostly blood, sweat, and tears mentioned above) Neverwinter is shaping up to be a project to be proud of as we close in on our release date.

What were some of the highlights of the process?

Cryptic Studios had an advantage early on in that we had an established engine and many assets from Champions and Star Trek Online to serve as the starting foundation for Neverwinter Preproduction. At that time, there were only about 10–12 people total on the project, pretty much only one developer per department. A great example of the challenge involved was in character creation. Imagine making a fantasy game with numerous NPCs, monsters, armor, and player races . . . but doing so with one character artist. Obviously impossible, so the real goal during preproduction is to figure out the template and systems that would be utilized and built upon as the team expands. Specifically, how would one evolve Cryptic's established modular character system—with all of the swappable parts, and body/face scaling capabilities—to fit the specific needs of a D&D-style game?

I distinctly remember the document you created explaining this system to me. I still use it in my own development to help organize my thoughts.

The Preproduction phase is also very much about experimentation. Continuing the character-related process, the earliest characters were intentionally lower poly counts than STO or Champs. Males and females also actually shared the same body model, rig, and armor—gender was created by scaling and morphing the proportions. Through feedback, it was determined the initial art style and results weren't satisfactory and/or easy enough to achieve—the characters were too low poly and unattractive. So we went through a major character revamp, increased poly count, and separated male and female characters into two distinct skeletons and base models.

I remember playing with the early character creator at your studio. We had some huge laughs when things went awry, and some cringes when it really went awry! How did things change with the decision to shift directions on the game?

The scope of the project changed quite dramatically from a smaller scale, cooperative style, budget title to a full-blown, free-to-play action MMORPG. This created pretty broad dramatic shifts in much of the game. Probably most impactful is the combat in the game. It has gone through numerous overhauls before arriving where it is now. We tried point and click style experiments, typical MMO power cool-downs and queues, and quite a few different versions of "action" combat.

The internal development team is currently at about 70 members, which is still surprisingly small for a game of this scope. But the team has a lot of strengths with systematic approaches. We still make armor swappable among all player races, and humanoid monsters and environments are built out of modular pieces as well, allowing great variety, thematic unity, and efficiency in quickly creating the worlds the player will see.

Early version of Sgt. Knox and his crew. Made with limited armor assets. Also notice skin tone and color schemes not very diverse and/or dull.

Current version made when more armor options were available. Also with more interesting color schemes and diversity.

What is the greatest challenge to creating a D&D game title?

Broad scale, the greatest challenge is translating a pen and paper, turn-based game that relies heavily on imagination and verbal story telling into a real-time "living and breathing" interactive world to be explored. And making it in such a way that long-time D&D fans and MMO fans find it compelling and true to what they expect and love. Luckily many of the people on the team are in one or both of those camps and are making a game they love.

But if I were to pick a more specific challenge—it's all the effin' loot! Seriously . . . holy crap . . . there are a lot of armor and weapons that need to be created and hooked up. The good news is we have a pretty efficient process now and the stuff looks fantastic!

There is a lot of "stuff" in a D&D world, huh? To be honest, I think it was often the "stuff" that I enjoyed talking about and seeing the most. I still use the "level sheet" we created for the armor and weapons as a reference for appropriate ways to "level" items. That leads me to my next question: What were the challenges of bringing an inherently 2-D world into the 3-D world?

Characters are pretty straightforward. There is an abundance of awesome art from the 40 or so years of official D&D sources like Player's Handbooks and Monster Manuals. Very often the most we'll do is concept an armor set that is made of modular components and fits our guidelines to get the variety needed for the game, since we don't have the time or manpower to make custom one-off armor for every creature in the game.

Environments, on the other hand, are often a different story. We still start with reference material, like the Neverwinter Campaign Guide. But there is usually limited visual reference. So we examine the written descriptions and begin with concept art to try to hit the overall impression. In addition, we push to have a selection of outstanding landmarks in any area, or "zone." This is extremely important for navigation in a 3-D world.

For example, Vellosk is described as a mountain forest that is inhabited by the Uthgardt barbarian tribe (who also happen to be werewolves). I asked the concept artist to try to "capture the essence of a werewolf mountain forest." As a half-joke, his first pass featured a huge mountain peak in the shape of a wolf head, complete with a smoking bonfire in its open cave "mouth." Guess what? You guys loved it, and it was a hit. The half-joke turned into the real deal.

I've had a number of "jokes" or "crazy sleep-deprived ideas" turn into something that we ended up loving. I never throw away any idea . . . no matter how silly it might seem at the moment. What were some of your favorite characters or monsters that you worked on in the game?

I'm partial to the devils. They have a good deal of variety of shapes and sizes, and the wings and/or tails on many of them offer great ambient movement. They just look damn cool. They also have some of the more engaging gameplay and audio. From enormous shocktroop devils sending heroes flying with a swipe while threatening to swallow their souls, to the chattering and laughing little imps that dart all around, making difficult targets.

In the next installment of this interview with Joe Jing, who has the fun and challenging job of being the lead artist at Cryptic Studios, we take on the topics of animation, icons, and more!

Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at
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