e're continuing our interview with Joe Jing, the lead artist at Cryptic, by jumping into the topic of animation first.
We've brought up the subject of all that movement on the screen. What were some of the challenges when it came to animating the characters or monsters?
Not strictly animation, but it all ties together in creating a fully animated in-game character . . . our team's strength comes in sharing assets. What is great is any humanoid can share animations. Werewolves, orcs, goblins, humans, tieflings, and dwarves are all in this family. They can also wear the same armor (it scales to fit), wield the same weapons, share powers, effects, and targeting work. Everything kind of falls into place.
That said, the most challenging characters are always the nonhumanoids. Things like dragons and the beholder require a large amount of cross-team cooperation. You need a custom skeleton, custom animations, custom F/X. And without fail there are added frustrations that come to light as you go. Like, oh, magic missiles shoot the center of the ground under the beholder. Or, ah crap—wolves are 30 feet tall, so we need to add a height adjustment.
And how 'bout a gelatinous cube? How hard could that be? Really freakin' hard actually! It was one of the more interesting challenges to get functioning the way it should in the game. But, in the end, it was also one of the most crowd pleasing to see in action.
Another challenge to taking a pen and paper product to a video game title is with all the symbology in the IP that needs to be interpreted to make for a great user experience. What types of visual symbology did you have to create in the game to show concepts like leveling, powers, and so on?
That is an interesting difference in a video game vs. pen and paper. We have to rely heavily on visuals—and often, they need to be fairly visceral and exciting.
Leveling up is one of the most awesome moments in D&D, and we capture and portray that moment with golden lightning and sparkles and a giant level number framed in engraved dragons! If you think about it, it's pretty over-the-top and arguably a bit ridiculous, but when that moment happens, you want that feedback. You want the game to say, "Yeah! You're a bad ass!"
Even something as small as powers icons. In some ways it's subconscious, but take a close look—they're colorful and flashy. There is often a lot of motion happening in them. The powers are exciting, and the icons should represent that.
I've been having fun sneaking in and playing during the beta every now and then. There are so many great areas in the game. What are some of your favorite areas in the Neverwinter world? How much was from lore, and how much was created whole cloth for the game?
Ooooohhh, my favorite areas are anything Shadowfell. It's a parallel plane of the dead and shadows. When we began the first Shadowfell area, there wasn't a huge amount of reference art. What is there either looks expectedly spooky and dilapidated, which is definitely cool, but wouldn't really stand out that much from other spooky and dilapidated places in the game. Or the reference art is too hard to achieve in a small scope for the game. Yet we still wanted it to feel like you were entering another realm.
Since we have only a few small instances of Shadowfell, we had to find ways to make things stand out by mostly repurposing our existing assets. Our solution was a small set of spiky bolt-on pillars, chains, and floating debris. And the final touch is how we treated the lighting. It's very desaturated in the distance, and we use a lot of green flames that enhance the otherworldly look. We also use a lot of ambient occlusion, which creates thick heavy shadows in ridges and crevices—almost giving the impression that the shadows are permeating or even growing on everything in this realm.
In answer to the second part of the question, nearly all of our game zones have a solid foundation in the lore. Our content team is diligent about digging everything up from the popular and well known to the obscure. Of course we aren't necessarily interested in retelling the same stories—we craft experiences that fit the lore that are fresh for the players of Neverwinter. Furthermore, there are different amounts of reference information available for any area we feature. So we communicate weekly with Wizards of the Coast to make sure we fit the IP and don't contradict any of their goals. What's great is Wizards of the Coast understands the needs of different media, so it's a really positive relationship and we're all working together to make the game an awesome representation of D&D.
Elaborating, some areas have a lot of description and even a bit of reference art. This can give us clearer goals when making the concept art. That said, there are times where the description doesn't offer those impressive, zone-defining landmarks mentioned earlier. In those cases, we brainstorm and kick out a quick high-level concept and then present and discuss with Wizards of the Coast. The wolf mountain above is an example of this. Also, Ice Spire Peak is a great example. There aren't really any outstanding landmarks mentioned in the lore. So we created a backstory that a frost giant tapped into the elemental chaotic power of a magic item known as the Winterforge. It was too much power for the frost giant to contain, and he physically grew to immense proportions until the power overwhelmed him and killed him, leaving behind a carcass the size of a deity frozen as one with the mountain. It offers an outstanding visual in the game and tells a story in the environment. After talking with Wizards of the Coast and ironing out some of the details, boom!—freakin' frost giant in the mountain!
The trailer (#3) really captures the feel of D&D for me. Do you feel the game captures the same vibe and flavor? In what ways?
Yes! Agreed on the trailer, Jon. And yes! I absolutely think we are hitting on an exciting translation of what makes D&D appealing in the game of Neverwinter. From the distinct classes with their unique and compelling gameplay styles, to a pretty wide selection of player races. Monsters galore. Loot, loot, and more loot. Exploring wondrous and epic locations both familiar and pleasantly surprising.
To me, where the game really shines, too, is the five-person dungeons and events. Whether teaming up with your favorite band of adventurer friends, or joining a band of strangers all looking for glory and reward—these are challenging adventures that encourage teamwork and a diversity of skillsets that are what D&D is about.
Last, but not least, got an itch to be a Dungeon Master? The Foundry is the place for you. Create your own adventures. Pick a map—interior, exterior, doesn't matter. Link 'em together in just about in any fashion—travel from a tavern to a cave or to a crypt seamlessly. Prop it up however you want. Populate it with NPCs and enemies with a robust character editor that allows you to use just about any existing costume in the shipped game, or modify the way they look to your heart's content. Make the story, objectives, and dialogue trees. Lay down traps. It's almost impossible for me to list all the possibilities.
D&D vibe? Hell yes.
The world is pretty vast. Are there any easter eggs in the world that you'd like to tell us about?
Well, wouldn't that ruin it? Let's just say some treasure chests bite. :P
In the final part of this interview with Joe Jing, we find out more about the team behind the artistic elements of the game, the visual aspect of character builds, and more.
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 theartorder.com.