Building a Better Game

Talking with some of the people involved with Neverwinter Nights and Shadows of Undrentide.
Talking to BioWare

I also had a chance to speak with some of the people from BioWare: Derek French, Live Team Producer, and Tom Ohle, Public Relations Lead for NWN.

Linux Journal: How many developers worked on the Linux client project?

Derek French: The Linux client project was organized and managed by BioWare's Live Team. The Live Team operates as a development project and changes size on a regular basis as it takes on new objectives. The core, or permanent, Live Team is a three-member group, but it has grown to as many as 10 people when major projects are underway.

LJ: What was the most significant achievement or learning experience from the Linux client project? What did BioWare take away from this experience?

DF: Developing on multiple platforms allowed us to catch bugs that would manifest themselves on the different platforms in different ways. This provided us with more information on these issues and solved more of them in the long run.

LJ: How many development hours were spent on creating the Linux client?

DF: The Live Team didn't track specific hours invested in the Linux client, so I can't comment directly on that question. However, the Live Team has been working on a number of customer value-added initiatives for Neverwinter Nights that started even before the retail product shipped. In short, over a year of effort has been invested by BioWare's Live Team developing extra value for the Neverwinter Nights fan community, and we've been very happy with the great community support the team has received.

LJ: How many downloads of the Linux client were recorded during the first 48 hours?

DF: We had over 1,000 downloads of the first beta of the Neverwinter Nights Linux client in the first 48 hours. Considering that each beta was mirrored on a number of different sites, the total download numbers are probably much higher. The Linux server also has been an extremely successful download.

LJ: What prompted the decision to port the game to Linux?

DF: From the start of development BioWare wanted Neverwinter Nights to be available for Windows, Mac and Linux. We committed to our fans that we would make Neverwinter Nights available to them regardless of operating system.

LJ: Many people, myself included, purchased the game well in advance of the Linux client release. As a developer, how does that make you feel? What would you like to say to those people?

DF: BioWare considers the Linux community to be an important customer segment. Linux users often are early adopters and provide BioWare with great feedback concerning where the general PC market is heading. We have been pleased with the response from the Linux community to date and hope the client is as well received as we anticipate.

LJ: What type of hardware and which distribution is the Linux client being developed on?

DF: The Neverwinter Nights Linux client started its development under Mandrake but then was moved to Red Hat for the last half of the project. We had a few different development boxes running dual Pentium and Athlon CPUs with various GeForce and Radeon video cards.

LJ: Are there currently any plans to port future titles to Linux?

DF: Future Linux port decisions would be up to our publishing partners and would have to be visited on a case by case basis.

LJ: The port took several months to release. The release date slid several times during the course of development. Did anyone foresee it taking this long? What were the major stumbling blocks?

DF: The Live Team is challenged to manage resources carefully according to a well defined mission statement. We have been interested in delivering the Linux client for quite some time but were forced occasionally to allocate resources towards unanticipated events. That's part of the joy and challenge of working in a Live Team environment; we're directly connected with over 1.2 million community members and charged with evaluating and responding to their needs. Even with our best crystal ball, it's not always possible to predict where the community is going to take us over the short term.

LJ: Do you think the Linux gaming market is growing?

DF: We'll be watching the success of the Neverwinter Nights Linux client carefully to get a better feel for the potential of the Linux gaming market. This initiative will provide BioWare with valuable information to help answer this question in the long run.

LJ: What criteria would constitute a success of the Linux client--more sales, large numbers of client downloads, a surge in number of players on-line?

DF: Many of the above metrics will be evaluated when considering the client product's success. BioWare actively monitors sales, client downloads, on-line play sessions and community module development as indicators of a Live Team project's success.

LJ: Many developers have Linux servers (such as Valve with HLDS and EA with Medal of Honor), but not many have native ports of the games themselves. I find this to be a bit strange: they want us to run their game servers on Linux, but not the games themselves. What are your feelings on this subject?

DF: BioWare, of course, can't comment on the business decisions of other developers. From our point of view, we wanted to test the market interest in a Linux client and use this experience to support business decisions about future products.

LJ: RadGameTools, according to the Linux client update page, provided the ability to play Miles audio on Linux. How much did that speed the client release? Similarly, will the chapter movies ever be able to be played on Linux?

DF: Having Miles for Linux solved all of our audio implementation issues for Linux. I would guess that rolling our own audio subsystem for Neverwinter Nights for Linux would have added several more months to the development schedule.

LJ: Now that RadGameTools has released a Linux version of the video player, is there a chance that future expansions will include the ability to play in game movies with the Linux client?

DF: We're exploring the possibilities. Hopefully we'll know more soon.

LJ: The NPCs seem to have much richer dialog options in SoU. Can you tell me how that came to be and what really sets them apart from the NWN Original Campaign NPCs?

Tom Ohle: With Shadows of Undrentide we really wanted to focus on creating fewer but more interesting NPCs. We were able to spend more time to make the henchmen and other NPCs much more interactive. The focus on a shorter campaign afforded us the same luxury.

LJ: When replaying the Original Campaign, I have found that a higher level character doesn't get an easy ride in the first chapter. Is it my imagination or are the creatures a little tougher if you come in with a higher level?

DF: One of the great features of the Aurora toolset is that you can scale encounter difficulty. It really helps add a lot of replay value to an already huge game.

LJ: What do you feel sets SoU apart from NWN Original Campaign?

DF: Tons! As mentioned earlier, with SoU we had the ability to focus on a shorter but tighter storyline. Also, the ability to modify your henchman's inventory was extremely valuable. All the new content allows module creators to build more diverse adventures on their own for the public to download and enjoy. There's so much new stuff there, and it'll only get better with Hordes of the Underdark.