Building a Better Game
As a follow-up to last week's review of Neverwinter Nights and Shadows of Undrentide, below are three interviews Ron Powell conducted with a few of the people involved in the project.
During the course of researching Neverwinter Nights and Shadows of Undrentide, I had the opportunity to speak with the creator of Nordock, Marc Richter, and the gentleman who hosts the official server, Doug Rhea. Nordock is a persistent world (PW) mod to Neverwinter Nights. You can find more information about Nordock and its official servers at www.nordock.net.
Linux Journal: Can you tell me a little about yourself and the persistent world you've created?
Marc Richter: Sure thing. I'm 36 going on 14, married, have four kids and work as a computer support guy at Merck & Co. Nordock was meant [to be] a simple little hack and slash mod. I would host it on one box while not DMing mods for friends. Well, it turned out that people actually liked the silly thing, so I ended up building on it, much like a weed. Today, it runs on five official severs and countless others as the public release. Anyway, I've played computer games since 1979, and I've played on-line on and off since the late 80s. I got sucked into EverQuest back in 2001. Neverwinter Nights was my chance to own the keys, as it were, but many of the systems and other pieces definitely were inspired by my time in EQ and other MMORPGs (massive multiplayer on-line role playing games), such as Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online, Diablo 2 and Gemstone on Genie.
LJ: Can you summarize the mod for me?
MR: The mod is meant to be run 24/7. People can come and go as they please, kill monsters, get treasure, explore dark and mysterious places and learn trade skills, some involving magic. The players can play multiple races, including the noble dwarfs, witty halflings, stoic humans, nasty drow and so on. There is a main quest that only a handful of people have been able to complete without major help, and this quest ties in all sorts of lore and quests and other things.
Nordock was the first persistent world to be released to the general public as an open-source mod. In other words, back in October , I released the mod to the world, with the offer for people to modify it, host it, do with it as they want. The public release has been updated along with the main mod, and it offers me a way to give back to the community, much like open-source programs in Linux.
LJ: What do you think sets your mod apart from the rest? What keeps players coming back for more?
MR: You know, that's a great question. I sometimes don't know. I suspect the sheer scale has something to do with it. In other words, the world is so big that you can get lost exploring. Also, the Drow provide a player-based foe and the chance for the folk who like that sort of thing to play a darker role. I also like to think that having the trade skill system gives folk some non-combat things to do, and recent addins, such as player housing, give folk more role playing opportunities. Plus, it's got a wicked cool home grown booze system for getting drunk. Ultimately, however, I got in at just the right time--people were hungry for an "EQ replacement". Other PWs weren't moving as fast, some for very good reasons. I had a community reach critical mass in [short] time. I don't ever forget that part, because there's a huge number of people behind the scenes who have contributed to Nordock throughout its life. Plus, my DM staff busts their butts to maintain a good environment for people to play in without being harassed. Quite frankly, I'm amazed at their dedication, so really, it does all come back to the community.
LJ: How long did it take to build the original base of Nordock?
MR: I built the original handful of zones in a night. From July to October, 2002, the module underwent a huge growth. Since that point, into March , various spurts occurred. Since the spring, areas have settled down and most development resources went into Nordock II: A Dawn of Heroes. At this point, Nordock is in "final bug squish" mode. In fact, tonight is the big wipe/consolidation. Nordock 1 will be relaunched on a big Linux server instead of being spread across three Windows boxen. That's funny, because Nordock began on my Mandrake box.
LJ: You use Linux?
MR: Yes, when I can. I actually got into Linux back in 1998. I put up a Web page to help folk get it [Linux] running on Thinkpad 600s, and I've used it at Merck when I can. In fact, I scored some major points with an in-house Web board that I set up in an afternoon using Linux/Apache/PHP stuff, so you might say that I'm fond of the Penguin.
LJ: If you could add one thing to NWN (either for playing or building), what would that be?
MR: Wow...so much has changed in the past year. Honestly, I would love to see a more robust server running the modules. The goofiest little bugs can take down the whole thing, and it's a bear to try and code around it. I'm just not that talented. So that would be the one thing, a truly rock solid server.
LJ: If you could give one bit of advice to a mod builder, what would that be?
MR: Make no areas greater than 16x16! Seriously, have some sort of vision and be willing to stick to it, even in the face of doubters and whiners. Listen to them, but don't be afraid to put your foot down. But the 16x16 thing is pretty important; see my prior point about server stability.
LJ: Any last words?
MR:I would like to thank BioWare for making a great game, my staff for really making Nordock shine and my wife and kids for tolerating living with a major game freak.
I also got to speak with the man behind the servers, Doug Rhea. He took a few minutes to tell us about running Nordock and NWN servers in general.
LJ: Can you define your role in the Nordock universe for me? How did you come to host the Nordock persistent world?
Doug Rhea: I always have been a gamer, since about 1977 when I started playing D&D. I began hosting BBS in 1980; later down the road I hosted Tribes, Tribes 2, Ultima Online, Diablo/Diablo2 and so on. When NWN came out, I loved the way it was supposed to work. I then searched for a good mod and came across Nordock, so I dropped the creator (Marc) a line and offered. He accepted and that was it.
LJ: Several servers were used in the beginning and they have merged. How many were there to start, and how many are there now?
DR: Actually, there was one in the beginning before I came along. About the time I got involved, they had moved to three servers--East, West, South. I picked up West and South rather quickly, East shortly after. The other hosts didn't have the hardware/bandwidth for a good server, and soon I had two Easts. Then, one of the previous hosts and also a scriptor decided to make Difficult, so for a while there were five servers: East, West, South, Difficult and Revenge. As of August 1st, only Nordock 1, Difficult and Revenge will be used. Revenge is my personal server.
LJ: Tell me about the hardware the servers run on and their operating systems. What made you choose this/these setup(s)? How much bandwidth do they take up? What would you consider to be a respectable minimum configuration for an NWN server?
DR: I have a number of servers, so here's the ones used for Nordock prior to the consolidation:
East - Dual Xeon 2.8GHz w/2GB RAM Windows 2000 Server
West - Dual Xeon 2.8GHz w/2GB RAM Windows 2000 Server
Revenge - Dual Xeon 2.8GHz w/2GB RAM Windows 2000 Server
Nordock 1, the new consolidated server, is a Dual Xeon 2.8GHz, w/2GB RAM on Mandrake Linux v9.x. I chose to use Windows 2000 because it was easier and had a graphical interface. Even on these power boxes, Nordock can run slow. The CPUs never go over 30% utilization, but it still lags. I would have to assume this is due to a sorry server application from BioWare, but we won't harp on that; it's better than any other game out there. It does run a bit better on Linux, but this mod is just plain big. NWN wasn't really designed for this type of mod, so we live with the lag and hope we can work around it in NaDoH.
Minimum requirements for a NWN server? Well, I started them on a Dual P3 1.4GHz with 1GB of RAM, and I would say that's the minimum. I would guess a P4 with at least 512MB of RAM would be fine, too. [Using] anything slower is asking for major lag if you have more than eight players.
The Windows server is a lot easier to handle at least for me--I am not a Linux guru. The Linux server does seem to help a bit with lag when there are more users, so Linux is the better of the two, though both have memory leak problems that BioWare needs to fix. I would love to see BioWare redo the Windows server and make something better, especially if it would take advantage of hyperthreading and multiple CPUs. Our new servers will all be Linux at some point, like Nordock 1. Currently the NaDoH server also is a Linux server. As for bandwidth, we have 3/3MBs here, dual T1s.
LJ: What distribution will you be using for the other servers? Mandrake?
DR: Mandrake for the NWN servers, because NWNX2 runs best on it or Debian. We run Red Hat on the Web/forums server that also handles the town criers.
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.