What Went Right
1. Constant communication. With the NWN team growing at the end to upwards of 75 people, communication of the goals of the project, and the day-to-day development decisions, became a critical necessity. We formed a tight communication network, with the leads in each area summarizing daily challenges, potential pitfalls, and areas of concern. Each significant code change required consultation with the various people responsible for the systems that would be touched - a fundamental change required a quick meeting between three to five people simply to make sure everyone who was affected would be aware of how the change would affect them. While this might superficially seem like an inefficient way to work, it did result in a number of benefits for the project and the team. First, the constant communication to achieve difficult goals brought the entire team together, and when difficult problems arose there were always a few knowledgeable people with a familiarity with the problem that could be consulted.
Furthermore, NWN was painstakingly documented, from technical design docs and art style guidelines to rules and level design documents. The team leads created and updated massive schedule documents detailing every aspect of the project. The tools group designed and created a project manager program. This tool facilitated faster and more organized communication between the departments. While documents would sometimes fall out of date, it was still a big step forward compared to our previous projects.
While documentation to this level is probably not required (and might even prove to be a hindrance to progress) on many games, on a role-playing project of the size of NWN, it was critical. With any large project, one of the major challenges is making sure the team works as a unit to achieve a common goal, rather than a number of parallel but unrelated goals. We found that the style and manner of communication on the Neverwinter Nights team was instrumental in both building the team spirit and making sure the game was successful.
2. Extensive tool effort. Compared to Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights allocated five times the manpower to making the game-creation tools suite. Although part of the increase was due to the fact that the Neverwinter Toolset was to be publicly released, we would have still invested fairly heavily into the tools even if they were only intended for internal use. The decision to go forward with a new tool, or a new feature for an existing tool, depends on whether the time required to make the tool will be made up in the time saved by using the tool.
In BioWare's past projects, we have generally found that if a task that could be automated by a tool was going to be performed more than once, then the tool saved time in the long run. Despite problems inherent in using a tool under development, having a large and robust toolset allowed for very rapid implementation of design and art content. We ramped up our tools department during NWN's development, and it has served the company well to have a group that can service the tools, database, and installer needs of the entire company.
3. Multiplayer integration from the outset. Although Baldur's Gate was intended to have multiplayer support from the beginning, we did not actually start programming the multiplayer systems until relatively late in that project. As a result, some of the multiplayer aspects in Baldur's Gate - such as forcing all players to see all dialogue - were less than optimal.
In Neverwinter Nights, the multiplayer systems were integrated directly into the original design. Even in single-player, the game acts like a multiplayer game with a single client attached. Although this deep integration increased the time to develop each system (compared to a single-player-only system), it did result in an overall reduction in the time required to integrate multiplayer and ensured that all the systems were optimized for multiplayer play.
One useful lesson from both the Baldur's Gate series and Neverwinter Nights was how much time QA testing of a multiplayer game takes compared with testing just the single-player game. We have found that three to five times as much testing is needed for multiplayer role-playing games compared with single-player. Thus, we require 30 to 50 testers (including both on-site and external testers) on our multiplayer projects for three- to six-month periods - not a small undertaking.
4. Experienced team members focused on quality. Having numerous BioWare veterans on the Neverwinter Nights team was crucial to holding the project together and ensuring the development efforts were successful. We hired a number of new people during the course of the game, practically all of whom had no prior game development experience, but we were very fortunate that a number of people that had worked on the Baldur's Gate series also worked key roles on NWN. Their RPG development experience served as the cement that held everything together on the project and enabled them to circumvent many of the pitfalls typically encountered when developing a story-based role-playing game. In addition, their ability to mentor new hires was essential in building a strong team, both for Neverwinter Nights and for BioWare.
Even though the majority of the team members were not experienced game developers, after they joined the team they had access to mentors who helped them learn their craft. BioWare's culture - based on a matrix structure with departments of programming, art, QA, and design - encourages learning and aggressive transfer of knowledge, which we believe is the best foundation for building a strong development team.
Many of the core team members worked on the project for a number of years - the entire duration of the project from the idea stage to completion was slightly more than five years. While we pushed aggressively through the entire development, there was never a sense the game would be shipped before it was ready. We set out to achieve all of our goals, and we never wavered from that plan, even during some of the complicated issues that arose in the project moving from Interplay to Infogrames. Fortunately, Infogrames was able to come onto the project late in its lifespan and mobilize the resources required to ensure the quality of the game by our intended launch date.
A set of Neverwinter City tiles progressing from concept to completion.
5. Sharing resources with other projects. BioWare relies heavily on our ability to draw upon manpower from the rest of the company to help out on a project in the final stages of production. All of our projects have done this in the past, and NWN was no exception. Designers, artists, and programmers came on from the old Infinity engine team as soon as Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal was completed. Many of these people were responsible for key aspects of the project, in the same way that many of the NWN team members had been responsible for systems in MDK2 and Baldur's Gate II. The development teams weren't the only people who helped out at the end; systems administrators, front-office staff, and the PR department also helped test the game.
Even with the help of a lot of people from BioWare, finishing a game the size of Neverwinter Nights was a huge undertaking - in addition to our 75-person team working on the game at BioWare, we had 10 on-site testers from Infogrames at our office, eight German and five Korean translators in-office in the last three months of development doing simultaneous translation of the game, and more than 35 external testers between Infogrames' various offices. Coordinating all of these external resources required the combined efforts of five producers at BioWare.