What Went Wrong
1. Resources added at non-optimal times. A large RPG such
as Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights requires a similarly large amount of art, design, and programming resources. One of the problems that we encountered was what to do while the new game engine technology was being developed. Due to our schedule, we needed to start working on art and design assets right from the beginning of the project. The problem was that it took the programming team three and a half years to complete the game systems. Thus the art and design teams had to make assets based on technical specifications derived from early prototypes. As the game progressed, many of these specifications changed, requiring some assets to be rebuilt, or else workarounds had to be adapted in the game code to allow for old and newer assets to work together.
This detailed Minotaur concept was built, textured, and animated in 3DS Max.
In an ideal world, the length of the project would have been longer, with the programming done at the beginning with only a skeleton team of artists and designers to provide prototypes. Full production would have then gotten underway once the engine was complete. Unfortunately, this was not feasible due to schedule limitations and interproject scheduling pressures. We have found that when we are reusing or building on an existing engine framework, art and design can be completed with little risk of having to rework resources - problems like we encountered on NWN seem to occur mainly when we are creating a new engine from scratch (we encountered similar issues during the creation of Baldur's Gate, for example, but not during the various BG derivatives), and we are keeping this in mind as we schedule new projects in the future.
2. Incomplete prototypes. Even though we put a lot of effort into prototyping important game systems, on some occasions we completed what we thought were full-featured prototypes of major game systems only to find out later that they didn't address a number of important issues. In our haste to get into full production on Neverwinter Nights, we didn't properly analyze all of the questions that needed to be addressed by the prototypes. This resulted in spending time late in the development cycle sorting out problems with key systems of the game.
Development of our new game engine was an extremely long process; as a result, some of the initial prototyping lessons were forgotten or inadequately documented. In some cases, we didn't thoroughly review our original goals when implementing features later in the project.
As with any new-engine game, there was too little time available to prototype gameplay. Our prototypes focused instead on technology and the individual features of the game. While this kind of prototyping was important, it would have been very useful to have early feedback on how the game played, particularly with regard to the interface and story line.
Because NWN was a rule-based game, and rules implementation was at the end of the schedule, we were only able to test actual gameplay near the end of the development cycle. Due to our inability to prototype a number of design components, we ended up reworking them. As a result, we plan to prototype story lines in future games earlier in the development cycle. One of the ways we plan to do this is to reuse the BioWare Aurora Toolset as a rapid prototyping tool for story design, even for games with radically different interfaces and rules systems.
3. Delayed rule implementation (including tools implementation delay). The Dungeons & Dragons rules system in NWN was implemented according to a priority system established by the leads on the project. We failed to take into account how some minor addition to the rules system could have far-reaching effects throughout the game. This forced the designers through an aggressive series of revisions to the areas and characters in the official campaign story. In the end, we were able to tune the game appropriately, but we put the level designers, scripters, and writers through a very trying period.
The delay in rules implementation caused a ripple effect with the tool development. Furthermore, we reworked the tool interface late in the project to make it more approachable to nontechnical developers. This rework had a significant effect on the ability of our designers to finish off content, since they were using the exact same tools to fix bugs and finish up the game's development.
4. Late feature additions; innovation for its own sake. To ship a game that takes five years to develop takes a fair amount of intestinal fortitude. You really can't second-guess your decisions or you'll have no chance of ever completing the project, so the leads of the project agonized over some late feature additions to Neverwinter Nights. Given that the game was in development for such a long period, we were all concerned it might look dated by release. To combat this issue we laid out a plan to add a number of high-impact but relatively easy-to-implement features late in the development cycle to improve the game's visual quality. These additions resulted in constant concern among the artists who had to generate the new art required to support the late-added technologies. In the end, it all worked out because of large personal efforts by many team members.
From the start, there was a strong desire to make NWN a unique game distinct from the Baldur's Gate experience. While this did lead to the development of new systems that were better than those of Baldur's Gate, it also led to an excessive amount of time spent on design and prototyping of features that ultimately could not be implemented. We'd often sink a considerable amount of research into creating an innovative system, only to fall back on a similar system that worked better in the earlier Infinity engine.
Too often, we were determined to start at square one, instead of expanding on what had worked with our previous games. We learned that it is important to choose our battles. In the future, when designing a game set in a genre that we have experience with, we will look more closely at what has worked well previously and aim to innovate only in the areas of our past games that our fans and critics perceived as weak.
5. A lot of demos. A side effect of the attention Neverwinter Nights received in the years prior to its release was that we built a number of demos for trade shows and press visits, more than typically occur for most major releases. We probably announced the game too early in its development cycle, and it took a long time to complete the game with the promised feature set. Each time we built a demo there was an impact on the team in terms of both focus as well as schedule.
We felt the demos were successful overall and that the incremental PR received from these demos was helpful to the game's market success, but each of these demos consumed considerable team resources. In spite of this impact, the team recognized that demos are a necessary and vital part of the development process - however, they should be part of the schedule and planned accordingly from the start. In our future projects, we are booking more time for demos in our schedules, since they always seem to take up more time than originally anticipated.