Icewind Dale/Icewind Dale II Interview

Icewind Dale was released on June 29th, 2000 (the same day as Diablo II), making it nearly seven years old at the time of this writing. Black Isle Studios followed it up with the Heart of Winter expansion pack on February 19th, 2001, the Trials of the Luremaster add-on on July 5th, 2001, and a full sequel on September 4th, 2002.  To pay tribute to yet another amazing Infinity Engine series, we fired over a set of questions to three of the key Icewind Dale developers - Josh Sawyer (designer on Icewind Dale and Heart of Winter, lead designer on Icewind Dale II), Chris Parker (producer on Icewind Dale, designer on Icewind Dale II), and Scott Everts (technical designer on Icewind Dale, Heart of Winter, and Icewind Dale II). Next in line is Chris Parker:

GB: Tell us a bit about yourself and your role during the development of Icewind Dale, Heart of Winter, and Icewind Dale II.

Chris: On Icewind Dale, I was the producer on the project. I was assisted by Darren Monahan. At Black Isle, the producer is responsible for guiding the project as a whole and managing the team. On Icewind Dale, for some reason Feargus and I decided there wouldn't be any leads, just the producers. That worked so well we decided to never try it again.

I didn't work on Heart of Winter at all. After Icewind Dale, I moved off the IWD team to start up what would become the ill-fated FR6/Black Hound/Jefferson/Fallout 3/Van Buren team.

On Icewind Dale II I actually did the core design for one of the areas - the Horde Fortress. I didn't actually finish the design though, I handed it off to somebody else and rather expected the entire area to be redone. I was pretty surprised when I found out it shipped in a fashion very similar to how I left it.

GB: What was it like to be a part of the development team for each of these projects? Any fond memories you can share with us?

Chris: There were a lot of late nights on Icewind Dale. The team was really small for the first six months because we were waiting to get devs from the Torment team - and Torment had slipped a bit. By the time the team was up to full speed, we were only a few months from our soon-to-be-missed target ship date. I just remember a lot of nights hanging out with the guys, playing Tony Hawk, trying to understand mysteries of the Infinity Engine, and grinding through implementation.

Sometimes when we needed a decision we'd "take it to the warlords". Which meant, quite literally, that we'd plug in my Atari 2600 and decide by playing Warlords in my office. For the record, this was only done on decisions where the outcome didn't really matter. :)

GB: Which CRPGs would you say inspired you and/or provided the most influence during the development of Icewind Dale and its sequel?

Chris: I use experience from pretty much any CRPG I've played, but the one that probably factored a lot into IWD would be The Bard's Tale - if you think about it, that's basically what it was.

I had finished Baldur's Gate and TSC with Bioware just a few months before we kicked off IWD, so I had a lot of ideas and thoughts born out of that development. For example, I often wished I could make my own characters instead of using the companions in BG, so that became a direction for IWD.

GB: How familiar were you with the Icewind Dale region of the Forgotten Realms before working on the series? Did you end up having to do a lot of research for either game?

Chris: I'm a D&D geek and played for many years with my buddies but I've never actually read D&D novels. So I knew there was a place in the Realms called Icewind Dale, and some dark elf named Drizzt emerged from there, but that was about it.

I never did read the books, although I did read the "cliff notes" so to speak.

GB: Why was the decision made to deviate from other Infinity Engine games (where all loot was static) and implement random loot tables into the Icewind Dale series?

Chris: There were two key reasons for this decision. First, static drops were a little weird. If you knew what you were doing you could go get really powerful items very early in BG and that didn't seem fun. Second, we wanted to make sure the player was constantly tempted with ever improving loot. So by using random loot tables we could make sure the player was always getting cool items while making sure they didn't get overpowering items right from the start.

It was a complete hack to get those tables working in the game, by the way, and they required constant tweaking and balancing throughout the QA process.

GB: Why did you choose to develop the series in the northermost arctic reaches of the Sword Coast? Were any other regions in the Forgotten Realms considered before development began?

Chris: There were a few different locales debated for the game. At one point I think it was a straight up 20 level dungeon (like Castle Greyhawk, without Elfen John), but that seemed we might be selling the license short.

I don't recall there being any "great" reason why we chose the Icewind Dale region, but it definately had some positive aspects. From a design perspective, there wasn't much in the FR canon about the area, essentially everything was in the novels - this gave us a lot of room to play around. On the art side, the snowy mountainous region would be different from the BG games. And of course there was some brand recognition with the consumer - people like the Icewind Dale books.

GB: The campaign in Heart of Winter was criticized for being too short, which led to the release of a downloadable add-on called Trials of the Luremaster. Did you originally intend to include this content with HoW or was it developed specifically in response to such criticism? Was it difficult to convince Interplay that a free add-on was necessary?

Chris: We did a number of things in Heart of Winter that were really "neat", but didn't pay off in actual game-play time. We thought these things would be an adequate trade-off but we were flat out wrong. Trials of the Luremaster was developed specifically to satisfy what our customers felt was unfair. As for convincing Interplay... we didn't really work that way. Black Isle was almost like a separate entity and we handled our staff internally. So I think Feargus just put a bunch of people on it and didn't really trouble Interplay with the details. Besides, we had just released the Fallouts, the BGs, IWD and Torment, nobody at Interplay was complaining too much about what we did.

GB: Why did you choose to put most of your development efforts into an Icewind Dale sequel rather than finishing Fallout 3/Van Buren or The Black Hound/Jefferson?

Chris: I'm not really sure that we did. I think that IWD2 was a distraction from FR6/F3 (and all those other names the projects had), but outside of a few designers and one programmer, the project wasn't hurt by IWD2. We had sufficient technical design, programming, and art working on the project. The bottleneck was really the engine/editor development, and that wasn't stalled by the Icewind sequel.

I suppose there were some inefficiencies though. For example, Josh was supposed to be the Lead Designer on FR6/Black Hound/Jefferson, but he was on IWD2 for a long perioid. During that time I and the other designers kept writing stuff without him. Then when he finally made it back to us he rewrote a bunch of stuff that was "done". I think that was frustrating for him and me, and it was inefficient. But if you look at it from the opposite side, by the time people came off IWD2, we could actually make levels and write dialogue and place items... so I'm not sure everybody would have been busy on Jefferson if they hadn't been on IWD2.

One final note here: there are financial aspects to every game, and of course Interplay wasn't doing well financially. Because Black Isle had seen a lot of success, they leaned on us to make more games... the IWD series was the least risky thing for us to continue and all of us were invested in that series.

GB: How much work was it for you personally to help in the implementation of the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules into BioWare's Infinity Engine for Icewind Dale II? Do you think the conversion was necessary and worth the time?

Chris: I didn't work on it, but I was involved with the decision to incorporate the rules. We all felt that it was an important step for the series and that we wouldn't be giving players the experience they deserved if we just pounded out another 2nd Edition game. And I personally liked 1st Edition better than 2nd Edition, and 3rd Edition was a godsend in my opinion - so I couldn't wait to play the game.

GB: Was there ever any plans to develop an expansion pack for Icewind Dale II or even an Icewind Dale III before things took a turn for the worse at Interplay?

Chris: After IWD2, Black Isle needed to get focused on finishing Dark Alliance 2 and FR6/Black Hound/Jefferson (whatever you want to call it) - both were to be completed within a year and both were ambitious. So while various ideas were bantered about concerning another Icewind, or even a new but similar dungeon-crawl style game, there was never any momentum for it. The Infinity Engine was showing its age and we were concerned that fans wouldn't appreciate another game like that without us bringing something new to the table.

And let's be honest here, we wanted to do something big and cool and amazing. It had been a few years since Torment, IWD, and BG had hit and we wanted to do that again.

GB: Was there any content you would have liked to see implemented into Icewind Dale, Heart of Winter, or Icewind Dale II that didn't make it into the game?

Chris: We did cut levels all over Icewind Dale, but I don't recall being especially remiss over any of that. I did a lot of pre-design on the Severed Hand, covering it's back story and layout, so even though I didn't do the actual design of the area, I was really quite fond of it. It suffered a few cuts, which were incorporated into the design, but I'd say those cuts were probably the ones I liked least.

GB: Are you pleased with how well the Icewind Dale games have sold and been received over the years? Are there any specific factors that you think helped or hindered their sales?

Chris: I've always been very proud of the Icewind Dale games. I thought that we made a very beautiful and very enjoyable game.

I'm pretty sure that releasing IWD the exact same day as Diablo II didn't really help our sales, but in the long run I doubt that really had much effect.

GB: How has game development changed between your time at Black Isle Studios and Obsidian Entertainment? Do you think a party-based isometric RPG similar to the Icewind Dale games would still be a viable pursuit in today's market?

Chris: Things are a lot different now than when we worked on Icewind. The team sizes are perhaps the biggest change. We had between 24 and 32 people on Icewind, which is approximately the size of the art team on one of our projects right now. To manage out larger teams today we need more leads - and since I'm a producer this just moves me farther and farther away from the day to day creation. For me personaly, this is a big loss because that's what I enjoy the most.

GB: Hypothetically speaking, if you were given the chance to work on another Icewind Dale title, where would you personally like to take the franchise?

Chris: I would be interested in making an Icewind game. I'm not sure I know exactly how I would approach it though. I know I would want to keep a few basic tenets in place: D&D, a wholly created party, big monsters, dungeon crawl type experience, interesting story, and beautiful inspiring graphics.

I think the big questions to answer (which I don't have an answer for) are how to handle the camera and how to handle combat. But those are solvable, imo, and I think that the core of the game is still viable.

Thanks Chris!