Icewind Dale/Icewind Dale II Interview

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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). Scott Everts brings our revisited feature to a close:

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

Scott: I started working at Interplay in 1991. My first job was a tester on Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. I was promoted to designer on the CD version and Associate Producer on Star Trek: Judgment Rites. After that I worked on various games like Stonekeep & Shadoan before switching to Fallout. At the time Fallout had no level designers since they were planning to have the designers do it. But they realized they needed someone with an artistic eye for level layout so they gave me a shot and liked what I did. So I ended up doing all the levels in the game! I moved on to Fallout 2 and did about 30% of the levels sharing the duties with John Deiley and Jason Suinn. When Icewind Dale started up it required a huge amount of art. Since it didn't use a tile system like the Fallout series it required many pre-rendered backgrounds. Plus tons of new monsters. This was before 3D graphics were sophisticated enough to do games like this. With so much art being made they needed someone to process and plug it into the game. So I managed all the art resources. We had a bunch of very complex Debabelizer scripts and work in Photoshop to get all the art shoehorned into the game. I also did art touchup and minor fixes. I did this for all the Icewind games and Planescape Torment. On Icewind Dale II I also designed and implemented the all new interface. Brian Menze concepted the art style, Aaron Brown did all the art rendering based on my designs and I implemented them using a special interface editor.

Currently I'm working at Obsidian Entertainment. I did level design for Neverwinter Nights 2 and currently working on an unannounced title. I also worked on interface design on Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2.

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?

Scott: That's a hard question since I've worked on so many games and they all tend to blur together!

Working in Black Isle Studios was fantastic. We did a string of great games and had amazing people there working on them. Another great thing was there was little employee turnover so we all got very comfortable working with each other on title after title. Of course it wasn't all wonderful. As BIS was becoming more successful Interplay was slowly falling apart. After awhile BIS titles were one of the few things keeping Interplay alive and so the pressure was very high on getting titles out on time. So many late nights and tight schedules became the norm. Icewind Dale II was the worst since the original schedule was amazingly short. It turned out to be a great game but sales weren't as high as hoped since I think the fanbase was tired of Infinity Engine games. So we started working on 3D titles but when Titus took over they decided PC games weren't the direction they wanted to go so BIS passed away quietly in the night. Or a Monday morning I think. J

As for memories, here's a few random ones that surfaced-

I remember having my first Krispy Kreme donut during development on Icewind. Our division head's wife went out and bought a huge number of the donuts and we all went nuts. Think I had 4 myself! We all were bouncing off the walls for hours afterwards.

I remember Darren Monahan (Icewind 2 producer) cringing every time I headed to his office. He'd sometimes sneak out when he thought I was going to come by. Since he was a programmer I used to bother him incessantly about all my wild ideas for new interface changes that I thought would be cool.

Darren used to tease me that he'd replace me with a button. One of my main jobs was to run the art batches in Debabelizer. It took so long I eventually got a second computer otherwise I'd just be sitting there reading a book while it ran and ran and ran! He figured he could just use a button instead but I told him that someone still had to setup all the files and make sure they worked so he was stuck with me!

There was a great bug I found on a level that spawned skeletons. Unfortunately it would get stuck and keep spawning them until the entire map was full wall to wall with hundreds of skeletons!

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

Scott: Not any particular game at the time. Though you could say Baldur's Gate was our biggest inspiration since we used the same engine! But as we produced each game of our own we refined the engine. And with Icewind 2 we completely revamped the interface and I remember studying other games to come up with new ideas. But its been so long I can't remember any particular game that stood out as a huge inspiration.

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?

Scott: I've played a fair share of tabletop D&D in the Forgotten Realms. Though we didn't play in the Icewind Dale area so wasn't really familiar with it at the time. But we had plenty of research material and the design team was always up on the history. So there was always something to read or someone to talk to if I had any questions.

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?

Scott: I was heavily involved since I designed the new interfaces. I worked closely with Darren Monahan and the designers since we decided to completely scrap all the old interfaces for the new ones. The 3rd edition rules required many more interfaces for character generation/leveling since there was so much more flexibility in the new rules.

Now looking back it probably wasn't worth it. We could of gotten the game out maybe 6 months earlier and saved a lot of development money. Since sales weren't as high as the previous game cutting costs would have made it more profitable. Personally though I think it was great. I'm really proud of Icewind 2 and think it's the best one in the series. The new rule set makes character creation and leveling completely new, fun, and more powerful.

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?

Scott: I think most of the games had a great deal of content. Except for Heart of Winter which was a little short. But then we did the free content module (Trials of the Luremaster.) We were disappointed with the length of HoW so Feargus (division director) convinced Interplay to allow us to make a free downloadable module to extend the game. There was just a small team of us working on it but I'm extremely proud of that addition. With the original game, HoW, and Trials you have a amazingly huge game. Someday I hope to replay it with all the modules installed. Unfortunately WOTC wouldn't allow us to add (Trials) to the Icewind Dale combo pack that has all the games in one box. I'm assuming because it was free and there was no contract for royalties. But I'm sure its still out there somewhere on the net available for download.

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?

Scott: Icewind 1 and its expansions did very well and I'm both happy and proud to have worked on them. The original concept was to make a dungeon crawl instead of a more scripted adventure like the Baldur's Gate series. So you started out with your full party that you created yourself instead of picking up as you adventure. I think that's why the Icewind series did well since we didn't try to just duplicate BG but instead took it a different direction. It gave our fanbase another experience and complimented the BG series quite well.

As for Icewind 2, though we did a tremendous amount of changes it was still considered an Infinity game so felt dated. I think our fanbase was finally tired of the engine. We had an idea at the time to do an Infinity 2.0 system. Increase the resolution to 1024x768 base and increase the avatars substantially in size so it would all look more detailed. There was even a few tests we did (also one done for an early proposed Fallout 3!) But the added development time didn't seem worth it and we stuck with using our revamped original Infinity engine. One of the main stumbling blocks was redoing all those character avatars. It was a huge art job which was a main reason we didn't do it.

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?

Scott: Well the big difference is going totally 3D. At the time of the Icewind series those beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds were much better then what 3D graphics could do. Now you can get close to photo realistic environments and very detailed characters. So graphics expectations are certainly higher. Also console games have become huge and with it more simplistic RPG's. Seems what passes for RPG's these days are pretty light compared to those old D&D games. Not to say that deep RPG's won't be made but publishers are a little leery since development time and QA time is much longer on deep RPG's compared to the lighter fare.

As for a party-based isometric game being made now I think it will be more like what we did with NWN2. Smaller parties and a flexible camera that you can play either isometric or over the shoulder. I personally like over the shoulder since it makes the world more immersive. Seeing vast expanses of ground can get kind of dull. Pulling the camera down allows you to have much more impressive environments. And since graphics are such a huge deal in today's market I think you'll see fewer and fewer isometric only games.

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?

Scott: Well from a development end I'd reduce the party size abit and go with a NWN2 camera system. Maybe go down to 4 characters and allow you to play over the shoulder or isometric. As for story, not being a writer I'd be happy with whatever story the design team came up with! Though I'd take it out of the snowy areas for a large chunk of the game. The Forgotten Realms has such varied environments so it would be nice to see some of those other areas.

Thanks Scott!