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Neverwinter Nights: Bob McCabe Interview

by Lucky Day, 2013-04-16

Lucky Day met with former Bioware employee Bob McCabe who worked on Neverwinter Nights as a writer/Designer and on other Bioware titles after that in a QA role. Lucky send us this interview to publish, which we gladly do.

Lucky Day: Tell us who you are and what your role was on Neverwinter Nights.

Bob McCabe:
My name is Bob McCabe and I was the first designer BioWare hired onto the Neverwinter Nights project. I was the first new designer, but of course Rob Bartel was already in place as the lead designer, and there was also a core design team who had laid down the foundation and which was comprised of such people as Trent Oster (producer), James Ohlen (design director), Scott Grieg (lead programmer), and Marc Holmes (art director). Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk were also always involved, and probably some others. But hopefully I'm not forgetting too many of those others.

LD: What did you work on with Neverwinter Nights?

Being on a small design team - the senior guys were all getting Baldur's Gate II

finished - meant that I did a lot of different things. I worked on the design document, helped concept and develop systems and missions and characters, wrote item descriptions and dialogue, worked with Marketing/PR to edit interviews, demo at E3, and write content like the Fenthick Moss Adventure Creation Guides that were over at GameSpy, and worked with the tools team to ensure the design team had everything it needed from the various editors like the dialogue editor. I was also on the QA team at the end of the project. But I would say the majority of my time was spent designing modules for the game, as well as implementing content once the tools were available. I think I wrote half of the implementation plans for chapters 1 and 2, and close to all of them for chapters 3 and 4.

LD: You had to scrap the original plot as well as a lot of content, like tilesets, as part of the settlement with Interplay. And there were a lot of people shocked when the original Interplay story got leaked. What can you say about that?

I don't know what did or didn't get cut as part of a settlement. I didn't think any of the tiles had been cut, to be honest. But I can't really say more than that.

The original plot's release caught me off guard. In a way I was glad. I thought it was a

fantastic story, very polished, and I was glad it got put out there as a novelty of sorts. I really liked the politics and sense of betrayal and twists, on and on. I thought it was a very well done epic, such a fun story. And I'm glad fans can look at that and peek behind the curtain a little. I know I've enjoyed looking at stuff like that with the Ultima series, or some of the various other docs that have popped out over time. But I never expected it to see the light of day. That it did get released was also disappointing. I was proud of the final team effort, that the entire team was able to get such a huge project (DM Client, tools, multiplayer, and a full campaign) out, and pointing to an alternate story partially diminishes some of what we accomplished.

Let me put it this way: I'm playing through Fallout: New Vegas (again, because it's that good) and I came across a fan patch that puts a bunch of cut content back into the game. But sometimes that content was cut for a reason, and its release creates room for people to second-guess the creative process. If that's intentional (i.e. a movie released with multiple endings or deleted scenes), so be it, but I don't think that was the case here.


LD: How did you feel when the story was cut?

From memory, I think it was in the fall of the last year of development when it was "scrapped". October? November? And I remember being really disappointed at the change. Was it scrapped as part of a settlement? Again, I'm not completely sure. I know there were internal expectations of quality that I believe we may not have been meeting, and there may have been publisher/legal-related issues, too. I can't say one way or the other, because I don't fully know. And I don't remember too many people at that time wanting to talk about it. It was a fair bit of uncertainty. I was surprised by the chaos, but I was learning a lot as we went through the process.

LD: What do you mean expectations of quality?

The majority of the design team was very junior - though I felt very comfortably surrounded by talented people. Like I said, Rob was the lead, and he had experience with stuff like Tales of the Sword Coast, and maybe some BG1/BG2/MDK2. After I was hired, BioWare brought on two more designers. A month after me, the studio hired Preston Watamaniuk, and a month after him they hired Aidan Scanlan. People probably know their names much better than mine; Preston was the lead designer for Mass Effect, and Aidan is the assistant design director at the Edmonton studio.

While the team was fairly young, and while we may not have done everything the way we'd have done it now, I remain very proud of the final product. I know we all do. And I want to emphasize that we weren't working in a vacuum. As Baldur's Gate II wound down, guys like Kevin Martens and Brent Knowles and Lukas Kristjanson all came aboard to help and push the design. We all put our stamps on the game.

LD: NWN was already "done" by the time Atari latched on. Can you tell us more about what happened between Interplay and Bioware.  To many, such as myself, they seemed like they were almost the same company.

: I wish I had kept a journal or something about that time, because I can't pinpoint exactly when things happened. And some details I just didn't pay attention to or, at times, was not privy to as a newcomer to the team. But all of the talk about Interplay and Atari is a bit over my head. What do I remember? I remember a meeting where Ray and Greg told the staff that we were in a legal struggle of sorts with Interplay, and why, and I remember there were some months where we had no publisher, and I remember when Atari hooked up with us to publish the game. But the specifics? You probably know them better if you were following the story closely. All I can say is I never had a great sense of worry. Ray and Greg made us confident that we would get through this, and there were so many senior people on the team who could say "things will be OK." And they were right.

LD: I read that you weren't going to even release a game with it, just make it a toolset, until marketing showed you that it would never work. And had you done that you would have gotten ripped to shreads because most users (and gaming magazines) didn't bother with the toolset - its best feature. Also, companions were rushed.

To be honest, I don't know how we got Neverwinter Nights out the door. Many people internally were begging for the release to be delayed but we had been working on it for so long already. The good news is that BioWare really committed to supporting that game. So many patches! That was great to see. And it was a testament that we got anything out at all considering the legal issues.

You're right about the henchmen. We wanted them in, but it was always something else that needed to get done first. Henchmen were always on the chopping block. I was sad because they were such a great part of Baldur's Gate 1 and 2, and to think they might not be in Neverwinter was disappointing. Then I think we hit a point where everyone realized it wouldn't happen, they'd never get in. But, seemingly overnight, Brent Knowles was like, "hey, I figured out how to make henchmen work, and I implemented it." (That may not be an exact quote.) What a shocker. I think we briefly debated what to do now, whether we wanted to fully support the system Brent so quickly got working, and it was decided that a few henchmen would get some writing and the system would be a part of the game. Feature creep, haha. But henchmen have always been such a big part of BioWare games, so it makes sense that they would err on the side of getting them in, rushed or not. But I think they came out well, didn't they?

LD: Any other thoughts about the game?

There were a lot of problems on that project, sure, but man - what a great toolset, what great post-product support via patches and what not, and I dug the attempts to try to get some DLC going with the premium modules. I admit to being especially partial to the Witch's Wake and Hordes of the Underdark stories - both projects essentially powered by Rob's writing (he also wrote the Charwood storylines in NWN's Chapter... 2?). Rob writes the kind of stories that I really enjoy. He brought an emotion to his stories that spoke to me.

LD: What do you do now?

I left BioWare when the first Mass Effect was completed in order to return to the US and seek out new challenges. Also, I had fallen for a girl, now my wife, and we had both always wanted to live in Chicago. When I saw an opening in Chicago at Tribeca Flashpoint Academy for someone with game dev experience, it seemed like everything was falling into place.

At TFA, I run the game design curriculum, and for the video game track we also teach game art, programming, and production. Plus, there's a recording arts program, a film and broadcast program, a visual communications program, and a VFX program.

Within the game design curriculum, we discuss and practice game writing, level design, and systems design, work with tools like Unity, Hammer, and Unreal - as well as doing everything possible to practice at stuff like writing resumes and cover letters, going through interviews, understanding the many differences between indie, social/mobile, and AAA development, and understanding the expectations of professionalism when working within a studio. Working with the students has been great, and I often feel like I learn as much from them as, hopefully, they do from me.

Thank you for the questions and the opportunity to speak on an exciting time in BioWare's history.

Box Art

Information about

Neverwinter Nights

Developer: BioWare

SP/MP: Single + MP
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: 40-60 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released: 2002-06-18
· Publisher: Atari

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