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Matt Norton Interview

Matt Norton is the Lead Designer of Icewind Dale (IWD), which is being developed by Black Isle Studios using the Infinity Engine of Baldur's Gate (BG). He has graciously answered our questions about the design of this title. Tomorrow, Chris Parker and Pete Meihuizen, answer art questions. I'd like to thank all the participants for their time and excellent answers.

- Silverdawn (posted November 8, 1999)

Please introduce yourself and the designers. Which titles have you helped develop?

Matt Norton: I grew up here in Orange County and majored in History and English Literature in college. After trying a number of hateful jobs, I decided to try to make a living through my hobby. I've been working at Interplay, now Black Isle Studios, ever since (starting as a Quality & Assurance (Q&A) tester for 4 months and then as a designer for the last 5 years). Some of the titles that I've worked on are: Dragon Dice, Stonekeep 2, Fallout 2, and, of course, Icewind Dale. I've also authored, and co-authored, a few Strategy Guides for some of the games that Interplay and Black Isle have created.

Steve Bokkes: Steve has been with Interplay for three years. He started off, as most of us do, busting bugs in Q&A. After serving his "tour of duty," he came to work for us in Black Isle as a designer. A RPG fanatic, Steve has worked on all of our recent titles using Bioware's "Infinity" engine: Baldur's Gate, Tales of the Sword Coast, Planescape: Torment, and now Icewind Dale.

J.E. Sawyer: Is originally from Fort Atkinson, WI. He moved to California immediately after graduating from Lawrence University with a B.A. in History and a Theatre minor. In college, he focused his studies on witch-hunting, demonology, magic, hagiography, and gender studies. His design background is in pen and paper games. He assisted in the design and playtesting of Seelie, Inc.'s upcoming title "Oblivion's Edge" and has been designing his own systems and settings for about seven years. This is the first CRPG title that he has been involved in the development of.

Describe a typical design session for IWD. Any anecdotes about an atypical session?

It's difficult to define what a typical design session for Icewind might be. Most of our design meetings are spur of the moment things. Usually when we start to fill in some of the details in an area, a slew of questions and ideas are unearthed. When that happens, we pull in team members as needed, and desired, in order to flesh out the area. A designer or two, an artist or two, and often Chris Parker, the Producer, form the group that brainstorms ideas as we need them.

One format that we've found to be really useful, as well as a lot of fun, is to get the entire team together in a conference room, give them the basic setup for an area (at this point, the looser and more flexible, the better) and then let everyone throw out ideas. We put all of the ideas down on a big whiteboard and just go at it for a couple of hours. Some of the best ideas in the game have been produced this way. Often, it's an idea two, or three, ideas removed from the initial suggestion. One person's suggestion will spark another team member's idea, which will, in turn inspire an even better idea.

In a sense, all of our design meetings are atypical in that they tend to be freeform. Brainstorming sessions aren't a place where I like to place a lot of constraints. Everyone should feel free to offer ideas without thought of implementation or practicality. The fun-factor and overall coolness of an idea is all that matters at this stage. The how-to part comes later on.

After the meeting Steve Bokkes and I go over the ideas and work the best ones into a coherent, and do-able, design outline for the area. If this involves testing an idea or an area concept then our programmers and artists become part of that as well. At our next team meeting, we go over the end result with the other team members. Everyone on our team is a gamer and they're a very talented and creative bunch. I'm really fortunate to be able to draw from such a pool of ideas.

The plot in BG revolved around the protagonist while in Torment you can only be the Nameless One. IWD focuses on the party instead of a designated main character. From this different perspective, how do you aspire to maintain a strong story to give the dungeon crawl purpose? Please provide a few examples.

I think that both BG and Torment have strong stories. The difference between the two of them would seem to be the level of personal involvement. In Torment, an NPC is talking to you rather than your group. Some of this directness is lost in BG since you're running an entire party, but that doesn't mean that the overall story isn't as strong.

In Icewind Dale, we've decided to have the player(s) select a spokesperson for themselves. When a noteworthy dialog is initiated, the assumption is that the party-spokesperson is doing the speaking and the NPC will personalize his/her/its comments to that person. Generally, it will help you to have your smartest and/or most charismatic characters doing the talking for you. However, there are other occasions where it would make more sense to have a party member with a specific background or set of skills talk on behalf of the group.

For example, if you're talking to an Elven historian you're probably better off having an Elf do your talking for you, rather than a gruff (and perhaps somewhat dim) Dwarven fighter.

Other factors that go into making a story strong and involving have to do with the level of the player's empathy and involvement with the game setting how much do you care about what happens to the people and places you adventure in.

It doesn't matter how exciting the story premise is if the player doesn't care about the people in the game world. There's no payoff for success, and no penalty for failure if people and things you could care less about are slaughtered or burnt to the ground. Conversely, if you really feel a part of the game world and care deeply about what happens there, but there is no excitement to be had there, no driving (twisting, turning) plot, then that ends up being a so-what scenario as well. The key is helping the player to get inside the game, to feel as though it's a living world in which the player's actions have weight and consequence and then to drive a rip-roaring plot through the middle. We intend to do just that.

IWD concentrates much more on dungeon exploration like in TotSC. Some people felt that Durlag's Tower had too many traps and was too long. Considering that in IWD characters will advance 12-15 levels instead of just the one in TotSC, what are you doing to avoid these players having the same concerns?

First, I'll talk about traps. I hate traps, always have, probably always will. In some areas it makes sense to have a lot of traps, and a paranoid Dwarf's tower is one of those places. However, in most areas, traps are difficult and expensive to place (especially magical traps). The environments that we're creating do lend themselves to the occasional trap, in areas where it makes sense to have them, but the length and breadth of the game will not be jam-packed with a cornucopia of traps.

I like to reward player cleverness and I hate the tedium of being forced to search every ten-by-ten for traps just in case. So, in some areas traps will be placed (by defending creatures) in the most obvious assault routes, but this is more to encourage the player to think and plan a bit more than to inflict damage. One further note, there will not be any instant death traps in any dungeon I make; they're just not fun, particularly in a computer game, where all they do is to make you stare at a Loading Saved Game screen.

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