Interview of Brian D. Lawson (English version)

During the last weeks, the community have been able to read some articles about Neverwinter Nights 2 in magazines or on information sites. Today the site "Les Nuits de Padhiver" bring its little share with an exclusive interview of Brian D. Lawson, Senior Graphics Programmer on NWN2.
In this interview, he indicates us in which is job consists of and what are some of the graphics evolutions that we can expect from Electron, and particularly concerning the customization of the terrains, creatures and placeables.

JeuxOnline : You are relatively active on the NWN2 forums, but despite everything we know only few things about you. Could you present yourself, and tell us what you have done in the video games industry and how you joined Obsidian ?

Brian D. Lawson : I got my start in the video game industry back in January of 1999 with a small company in Miami, FL named Raintree Media. After a short stay there I was hired by Midway in San Diego, CA in July of 1999. There I worked as the user interface programmer on Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2 for the Dreamcast and PS2. After that I was hired by Treyarch/Activision in July of 2000. There I worked as a game-play programmer on Triple Play Baseball for the PS2. After Triple Play Baseball was complete, I helped briefly with Tony Hawk 2X for the Xbox. After that I worked on Minority Report for the Xbox, PS2, and GameCube.

I left Treyarch in July of 2002 to join the United States Navy where I spent about a year and a half in flight school learning how to fly military aircraft. However, half way through training, the opportunity to get out of the Navy and return home came up. At that point I had determined that I indeed loved making video games more than being away from home 6+ months out of the year. So, I decided to leave the Navy and return home to California in December of 2003. I took about 6 months off and wrote a 3D demo to showcase my skills regarding 3D graphics programming as it relates to games. I then started looking for a new job and eventually stumbled across Obsidian. I started with Obsidian in July of 2003 and have been working on NWN2 ever since!

JeuxOnline : You're a Senior Graphics Programmer but it is not easy to understand what this job is. Could you explain it to us generally speaking and indicate us more precisely to what it consists on NWN2?

Brian D. Lawson : Typically the Senior Graphics Programmer is responsible for overseeing the ongoing development and evolution of a video game's graphics or rendering engine.

The "graphics/rendering engine" is the code responsible for taking the artwork that the artists create in the form of 3D models and textures and drawing them on the screen every frame. It also includes the advanced lighting and shadowing systems as well as the special effects systems that you commonly see in today's games. Essentially, anything that gets drawn to the screen must pass through the rendering engine.

For NWN2 the rendering engine is completely new...written from scratch. What this means is that there was a lot of work to do in a relatively short amount of time. :)

The rendering engine supports a ton of new features which will hopefully help increase the so called "immersion factor". I would say the most notable improvement is the new lighting engine. It now supports 100% per-pixel lighting on all objects. This is achieved through the use of normal mapping. The other thing that goes hand in hand with lighting is shadowing. The shadowing engine is still in development, but coming along nicely. At the moment, everything in the outdoor world casts and receives fully dynamic shadows. We plan to release some video demonstrating the dramatic day/night cycle where the dynamic lighting and shadowing is quite prevalent.

Along with the lighting and shadowing we've made great efforts to allow end users to really set the mood and atmosphere of their modules. Things like fog distance, fog color, sky colors, sun colors, sun directions, ambient light colors, cloud cover, cloud direction, and cloud rate of movement, can all be controlled via the tool set. You've probably already seen some of this in the swamp screen shots that were recently released.

JeuxOnline : Why have you chosen to create a new graphic engine rather than to take again Aurora and to improve it ?

Brian D. Lawson : As you know, we licensed Aurora from Bioware. However, Aurora is now a number of years old, especially in terms of its graphics engine. At the start of the project I took several months to evaluate how feasible it would be to simply try to extend Aurora to support our new needs for things like per-pixel lighting, etc. However, I came to the conclusion that it would simply be easier and more efficient if we started new and were able to build the features exactly as we needed and wanted them. Hence, "Electron" was born and so far it has worked out great for us.

JeuxOnline : On the first NWN2 screen shots published in the December issue of PC Gamer, we could get a first idea of the possibilities that we will have to customize the areas. Can you tell us more details about these possibilities which will be given to us?

Brian D. Lawson : I mentioned some of this in the answer to question #2 as it relates to the atmosphere. However, I'll give you some more details here. We've put great efforts into allowing maximum customization. At this point you've seen some of the new terrain. It's built in the tool set by starting with a flat plane and simply sculpting it to the desired look. You can also paint down several layers of textures all of which you can blend and transition nicely from one to the other. This will allow you to do things like paint down snow that leads up to a muddy trail, or sand that leads up to grass. The possibilities are endless.

Also, everything in the world is a placeable. That means, tables, chairs, torches, trees, crates, chests, buildings, etc can all be placed in the toolset. The same goes for point lights. As you can see the end user will have a lot more ability to really create the desired look and feel for a module.

JeuxOnline : Besides the areas, could the creatures and placeables also be customized and on what extend ?

Brian D. Lawson : All creatures and most placeables will be customizable to some degree or another. One of the new features of the graphics engine is the ability to “tint” or colorize specific parts of a model or creature. With this system, the number of color variations that are achievable is essentially infinite. Things like hair color, eye color, skin color (for some creatures), cloth color, etc will be tint-able. Another cool customization feature will be scaling (within reason). Those two features coupled together should help eliminate the clone effect commonly seen in other games.

JeuxOnline : The customization possibilities which will be offered really seem to be a NWN2 strong point. However, don't you think that it will result in a greater complexity of the work of the builders and also in a greater time investment ? Did you envisage tools to lessen the impact of such problems ?

Brian D. Lawson : With more power and control comes more complexity. However, our tool set programmers Erik Novales, Brock Heinz, and Adam Brennecke have done a wonderful job of taking feedback from within the company and putting it to good use. We have designers and artists who have been working with the toolset day in and day out for months and have a really good feel for what works and what doesn't. Remember, the single player game itself is being completely built within the tool set.

I would also like to note that along with the rendering engine, the tool set has also been completely rewritten from scratch!

JeuxOnline : NWN2 would not integrate a Z-axis, is it really the case ? I have read that each element (jump, flight, etc.) was to be studied separately. Can you explain what that means ? Can we imagine that elements using Z-axis which would not have been included in NWN2 could be include later ?

Brian D. Lawson : I don't have a good answer for this other than we assessed the work required to retrofit Aurora with support for this type of functionality. However, we decided that our efforts would be better spent elsewhere considering the timeline of the project. A better person to answer this question would be Jason Keeney, one of our senior engine programmers (crate/physics/path finding guy). He has worked closely with the part of Aurora that this question directly deals with.

JeuxOnline : Among all the newness that will propose NWN2, is there others which you did not mention previously but about which you would like to speak ?

Brian D. Lawson : I can only say a little bit about this, not to mention our Lead Designer Ferret Baudoin is better suited for this question in terms of game-play and campaign related features. However, Jason Keeney has written a brand new path finding system as well as a new collision detection system! The new path finding system now functions a lot more like RTS systems where you can simply click a location and your character will path to it. Along the way, he’ll go around objects and other creatures as necessary. For example, I can stand on top of a hill and click a location somewhere in the valley below, and my character will find his way to the walk way that leads down the side of the hill and make his way to the desired location. It’s really nice!

JeuxOnline : Currently, which assessment would you draw up of your work on NWN2 and more generally of this "NWN2 adventure" ?

Brian D. Lawson : I've truly enjoyed the work I've gotten to do on NWN2. It's been a lot of fun! Neverwinter Nights is a great franchise and I think the new adventure that NWN2 will bring forth is shaping up to be a great one!

JeuxOnline : The last question of this interview isn't really one. In fact, this area is there to allow you to add all that you want to say.

Brian D. Lawson : I just want to say that the entire team here at Obsidian has been working hard to provide players with many of the things they wanted but didn't get out of the first game and its expansions. We're also working hard to bring players a great single player campaign. We're simply trying to make the best game we know how and of course we hope that you all will like what we deliver!!

JeuxOnline : Thanks for having agreed to answer our questions.

Brian D. Lawson : No problem. It was a lot of fun and that you for the opportunity!


[French Version]

Interview de Brian D. Lawson (Version française)
Sommaire :


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