Interview: Chris Whiteside For Neverwinter: Avernus
This week the world of Neverwinter just got thrown into the Nine Layers Of Hell. Sorta, as the world of Avernus has come to the D&D game. Last year, Wizards of the Coast released the book Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus, and ever since people have been waiting to see what kind of content would make it into the video game since all the new content eventually trickles in over time. But what that looks like on the tabletop game and what comes about in digital are two very different prospects. We had a chance to speak with Chris Whiteside, the Executive Producer for Neverwinter, to go over the addition of this new content and what it means for players who dare tread into this new world.
BG: When that first came out and you realized that you would end up eventually adapting it into the game, what were your initial impressions of the campaign?
CW: So, basically the decision to go with Avernus precluded me by about a month I think. I think Thomas Foss [Principal Game Designer for Neverwinter] and the team were very excited about the mod, but for me, because I joined 7-8 months ago, reading through Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus I thought it was very cool.
It was pitched to me as Mad Max meets D&D, which I thought was a little bit bizarre, and it's funny because, when you go on Twitch, or you go on Twitter or anywhere that shared previews of Mod 19 [Avernus] on the web, where we show the vehicles [infernal war machines] and people are like, "what does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?" and all that kind of stuff, and it's like, well go get the book. But, I have tried to show in previous reads of the infernal war machine section of the Descent Into Avernus book, that the machines are fueled by souls. Adding in the vehicles to Neverwinter was a big investment for us since they affected the size of the world; it affected a ton of different things.
We've put a lot more money into the effects, the audio for the vehicles, and even some partial physics on them, it's exciting. I think the infernal war machines are a brave, surprising, non-traditional experience for D&D and for us…perhaps more so for us because for the vehicles in D&D it's a lot more about imagination, whereas we have to build the things and make them work.
Cool! Considering all the content that is in there, how is it trying to balance and make sure that everything is fair and isn't necessarily, as it would be, a trudge through hell?
Chris: That's a great question. It's quite a deep question actually; there are two sides to this. There is one side, which's been controversial, which is, in the past, things like Terror of the Mad Mage has been a great trial—Very, very difficult, pretty inaccessible, but for those that are able to do it, it's a huge Astral Diamonds (AD) bank. But the singular focus on Astral Diamonds isn't healthy for the game, especially how some of the progression systems have been tied into it, and so for this release [Avernus], including the next trial, we are moving in a much more experiential kind of focus or direction.
Specifically, for example, in the new trial for Avernus, Archdevil Zariel's Challenge Trial, it's not a big AD mine—it's more about cool items, upgrades, and less in terms of farming for a small percentage of people being able to farm millions of astral diamonds. And so, with that in mind, the team has done a really good job of wiring all the rewards into the experience. So, anything you're doing pretty much can get you some of the coolest rewards, and there's a lot of intersecting compulsion links in terms of the manner in which the progression and the questing is done to basically give lots of players who like lots of different ways to play to earn the rewards that they want. So it's a bit of a change in direction for us on the game and it's great because it means that we have to produce content that is really immersive, that's really exciting, that doesn't feel really grindy and, most importantly, doesn't feel like it's designed for the 1% because, moving forward, one of the big hopes we've got for the game is to make it so it's something along the lines of a "Games-as-a-platform" experience. And that is what we're moving towards in terms of Project Ascension, which is, what we can do with this platform and community that we have to make this an evergreen product with multiple ways of basically intersecting with it and experiencing it.
I think that putting a focus on the most important thing which is getting away from the real world, being in a world that really feels like D&D and you're in it. That is our goal and the focus is more on real-world things like money and that kind of thing. We want to move more towards "what is it like to live in in a world of D&D in Neverwinter?"
Since you already brought it up, let's dive into Ascension. What is the next step up here for this?
Chris: Not many people know what it is actually. The idea behind Ascension was to bring meaningful and valuable content to the community and bring more players in. It is a multifaceted mission with a hole in the product in which it affects everything from rotating sections of the world in and out, and updating them to use a vast world of rewards, artwork, systems, tools, and more. Ultimately, with Ascension, it's an idea that will allow us to develop Neverwinter so it has an even stronger foundation, which will make it an even more accessible game. In the course of a year, players can expect to find new types of ways of interacting socially, new methods of earning rewards, and also a mixture of vertical progression in Neverwinter modules and horizontal progression in Neverwinter episodes. We launched our first one [first episode, Rage of Bel] and it has done wonders as it brought a more gameplay-focused overall experience for players.
Ascension also includes refining the first-time user experience, I mean, it's a lot. And basically it impacts every single piece that we're doing. The conversation we're having now includes the things we're doing with Twitch and our streaming community, and our YouTube community, but from the point of view that we have something called the Collaborative Development Program (CDP), which is a project where we set a topic with the community and then we basically discuss it in our view and go through various stages of design and different practices. And then in the end we get the proposal, and with that proposal, we then agree to try to implement it within the game moving forward. So part of the program is the belief that the holy grail of games is to build real worlds with your community. It's to properly listen to them, to properly provide a service, so far we've had three of those and they've done really well.
Overall, with Ascension, we're taking the very best parts of Neverwinter and turning them into a foundation, and then building on that to create exciting new experiences for players. While there are many ways to play the game, many experiences to be had, there are different types of players.
Does this mean that you guys will be kind of stepping away from adding in periodical content and episodes and whatnot, and moving more toward quality of life updates, where every month or so there is a new patch that kind of keeps it in an evergreen state? Or, will you still be working with WotC to put in brand new content as it gets released over time? Or will it just be an addition to what's already there?
Chris: We are actually doing the same amount of work, but spreading it between modules and episodes. We're doing even more work, so the idea behind the inclusion of episodes is to make sure that the player always has something to do. On top of that, the idea of Ascension being an evolving world, both in terms of experience and physically involving geographically, we wanted to kind of have modules be the movie, and then from that, the episodes in the TV series to come off the back of the theme of the movie. Modules are going to be much more about systems and mechanics — versus, episodes which are much more narrative-based, much more experiential. We're actually going to be releasing new content, or we have been releasing, new content at a much faster clip than we've ever done before.
The idea with Ascension is it is a project to make Neverwinter an evolving world. For example, we have Mod 18 [Infernal Descent] which is in Vallenhas and then we decided to go the episodic route. If you play Episode One, the adventure zone in Mod 18 has changed Neverwinter geographically and it's changed in terms of what you're doing in the environment from a play standpoint. It's evolved, rather than completely changed. It looks different, the lighting is different, and the companion is further away in the sky to show the process of Hell. The screens at the edge of the environment are louder so you know you're closest to Hell. Bel's legions arrive and then you get to fight the boss himself, which nicely leads into the fight against the Archdevil Zariel. He tried to betray her and whatever unfolds with Mod 19 [Avernus].
In Mod 19, the episodes will take that story further. They'll build on the mechanics and the world that is already there. The world will change physically. The things you are doing in the world will change. Your experience will change. As we get to the last episode in Mod 19, breadcrumbs from the D&D lore and lore that we put in start to give clues as to where it is going next, in terms of the experience, world and key characters. That's another aspect; moving forward we wanted to look at D&D from a socio-political perspective, in terms of, "who are the main characters?", "Why do they matter?", and "what are the main arcs?". We have multiple layers of narrative arcs, giving the player more agency, having narrative arcs have more impact and narrative arcs that weave in and out of each other to make the world an even deeper and rewarding experience.
This is also important in how we are building content moving forward. All of that came from this idea of — you know, we all love D&D and Neverwinter is a fine representation of it — we'd like for it to be a world where it is relevant and it changes and it matters. I haven't spoken to anyone about this goal really under the banner of Ascension, so this is super exciting. I think this is the first time that we've said this is our grand goal, this is our vision, and this is our mission. We intend to execute it really well with the community.
Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you're super excited about that is coming up in the next couple of months, or so?
Chris: There's a lot I'm looking forward to, but I don't want to ruin it for anyone – I'm excited and anxious in regards to all the feedback for Mod 19 [Avernus], I'm very excited for the feedback since I've reviewed and played every single separate component of the overall experience. I'm looking forward to hearing all the feedback, and basically evolving the world from that. But overall, I'm most excited about working with a team that's very much in love with the product and a community that – I don't think we're there yet, but a community whereby some trust was lost, and it's lovely to see so many players coming back and to see the game growing, which it is, really well – it has been since December. I'm looking forward to that growth continuing, and I'm looking forward to building worlds with players, because for me and for the team, that's the Holy Grail.
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