AMA with Content Creator Partners & Brett Norton - Executive Producer of Neverwinter
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
A few weeks ago, the community got to meet the new Executive Producer of Neverwinter, Brett Norton, during an Q&A Driftwood Tavern Stream. You can find our summary of that stream and a full unedited playback of the Community Q&A session here:
On Friday April 1st 2022 (no... this is not an April Fool's!), some of the members of the Content Creator Program, Harper Steel, Enyo, Deadmano and ourselves in NWN had the opportunity to chat with Brett and ask our own questions, covering a few more subjects that Brett didn't cover in his first stream. Brett has worked for Cryptic Studios for a little over three years, and has been playing Neverwinter for a little bit longer, around 3 1/2 years, He is familiar with the game from a player standpoint but didn't directly work on Neverwinter until recently, although he did work with some of the people on Neverwinter before becoming the new EP. He was responsible for the design department at Cryptic Studios before joining the Neverwinter team, but now his job is mainly Neverwinter while overseeing some of the ongoing work on Champions Online.
Starting with our own team at NWN, we asked Brett several questions to kick off the session...
Ennileah(NWN): Regarding the Roadmap, you said in the last Driftwood Tavern stream that the last 6 months of the roadmap have not yet been finalised. When do expect this to be confirmed and released to the players?
Brett: We are working on a new road map. We're working on what the longer-term plans are. We don't have that fully confirmed as yet though. The ETA for the current Roadmap, should be, hopefully sometime in the next two months, For a little bit of context, we are in the midst of wrapping up a lot of the work required for our next module released so things are, and you might imagine, have been fairly busy here on the Neverwinter development side as we try to get the next module after Dragonbone Vale, ready to go.
Ennileah(NWN): I had an interview with Salim Grant last year, a couple of the other CCP members, Silvery & Deadmano, interviewed another developer and we discovered from those interviews, that we (the player-base) seem to have a different view to the Developers as to what an end game player is, being a character than can access and successfully complete all available content. So I'm wondering... what do you consider an end game player to be?
Brett: I'll talk about that a bit more broadly. I know myself, having played Neverwinter for a while now and I mentioned this in the previous stream, I actually have at least one, near end game character, that I've completed Tower of the Mad Mage and Zariel’s challenge and such on. I also have other characters that have finished the levelling experience, but probably not geared up enough to take on something like Tower of the Mad Mage just yet. Once you get to level 20 and you start engaging with the item level progression mechanics, internally, we say that end game is ‘OK, you finished the levelling experience... now your end game'. But, we have different categorisations of end game… we have Early End Game in that you have just finished the learning experience, you probably have not done all of the end game adventures yet and you likely have an item level of under 30,000IL. As you go through the Adventures, there's a lot of easy progression there for an early end game player.
We go then to a mid-game or mid end game experience which is roughly budgeted at somewhere in the range of about 35,000IL to about 55,000IL.
As you progress on and finish up campaigns, acquire a lot of good gear, upgrade your Enchants, Companions, Mounts etc., you then start to progress into something closer to "End Game". When you start approaching the current higher IL ranges, 55,000 IL upwards, is roughly when you're getting into sort of the Real End Game when you can start tackling a lot of the really challenging content, like Hardcore Vault of Stars, possibly Crown of Keldegonn etc. Although I’ll say Crowns’ targets are pretty high end even over that range, closer to 65-75,000IL, depending on what role you are. So, there's broad spectrum spread of what End Game is, where players are at with their progression and what kind of activities that they're doing. With the types of Trials and Dungeons available, different audiences are going to be able to complete some of those more than others. As an example, Vault of Stars is targeted at being able to start that around Mid-Game right now and I'd say that similar content such as Random Trial Queue, is currently around Early End Game, given that mostly Trials are relatively straightforward. Whereas surprisingly, Random Advanced Dungeon Queues are actually probably targeted a bit more towards the Mid Game and current Late End Game, as is obviously something like Crown of Keldegonn or Vault of Stars.
Ennileah: The changes in M21 were said to be 'making it easier' for players to reach End Game (the majority of the player base as I said earlier, consider End Game to be a character that can access and successfully complete all available content). With this in mind and considering previous feedback on this topic from our NWN community, would you agree that the recent Enchantment changes have "undone" the changes made in M21 and that it is just as difficult now for a player to reach our definition of End Game?
Brett: I would say that there's definitely a lot of activities that you're expected to do to get to the given item level requirements. For something like Late End Game, it's a long process to get there and I agree that some of the changes to the refinement system has added more time between when a player starts the Early End Game experience, when they've just finished the levelling sprint, perhaps started on the adventures, and it's the point in which they can tackle something again, like the really challenging Vault of Stars or Crown of Keldegonn content. I wouldn't say it's just particular to something like the Enchantment system changes though, it's more that as we release new Modules, the gap is somewhat increased between when players come out of the levelling experience as to when they become viable to do whatever the most challenging content currently is.
This has been increasing bit by bit since roughly around module 16/17. That gap has gone up quite a bit since then, and time has also increased it. We haven't done a lot in the way of what I would consider 'bootstrapping', for example, where it's like, 'OK, we have a player, they just exited the levelling experience and they're coming out of that content at Level 20, at say 25k item level maybe 30k, depending on how things are going, but they need to get to 60/65k to have a reasonable chance at doing more "Bleeding Edge" content' or whatever the most recent End Game content is at that time. It's a long process to get up to that high item level and it's probably too long a process right now. So we are looking at ways to expedite that, make it quicker for players to get through existing content and gear their characters up so they're viable for Late (Bleeding Edge) End Game. Our team has also talked about some Systemic Balance changes that will make it easier for players who don't have, for example, Mythic level Enchantments or Mythic level Companions and have them be more effective earlier on in progression. We don't want to reduce the power of Mythic Enchantments, but there has been discussion on some of the 'Non Mythic' (Epic, Rare quality etc.) Companions on being more 'valuable' to a player. There's definitely a way that some things like Mounts, Companions and a few other things are balanced. Right now, a large chunk of the power from these, comes in at the last couple of levels of upgrades and we want to modify that a bit so there is more power available at earlier levels. So we're not going to decrease the amount of power you get of a Mythic level Enchantment or Mythic level Companion, but look at 'Pre-Mythic levels of those things being more valuable to a player and able to impact your character more positively. So, as a result, you'll be able to move up through the ranks of item level and effective total power much quicker.
Ennileah: Just to add to that very briefly, quite a few of my community feel (who were playing before the M21 changes and were still progressing to what you call Early to Mid-End Game) that all the changes in M21 that made it easier to get to level 20 and beyond, have now been "undone" and the thing they comment on the most, is the Enchantment changes. They feel that this is the area where it's failed them more so...
Brett: I think it is tied to the natural trend of us releasing higher and higher item level content over time and I think that the Enchantment system is getting flagged right now because it is one of the most recent things to change, but obviously, there's certain elements like how item level and certain Combat Enchantments play out, that have an impact on that too, where those things are significant contributors to item level and it's now looked at as a requirement to get your character through and getting experiences to grind those up to Mythic level or something along those lines.
So the Enchantment changes have definitely contributed to it, but I think that we've seen a definite trend towards that over the last several modules, where it's like, 'oh... we can go up, we have more stuff', you have more things yet to gradually increase your item level more etc. and those are the elements that you can't expedite.
As much as going into Dragonbone Vale and finding new items, that's a relative shorter path or just going through some of the other zones and picking up some hunts or whatnot in Avernus to hopefully drop a couple of items you might need, like Goristro’s Horns etc.
Ennileah: On the subject of hunts in Avernus, Nightspine is still very broken (on Xbox) and causing chaotic lag and 'stealing' players' lures....
Brett: We can try to take a look at Nightspine as well as the other hunts in Avernus as we go forward. At the bare minimum, trying to resolve some of the issues with those hunts and make it such that it's not an experience that requires a huge group. Part of the problem is that Nightspine was designed for when Avernus was much more of a 'Bleeding Edge' standard of the current content, so it was easier to get groups of large people to handle it and right now, that's not the case. He's obviously several modules out at this point and having it require multiple groups to go back and do it is not the desirable experience right now and it's not something that I think players look forward to.
Ennileah: It can be done with a mixed group of around 10 players at what you call Mid End Game onwards, but the lag is so insane that if you added more people into a run and had a full instance, the instance itself crashes out and boots out all of those players to the dashboard on Xbox. We've had that so many times now and lost lures as a result.
Brett: It should not crash so that's a larger, more critical issue to address, even if it's the challenge factor… So it's probably something that we'll take a look at it because Nightspine has some unique powers that are probably triggering it. We try to make sure that we get a comprehensive internal issue noted with tracking all the potentials, but there's a lot of things we can do to Nightspine. It's actually currently already on our list to look at further, but we'll expedite especially with it causing Xbox crashes.
We got a swift update on this shortly after the AMA interview that a major cause of the crashes during Nightspine has recently been addressed!
Ennileah: We know from in the past, take Magic: Legends as an example, that some staff are moved from the Neverwinter team & onto other Cryptic Studios games teams periodically and that some Developers work between different games sometimes. Yourself as an example, you worked on Champions and now you're on Neverwinter. I saw Cryptics’ most recent recruitment adverts on LinkedIn this week and noticed a 'Future Project' noted on there and I know you're still recruiting for Neverwinter as well. That has left me wondering if there's a chance that any of the current Neverwinter team are going to be pulled off of Neverwinter for a short time or permanently, to work on that new future project, and if so, how will that impact your current Road Map and timings of getting things out to the players?
Brett: So, with respect to that, Cryptic staff are split amongst several projects. We have Champions, Star Trek Online, Neverwinter... and we have an internal core programming team. In addition, we have new projects that are usually ongoing at any given time. Developers will often stay on any project, whether it's STO, Neverwinter etc., for a reasonable amount of time.
A reasonable amount of time could be anywhere from a couple of years to, if they really like the game they are working on, they might be on that team for an extreme amount of time eg 10 plus years. We try to make sure that our Developers are engaged and they're having fun there and enjoying their work, but the reality is, that after four or five years on Neverwinter, STO or other games, sometimes they want to try something new and ask if they can be rotated off to one of the other games whether its Neverwinter, whether it’s STO… We've had back and forth transfers between STO and Neverwinter for a while, not just in new projects as well. So we try to set that up for our Developers because it's important for us to ensure that that they are enjoying the work. They have healthy new challenges, they get to try out new things. We've even had times when people on a team wanted to change roles, we've had Artists on STO going from doing things like the effects to go on to doing things like ship art and stuff like that as well.
But they're just like, 'you know, I really want to try something else out to advance my art skills' so we try to carve out opportunities for this, because the reality is if we don't create opportunities for our staff, then they may leave Cryptic. So it's important for us to say we'd rather have you stay at Cryptic and give you this opportunity.
With respect to how that influences Neverwinter development, we generally try to have a long-term forecast such as, 'We know that X game in a year and a half will want staff and we will be looking at people across all projects at Cryptic as to who might be the best fit for the new projects' etc. If that's the case, we make sure that we, as much as possible,
pre-emptively plan our staffing around that project so that we can bring people in ahead of time to train up and know how to replace them or shuffle peoples' duties around. For example, if a lead on Neverwinter wants to go to another project, we start training up a new Lead Intern to handle those responsibilities. I know from a community standpoint that raises some questions, but internally this is vital to the health and development of our new talent, as well as making sure that people at Cryptic are happy with the type of work that they're doing.
Deadmano: I’m at the end game. I've done all of the end game content, love the game, but a question that I and many other players that find ourselves in the same position are wondering… Is there anything in the foreseeable future that you can talk about today, that we can look forward to in terms of re-playable content? Reaper's Challenge has been a great addition. It's repeatable, it's always randomised, you never know what you're going to get and sometimes it can produce some really fun results. Is there anything that we can look forward to in that regard, not just a new Dungeon or Trial, just something that gives you the incentive of randomness and not just the normal grind?
Brett: There are specifically things with the next module that are targeted at exactly that. We're trying some new elements with Module 23. It will be a very different module than, pretty much, any other module that Neverwinter has had so far, and full disclosure… when I came into the project, Module 23 was about halfway in development. We are trying to make sure that everything we put out is polished and different. I don’t want to spoil too much because we're going to be releasing marketing trailers for Mod 23 relatively soon. Once the trailer is released, I'll be free to talk a little bit more about what the exact features in it are.
We took a great note of what Reaper challenge was, we've had a lot of fun with it. I've run it multiple times too and I enjoy a lot of it. At the same time we are looking at ways to have things that are a bit more re-playable that players can do. From our end, it is systemic. Content like this is not easy build, it's very time consuming to build a Dungeon as an example and we want to find out a way to keep players engaged for longer and keep some of the randomisation.
We've looked at some of the things we attempted to pull off with Expeditions… and what we didn't like about where Expeditions were, but looked at some things we thought were successes. We've also looked at some of the elements like Barovia hunts and also content like Reaper’s Challenge…. and we've tried to come up with a new feature which will be similar to all of those in some respects, but not exactly like any of them and that will hopefully encapsulate and give players a lot of new and variable challenges. There are things that are designed to be very easy and very soloable, and there are things in there that are designed to tax good players, make it pretty hard for them and allow them to put a lot of that challenge on themselves. We also wanted to try something extremely difficult that you could only do with a closed private group and in contrast, content that is moderately challenging and is more suitable for a public group so they can jump in and tackle it as well.
Deadmano: Do you have any idea of when we could expect to see some of these things that you mentioned and are you able to share any details on the content at all, a slight spoiler maybe... ?
Brett: Looking at the current dates and where we're at, unless something goes catastrophically wrong, it'll be less than three months from today.... And there WILL BE DRAGONS!!
Harper Steel: I deal a lot with new players like Neverwinter for Noobs as well, and I guess some of the questions that I had come up have also been about bridging between campaigns. I see a lot of times, if you aren't a player that gear chases and grinds VoS over and over again to get those coveted ring/gear drops and and you have all the campaigns done, then what is there left do between campaigns? We tend to see a player-base drop between Mod launches because of this...
I also asked in the last Driftwood Tavern stream about the Foundry and also wanted to ask about any potential plans for PvP in the future...
Brett: We certainly see the trend of player number drops between content releases as well. We have metrics for what we look at in terms of how players play and how they engage. We have specific separate initiatives to address that too. We've been trying to put more value into some of the events we've ran previously, such as Hell pit, Harvester and specifically Siege of Neverwinter, as such that even if you've completed all of the current campaigns, the events have enough value that you can get progression materials that will help you advance your character in some way.
So if you're still trying to max out some of your Enchants or Companions, if you at least log in run through Harvester or Hell Pit or whatever the current event is, you know you're getting materials that will help you advance your character towards being prepared for the next Module. Or if you're trying to build up your character to tackle something like Vault of Stars Hardcore, the events will help you progress towards that goal.
We are looking at new events and other things like that too and trying to make some of the older events rewards more enticing. Alongside that we are looking at potentially bringing back some older events that I mentioned in the last Driftwood Tavern Stream such as Call to Arms… we're looking at ways to bring that back, but we want to wrap that around in a way that it's worthwhile for both new and old players to engage in it, such that it's not 'you do this until you get those Specific rewards and you never need to run it again'.
We've talked about PvP and some solutions internally. PvP Is tough from a balance of a logistics standpoint for what we're trying to do. We have an idea of a mode of PvP that we've discussed that we want to develop and that mode would hopefully address some of those issues, but the reality is, it's not currently on our list to be done for Module 23.
We're trying to figure out if and when we can do it. It's something that would take a reasonable amount of manpower to execute on the realities that PvP balance is very, very picky and it takes a lot of time. You can already see that we definitely have enough balance issues with the PvE aspect of the game that we're trying to address, so we're trying to stay somewhat focused on the PvE content right now.
I agree with you and the standpoint of that it provides sort of an interstitial wait… keeps players interested in the interim of new content releases. I've played PvP extensively in a lot of games, I'm quite a hardcore PvPer in many different genres. I played some games very competitively at very serious levels, almost a 'pro gamer' at that point - If that had existed 20 years ago I probably would have been. So I don't disagree with any of those statements but from the terms of where the team is at the moment, it's hard for us to peel off because it's something that you can't just do casually. It's something you have to take a significant investment and investiture in and right now, from a scope and manpower planning standpoint, we haven't been able to jump into it.
That being said, we do actually have a way that we want to try to address this and work with it, but it's also something that also couldn't just be done on the side. It will be less than a massive amount of work, so something that we could do, but I can't promise it here in the short run, it's definitely not something that I know is on the slate for the upcoming release, but something that we're working out.
Harper Steel: I know it takes a long time to initiate changes. Going back to our last CDP (Collaborative Development Program) forum post for the community on the Quality of Life topic back in July 2020, we can still see things from that being implemented within the systems today, however, how do you keep up with player demands from two years ago whilst still trying to keep a step ahead of what we want now? The player-bases' priorities have changed since that CDP...
Brett: It's a reality that we're trying to reassess what those priorities are, to ensure that we have an accurate backlog, portraying all of the requests that we have from external sources as well as internal requests and that we re-evaluate those periodically and stack rank them in a way that we're like, 'OK, these are the things that we can do as well, the things that we should do and that's kind of the Venn diagram overlap we look for'. We're trying to get in really good habits of making sure that we review these things multiple times during the development of each Module and well before we go into the Module… looking at what it is that we can and should do. Some of those are things, obviously, that the community has requested, others are things that internally we need to do to make ‘Dev Life’ easier… Usually, that allows us to address something that the Community wants us to look at.
The reality is, that you're correct. Sometimes, things that we did three years ago, now aren't as important to the player-base and we will try to instead pivot to something more accurate and recent. For the most part, hopefully conversations like this with the CCP members today as well as more general AMA’s, will help us engage with the Community to understand what it is that they currently think and their necessities for the game. So, before we go into the next module, we will understand how to re-stack and re-rank things priority-wise. Internally, as we develop and start looking at future modules, we generally try to do feedback sessions as well to identify what those priorities may be.
Harper Steel: Bearing all that in mind, what does Developer to Player-base communication look like to you in the future? and how does the CCP (Content Creator Program) fit into that?
Brett: I hope to have an increased level of communication, that in terms of cadence, hopefully, we will be able to put out something like a Roadmap update anywhere between two to four times a year.
It's an additional effort, because we have to make a public facing version of the Roadmap. We have an internal version of one, but it talks about a lot of things that could change, or dates that could move as well as internal development for things that we don't disclose the Community. So we would be able to put a 'public facing' version of our Roadmap with some regular cadence, probably as I said before, between two to four times a year.
I hope that we can increase general overall discussion with Community, like doing these sorts of AMAs. My hope is that we can probably do this kind of AMA with the CCPs once a month at least, but I offer that time period based on how frequently you guys in the CCP would actually like to chat about things, as well as how often we have meaningful updates to share on the different subject matters. Then, separately with individuals on the team, we're trying to carve out more time and more space to engage and do things like videos, blogs etc that will walkthrough and talk about some of these subjects.
We're trying to get some of the Developers, those that especially work on community facing features, more involved in the discussion too. You may have noticed, Robert who is currently working on the Bard class fixes, has started a thread on the Preview section of our Forums. Those changes have gone live to the Preview Server today and he's engaging directly with community on performance, about what more there is left to do, identifying critical items to address and then we're using that to influence how we prioritise on the time we have to work on the Bard fixes internally. I'd like to see that with a large number of features and Julia (Nitocris - Community Manager), for example, has been running some internal playtests, internal pseudo external playtests and closed external playtests on a number of our upcoming new pieces of content. We're getting a lot of good feedback from people in the playtesting groups for those things. We have groups that contain, not just our internal testers, but players from the community that are getting a chance to see very early versions of some of the new content. They are giving us vital feedback about balance, appropriateness, mechanics, bugs etc so that we have a more robust testing on it all and better targeting for the audiences that will eventually play this new content when it goes live.
Harper Steel: What does players future character growth look like to you? It feels like most of our gear and accessories are getting up to mythic level now… so is there anywhere else we can go? Are we boxing ourselves in?
Brett: We can always add new ranks so there's always the ability for us, if we absolutely wanted, to add in additional ranks of Enchantments, Mount Insignias, etc. But we're also looking at ways to expand current systems that don't detract from currently available items.
SPOILER ALERT INCOMING!!
I'll give it a bit of a spoiler in something that's an initiative coming a little from me, but something that we are looking at, Mount Insignia Bonuses… what those are, how they help your character out and the current lack of quality Mount Insignia Bonuses and what we can do to add more unique and interesting Mount Insignia Bonuses going forward to give players targets to improve upon. Also, we've talked about having a better variety of Mount Insignias… the actual base and Insignias themselves that better target stats that players are more interested in and adding new combinations of stats etc.