Like journals sprinkled throughout RPGs, Pause Screens go into more detail on the people, companies, and cultures that contributed to the success of the Pillars of Eternity franchise and the Infinity Engine line of roleplaying games.

Tactics

One Friday evening, Chris Parker dropped his keys on the counter, pulled two beers out of the fridge, and sat down at his computer. His fingers pecked at the keyboard in a staccato rhythm. Occasionally he would sit back and stare at the screen. He slurped from his beer, leafed through one of his Forgotten Realms guidebooks. The pecking resumed.

By Sunday, he had finished the backstory for the next Infinity Engine-powered roleplaying game: Icewind Dale.

"Baldur’s Gate was very much trying to do I guess what you would call today an open-world experience,” Parker said of BioWare’s and Black Isle Studios’ computer RPG. “Icewind Dale was more linear, and maybe a more focused gameplay experience."

R. A. Salvatore's Icewind Dale trilogy launched the author's writing career.
R. A. Salvatore's Icewind Dale trilogy launched the author's writing career.

Parker had leaped at the chance to take point on another game set in the Forgotten Realms setting. All the pieces had been in place. Interplay had the D&D license, and BioWare had licensed its Infinity Engine to Black Isle so they could make more games. BioWare’s programmers would even provide technical support if Black Isle hit any speedbumps.

Icewind Dale would be made in-house by a Black Isle team led by Parker. His small team had kicked around ideas. When none of them had gone anywhere, Parker had seized initiative and cranked out the game’s backstory over a weekend.

Icewind Dale would be set in the Forgotten Realms location of the same name. The arctic region had been popularized by novelist R. A. Salvatore, whose breakout trilogy of novels starring dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden had been set there. Its inhabitants—dwarves, humans, and less savory creatures such as frost giants and orcs—are fond of saying that winter never ended in the Dale. Only the strong survived.

Black Isle’s team was determined to more than survive. They would thrive, Parker planned, by keeping their story simple. Players control a party of adventurers commissioned to investigate a village being terrorized by malevolent forces. When an avalanche wipes out their employers, the party resolves to see their quest to its end.

Icewind Dale’s scope was as tight and focused as its story. Instead of recruiting companions like in Baldur’s Gate, players would configure a party of six characters right at the start of the game. Tactical combat via the Infinity Engine’s real-time-with-pause game systems would be the game’s centerpiece.

"With Icewind Dale, from the outset of that game, we said, 'Let's make a more dungeon crawl-y experience. Let's make a game where it's more about combat, more about fighting a lot of different creatures, and a lot of different strategies and tactics,’” Parker explained. "Going and making the same game wouldn't make sense," Parker stated. "We wanted to utilize the Dungeons & Dragons license, and the reason why we wound up in the region of Icewind Dale was because we looked around and said, 'What is something we can do that will present a lot differently than what Baldur’s Gate already is?"

Players would crawl through snowy mountains and tundras, ducking into caves, temples, and dungeons to fight monsters and find treasure. Only two obstacles stood between the Icewind Dale team and success. "The Icewind Dale team, when it started, was only about six people," Parker explained, "and we had this piece of technology, the Infinity Engine, that we didn't really know how to use."

Fortunately, the motley team was eager to learn.

Self-Taught

Parker built his team piecemeal. To help produce Icewind Dale, he enlisted Darren Monahan.

"He was actually a programmer by trade at that time," Parker said of Monahan. "He'd been working in Interplay's tech department, and he was really tired of doing firefighting and writing installers. He thought being a producer would be like being a rock star. I kind of tried to talk him out of it, but not that hard, because I really needed an associate producer at the time. He came over and would handle day-to-day tasks with people. I would handle a lot more of the marketing, PR, and design aspects, and team management."

Josh Sawyer, another eager recruit, wasn’t looking to be a rock star. He just wanted to make games. Sawyer had limped out of college with a low grade-point average and concentrations in history and theater. Between classes, he taught himself web design. His do-it-yourself attitude and burgeoning skill set fit a job that opened up at Interplay.

Josh Sawyer.
Josh Sawyer.

"A friend of mine said, 'Hey, Black Isle Studios in California is hiring a webmaster for some secret, D&D-related project that they're doing.' I applied for it, and I got the job, in part because I knew Flash animation, which at the time was still pretty new," said Sawyer.

Sawyer couldn't believe his luck. He had grown up playing and designing campaigns for tabletop roleplaying games. Now he was working at Interplay, the company that had made his favorite computer RPG, The Bard’s Tale. And Interplay was paying him to design a website for Planescape: Torment, another Infinity Engine RPG that Black Isle was developing in parallel to Icewind Dale. "I was really excited that I got to make a website that really conveyed what the developers wanted to convey about the world, the story, and the setting," he said. It was really cool seeing the community getting so excited about all the new information we were putting out."

Sawyer technically worked for Interplay, not Black Isle. As a web designer in the marketing project, his job was to help promote any Interplay titles he was assigned. He lucked out by getting Planescape: Torment. He had a blast helping the team market their creation by building a website that touted what made the game a unique RPG, from the player-character's hazy origins to the fact that combat was an option rather than a requirement; players could talk their way out of many situations, too.

After wrapping up his work on Torment, Sawyer did some revisions to the Baldur's Gate website. That was when Black Isle’s producers talked with him about building a site for Icewind Dale. Sawyer dived into work.

When he wasn’t designing the game’s website, he chatted up Black Isle director Feargus Urquhart. Sawyer admitted he had no formal experience designing computer roleplaying games, but he did know the Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rule set back to front. He asked Urquhart if he could contribute to Icewind Dale’s game design on a part-time basis. Websites would come first. "That was around the time when I transitioned to being a junior designer,” Sawyer remembered.

Parker was stepping outside his comfort zone, too. As a producer on Baldur’s Gate, he had been a shepherd, making sure BioWare stuck to a schedule, building the game’s first website, and making sure the Canada-based developer had everything they needed. Now that he was leading a project of his own, he wanted to be more hands-on with design.

His first steps in level design were tentative. Booting up Photoshop and the Infinity Engine’s suite of tools, he built a simple area made of primitive shapes: solid blue rectangle for a sky, solid green rectangle for grass, and two rectangles stuck together to form a house. As his experiments continued, Parker added another solid rectangle that functioned as a door. It could be opened and closed, and the player-character could walk into and out of the building.

A small building with a plain gray roof, with blades of grass around a boulder that was more rectangular than round.

Parker’s next project was cobbling together a monster out of a picture of Feargus. Using the engine’s tools, he was able to whip up three frames of animations for walking, dying, and the state of being dead. The model moved jerkily, but Parker couldn’t help laughing.

"It had Feargus' head, him with his mouth closed, and there was one more frame where his mouth was open. Between those two animations, he would walk around the screen opening and closing his mouth like Pac-Man. You could kill him, and that was just his head flipped sideways with little Xs over his eyes.”

Icewind Dale.
Icewind Dale.

Off the Cuff

Game and environment designs were unfamiliar territory for some members of Icewind Dale’s team. Their shared vision was common ground: Build an awesome, tactics-oriented dungeon crawl. Combat was the sieve through which the developers filtered every design choice.

The game begins by asking players to build out a party of six companions by choosing races and classes: half-elf bard, dwarven cleric, and so on. Their choice of race and class determines the weapons and abilities available to them as the game progresses.

Each area feeds plot points in dribs and drabs. There are places to see and people to talk with, but locations ultimate serve as game boards. Every move they make, every quest they accept, moves them one step closer to a tactical encounter. “The sub-stories in each of those areas were written not to spend too much time servicing the main story,” Parker said. “The entirety of Severed Hand, the elven undead dungeon, was [designed] to tell the story of what happened in this location as you're fighting your way through it and around this spiral staircase of a dungeon."

Icewind Dale.
Icewind Dale.

The dungeons Sawyer and the other designers built reflected the team’s design ethos. "One of the interesting things about Icewind Dale is that we had no leads for any department, which is really weird,” Sawyer remembered.

He found himself in good company. With the exception of Chris Avellone and Steve Bokkes, both of whom had some experience in the industry, Sawyer and most of the others were cutting their teeth on Icewind Dale. Each designer would receive overviews describing an area that needed to be created and where that area fit in the game’s main path. Then they were given carte blanche to build them, as well as create and define their assigned region’s flora, fauna, and magical artifacts.

“I wound up designing all the magic items just because I was super passionate about it,” Sawyer said. “I wrote all the dialogues for my dungeons, and then I wrote a few other NPCs that existed in Easthaven and Kuldahar. We would all give each other feedback on stuff, and Chris Avellone would give us feedback on writing.”

Breaking out newsprint paper and a Sharpie, Sawyer mapped out Kresselack’s Tomb, the first multi-level dungeon players explore. After refining his blueprint, he handed it off to Dennis Presnell, one of Black Isle’s artists, to model it. The process of translating a dungeon map from paper to the screen was a learning experience. "I learned that isometric is not the same as top-down, in the sense of when you design something that's very narrow when you're looking at it top-down, it can look totally fine, but when you put it at an angle, it can become incredibly frustrating,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer’s blueprints resembled floor plans. Levels were shown from the top down. But that was not how maps and levels would be constructed and viewed by players. Isometric cameras hovered above the action at a slant, which meant hallways that appeared to run straight ahead on Sawyer’s paper would have to be rotated at a slight diagonal in the game. A hallway that unfurls straight ahead would appear slightly tilted.

That disconnect created a problem in Kresselack’s Tomb. Players come to a juncture where they must click a floor tile to open a door. The tile was plainly viewable on Sawyer’s paper draft, but the in-game isometric camera obscured it behind a wall. After the game released, many players grew frustrated by the seemingly impossible puzzle in the tomb and resorted to clicking their mouse around the screen until it morphed into a different pointer, one that the game used to signify an action that could be performed.

Sawyer changed up his approach for his next dungeon. Dragon’s Eye spans five floors of caverns infested with lizard men and trolls. It’s worth the risk: Players who carve a path through its enemies will stock up on  gold, spell scrolls, and antidote potions, to name a few finds. Sawyer drew the Eye’s levels on isometric paper, a style of graphing paper with rows and columns of diamonds instead of squares. His layout transferred cleanly to the game. “That’s also how I laid out some areas for Pillars of Eternity: I would do sketches in Photoshop on a diamond grid, that was isometric, and hand it off to an artist,” he said.

What Dragon’s Eye lacks in terms of accidental puzzles, it makes up for in raw difficulty. The odds players face are overwhelming. A cool head with an eye toward tactics, as well as a diverse party, are the keys to emerging from Dragon’s Eye and other dungeons alive. Players are free to stuff their group full of fighters or thieves, but ranged enemies such as archers are most easily dealt with by rangers or wizards.

Nevertheless, Black Isle’s team did their best to design encounters that could be conquered with almost any combination of heroes and abilities. Over several days, Chris Parker asked Interplay’s QA testers to play through the entire game using a party of six mages, then six fighters, then six of each of the other character classes.

“I remember them saying, 'Man, nobody's really going to do that. This is ridiculous.' But we contemplated that somebody out there might just think, I want to go through this whole game with my party of rogues. And they did, actually,” Parker said. “People posted on forums later about the viability of doing that.”

Icewind Dale.
Icewind Dale.

Game Development Math

Chris Parker and Darren Monahan share an inside joke. On paper, Icewind Dale took over one year to make. But according to their calculations, development was completed in just six months. “It’s not entirely untrue, but it is hyperbolic,” Parker said.

Icewind Dale was supposed to kick off in August 1999 with a team of thirty developers. With such a large crew, development would have taken six months, eight at the most. At least, that had been the idea.

The reality was that most of those thirty developers had spent most of their time crunching on Planescape: Torment. Even after Torment launched, many programmers were tied up tracking down bugs and rolling out patches. The team that broke ground on Icewind Dale was one-third the size of Parker’s estimate.

Icewind Dale.
Icewind Dale.

By early 2000, Icewind Dale was months behind schedule. Only two of the twenty-four regions planned for the game—the Vale of Shadows, a valley that hosted attractions such as Kresselack’s Tomb; and Kuldahar, a settlement that played a major role in the story—had been finished. Most creatures were still on the to-do list. The small team simply did not have the resources to build them. 

Suddenly, like barbarians appearing through the blinding torrents of one of the Dale’s infamous snowstorms, over three dozen weary but determined developers migrated from Planescape: Torment to fill out their ranks.

“Basically, between early January and ship, I don't have numbers, but probably two-thirds of the game got completed in that timeframe,” Parker remembered.

Despite the sudden influx of resources, Icewind Dale’s team stayed scrappy. One of Parker’s processes on Baldur’s Gate, which carried over to Icewind Dale, was to log bugs on a spreadsheet. Both BioWare and Black Isle had needed access to the spreadsheet, but neither team had servers or sophisticated file-sharing capabilities. Their solution was to share custody of a single file. “We would take this one master Excel sheet and send it back and forth,” Parker remembered. “BioWare would have it during the day, and I would have it at night. All of the bug-fixing efforts from [both sides] went into this one spreadsheet. That was how we tracked bugs.”

Parker and Darren Monahan used that same system on Icewind Dale. QA testers put versions of Icewind Dale through its paces and made updates one by one to the master spreadsheet. Then they passed it to the game’s programmers so they could address any bugs they had found. Since a team of programmers could not share a single spreadsheet file, Parker and Monahan had to improvise.

“Every night—and Darren did this more often than I did—we would print out thirty bug lists, drop those lists on everybody's chair. When they got in the next morning, they had a couple of pieces of paper. That was their bug list,” Parker said.

Programmers spent each day going through pages correcting bugs. Every evening, they deposited their papers in a bin outside Parkers office. Parker or Monahan would gather up the papers the next morning, logged every change in the spreadsheet file, and print out updated lists for the next round. “This system actually worked great. It totally did,” Parker said.

Then he paused. “But thinking back on it, it's the most ridiculous system in the universe compared to any bug-tracking system that we have today. I couldn't even imagine. Tasks and issues on Pillars of Eternity get intermixed, but in that database I think there are about 48,000 items. I think we did maybe about 6,000 bugs on Icewind Dale. The idea that we would somehow track eight times that amount in an Excel spreadsheet is ridiculous. But, yeah. That's how we did it. It was crazy town, but it worked.”

By early June of 2000, Icewind Dale’s bug spreadsheet was speckled with Fs for fixed. A few weeks later, Icewind Dale arrived in stores on the 29th. Critics gave it a warm welcome as a combat-centered roleplaying romp, exactly the sort of game the team had envisioned. That didn’t stop a competitor’s product from stepping on Icewind Dale’s toes: Also on June 29th of 2000, Blizzard Entertainment and Blizzard North released Diablo II, one of the most anticipated products of the year.

The decision to launch day and date with a game that had been widely covered by press leading up to its release had been made by Interplay’s sales and marketing departments, not Black Isle’s. “That will always be the most curious marketing decision to me, ever,” Parker said. “Because why would you even try? Like, what was the point of that? To this day I still don't know. For two months before and two months after, I just sat around with head in hands, going, 'What did you guys do here? Why did we do that?’”

Blizzard North's and Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo II.
Blizzard North's and Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo II.

Although Icewind Dale held its own, Diablo II’s real-time, click-heavy gameplay made it more accessible to casual audiences. Blizzard’s sequel shot to the top of PC Data’s sales charts and held the top spot for weeks in the U.S. Sales across the pond told a different story: After three weeks in the lead position, Diablo II fell to Icewind Dale in the United Kingdom.

Icewind Dale went on to sell nearly 150,000 units by the end of 2001 and earned $6.8 million for Interplay, proving that Black Isle’s tactical dungeon crawler appealed to players in search of a deeper yet still visceral experience than Diablo II faster and more frantic loot fest. “Dungeons & Dragons is kind of a [slow-burn] strategic experience,” said Parker. “There wasn't any way to speed that up and keep the strategy we wanted from our game. I think other people saw Diablo as this direct competitor, but we didn't. We saw it as more of a complementary game that was in the same space.”

Aside from his game's competitive launch window, Parker considers the experience of making Icewind Dale one of the best of his career. “Icewind Dale was my first taste of working with a group of people making a game from start to finish, and that was amazing for me. I learned so much because it was so much different than dealing with BioWare. We were like family. It was great, and figuring out how to manage all of those people was great.”

Icewind Dale likewise holds a special place in the heart of Josh Sawyer. For him, it checked almost every box a first-time computer RPG designer could hope for. It was based on D&D, one of his favorite tabletop games, and set in the Forgotten Realms, one of his favorite fictional sandboxes. Moreover, his first computer game had been published by Interplay, the same company that had developed The Bard’s Tale.

The cherry on top came when Feargus Urquhart forwarded Sawyer a glowing email he had received from Brian Fargo. “Brian congratulated Feargus on what a good game it had turned out to be, and said it was the first roleplaying game he had finished in quite a while. That really meant a lot to me,” Sawyer said.

“Sometimes games become a little overwhelming,” Fargo added. “I remember when I turned on Baldur’s Gate II, I went, ‘Oh my gosh.’ There was so much to choose from right out of the chute. Perhaps because I'm involved in so many different things, my attention span was and is shorter, so I like when I can get into titles a little easier. You can layer the complexity on all you want, but up front, I like to reduce friction as much as possible. I played Icewind Dale all the way to the end and just loved every second of it.”

Special Spice

Feargus Urquhart ground his teeth. Josh Sawyer was in his office again, pushing for something Urquhart could not give him.

“Feargus just wanted games to be good,” Sawyer said. “He always gave opinions on things. In that era, Feargus and I butted heads a lot. Thankfully we butt heads less often now, but I think everyone, including him, just wanted to make great roleplaying games.”

The latest in their long-running series of debates concerned the scope Sawyer had in mind for Heart of Winter. “I was concerned it was going to be too small, but in his defense, we didn't really have the resources to make a huge [expansion set],” Sawyer explained.

Urquhart held firm. When Heart of Winter arrived in stores in February 2001—four months ahead of Diablo II’s own add-on pack—the game sold well, but critics did call out its story for being too short.

Icewind Dale II.
Icewind Dale II.

Later that year, Sawyer got his chance to build a game more to his specifications when another internal project hit a rather large snag. Torn, a 3D roleplaying game was being built on LithTech, a 3D game engine licensed from Monolith Production. Black Isle had built a reputation as a purveyor of fine RPGs, but in 2D using the Infinity Engine. LithTech was made to develop 3D games, and Black Isle’s team was struggling to wrap their heads around the new tech. When development hit a wall, Urquhart cancelled the project.

That was far from Urquhart’s only headache. Production of Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound was progressing, but not fast enough to fill the gap Torn had made in Black Isle’s release schedule. “Because they needed something from Black Isle to come out quickly, and because neither of those projects was going to be that project, they cancelled Torn, they put Black Hound on hold, and then we worked on Icewind Dale II,” Sawyer explained.

Over the past two years, Sawyer had grown into a tenacious designer yearning for greater challenges. He went to Urquhart and asked to be made head designer of Icewind Dale II. Urquhart hesitated, pointing out Sawyer’s inexperience. Sawyer countered by observing that all but a few designers at Black Isle were still feeling their way through development. Sawyer only had one game under his belt, but was willing to pit his knowledge of the Forgotten Realms and greater Dungeons & Dragons universe against anyone’s.

Urquhart hoped so. Sawyer and the team had four months to build and ship Icewind Dale II.

“I wound up being the lead on that just because at that point, I knew the Infinity Engine really well, and I knew how to develop a good story that was relatively tight,” Sawyer said. “That was a stressful period. That was the beginning of true stress, and probably the beginning of the end of Black Isle.”

Roles and Rules

Icewind Dale II.
Icewind Dale II.

Authors such as Ed Greenwood and R. A. Salvatore had introduced millions of readers to Dungeons & Dragons through the Forgotten Realms by writing stories that balanced adventure and introspection. In particular, each of Salvatore’s novels starring Drizzt Do’urden invited readers into Drizzt’s head by divided books into sections that began with extracts from the dark elf’s journal. Over several pages, readers got to know more about Drizzt through his thoughts on religion, friendship, love, and race, among other topics.

For Sawyer, the problem was that each thought-provoking diary entry was followed by pages and pages of bloodshed and whiz-bang spells against the same list of suspects. “The Ten Towns, that area of the Icewind Dale setting, has all these problems with goblins over and over again, where they end up rising up, and then [heroes] wipe them out.”

Salvatore wasn’t the only author at fault. Forgotten Realms novels were sword-and-sorcery yarns at heart. Sawyer understood that, but wanted to flip the script on previously evil races like goblins and orcs. “I'm like, ‘Where are these guys coming from? What's the deal? Are the Ten Towns committing genocide against all of these creatures?’”

Over forty-eight hours, he wrote a story treatment for Icewind Dale II that introduced players to Isair and Medea, the hybrid offspring of Belhifet, the demonic antagonist of the original game. “Their mother's an elf, and their father is literally a devil,” Sawyer said. “They suffered a bunch of prejudice as children, and then when they grow up, they decide to take it out on the Ten Towns because the Ten Towns had always been very hostile to outsiders.”

Isair and Medea gather an army of orcs, goblins, and other outcasts, and attack Ten Towns. Sawyer charted a path on which players may come to sympathize with Isair and Medea, but ultimately face them in battle.

With his treatment complete, Sawyer shared writing and design duties with other developers. Every individual enjoyed autonomy over their assignments. That was as much out of necessity as Black Isle’s seize-initiative culture. Four months was a near-impossible deadline, and things had to fly together quickly.

Then Sawyer decided to press his luck. The Infinity Engine had been written to employ a modified version of Dungeons & Dragons’ 2nd Edition rules. Sawyer wanted to update those rules. “I said, 'I can take charge of this. I can come up with areas, I can come up with characters. I can figure out how to convert this to 3rd Edition D&D,' which was a big arguing point between Feargus and me for a long time.”

At first, Urquhart said no. There simply was no time. Sawyer dug in by offering sound reasoning. BioWare was developing a new engine for a new roleplaying game that would compete with Icewind Dale II. Since Black Isle’s game would be built on older technology, they needed to keep up by making the jump to newer rules. “That was the thing,” Sawyer explained. “Neverwinter Nights was fully 3D with dynamic lighting, it had a DM mode, it used 3rd Edition rules,” Sawyer explained. “It was like, 'Holy crap, dude. Can we really come out with a game made on an engine that has looked almost identical for its entire history, and still be 2nd Edition?”

While the Infinity Engine was showing its age, its longevity came with two distinct advantages. One was that Black Isle’s developers had used it long enough to become fluent in its tools. The second was that by running on the same technology as its predecessor, Icewind Dale II inherited the first game’s production pipeline. Content was coming in, but not quickly enough. The team was going to need an extension. So, Sawyer argued, why not take time to upgrade the rules while the game was being finished?

IWD2_explore
IWD2_explore

Urquhart’s grasp of the Infinity Engine’s flexibility led him to concede. “When we moved Icewind Dale II to D&D 3rd Edition, there was some difficulty, but it ended up being way easier in some ways than we thought, particularly with the spells,” he said.

BioWare programmer and Infinity Engine author Scott Greig had included powerful tools with his engine. Spells were divided over six tabs, and each tab defined a spell’s effects at a different level. Fireball, for instance, started at “fire damage 1d6,” meaning one virtual roll of a six-sided die. The second level of a Fireball is 2d6, meaning the sum of two rolls of a six-sided die, then 3d6 for the third level, 4d6 for the fourth, and so on.

“Scott really approached it in a super smart way, and then my job was to take every single spell and reinterpret it for 3rd Edition,” Urquhart remembered. “I just sat there for, I don't know, three or four nights, and was shocked. Maybe ninety percent or more of the spells just changed numbers, did a few different things in an editor, and they worked. The Infinity Engine was a special spice. How they approached that engine was super smart, and it made making RPGs with it very easy.”

“I guess that's a testament to the Infinity Engine,” Sawyer added. “People complain and say Icewind Dale II is not '3rd Edition enough,' but we converted a ton of stuff and made a huge game. It wound up being over eighty hours for a single playthrough.”

Urquhart granted his team an extension from four months to ten. Even that left just barely enough time. The team toiled on Icewind Dale II for each of their ten months, turning out areas, items, and quality-of-life upgrades such as the option to start out with a pre-made party of six characters for players short on the time or interest needed to spec out their adventurers from scratch.

The most substantial changes stemmed from 3rd Edition rules. Players could create multi-class characters such as fighters crossed with bards and sorcerers. Other changes took place deep under the Infinity Engine’s hood. Sawyer opted to strip out mechanics that made more sense in pen-and-paper games such as attack of opportunity, which are rooted in turn-based play and conflict with the Infinity Engine’s real-time-with-pause combat.

Not every aspect of 3rd Edition was as simple to integrate as spell properties and effects. Many pieces of the Infinity Engine, especially combat, had been based on 2nd Edition and were difficult to rework. Icewind Dale II’s deadline extension ended up being a good thing for the game, which benefitted from more time to create and polish content, and for Sawyer and Urquhart, who came to to better understand the other’s point of view.

“He trusts me more,” Sawyer said. “When I say that I've looked into the difficulty of implementing something, or talked to everyone involved in something to give him a breakdown of what it's going to involve, I think he trusts me more when I give him the lowdown on that stuff. I also have a greater appreciation for risk scenarios. That's a common difficulty: When you're running a company, there's more going on than just me pushing for an individual feature on an individual project.”

Looking Forward

IWD2_explore
IWD2_explore

Icewind Dale II ended up being the swan song for the Infinity Engine when it released in the final days of August 2002. Critics and Black Isle developers alike were divided on whether or not it hit all the right notes. GameSpot, IGN, and G4 praised its game balance and the depth of its combat. Other publications such as Game Informer and PC Zone favored Neverwinter Nights, though Game Informer did name Icewind Dale II as one of the best RPGs on the PC.

Chris Avellone, who fans had lionized for his writing on Planescape: Torment, had described Icewind Dale as a run romp for fans interested in undiluted dungeon crawls. For Josh Sawyer, Icewind Dale II had been ten solid months of stress and learning. One key takeaway was to make his games more open-ended to give players as the story develops. “They want to subvert it, they want to screw it up, they want to have a chance to express why their character cares or doesn't care about the plot,” he said. “These are all things that I try to incorporate into the structure of stories. When I work with narrative and area designers, I try to push them to embrace that same level of player freedom.”

Sawyer learned another valuable lesson. In the games industry, time is a luxury most designers cannot afford.

“For a big chunk of my career I was developing under the gun,” Sawyer said. “Icewind Dale was fourteen months, so the first project I worked on lasted just over a year, and then Icewind Dale II was ten months. Fallout: New Vegas was eighteen months. These were all really compressed timelines compared to a lot of games, so I got used to working in these extremely time-pressed circumstances. By comparison, Pillars of Eternity 1 and II were luxurious. Over three development cycles? Wow, what an amazing luxury.”