So, here's a quick primer on why we're using Neverwinter Nights, not the newest engine on the block, to create BloodSpell.
First up, history fans, you may not know how long we've been working on BloodSpell. We started work on BS in September 2003, and chose our engine in October of that year, at the same time as we brainstormed the basic story. We started creating characters and sets using NWN in December 2003.
We knew we wanted to make a fantasy movie, and that we wanted it to be on an epic scale - no "two guys in a room" action here. The fantasy element already narrowed down the field quite a bit - indeed, pretty much to Neverwinter Nights. Nothing else that was available at that time was Machinima-capable, as new as NWN, and fantasy-based.
OK, but why didn't we change engines when something newer came out, like World of Warcraft, or Morrowind? Indeed, why don't we change engines now?
Well, because for the last three years we've been creating content for the game - sets, characters, props. None of this stuff is transferrable to another engine directly, and the fact that we've got all these assets completed is the only reason we can hit anything like the production schedule we're on now.
But a better reason is that Neverwinter Nights is, without question, the best engine for what we're doing, and probably the only one we could have used.
Let's have a look at the available engines we could have chosen. In the "fantasy" category, we've got Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (release date: 20/03/2006), and World of Warcraft (release date: 11/2/2005). Other engines that regularly go up the hit parade for Machinima are Half-Life 2 (release date: 16/11/2004) and The Sims 2 (release date: 17/9/2004). And lastly, Neverwinter Nights, release date 16/6/2002.
Oblivion is, I'm afraid, right out from the start. It's not multiplayer, so we would have had to script every shot, something which from experience (I've spent nearly ten years doing these things both ways) would double or triple our shooting time. It's very high-spec - there's no way we'd have been able to shoot Episode 1's fight scene, with 20 plus characters fighting, or episode 2's stairs, with 25 characters walking above an entire city. From what I've seen of Oblivion, it gets a bit upset if you've got more than three characters visible at once. And as far as I can tell, there's currently no map editor available. We'd probably be talking a 3-5 year development time, from now, to do BloodSpell in Oblivion.
World of Warcraft? Well, for starters there's no way to edit the maps, at least not without some serious l33t haX0ring, nor is there a way to add new models that I'm aware of - even given said l33t sk1llz. So that's the plot of BloodSpell scuppered right from the get-go - no blood magic, no Spire, no Iron Arm, no Blooded. There's no lip-synching either - you can work around that with very clever editing (I'm really interested to see how "Return 2" gets away with it), but for 90 minutes that would be a real strain, and would have seriously limited our shooting.
We'd have been able to solve a lot of the obvious problems using a private server, but then we'd be into serious unsupported territory, working with technology that the game's manufacturers would *really* rather we didn't have. Blizzard have a history of litigating against people extending their game, too, and whilst they've been very friendly to "The Return", I don't know how well they'd have responded to people using their engine to make a film that explicitly isn't set in their world, using a bunch of hacky technology we're not meant to access.
We could, theoretically, have made BloodSpell in WoW, but it's far from an ideal engine to do it. It would have been slower, harder, less complete, less unique, and with less back-up.
Half-Life 2? We'd have to create every single asset from scratch in a 3D editor - every map, every character, every sword, every torch. That's a project on the scale of making a commercial game, with an associated price-tag. BloodSpell was written from the get-go with the aim of using as much in-game and pre-created content as possible, because that's the only way you'll ever manage to produce a film of this size in Machinima on zero budget. To give you an idea - each lead character would take about 4-6 animator weeks (again, from experience producing CG projects). That's full-time, so triple that if your modeller's working for free in his spare time. Each animation for said lead characters, and they've got about fifty, would take half a week. A week if your animator isn't full-time. Each extra is still about three weeks' work, and we've got approximately (I can't get to the heads map right now) 25 of them.
BloodSpell would require about as much new content as Half-Life 2 did. Doing that as a zero-budget project - well, it's not impossible, but in the same way that climbing K9 unaided isn't, theoretically, impossible. The same applies for Doom 3, Unreal Tournament, whatever.
The Sims 2. Well, not multiplayer, again. It's got demo recording, so we could get around that. Little or no fantasy content, again, so hello asset creation - less than Half-Life 2, certainly, but still probably multiple artists for multiple years. But it's just got nothing to recommend itself to BloodSpell - it's a non-action, non-fantasy, non-swordfighting game with no AI and no multiplayer, limited scripting, no lipsynching - just not suitable.
And lastly, Neverwinter Nights. Tons of fantasy content, first up - in addition to the thousands of pieces available through the game itself, even by the time we started there were literally tens of thousands of pieces of fan-made content up on the 'net - go check out nwvault.ign.com and be amazed at the sheer variety and scope. A tile-based set editor that meant our set artists didn't have to be trained 3D modellers. This is a huge deal, as finding people with pro-level 3D modelling skills who also happen to be reliable, enthusiastic and available to work for free - well, we're pleased and amazed we found Justin, and I wouldn't give us much odds on finding another 5 people like him in Edinburgh. (Yes, we could go Internetworky, but from past experience that's just looking for trouble.)
The DM client for NWN is quite simply the best Machinima environment I've ever found, even given its not-terribly-Machinima-friendly camera quirks (note to the NWN2 guys - option to remove the camera focus from the player character, please.). Need a character for the scene? Just use the "Create" menu". Realised you're controlling the wrong character? Just "posess" the new one. Need to choreograph a complex scene? Pause the action half-way through and give new commands. Seriously, the pause button alone probably made BloodSpell - with all its complex head movement, emoting, multiple characters choreographed together and so on - filmable live. Need a background of a dozen characters fighting? Select 'em, tell them to fight, then use our "immobilise" wand (half a dozen lines of code) to freeze in their tracks. Remember, this is all in-game - I'm not skipping out to an editor to do any of this.
Non-Machinima people will probably be saying "But doesn't every Machinima engine do this? It must do.". Well, no. These features are the stuff of dreams for live Machinima creators. I could probably code a similar feature set for Half-Life 2, but it would take six months of solid effort. With NWN, it comes built-in.
And lastly we've got the fact that it's an old engine. That's great. Let's take our Steps scene from Ep 2. About 1km square of cityscape, above which rises a set of steps 300m tall going up to a cathedral based on the one at Lourdes, with 25ish characters walking up them, two of whom are having a conversation, in a sequence of shots from wide to close-up. Oblivion wouldn't even get to the loading screen on my PC. Half-Life 2 *might* manage it, but not on high detail settings. The only games that would be capable of running that, in fact, are the older ones - World of Warcraft, Sims 2, NWN.
And then you've got the fact that Bioware, who make NWN, have been incredibly helpful and supportive of our work, and the fact that the community for NWN's also awesomely helpful, and the fact that every aspect of NWN editing is documented, and the fact that there are working tools to do everything we need (Again, non-Machinima creators will probably assume that's the case for all engines. Not so much.), and, and, and...
I quite like the look that we've got for BloodSpell - I wish we could toon-shade it, to make it look more cartoony and less OpenGL, but other than that I don't find it interrupts the action. But the fact is that if we weren't using NWN, even if we'd switched to the most promising alternative (WoW) at the earliest opportunity and everything had gone smoothly, you wouldn't be seeing BloodSpell before, at the earliest, this time next year.