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Neverwinter Nevermore

E.T. Brooking | 22 Aug 2012 11:00
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Neverwinter Nights occupies a strange corner of PC gaming history. It was the last of the great Dungeons &Dragons RPG epics (following Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, and Baldur's Gate) and the first to be rendered in 3D. It was also the last "old-school" BioWare game, coming as the studio was already shifting gears toward Knights of the Old Republic. While Neverwinter Nights saw strong reviews and enough commercial success to spawn two expansion packs and an Obsidian-produced sequel, it was a flawed masterpiece. Its graphics were outdated almost immediately; its single-player campaign was unremarkable.

In Neverwinter Nights, it was players, not developers, who were the guardians of their worlds. And their worlds were free of charge.

Packaged with the campaign, however, was an unprecedented suite of multiplayer features. BioWare had included its full Aurora Engine, accessed through an intuitive toolset client. Every texture, animation, and sound file from the base game was made available. Custom assets could be imported at the touch of a button. Scripts, from a few lines instructing an NPC to sit in a chair to many thousands of lines allowing for wholly new engine mechanics, could be implemented with sufficient knowledge of the C programming language. Once a creation was finished and hosted, chosen players could assume the role of "Dungeon Master," essentially a server-wide moderator. DMs were lightning fast, all-powerful avatars that could assume the guise of any creature in the world. Thanks to DMs, adventures could remain human-controlled and wildly unpredictable.

BioWare's official campaign servers were soon buried in an avalanche of evolving, user-generated content. Players built worlds catering to endless different interests: cooperative dungeon crawls, PVP arena battles, sweeping persistent worlds, intricate role-playing sagas, in-game social chatrooms, and (of course) "adults-only" realms of staggering type and variety. As architects familiarized themselves with the toolset, their creations grew increasingly ambitious. With the use of custom assets and advanced scripting, some servers began to rival retail MMOs in their depth and complexity. Yet there remained one crucial difference: In Neverwinter Nights, it was players, not developers, who were the guardians of their worlds. And their worlds were free of charge.

***

My first steps into Neverwinter Nights' online hub were less wonderment-filled than flat out bloodthirsty. I joined a cooperative playthrough of the main campaign, saw the words "full pvp enabled," and immediately slew my human-controlled companion. My companion respawned and promptly returned the favor. Soon, our noble quest to save the city of Neverwinter had devolved into a deathmatch that raged across the entire campaign world. By having so easily co-opted the developers' design and purpose, however, I began to glimpse just how much freedom the game had to offer.

After several months of hack-and-slash carnage, I decided to venture from game lobbies like "Arena" and "Action" to one labeled "Role-play." My avatar, a 14-foot-tall flaming demon named (appropriately) "DIABLO," suddenly found itself squeezed into an inn common room with 15 other players chatting convivially amongst themselves. No one was launching an attack or casting a spell. Everyone was speaking "in character," acting out their chosen role in a dynamic, player-directed narrative. My attempt to join that narrative by bellowing, "I AM DIABLO, KING OF HELL," went unappreciated. Someone suggested I leave. I obliged.

Yet in that moment, I was hooked. I immediately turned to designing a new character. This time, in addition to concerns over appearance and attributes, I found myself facing brand new considerations. Who exactly was this person I was creating? What had driven him to become a wizard or warrior? If he was an elf, how did he feel about his unnaturally long lifespan? If he was a human, how did he feel about elves? My answers to these questions were continually revisited as I interacted with other players across dozens of different worlds, each with their own backstories and motivations. Over the coming years, I would construct many more unique personalities and narratives. In doing so, I learned how to write convincingly, type quickly, and think on my feet.

Meanwhile, the quality of these worlds was improving rapidly. Server architects unlocked more and more of the toolset's potential, adding new animations, effects, and entirely new engine mechanics. In one server I frequented, "hardcore" rules set introduced permadeath, hunger, and harsh limits on health and spell recovery. Other such innovations led to new character classes, spells, special abilities, and raised level caps. As servers increasingly diverged in their use of varying engine rules and "hak packs," they hardly seemed like part of the same game. Instead, each grew to become its own distinct experience, simply accessed by software held in common.

I was fifteen when I decided to create a world of my own. It was a massive undertaking: I spent months immersed in the toolset, tinkering with everything from city layouts to ambient sounds to the text descriptions of individual doorframes. I drafted my own fictional setting and self-taught myself basic programming in order to make the world as dynamic as I wanted it to be. Instead of constructing one believable character as I'd done previously, I now designed dozens, populating my server with all manner of NPCs and antagonists I could introduce at a moment's notice. When I dreamt at night or daydreamed in class, I was inventing new ways to enrich my world and keep players engaged.

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