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Neverwinter Nevermore

E.T. Brooking | 22 Aug 2012 15:00
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After nearly half a year of work, I uploaded and hosted my creation for the very first time. I sat anxiously on the DM client, feeling as nervous as a new business owner waiting for his very first customer. I didn't have to wait long. Soon, one player came - then another, then another. Those who liked what they saw became regulars, returning almost daily over the course of many months. Their characters' actions shaped my server; their human players became my friends.

No other game has succeeded at emulating Neverwinter Nights' unique multiplayer offering. No game likely ever will.

By the time I bid farewell to Neverwinter Nights at the start of college, it was nearly unrecognizable next to the game I'd installed five years earlier. Small "hobby" servers like my own had been joined by massive persistent worlds, maintained by multiple architects and policed by professional DM staffs. Advanced scripting, expert level design, and sophisticated role-play operated in tandem to create unforgettable and wildly varied adventures. The formula had been perfected - the question was whether other, future games would be willing to follow it.

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Ten years on, the short answer to that question is "no." Only Neverwinter Nights 2, released in 2006, followed a similar multiplayer model. Yet plagued by technical woes and tepid sales, Neverwinter Nights 2 failed to capture the spirit or accessibility of its predecessor. Today, the first Neverwinter Nights still boasts a stronger online community than the sequel that was meant to replace it.

No other game has succeeded at emulating Neverwinter Nights' unique multiplayer offering. No game likely ever will. The experience Neverwinter Nights delivered - user-built, user-maintained worlds - was hard-pressed to generate further profit. With server hosting and creative control both relinquished to players, there could be no subscription fees, bite-sized DLC, or premium in-game items. BioWare could release occasional expansion packs but little else. Their involvement was essentially finished; the future of their game rested with the resourcefulness of its players.

Instead, modern MMOs have hewed to the example set by Blizzard's wildly popular and profitable World of Warcraft. That game, released in 2004, sent shockwaves through Neverwinter Nights' comparatively pint-sized online community. Those who investigated the realm of Azeroth returned describing a slickly professional space teeming with endless players and quests. The experience was diligently policed and controlled. There was none of Neverwinter Nights' barely bridled chaos; in World of Warcraft, any such dynamism was developer-produced. For players tired of Neverwinter Nights' uneven galaxy of miniature MMOs, the idea of a single, perfect world seemed tantalizing. It hardly mattered if you had to pay for it.

For many others, however, Neverwinter Nights' roughness and unpredictability represented its fundamental strength. It was possible to join a server and remain there for months, exploring a lovingly crafted world alongside dozens of other regular players. It was just as possible to join a server and find yourself trapped on a platform suspended over an endless sea of lava, griefed by a megalomaniac DM until you quit in disgust. Neverwinter Nights was the Wild West, vast and lawless, each of its servers a tiny town governed by its own arcane rules. By comparison, games like World of Warcraft were cities: civilized, heavily populated, and strictly controlled by a central authority. Just as in real life, it was these cities that won in the end.

It says everything that Neverwinter, Neverwinter Nights' spiritual successor slated for release by Cryptic Studios later this year, is itself a free-to-play MMO. Neverwinter promises an emphasis on fast-paced action. Players are offered the chance to buy "zen" to "enhance the user's gameplay experience." Meanwhile, a much-trumpeted "Foundry" creation tool offers only a fraction of the Aurora toolset's breadth and flexibility. Player creations will, of course, be subject to developer discretion. It's possible that some of the original Neverwinter Nights' more popular servers might still be running long after Neverwinter has lived and died.

In the end, revisiting Neverwinter Nights shows just how much the last decade has transformed the gaming medium. In the summer of 2002, massively multiplayer was just one market among many; today, it's at the heart of the PC gaming industry. The first time I loaded Neverwinter Nights', developer-produced DLC was virtually unknown; today, such microtransactions are ubiquitous. Thanks to these innovations, games have changed drastically. Games like Neverwinter Nights no longer have a place.

This is a shame. No developer can be as intelligent or inventive as the combined creative energies of its players. Few modern, cookie-cutter MMOs appreciate this fact. Neverwinter Nights did.

E.T. Brooking is a writer, gamer, and student of wars both real and imaginary. He thinks Grand Moff Tarkin had a good thing going on for awhile.

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