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 Its graphics were outdated almost immediately; its single-player campaign was unremarkable.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.

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.

***

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 Nightsmore 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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