Spending A Bad Day In Neverwinter
A prospective on the Neverwinter Nights series, filled with cynicism and bile
By Jason (Hhean) Harper, OnRPG Journalist
Previously, we discussed the positive aspects of the Neverwinter Nights series, and the diversity to be found within either title in the franchise. One of the reasons the games are so heavily praised is due to them filling a niche in the gaming market that no other title has attempted to break into, or that many publishers even know exists. If you were to look at this from another perspective though, if no-one else is clamouring to make the next spiritual successor to the Neverwinter Nights franchise and there isn't much of an outcry for these sorts of games, are they worth making at all?
To begin with, let's address the petty problems with Neverwinter Nights and its sequel, rather than any theoretical game adopting the 'game as a platform' business model. The combat in 3.5 Dungeons and DragonsTM is good enough when you're sitting around a table, chatting with your friends and hurling your lucky die between bottles of mountain dew, but it lacks any depth or complexity on a moment to moment basis. The core gameplay mechanic outside of conversation trees is essentially ‘Right click on man. Murder. Loot. Repeat'. This, aided by poor class balance (which tends to be a choice between bringing a rusty knife or a bazooka to a gun fight), doesn't lend itself well to any multiplayer environment, and can completely skew the difficulty of any single player campaign.
Both games shipped with dated graphics (even at the time of their release), mediocre audio and a plethora of technical problems. This was especially pronounced in the sequel, which suffered from numerous crashes caused by seemingly mundane, routine functions. For example, merely transitioning from one area to another in the player client could cause the game to fall onto its face, and promptly transition into an error screen.
With all of the problems associated with the series, you would think there could be plenty of other games being produced in the same ‘make your own content' genre looking to capitalize on the weaknesses of its forebears. No such games exist though (outside of Minecraft and Little Big Planet, which were built with different purposes in mind, and who make and use their content differently). There is a host of reasons for this, including the size of the potential customer base, development time, bug testing and ultimately, profitability.
The majority of consumers purchased both games for their single player campaigns, and the brands associated with them, rather than any multiplayer content. Indeed, many reviews of both games barely even acknowledge the existence of the games' multiplayer. Most players never bothered to boot up the toolset, and if asked what a Persistent World is, would respond with a quirked brow and a question on their lips. Since only a dedicated minority of consumers actually engaged in world-building and online gameplay, it means that any publisher looking at these numbers would realise that they wouldn't be attracting many customers in exchange for the extra work (and therefore money) required for implementing these features.
Furthermore, with each additional client that is added to the game, development time is divided between the many different aspects of the game, requiring a large number of employees divided into multiple teams in order to allow the project to be released in a timely manner. Testing the toolset, single player, multiplayer, server back-end and DM client is a QA nightmare; each piece can potentially have a bug that interferes with the entire puzzle, and it can take a lot of time to track the problem down, if its ever found at all. All of this means means the product will cost more to produce than simply releasing a single player RPG, and doesn't have the potentially high returns of building an MMORPG.
Monetizing the games' dedicated communities is also a challenging prospect. The Neverwinter games sold regular expansions in order to continue to profit from the community, selling a new single player campaign to the larger audience of consumers, while also adding new tools that the multiplayer and custom module communities could use for their own ends. This large expansion strategy is now now feels out of date, given the rise of downloadable content. Another reason that selling this expansion content was difficult was due to having an active community constantly producing campaigns rivalling for a customer's time, absolutely free. By producing a limited product, and limiting the capabilities of a game's community, you essentially create a monopoly within your own game. You wish to present a potential customer with a binary choice - to buy or not to buy, not to be presented with a third option - to play an alternative for free.
This inability for the series to fit into a DLC business model makes them difficult to release for console. In fact, nothing about the Neverwinter Nights series fits well for multiplatform release, from requiring dedicated servers to be maintained by customers, to a single controller being a completely useless tool for precision construction within a toolset. This limits it wholly to the PC, which in turn limits its potential customers while also allowing it to become a potential victim of piracy. Whether or not piracy actually impacts sales is irrelevant, the mere threat of piracy makes publishers less inclined to back a product on PC. Add to this that games on the PC are cheaper per unit than those on consoles, so they also require more sales numbers in order to be profitable on the PC, which is yet another risk factor to consider.
In spite of their faults, and the difficulty of making another game like them, gaming as a whole has been improved as a result of these games being made. Whether due to looking at a unique concept with a dedicated community, or as an example of a business model that has some severe flaws, there is still plenty to learn from Neverwinter Nights.