Spending A Good Night In Neverwinter
A retrospective on the Neverwinter Nights series, filled to the brim with nostalgia and joy
By Jason (Hhean) Harper, OnRPG Journalist
Neverwinter Nights 2, the Obsidian made sequel to BioWare's ode to pen and paper RPGs has finally made it on to the Steam distribution platform, enjoying some good sales numbers for a game now over four years old. What's made this series so enduring over the years, and why are both games still played by so many people, so long after their release?
Simply put, no other game on the market, nor any game currently in development, offers the diversity that Neverwinter Nights series provides, all without a single modification. No other set of games comes with a full single player campaign, a robust toolset for building your own content, and a powerful administrative client straight out of the box. Built with a comprehensive multiplayer component in mind, the Neverwinter Nights games were both game, and gaming platform.
The first Neverwinter Nights was pitched as software to allow old Pen and Paper groups to play together online in dungeons made by, and run by their old Dungeon Master in days of yore. It was intended to be the successor to the critically acclaimed Baldur's Gate series, while updating to the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 ruleset, and moving from the aged infinity engine to a new 3D engine dubbed 'Aurora'.
For many people, the single player alone was worth their time and money. If the original campaign and the expansions weren't enough, even more content was available, crafted by the active community on Neverwinter Vault. This was made possible by the games' powerful, yet surprisingly easy to use Aurora and Electron Toolsets, which came with Neverwinter Nights and its sequel, respectively.
With most games, the option to use its development kit really is only available to someone with some knowledge of 3D modelling and design before they could even begin understanding what they are looking at. It would take weeks, or months, to learn the basics of the Unreal Development Kit, the Valve Hammer Editor, or Morrowind's Toolset (although the latter had a relatively painless learning curve by comparison). With the Aurora, or Electron Toolset (the former more than the latter), you really could learn it as you used it, jumping in without reading a single tutorial, though these helped greatly with some of the more sophisticated aspects of the toolsets, such as scripting. It was this ease of access that gave rise to the robust community surrounding the game; Builders and modders, storytellers and artists, coders and server admins all creating and hosting new content for others to enjoy.
There couldn't have been such a strong community surrounding the game though if it had no multiplayer component, and indeed, the games were built from the ground up with multiplayer in mind. The first trailers for the original game heavily emphasized the multiplayer aspect of the game, and the advantages of interacting with someone on the Dungeon Master (DM) client.
That said, the majority of online usage for the game was simply people playing through the original campaigns co-operatively with their friends (A market the new Cryptic-made Neverwinter game hopes to tap into with its co-op focus). The smaller sessions in custom dungeons, created and run by a Dungeon Master (that were the game's intended purpose) turned out to be in the minority when the game first came out.
The game's multiplayer got its most interesting twist some time after the release of the original game when some of the players began to realize the potential of Neverwinter Nights as a platform. The persistent worlds began to appear, small scale MMORPGs (Or MORPGs) designed by small teams for specific purposes. Rather than the single digit numbers of a co-op campaign, or the numberless legions in an MMO, the persistent worlds fell in the area of two dozen to fifty individuals playing together at any given time, an area where few games seem to tread outside of the FPS genre.
The action and arena servers sprang up - fields of endless battle, a geeky Valhalla, where only the strongest of munchkins could survive. The social servers grew into bizarre realms where a floating eyeball would converse with a half vampire/dragon about the migration patterns of geese. This is unlike what the modern 'Social' servers are like though, which spread like herpes some time later, and are places entirely set up for some of the most bizarre cybersex outside of second life. The Roleplay servers set up their stages, upon which the players would act as the protagonists to a play with sets and props crafted by their Dungeon Masters, and penned by madmen.
Each of these places grew to have their own rules and customs, and anyone joining Neverwinter Nights 2 now, picking it up as an impulse buy from a steam sale perhaps, is now treated to a plethora of ways to play, of different worlds and experiences ready to be explored.
Next week we'll explore why, if all of these ideas were so great, why no other game went the direction that the Neverwinter Nights games took. The flaws of creating a game as a platform for large scale community development, and why there likely won't be any games released in the near future that follow its business model.