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An Uphill Battle


As an old-time Neverwinter Nights player, it is hard to see how the magic of Neverwinter can be recaptured. Here is a small amount of information on the ‘old Neverwinter’ that may put things in perspective for people who never had the opportunity to play.

From 1994 until its death in mid-July of 1997, Neverwinter Nights was never once upgraded. No new zones, no new features. The version given at that time, version 2.2, was only a slight improvement, adding a few new regions (Nightsedge Under, for example). There were still bugs in NWN at the time of its closing, and at the very end it became very apparent how widespread the hacking programs had been (XGM, for one.) Despite this, Neverwinter maintained and extended its fanbase. What preserved this relic of a game, with DOS-based programming, EGA graphics, and lack of maintenance?

It wasn’t the quests. While the quests were a fun diversion, and there were plenty of them, very few had tangible, valuable awards for the average character. This is because the average character would usually become a dual classed cleric/mage (lovingly referred to as a CLAM) within days of his arrival, for reasons I’ll soon explain. For the purist, however, Neverwinter’s quests often had interesting twists and turns, all of which led up to a central theme. But it wasn’t quests that preserved Neverwinter.

It wasn’t the roleplay. While there were certainly many outlets for roleplay, there was no such thing as an ‘emote’ command. Unlike newer games, you couldn’t see someone waving their arm from a distance, or blowing a kiss. In fact, unless you were in combat, the only way you knew a character was present was their name in a text box to the right of your fuzzy 16 color window into the world. Despite this, a rich and involved environment developed, spurred on by the staff members’ huge dynamic quests. But it wasn’t roleplay that preserved Neverwinter.

It was a bug.

PvP (Player vs. Player) was never intended in Neverwinter Nights. In fact, until considerably after the games’ release, no one realized that there was a capability for it. It was all discovered one day in the Lost Hills when, as a joke, a player suitably named Beelzebul jokingly cast ‘Poison’ on a fellow character, expecting it to do absolutely nothing. Then the world took on a whole different turn, as the poor victim was instantly struck down, one of the effects of poison. Soon, roving bands began scouring the lands, casting poison on everyone and anyone. As time went on, however, this began to coalesce into something grander.

Beelzebul founded the first guild in Neverwinter Nights, called the Guild of Chaos. Soon afterwards, other guilds began forming to fight this new threat. The Crusaders of the Realm were next, and soon grand battles in the world of Neverwinter formed. Unlike Everquest, there was no harsh penalty for dying- you were merely sent back to the start of the zone with one hit point. No corpse retrieval, no looting, no experience lost. And with a command called ‘fix’, you instantly memorized and cast your spells to get you to full health within moments. You were ready to rejoin the fray within two minutes.

With no penalty other than a very small amount of time lost, some people might wonder what the purpose of PvP in Neverwinter was. That’s simple- bragging rights. Guilds such as my own, KAAOS, specialized in going forth and gating, or killing, everyone in the zone in order to taunt the victims further on the message boards. Of course, good guilds began to do likewise, and soon new guilds sprang up from these voracious killing sprees by good and evil- neutral guilds, such as the Grey Knights of the Balance or the Shadow Alliance.

This, of course, began to become more complicated. As time wore on, tactics for PvP developed to an extreme degree. The vast majority of players in NWN became dual classed cleric/mages for the sheer number of spells it offered. The level cap was relatively low- 10/11 was as high as one could go as a cleric/mage. Unlike EQ, someone who knew what they were doing could ‘max’ themselves in two days, and players who had help could do it in two hours. Soon, a code of ethics became evident. There were certain spells, like Dispel Magic, that no one cast during a fight on an opponent (except in cases of your ally being held, in which case it… well, you see what I’m getting at.) PvP in Neverwinter became a complex, social affair, completely fueled by the community around it.

Roleplay didn’t build the community. Quests didn’t build the community. Pure, unadulterated, bloodthirsty player slaying built the community. And the only limitation on this was the zone you were in- zones close to Neverwinter, frequented by lower levels, were Non-PvP (enforced by the staff) while those further out were a free for all. What was key about it all, though, was that everyone had fun. Noone lost all their money as they were heading for the bank, noone lost that treasured item that they didn’t have time to bag. The NWN PvP system was perfect- because the players were mature enough to make it that way.

This isn’t to say that the magic of Neverwinter was killing sprees through the streets. Because the system was turn-based, people had ample time to taunt each other in combat, confer with their teammates, and have a good time. In real-time combat, this can never be done. Players are too busy mashing buttons to riposte witticism to witticism, too busy hunting for the ‘fireball’ key to roleplay how they craft the fire from thin air. In truth, the magic of Neverwinter wasn’t even PvP. It was a love for competition. Everyone felt they had to be the best at everything, whether it was roleplay, PvP, or questing. In today’s MMORPGs, that is sadly lacking. Much of this is due to a pricing structure that permits a younger audience to play for hours on end. When you’re paying three dollars an hour, you’re more concerned about the fun you’re having than that item you’re just dying to grab.

So in conclusion, Bioware faces a near impossible task. With the turnaround seen by so many games, a community may not even have time to develop by the time the next shiny thing comes around. People must have time to discover. People must have time to communicate. People must be inspired. And in a real-time environment, that’s almost impossible. I wish with all my might that Bioware finds the magic combination that once again releases all the imagination and heart that has been locked away since Neverwinter’s doors closed last. But nothing’s done it yet- and I find it hard that anything ever will.


(SK/GG Torm)

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