The Game Archaeologist: AOL’s Neverwinter Nights

Here’s a question for you: How much do you really, really have to love a game to pay $6 to $8 an hour to play it? Considering how much we tend to whine about a flat $15/month fee, I’m guessing the answer is, “Only if it made me romantically irresistable and regularly supplied chocolate milkshakes.”

And yet, in 1991 this wasn’t considered a crazy extortionist practice; it was dubbed “being a pioneer.” While online RPGs were nothing new by then, few had tackled the jump from text to graphical games due to the technological limitations, questions over a potential market, and the required funding. It took the efforts of a Superfriends-style team to make this happen with Neverwinter Nights: Stormfront Studios developed the game, TSR provided the Dungeons & Dragons license, SSI published it, and AOL handled the online operations.

And thus six years before Ultima Online and 13 before World of Warcraft came on the scene, what many consider the first true multiplayer graphical RPG went online and helped forge a path that would lead to where we are today. With only a few hundred players per server, Neverwinter Nights may not have been “massively,” but it deserves a spot of honor as one of the key ancestors to the modern MMO.


Gold Box fever

Veteran CRPG enthusiasts probably remember SSI’s Gold Box series fondly (and also with the troubling thought of “Holy crud, am I that old?”). The Gold Box engine provided a robust experience while allowing developers to churn out adventures far more quickly than creating new engines from scratch for each one. From 1988 through 1993, Gold Box RPGs (so-called for their distinctive gold packaging) gave computer RPGs a sizable boost in credibility and sales.

Thus, when Stormfront made Neverwinter Nights, the studio enjoyed the benefit of the game joining such esteemed company as Pool of Radiance (which it also developed) and Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday. Even though the Gold Box engine was never designed for online functionality in mind, the Stormfront team recognized the potential for such play and made Neverwinter Nights in 18 months, start to finish.

Lead Developer Don Daglow said that major influences for the creation of Neverwinter Nights were the online graphical capabilities of 1987’s Air Warrior: “I thought to myself, ‘If the guys at Kesmai can figure out how to get those graphics up online, we can figure out how to tell stories with characters and maps, not just text.'”

With the established trust that came with the Gold Box label and the promise of cross-overs between titles, gamers had an easier time making the leap to the wild world of online play. For many folks, this was their first taste of gaming online, and the novelty of it — meeting other players, forming guilds, enjoying a persistent world, building up a character — proved instantly addicting.

Munchkin land

Set in the ever-popular Forgotten Realms campaign, Neverwinter Nights invited players to explore an environmentally diverse region, collect sparkly loot, and increase their characters’ power and skills. While it certainly was not as full-featured as later MMOs, NWN had dungeon crawls, guilds, user chat, PvP, and other basic staples of the genre.

Because the game was a Dungeons & Dragons title, players encountered the familiar trappings of the pen-and-paper game, including the nine alignments (such as true neutral or chaotic evil), six races (Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Halflings, and Humans), and six classes (Clerics, Fighters, Rangers, Paladins, Magic-Users, and Thieves). Players could even dual-class once they advanced far enough in the game.

Players explored the lands of Neverwinter using a first-person mode (which were supplemented with maps and stills) but fought in a top-down strategic map.

When it kicked off, NWN existed on a single server that was capable of hosting 200 players or less, but this was enough to get the train going. Before long, new servers were added and the game quickly became one of the most popular features on AOL’s service. By the time NWN hit version 2.2, the servers could hold 500 a pop — a ten-fold increase since launch — and often had a queue of players waiting for a spot to open.

Despite its popularity, the MMO only received two major updates in its run. “We were anxious to expand and enhance Neverwinter Nights, since it was by far their biggest hit game,” Daglow said. However, AOL was too busy with the rest of its service to give the team the go-ahead for greater development.

Socialization was a huge factor in NWN’s appeal. Players began to organize in-game events, such as summer festivals, trivia nights, and PvP ladders. AOL’s Steve Case would even often play alongside customers as his alter ego “Lord Nasher.” If a player had a lot of experience in the game and a good name among the community, he or she could even apply to become a special guide, tasked with helping out newbies and the lost.

A decade of dominance

Neverwinter Nights enjoyed one key advantage that kept it in the dominating spot for the bulk of the ’90s: a near and almost-total lack of competition. From 1991 until the middle of the decade, Neverwinter Nights was pretty much the only major MMO provider (and I used the word “major” very loosely here) — this just wasn’t a genre that studios were champing at the bit to enter. As a result, NWN enjoyed the top spot for several years, only to hand off the baton to Ultima Online.

Over the lifespan of Neverwinter Nights, the hourly charge decreased as the players immigrated to the servers. In fact, after 1996 AOL simply charged a flat monthly rate instead of per hour. Modems became faster during the ’90s, the world wide web became a household fixture, and online gaming began to make inroads with a wider base of players. Neverwinter Nights could have grown into something even bigger.

Although the Neverwinter Nights was reportedly earning AOL “millions,” a dispute between AOL, SSI, and TSR over its business direction triggered an aburpt shutdown on July 18th, 1997, devastating the playerbase. “The Games Channel has abiding affection for Neverwinter Nights, one of our oldest games. We understand that this is disappointing news to our many Neverwinter players, and we regret any unhappiness that this causes you,” AOL posted.

Stormfront Studios continued on until 2008, mainly focusing on console game development. The team never returned to the realm of online games, which Daglow found disappointing.

By the end of its run, NWN boasted a tally of 115,000 players who had stepped foot in the game at one point or another. Interestingly enough, ambitious players reverse-engineered the MMO version using the Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures kit to make a single-player Neverwinter Nights that can be enjoyed today.

Legacy

One of the main questions that I like to ask in The Game Archaeologist is, “What did this MMO leave behind as its legacy?” On one hand, Neverwinter Nights certainly didn’t become a smash hit, advance past a strict 2-D format, or provide a great amount of user friendliness. However, it helped the industry take a major step forward into the graphical realm even as it used a jury-rigged game engine to do so.

Neverwinter Nights also kick-started an interesting if scattered franchise. BioWare snapped up the rights to make Neverwinter Nights in 2002, Obsidian Entertainment handled the sequel in 2006, and most recently, Cryptic Studios secured the IP to produce Neverwinter. Interestingly enough, the old AOL community came back in BioWare’s game to re-create some favorite stomping lands from the now-canceled title.

Even though 1991 is in the ancient past when it comes to computer games, Neverwinter Nights was nevertheless given a special award at the 2008 Annual Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards for “Advancing the Art Form of MMORPG Games” — an honor that it now shares with EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

Neverwinter Nights Lead Designer Don Daglow accepted the award with these words: “These games are not just entertainment. They build new kinds of communities and create deep people-to-people relationships. They influence people’s lives in the same way as great books, inspiring movies and iconic television shows.”

I don’t think I could’ve put it better.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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32 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: AOL’s Neverwinter Nights"

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pwilbert
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pwilbert

One of the most appealing components of Neverwinter Nights and one of the reasons I still play Forgotten World (which is the remake) is because there is the random stats and the random HP rolls. I hate and detest this “everyone is equal in the end” aspect. If I spend hours getting gear in various MMOs and so does someone else, in the end we’ll be equals. In NWN they added the aspect of your rolls for HPs screwing you. There was this level of luck that was a huge factor in stats and HP.

Morreion
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Morreion

DJEasyRick 
Indeed- Game Archaeologist is my favorite game column.  Great work, Justin!

paragonlostinspace
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paragonlostinspace

shadoeryder Sorry about that, reading comprehension failure on my part! I blame the weekends riding, my ears are still buzzing from wind noise! LOL I’m might start using earplugs for those longer rides. :)

shadoeryder
Guest
shadoeryder

Didn’t say it stopped. Said that EGA and Air warrior predated NWN in the multiplayer department then rambled into a mention of SVGA on aol :)

paragonlostinspace
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paragonlostinspace

shadoeryder The dueling on Solaris didn’t end when NWN started, I recall that quite clearly since I was playing both MPBT3025 on GEnie at the same time I was playing NWN on AOL. Also at that time was playing Gemstone III on GEnie as well. I loved those duels on Solaris, man did we have some good fun, more fun than the invasions of each faction honestly.

paragonlostinspace
Guest
paragonlostinspace

Had a lot of fun playing NWN from 92′ to 97′, though towards the end as the hacking grew it became less fun. A lot of fond memories though with the various guilds. Guild of Chaos (GoC), Crusaders of the Realm (COR), Killing As An Organized Sport (KAAOS), The Grey Company where guilds that I was active in during that time period. A lot of fun pvp, a lot of role-play and conflict, good times indeed.

The wife mentioned the article, I’d been busy with the motorcycle since the weathers been nice for the past few days and didn’t catch the article. Now I’m catching up on my MassivelyOP reading!   :)

BigMikeyOcho
Guest
BigMikeyOcho

n4tive I’m attempting to play through Champions of Krynn right now. It’s a little rough, but still doable.

BKone
Guest
BKone

plynky12 True. The net was born, but the web wasn’t. It was mostly dialup, BBS’s and swap parties. The information superhighway got big when Clinton said it was the future in 1996.
And lol I had to beg for an account at my local uni… omg dark ages.

shadoeryder
Guest
shadoeryder

While NWN was decent for the time, if that is your measure of the start of multiplayer then it began several years earlier on the GEnie network with Airwarrior and EGA Multiplayer Battletech(500 players woo!) , AOL attempted to capitalize when GEnie ended with SVGA Solaris. The start of a long drought for Btech players online :)

n4tive
Guest
n4tive

Played it a couple of weeks before shutting down, when it was free. Back in the day I was a *huge* fan of SSI. Played Death Knights, Champions of and Dark Queen of Krynn, Heroes of Dragonlance, Hillsfar, etc. Right after that, Eye of the Beholder series… oh man the memories, those were the golden days of pc gaming.

Oh… and Dungeon Hack as well.

Ahh… and Unlimited Adventures, anybody remember that? I used to spend hours designing my own adventure module lol.

Michael18
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Michael18

Quinnocent 
And with text-based games, you do not need to be a graphics artist to contribute new areas to the game world and new stories.

Tethyss
Guest
Tethyss

I still remember the disconnect problems, which they attributed to the Rockwell chipset in modems — which basically every modem at the time used.  But we still loved it and payed the premium to play.  And then AOL shut it down and we were sad because it was the Gold Box game we loved, but multiplayer.   Good times.

Feydakin
Guest
Feydakin

I played Neverwinter Nights on AOL, much to my mothers dismay! Since we lived in the sticks not only did we have to pay for AOL, but the dial-up charges were long distance! Hello $400 telephone bills lol!
I do consider this my first “MMO” even though it is nothing like even the most rudimentary MMO these days. I played all the SSI gold box D&D games and other TSR properties like Buck Rogers both on the Commodore 64/128 and IBM. This was also back when you could go into a store like Babbages or Electronics Boutique and actually buy boxed PC games in a brick and mortar store kids.

So much nostalgia in those screen shots… I instantly knew what it was before I even read a word. Memories. ;)

Cyberlight
Guest
Cyberlight

The gold-box games bring back memories, though I played even older versions on the TRS-80 (late 1970s and early 1980s). I remember computer magazines of the day having ads for bulletin board services and modems, though as a child I had no clue what any of it meant. In a way it’s funny to think the technology was pretty much there for ages, but wasn’t fully exploited until much later. Perhaps we didn’t see the forest for the trees, or something else had to be a catalyst?

BriarGrey
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BriarGrey

Never played, but my husband did.  He’s rattling off stuff behind me as he meanders about the room even now….I’m sure he’ll be here commenting eventually <g>  Heck, we just cleaned out his storage unit and tossed several boxes worth of printed out items for NWN and several other games.  My budget didn’t run to hourly charges much – my time online was severely curtailed until AOL went unlimited in ’96.  It was ‘feed the kids’ or ‘play online’ back then with my now-ex, and I did manage to choose feed the kids.  /pats self on back.

Lord Zorvan
Guest
Lord Zorvan

My dad was soooooooooo pissed when he seen our $400+ phone bill. I’m thankful I survived that one. lol

DPandaren
Guest
DPandaren

There’s also Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale that also take place in the same setting as Neverwinter.

Quinnocent
Guest
Quinnocent

Oh god. The original NWN.  Ruining marriages MMO-style before EQ or WoW were even a twinkle in their creators’ eyes.  More for dollars spent than hours wasted, though.

The real “competition” to the first wave of “MMO’s” were text-based games.  There were actually MU*’s that had concurrency of over a thousand back then.  And yes, some of them had a paywall.  In fact, some of those games are /still/ running and are /still/ P2P, with concurrencies in the hundreds.  I’m sure many of you can’t see any possible draw to such games, but you have to realize that being text-based allowed for a speed and depth of development that’s hard to match in a AAA title, and that these games still offer some of the best persistent roleplay environments you’ll find on the internet (certainly better than your average MMO RP server).
Honestly, that world was fascinating, and if you’re acquainted with most of the codebases that were popular then, you can see straight lines between some of those games and first-wave big studio MMO’s like Ultima Online, Everquest, and even later EVE Online.

Slaphammer
Guest
Slaphammer

Those gold box screenshots bring back lots of great memories, but also some bad ones like being attacked about every 3 steps so that it took FOREVER to get to your destination.  I remember when NWN was available but also remember the pricing being insane.
I was very anti-subscription until the lure of City of Heroes finally made me take the plunge.  Now I kinda wish we still had subscriptions instead of cash shops.

desolate
Guest
desolate

crazy I just downloaded neverwinter nights from gog.com yesterday and today this article

Damonvile
Guest
Damonvile

I loved the gold box games. They’re probably the games that got me hooked on computer gaming. I never really got into neverwinter, online back then was just a weird thing and I was never allowed to tie up the phone for that long, but the single player games were classics in my world.

plynky12
Guest
plynky12

In 1991 for me the net was something that only existed in William Gibson novels.

Mansemat
Guest
Mansemat

We never had AOL as it didn’t warrant a switch just for NWN. That and the price. I did however play all the standard gold box games. I would spend insane amounts of time in FRUA and The Bard Tales Construction Set making my own adventures and sharing them with my roleplaying buddies.

MesaSage
Guest
MesaSage

Rozyn  It blows my mind even more to think our Web strategy back then involved first finding out if AOL had an equivalent site.

ThreeSpeed
Guest
ThreeSpeed

I still have friends I made there and in Legends of Kesmai.  Great memories.  Thanks for writing this up.

Rozyn
Guest
Rozyn

It still baffles me how AOL was synonymous with the Internet for so long. I’ll never forget someone at school telling me “You know, you can get online without using AOL, right?” Blew my mind haha.

ArtemisiaWS
Guest
ArtemisiaWS

omedon666 Same! I felt quite confused!

Blinkenn
Guest
Blinkenn

My god, the memories. Killing dracolich’s, didn’t you have to hit the wall at the right time to spawn the fight? Running around with my Ranger/Magic user (Ram) and KTO, Knights of the Order. Running through the pvp areas hoping to not get ambushed.

BalsBigBrother
Guest
BalsBigBrother

I never played this and didn’t really hear that it was a thing until long after it was gone. 
I was playing all the single player gold box crpg’s though such as Pools of Radiance, Champions of Krynn and Hillsfar, first on the Commodore 64 and then later on an Amiga.  Remember them being a lot of fun and I racked up too many hours that I care to admit to on that entire series of games hehe :-)

omedon666
Guest
omedon666

I would just like to take this opportunity to say that every time I have ever mentioned being a “NWN guy,” I was NOT referring to this game hehe!

Great writeup, and wow, I didn’t even know that there was a “Neverwinter Nights” before MY Neverwinter Nights!

mbbrazen
Guest
mbbrazen

Very nice write up. I wasn’t gaming back then, but it is still fun to learn about the old games and preserving their history is incredibly important.

DJEasyRick
Guest
DJEasyRick

Love this column. Keep up the awesome work, Justin!

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