A lot of amazing things started in the 1970s. James Brown perfected the Funk, Star Wars entered our collective conscious, the oil crisis popularized small, cheap, fuel-efficient Japanese cars, and punk rock boiled out from a seething, angry sea of disillusioned youth. In a much quieter, calmer corner of the 1970's world, another youth phenomenon came into being: Dungeons & Dragons. What started out as the self-funded passion project of a couple of hardcore wargame enthusiasts, cranking out rule books in their basement to sell in their local hobby shop, has evolved into a multi-million-dollar entertainment empire. This empire has spawned several editions of the original game, with hundreds of rulebooks and adventure supplements, as well as miniatures, childrens' toys, television shows, a series of horrible movies, and a giant slew of video games.
The latest D&D game, Neverwinter, carries on a proud tradition. While there have been some black sheep in the herd, many D&D games have been outstanding, groundbreaking and innovative. In particular, D&D has been very well represented in multiplayer games - the first graphical MMO ever produced was SSI's Gold Box Neverwinter Nights in 1991. While the graphics of this DOS game seem primitive by today's standards, and the game itself would not likely appeal to the modern MMO crowd, it was still an impressive achievement at the time.
After SSI's Gold Box games died out, the D&D license was picked up by Interplay, BioWare and Black Isle Studios to develop into new games. The BioWare team built the Infinity Engine, which was used to power a bunch of incredible and successful new games: the Baldur's Gate series, the Icewind Dale series, and Planescape: Torment. The Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games were all multiplayer, but not massively-so; multiplayer was limited to 6 players controlling party members. These were essentially single-player games that allowed for multiple players (except Planescape: Torment, which was single-player only).
Back in the day, when a serial port LAN connection was an option.
These games used 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules - the confusing THAC0 system. Characters were generated with random die rolls, and could range from truly feeble to super-powered. And since they could be re-rolled indefinitely, and the points could be reallocated as desired, there was no reason to play a weak, ineffective character. Parties could be stacked with turbo-charged supermen. Of the two series, Icewind Dale was more purpose-built for multi-player; in Baldur's Gate, the party could be filled with NPCs met during the course of the story, whereas Icewind Dale was built around a 6-man player-made party.
When Interplay went broke and axed Black Isle Studios, the D&D license went to Atari. Atari partnered up with BioWare (and, later, Obsidian), and the team developed 2003's Neverwinter Nights. This was a hybrid sort of game - a big and excellent single-player campaign that allowed for multiplayer over LAN or internet, and a set of tools for creating all-new game worlds and hosting servers for massively-multiplayer action. You didn't need an internet connection to get an excellent game, but the game was so much better when you took it online.
Things are about to take a dark turn here. You can tell because it's all sunny.
The Aurora toolset was the driving force behind NWN's multiplayer success. Adventure modules were easy to create. Players could find servers that perfectly fit the style of game they wanted to play, from over-the-top, ultra-powered PvP arenas where the only way to survive was to figure out the most ridiculous Monk-Sorcerer-Paladin build possible, to higly-restricted roleplaying servers where players could spend the whole day hanging around in town and not doing any fighting at all because there was no in-character reason to do so. The scripting language used by the game was similar to the C programming language, and was relatively easily-learned by coding neophytes. The DM client allowed world-builders to police their creations, to administer custom-made persistent worlds or to run adventures almost the same as they would with pen-and-paper adventures.
This is going to be a significant hurdle for the new Neverwinter - dealing with the expectations of the fans of the Aurora toolset from its older namesakes. While Neverwinter is not a direct sequel to Neverwinter Nights I or II, it will ship with a similar toolset called the Foundry, which will allow players to build their own adventure modules and share them in-game with other players. While the Foundry toolset has not yet been made available to the public, it seems unlikely that players will be able to use it to create and host their own persistent world modules like they could with previous games. Custom player-made content in the beta weekend was made available through bulletin boards on the one server that was open to the public, and everything that was on the bulletin board was single-serving adventure packs. It was all single dungeons, small exterior maps with small dungeons attached, campaigns spread across a handful of small maps, all set within walking distance of the city of Neverwinter. No big, new foreign lands, no weird portals to Eberron or Greyhawk or Ravenloft. Nothing persistent.
"I'll make my own server! With blackjack! And hookers!"
That's not to say someone won't figure it out. Players managed to do some very clever things with the previous toolsets and some third-party tools, and it won't likely be long after launch that some very clever people find a way to build and maintain something resembling the old persistent world servers within the confines of Neverwinter's custom-content system. It will be interesting to see how that pans out.
Neverwinter will not be the very first video game to use the 4th Edition ruleset. That dubious honor belongs to Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale, a sub-mediocre 2011 console-style "Action-RPG" grinder that received lousy review scores because of its bugginess, lackluster gameplay, poor graphics, sub-par voice acting and a host of other complaints. Daggerdale used a very limited set of 4E rules, drawing more of its gameplay inspiration from other console titles like Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes. There's not much of a comparison to be made between Daggerdale and Neverwinter. Daggerdale had a split-screen 4-player co-op multiplayer option, but was essentially a console-style action game with some RPG elements. Neverwinter has also jury-rigged the 4E ruleset to better fit the game style, but as of the first beta weekend it already felt more polished and engaging than the reviewers felt Daggerdale was at launch.
When Neverwinter launches, it will inevitably get compared to Turbine's Dungeons & Dragons Online. DDO has been around for a while now, since before the introduction of 4th Edition rules in 2008, and is a very different game from Neverwinter.
"Say that again and I'll show you what happened to the last guy who called me Jolly."
DDO's character generation uses a point-buy system, allowing for a very broad range of character builds. Neverwinter's character generation (at least in beta) allowed for one of two sets of stats to be selected - one set with the main stat as the highest, one set with Consitution as the highest. While both games are MMOs, Neverwinter's gameplay feels more like a single-player RPG experience shared with other people, while DDO feels more MMO-like. Neverwinter is being billed as an "Action-MMORPG," with more emphasis on combat than on character development. While DDO has recently tunneled its way into Forgotten Realms territory via the Underdark, it is still very much rooted in its Eberron setting. Neverwinter is pure Forgotten Realms, dripping Greenwood and Salvatore from every drow-infested pore.
The player-made content is the thing that will most clearly set Neverwinter apart from DDO. DDO faces a type of limitation common to most other MMOs - once players have blasted through all the current content, they have to wait for the next big content update for something new. Neverwinter will essentially remove this limitation by giving players the power to create their own new content. Official patches and updates will still roll out, adding new classes, races, official story arc continuations, bug fixes and the like, but player-created content from the Foundry could end up replacing the endgame gear grind found in so many other games. Once you've beaten all the other dungeons, make your own and introduce new challenges, tougher monsters, weirder scripted effects.
There are tons of other D&D video games out there. How do you think Neverwinter will stack up against your favorites? Let us know in our comments!