The Man Behind the
Neverwinter Nights - A "Legends of the Industry" Interview
A Discussion with
President and CEO
of Stormfront Studios and MMO Legend,
Questions By Cody
When a gamer mentions Neverwinter Nights, most young and
inexperienced members of our community initially think of the games
developed by Bioware and Obsidian, which feature 3D graphics,
single-player storylines, and the ability to create your own
community-based world. Even some older gamers – including
myself – consider these games first.
However, these two previously mentioned titles share a common
name with a much older computer game. The original Neverwinter Nights
was developed by Stormfront Studios and published by AOL, SSI, and TSR.
For you MMO history buffs, the original NWN holds a special place in
MMORPG history by holding the title of the first graphics-based
massively multiplayer role-playing game.
The man behind the project, Don Daglow, is a computer-gaming
legend. Notice that I didn’t just say MMO legend –
Don has developed over thirty titles and has held supervising roles for
many, many more. Daglow started his career in the early 1970s, at
Pomona College, where he developed the first baseball computer game,
the first Star Trek-based game, and the first game based on the
D&D gaming system. By the 1980s, Daglow became a part of the
console wars and later joined the original team at EA, which helped
make the company the success it is today. In 2003, Don accept an
Achievement Award from CGE for "groundbreaking accomplishments that
shaped the Video Game Industry."
Continuing our "Legends of the Industry" series of interview and articles, we tracked down Don and had a discussion with him about his work on Neverwinter Nights, how D&D has shaped his work in the industry, and where he thinks the MMOs of the future are heading.
To start, for those readers who aren’t familiar with
Stormfront Studios, could you give them a brief run down of what you
and Stormfront Studios have been a part of over the years?
alt="Don Daglow" title="Don Daglow" name="photo_j"
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Don Daglow, President and CEO of Stormfront Studios
style="font-weight: bold;">Daglow: Stormfront
has worked on a variety of games since we started out in 1988, and
we’ve tried to keep surprising people with our ability to do
new and different things. Early on we did “Gold
Box” RPG’s for SSI and the Tony La Russa Baseball
series as well as online games for AOL. The La Russa games
led to doing the first PC version of Madden Football, working
with Scott Orr of EA Sports, which in turn led to us teaming with Orr
to create the NASCAR Racing series for EA. In late 2000 we
got involved with a much-criticized movie series by an unproven
director named Peter Jackson… and created The Lord of the
Rings: The Two Towers. So it’s been an interesting
How did the idea for a graphics-based MMORPG centered in the
D&D universe come about? What were some of your initial
thoughts when you considered developing this project?
style="font-weight: bold;">Daglow: The first
inspiration was when I saw Kelton Flinn’s and
Kesmai’s Air Warrior in 1987. I was producing early
graphical and text-based games for AOL, and 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.” I think Flinn
gets far too little credit for how he and his partners at Kesmai
pioneered online multiplayer gaming.
other inspiration was the work that I had done with Stuart Smith
– another overlooked early gaming pioneer – when we
created Adventure Construction Set at EA in 1983-85. Stuart
was a wonderful storyteller, despite being limited by screen
resolutions that would look bad on your cell phone screen
today! So I knew that even with primitive graphics we could
unite people in a fictional world in a way that would marry the best of
the chat room and the RPG.
alt="Neverwinter Nights on AOL"
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This is the way the original Neverwinter Nights looked
way back in the early 1990s.
According to many sources, Neverwinter Nights was the first
graphics-based MMORPG. Your servers initially had only 50 players per
iteration and the game cost $6/hour to operate. Looking back on it now,
was it possible – in those days – to even fathom
future graphics-based MMOs toting nearly 8 million subscribers?
style="font-weight: bold;">Daglow: I wish I
could tell you we were that prescient, but we
weren’t. I had seen how much faster machines had
gotten from 1971-1991, but there were lots of articles at the time
about how that effect of improvements in hardware design would slow
down. What we know now, of course, is that the effect
accelerated! When we reached 500 players per server in the
mid-90’s I was amazed, and programmers Cathryn Mataga and
Craig Dykstra played a big role in making the game work in a way that
allowed a ten-fold expansion.
Right now there are a vast number of MMOs on the market and, with over
thirty games in development, this trend doesn’t look to be
slowing down. Do you have any opinions on the current MMO market? Are
there things that you believe should be changed or should be focused on
by developers of future products?
style="font-weight: bold;">Daglow: The irony is
that WoW was built so well and so skillfully that its success both
inspires challengers and creates huge barriers to new games.
The best MMO’s are part game, part destination resort, part
adopted-family and part crowd-psychology-experiment. People
fall away from games that don’t capture their hearts, and
tend to stay faithfully committed to games that engage and fulfill
them. You can’t guarantee getting “magic
in a bottle” just by spending big money… but it is
hard to compete with WOW without achieving a game at a truly massive
scale. That means big budgets and big risks for all concerned.
will be especially interesting to see how BioWare and Cartoon Network
fare in their projects, because both companies have strong funding,
“non-WoW-clone” titles, and design and development
teams led by savvy MMO veterans.