Diehard GameFAN Hall of Fame Nominee: Neverwinter Nights (1991)

In honor of the release of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, it is Dungeons & Dragons week here at Diehard GameFAN. As part of this week, we will be opening up the Diehard GameFAN Hall of Fame to five nominees – all video games based on Dungeons & Dragons in some way. Our standards are just like the Baseball Hall of Fame: every game will be voted on by members of the staff, and any game that gets 75% of the vote – with a minimum of four votes – will be accepted – or thrown – into their respective Hall.

Game: Neverwinter Nights
Developer: Beyond Software, Inc.
Publisher: Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Release Date: 1991
Systems Release On: PC DOS (CGA/EGA/VGA)

I’m always saddened by how this game has been lost to the sands of time. 99% of MMORPG fans don’t realize that this was the first ever game of its type and assume that the only game bearing this name is the 2002 BioWare title. Without the massive success of Neverwinter Nights, we wouldn’t have had Everquest, World of Warcraft and the other games that flooded the PC market a decade after SSI and AOL teamed up to create a whole new genre of role-playing game that would fundamentally change the gaming industry as whole. Who would have thought that in 1991 that you could have a game that was able to be played online like a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) but with (for the time) top shelf graphics and immersive gameplay similar to The Bard’s Tale and other SSI Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games?

Obviously the servers are down now, but I booted up my old hard disc version of the game and was ecstatic to see it was still playable as an offline title. Still that doesn’t compare to how over 115,000 gamers felt as they journeyed through the city of Neverwinter and the lands beyond in a day where video games were nowhere near the huge market they are today, or in a time where social gaming was limited to going over to a friend’s house or metting up in an arcade. Unfortunately playing Neverwinter Nights offline won’t let you save the game, but it’s nice to know that if someone really wanted to, they could set up a dedicated server for the game and play it for Nostalgia’s sake. HINT HINT Wizards of the Coast!

It’s hard to describe how addicting Neverwinter Nights was. We’ve heard about WoW addicts and “Evercrack,” but none of that compares to what happened with this game. NWN players were well known for spending several hundred or, god help them, several THOUSAND dollars a month on the game. It was that revolutionary and addictive. Remember this is also in 1991 dollars, not 2011 or even 2001 dollars, so that’s a big chunk of change to spend each month on a game. This is because again, this was 1991. There was dial up internet with hourly rates rather than unlimited access for a set fee based on your connection type and/or speed. This tells you the high quality and sheer mesmerizing power of Neverwinter Nights. As well, there is a dedicated team of Neverwinter Nights 1.0 fans that used BioWare’s version of the game to create Neverwinter Nights Resurrection, which follows the story and feel of the original quite closely. I myself played in the world of NWNR regularly when I first picked up BioWare’s game, but I dropped off simply because I moved onto other games. Still, it’s worth mentioning here as we discuss the legacy and brilliance of the original Neverwinter Nights. There is a wonderful website, Bladekeep.com that is dedicated towards keeping the memory of the very first MMORPG alive, complete with its history, screenshots and more. Even if you’ve never heard of this Neverwinter Nights before, if you are at all curious about the history of video games, this is one site you need to check out.

Unlike most MMORPGs that die because of a lack of players or financial return, Neverwinter Nights still had an incredible amount of players and it was making a lot of money when the plug was pulled. Instead, the game only ended due to political issues between SSI, TSR, and AOL. Man, that’s a lot of abbreviations, eh? AOL wanted SSI to expand the game, make it a “pay to play” title AND have it be the cornerstone of the new gaming section on the America Online homepage. TSR and SSI did not want the game to be a pay to play title. TSR and SSI also wanted to take the game from AOL’s proprietary service. Because the two sides couldn’t agree, the game was shut down when the contract between SSI/TSR and AOL elapsed. The end. Such a sad fate for a game that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of gamers. There were protests, campaigns to save the game, articles in gaming publications and early websites, but none of it saved one of the most influential and popular video games of its day.

For all these reasons and more, Neverwinter Nights deserves to be discussed as a nominee for the Diehard GameFAN Video Game Hall of Fame. Will it get in though? That remains to be seen…

All in Favor:

Alexander Lucard: Look, I loved this thing. I’d actually play it on my lunch break and after my wrestling/swim team/tennis/play practices at school. Yes, I was one of those who avoided the massive bills by playing it on my high school computers. Muhahahaha. But I digress. Neverwinter Nights was a wonderful game. It used the amazing “Gold Box” engine that long time SSI fans knew from games like the original Pools of Radiance. There was ROLE playing instead of the stuff I encountered on console RPGs as the time where a character took two steps forward, swung a blade and stepped back. It was a very social atmosphere like a MUD where you could fight each other just as easily as you could chat, but with beautiful full color graphics to boot. I was so spoiled by Neverwinter Nights that

I’ve yet to find a MMORPG experience that comes close to it. I tried Dungeons and Dragons Online, which was okay. Everquest and World of Warcraft paled in comparison in terms of the community quality. Hell, most of the things we are still seeing today were pioneered by this 1991 game which should tell you how far ahead of its time it was. Neverwinter Nights was the first MMORPG and it’s still the one that all games of its ilk should be judged by. It revolutionized PC RPGs and to a lesser extent, video gaming as we know it. It’s remembered for being an incredible game, a wonderful example of ROLE playing meets ROLL playing and is one of the most historically significant games of all time. If this doesn’t get in, I don’t know what MMORPG could.

Will Nobilis: This game was the first MMO I (and many others) played. Much like Eye of the Beholder, I mainly played it at a friend’s house when he was busy doing something else or we would take turns on his character playing for hours. While I was not as engaged in this game as I would be with its later remake, I had fun and made friends, some of whom I have contact with to this day. I found the game fun enough to get my own account eventually and to even look around for similar games that mimicked its gameplay including this game’s graphical and spiritual successor, “Order of the Griffon” on the Turbo-Grafx 16.

Geoffrey Bice aka “Medar”: I would certainly vote for Neverwinter Nights (Gold Box version on AOL) as a Hall of Fame game.

Let me touch on the origins of this game being released on AOL. After years of working on the idea, SSR, TSR, and AOL released a graphical MUD using the Gold Box game engine. We are talking SSI’s Pools of Radiance, but online with and against others. How cool is that? It was the first time many of us could talk smack, plan events inside the game, and interact while using our arrow keys to fight creatures and each other, and this was truly amazing for 1991. We were a part of the birth and emergence of online guilds, which not only led to cooperation in-game on a larger scale, but coordinated efforts to help others. We also witnessed the accidental birth of online PvP combat, as a misplaced fireball spell gave a player the idea of “misplacing” other spells. Guilds quickly formed around good fighting evil and rivalries began that lasted years. None of this was built into the game, it was all discovered or devised by the players entertaining themselves with the game as a basis. The essence and soul of NWN on AOL was the ability to engage in PVP combat, and in-game rules soon followed that allowed areas to be non-PVP, PVP grounds, tournament ladders, and more…all a “first” in a graphical game.

But if PVP was the soul of NWN, the heart was the phenomenal community! You had the beginnings of online gaming guilds, AOL-based guild boards, rivalries started that lasted years, players gain noteriety, multiple PvP ladder competitions begin that constantly challenged old and new players, and all of this was perpetuated by the player base. You saw the beginnings of online “Game Bashes” as players would meet in Las Vegas once a year in person to discuss the game and buid on guild rivalries. This was all happening almost 20 years before WOW, years before UO and EQ, and it all started in a 16-bit graphical game that held 500 people at max capacity. Like all good legends, NWN did not fade away or become obsolete. It disappeared in its prime as AOL could not get agreements in place to expand the game before it was shut down in 1997. At the time the game closed, over 100,000 in-game characters existed and you had to wait hours to get into the game. But the closing forced my guild and others to be among the first online gaming groups to register a domain name, set up message forums, and begin to spread to the games that would follow (Dark Sun Online, Ultima Online, EverQuest…and many others). But as these games became bigger and bigger, they could never recreate the community feel and interaction of Neverwinter Nights, as the ever-growing populations in a single server killed the community feel of the game. However many NWN guilds and people continue to game and interact with each other in projects that remain active today, notably Forgotten World (www.forgottenworld.com), and Neverwinter Nights: Resurrection (www.nwnserver.net). For these reasons, old Neverwinter Nights is a Hall of Fame game.

(My guilds were Silverblades, Sacred Silver Blades, and Circle of Souls)

All Opposed:

Ashe Collins: While definitely one of the first in the MMORPG line, the first Neverwinter Nights never did all that much for me. Severely limited by the technology at the time, I could never really enjoy the game, and then there was the fact you pretty much had to have AOL to play it kinda killed it for me. While I think it’s great the game had so many fans and did quite a bit to bring D&D to the MMO audience, I think there were much better D&D computer games than this one that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.

Results: 3 in favor, 1 opposed: 75% = ACCEPTED

Conclusion: I have to admit, as a long time SSI fan, it thrills me that the original Neverwinter Nights makes it in, and on the release date of the 4th Edition Neverwinter Campaign Setting to boot! It becomes the first PC game, the second licensed game and the first MMORPG to enter the hall, as well as the eleventh game to successful get voted in. Congrats big guy, you deserve it. As a bonus, I’ve scanned in the very first review of Neverwinter Nights from Dragon #179. Feel free to read it as an extra dose of nostalgia. You’ll need to click on it to expand it to full size.



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One response to “Diehard GameFAN Hall of Fame Nominee: Neverwinter Nights (1991)”

  1. Jason Avatar

    I was a pre-PvP NWNer. In fact, it was the sanction of PvP in the early ’90s that led me to leave NWN. I was a hard-core roleplayer, working with the founders of the Bards guild and designing role-playing competitions (poetry, story-telling, etc.) and introducing new players and giving them tours of the early game areas. I was playing when the AOL client was GeoWorks, the ahead-of-its-time multitasking desktop environment for x86 PCs.

    I’ve never played a game since that came even close to engendering the passion and commitment of NWN. I was one of those fanatics who chewed through hundreds of dollars each month (remember hourly fees… anyone?).

    Despite that experience, I haven’t ever been attracted to other MMORPGs. For one thing, I played NWN when it was *small* – the overwhelming size of modern “economies-of-scale” games is a turn off for me. I felt special and respected within NWN’s close community, and I think what pushed me out the door was the introduction of PvP that attracted powergamers and munchkins. Playing became more about combat and less about interaction, more about clicking and less about talking.

    BTW, I was “Peer Gynt,” the poster child for the anti-PvP movement. I was one of the first characters to be Feebed (Feebleminded) by a rogue PvPer. Due to a bug at the time, feebing couldn’t be cured by a cleric or at a temple, so it essentially destroyed your character. There was a terrible rift in the community – it wasn’t about fireballs but about feeblemind.

    Still, my memories of that time are mostly fond. I’m not sorry I spent all that money!



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