Stormfront Studios (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS. Hosted on AOL from 1991 to 1997.
Date Started: 2 February 2016
Date Ended: 3 February 2016
Date Ended: 3 February 2016
Total Hours: 4Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5) for single-player offline
Final Rating: 27 (applies only to single-player offline)
Ranking at Time of Posting: 121/239 (51%)
I never stop being amazed at how quickly the world incorporated both the Internet and wireless communications technology. In just over a decade, we went from a tiny portion of the population "online" and mobile (c. 1990) to almost everyone having instant access to the world's information and people. If you had told me in 1990 that within 20 years I'd never be lost again, I'd always be able to reach any of my friends and family members at a moment's notice, that within seconds I'd be able to look up the answer to any question, listen to any song, watch any video, get the latest news and weather, and do thousands of other things, I would have called the men in white coats. Yet here we are. Somehow all that awesome technology, put before us in a decade and a half, seemed "gradual."
It's hard to believe that at one point, I was a functioning adult before I had the Internet or a mobile phone. How did I get places? I worked for a security company from around 1991-1994, while I was in college, and I was a "floater"--they sent me to a different facility practically every day, all over eastern Massachusetts. How in the world did I find where I was going? I can't remember for the life of me. How did I book airline tickets? I remember a period in about 1995 when the alternator on my car was squirrely and I had to call AAA for a tow maybe 5 times in 6 months. How did I do it? Did I walk to a payphone every time? I don't remember.
These types of thoughts came flooding to me as I reviewed the history of Neverwinter Nights, the first graphic online role-playing game, which resided on the servers of America Online from 1991 to 1997. I remember AOL quite clearly: it was my first online experience. For a period in the 1990s, you couldn't walk 10 feet without tripping over one of the disks that they mailed to everyone, everywhere. I was introduced to the service in probably 1993, when I could scarce afford the ridiculous hourly fees, but like everyone else, I paid up, because I was enchanted with e-mail, chat rooms, news, and the various features of the online portal. This wasn't the full Internet yet, you understand--just AOL's proprietary content.
Yet somehow I missed the existence of Neverwinter Nights, thank the gods. If I'd known about it, I would have played it. I was already a CRPG addict by 1991 and I had experience with the Gold Box games, which I loved. I would have played it incessantly, probably during my security shifts. All of my money would have gone to it, and I probably wouldn't have met Irene.
|You could play for one hour a month for free. Anything else cost money.|
For those of you not alive at the time, you have to understand that in 1991, you got "online" by using your modem to dial in to one of your ISP's proprietary phone lines, a service for which they charged you by the hour. The AOL materials that came with Neverwinter Nights shows that they were charging $5 per hour for non-peak usage (18:00-06:00) and $10 per hour for peak daytime usage. To save money, those of us who used AOL primarily for e-mail would compose our missives offline, dial in, quickly send and receive, and sign off (AOL eventually created something called a "flash session" for just this purpose). They needed services to keep customers consistently online, paying those hourly rates, and online games were part of the answer. Thus, if you wanted to play Neverwinter Nights for 4 hours between 16:00 and 20:00 some Monday night, you paid $30 (almost $55 in today's money) for the privilege. You could have bought a new game every day for that kind of money. But people happily paid it. When Neverwinter Nights launched, it was capable of supporting 200 online players at a time. Eventually, that number grew to 500. But over 100,000 members had characters. There was a line waiting to get in to the server almost every night. Imagine paying that kind of hourly rate not to play the game but to wait to play the game.
Neverwinter Nights was developed by Stormfront Studios and published by SSI. It uses the same Gold Box engine and graphics that we've seen on this blog a dozen times by now, starting with Pool of Radiance (1988) and most recently in Pools of Darkness (1991). Most of the Gold Box titles were written in-house at SSI, but SSI paid Stormfront to develop the Savage Frontier series, including 1991's Gateway to the Savage Frontier, set in the same basic area as Neverwinter Nights.
|The game shipped on disk with a rulebook and journal, but made it clear you needed an AOL subscription (disk also included) to play.|
Surprisingly few changes had to be made to adapt the Gold Box engine to online play, and at first glance an experienced Gold Box player might not notice any differences. (I'm relying on online testimonials for the following, of course, not having had the experience of playing online myself.) Character creation is virtually identical, including the by-now antiquated rules on race/class combinations and level caps. There's no "modify" command to jack up your statistics, but that's about all that's different.
Each player controlled only one character. During online gameplay, multiple characters showed up in the window where other Gold Box games showed the multiple characters of the single player's party. Players who wanted to adventure together could choose a command to follow a lead character as he controlled navigation around the 3D maps and decided when to camp. During combat, each player controlled his character independently, but combat options are otherwise unchanged.
The game world consists of 29 maps (all first-person, no overland ones like in the Pools series) of the standard 16 x 16 Gold Box size. The core of the game is the city of Neverwinter and its various districts, but other maps allowed you to explore the surrounding wilderness, and the cities of Luskan, Port Llast, and Vilnask among others.
|Exploring a wilderness map.|
The games even shipped with roughly the same documentation as the other Gold Box titles, consisting of an adventurer's journal and a rulebook. (There are no "journal entries," though.) The setup of the game world is kept purposefully broad: Neverwinter, where the river never freezes, is ruled by the firm but benevolent hand of Lord Nasher. (Reportedly, when AOL chairman Steve Case would play the game, he played as Nasher.) Lately, monsters and raiding parties have been troubling the city, and many people suspect the five pirate captains of Luskan are behind the troubles. Nasher dispenses various quests to adventurers to quell the threats.
There are a million things I don't know or understand about how the game was played. For instance, I don't know how loot was distributed among characters at the end of combat, or how quest experience was divided. I'm not sure exactly how quests, fixed fights, and special encounters worked. Were the developers constantly creating new scenarios and plugging them in to particular coordinates? I know that there was a chat capability, but I don't know how it worked with the game interface.
Mostly, I don't understand why an offline version of the game existed and how it worked with the online version. What happened when you were offline and you finally connected? Did you appear in your offline square, or did you get transported to the central hub? Was it seamless, or did you have to stop the game offline and resume it online? What happened to your character if you killed the offline version, since there's no "save" feature? These are questions I can't figure out from the web sites and documentation I consulted; I'm sure commenters will have some of the answers.
|Exploring the docks in the city center.|
What I can tell you is that offline gameplay is somewhat pointless. It's a shell of a world with no content. You can create a character, visit shops, explore the maps, fight random battles, and train, but you can't get quests or engage in any special encounters or fixed combats. I don't know what those quests or special encounters looked like when the game was live--how complex they were, what resources they required--and I'd love to hear from anyone who played it.
I don't even know if the offline version I'm playing is the same as what was available when Neverwinter Nights was active. A couple of issues give me pause. First, you can't name your character during creation--every character is dubbed "NW Knight." Second, there's a menu that I'll cover in a bit that enables some terrific cheating. Certainly, it wasn't possible to use this menu offline and bring the resulting character online. It makes me wonder if characters could transfer between online and offline play at all.
I created a half-elf magic-user/cleric, figuring that if I was going to play one character, he'd need some healing ability. The game starts in the plaza of Neverwinter Square, facing Nasher's palace. If you walk in, Lord Nasher welcomes you but doesn't offer you any quests. There's a blank screen after his generic welcome, however, which I assumed was filled with content in the online version.
|Nasher offers a generic greeting.|
Neverwinter Square is a safe area, with no random combats, that offers several weapon and armor stores, inns, general stores (mirrors, oil flasks, holy water), stores that sell silver weapons, jewelry stores, temples, and training facilities. There are several of each, and I wonder if you were playing online, could only one character visit at a time? Characters start with about 50 gold pieces, so I used them to purchase some basic equipment. If there's a magic shop anywhere in the game, I didn't find it, making non-cleric gameplay difficult since you can't buy potions.
|The central area of the city.|
Most of the tiles in the Square are unvisitable, either behind doors marked "private residence" or in the backs of shops where you get stopped at the front door. Again, I wonder if in the online version those private residences were sometimes repurposed for special encounters. In the southeast corner, a 9-square "indoor gardens" has no special features.
Stairs behind the palace lead down to the sewers, where an iron golem stops you from entering the "sewer guild" unless you have a membership card. Other exits from the map lead to the Warehouse District, the Wharves, and Southwall, and from each of those to outdoor maps. Guards posted at these exits give you a sense of the relative danger level of the maps.
|Some solid advice.|
I was curious how the map held up against other maps of Neverwinter. It makes little sense in the context of the 2002 game, where the entrance to Nasher's palace is on the south rather than the east and the outlying neighborhoods have different names. But it is virtually identical to the Neverwinter that appears in Gateway to the Savage Frontier, the only exception being that the structures marked "private residence" in Neverwinter Nights are part of the monster-infested indoor garden areas in Gateway.
Once I started exploring the external areas, I started meeting enemies in random encounters. Combat is identical to the single-player Gold Box games--even all the spells are the same--except that you have a time limit of about 8 seconds before you lose your turn. Both player and enemy actions are excruciatingly slow, and unlike the single-player games, there's no "alter" command to speed them up. Obviously, online everyone had to play at the same speed.
|My character does well against some slept thieves..|
|...and not so well against some undead.|
The random combats seem to sense the size of the party, and I didn't find them overly difficult for a single character. I might get attacked by three thieves (easily defeatable by "Sleep") or a single crocodile or gnoll. Occasionaly--usually behind doors that I unwisely forced open--I met impossible parties of ghouls or ogres or whatnot, but even when they defeated me, they didn't kill me. I would go unconscious, lose some loot, and wake up next to the gate to Neverwinter Square. I don't know if online "death" was the same. Is it just because they never knocked me below -10 hit points?
|In real life, you learn something even when you lose a fight. Not in RPGs.|
Post-combat is much the same: you get experience, money, and sometimes items, although the items are curiously random. A crocodile might leave a shield or a guisarme, for instance. Again, I don't know how parties received loot or divided it up.
There are no fixed encounters or combats in the offline version, but there are frequent atmospheric messages that describe the setting and elaborate on the minimalist graphics. Some of them are "fixed"--they occur every time you step into a square--and others appear randomly from what must be a pool of atmospheric descriptions. Stormfront did this well in Gateway, I recall.
|A fixed description of the "Southwall" neighborhood of Neverwinter.|
|And a random description from just walking down the street.|
There's no way to save offline, unless you get a DOSBox version that allows save states, but there was little point in playing a game that only allows random combats anyway. I would have had to fight around 50 easy combats in the Southwall area before I had enough experience to level up, and I lost interest well before then. In the live version, characters could achieve up to Level 12 (unless capped below that by race restrictions) and then gracefully "retire."
|I retired at Level 3, and only got there by cheating.|
I did have some fun experimenting with the offline cheat menu, labeled "GM," which gives you options to teleport anywhere in the game, walk through walls, avoid encounters, edit the statistics of your equipment, and enable combat menu option called "zap" that instantly kills all enemies and gives you the experience. It was how I determined there were 29 maps, among other things.
|Some options on the cheat menu.|
I was hoping to find some video of online gameplay, but no one seems to have preserved any. There are some still images of battles (does anyone know why so many of them say "Charactername is stupid"?), but I can't find anything showing the exploration interface, which might answer some of my questions.
I know from online testimonials that a community of dedicated players loved the game. There were dozens of guilds, online parties, trivia contests, PvP matches and leaderboards, and all kinds of community content. Veteran players volunteered to mentor new ones and even to manage aspects of the game's development. The community must have been disappointed when the server went offline in 1997. I've read several explanations for why this happened. The most plausible scenario seems to be that by then, AOL had switched to a flat-rate monthly fee (I think I paid $20 for 20 hours for about a year, and then it was $20 for unlimited access) to compete with other ISPs and they no longer had any incentive to keep people online--in fact, it was now the opposite. AOL wanted to expand the game and charge an additional fee to play it, which SSI and Stormfront were against. The contract between the three companies came to an end in 1997 without a resolution and the server was simply shut off at that point.
|This remains a bit of a mystery. I wonder how you joined the "sewer guild."|
By 1997, the Gold Box engine must have seemed pretty stale anyway. I've loved the games that it produced, but I certainly wouldn't have liked to spend the rest of my RPG career starting at its bland corridors, unable to see enemies in the environment, straightjacketed by the AD&D1 character system. In six years, the game had only been upgraded twice, and the primary thing it must have offered was that it was the only online graphical RPG. This changed in 1997 with the release of Ultima Online, and titles like Asheron's Call and EverQuest soon followed, probably killing any serious incentive to resurrect Neverwinter Nights.
The name lives on, of course, in the 2002 Bioware title. It's amazing that only 5 years separate the end of Neverwinter Nights online and the beginning of the Aurora Engine namesake; judging by graphics, sound, and size, you'd think they were eons apart. The 2002 title is more of a "remake" of the original than I ever realized, with Neverwinter facing the same sort of threat and the player exploring pretty much the same geographic territory. I understand that some dedicated fans literally re-created the original game maps using the Aurora toolset and hosted a limited online community until 2012. That same year, a dedicated fan released a Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures version of the original game.
|The Bioware version, only 5 years after the original went offline, feels like a completely different era.|
With only the ability to experience the offline shell of the game, it really should never have been on my list. From now on, I'll only play online RPGs if they have a purposeful offline mode, not just a possible one. Because I didn't get to experience the "real" game, a GIMLET is meaningless. I filled in some scores anyway in the spreadsheet, totaling 27 (the lack of quests, NPCs, and non-combat encounters hurt offline play), but making it clear that the score refers to single-player, offline gameplay. If you had no other RPG to play, you'd probably still enjoy the combat system (although it lacks something with only one player), the variety of enemies, and character development. The greater problem is that as you play the offline version, you have a palpable sense of what's missing. You realize the large courtyard is supposed to be swarming with other characters. Lord Nasher literally stares at you mutely instead of giving you a quest. Well-described buildings are clearly meant to have some kind of encounter rather than empty spaces behind their doors. It's like walking through a ballroom after the party's over.
|Nasher tries and fails to find a quest to give me in his online files.|
The process of learning about the game was more fun than playing it, and it gives me a foundation to understand other MMORPGs as I come across them. For now, let's get back to a proper single-player title.
Further reading: For the material in this posting, I'm heavily indebted to the resources on the "unofficial classic Neverwinter Nights archive." I also got a lot out of a May 2015 posting from "The Game Archaeologist."
The Screamer, a Japanese RPG that has an English fan patch, just disappeared from my "upcoming" list because I apparently long-passed its correct year of 1984. I'll re-engage it in a "mop up" of a few lingering 1980s titles later.
The Quest for Tanda (1991) also disappeared because I can't find an active download. I'll put it back on the list if someone can send me the game.