As 2013 is now underway, most of us have started looking at the rather long list of games that will be released this year. In fact, our staff members have each listed the games they’re most looking forward to playing this year and we’re taking a bit of an in depth look from the developers’ side of things with mini-interviews about each game coming our way. Sitting squarely nearly all of our staff members’ lists of most anticipated games for 2013 is, of course, Cryptic’s Neverwinter. Judging by the response to the last Neverwinter column and by the sheer volume of traffic we see whenever we post Neverwinter news, it’s a game that has people taking notice.
Neverwinter is, as is every game these days, something that makes us cautiously optimistic. It seems that many of us were bitten by the hype bug last year and were subject to fits of the vapors at the mere mention of our favorite title. Invariably, however, those same games that caused us to swoon with delight before release, ended up being a disappointment in one fashion or another. I won’t name names but you definitely know the games I’m talking about.
With 2013 rolling in, most of us who are fans of the MMO genre look at any game with a healthy dose of expectant skepticism. It’s OK to eagerly look forward to a game like Neverwinter yet, at the same time, it seems prudent to also have girded loins for those things that have the potential to disappoint. So what are we talking about? Let’s take a look at a few things that have the potential to make or break the game for players:
It’s Not Neverwinter Nights
One of the most prolific comments we hear around here is that Neverwinter is not Neverwinter Nights. Of course, this sounds like a no-brainer but for anyone under 20, maybe not so much.
For those who may not know, Neverwinter Nights was originally developed by BioWare in 2002. NWN is a single player game with a twist: BioWare released developer tools which gave builders a way to create, share and host their own adventures. The game took on a life of its own with single player mods, multiplayer mods, campaign mods and even an early manifestation of MMOs, persistent worlds.
Fast forward to 2013 and we have a different developer creating Neverwinter, a game tagged as an MMO from the start. Simply stated, it is not Neverwinter Nights updated to a new decade. Cryptic has the unique opportunity to take one of the most beloved locations in the Forgotten Realms and to create something new and different and utterly unlike anything BioWare created a decade ago.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that simply sharing a setting in the Forgotten Realms is enough to make the two games blood kin. But it’s not so. If anything, NWN and NW are simply step siblings who share common parentage. So when Neverwinter’s beta starts up and the game is subsequently released, it would be smart not to get caught in the comparison trap.
The free to play and pay to play crazes are all the rage in MMOs these days, some having been implemented poorly, others quite well. Still, when looking at a triple A title like Neverwinter, skeptics are quick to point out that every F2P MMO is an abysmal failure (they think). Those of us with a more balanced approach know that this is untrue but also realize that it’s a new way of monetizing games and one that, if done poorly, will spell doom for Neverwinter.
That said, companies need to make money. There. It's been said. Sometimes it's almost as if studios are villified for trying to make a profit. It's difficult to believe that anyone would dispute that wish, but they do. At the same time, players shouldn't feel gouged or have their gameplay affected by feeling as if they must purchase items. Finding the best, most balanced way to do so is the sticky wicket. Thus far, Cryptic and publisher Perfect World Entertainment, have sided with the ‘vanity items’ only type of monetization.
If we look at Star Trek Online, another game developed by Cryptic and now published by PWE, we can get a good idea of what monetization will look like in Neverwinter. In STO there is a completely free to play option, subscriptions, so-called Gold Memberships that come in at a typical old-school subscription price of $14.99 per month. There is also the Lifetime “Founder” status for $199. Score one for budget pricing. No really. Two hundred dollars, even if the game only lasted two years, is a helluva price. Add in the fact that, as pointed out on the Neverwinter forums, the game will be totally free to play from the get go. There is no subscription or purchase unless a player chooses to do so. (Thank you for pointing out the oversight, IamTruthSeeker!)
But the real money will be made with the Neverwinter Store, that place where all things cosmetic or account-enhancing will live. Again, with STO, players can purchase ships, crew members and other personnel to enhance their gameplay experience. In addition, players can purchase chest keys, shared stash space and more. The point here is that the things sold in the store do not give a clear advantage to other players. This is actually what players want. To be able to choose exactly how much to spend and where to spend is the ultimate freedom of choice.
Still, Cryptic and PWE are going to have to tread very carefully around the whole idea of the Neverwinter Store. Hopefully, they will do their research into the more successful RMT stores in other games like Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World.
The one single feature coming with Neverwinter that seems to have people most excited is the Foundry, the tools builders will need to create and share their own adventures. There are similarities with Neverwinter Nights but they are shallow at best. The Aurora Toolset was a difficult piece of software to use. Even so, it could be said that tens of thousands of mods and persistent worlds were created.
Cryptic wants to give players the ability to tell their own stories by providing a way to do so with the Foundry. From what we saw at PAX Prime last summer, the toolset is robust and packed with features that will make any wannabe builder swoon. Cryptic has taken the tools and made them intuitive and easy to use. At the same time, there is much that can be done with them and the potential to create unique mods for other players is definitely there. What a joy it will be to see builders be able to create new adventures, to keep the game alive nearly forever by virtue of their own creative abilities.
Once again, let me reiterate that this is not Neverwinter Nights. The toolset will have limitations that the Aurora Toolset did not and will be confined to the assets that Cryptic is willing to share and/or let players create. Builder creativity will, of necessity, be somewhat limited.
Again, however, the specter of monetization hangs over the Foundry as well. Will builders need or want to purchase additional item sets or creation abilities to tell these stories? Will Cryptic and PWE somehow want to monetize the best of the mods created by allowing builders to charge a fee for use and taking a percentage of each sale? It remains unclear but the hope is that this won’t happen or that, if it does, it’s a reasonable approach. Most of us wouldn’t begrudge a stellar builder a few bucks off his or her creation! (Ed note: According to a post on the Neverwinter forum, "Also, no payment for authors/users is planned whatsoever for Foundry use." Let's hope this holds true for the game's duration!)
Most developers these days talk about ‘player empowerment’. The Foundry is a terrific way to do so. Let’s hope that however Cryptic and PWE choose to do it, it’s fair, both to players and builders.
The bottom line is that Cryptic and Perfect World have a real opportunity for something special here: They can cater to both old-school RPGers and ‘new-school’ MMOers at the same time. With the right approach, one that doesn’t make players feel they’ve been abused monetarily, Neverwinter could be the start of something entirely new in the genre.