I recently read on the Forgotten Realms Wikipedia page that Neverwinter Nights was the first MMORPG (Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game) to use graphics. More Wikipedia inaccuracies surely? Neverwinter Nights was released in the early oughts, by then there were multiple MMORPGs running such as Everquest, Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call etc. Also, Neverwinter Nights, despite being able to host upto almost 100 players on a server (though you kept a fire extinguisher handy), was not technically an MMORPG.
I delved a bit deeper into the Wiki-rabbithole to see how far this amateur historianism went, and uncovered the truth… Yes indeed Neverwinter Nights was the first graphical MMORRPG. Only not the Bioware game we know and love…
The first Neverwinter Nights was published in 1991 by the legendary SSI (Strategic Simulations Inc), who held the license for publishing the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games during the 80s and early 90s. Beloved classics such as Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, as well as the much revered Eye of the Beholder series came out in one of their shiny gold boxes and are still sold by GOG in their Forgotten Realms Archive collections and played by many keen retro-gamers today.
SSI’s Neverwinter Nights was made in conjunction with America On-Line, released for MS-DOS and could host hundreds of players in the same game world. Build on the same game engine, graphics and gameplay were similar to their other AD&D titles of the era and according to reports it was a popular and much beloved game of it’s time with thousands of regular users, hundreds of player guilds and a rich and supportive community.
Neverwinter Nights became free to play for AOL subscribers a few years after it was released and eventually the servers were shut down in 1997 after the gaming world had discovered Quake.
As it was only on AOL this probably explains why it wasn’t as well known here in the UK as other SSI titles. AOL’s services weren’t introduced to the UK until the late 90s by which time it’s reputation for introducing the clueless to the web and carpet-bombing install discs (hey, did you ever make an AOL disc-mirror as a teenager?) had already meant that any serious gaming nerd wouldn’t touch them with a trash-level pole-arm.
The game can still apparently be played offline if you happen to possess a copy and the disks haven’t rotted, however without a server saving is impossible and any semblance of progress needs to be restored using additional DM tools.
Nostalgic players of Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights would eventually attempt to re-create the original game using the Aurora toolset that came bundled with the Bioware title that allowed players to create their own game modules. A server ran for a number of years before being shut down due to dwindling interest and support.
A legacy of the game currently lives on in Cryptic’s Neverwinter MMO, which took gameplay aspects of the Bioware games and the Forgotten Realms license (now owned by Wizards of the Coast) and updated it for a free-to-play-with-microtransactions MMORPG. It was released in 2013 for Windows, Xbox and Playstation to a mixed reception, largely due to the microtransaction aspect. Regular free expansions, or modules (paying homage to tabletop AD&D adventures), are released with a high level Underdark module being the most recent release earlier this year.
Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights was updated for modern PCs a few years ago and released by Beamdog, a company comprised of former Bioware employees, as Neverwinter Nights Enhanced Edition along with similarly updated versions of Black Isle classics such as the Baldur’s Gate series, Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment. These have since also been released for Android devices and console conversions are planned.
Obsidian’s less revered sequel, Neverwinter Nights 2, is still available but has not received any official updates for many years.
All-in-all, not bad for almost 30 years gaming in the same city.