- We spoke with Executive Producer Brett Norton and Creative Director Randy Mosiondz about the past, present, and future of Neverwinter.
- Neverwinter’s latest module, Menzoberranzan, is available to play for free now and celebrates the game’s 10th anniversary (and 8th on Xbox)
- Neverwinter is available to play for free on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. You can download it here from the Microsoft Store for Xbox.
Neverwinter was one of the first console MMORPGs to really get its hooks into me. With the rich lore of Dungeons & Dragons lifting it up and some innovative ways in which it handled combat at the time, not to mention all the journeys that could be waiting for me along the Sword Coast, the entire experience was ripe for adventure (and my time).
While it has been a while since I last ventured into that online realm, I jumped at the opportunity to talk with Executive Producer Brett Norton and Creative Director Randy Mosiondz about the game’s past, present, and future as it hits its eighth year on Xbox (and 10th overall) this year. It was fascinating to get their insight about the legacy of Neverwinter in an age when so many online games tended to fade over time, but Neverwinter seems to be as strong as it ever was. Interestingly, it wasn’t originally scoped to be a massive multiplayer online RPG at all.
As some adventurers might be aware, before launching as a free-to-play MMORPG, Neverwinter was originally announced as a co-op focused Dungeons & Dragons game that would bring R.A. Salvatore’s “Neverwinter Saga” series of novels to life. Since iteration is a significant part of the game development process, there were many concepts the team was trying out during that early phase of its life, as they refined and focused on the title.
“Early on there was an attempt at building a narrative-focused game where there was heavy storyline scripting, and every player in an adventuring party could ‘vote’ towards how a story would play out.”
“Early on there was an attempt at building a narrative-focused game where there was heavy storyline scripting, and every player in an adventuring party could ‘vote’ towards how a story would play out,” explains Creative Director Randy Mosiondz. “While it was an interesting system, once we incorporated an action-focused combat style, we found the two game elements didn’t mesh well together.”
Mosiondz explains that one of the biggest things the team learned in that iterative process was that when locking a group of players into a narrative, anyone who had experienced that same tale beforehand would grow impatient with having to sit through dialog options, while others simply wanted to get back to the action. This left any player who wanted to listen to the narrative opting out of group play.
“We realized we were trying to serve two types of players and were doing a disservice to both. In the end, we decided to move towards action-combat, as there weren’t a lot of MMORPGs doing that at the time, and players seeking games with heavier narrative focus would enjoy single-player story games better anyway,” says Mosiondz. “The advanced narrative system is still buried somewhere in the code, and if you’ve explored some of the more complex character dialogs you may have seen some of it; it’s pretty robust.”
Based on Neverwinter‘s success over the past decade, it seems clear they made the right choice in focusing on the action gameplay aspect to get development started. Once that core concept was established, development began in earnest with lots of content and ideas starting to take shape leading to the game’s eventual release on PC in 2013.
“That’s one of the graces of an ongoing live game: anything you don’t get into the initial release becomes content for a later release.”
“There was a lot of game we packed into the initial release, which was due in large part to the tremendous efforts of our launch team, as well as a disciplined approach to zone implementation,” says Mosiondz. “Once we developed a strong prototype zone and dungeon that we felt was fun and engaging, we built upon those styles for every successive piece of content implemented.”
Mosiondz mentions that there were still a lot of things the team wished to have incorporated into Neverwinter’s launch, but a big part of shipping a game of this scale is knowing when to focus on refining the content you’re launching with to give the best possible experience to players from the get-go.
“That’s one of the graces of an ongoing live game: anything you don’t get into the initial release becomes content for a later release. And we’ve had 10 years of releases [on PC] since launch to add or revise systems and content. I also think a big part of the relatively strong stability of Neverwinter at launch was due to the experience garnered from all our previous releases, like City of Heroes, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online have allowed us to refine our tech and our practices to allow for a solid launch.”
A few years after the initial launch on PC, Neverwinter set its sights on console. Cryptic had been wanting to bring its titles to Xbox, but at the time there were not a lot of MMORPGs for the platform.
“Even though we knew we wouldn’t launch the game on both PC and console, we were still planning for console support in the future. And when that day came, we were ready!”
“Back in the day, Champions Online was actually built to be delivered on Xbox; as some Champions fans can attest, the game can still be played pretty well on PC with a controller,” says Mosiondz. “When it came time to develop Neverwinter, we knew we wanted to start planning for console in the early design of the game. Even though we knew we wouldn’t launch the game on both PC and console, we were still planning for console support in the future. And when that day came, we were ready!”
Neverwinter’s launch on console was a massive success, as they had suspected, with console gamers enjoying the action-based combat system and social aspects of what MMORPGs can bring. That success is what also led to the eventual port of Star Trek Online, which has also proven to be a tremendously successful MMORPG on console. Even with those successful launches behind them, there was still plenty for the team to learn from.
“We had been preparing for launching Cryptic’s games on console for a long time, so there are some elements we learned early on,” says Mosiondz. “The most obvious one is that you must put constraints on game design to make sure console gamers have a solid experience rather than trying to retrofit PC gameplay back to console. Another thing was the technical infrastructure that needed to be built. While live console marketplaces are fairly common now, there were a lot of complexities back in the day about how things are done with subscriptions, microtransactions, etc., that still needed to be mashed out. It wasn’t until a lot of those things started coming together that made MMORPGs on consoles feasible.”
Since release, there have been no shortage of amazing characters and stories from Dungeons & Dragons lore that have been given a chance to come to life in the world of Neverwinter. Naturally, I had to know from the creators what it has been like playing around in the world of D&D and what some those favorite characters and memories from that experience have been thus far.
“I’ve been a D&D fan for an awfully long time, so building adventures based on it was a dream come true for me.”
“Some of the ‘big bads’ we’ve used as module villains are often our most memorable,” says Executive Producer Brett Norton. “Tiamat, the evil dragon queen, was a unique and massive undertaking for a boss. She’s absolutely massive, has great music that accompanies her fight, and she’s still probably the largest single largest enemy you face in all of Neverwinter. A special callout goes to Acerak as well, the main villain of Neverwinter‘s Chult arc, because he’s both evil and hilarious. His ‘I’m an immortal lich and I don’t care‘ attitude makes the Tomb of the Nine Gods dungeon particularly memorable experience, as you tear his lair apart and finally get on his nerves.”
“As to the good guys, the Acquisitions Incorporated characters are about as wild as it gets,” continues Norton. “Fighting alongside James Darkmagic in the Manycoins Bank Heist is always crazy, with him both helping the party and, occasionally, accidentally polymorphing everyone into chickens in the middle of a fight. The entire Acquisitions Incorporated adventure is unique in Neverwinter, and one of the most memorable series of missions we’ve done.”
“I’ve been a D&D fan for an awfully long time, so building adventures based on it was a dream come true for me,” says Mosidonz. “I’m a storyteller at heart, and love building experiences for players to enjoy. It wasn’t so much a job as a craft for me, and hearing players talk about their favorite characters or adventures that I worked with my team to build really warmed my heart.”
A lot has changed since the initial launch of the game — the version players can experience now is very different than what arrived on day one. Neverwinter has had to keep up with not only new console iterations, but revisions to their source material as well (when it was released, “4th Edition” was the main version and now the game is powered by the “5th Edition” ruleset). As part of this constant evolution, I asked Norton what is it about Neverwinter does he think has allowed it to endure for a decade?
“You can’t expect players to keep playing the same game forever, so you need to grow and evolve with them.”
“Part of enduring is realizing that your game has to grow and change with your audience, and while we won’t claim to have done it perfectly, the team has strived to try new features, new stories, and generally push the boundaries of what could be done with our tools, tech, and D&D in general,” explains Norton. “You can’t expect players to keep playing the same game forever, so you need to grow and evolve with them. The other part comes from the team’s ability to continually release new modules with a pretty regular cadence. We just released our 25th module for Neverwinter, and that means we’ve put out multiple big updates for Neverwinter each year. The game that players see today also isn’t the same version that players saw upon release; major features like guild strongholds and dungeon queues did not exist when the game was first released.”
With the recent release of the latest module, Menzoberranzan, the future continues to be very bright for the future of Neverwinter with seemingly no shortage of adventures that may be in store, some of which Norton hinted at.
“Neverwinter will continue to visit new places in the ever-expanding Forgotten Realms,” explains Executive Producer Brett Norton. “There’s a lot of key locations that we still haven’t visited, like Thay itself, or even Waterdeep. Wizards of the Coast also continues to release new sourcebooks as well, and we generally keep an eye out for some of the newer locations that would fit well into Neverwinter. No spoilers, but we’ve got a unique setting planned for the end of 2023 that we hope comes as a welcome surprise.”
Neverwinter is available to play for free on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. You can download it here from the Microsoft Store for Xbox.