Here's a question for you: How much do you really, really have to love a game to pay $8.00 an hour to play it? Considering how much we tend to whine about a flat $15/month fee, I'm guessing the answer is, "Only if it loved me long time."

And yet, in 1991 this wasn't considered crazy extortionist practices -- it was dubbed "Being a pioneer." While online RPGs were nothing new by then, nobody had tackled the jump from text-based RPGs (MUDs and BBS doors) to graphical games due to the technology (limited modem speeds and access) and funding involved. It took the efforts of a Superfriends-style team to make this happen with Neverwinter Nights: Stormfront Studios developed the game, TSR provided the Dungeons & Dragons license, SSI published it under its Gold Box series, and Aol handled the online operations.

Thus, 19 years ago -- six years before Ultima Online and 13 before World of Warcraft -- the first multiplayer graphical RPG went online and helped forge a path that would lead to where we are today. With only 50 to 500 players per server, Neverwinter Nights may not have been "massively," but it deserves a spot of honor as one of the key ancestors to the modern MMO.

Gold Box fever

Retro RPG enthusiasts probably remember SSI's Gold Box series fondly (and also with the troubling thought of "Holy crud, am I that old?"). These were RPGs produced with the same engine that provided a robust experience while allowing developers to churn out adventures far more quickly than creating new engines from scratch for each one. From 1988 through 1993, Gold Box RPGs (so-called for their distinctive gold packaging) gave PC RPGs a huge boost in credibility and sales.

So when Neverwinter Nights released, it had the benefit of being a part of such esteemed company as Pool of Radiance and Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, not to mention being able to modify the existing game engine to work in an online environment. Gamers trusted the Gold Box titles, which helped when Aol asked them to make the leap to something completely foreign to most of them: hook up a modem, pay an hourly fee, and play this game alongside other people across the world.

To almost everyone's surprise, they did. For many folks, this was their first taste of gaming online, and the novelty of it -- meeting other players, forming guilds, enjoying a persistent world, building up a character -- proved instantly addicting.

Welcome to the world of the real

Set in the popular Forgotten Realms campaign, Neverwinter Nights invited players to explore an environmentally diverse region, collect sparkly loot, and increase their characters' power and skills. While it certainly was not as full-featured as later MMOs, NWN had dungeon crawls, guilds, user chat, PvP and other basic staples of the genre.

Because the game was a Dungeons & Dragons title, players encountered the familiar trappings of the pen-and-paper game, including the nine alignments (such as True Neutral or Chaotic Evil), six races (such as Half-Elves and Gnomes), and six classes (such as Paladin and Ranger). Players could even dual-class once they advanced far enough in the game.

When it kicked off, NWN existed on a single server that was capable of hosting 200 players or less, but this was enough to get the train going. Before long, new servers were added, and the game quickly became one of the most popular features on Aol's service.

Socialization was a huge factor in NWN's appeal. Players began to organize in-game events, such as summer festivals, trivia nights and PvP ladders. Aol's Steve Case would even often play alongside customers as his alter ego "Lord Nasher." If a player had a lot of experience in the game and a good name among the community, he or she could apply to become a special guide, tasked with helping out newbies and the lost.

A decade of dominance

Neverwinter Nights enjoyed one key advantage that kept it in the dominating spot for the bulk of the '90s: a near and almost-total lack of competition. From 1991 to its shutdown in 1997, Neverwinter Nights was pretty much the only major MMO provider (and I used the word "major" very loosely here) -- this just wasn't a genre that studios were chomping at the bit to handle.

As a result, NWN enjoyed the top spot for MMO profits for almost a decade, only to hand it off to Ultima Online, EverQuest and... gee... I forget what came after that. Tabula Rasa? Maybe? Shawn Schuster seems to talk about that game a lot; seems like it was hot stuff.

Over the lifespan of Neverwinter Nights, the hourly charge decreased as the players immigrated to the servers (After 1996, Aol simply charged a flat monthly rate instead of per hour). Modems became faster, the World Wide Web became a household fixture, and online gaming began to make inroads with a wider base of players. Although the game was chugging along just fine (and reportedly earning Aol "millions" per year), a legal dispute between Aol and TSR over the game forced a premature shutdown in 1997, which rightfully upset the playerbase. By the end of its run, NWN boasted an impressive 115,000 players who had stepped foot in the game at one point or another.

Legacy

One of the main questions that I apply to every title I cover in The Game Archaeologist is this: "What did this MMO leave behind as its legacy?" Neverwinter Nights certainly didn't become a smash hit, advance past a strict 2-D format or provide a great amount of user friendliness, but it did take take online RPGs into the visual realm and demonstrate the appeal of gaming together instead of separately.

The IP became highly sought-after: BioWare snapped up the rights to make Neverwinter Nights in 2002, Obsidian Entertainment handled the sequel (and successive expansion packs) in 2006, and recently, Cryptic Studios announced that it is working on a multiplayer online RPG called Neverwinter.

Even though 1991 is in the ancient past when it comes to computer games, Neverwinter Nights was nevertheless given a special award at the 2008 Annual Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards for "Advancing the Art Form of MMORPG Games" -- an honor that it now shares with EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

Neverwinter Nights lead designer Don Daglow accepted the award with these words: "These games are not just entertainment. They build new kinds of communities and create deep people-to-people relationships. They influence people's lives in the same way as great books, inspiring movies and iconic television shows."

I don't think I could've put it better.


Calling all NWN vets!

Were you there? Do you wear your badge of Neverwinter Nights with honor? Then we want to hear from you! Drop a comment below about your history with the game and thoughts about it -- and perhaps a favorite experience or two.
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.