The Game Archaeologist: The persistent worlds of Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2

At the end of next month, dozens of online worlds will flicker and vanish with the flip of a switch. It's a online apocalypse the likes of which we have not seen in quite some time, although you might be forgiven for not having heard of it before now.

When GameSpy Technology goes offline on May 31st, dozens of EA games that relied on the platform for multiplayer functionality will lose their online components by June 30th. Because of this, Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 will find that their persistent player-made and -run worlds are in danger. For over a decade now, players have poured creative energies and roleplaying enthusiasm into these micro-MMOs. Could an era be about to end?

Fortunately, players are already swinging into action to work around the shutdown, keeping their worlds alive and detached from GameSpy's umbilical cord. I see this event as a wake-up call for people like yours truly who are acquainted primarily with BioWare and Obsidian's single-player offerings and are ignorant of the larger Neverwinter Nights community out there. Let's take a look at this engrossing online realm and how it came to be.

Power points to the players

At the time, it was one of the biggest projects that BioWare had tackled to date. Created as a spiritual successor of sorts to AOL's early '90s MMO and greatly influenced by Ultima Online, Neverwinter Nights took a large team five years to make.

"Compared to Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights allocated five times the manpower to making the game-creation tools suite," one of BioWare's devs noted in a post-mortem. "Our experience online was that we had the most fun when we were adventuring with a moderate-sized group of friends, with a Game Master creating an adventure for us in real time. This experience was one of the foundations of what we wanted to capture in Neverwinter Nights."

The scope of the game was staggering: It included not only a sizable BioWare-worthy single-player campaign but a multiplayer option, modding tools, and -- most importantly for the purposes of this column -- the ability for players to make and host "persistent worlds."

BioWare released Neverwinter Nights on June 18th, 2002, and saw it quickly become one of its most profitable titles. Between 2003 and 2006, the studio created several expansions and adventure modules before passing the torch to Obsidian (aka Li'l BioWare) to tackle the sequel. Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansions had a good run and was well-received, although there was a strong divide among players as to which title was superior.

Perhaps the debate was pointless, as both games saw the rise of a very active modding and DMing community. By deciding to bow out (for the time being) of running its own persistent online world and instead empowering players to make their own, BioWare truly opened up a Pandora's Box of wonders and the occasional blunder.

All of these persistent worlds are yours except Europa

As I mentioned earlier in this column, Neverwinter Nights persistent worlds were, for the most part, micro-MMOs. Player dungeon masters could take on the role of all-powerful developer, setting the rules, enforcing a certain style of gameplay, and molding the world as they saw fit.

It must be emphasized just how powerful these modding tools were. "The packaging of proprietary custom resource packs called haks permitted modders to create and add anything to the game -- new tilesets, creature models, item models, music, sound effects, load screens, skyboxes, classes, skills, feats, nearly anything," EQ Hammer noted.

A persistent world could take up to 96 people at a time, a number far smaller than traditional MMOs but still bigger than a traditional small-group multiplayer campaign. Other than size, the biggest limitation to PWs was the mandate that they be made free of charge for all for copyright reasons. Apart from that, the sky was the limit, and PWs took off. Dungeon masters could create specific game worlds in virtually any genre, guide campaigns personally, and even hop into NPCs to add a little live roleplaying realism.

The servers quickly separated into specific rulesets, including action (PvE fighting), roleplaying, PvP, social, story, and so-on. Unlike their sometimes-marginalized status in modern MMOs, roleplayers in these persistent worlds were a vibrant, active force that kept the servers running.

As time went by and the studios began to ignore the games, player-creators found themselves picking up the slack of jury-rigging fixes for these aging titles. As EQ Hammer put it, "Amateur engineers developed SQL database support for the game, which allowed persistent-world servers to bypass hardcoded flaws in the engine and allowed them to introduce true persistence in the form of housing, banking, and more. When BioWare's master authentication servers for the game went down, players quickly created and freely disseminated their own server-side authentication scripts."

A sampling of Neverwinter Nights persistent worlds

While many of these persistent worlds have quieted down, there are still scads of them in existence. In fact, NWNList Scry lists 851 persistent worlds spread between the two games, with the first Neverwinter Nights having twice as many as the second. Here's just a sample of some of the ones that caught my eye:
  • Arelith (NWN1): A quality role-playing community, this PW is insistent that players keep it PG-13 (so sorry, lovebirds: no cybering!).
  • The Worlds of Rhun (NWN1): Be a vampire, a god, a fae, or a L'Cie from Final Fantasy XIII as you hop worlds in search of fun.
  • Alien: Evolution (NWN2): An upcoming PW set in the sci-fi/horror Alien series; players assume the roles of Colonial Marines battling the eponymous pests.
  • ArgentumRegio (NWN1): The team behind this PW has added in 60 spells from D&D as well as an "immersion tool" that allows players to create elaborate backstories that have an impact on the game experience.
  • Realms of Trinity (NWN2): A polished PW that offers both a low-magic and a high-magic storyline and a dynamic spawning system.
  • Sinfar (NWN1): An active, mature PW that's spread over a handful of servers and boasts several events such as capture-the-flag and a Drow fashion show.
  • The Easting Reach (NWN1): This PW is all about exploration and journey, as players are encouraged to poke about Impiltur and not worry about the relatively low level-cap (8).
  • Aventia (NWN1): Or if you like levels, here's a PW with unlimited levels that has been in operation since 2002!
  • Myth Drannor: The Second Age (NWN2): A mature, seamless RP world that boasts an active DM staff and story arcs that change based on player decisions.
  • Port of Shadows (NWN2): A roleplay-focused PW set in the underworld.
  • Wheel of Time: Beyond the Pattern (NWN1): A small community dedicated to playing in Robert Jordan's book world.
  • The Dragon's Neck (NWN1): This PW has twice-a-week DM-run events and promises that players can have a meaningful impact on the game's world.
  • The World of Aenea (NWN1): When a PW community has added in over a million custom-made wands, you know it's serious. This "award-winning" realm has been online for over seven years now with an original D&D setting.
  • Sigil: City of Doors (NWN2): Miss Planescape Torment? Here's a persistent world that seeks to recreate that unique fantasy setting!
Are you or have you played in a Neverwinter Nights persistent world? Tell us your story in the comments section!

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 or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.