We’ve been curious about Neverwinter for some time now. Cryptic Studios is behind MMOs like City of Heroes, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online, and the team is now trying its hand at the Dungeons & Dragons universe. With new publisher Perfect World backing them, we were curious how the game is shaping up for its release in the first half of next year, and we chatted with lead producer Andy Velasquez to get the scoop.
What sets Neverwinter apart from other online role-playing games? Do you think of it as an MMO or something different from that?
We’re absolutely an MMO. We’re a free to play, action combat MMO. Those are the key touchstones for what we think will set us apart. With free to play, obviously the MMO market is skewing heavily that way. We’re trying really hard to approach developing this game the same way we would a subscription game. We’re trying to buck those preconceived notions out there from players that free to play is crappy, or free to play is eastern-style money-grubbing stuff. We’re developing a fun game in the same way that we developed our previous subscription models. We just believe that this is the right way to monetize moving forward with our genre.
Action combat is our big focus for the moment to moment gameplay. We’ve made here at Cryptic Studios four MMOs that have done more traditional combat. So our take on action combat is obviously an in-vogue thing to be doing right now for MMOs. We feel like we’re approaching it in a more sure way. Other MMOs that are doing action combat take MMO-style combat in gameplay and skew it faster by lowering cool downs or changing to mouse-look targeting. We’re trying to make a fun action combat game and just happened to put that in an MMO setting instead of a third-person, single player RPG. In our totally biased opinion we feel that when we play our game versus Guild Wars or Tera, it feels more like an action game. And obvioiusly, D&D is a big pull for us. We’re in the Forgotten Realms, which is the most famous of all the D&D subworlds. There’s Dragonlance and Greyhawk and all of this other stuff. Forgotten Realms is where Drizzt and Wulfgar, all these iconic characters come from. The surrounding area is where Baldur’s Gate took place, so we’re able to leverage all that lore and built in fanbase a lot with this product.
You’re also coming off of the legacy of a previous existing franchise in Neverwinter Nights. What elements would you say the game shares with Neverwinter Nights?
To be clear, we’re not Neverwinter Nights 3 or anything like that. We happen to take place in the same city of Neverwinter. We do, like you mention, get to call upon all the same backstory and lore. You’ll see locations that if you’re a big fan of Neverwinter Nights 1 or 2. It’s the same with the Neverwinter woods; we have zones that take place out there, there will be a lot of contextual similarities. In terms of the gameplay experience probably the biggest key we took from those games was our foundry system, which is user generated content. Those games had huge followings with their Aurora toolset, people modding the game and offering out new modules constantly and there’s still, last we checked, thousands of people still playing Neverwinter Nights 1 mods. So we have in our game the Foundry, which we just revealed at the last PAX. We did behind the scenes demos of it and showed people how users can make content in our toolset that other MMO players will get to play right in our persistent world. So you can imagine if you played WoW or something that running around doing a Blizzard made mission right next to someone else whose running around doing a mission that you have made in that world. So that’s a big take away from that first series of games.
Are there some limits on that tool set? I remember that aurora toolset within Neverwinter Nights was pretty expansive in terms of giving a lot of options to people. Where do you guys think you fall in that sphere?
So, our approach to the Foundry has been accessibility first, but power as well. The thing with the Aurora toolset is that they’re all so complicated you have to watch hours and hours of tutorials just too even make anything. So what we wanted to do is strip that away a little bit. I think there have been a couple of videos that we put out that show a little bit of editing, but you’ll be able to see how easy it is to get in and move things around. We’re really trying to make it so you don’t have to watch those hours and hours of tutorials. That’s not to say we are shirking away from giving people a lot of control. Say you want a particular kit and you have a bunch of L turns and T turns and straight hallways and you can snap them together like Legos and you drop in what monsters you have in there. You can change the text on those monsters, and you can change the name of those monsters. The approach to how the user interfaces all this is that we’re really trying to push that accessibility angle, but still have a lot of that power and control that people will be expecting coming from that legacy of the Aurora toolset.
What’s the story line going on with Neverwinter? I know the realms have the big kind of shake up when they moved to 4th edition with the Spell Plague. Give me a little since of what you guys are exploring in terms of the story line with this game.
It’s actually cool because we get to work with Wizards of the Coast constantly on this. We have a weekly phone call where we get to nerd out about like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Valindra did this?” We have a main overarching storyline that has to deal with Valindra Shadowmantle.
From the R. A. Salvatore Neverwinter books?
Yeah she’s messing around in those books a little bit too and she’s in the Neverwinter campaign guide and that’s one of the things that were I was mentioning before; we get to draw on the IP a lot. It’s really awesome because our characters are the same characters that you know from these ancillary products as well, and we get to explore them even further . If you are a fan of those books then you will see Valindra and be like, “Oh that’s the chick that Drizzt was running up against!”
So she is your main villain?
She is the main villainess, and the cool thing it that she’s kind of the one that drives the over arching story line, but then we also get to send you to a bunch of different places that we’re calling our adventure zones. So you go to, for example, the Neverwinter Woods and interact with the Uthgardt Barbarians and so you’ll get a pocket of gameplay there that’s about four hours or so that deals with that story line. That will all then tie back into the main thing with Valindra, but we have tons and tons of those little vignette-like storylines that are happening throughout the progression of your character through to the next level.
What’s the big threat here? What’s Valindra out to do?
She is trying to raise a Dracolich; if you read the Drizzt books there was something going on with the Dread Rings and Thay is trying to wipe out all of humanity – she has some involvement in that plot.
[Next up: How does Neverwinter match up with D&D rules, and how will the game be monetized?]
Games like World of Warcraft and The Old Republic have established the idea of competing factions. Are you planning on one of a number of different factions and you’re kind of aligned, or is everybody on the same team? How does that work?
There are not factions that you make immediate decisions about at the beginning of the game; you are not of the Horde or Alliance faction or something like that, everyone comes into Neverwinter basically answering the call of an adventurer to explore and help the city, so it’s equal footing there.
But there are some factions and groups that you might join up with – is that how it would work?
We haven’t specifically started talking about in what ways there might be other faction related stuff yet.
How have you approached implementing fourth edition D&D rules into an interactive video game setting?
That’s been a really interesting challenge for us. One of the things that D&D Online has done, the other Dungeons & Dragons game, is they took a literal rule-set translation, although I think they used 3.5. And to be clear, we’re not specifically a fourth edition game – we are a Dungeons & Dragons game. So we use a lot of the same name-space and we use a lot of the emotional context of what the power is supposed to be. So for example, cleave – which is every fighter’s first ability for the most part – it’s an ability that is intended to attack multiple enemies in the arch in front of them, we’re not worrying about whether it is 2D10 plus weapon power or anything like that, but we’re making sure that it’s evocative of that feeling so when you cleave in our game you’ll be swinging and hitting multiple enemies in front of you.
Do you have things like at-will, encounter, and daily powers, or have you moved away from those distinctions?
So we do actually have those, at-wills. When you play, those are bound on your left and right mouse click buttons. You can click those as much as you want; they are at-will. Your encounters have slightly longer cool-downs, and with your daily powers we still leverage an action point meter but it’s different for our medium. But yeah it’s based on those same core concepts.
What about classes and races? I’m presuming also since it’s a D&D focused game that’s kind of your big delineating factor, choosing a race and a class?
Have you already revealed how many races and classes you guys are exploring, or is that information that’s out there yet?
We’ve only mentioned a few, the classes we’ve publicly announced so far; the Guardian Fighter, the Trickster Rogue and the Control Wizard. The races that we’ve publicly announced are Human, Elf, Drow, Halfling, and Half Elf. That’s one of those things that, there’s so many potential races and classes that we’ll just continue to expand out post our launch and just update with a new race, here’s a new class, it’s something that we absolutely have plans for.
Given that you guys are shooting to be in the MMO space, even though you’re going free-to-play, you’re wanting to maintain the heritage of really high-end subscription based MMO, are you including some of those what some people would say are staple features of MMOs? Things like PvP arenas, large scale raids, and auction houses, or are you trying to move in a different direction than that?
For the most part it is almost everything that you would expect from a MMO. So, large persistent areas where you’re running around and seeing other people, PvP arenas, you mentioned banks, auction houses, vendors in the main city, bars where you e-dance. What you play, you should think, “Oh this is just like an MMO.” It’s free-to-play, it’s action-combat, but it’s pretty much an MMO.
So would you say action-combat would be the big thing that delineates you from other MMOs that are out there?
Action-combat MMOs, there’s probably like four or five out now, but specifically the moment-to-moment feel is different in ours.
Given that you’re exploring the free-to-play space, how are you approaching monetizing the game?
Very, very, carefully. Cryptic Studios has now had two games, Champions Online and Star Trek Online, that were initially subscription-based model; they’ve now been converted to free-to-play. We’ve been running them as free-to-play games for over a year now. We’re published by Perfect World, which is one of the premier free-to-play MMO publishers in the west, so we get to tap into obscene amounts of data whenever we need to make a decision like, how many day-one or month-one items do I want to have and at what type and what category? Traditionally a studio would just have to take their best guess and do some research but I actually get to look at hard data and see what sells in these other games, what is palatable for the western market, how are we packaging things that make it make sense? I think we’re approaching it very cautiously but with a lot of backing that will make it pretty successful.
So you’re thinking along those lines of pieces of content that players could purchase in a microtransaction format?
Yeah we’ll be micro-transaction based. When you say content, if you mean items and boosts and other things, yes. In terms of missions and maps and all of that – absolutely not. We expect that as a free player you will be able to play game in its entirety without having to pay anything. You’ll be able to access all of the classes without having to pay anything, and we will not be selling powers. It’s not like you can just go to the store and buy a level 30 sword as a level 10 character. So we haven’t talked too much in terms of the details yet but that’s our high level approach. It’s interesting; we found again going back to that data side of things, what makes successful free-to-play monetization is perfectly aligned with what makes a game that your users are going to like. You actually look at the data and you have to evaluate it: “What are my players looking to do right now, what are they looking to buy, what could they want?” It’s an interesting perspective because normally as developers you go into your think tank and think about what you want to make and all these cool things in your mind, so I think our games that have been free-to-play have gotten infinitely better because of their transition to free-to-play.
When are you targeting for release?
We have announced early next year, I don’t think anything more specific than that.
For more on Neverwinter, watch for our hands-on preview in the December issue of Game Informer.