How devs and fans are coming together to rebuild Neverwinter Nights

"Neverwinter Nights changed my life," Tony 'Andarian' Donadio tells me. Donadio adapted his college Dungeons & Dragons campaign to create a module for BioWare’s 2002 D&D game, Neverwinter Nights, thanks to its dev kit being made available to players. The Aurora Toolset let players make their own modules, campaigns, and even miniature MMOs called 'Persistent Worlds'. It's mainly thanks to these fan-made works that Neverwinter Nights is still fondly remembered.

Donadio's creation, Sanctum of the Archmage, features a compelling story, impressive visuals, custom scripts, and well-designed puzzles and combat. It’s one of the highest-rated modules on the Neverwinter Vault to this day, and Donadio now writes books based on it.

When Beamdog’s Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition was announced I contacted several prominent community members who all shared a passion for the 15-year-old RPG. I also spoke to Trent Oster, Beamdog CEO and the original game's designer and producer, who is well aware of Neverwinter Nights’ unique position as a game carried by its fans.

"Neverwinter Nights is all about the community," Oster says. "We went to the community even before we had the license." Oster looked for active leaders, going as far as to hand out non-disclosure agreements and extending employment offers. Those superfans turned consultants became known as the Advisory Council.

It takes a village

"I think this approach of bringing on community members and seeking feedback was exemplary," says Bernhard 'Niv' Stockner. "I wish more game studios would do that for EEs, sequels and remasters. Especially with NWN having built up a solid, opinionated community, doing it this way was absolutely necessary."

We were optimizing the game around dial-up. Modules had to be tiny, two or three megabytes.

Trent Oster

Like Donadio, Stockner credits Neverwinter Nights as a major influence and turning point in his career. Stockner helped develop the popular script extender mod NWNX, ran one of the largest German Persistent Worlds for 13 years (Silbermarken, now defunct), and is the technical administrator for the Neverwinter Vault, the repository for all custom-built content. His work with Neverwinter Nights sparked a passion for programming and community relations. 

Shortly after joining the Advisory Council, Stockner was hired by Beamdog as a software developer. He also acts as a liaison between the community and the developers. "It's sometimes a bit of a stretch to balance out community needs and Beamdogs' needs," he admits, "but I relish the challenge."

"Literally hundreds of original, high-quality, full-length adventures have been developed over the years," says Donadio. "The key challenge NWN: EE faces is to focus on, and nurture, what truly made the game unique and special: its modding community."

That's why backwards compatibility with existing modules and other community content was an absolute must. "The biggest challenge is to figure out where to take NWN:EE without breaking everyone’s favorite toy," says Stockner. "We can’t expect people to buy a game that carries the name Neverwinter Nights and break everything along the way."

Breathing new life into a 15-year-old gaming community takes some work. Fortunately, Beamdog can take advantage of digital distribution methods unheard of in the early 2000s. "We were optimizing the game around dial-up," Oster says of the original. "Modules had to be tiny, two or three megabytes. Now people have 10mb/s connections. So much has changed."

The Steam Workshop is an obvious way of delivering new mods—the kind that might be slightly bigger than a couple of megabytes. Both Stockner and Oster are quick to note that Steam isn’t the only thing they're planning to use, however. "One of our goals it to make sure Steam doesn’t run away as the home platform," says Oster. "If Steam Workshop is working well we’ll need a parallel for people who buy the game through Beamdog or GOG that can offer roughly the same functionality."

They are mini MMOs in themselves, each one having their own community and core rules. In my experience, there is simply no equal

Laura 'Liareth' Gauthier

During the current Early Access/Head Start period Beamdog will be testing tools for browsing servers and downloading user-made content with their own Beamdog Client, including top 10 lists for modules and Persistent Worlds. "Having a functional multiplayer server list again will help a lot," says Stockner. "We’re looking at options for seamless automatic downloads of community content." Eventually their goal is to include an option to auto-download any required 'hakpaks' or other required resources directly through the client.

Persistent Worlds

It’s impossible to discuss Neverwinter Nights without touching on Persistent Worlds. While there were hundreds of quality single-player modules and content, it was the online, player-run Persistent Worlds that galvanized the community. "They are mini MMOs in themselves, each one having their own community and core rules," explains Laura 'Liareth' Gauthier. "In my experience, there is simply no equal, or even viable alternatives."

Gauthier was brought on by Beamdog as a programmer for on Stockner’s recommendation. Gauthier worked with Stockner on NWNX, rewriting and maintaining its code. Now with Beamdog she’s porting that functionality directly into the Enhanced Edition. 

"NWNX is a framework which developers can use to extend the game beyond what the toolset offers," says Gauthier, calling it "integral" to the game's success. "Examples range from adding new scripting commands, to integrating different programming languages as a scripting environment, or changing how core mechanics in the game work."

Gauthier was also an admin on Arelith, one of the biggest and longest-running Persistent Worlds. Arelith, currently run by Daniel 'Irongron' Morris, has hosted over 15,000 people throughout its lifetime. "It remains special because these are entirely non-commercial games, run and staffed by RPG enthusiasts," says Morris, who is also another member of the Advisory Council. 

The game's value is in the flexibility and room for dreams it provides.

Bernhard 'Niv' Stockner

Morris is quick to downplay his own involvement, instead praising the staff and community that have made Arelith beloved for over a decade. "We have published writers on staff and professional game developers; people who pursue this as a labor of love. I’ve witnessed players from across the world meet on Arelith who went on to get married, collaborate in writing or artistic projects, or just to call in on each other. PWs provide a roleplay environment that in many ways surpasses even pen-and-paper roleplaying, and a large part of the magic is to truly explore being someone else. No other game before or after has taken that to the same level."

Morris has nothing but praise and excitement for the Enhanced Edition, and what it means for Persistent Worlds. "This is nothing short of a resurrection. Neverwinter Nights was running on fumes. The EE means switching from a game that doesn’t work to one that does. Arelith will switch immediately, and I’d strongly encourage other PWs to do the same."

Enhancing Neverwinter's nostalgia

While there has been some demand for a graphical overhaul, most of the people I talked to would rather see improvements to other areas, such as online connectivity and server tools, more modability, and better hardware support for modern PCs. "The Aurora Toolset can still produce incredibly beautiful content," says Morris, noting that player-made creations already advanced the visuals beyond the original campaigns. "The visuals are fine," adds Stockner. "They are charming, even, in their own blocky way. The game's value is in the flexibility and room for dreams it provides."

The most immediate area of improvement is the dated UI. "The current UI is almost completely rigid in both its appearance and functionality," Stockner says. "We’d like to allow module authors and servers to add new widgets, windows, and theming."

Beamdog also plans on implementing a new DLC system. "My biggest hope would be for a community-driven return of something like the premium modules program, which was tragically ended before its time," says Donadio. 

It’s almost like being in a band and launching a new album

Trent Oster

The original premium module program began late in the game's life. Premium modules were developed in-house by BioWare in lieu of full expansions. They were individually priced DLC years before Bethesda would release their infamous Horse Armor. The program was extended to include some BioWare-approved community modules, but was abruptly canceled before their release, with most eventually released free via the Neverwinter Vault.

Oster hopes to produce quality premium modules that lie somewhere between BioWare’s original idea and full expansion packs like Hordes of the Underdark. "That happy spot is a self-contained adventure with new art content," says Oster. "We will build new content going forward that will radically change the look of what is possible in Neverwinter Nights, and I think we can do it at a pretty good price point." He compares them to the self-contained adventures for pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons, with the same scope as module booklets of older editions. 

"It’s almost like being in a band and launching a new album," says Oster. "We see what people are gravitating to and what they don’t. Once we find the pulse of the community and what they respond to, we’ll find the content we should be making and refocus our effort."

Beamdog maintains good relations with D&D's publisher, Wizards of the Coast. Oster, along with the rest of the original Neverwinter Nights crew, was part of the initial announcement of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, which it was the the first videogame to implement. He’s a passionate D&D player, and praises the current 5th Edition as one of the best yet. He’s particularly receptive to adapting the 3.5 rules featured in Neverwinter Nights 2, which was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and released in 2006. "We could un-hardcode portions of [Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition] to allow people to do more of a 3.5-style implementation," Oster says. "I think it’d be awesome."

But both Oster and Stockner caution that any change to the ruleset is still a long way away. "I can see turning it from a 3.0 toolkit into a platform-toolkit, where authors can rewrite the ruleset to fit their specific needs," says Stockner. "But that is a very involved project that will take a long time, and we’re not even planning it out yet."

Open development 

Beamdog is actively soliciting feedback during the Early Access/Head Start period, and Oster is frank about having no set release date in mind. "We’re trying to reach that point where we have really good offering," says Oster. "Getting community feedback helps us get our priorities. Once we have big priorities nailed down we can decide on which features need to be done for 1.0."

The company has a strong track record of supporting their games post-launch. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is five years old, and received its latest patch in December. They’re embracing the era of open development and weekly developer livestreams. "There’s no shortage of stuff to talk about," says Oster.

They’re opening up the box again and filling it with new toys. A number of old and familiar names have resurfaced to announce a return to their old projects

Paul 'FP' Humeniuk

Everyone I spoke to agreed that one of the biggest problems plaguing the decade-and-a-half old RPG is public awareness, and the Enhanced Edition is already solving that. "The death of the master server meant that it was impossible for players to organically find new Persistent Worlds to play on, and the lack of publicity meant that new players were rarely introduced into the community," says Gauthier. "With the Enhanced Edition, Beamdog have fixed these problems. They have breathed new life into the community, and that’s what really matters to me."

Will this signal a return for famed module builders like Donadio? "I would very much like to return to creating new modules," he says. "The news about NWN: EE certainly motivates me to, and I am seriously considering it. With the kind of enhancements Beamdog is planning, I believe many of the fans would be eager to return to Neverwinter Nights."

"Beamdog isn’t just slapping ‘Enhanced Edition’ on there and putting it out as a finished product," says Paul 'FP' Humeniuk, co-admin of the Neverwinter Vault. "They’re opening up the box again and filling it with new toys. A number of old and familiar names have resurfaced to announce a return to their old projects, offer suggestions for the direction of Neverwinter Nights, and have been offering their support and good will toward the project. That’s pretty exciting."

And for Oster, Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition offers a unique chance to revisit his old work, clean it up, and fix things about one of his favorite games that have been bugging him for years. "There’s so many things I didn’t have a chance to do when developing the original game, and now I can," he says. "This can be my Neverwinter Nights 2. And 3, and 4, and 5!"