Dungeons & Dragons Neverwinter – Designer Interview

Dungeons & Dragons Neverwinter is one of the biggest free-to-play MMO games of the year, offering classic RPG elements within a massively multiplayer action environment. Developed by Cryptic games, the team that built Champions Online and Star Trek Online, and published by Perfect World, the beta received a lot of attention and impressed thousands of new fans. Whether you loved Dungeons & Dragons, dungeon running, online gaming or just classic RPGs, the balance between the different aspects of Neverwinter is superbly done.

In an interview with systems designer Lindsay Haven, we discussed working on the D&D brand, bringing Neverwinter to life, the learning curve and what the near future holds for the development team.

 

 

The Dungeons and Dragons franchise has been handled by a lot different developers over the last 30 years. How have you tried to build upon what people have come to expect from the brand, while adding your own flavour as well?

We work closely with Wizards of the Coast to both protect the D&D IP and expand on it in a way that makes our story line, monsters, races, and classes compelling and iconic. At Cryptic we are extremely excited to be part of the evolution of D&D, something we feel is an amazing opportunity because many of us have been playing since we were young. While Wizards of the Coast is holding us closely to the Forgotten Realms lore, they’ve also given us a lot of room to expand on the story and rule set. Valindra, the antagonist of the story, is a great example of a character that we’ve pushed beyond what players would have known of her before playing Neverwinter. Also, there is a honey badger in Neverwinter, I’m pretty sure that’s new to the D&D brand!

The beta seemed immensely popular and garnered mostly positive reaction. How are you hoping to build upon that within the first few months of release, and what are your long term plans for the game?

We were very pleased with the amount of participation and feedback we got from closed beta players. Our live team is going to focus most of its attention to server stability and addressing anything that needs immediate attention. But we also have a good portion of the team working on new dungeons, events, gear, companions, mounts, and other goodies. We feel that in order to keep an active community, which is what we feel our beta users are party of, it’s important to support the game on a variety of different levels. And that’s what we intend to do.

Neverwinter feels distinctly like a more traditional RPG, while retaining the MMORPG flavour as well. How hard was that to balance?

We had a lot of elements to balance when developing Neverwinter. We felt it was important to keep the traditional feel of Dungeons & Dragons while also incorporating the successful MMO elements we’ve developed over the years at Cryptic Studios, and on top of that we wanted to be innovative in our design. In order to keep the more traditional elements of Dungeons & Dragons we built around the classes from the rule books. If you’ve played a Cleric with a Devoted build in D&D, then you essentially know what the Devoted Cleric does in Neverwinter. In fact we used the same powers and ability scores that are found in 4th edition D&D. So, your character sheet and power selection will be similar to what you would expect in a 4th ed players handbook.  On the other hand a Devoted Cleric in Neverwinter will gear up more like you would expect in a MMORPG. I think the important part to balancing these different methodologies was figuring out which aspects of Neverwinter were most important to each goal and then trying different things to see what worked. I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but we certainly put a lot of thought and effort into getting it to a place we think is pretty good.

Further to that, how hard is it to work on a franchise not only so well-loved by a very passionate group, but who are also famous for knowing all the lore almost as well as Gygax and co?

To be honest, it’s humbling and terrifying but also extremely exciting. The reason people know the lore and rule sets so well is because they love the game and the experiences they have had with it. I think many of us making Neverwinter have that same passion and love of the game. We have a lot of respect for those that feel the same way, which makes us feel all the more dedicated to providing the kind of experience Dungeons and Dragon fans are expecting. But with that comes a sense of nervousness too, a fear of failure probably. So I’d say it’s hard, but also an honour.

 Some of the biggest MMOs are dropping subscription fees but are taking on a single upfront cost. Can the free-to-play market continue to deliver AAA MMORPGs with no guarantee of money per person? Is there a better way of getting cash coming in?

We at Cryptic feel that free to play games are the future of MMOs, we wouldn’t have released Neverwinter as free to play and free to download if we didn’t feel that way. We also feel that free to play games can be AAA titles, we are looking to prove that with Neverwinter. It’s still too early to tell to if we succeeded or not, but we have a lot of faith in the model.

The battle system in Neverwinter seems so comfortable and intuitive. It seems crazy that it took so long for a developer to get rid of the more traditional 1-0 control system. Was it a big decision to go for something less traditional?

Yes, it was a big decision. We tried a lot of different control schemes, even developing multiple systems at the same time, knowing that some of the work wouldn’t ship with the game. But we don’t consider it a waste. It was important to explore all the options we had because there were many strong and valid pulls in different directions. It would have been easy for us to do the typical MMO style system, but with D&D a top down click systems seems so right, but we’ve been seeing the market move towards this action style combat for a while so it seemed right to explore that as well. In the end we went with what with action combat because we felt that made for a more visceral experience, which is something that players don’t get when playing table top D&D. To us it seemed the more innovative and wish fulfilment option we could take, and those things are a big part of the desire to play an MMO.

Were there things you wanted to do but couldn’t? How limited were you by the Dungeons and Dragons IP?

During development we didn’t feel very limited by Dungeons & Dragons. Like I said before, most of us are big fans of Dungeons & Dragons and so we were happy to work with the IP. If anything, there were things from Dungeons & Dragons we wanted to put in the game, but couldn’t because it didn’t transfer over to an MMO, real time combat, game well. For instance we couldn’t include a lot of the player power triggers and conditions, or use just the ability scores at a D&D scale. Those kinds are the kinds of things we struggled to get in the game, but eventually we felt like it just wasn’t going to work. Overall though, we are very happy with how the game came together.

I felt that the biggest fault of the beta was that the gameplay could become a little repetitive over time. Are you looking to try to eventually capture more general players, or is this one specifically for the folks that love dungeon running and loot?

 While I do think that combat specifically shines in group content (both dungeons and PvP), many people find combat fun for PvE content as well. At lower levels can it feel a little slow because we wanted to give players enough time to get the hang of combat before putting out too many tough challenges, but as you gain levels monsters begin to challenge your reaction skills more and more. 

 

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Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. His first book is out this year, as is Hero Sapiens, the web series on which he's lead writer.

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