Neverwinter Nights (PC) BioWare
A lot of gamers share a collective memory, a memory of all-nighters with friends huddled around a graph-paper map of some dungeon, throwing dice, ordering pizza, and making fun of the Halfling thief. Ah, Dungeons & Dragons!D&D was some of the most fun you could have with a group of friends, but it was also hard to get a good game going. The Dungeon Master (who ran the game) needed time to prepare, somebody had to learn all the rules, and then everyone had to find a time when they could all get together (easy enough if you skipped your school homework, but harder and harder once everyone got older, got married, and had kids...).
Neverwinter Nights promised to change everything. Here was a complete role-playing game engine for your PC, created by BioWare (the geniuses behind epics like Baldur's Gate), and featuring the complete Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 rulesets. Neverwinter also promised a complete editor that you could use to create just about any scenario, and a "Dungeon Master" mode where you could run your friends through a campaign, jumping in and out of NPCs, and triggering off scripted events. THIS was the future of role-playing!
A little town gathering.
BioWare talked up the Dungeon Master tools from the beginning. From our April 2002 Preview: "'We realize that players will just want to be the DM and that's it,' says BioWare's other Joint CEO, Dr. Gregory Zeschuk. 'We've made the DM client so deep and powerful it gives our players the ability to do so. This is a faithful representation of Dungeons & Dragons (granted we changed a few things here and there, but for the most part our players will agree we've kept the game true to the pen-and-paper version) and the DM is big part of it. We had to put it in Neverwinter.'"
In the same preview, we commented: "Yes, this is a geek's wet dream."
That's not to say that the game didn't spawn an active community of people who eventually figured it out. After all, this is our list of overrated games -- not complete failures. But the promise of a universal online role-playing game with a human DM remains unfulfilled.
Fargo: Another game that promised an incredible Dungeon Master mode was Vampire: The Masquerade. It was the same story: Gamers salivated over the idea that they could run their friends though online adventures, then were disappointed when the tools were nearly impossible to use. Sometime soon somebody is going to get it right! Of that I have no doubt. The best Neverwinter story I have is from Kindrak, who spent hours wrestling with the editor because he wanted to run an adventure for us. After pounding his head in frustration, he eventually gave up and we just ran an old-fashioned pen-and-paper game together. Thank you, Neverwinter, for inspiring our Wednesday night D&D group!
Kindrak: First of all, I feel that in the interests of full disclosure I must confess my total lack of ability in the field of programming. I've never progressed much further than "Hello World!" in any given language. That being said, I still feel like Neverwinter Nights DMing system fell far short of my expectations. This was the only reason I bought this game. I wanted to make modules and I wanted to run other people through them. Possessing NPCs and monsters at opportune moments and giving people the chance to role-play through text rather than trying to "act" in real life seemed enormously appealing. After all, how can anyone actually say the words "Hark! I hear a beast of the night approaching!" and not expect everyone around them to be embarrassed for them?
But the near-total lack of documentation out of the box made this difficult, and the supplemental book published supposedly for this purpose had wonderfully helpful suggestions such as "learn C++" and (paraphrasing) "take a script from a character in the game that's similar to what you want to do and then modify it accordingly..." without even telling me what the various elements in the scripting language meant to begin with! It was some of the worst technical documentation I've ever read. After messing around with the DMing stuff for about three hours, trying to figure out how to have an NPC sitting when the PCs entered and failing miserably, I tossed the whole game aside and haven't looked at it since.
Warrior: It was billed as playing D&D on the computer with your friends with a live Dungeon Master and not a hackneyed AI. Man, the sell was a role-player's dream come true. It was supposed to be a live gaming session with the only thing missing being a fight for the last slice of pizza. Having been a DM, I wanted to create a module. And, while I consider myself an intelligent guy, the tools and the minimal documentation almost required a computer science degree.
The single-player was fun, but a quality on-the-fly multiplayer system was what most people wanted and hoped for. It happened, but just not to the degree that was anticipated, leaving RPG gamers still searching for their multiplayer Holy Grail. Count me as among those standing in line.