Sunday, June 6, 2021

Start Over: Neverwinter's M21 Update

We certainly seem to be in the midst of a frenetic mmoprg news cycle right now. Every day seems to bring some new, surprising or unanticipated announcement but I don't think I've seen anything in the last few weeks quite as left-field as Cryptic's revelation than they plan on completely re-writing the entire concept of Neverwinter Online and taking the changes live next week!

I first read about it on MassivelyOP, where I had to go back and read it a second time to make sure I wasn't seeing things. Shintar at Neverwinter Thoughts, plays NWO a lot more often and at a much higher level than I ever have and is therefore far more likely than I am to know what's going on there, seemed just as blind-sided as I was, describing the upcoming changes as "completely out of the blue".

The headline change is a level squish that makes World of Warcraft's recent re-alignment look like a mere course correction. When the M21 update lands next week all existing characters will be equalized at Level 20, the new maximum level. That's a dizzyingly steep drop from the current cap of 80. 

As the FAQ at the Arc website explains

"If you are at endgame currently, you will see your level become 20 but everything will play as it did when you were 80. If you weren’t yet at level 80, you will become level 20.

There's no stat squish to accompany the level squish. I don't remember enough about how NWO stats work to make any sense of that but the explanation of the reasoning behind the change does mention that "when reaching endgame, the focus turns to item level", something which supposedly confused players. 

The new baseline would appear to be Item Level 20. Current level 80s keep whatever Item Level above that they already have while every character that hadn't made cap before the squish gets a care package "to help get your item level to 20k which is where endgame starts now". Brand new characters made after the patch will still have to do their twenty levels the hard way before they can join in.

We'll have to see how this works in practice but on the face of it it doesn't sound obviously less confusing than doing eighty levels then shifting focus to your gear. That would seem to me to be the way most level-based mmorpgs work and I'd have thought most players would be familiar with it by now.

With a change this sweeping you might wonder what the point would be in keeping levels at all. The ostensible reason is "to connect better with D&D while also helping players understand what to focus on to improve their character", an argument I find less than convincing. Reading the details of how those twenty squished levels are going to work, it seems clear they'll be little more than an extended tutorial.

The unfortunate truth, at least as I see it, is that the underlying, organizing principles of the mmorpg genre are almost completely at odds with those of traditional Dungeons and Dragons. Mmorpgs are open-ended, exceptionally repetitive and need to be able to provide activity and entertainment for players 24/7/365, possibly for decades. 


D&D is all about scheduled, finite play sessions and stories and campaigns that follow a narrative to a conclusion. No-one grinds the same dungeon fifty times to get better gear in a table-top D&D game.

Whatever fudge developers attempt, that's a circle that's never going to be squared. And I wonder if that's the real motivation. 

My first thought as I read the original news story was inevitably of Star Wars Galaxies infamous NGE - the New Game Experience that fundamentally changed the nature of that game and left thousands of players bereft, angry and determined never to forgive or forget.  

Sony Online Entertainment and its CEO John Smedley took the hit for that but it eventually became an open secret that the change had been made at the direct instigation of the owners of the I.P. LucasArts. As Shintar speculates, it's not impossible that Wizards of the Coast had something to do with Neverwinter's sudden change of direction.

I like a corporate conspiracy theory as much as the next person but it seems a bit unlikely that WotC would care that much at this stage of Neverwinter's life. They seem quite content to let all kinds of peculiar things be done with the license and NWO seems well inside the parameters of what they'd consider appropriate.

Shintar also suggests the always-believable explanation of personal hubris. If true, this would hardly be the first time some high-up's vanity project or bonnet full of bees had led to a major change no-one else wanted or even understood.

I have a third theory I'd like to offer. It occured to me that what this change will do is establish a clear benchmark for a future "Neverwinter Online Classic" server. NWO is a game that's changed more than most and Cryptic is a developer that feels less likely than many to be able to reverse those changes. Except now they can.

The level squish doesn't just remove sixty levels by number, it removes some, possibly most, of the zones where players would previously have gone to gain the experience needed to level to eighty. As the FAQ explains

 "Certain former leveling adventure zones have been “vaulted”, meaning we’ve removed them from the leveling flow and access to players. Vaulted adventure zones may return at a later time in a different format."

That seems very... thoughtful. Someone's definitely looking ahead. But wait, there's more!

"A lot of the rewards were adjusted to make sure the player is geared out well while leveling. Some rewards that were no longer needed were turned off so new ones no longer drop. They still exist and can be repurposed in the future if that is ever wanted or needed."

So the zones are all safely tucked away in the vault and so are all the "rewards" players can no longer get from them. Give it a couple of years for nostalgia to do its work, let demand build up, then ride in on the white charger and bring back "Classic" Neverwinter.

Too subtle for Cryptic? Probably. But I'm starting to notice quite a few clues that suggest a number of developers have noticed just how well WoW Classic has been doing. Maybe EverQuest and Runescape didn't quite have the industry profile for their success to trigger dollar signs and certainly rushed opportunities like Rift or LotRO wouldn't have convinced anyone the past was the future but Classic and now Burning Crusade are a lot harder to miss.

I would guess that retro servers are probably part of the ten-year plan for would-be big-ticket mmorpgs these days. If you're spending millions of dollars and several years building a game you hope and expect is going to hold players attention and loyalty for five or ten years, at least, the kind of genre successes you'll be taking instruction from will already have some form of retro/nostalgia offer as part of the package. 

The developers of those older games had to make the genre up as they went along. They had no idea how long their games would last. They tended to think in terms of three to five years followed by a sequel. Reality for most of them turned out very differently. Mmorpgs tend to hang around a lot longer than ever seemed likely while sequels have tended not to do so well.

It would be almost irresponsible for an mmorpg debuting in the 2020s not to have at least some kind of plan for eventual Classic servers. At the very least you'd hope there'd be a nice, safe, secure copy of the original build tucked away in a safe, somewhere. 

If you're stuck with a game you've been fiddling about with for years, though, one where no-one bothered to keep the bits that fell off, well, you might just feel one, last really big revamp, with the previous version neatly stowed away for later, might just do the job.

It's just a conspiracy theory. For it to work, though, the new version has to be accepted by enough players for the game to remain viable but not so well-liked hardly anyone misses the old one.

Good luck with that, Cryptic.


  1. I don't disagree with your premise that the idea of classic servers must be starting to look appealing to more publishers now, but this is Cryptic - who had to shut down the Foundry because they didn't know how to maintain the code. Imagining them trying to run two versions of the same game simultaneously seems pretty laughable to me. Also, they've been "vaulting" things since at least 2015, when they decided to suddenly remove half the instanced dungeons from the game, so it's not really a new thing for them.

    1. Yes, I did think it was a bit of a stretch for Cryptic. They do like money, though...


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