Neverwinter Preview – The Changing Face of Free To Play

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By: Michael Dao

Watching the game industry for the past few years, there is one thing that is glaringly evident, and that is the fact that the face of free to play titles is changing quite rapidly. Free to play used to mean a shoddily built game with paywalls and content locks to ensure that people who were only playing the game did not get to see all of the content available or were put at a severe disadvantage to customers that did pay. Times, they have changed. The first wave started with traditional MMORPGs, with titles such as Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Lord of the Rings going from a subscription based model to a free to play model. Soon followed other genres. Tribes: Ascend and Firefall are two first person shooters that no one can deny are both AAA titles, and they are both free to play. Now, we are currently looking at the trend reversing itself, and bringing us the next generation of MMORPGs, which feature two distinct characteristics, the first being that it’s free to play and the second being that they are, for the lack of a better term, action MMORPGs.

The action MMORPG is a direct result of what some would call the stagnation of the MMO market. Gamers complained that the basic gameplay has remained unchanged, the player controlled a character than roamed their environment, hit tab to select a mob and then simply spammed a few keys with abilities until their target perished. It’s repetitive gameplay like this which is one of the reasons why hotly anticipated MMORPGs such as Star Wars: The Old Republic has had the number of active subscribers atrophy from launch.  It’s the advent of the action MMORPG that seeks to breathe some fresh new life into stale gameplay.

The question to be asked is, “What is an action MMORPG?” At this time, the best way to describe one is to define it as a massively multiplayer game that takes place in a persistent world, that is action based. The player controls every action and movement of his or her character, and there is no such thing as an auto attack or auto targeting. Attacks land because the player closed with an enemy and performs an attack, and in the same vein, the player dodges and avoids damage by actually moving his or her avatar out of the way of incoming attacks. This style of gameplay could possibly be a double edged sword. The question to ask is if this will either bring in a new generation of MMORPGers who considered tab targeting and auto attacking boring, or if it will alienate current MMORPG die-hards. Neverwinter, the next title from Perfect World and Cryptic Entertainment attempts to appeal to both crowds.

It’s a tough thing trying to live up to the Neverwinter name. It’s a franchise with a rich history in computer gaming, including one of the first MMORPGs, the original Neverwinter Nights, which happened to be my first MMO. The setting for the game stays true to the lore, taking place a bit in the future, after an event called the Spellplague. It was a cataclysmic event of sorts, and the city of Neverwinter seemed to escape its ravages intact, only 25 years ago, a volcano erupted nearby causing damage to the area. Now, with much rebuilt, the current Lord has put a call out for adventurers to assist, and this is where the player comes in.

Included in the game is a character creator that Cryptic promises will live up to their name,  and some assurances were made, as all developers that make free to play games are wont to do. Free to play, not pay to win is a term often bandied about. Although Cryptic is being mum about the revenue model they are pursuing with Neverwinter, they have given assurances that someone that is interesting in experiencing the game will be able to do so without paying, that there will be no content blocks based on whether a player is a paying member or not. This is all well and good, but how does the game play? Fairly excitingly, it looks like. The demo took place with a caster type class, specializing in ranged combat and at her disposal were some ranged spells and other timed abilities. What was especially impressive was what would be called her daily power, which ripped all of the weapons out of the hands of the enemies in the area towards the caster, surrounding her, only to shoot out again, in an explosive blast, doing massive damage to everything nearby.

The environments through which we travelled looked great, and were what we can call “themed”. The area we saw, the Tower District, was overrun by orcs and could be quite aptly described as dilapidated and war torn. This game shows exactly what a fan would expect from The Forgotten Reams setting, and makes the player truly want to be one of the many adventurers vying to bring glory back to Neverwinter.

However, the most interesting feature which will truly set this game apart is what Cryptic is calling The Foundry, and from it’s name, you can probably guess its purpose. This free to play MMO is offering user generated content, something that has been a hallmark of Neverwinter games of old. Details are slim, but Cryptic is looking to implement sort of a content hub, which will allow players to both access and differentiate content and dungeons from Cryptic and those that are generated from the community. It is expected that this will take shape in a similar manner to Star Trek: Online  which already has a good amount of user generated content, that is both peer-rated and peer-reviewed. This could create an amazing platform for people to create and share their adventures.

Neverwinter is at the very least incredibly ambitious. Making an action RPG in the MMO space set in a cherished and legendary setting will get many fans interested in the game. The game looks great, and the gameplay is fresh. The ability to experience user generated content may be what shakes up this genre, and will be a feature eagerly anticipated by content designers and content consumers both.

Neverwinter is scheduled for release Q4 2012.

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