Neverwinter Nights: Out in the Cold

Engage may bring the title back, but for now AOL gamers are upset about the eminent shutdown of their favorite gaming community.

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Neverwinter Knights are fighting the system. The 2000 or so players who regularly participate in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game called Neverwinter Nights on AOL are about to see their favorite game purged from the online service this coming July 18.

Angry gamers have threatened a boycott of AOL, saying that the service has used a "bait and switch" tactic by offering loyal gamers free, unlimited service for certain games and then removing the free titles. One gamer, who told GS News that he planned to call his attorney general immediately, said that injunctions have been filed against AOL in at least two states.

Neverwinter Nights is a Forgotten Realms title released exclusively on AOL about five years ago. Currently, the title belongs to Engage Games Online. Right now, Engage is in negotiations to bring the game back, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Given the games age, it can't simply be moved over to the Internet. On the other hand, renovating it might mean a loss in continuity. And a game that has been free for so long on AOL might have trouble attracting customers, even if it was state of the art. Engage is looking at a number of possible solutions that include preserving the game with minimal changes and making long-term changes that might risk alienating the game's community.

"Everyone is trying to figure out a solution," said Engage's Cal Morrell. "It's no one's intention to shut down a community."

Online "communities" are often built up around games, with the same faces (handles) playing over and over again and becoming part of a large group. His company found out about the shutdown at the same time everyone else did, and while there's no clear indication of whether or not the game will return, he said "all the right discussions are going on."

All the right discussions may well include the possibility of getting the original source code and rounding up the original game developers, but it is clear that Engage can't simply transfer it as it is.

The decision to shut down Neverwinter Nights comes on the heels of the announcement of a US$1.99/hour charge for AOL's gaming channel. Many Neverwinter Nights players believe AOL is reneging on a promise it made to dedicated gamers to keep their favorite titles free. According to these gamers, who were already angry about the new per-hour charge for all games, AOL told them that Wizards of the Coast pressured it to drop the title. Wizards of the Coast is currently merging with the company that created the Forgotten Realms world, TSR. However, a rep for Wizards informed GS that the company had nothing to do with the decision.

A spokesperson for AOL told GS today that it had indeed decided to drop the title, mostly because it was too old, it wasn't 100 percent compatible with Windows, and some people were having technical troubles with it. Because licensing restrictions prevented upgrades, the online service decided not to support it.

"We are sorry that some of our members are disappointed," said the spokesperson. "We have to make difficult decisions about what content should be on our service." She said the decision had nothing to do with AOL's new pricing plan for games and feels gamers' charges against the company have no merit.

Other titles, like GemStone III and Federation, have been similarly threatened with extinction but will instead move to the Web, thanks to agreements between AOL and developers (a few, like GemStone III, will move to Simutronics' site, while Federation goes to IBGames). But unless a resolution comes soon, Neverwinter Nights will soon be shut down.

"Neverwinter Nights is a community, not just a game," said a gamer whose handle is V Insanity. "If you've ever played it, you'd see that it's a second-rate game - obsolete, EGA graphics, etc., but it's home."

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