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Don't rule free-to-play MMO Neverwinter out

It's "the best game Cryptic has ever made".

I'd ruled Neverwinter out and I shouldn't have. It's more significant than I thought.

I ruled it out because Cryptic had been on a downer with Champions Online and then Star Trek Online, and was fighting fires when Neverwinter was announced - as an online cooperative RPG and strictly not an MMO. It was a new direction for the studio that created City of Heroes.

But then Cryptic's owner Atari went bust and Cryptic was bought by Perfect World Entertainment, the US arm of a Chinese free-to-play MMO powerhouse. Months later - sure enough - Neverwinter became a free-to-play MMO. Repurposed to make a quick buck, I thought.

I was wrong.

When Perfect World Entertainment - the same company that owns Torchlight maker Runic Games - bought Cryptic, it did the studio a favour. Cryptic made a profit and Neverwinter got the funding its original vision needed.

"In the very beginning our goal was to make Neverwinter into an MMO," Craig Zinkievich, Cryptic's chief operating officer, told me. "That's what Cryptic does. We love MMOs, we love to develop MMOs and that's what we're best at.

"As we started developing the game and working with Atari, we weren't able to fund the project at the level we needed to to make it a fully fledged MMO. MMOs are big beasts, right? We looked at what we're doing with Neverwinter and decided six months in to change scope, make sure that we could get a game out, make sure that we could be true to what we wanted to do with that D&D game, and ended up scoping that down to a co-op online RPG game.

"When [Perfect World Entertainment] purchased Cryptic we were able to change course and take Neverwinter and make it into that fully fledged MMO we always wanted it to be.

"They were able to fund the Neverwinter MMO like we wanted to make it."

A little over a year-and-a-half after Cryptic was bought by Perfect World, Neverwinter reared its head and went into closed beta. It's had promising write-ups. Eurogamer didn't write one but our formidable friends at Rock, Paper, Shotgun did, and they were impressed.

Take a look at one of the game's many videos if you need a bit of convincing. You'll see solid, meaty and well-paced action - not the usual kind of wooden fare served up by MMOs (excluding Guild Wars 2).

"There hasn't been a game this big that's entirely free to download, free-to-play, that has launched yet"

Craig Zinkievich
Cover image for YouTube videoNeverwinter Gameplay (off-screen) - PAX East

Neverwinter is obviously no bodge job. Craig Zinkievich believes it is "the best game that Cryptic has ever made". There's clear quality there and high standards that are born out of millions of dollars of investment. Cryptic and Perfect World haven't spent what Zenimax has on The Elder Scrolls Online or what EA did on Star Wars: The Old Republic - they're going for something "that is profitable and sane and actually makes sense" - but they've spent a considerable amount nonetheless.

What's so special about that, about a million-dollar MMO looking good? Well, we've never had a western MMO fitting that description offered from the outset for free. No game charge, no subscription fee - Neverwinter is free-to-play out of the gate. "There hasn't been a game this big that's entirely free to download, free-to-play, that has launched yet," boasted Zinkievich.

"At Cryptic we really do think that subscription MMOs are over. People nowadays just have way way too many reoccurring subscriptions for things - your phone, your electrical bill, your rent - and they don't have room for many subscriptions within what's going on online.

"Free-to-play definitely is the way of the future, the success story for MMOs over the last couple of years. You've seen everybody put their toe in the water a little bit and then start converting their games.

"It's awesome to be able to be the first western MMO, in Neverwinter, that's basically been built from the ground-up as a free-to-play game - free to download, free to play. It really is the way forward for MMOs."

"Free-to-play definitely is the way of the future, the success story for MMOs over the last couple of years"

Eww, did somebody say micro-transactions? Naturally. But these only have a bad rep because "most game companies so far haven't really learned ... how to go about monetising [people]". Cryptic reinvigorated Champions Online and Star Trek Online by making them free-to-play, and Perfect World built an entire business around the free-to-play market that thrives in Asia. They should know.

Neverwinter lets you play for free right up to level 60 and as one of five character classes. There aren't those awkward restrictions subscription MMOs often put in place as they try to desperately refit and revive their game with a free-to-play model. "You can get all the content that exists ... and all of the functionality you need to enjoy the game entirely for free."

It also means there's no need for "grindy" mechanics in Neverwinter to keep people subscribing month after month.

"What we try to do at Cryptic is monetise the people who are really excited about the game and really love the game," he said. "Make the best game possible, get people excited and enthusiastic about the game and then they want to invest."

Neverwinter will sell you cosmetic and prestige items, as well as more expensive items like snazzy mounts and companions characters that you can adventure with.

There will also be an exchange where players who have spare time but not money (let's call them students) can trade their earned currency - Astral Diamonds - for the micro-transaction currency called Zen.

"It'd be great if people could cash-out," Zinkievich said - as in, earn real-world money by playing Neverwinter, "but we're not doing that. We might do it in the future but it's really not on the table right now."

"Neverwinter is going to be the best game that Cryptic has ever made"

Cover image for YouTube videoNeverwinter Cloak Tower Dungeon - Gameplay Action HD

Another nifty way Neverwinter stands out is by allowing user-generated content. There's a tool called the Foundry that's been live - and therefore iterated upon - in Star Trek Online for a couple of years. It's also in Neverwinter; fitting, really, given the modding scene that sprung up around Neverwinter Nights, the BioWare RPG.

The Foundry, potentially, means a never ending stream of player-made quests, although exploitative boss-run missions for farming the best loot won't work. "We're in charge of all the rewards," said Zinkievich. "Some of the bosses are actually available in the Foundry to be put down, but they're not going to drop the same loot that they do in the game."

There's arena PVP in Neverwinter from character level 10, in which two teams of five fight over control points that give points when held. Then, at level 60, there's something else. "At level 60 we have this large endgame zone. It's PVE that rolls into PVP and then back into PVE dungeon play. It's called [Gauntlgrym I think he said - the same name as an R A Salvatore D&D book]." He wouldn't say any more because apparently he'd already said too much.

There's no release date for Neverwinter yet but the open beta date has just been announced: 30th April. Presumably launch won't be too far away from that. Excitingly, there will be no character wipes or restricted access once the open beta begins.

Before that, Founders - people who've bought the Founders Pack - will get a 60-hour beta weekend on 12th April where they can test the professions Leadership, Mailsmithing, Platesmithing and Leatherworking.

The press release announcing the open beta dates stated that: "Neverwinter is Cryptic and Perfect World's proof that western free-to-play games, when built from the ground up, can compete with even the biggest boxed subscription titles."

I'm now beginning to believe it can.