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Developer Letter: State of the Game 2016

By Andy (StrumSlinger) | Tue 01 Mar 2016 09:57:00 AM PST

Since our original launch of Neverwinter in 2013, the goal for Cryptic was to create the best place to experience and play Dungeons & Dragons in the video game space. This past year has brought a ton of updates that we are proud of and we learned a lot. It’s been a crazy ride since launch and through the past year, but we are looking good and are preparing for another great year with some big updates.

No really, they are pretty big!

It’s been a while since we had a chance to look at Neverwinter and talk about the state of the game. I want to take a look at the past year and talk about that journey a bit before giving you a glimpse of what we have planned for 2016.

2015 was an amazing year for Neverwinter. We brought a massive amount of content with three huge expansions and continued smaller updates for PC from the team. In addition to that, our team did something we’ve never done before: we brought one of our games to consoles with our Neverwinter Xbox One launch. It was the busiest year that our team has ever had, but there was a strong level of determination coming from our entire team to make history for Cryptic Studios.

The first half of 2015 was focused on our Xbox One launch and the release of Elemental Evil. We were bringing game changing updates including a level cap increase, new class and brand-new storyline that followed tabletop content coming from Wizards of the Coast. The Neverwinter team, and Cryptic as a whole, has a pretty exciting history when it comes to tackling big things that seem impossible at times. This made us confident that even the monumental tasks we were facing with Elemental Evil were possible for our team.

March came quickly and we launched Neverwinter on Xbox One. It was an amazing time for the team as we saw the Xbox community play and enjoy the game we had been working on for so long. We planned the launch, and the updates that would follow, with the goal of presenting a good game experience along with a great Tyranny of Dragons storyline. To be honest we didn’t know how Neverwinter would do on console. Neverwinter was our studios first game on console. Though there were a few other MMOs on console, we had faith that Neverwinter could find its voice in this amazing space. It turns out that a good D&D game works on just about any platform. Our Xbox One launch blew away all of our expectations and we were excited to follow the launch with more great adventures. 

Right after launching on Xbox One, we released Elemental Evil – our sixth expansion on PC. We raised the level cap, added the Paladin class and quite a bit of content. As usual, we were telling some big stories and continued to release content alongside the latest and greatest D&D tabletop updates. We were super excited to get some well-known characters, including Minsc and Boo, in the game! Behind the scenes we were building a new foundation for Neverwinter that would allow us to grow in several ways. It was important that we allow for more progression and meaningful choices in several systems across the game. Most of this was going on behind the scenes. We had tuned a lot of the numbers to support this new foundation, but that tuning wasn’t made with the entire picture in mind. As a result, it showed when we launched. Progression and difficulty were greatly impacted. The fast-paced and fun game everyone had come to know and enjoy started to slow down and lose what made it different than other MMOs. This was a big misstep for us and Neverwinter. Maybe we got lost in our attempt to build a new foundation. Perhaps we looked too far ahead at how things like stats, XP, and difficulty might be shaped down the road. Or maybe the inclusion of going to console meant one challenge too many. Whatever it was, we knew we had to fix it. It took working with the community to get back to where we should be, and admittedly we are not all the way back yet. We rolled out adjustments a little at a time and got a tremendous amount of feedback from the players. It was great to see how much so many people cared about getting their Neverwinter back. We learned a lot through this time. We have been able to make adjustments to how we plan, develop and release our updates all geared to keeping Neverwinter fun, fast, and a great place to adventure.

By the time we made it to June we were wrapping up Elemental Evil changes and getting ready for our Anniversary. We celebrated our two-year Anniversary on both PC and Xbox in style! The Anniversary event itself is pretty cool, but not nearly as cool as seeing everyone riding parade horses around Protector’s Enclave. On Xbox, we released the next installment of the Tyranny of Dragons two-parter – Rise of Tiamat. The fans on Xbox rallied around this new content and took to the challenge of defeating the Queen of Dragons with tremendous vigor. Some of the longest playtimes on Xbox were logged during this time.

On PC we released a new type of PVP event. It was a pre-season event for the Neverwinter Combat League. For those that missed it, it was a sort of ladder PVP tournament that ran for several weeks. We were very excited to try this new type of event and we learned a lot from NCL’s pre-season. The biggest takeaway was that enthusiasm is no replacement for doing it right. The community came out once again and was a tremendous help in the pre-season. While the rewards were nice and it was clear the event had something we could build on, we heard concerns from the community about class balance and representation that we needed to address before the NCL could come back. We are still working on the NCL behind closed doors and we would like to bring it back down the road.

Throughout the summer both PC and Xbox exceeded our expectations. The communities were growing and getting stronger than ever. Forged in fire, we came through some tough times a bit stronger and set to work on rolling out plans for the second half of the year. In mid-August, we were finally ready to release Strongholds. It had a focus on in-game communities and guilds more than on story and standard progression. Strongholds also offered some new and exciting ways to advance your characters, but in a collective way that could help build on player communities that were always growing and ever changing. Of course there was the large scale Guild vs. Guild PvP as well, and that was a new challenge for us.

Taking a page out of our history and lesson books, we knew we needed to get the community involved early on in the development of Strongholds. An update this big and different needed some extra eyes, and history had shown us that we have a ton of passionate players throughout Neverwinter. We decided to have a alpha phase for Strongholds where we invited specific players to play with us on a private shard and give feedback very early on. It had been a long time since we had an invite-only alpha. Our last alpha happened before we launched on PC, where the Moonstars helped us build the Foundry. The alpha community this time around was no different, and we were treated to very active Stronghold discussions. The alpha had some pitfalls, and at times bugs prevented us from playing something we were focused on, but we were always able to meet-up in game and talk through concerns and ideas with the community. No-one can convince me that we could have launched Strongholds without the Neverwinter community involvement and passion. That module was one of our smoothest launches and had a terrific impact on our development process.

As we approached the last quarter of 2015 we had a HUGE update for Xbox One. I have a strong feeling that our Xbox One Update 2.0 was the largest update ever seen on a Xbox One game. The amount of new things we introduced in this update was incredible and all for free! It wasn’t just everything that PC had live already. It had several improvements built with lessons learned. There were weeks (if not months) of content and gameplay to explore in the 2.0 update! The community showed up in huge numbers to check out what was new in Neverwinter on Xbox One. It would have been great if there were no issues with the update, but it was around this time that we started to notice how different the two platforms really were. We also started to see feedback that was different than anything we had seen before. The big Update 2.0 rollup revealed some new issues. Those issues may have always been on PC, but were hidden because they were separated over two years of updates. It was different when they arrived all at once. We began addressing these issues right away using the many lessons we’d learned.

By November, we wrapped up development on Underdark. We were proud to have yet another first for Neverwinter by introducing quests that were hand-crafted by the New York Times best-selling author, and creator of the well-known Drizzt Do'Urden stories, R.A. Salvatore. It was very exciting to work with Bob on a story that had players adventuring right alongside some of the most well-known D&D characters, all while introducing the larger Underdark story. Underdark synced up nicely with the latest and greatest tabletop role-playing module from Wizards of the Coast. This expansion focused on Demons escaping the Abyss and terrorizing the inhabitants of the Underdark as they made their way to the surface. It was up to the players to stop the demonic march towards the Sword Coast. Underdark also introduced another large-team boss fight. While smaller than Tiamat, it offered new, complex challenges that players could ultimately master. This battle against Demogorgon, the Prince of Demons, showed just how his madness was spreading throughout the Underdark. We wrapped the year with our annual winter event and the dev team was already hard at work on the second part of the Underdark story set to be released in March.

2015 was a huge year for us and it has been a wild ride. It was also eye opening in a number of ways. While we saw some great successes in our Xbox launch, updates, events (Anniversary, Halloween, and winter for example), in both of our Stronghold and Underdark modules we struggled in some key areas.

We stumbled with our vision and lost some of the fun. We reacted more than planned. Our Elemental Evil update didn’t deliver what we set out to build. There is a great story there and fantastic new adventures and encounters, but they were hidden behind systems designed smooth out some power curves, progression and allow for more growth in the future. The level cap increase was cumbersome and didn’t feel quite right. We were working to our goals and we hit them functionally, but we lost the spirit just enough to make it not fun to play the content. We were able to rally the team and community to find what we misplaced and get back the Neverwinter we all love.

We learned a lot about our game, our fans and our process. We have a better understanding of how to plan ahead and move forward, all while keeping our vision of being the best D&D experience you can have on PC and Console at the forefront of our endeavors. We are building on our successes and can’t wait to bring you a fantastic adventure in 2016.

Neverwinter in 2016 is going to be great!

This year we set out to look at Neverwinter as a whole and see what the game needs to be even better. A lot of planning began in June 2015 and finalized three months later in September. Some of the updates planned for this year will focus on improvements and fixes to a variety of systems and features, while others will continue our tradition of bringing the latest and greatest D&D adventures.

Working on the right things and changing plans is also important to supporting our vision of Neverwinter. Adjustments to the plan can be made at any time and need to be supported so they are successful. You can expect us to continue to use our lessons learned and tap into that history of success. As always, we absolutely expect to work with the community when we tackle new challenges.

Before we dive in to some 2016 sneak peeks, I want to mention how we are planning and working to make Neverwinter better this year while keeping sight of our vision.

Let’s start with how we plan Neverwinter updates and fixes. Planning starts way before any work begins. Most of the time we are looking about six months ahead. We look at our big updates, like our expansion releases, and our small updates to see where they can fit in the year and what they need. We have a pretty good idea of how large updates come together and how to make them. It’s the details and supporting features that need the most thought.

Our expansions aren’t only about story and content. They also have supporting systems, improvements and bug fixes. We build that list of improvements and fixes based largely on your feedback. Our team meets every week and look over player feedback from the forums, CS tickets and even PM’s we get. When auctioning on feedback our strategy is to evaluate, review, implement and review again. As we identify what we need to do, we must make sure we are working with our communities and adjusting our plans based on the needs of the game. The complexity of the issue determines if we need to work over one development cycle or several development cycles.

For example: We had been reviewing data and collecting feedback about the AD economy. We determined that many players weren’t able to engage deeply in many parts of the AD economy because there was a growing group of people “playing leadership” instead of playing the game. Players who weren’t really playing the game at all had the most in-game wealth. The first thing we did was turn off leadership on Gateway to see where the economy moved and what you had to say about it. Although there was a lot of concern, we ultimately decided to almost completely remove AD from leadership and we feel that was the start of a more stable economy. We could then begin making the smaller changes including adding AD to daily and group content, increasing the refinement cap, reducing companion prices, lowering AD cost on select Wondrous Bazaar items, fixing Astral Resonators, and, most recently, reducing the pricing on Change Appearance costs. Each time a change made it into the game, we would wait to hear what you had to say. This caused some frustration due to our time monitoring feedback, but nearly every month we moved closer to a stable AD economy. We think we are in a much better spot now, but we still have more changes coming on that front. With M9 comes the complete removal of those steep mount upgrade manuals in exchange for the Stable system, a rework of the costing on stronghold structures, a reduction in boon costing and more. You can bet after every one of those changes we’ll be looking at your feedback and then figuring out a course of action.

Now that we’ve run through the AD changes from this year and have better view of how updates and issues are approached, let’s take a look at what we have on deck in 2016.

There are several areas of the game the community has identified as needing extra attention and our team agrees with all the feedback. In 2016, we are committed to make improvements to areas like powers, classes, economies and communication.

We had, in the past, been collecting feedback about class balance and made fixes as that feedback came in. We determined that the piecemeal approach to class fixes wasn’t working because it prevented us from overall reviews of classes. We get a ton of great reports and feedback from the community about classes ranging from bugs about powers and class representation to questions and suggestions about how powers work. We were able to use community feedback in tandem with internal reviews and data to build a review process that we can put all of our classes through. It took a while to create the review process, but classes will be better for it and will allow us to make better adjustments going forward. We planned for the design of the Class Review in one development cycle, the review work as part of another, and the fixes in a third. The complexity of classes, including their efficacy and balance for example, is such that rushing the work in one development cycle wouldn’t work. It certainly hadn’t in the past. So we needed to spend the time to really build a process and plan that we have faith in. Now that we have the right support in place for an improved class review, it is on the top of our list.

Some other major areas we are going to be looking at are: end game, rewards, guilds, professions and general bug crushing. We want to make progress in all of these areas, but we know we can’t bring them all to completion in every update. We will use what we have learned to make the best decisions we can. Our team plans to make progress in all these areas during each of our updates.

Although I really want to, I can’t tell you too much about 2016. We need to keep some of the surprises a secret for now. I will however give you a sneak peek at a few things.

Our 2016 story begins in March 15 with the release of The Maze Engine. This expansion continues the story of Underdark. You are working with Drizzt Do'Urden, Minsc and others to save Gauntlgrym on your own adventure. Take it on alone or bring your adventuring party along in a new campaign just for you. Of course that’s not all. Just like our other expansions, we have packed a lot into The Maze Engine.

We have significantly updated the mounts and added some cool customization that I am sure you will want to take for a spin. Castle Never returns as an Epic Dungeon where you will face off against Orcus and the long-dead denizens of Castle Never, resurrected to stop you from ruining his plans.

We are really excited to release an improved queue system that allows for more flexibility and ongoing support for content that matches players. We are excited to be able to support large group queues for Demogorgon, Tiamat and Stronghold PvP. The new queue system is a product of your feedback about improvements you wanted to see in the queue system. It is complex enough to spin up the Alpha Shard and have playtests just like we did with Strongholds. It has gone great, and the new queue system is ready for feedback from a larger audience.

Xbox One updated to Mod8 in February and will be getting, among other things, several economy updates to address AD sources and earnings issues. These changes are a part of an ongoing analysis of the economy and we will continue to monitor the impact of the changes and adjust accordingly. The economy on Xbox One is very different than what PC had seen, so the changes are specific to the Xbox One community. At times we are able to make changes in the same way on both platforms, but as many similarities as there are between the 2 communities, there are just as many differences. PC has an older economy and needs to be treated much differently than the economy on Xbox One.

Springtime in Neverwinter has always been a ton of fun and this April will be no different. We are extremely excited to bring you an update to the amazing Respen’s Game event. If you don’t remember what it is, I can’t really blame you. Respen’s Game was a weekend-long event around April 1st where you played tabletop D&D in Neverwinter. This year Respen has upped his game and rewards in an attempt to show off. Let’s just say that our team are huge fans of a specific adventuring… “company” and are looking to bring them to the world of Neverwinter. We’ll have more information soon.

I mentioned that powers and classes are on the top of our review list this year. The team is working on several fixes that should be ready for PTS before too long. To stay with our goals mentioned earlier, we need to make sure they are fully reviewed and have time to soak on the PTS shard before they can go live. Based on your feedback, we are going to be reviewing the Paladin and Warlock as well as creating some targeted fixes to the Hunter Ranger and Trickster Rogue. Anything we do needs to be done methodically and with your help. These changes will release over time this year.

As we continue to review our content and systems we will be making some adjustments to the Elemental Evil story. The goal is to streamline the experience and increase the rewards. There will also be a personal campaign attached to the four zones that should act as a helper to show you what there is to do in the Elemental Evil story arc, and see what rewards are earned by playing it. Like the other campaigns there will be some cool rewards like unique armor pieces and new boons. Don’t worry about having to replay it if you have already made a bunch of progress. Our goal is to make sure the campaign reflects your previous adventures in the Elemental Evil story.

As we roll into June we will be celebrating our three-year anniversary. It is going to be an awesome celebration and we are updating the festivities. A new module will be released that focuses on guilds and several other systems during that time period. There is a lot to celebrate in Neverwinter.

At this point we have a great first half of the year planned and ready to be rolled out. Neverwinter will be better for it but will still have ways to go. You can expect to see a big story coming in the fall and some new surprises. We want to go back to Icewind Dale and tell some original stories that will see some of our main characters struggle with a decision that will change their life.

Another key area for us is communication with our community. We are looking at additional ways to show our progress or create direct lines of communication back to our players whether it be through additional dev blogs or in-game activities. We will be working on a way to give the community a clearer picture of what we are working on and what we understand the top issues to be.

Our goal is to look at Neverwinter as a whole and work to make improvements all over the game.  I talked about some of them but there are always more that we can keep an eye on. It will not all happen at once and we won’t hold onto something any longer than necessary. That said, we are committed to making real progress this year and ensure Neverwinter remains the best D&D experience you can have on PC and console.

It’s going to be another great year to be an adventurer in Neverwinter!

See you in game!

Rob Overmeyer

Executive Producer

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