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Page 2 of 3GB: Although the official Stormfront Studios website lists Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Treasures of the Savage Frontier as part of your repertoire, Beyond Software is credited for the development of the same games. Were you affiliated with Beyond Software or did you both have a development role of some kind?
Don: Beyond Software was Stormfront's original name. In 1991 we realized there were too many companies with that name and it was causing confusion, so we sold our trademark to Beyond Inc. and changed our name to Stormfront Studios.
GB: Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with the original Neverwinter Nights on America Online? How did the idea originate? What obstacles did you run into making the game online-only, years before we'd ever see the first MMORPG?
Don: [I guess it depends on your definition of (Massive) whether we're the first graphical MMORPG or the first ORPG.]
Neverwinter Nights started from a wonderful coincidence among a circle of professional (allies.)
Key player number one was Steve Case, founder of AOL. Back in the late 1980's the company was called Quantum, and consisted of a Commodore 64 online service. I started partnering with Steve and producer Kathi McHugh on games at the launch of their Apple II service in 1987 while leading Broderbund's Entertainment and Education division, and produced their first online graphical game, a simple variant on Hangman. When I founded Stormfront in 1988, McHugh called on our second day (in business) and suggested we do a product for AOL. Without Case's support we might never have gotten through those first two years.
Key player number two was Chuck Kroegel, head of product development for SSI. Chuck picked Stormfront to continue the D&D Gold Box games in 1989 while SSI started the Dark Sun engine, and also signed our first version of Tony La Russa Baseball. That took a lot of faith, because Stormfront's only prior titles were online games with AOL. When the first Savage Frontier game and La Russa were both hits the relationship was cemented. Again, without Kroegel's faith in us we might never have survived into the 90's.
Key player number three was Jim Ward, who then headed D&D licensing for TSR. Ward was Kroegel's (partner in crime) on the Gold Box series. In a time when many licensors were overzealous (prevent defense) specialists, Ward had the vision to see the potential in the Gold Box series and support SSI's and our efforts to enhance D&D computer games, as opposed to merely copying the forms that had come before.
Stormfront was already creating D&D games for SSI and online games for AOL before Neverwinter Nights was born. We held a meeting -- ironically, at the castle-themed Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas at the January, 1990 Consumer Electronics Show, where McHugh, Kroegel, Ward and I went over the risks and opportunities and agreed we'd try to make a deal happen. AOL producers Scott Gries and Jessica Mulligan (a prominent online gaming pioneer) also got involved as the project progressed.
The really big meeting, it turned out, had already happened at a San Francisco hotel suite in late 1989. Steve Case and his top engineers at AOL were in town, and our top programmers joined them for a feasibility meeting. We spent an hour going over the risks involved in trying to get that many simultaneous players into a graphics-based RPG. We started out supporting 50 players per world, and later enhanced the system to support 500. Sounds like nothing. until you consider that this came at a time when games were played over phone lines at bit rates a hundred times slower than current DSL.
Both the AOL and the Stormfront teams were split on whether we had a good chance of pulling off the project. Case cut off the discussion and turned to his top engineers, Jack Daggett and Craig Dykstra, and asked if it could be done. They said yes. He looked at me and asked if I thought we could do a graphical online RPG. I said yes, I thought we knew how to beat the toughest problems. He stuck out his hand, we shook and he said, (We've got a deal.)
You probably aren't surprised to hear that major game deals in our industry are no longer closed with a handshake!
GB: Any idea why AOL took Neverwinter Nights offline in 1997, even though it was still very popular? Was there ever any talk of revitalizing the game, and would Stormfront have been interested in pursuing a sequel of some sort if the opportunity would have presented itself?
Don: When AOL's business started to explode with the public acceptance of the email system in the early 1990's, we were anxious to expand and enhance Neverwinter Nights, since it was by far their biggest hit game. They kept saying, (Sorry, we have our hands full with all the fires burning here.) Every day there were newscasters on TV asking, (Can AOL install enough modems to keep up with the growth or will they crash and burn in a sea of busy signals?) The 50-person AOL operation I had started working with in 1987 had grown to thousands of people and millions of subscribers.
I talked with Steve Case about it and he said, (I know we're throwing away millions by not building on Neverwinter Nights. My problem is that I've got everyone focused on not losing billions of dollars, so good projects with multi-million dollar profiles are just not getting done.) It was hard to argue with his logic.
Even without enhancements, the game lasted six years, and it still earned millions for AOL its final year. But their systems were changing, the software was old, and the end came. Stormfront had become a console game development studio by that time, and we were no longer focused heavily on the online business.