Growing up, I was blessed to have a father who was ahead of his time. He bought his first PC, an IBM in 1981 and for as long as I have been sentient, I have had a PC at my fingertips. On my ninth birthday, I was given Pools of Radiance, which ultimately led me to my first MMO.
We got the Internet and email really early. We started on Compuserve, and I used to play a text-based game called Black Dragon, which I suppose was my first experience in the genre, as it could loosely be considered a MUD, but I consider the TSR series the predecessor to the first MMO that I really played and truly loved. Neverwinter Nights on AOL.
In 1992, I was 13 years old. I had heard from some friends on Black Dragon, that they were moving to a new graphical online RPG over at America Online, and besides that, the chat rooms and the search engine were 'totally rad.' What game, I asked? Neverwinter Nights by TSR. My skin tingled... Pools of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Secrets of the Silver Blades and the Pools of Darkness were staples of my gaming diet, and this was an online game based on the best series ever!
My dad signed us up for AOL, and grudgingly cancelled his beloved Compuserve. It was cheaper anyway, so he didn't mind. I made an account named Darwin, my favorite PnP character name and walked into The Red Dragon Inn where I would spend the next few years of my life.
The Red Dragon Inn was a chat room. It was also a cesspool of decadent role playing and tavern frolicking, exactly as my pre-pubescent dungeon master mind has painted so many times with words in our basement gaming sessions. It was a scene from my wildest daydreams, and I was welcomed in from the cold reality outside and given a warm seat by the hearth of my imagination.
I spent every night in Neverwinter. It was a magical time, of monster hunts, PvP ladders and guild wars. I started the adventuring company from my D&D gaming sessions, and took them into the virtual world. My gaming buddies convinced their parents to get AOL and The BlackBlade Mercenary Company was born online. In those days, there was very little in the way of formal guild management tools. So we all created new accounts and added BB to our name, so our community could identify us. I was BB Darwin. I remember with fear and awe, other guilds that did the same... the PvP guilds KAAOS (Killing As An Organized Sport) and MECH.
AOL back then, was a per minute subscription pricing scheme, and although my parents understood my enjoyment of gaming, and tried to be supportive, our monthly bill always broke $100.00 and reached as high as $450.00 one month. They made me get a job to support my time in game. I didn't care. I was chasing the dream, that my imagination had been building since I was barley old enough to walk. I was an existential explorer, beholding foreign yet familiar sights and building ties with a tight community that continued to grow every year. I was only 13 when I started, but by the time AOL went monthly subscription and Neverwinter's population exploded, I was a gamer through and through.
The Red Dragon Inn was a home for me in those days. I would stop in and have a drink, chat with friends and role play. It was in the taproom of the Inn in the spring of '97, that I heard the news that AOL was closing Neverwinter forever. I was a seventeen year old, and I cried. I cried with married adults, and children as young as I had been when I first wandered in. It's just a game I was told, by so many. There will be other games...
There have been many, but none can ever compare to the first. I recall fondly my guilds rebirth in Ultima later that year, but it wasn't the same. We tried to role play our move to Brittannia, but role playing was not as prevalent in UO, and soon that too sputtered and died out. Isn't it strange that with each graphical improvement and feature addition, I still compare every game to Neverwinter?
It wasn't the features, or the graphics that made me return every night, or work all week to pay the subscription bill... It wasn't the content, or the developers brilliance... there were no content upgrades...
I returned night after night to the Inn, because of the community... because of my friends.