September 28, 2009

New Player Thoughts on DDO: Eberron Unlimited

When Dungeons and Dragons Online was first released, I was displeased with Turbine’s approach to the game. I wanted an MMOG that recreated the D&D tabletop experience, with real Dungeon Masters and the freedom experienced at the tabletop. I still want that in a MMO D&D “game”. However, Turbine created an MMOG in the D&D Eberron campaign setting with standard MMOG practices (a subscription, faction grinding, etc.). I blinded myself to the unique game that DDO was (and still is). I’ve found myself having to come back and re-evaluate this game, because suddenly I’m finding myself enjoying it (mostly because I’m not paying for it).

I don’t love everything about the game and some of my original gripes are still valid. The DM voice-overs are still distracting and uncomfortable: so much that is said, is already or could be shown. When I walk into a dungeon and see an untouched, rusty lever, I do not need a voice-over to tell me that it “cranks and grinds” when I pull it (especially with the sound effects already going off).

Secondly, the combat still makes my wrists hurt. There is a lot of clicking and button management to operate any character successfully. Every attack or block is a click, all while managing character movement. I am not sure why this is such an issue for me in DDO. I play The Chronicles of Spellborn, with a similar click-to-attack system, without issue. I play tons of FPS games, which are always frantic. My only guess is the way DDO clumps the combat encounters together, forcing a lot of clicking in a small time period. Also, a lack of any sort of “round” timer means a lot of extra clicking is done for nothing. Also, Turbine strings the dungeon sections together with a thousand destructible containers.

Third, character creation is still ripe for confusion and mistakes, but I believe this is a problem with the underlying D&D structure. Character creation has always been a source for trouble and has been ever since I picked up my AD&D 2E books over a decade ago. D&D’s character structure doesn’t fit well into video game form, even more so when MMO is thrown into the picture. Turbine has paired the system down and changed enough to make it work. It’s not great, but it’s functional. Players should not be surprised when their first character winds up as a failed experiment unless it’s well planned out with advice from veteran players.

Another gripe I had was my lack of faith that Turbine could create new content fast enough for the game. At launch, content was limited and the leveling was capped at 10. D&D has never been strictly about leveling, so this gave Turbine room to grow the game. However, early reports showed that only a minority of content was needed to reach level 10, with the leftover content completely worthless to level 10 players.

It is a different story now that DDO has been out long enough for Turbine to release several updates. New free-to-play players have a plethora of content available to purchase and unlock. It’s refreshing to think that spending money on DDO will directly result in a quantifiable experience in game. A player buys Adventure Pack A and plays Adventure Pack A. I never thought I would like it, but as I’ve transitioned to a free-to-play fan, I’ve found it to be a model that makes complete sense.

The decision to spend money, which I have not yet done, is made even easier by how enjoyable the dungeons and areas can be within DDO. The areas do not change from one visit to the next and one visit to a spoiler website can ruin the entire experience, but when approached for the first time with no insider knowledge, the dungeons are absolutely the best in any MMOG I’ve played. This may become a hindrance at higher levels when content MUST be repeated to progress forward, but on the journey to level 20 that most free-to-play players are currently on, it keeps them coming back and wanting to progress. That leads them to spend money and unlock parts of the game they want.

That is important. Turbine needs to make money, especially now that the game is free-to-play. Eventually, the new wave of players is going to chew up what is available. Turbine has already delayed some high end development to focus on the shift to a free-to-play model, so they are behind the curve. If they can keep on top of content and give players a reason to progress, the new business model is golden.

My overall conclusion about DDO is about the same as it originally was. DDO is a great dungeon crawler, but with a sometimes cumbersome combat system and an underlying structure that doesn’t fit well into a video game. The problem of content has been solved and I’m not as angry that Turbine didn’t make the game I wanted. DDO:EU is worth checking out and now that it costs nothing to do so, I’m a much happier gamer to oblige Turbine the chance to sell me something.