This will be the first of at least two, maybe three reviews I will do on Dungeons and Dragons Online. I am writing this in multiple sections because there is a lot to cover, it wouldn’t be ethical to discuss what I haven’t experienced firsthand, and because I want to be able to give the proper attention and time to all the aspects of Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) which I wish to discuss.
Until recently, I didn’t play DDO for quite a long time. For those unfamiliar with the game, the level cap is now 20. When I played, it was 10, and it was a very different game. We used to joke that it should be called Dungeon and Dragon because there was only one dragon in the whole game. My best guess would be that I quit shortly after the release of Module 3 in October 2006.
In this first segment, I will be covering varying aspects of DDO which I like or hate, and as my articles suggest, give you my 2 plat on the subject. In the next segment I hope to focus more on the end game and what that feels and compares like to other MMORPGs out there.
The Leveling & Grouping System:
There is no question, DDO is a group-oriented game. While there have been steps taken to make it appeal more to solo players, you’re going to have to do a lot of grouping to get anywhere, and I suggest you learn to enjoy it or this game just won’t be for you. The in-game voice chat is actually quite good, though I know a few people (myself included) which had to mess with their windows outbound microphone boost because the in-game settings would not suffice. That being said, you tend to find groups where almost everyone talks or no one talks, it just depends on the people.
I find the looking-for-group system to be very easy, and I don’t play a healer. It seems like groups get formed rather quickly, as you can advertise what quest you want to do, or write a comment about your intentions as well as specifying level range and other details. Overall I think the find-a-group system works very well in DDO.
The levels in DDO are not linear in terms of power or progression as they are in many other games. I am finding more and more, that the first 1-8 levels are fairly easy and the missions allow you to complete them with less experience. As you move past 10, the levels become more complex, and require higher amounts of group participation and knowledge of what is to be expected. This of course will vary, but the training wheels definitely come off after 10.
What I do like about the DDO leveling/questing system is that it is all instanced. DDO was actually one of the first games to instance basically all of their content and it has it’s pros and cons. By instancing all types of adventure, it can detract from the feeling of playing a multi-player game. On the other hand, you are strongly pushed to group with other players, and by being in a separate instance, you have the feeling that you are actually exploring the area yourself. Unlike other games where it seems silly that you are suppose to be this great warrior, but so is everyone else around you.
Within each instance, be it an explorer area or a quest, there are various main objectives, and bonus objectives. In a quest, you start with a base amount of experience, and then gain bonuses for certain things like: lots of kills, breakables smashes, no deaths, no reentry, doing the mission for the first time on that difficulty (oh yes, there are multiple difficulties you can choose), and so forth. This gives players the option, and incentive, to try to completely explore a quest instead of just rushing the final objective.
I tend to find that DDO players tend to be more relaxed, mature and pleasant individuals then many other games that cater to a younger generation. When I did my senior Psychology thesis between World of Warcraft (WoW) and DDO players I found that in my sample, the average age of DDO players was 30, where as the average age of WoW player’s sampled was 21. I’d say that things haven’t changed in that respect.
This almost deserves its own little section, but I will group it with the players, because it is them that I am writing about. What does zerg mean? Without opening Wikipedia, I would hazard to guess that it was first spawned by Starcraft, in particular the zerg race which was all about lots of mindless, overwhelming forces more bent on victory via sheer numbers rather than anything else. This term, zerg, has become internet lingo for bringing huge amount of numbers to a battle, which almost always implies that the “zergers” bring those numbers because they don’t have the skill to compete on an equal level. For instance, “Our group got zerged.” implies that we were killed by perhaps three times our number and didn’t really have a chance. However, DDO players use this word in almost a completely different way. Now, there is basically no PvP in DDO. Oh sure, there is some, but DDO makes Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) look like a hardcore PvP game in comparison. So they aren’t using zerg to refer to other players… what about a zerg of NPCs overrunning them? Nope. They use the term zerg to refer to a method of completing missions where players run through the mission incredibly fast, often in a disorganized, frantic state, not pausing to do optional side bonuses and so forth. It makes me chuckle each time I hear someone use the word zerg in this fashion.
Most games are linear in their progression. These are often described as ‘theme park’ games because you have to be this high to ride, by which we mean you have to be this level to complete this quest and go into this area. They also tend to funnel you from one area to the next via the progression of story and level. If a game is too linear it feels like you are being forced from one area to the next without making your own choice. Many MMOs have moved enough away from this to allow players to have a couple branching choices, though within those branches, there is a enough structure to guide the player along and avoid dropping the player into an area that is way beyond their ability.
On the other hand, you can have ‘sandbox’ games which give players a lot more freedom. A good example of this would be Darkfall. These types of games usually focus less on level and are more often skill based in their character progression. There are pros and cons of both systems, and DDO falls into a kind of mixture of both.
While DDO is definitely more linear in its progression of levels then games like Darkfall, it lacks some structure that can be rather overwhelming at certain times. For those familiar with the game, I’m talking about the marketplace. Before the marketplace, the docks are fairly simple, you move from one tavern to the next from the north of the zone to the south and the difficulty raises as you move in that direction. Then you hit the market and you are literally in a big circle with separate houses along the edges with numerous other exit points and a host of taverns and quests. Now I am not suggesting that there is no structure, they have added sign-posts to direct players to quest hub locations, but I still feel that new players will experience a phenomenon of that can be described as a paradox of choice. The idea is that customers that choose between a few products (let’s say 3-5) are more likely to actually make a choice, and feel better and more confident in their choice then someone who is given, let’s say 20 choices. This is how the marketplace feels to me, and I’ve played this game before. When leveling my new character, I’m not sure I did more then 1-2 quests I hadn’t at some point in the past previously done. Now of course I didn’t remember them all in every detail, but I just felt bombarded with questions about whether or not I should be doing this quest or that one based on items, experience, or potentially finishing pre-requisites to future quests and so forth. I can only guess, that a new player without any previous experience of DDO would feel even more lost then I.
A map of the Marketplace
Class Balance & Multiclassing:
There are 11 classes in DDO, and they offer a pretty wide range of play styles and allow for some fairly interesting character customization, something I am a big fan of. In addition to choosing feats, skills, spells, players also have the ability to multiclass. I will mention right now that I am no expert in the art of multiclassing, but I can offer my personal experience that only about 20% of player’s I have grouped with are mutliclassed. There are benefits to staying ‘pure’ as well as mutliclassing, and it takes a good deal of experience and research to understand and plan your character accordingly. More of which I will cover in my next section.
In terms of balance, like any MMO things have changed over time. When I played the game, I felt like 60% of the players were Fighters, and the remaining players were either fulfilling some sort of support role (healing, buffing, lock/trap picking, debuffing etc). Since then Barbarians have made a major comeback and I was informed there was a period where they basically switched positions with Fighters, though I personally wasn’t around to witness that. Overall, the game seems fairly balanced in that I see fairly equal class representation and certain classes being useful across the board on different quests. There is one exception, that is the Bard class. While my experience with Bards has always been positive, and they seem very useful, I almost never group with them at all. I would like to remind you though, that this is just my initial impressions, and I may find a different balance of active classes upon reaching the level cap.
Class Planning and Preparation:
In any MMO, if you don’t know the details of the game and the class you play because you are just starting out, it’s expected that you will make mistakes. You just can’t replace experience. Some of us will try to get feedback and understand popular choices on the forums, and other’s of us will simply copy the most popular build. However, the fact remains that until you actually have spent a good deal of time playing your class and testing the options you are presented with, no one else’s advice can really sink in 100%.
DDO is different than a lot of other MMO’s in the way that you customize your character (in-game). While other games very often use skill trees, or areas of expertise, DDO is of course built around the actual D&D model, with a few things added in. You have skills, feats, enhancements, stats, and potentially spells. In addition they have added a prestige class system that works primarily off of enhancements. Now what I have described isn’t any different from any other game, except with different words. The difference, I think, is that in DDO it is less obvious about what is useful, what is expected (for new players) and what you will end up with. The game doesn’t tell you that you’ll only get X feats and that you’d better chose carefully because there aren’t a lot of good respec options. Luckily, you can change your enhancements fairly often, and that’s nice because you spend a lot more time choosing enhancements then picking feats or skills. I’m not saying this system is all bad, but it definitely makes a new player choose between putting some effort in to understand their class and spec accordingly, or just to make near random decisions at one point after another and end up with a terribly built class because they didn’t know what they would need down the road. Others would argue that this is true in any game, and they are right, I just think that in DDO you have a lot higher chance of building your character poorly unless you have a lot of experience.
As I mentioned, there are not great respec options. First we have enhancements, and to respec these you need to spend a little in game money and it can only be done once every three days. Spells are similar for Favored Souls, Sorcerers, and Bards, you can exchange one spell with another every three days. Now we get to feats. There are two problems with respeccing feats. The first is that it takes a increasingly large amount of in-game gold, and it also takes certain in game items. Again, you can only do this once every three days. The second is that because a lot of feats have pre-requisites based both on level and other feats, it makes it very difficult to respec when you are only switching one feat for another. This gets even more complicated when you try to drop a feat that can be taken more than once, which one are you dropping?
Then you have choices between various levels of Lesser and Greater Reincarnation. These, for the most part, allow you to completely change the choices you have made with regards to skills, stats, enhancements, feats and spells, and some levels of class if you are going in or out of a multiclass. Then we come to the True Reincarnation. This literally starts you over at level 1 and can change everything but your name because you are literally starting over. This has a few advantages but requires more experience to level, and I’ll cover this more in my next segment on DDO. While you can obtain the items for these various methods of Reincarnation within the game, they have been described as being either very difficult or very time consuming to get a hold of. Then there is the always convenient option of the DDO store.
Free to Play & the DDO Store:
I like the approach that Turbine has taken with regards to their F2P model. The basic gist is this:
1. Pay the monthly subscription – You’ll get all the content and a ton of perks.
2. Buy some things – You the basic content and whatever you purchase, and you get a few perks.
3. Pay nothing – Basic content, and no perks.
What does this mean? Really, it means that unless you a super casual player (oxymoron anyone?) this game basically allows you to play for free until level 4-5 without really experiencing any of the downsides of being Free-to-Play. It’s like an extended free trial, that gives you a choice. However, you very quickly realize that almost all of the better content you have to pay for. This is also a pain when trying to find groups because you have to advertise that you’re F2P and avoid groups forming under the context P2P.
Besides content, I would easily argue that the rest of the stuff in the DDO Store is largely for convenience, and even being a perfectionist and competitive I don’t find myself interested in spending any money in the DDO store. You can earn some DDO points simply by playing the game, but they are slow to come by and are no doubt there to wet your appetite towards something you want.
Mail / Auction / Brokers:
First, the mail system is fairly standard. You can send messages, money and items like most other games at a mailbox. One feature I haven’t seen elsewhere is two categories of mail, Confirmed and Unconfirmed. Friends, guild members, and any mail from the DDO store or NPCs will hit the confirmed tab. Other stuff will fall into unconfirmed. Is it that helpful? Not really, I haven’t seen even one gold seller in chat or via mail, but I guess it could help you know if someone was trying to impersonate another person in your guild or something along those lines.
What bugs me is that the cap amount of money you can send is pathetically low, and you can only send one item per message. I thought we had moved past this? In the words of Gob from Arrested Development, “Comon!” I suppose one could argue that capping the amount of money someone can send would make gold sellers spend a few more minutes in game, but one item at a time? Unless they are purposely trying to stretch out how long you have to spend in game, I can’t think of an argument for this setup. And besides, there are much better ways of keeping players in game.
The auction house is probably the worst I have ever seen. And that’s saying something. In Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), players put items up for sale on their personal houses and while you could browse them all at once, you’d still have to go to that players house to purchase the item unless you wanted to spend 20% more. I would happily take that system over DDO’s, because at least I could narrow my search by some meaningful parameters. In DDO, you can search by 3 things: Type of item, for example a Dwarven Axe vs. a Great Axe, by level range, and whether or not the auction has a buyout available. This might not seem bad, until you realize that I didn’t mention by name. Now, in their defense, almost all the items in the game are not named items, but are a neat system of randomly generated items that are identified by their prefix and postfix tags. Still, if I want to search only for weapons that my alignment can use, or that are only Flaming Burst weapons, or only have a +3 enhancement bonus or higher… well I am totally out of luck, and instead I have to try to narrow my search by guessing the appropriate level, and then going through pages and pages. It would not be difficult to add in some search parameters such as usability, enhancement level, and by tagging what weapon abilities you want or don’t want.
Finally we get to Brokers. Broker’s are just specialized NPCs that sell and buy various types of items at a higher cost. The advantage to this system is that players want to get more money for their items so they sell them to the broker. Then, other players can visit those Brokers, and look for non-static items on them that they can purchase. I support this idea, it means less items go to waste, and instead it sort of re-cycles items for fairly cheap. The problem? These bastards are spread out all over the place and there isn’t just one, but typically three (the exception being the low level marketplace armor/weapon brokers). The three might be in the same room, so that isn’t a major pain, but it adds up. But the real pain comes from having to visit one place for Armor, another for Weapons, and a third for Clothing and Jewelry, and these places aren’t right next door.
Oh, there is a lot more I want to cover! But I should save some for later, and some when I have some solid end-game experience under my belt. The topics coming to mind are how items are generated, itemization overall, the economy, guild leveling mechanics and the airships, the frequency of content, more on the true reincarnation system, and then a lot focusing on end-game balance, content, progression, and whether or not there is an active end-game in DDO these days. And a whole lot more.
If you would like me to cover something specific regarding DDO, or perhaps draw my attention to a specific game mechanic and how it differs across other MMORPGs, please feel free to comment :)