Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Dungeons & Dragons Online First Impressions

I participated in a short stress test of Dungeons & Dragons Online : Stormreach (DDO) in November. At the time I couldn't talk about it, due to the NDA, but now the NDA for all beta and stress testers has been lifted. Fortunately I wrote down my first impressions:

DDO is a thoroughly modern MMORPG. It isn’t quite an action game yet, but it is moving in that direction. You climb crates, jump, smash barrels, run to avoid traps, and swing your weapon by clicking your mouse. But in spite of all that action, Turbine has pulled off a nearly impossible trick, and made the game feel like Dungeons & Dragons. That wasn’t easy, because unlike other licenses for MMORPG (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings), Dungeons & Dragons is not a world, but a rule set. Transforming rules that were designed for a slow pen and paper game into rules for an action MMORPG was a challenge. Purists will probably scoff at the result, but for the average D&D player, seeing the dice rolled for your attacks makes you feel right at home.

Where the influence of the pen and paper rules is felt most, is in the spell system, which is half way between D&D and classical MMORPG. A first-level wizard on character creation selects 7 spells to inscribe into his spell book. While resting in a tavern he memorizes 3 of these spells. When he then enters a dungeon, he can only use these 3 spells, and not the other 4, until he comes back to the tavern. But unlike D&D, a DDO wizard also has spell points, and he can cast the 3 spells he memorized more than once. The spell points do not regenerate over time, you need to find a resting shrine to recover them, and each shrine only can be used once. Which means that just like in D&D, if you cast too many spells, you will find yourself out of spells in the middle of the dungeon, with no way to recover them, except for leaving the place. Oh, and fighters don’t fare much better, because hit points don’t regenerate either during an adventure.

All of the adventuring in DDO happens in instances, in quest dungeons or instanced outdoor zones. But that doesn’t mean that DDO is a single-player game in disguise. Once you finished the tutorial and gained access to the city of Stormreach, many instances are designed for groups or at least small teams. DDO isn’t quite as solo-able as World of Warcraft, but then the dungeons in DDO are shorter, so even casual players can form a group and do a complete adventure in a short playing sessions. Finding a pickup group is made easier by tools which are so simple and easy, that you wonder nobody else has thought of them. You can either put up a simple "looking for group" flag, or you put up a kind of "wanted" ad, where you can specify which levels and classes you want, and where your group will be heading.

Rewards in the form of experience points and loot are given in a unique way in DDO. There are no xp for killing monsters. Yes, you heard that right, grinding by killing mobs is technically impossible in DDO. Instead you get xp for finishing the quest objectives and sub-goals, which obviously include killing mobs. But if you have to kill 200 kobolds and quit after 150, you haven’t earned a single experience point. Loot is also unique, because mobs practically don’t drop any, so there is no mob farming for loot either. Instead loot is found in treasure chests. Each chest contains a number of items for *each* group member, and these items are reserved for them, nobody can ninja loot the items reserved for another group member. Advancement in DDO is slow, I only made it to level 2 in the stress test, but that is because the highest level you can reach in the release version will be only 10. Then an expansion set will increase the level cap to 20, and that is it, that is the highest level possible in the D&D system.

Combat in DDO is semi-twitchy: you target the mob with the left mouse button, then hit it by repeatedly clicking the right mouse button. You can theoretically use an auto-attack mode, but that one is slow and deals a lot less damage. Nevertheless each weapon swing takes a certain time, so clicking faster doesn’t increase your damage output. Faithful to the D&D system, combat is mainly a matter of hitting or not hitting, not a matter of dealing more or less damage. That feels a bit strange when fighting lower level mobs, because you don’t see their to hit rolls, only yours, and when they repeatedly miss they seem not to do anything.

DDO doesn’t have many bugs in this beta-version. I got stuck once, and once was unable to finish a dungeon due to some trigger malfunctioning, but for a beta the game was solid enough. What was a lot less stable was the servers, but that might be expected for a stress test. Turbine will have to work on making the servers more stable for the release version, because experiencing several server downs and roll backs in one evening won’t be acceptable to the paying customers.

DDO is very accessible and easy to pick up. Having played another MMORPG or D&D or both helps, but isn’t necessary. But both veteran MMORPG players and players of single-player games might have problems with the game’s group-centered philosophy later on. Most classes are highly specialized in what they are doing. That makes them very hard to solo, but very good to have in a group. And even when grouped, players need to communicate a lot more than usual. With resting points in dungeons being few and far between, running blindly into a combat or a trap can mean the whole group needs to turn back and try again. And you need to stick with your group until the end, as the xp are given for finishing the adventure.

In the end the success and longevity of this game will depend on the amount of content that Turbine will offer. Some quests are repeatable, but then they give less experience points. Right now there is only one starting zone, and if you make several characters, they all go through the same series of quests and dungeons, so the replayability value of DDO is low. But if you like to stick to one character, and like to go adventuring in interesting dungeons with a group of friends or strangers, there isn’t a better game out there to do so than Dungeons & Dragons Online.
My main concern is the non-repeatability of DDO. While new content will help, all characters starting in one area and always progressing through the same content is going to have an air of EQ2 about it in my opinion. You've got to LOVE your character to not need to reroll, and rerolling is quite frequent for newbies in a new MMO.

Going through the same quests to hit the mid-levels when a character is fully fleshed out is going to get old right quick.
I tried DDO during the Fileplanet weekend in December, and there are in my opinion several design flaws with it.

First off (and I know some people will disagree with me here) it's main flaw is it's non solo friendly design. It's ok as long as you are able to keep up with your friends, but if you've been offline for a week or two, bang you're behind. Personally I'm not at that point very willing to join pickup groups to keep up since those are usually very messy. And soloing is pretty much not an option in this game, so you will more or less permanently be behind. And of course there is no option for sidekicking (as in CoH) so the level difference that will result is a real obstacle. Ok, say that you manage to max out your character and in a year or two want to start another one. If you now are willing to join pickup groups you will still have a hard time, because as with most MMO's the lower level content will hardly be populated at all. So no groups = no xp = no levels, and eventually = unsubscribe. This unsoloability also sounds a lot like EQ2 was at launch (at least from what I've heard, never tried it myself). Of course they had to fix that pretty quick so it's possible that that will have to happen here too.

There was also another pretty severe design flaw that I read about while playing that weekend. Tobold mentioned that there is no xp for killing mobs. The only way to earn xp is through completing quests. An advantage with that is that you also get xp for helping others with their missions. However, there is a xp penalty for each time you complete it. The first time you get 100% xp (assuming that you didn't die during the quest). Each time after that you lose 25% of that all the way down to zero. Now, if you die during a mission you also get a similar penalty in addition to xp loss to your character. Apparently also quests are level bound so you can't pick up quests of too high level either. All this means that there is a large possibility if you die a lot to get stuck in the level advancement since you can't gain more xp. Sounds great right?

It's a real shame though since it otherwise seemed to be a nice game.
so your saying there is no way to solo in thsi game, only 10 levels witha max of 20,I just cancelled my preorder. I like teaming but its impossible to do all the time. I want to play I dont want to sit around and chat with people in a tavern. Game sounds like it sucks, a tavern and some instnces. god what a disappointment I was hoping for a game that wasnt so centered on melee I was hoping this was it. bummer
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