Learning from Dungeons and Dragons Online Part 1: Mechanics

My favorite MMORPG is Dungeons and Dragons Online; and I think that it’s because we can look at it as an example of a very different approach to a massive multiuser gaming experience.

Traditional MMORPGs tend to be pretty stereotypical-you picture a guy in armor running around clearing out dungeons full of foes and purging the land of wickedness. DDO does exactly the same things. It does them, however, in an incredibly different way. We won’t really be looking at the free-to-play model here (though DDO has gotten me to have my worst case of alt-itis ever, courtesy of trying to save up for adventure packs as a non-VIP), but rather at the gameplay; for MMO designers DDO’s model is perhaps a great starting point, but I’m looking at it from a more general design perspective.

Let’s look at the generic MMORPG. I love other MMORPG’s, but I rarely play them as much, and there are several reasons for this.

  • Robust game mechanics.
  • Freeform game design.
  • PvE focus.

Two of these are really important, but one is a personal opinion that I think makes DDO stand out.

DDO has really robust game mechanics. Unlike most MMORPG’s, where characters are defined solely by combat abilities, all DDO characters have a variety of non-combat abilities-most of which are used during adventures, and some of which are less notable than others. For instance, UMD, which is very powerful, but doesn’t require any real hands-on thing; it’s a passive skill that lets you equip things you normally couldn’t, or zap wands or read scrolls for caster classes you don’t have.

A lot of this is courtesy of DDO’s D&D roots. Say what you will about D&D-I’ve grown to like it more as I’ve matured; I used to hate the “roll a d20 and see what happens” for its over-simplified handling, but as I did more tabletop gaming and game design theory I gained an appreciation for it. In a MMORPG, this is revolutionary. I can’t count the number of MMORPG’s I’ve played where my character does the same damage every hit, or succeeds at things every time he tries or otherwise fails these same things. And to a certain degree, that’s a little overdramatic. If you look at Diablo (not technically a MMORPG, but I’ve played a ton of similar hack-and-slash MMO’s), there’s a simple damage range, but attacking and getting attacked are pretty much guaranteed. DDO is very finicky. I can clear the entirety of Korthos Island with a level 1 Warforged Berserker, and take 11 damage, and try again with an identically built level 2 Warforged Berserker and take 30. The randomness means that some skill’s out of my hands, but it also lead to tension-when I clear Korthos Island, there’s a chance that I get hit with a spell that I can’t resist, or get critically hit, or whatnot, and that’s typically modeled in other MMORPG’s, but my AC19 two-hander build fared better than the AC23 sword-and-board build because despite the latter’s massively superior gear, the dice were king. In most MMORPG’s, there’s a deemphasis on random. It’s the myth of balance. DDO doesn’t care.

DDO’s game design is a lot more freeform. It’s entirely instanced (at least for the combat areas), and I only see myself or my buddies when I play. And it’s more fun-I never go out and grind 20 Rotting Zombies. When I played The Secret World a while back, I really enjoyed it, but I got bored relatively quick-part of this was the fact that combat was entirely hotbar based, so despite choosing a (seemingly) action-oriented shooting class, I spent most of my time selecting enemies then hammering number keys. In DDO, there’s none of that (well, less, depending on how you build). For one thing, your quests rarely revolve around just killing things. They’re all pen-and-paper styled adventures-often dumbed down to reduce social interaction with NPC’s (and the stress on designers that entails)-but still full experiences; each adventure is a self-contained narrative. Compare that to Mabinogi, where I played happily with some of my friends for a good chunk of time and still had no clue about the reasons behind my things-sure I skipped the cutscenes, so that was my fault, but unlike in DDO my actions in game (gather 20 Oak Branches, anyone?) had no real link to the actual storyline. I wasn’t gathering wood to build a barricade to defend against the oncoming goblin horde, as I would do in DDO. I was gathering wood. Sure it was needed for the barricade to defend against the oncoming goblin horde, but I wasn’t being drawn into it as such.

Finally, DDO has a PvE focus. However, this is perhaps an oversimplification. It’s adventure-driven. That means that everyone goes through the same adventures with different experiences based on their playing style. I’m aware of there being PvP in DDO. I’ve never done it. From what I’ve heard, there’s no reward for it, though I’ve never even stepped into the arena once to try. This, however, means that the designers of DDO don’t really have to worry about balance. Some classes in MMORPG’s will always be better suited for soloing (I disagree with the game’s labels for this, but that’s not their fault), but DDO takes it to an extreme-there are builds that are unabashedly more powerful than others. And this isn’t a problem because of how it’s set up. DDO allows for a ton of character customization (including the “no training wheels” option), and if you don’t do it right, you can usually still do stuff. If you do it right, you become a practical demigod. Demigod, I say. My highest level character is a Warforged Artificer. I can solo pretty much any quest in level range on normal difficulty, and that’s because my build is amazing. My brother’s Warforged Artificer, however, could solo on elite. Now, my brother’s put more money into the game, but there’s just a practical distinction-my character’s built for healing, which makes him a good team player, but he can’t tank or deliver as much damage per second, and I’ll pretty quickly run out of juice in the sort of prolonged battles I wind up in, while he whizzes past them, but I lose nothing because he’s successful. Courtesy of its design, DDO can actually reward players-if I were in a party of Warforged, I’d be the valued healer, but alone I’m not nearly as good. My brother’s character would be valued as well, but in a different role, even though he still makes a powerful healer.

In short, here’s what I’ve got for today: I value DDO above other MMORPG’s (and I’m not just a Turbine fan; I hated LOTRO) because it offers me an experience I’d play solo-it’s variable and complex, and I feel like I’m getting an experience from it. I remember watching my roommate playing WoW, and I couldn’t even fathom how someone would play something so dull. The adventure-focused system allows it to focus on allowing players to choose a style of play that fits them and engages them, and its randomness allows for challenge without resulting in cases where the difficulty becomes too high and aggravating, and for good chances of success without becoming too easy for well-built characters. It also doesn’t have to worry as much about balance, as the brunt of the experience lies within the story and the interesting objectives, rather than just killing monsters or collecting flowers.

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