I have a problem. See, I like MMOs as a concept. I enjoy the idea that I can work on a character for years, progress it to the highest echelons of power and in doing so, acquire a rich and varied history for the character. I get very easily attached to my character, it becomes a possession with sentimental value. It’s not as odd as it might sound, just like a normal, everyday object might acquire a history if you travel with it a lot, ‘I took this bag everywhere, it was with me at the Eiffel Tower, it was with me in Hong Kong’ etc etc, so does a character if you’ve had memorable times playing it. Unlike single-player titles, you could potentially be using the same character for years, so you’d better get used to it and like it.
So what’s my problem? Well so far, with only one exception, I have absolutely despised levelling a character in an MMO. The grindy, treadmill nonsense gets to me far too easily, as does the obvious lack of challenge. I’m not someone who thinks that the flimsy excuse for ‘storyline’ behind every quest in WoW somehow absolves it from being one of the same 8 tasks over and over again (destroy, discover, deliver, drop, defend, plus the 3 TBC/Wrath ones, bombing run, magic wand and vehicular). This applies to any game that tries this trick. Released post-WoW always try and do this to no avail and I must admit that the thin varnish covering what it otherwise a grind wore away before I even hit 60. I had to be coaxed back into the game and pushed to 60 with the promises of cool end-game stuff and big, epic battles. Levelling was a chore that just had to be done in order to get to the good stuff. It made me wonder why, why exactly hadn’t Blizzard, the innovators, polishers and borrowers of good ideas from other games done something about this MMO stigma? They had taken a step in the right direction, away from meaningless grind to stealth-grind with drip-fed rewards, but that was not enough for me.
Remember I said one game managed to break that mold for me? That was Planetside, because in Planetside, levelling is not one’s primary motivation. The acquisition of loot isn’t either, the point of the game Planetside is to play the game Planetside, because the game itself stands up on its own merits. I’ve said it before, no doubt I’ll say it again in future, as a general rule, MMORPGs put too much weight on the MMO and not enough on the RPG. They rely on the large worlds and the seamless interaction with tons of other people in order to get around the fact that they’re mostly just dry, dull treadmills. As I mentioned yesterday to a guy on vent defending WoW’s levelling, who brought up the point that WoW is fun when you level with friends, almost anything is fun when you do it with friends. Watching paint dry is more fun with friends than it is on your own, it’s almost a universal constant. That doesn’t make WoW levelling any good, quite the opposite. If you need friends to mitigate the fact that it’s boring as sin then something is wrong. WoW levelling does not need friends, you can do 1-80 solo. They are there to stop you from getting bored, not because it benefits you in any significant respect bar protection from ganking and the ability to do 5 man dungeons, which are also, not required to level. I think we have to face facts that, while some may enjoy WoW’s levelling, the actual system itself is mechanically over-simplistic and in terms of gameplay, horribly repetitive.
Enter DDO, a game that I initially had no interest in what-so-ever. Bogged down by a troubled launch and lack of initial content, DDO stumbled where other Turbine products such as Lord of the Rings Online have acquired a strong playerbase. An apparently lack of marketing behind the title as well as the fact that the WoW juggernaut was at full speed around the time of it’s launch ensured it’s quick demise. However, unlike many MMOs, it didn’t simply get shut down and written off as a loss. Turbine continued to quietly develop the game, fixing many of the issues and ensuring more and more content got added. A recent announcement that the game was going down a free2play route, with microtransactions and an optional subscription which would give you access to everything gave me reason to take a second look. It was a time when WoW was at it’s low point for me, indeed, it still is, my interest in playing the lacklustre 3.2 content is next to none and Cataclysm is a distant light at the end of a thoroughly dark tunnel. But could I face levelling up another character when I’d barely managed it in WoW?
Then I made a shocking discovery. DDO doesn’t do it like WoW, indeed, it doesn’t do it like anything else. The closest comparison would be Guild Wars, whose quests are instanced. In this case, Dungeons and Dragons Online benefits more so than anything from a design philosophy inspired by it’s very name.
Dungeons and dragons. That’s what it is, dungeons and dragons, DDO is a huge selection of hand-crafted dungeons along with the occasional large, outdoor area, which often serves as a hub for other dungeon adventures. What makes this such a big deal is the how similar in basic concept DDO’s quests are to WoW’s and most other MMOs and yet how many different elements the enclosed space of a dangerous dungeon can throw into the mix. It’s no secret that I think WoW’s great strength is it’s instance design, so imagine my delight when I discovered that every quest in DDO is it’s own instance. It sounds initially like a bit of a cop-out. After all, what’s the use of a Massively Multiplayer world when you’re shut off from the other players for 90% of the time? Here’s the rub, with a few notable exceptions such as EvE and Planetside, that’s what MMOs end up doing anyway. The best content, is these days, most often instanced, whether it be battlegrounds style PvP or raids and dungeons, WoW players in particular spend most of their time in an instance if they want to do anything meaningful. That’s where the best loot is, that’s where the best content is and that’s where the biggest challenges are. So where’s the harm in going one step further and instancing the quest content? That’s the question DDO asks and it’s answer was rather stunning. Imagine every quest was a multi-staged challenge, full of capable monsters to fight, traps to avoid, secrets to discover, bosses to defeat, chests to loot and puzzles to solve. Then consider that these quests by default have 4 levels of difficulty, from Solo all the way to Elite which provides a much greater group challenge and increased rewards. Factor in, if you will, rewards for exploration, for finding everything in the dungeon and for not dying. Now consider that the only reliable way to level up is not only to complete quests (you do not get direct XP for just killing everyday mobs) but to complete them WELL, for bonuses and get a big list of rewards which generally has something for everyone at the end.
That’s DDO’s levelling system in a nutshell and the reason it succeeds is because it takes what made the pen and paper DND great, translated it into videogame form and then applies the design philosophy used to make great singleplayer RPGs, into a massively multiplayer format. Quests feel like actual quests, rather than chores, because they are hand crafted to be an adventure in their own right. That’s what DnD is all about right? Having adventures. Even the most basic, short quest is a mini-adventure in and of itself. A trip into one of the basic starting quest in the first zone tasked me with retrieving a scroll. In WoW, such a quest would either involve killing a certain number of mobs until the scroll dropped and then taking it back, or camping various spawn points until the scroll spawned and then retrieving it. In DDO, I must enter a storehouse. Upon doing so, I find the door to the scroll’s storage chamber locked. I search for the key, smashing open crates and barrels looking for it, all the while battling some large brown spiders who seem none to pleased with my intrusion into their habitat. At last, the key (did I mention I was rewarded with various degrees of bonus XP for smashing everything up? A ransack bonus they call it, so even breaking stuff is not wasted time) but what’s this? A secret door opens to reveal a hidden passage, inside a lethal-looking reptilian man who demands the key from me. A trap! I rush into battle, dispatching my foe and exploring the previously secret passage wherein a find an altar to his foul god and a chest containing some tasty loot. Now, time to get that scroll! I battle my way back to the door and open it with the silver key, only to see the scroll secured inside a magical field. A curious tile-puzzle sits on the ground, requiring me to solve it in order to unlock the magical field and retrieve the scroll. After kicking my addled brain into gear I solve the puzzle, retrieve the scroll and exit the dungeon, the entire time being egged on by the atmospheric voice of a virtual Dungeonmaster. I wish, for the sake of WoW's pride, that I could say I was using a bit of creative license there, fudging the details and making it sound better than it actually is, but it speaks volumes that a quest in as mundane a place as a storehouse can rival some of WoW's more epic raid encounters in terms of enjoyment. There is a genuine understanding here of what makes RPGs and DnD fun and Turbine have gone out of their way to make this game appeal to people like me. It has it's flaws, without a doubt and due to the nature of the content, some repetition is involved (ie. you should really do the quests on multiple difficulty settings to get enough XP to advance), but the difficulty ramps up so much and the change from solo-friendly to party-essential is such a paradigm shift that the dungeon feels and plays different the second and even third and forth times.
As well as being essential for most Hard and Elite mode dungeons, grouping up in DDO really does reap rewards, both tangibly and in terms of player enjoyment. The combat system in which collision detection both exists and plays a major role, makes the role of the tank that much more important. Not only that, but the need to aim your spells and arrows as well as the genuine benefits to flanking and getting up behind the enemy make for a much more dynamic and enjoyable experience. As much as it often involves holding the button down to auto-attack, there is a genre of RPG that did very well on that basis, that of the hack-and-slash. DDO combines meaty 'bone-crunching' hack and slash, backed up by great feedback and strong sound assets with the hot-key activated abilities of more traditional MMOs and other PC-based RPGs. Add in the genuine danger that the harder modes offer and the drive to stay alive so as not to for-go your persistance XP bonus (which you get for not dying) and you have a game where players really must work as a team. It's not just the combat, DnD wouldn't be DnD without traps and secret doors, both of which are there in abundance. Even though they're always in the same place every run, traps can be deadly and secret doors often yield hidden mini-bosses and chests of loot. Caution and exploration are paramount and bringing a rogue along for the ride doesn't hurt either. Quests also have various 'checks' which favour particular classes, so don't expect a party of stringy wizards to be lifting huge boulders, nor barbarians deciphering mystic runes. It all comes together in a stellar realisation of cooperative roleplaying for the modern gaming scene, capturing the glory and essence of what makes RPGs enjoyable while dodging the arbitrary grind that other MMOs seem to feel the need to impose on you. The mark of a truly great MMO, in this writer's view, is the ability to play it solo and have it hold it's own against single-player games. That means when you add other players into the mix, you're genuinely multiplying the enjoyment of an already good experience, as opposed to mitigating the boredom by surrounding yourself with friendly voices. DDO achieves what so few other games have managed in this regard and breaks the mold in terms of what an MMO can achieve in terms of gameplay.
You really could do worse than giving this game a try. It's Free2Play incarnation launches in 2 days and those of us who subscribed are getting to enjoy it right now. There is an awful lot to like about this game. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some kobolds to slay.