Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Is Dungeons and Dragons Online Really Dungeons and Dragons?

Last month Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) went live for the game playing public. It seems odd that a Dungeons and Dragons based massive multiplayer online roleplaying game would take so long to come into existence. D&D was the first roleplaying game and I was one of many who hoped that it would also be one of the first game IPs (intellectual properties) to navigate the unexplored waters of the interwebonetosphere.

The Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game is one step closer to a fantasy every roleplayer has had from time to time, total immersion, and D&D's founders and players have speculated about such games for a long time. Total immersion speculation, and fiction, are as old as roleplaying itself. Shortly after the original D&D came out Andre Norton wrote the novel Quag Keep where D&D players find themselves inserted into the World of Greyhawk (a D&D game world). Joel Rosenberg wrote a series of fantasy novels where players are transported into a fantasy roleplaying environment with his Guardians of the Flame Series. Science fiction authors Larry Niven and Steven Barnes combined the joy of roleplaying games with Michael Crichton's Westworld in Dream Park, a kind of rpg Disneyland.

Combining roleplaying and player immersion has had a lively life in fiction, but it has also been becoming a reality with the creation of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. In these games, the players are able to actually see the world they are interacting with (rather than merely imagining as with table-top rpgs) and are able to design the appearance of their own avatar. Even the world's worst artist can have a great looking character thanks to skilled graphics programmers. MMORPGs make the mechanics of play largely transparent to the player which has the effect of minimizing, but not eliminating, metagaming. Metagaming is when players think of game effects in terms of mechanics rather than narrative. In a table-top session, metagaming can (but doesn't always) detract from the illusion many players attempt to create when playing rpgs. In other words, baring the invention of the holodeck (or interdimensional accidents like that in the D&D cartoon) MMORPGs are the closest thing to total immersion in existence today.

MMORPGs, in one form or another, have been in existance since around 1978, but those were text based affairs that didn't in anyway capture the modern gaming experience. Actually, saying they existed in 1978 is like comparing Hack to Baldur's Gate, but the early text based MUD's were multiplayer gaming experiments. The first modern total immersion style MMORPG was Meridian 59 in 1996. My own personal first experience was Ultima Online (1997), followed by Everquest (1999), Asheron's Call (1999), City of Heroes (2004), and World of Warcraft (late 2004, though I started in 2005). I just recently started playing Dungeons and Dragons Online.

Given that the first modern MMORPG was created in 1996, and that most MMORPGs are based on D&D style "generic" (as opposed to genera)fantasy worlds, what took the owners of the Dungeons and Dragons IP so long in entering the marketplace?

I can think of quite a few reasons actually.

First, in 1996 TSR --the company who created Dungeons and Dragons-- had ceased to make games of any sort and were on the verge of extinction. The company had tried to emulate the success of trading card games with its own collectible dice game. They over invested in that game while simultaneously branching into new areas in its tried and true RPG line. They overpublished Dragon Dice, and they overpublished new game worlds in 1995. The company was in the process of being purchased by another entity, Wizards of the Coast, and had little to no room to think about expanding into new markets.

Second, the "standard" computer RPGs for the D&D game were highly successful and set a very high standard of playability. If a D&D MMORPG were to come out, it would be instantly compared to the existing games based on the Baldur's Gate engine.

Third, as soon as Wizards purchased TSR they began planning for a new edition of the D&D game with new rules and character design innovations based on the past 20+ years of roleplaying "playtesting." If the D&D MMORPG wanted to emulate the experience, it would have to reflect these changes. Most players of a D&D MMORPG would want it to "feel" D&D and not like some random other MMORPG.

Fourth, the separation of player and Dungeon Master in the traditional rpg gaming format. Bioware's re-designed Neverwinter Nights was a genuine attempt to create computer based roleplaying where a dungeon master could design the adventures and the players could play them. It was, and is, an extraordinary game and for many makes the idea of an MMORPG unnecessary.

Fifth, game world. Which of D&D's many game worlds would be used in the creation of an MMORPG? Greyhawk? The Forgotten Realms? Mystara? Dark Sun? D&D has a lot of worlds and each has its own very devoted fans. Choose one world and you might lose potential clients who are fans of the others.

Sixth, the expectations for a game based on the original roleplaying game were huge. Whoever was to create the game would have to be willing to be under electron-microscope-like scrutiny. No matter what was made there would be detractors. did Turbine Entertainment do with their version of Dungeons and Dragons Online? For me, they did an almost perfect job. They captured the feel of D&D's newest game world, Eberron, combined it with a Player vs. Environment world which requires "adventuring parties" (groups of players) and doesn't require a large commitment of time to play.

Dungeons and Dragons Online, is just right for the casual MMORPG gamer like me. If you want to play your MMORPG and still have time to play pen and paper D&D on the weekends, it is certainly the game for you. The game, with minor exceptions, utilizes the mechanics of the Dungeons and Dragons game and integrates them into the MMORPG format with remarkable ease.

Which leads to my criticisms, or rather to the criticisms because none of these issues affect me as a player (well except one).

As the game currently stands a devoted player can finish all the dungeons and max out their character level in a relatively short time. Not me, I'm still Level 3 (rank 2), but the typical 1337 player who often plays MMORPGs won't be very satisfied and will quickly return to World of Warcraft. I see this as a good thing. I had "leet" power "doods" and prefer those who are there to have a good time.

The game is Player vs. Environment and lacks a Player vs. Player element. Many people enjoy PvP interaction in their massive multiplayer rpgs. They want to beat up on other people, defeating computer "bots" isn't sufficient for them. These gamers need MMORPGs to simulate the most dangerous game, killing real people. I tend not to like PvP players, finding that they are mean spirited and what they really want to do is be bullies to less experienced players. Traditionally, at least as Gygax and others present the game, the D&D game is players vs. environment with the DM as judge/narrator. Sometimes people viewed it as DM vs. Player, but that is short sighted and leads to unsatisfying gaming. Some players want "inter-party strife" and backstab for treasures etc. That tends to create short lived campaigns. Heroes battling evil, or villains conquering worlds, makes for good long term narrative and thus promotes campaign play. PvP elements tend to detract, in my opinion, from the overall enjoyment of an rpg. The day DDO goes PvP will be the day I unsubcribe.

The game doesn't perfectly reflect the rules of D&D. In DDO, there are spell points, 30 hit point first level characters, multiple ranks per level, and "free real-time" movement. If you want 5-foot steps and low hit points, this is not the game for you. The addition of multiple ranks per level comes with two key changes from the table top game. First, players essentially get one additional feat (ability) per rank (rather than once every 4 levels). Second, the current "10" level limit is in actuality closer to a 40 level limit in some respects. I understand that the emulation of D&D within the structure of a MMORPG requires some modification and these changes seem natural to me.

There is a great deal to praise about the Dungeons and Dragons Online MMORPG.

Graphically, it is beautiful. I love exploring new areas just to see what they look like. Turbine's game is more demanding in its hardware requirements than World of Warcraft, for good and for ill. By requiring more power, they were able to make the world look richer, but they also narrowed their audience to people with newer (meaning in the 21st century) computers.

The music and sound effects are great. My favorite adaptation/innovation is the incorporation of an omnicient DM voice when you enter some areas of dungeons. I was pleasantly surprised when I was informed that my ability to "Listen" revealed the sound of air passing beneath a wall. The DM voice narrates and describes dungeon environments and provides clues to players based on the skills they have selected. What this means is that the gaming experience is altered by your skill choices, cool innovation.

But when it comes to why I will continue playing DDO rather than other MMORPGs it's really very simple. When I sit down and play for a mere two-hours, I can accomplish an adventure and meet new people. In fact, I am required to interact with others. Recluses can have a heyday on World of Warcraft, but they would have a rough time on DDO. My only hope is that I start to find more people who want to play DDO in character.

If you are one of them Soulfinder Symbol is waiting to help you in your quest to fight the forces of the Dragon Below.
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