The free to play version of Dungeons and Dragons Online has been online for four months now, and millions of players have visited (and revisited) the world of Eberron. The re-envisioned MMO has gotten several awards since, including MMORPG.com's Best F2P MMO of 2009. "We're so excited by the way the game has been received by the press," said Fernando Paiz, DDO Unlimited's Executive Producer.
On February 3rd, Update 3 will go live on DDO's servers. This update is the first that has been designed after the free to play model began, as Updates 1 and 2 were mostly complete before the business model transition. Players will see a great response to their feedback to the new F2P model in this update, and some significant changes make Dungeons and Dragons Online even friendlier for the free-to-play player.
One of the problems with the new free to play model for DDO was that despite being familiar, there were some things that were confusing, even arguably not living up to the free-to-play ideal. One of the main complaints surrounding DDO's new model was the leveling sigil system, in which F2P players had to obtain a special item - the aptly-named leveling sigil - before the end of every four character levels in order to level further. Update 3 removes this sigil system entirely, allowing players unrestricted, non-gated access from level one to twenty. This removes confusion on the soft level cap that some new players were confused about. It also eliminates the need for players to run through content they've experienced just for a chance to get one of the sigils in the first place.
Solo and small group players will also be pleased to find that solo difficulty has essentially been replaced by "casual difficulty." This new difficulty is available on all quests except raids and solo-only quests, and is catered to players who like to go through quests alone or with a small group, and find normal difficulty a bit too much. This change increases playability and access to the game, considering the number of players, like myself, who play with family or a small group of friends.
The new update also adds the first free high-level content pack. This is another milestone, as previously, free quests and adventure packs were only available until level 11 for free players. "We want to support the free player experience," Fernando said. "Our philosophy is not to save the good stuff for only saved content." The DDO team want to make it clear that they will no longer being offering only premium content with their updates.
To that point, this update introduces four free high level dungeons, from CR (Challenge Rating) 13 to 18, covering the span of levels all the way to 20. If you were to write a survival guide for the new quests being released, it would include sections on beholders, black dragons, hambies and clambies (more on this later), and kobolds, just to name a few of the many encounters that players will experience. I had a chance to experience two of these new dungeons first-hand: Delirium and Mired in Kobolds.
Delirium sends you into an inn near the Tower of the Twelve, which was an area that previously had little in it. Now, it has unfortunately been infested by guests from Xoriat, the Plane of Madness. The first thing players run into inside is a group of beholders "relaxing" at the bar. Players will then have to drink them under the table in a drinking game. This is just start of the many "mad things" in the dungeon. As you explore, you'll have to deal with varying levels of insanity, including food in the kitchen coming to life as "hambies" and "clambies" (that's ham and clam zombies).
Those who have played, hassled, and frustrated over tile puzzles, as most have, will get a great deal of satisfaction and laughter as they near the end of the dungeon. Personally, I couldn't stop laughing at the end-boss long enough to do something useful to end its life, and I am sure many players will enjoy the first play (and many replays) through this humorous, secret-filled dungeon.
I also got a look at Mired in Kobolds, a CR 13 dungeon where free players get to experience a few new things, including high level kobolds. The design behind this dungeon, and the others being introduced, is that the difficulty ramps up as players go further in. They will receive rewards for their trouble even if they don't finish all of the challenges, however. As players go through the high-leveled kobold camps, they will find crystals. If they can figure out the secrets of those crystals, they can, in turn, use those crystals to their advantage throughout the rest of the dungeon. Players will also find it a good idea to have good ranged and jumping abilities handy here as well.
Mired in Kobolds also offers the first dragon that free players will face hand-to-hand; an optional end boss that requires more thought; and the endless amusement of sending kobolds rocketing into the sky and to their doom. Even during the demo, teamwork was quite imperative, especially when facing off against a dragon. All of this coming from an instance that's a fairly straight-forward, though still exciting, dungeon experience.
The other two dungeons included are In the Demon's Den, which pits players against a marilith sorceress, and Acid Wit, which sends players in against the ever popular troglodytes. Players will also find that a new event, the Risia Ice Games, has been added in honor of the Winter Olympics. This event will allow players to ski-jump high in the air over the Harbor, and participate in ice skating events by the Harbor Lighthouse and House Phiarlan's tavern, collecting ice coins which players can use to craft unique ice themed rewards. Another event to celebrate Stormreach's fourth birthday will be introduced toward the end of February.
The designers have also made some graphic overhauls in Stormreach, especially in the Marketplace. It makes Stormreach a cleaner, more visually appealing area. A new nighttime mode, which takes place for 20 minutes out of a three hour day cycle, brings stars to the sky and new lights to the streets of Stormreach. The result is stunning, whether it's a lit House banner, the soft glow of lanterns hanging across a street, or a ship alight as it flies through the sky (a la Spelljammer, to those who remember).
Veteran players will also be pleased to experience Vault of Night, the first adventure pack released for DDO, on Epic Difficulty, with new rewards (including Red Dragon Scale Armor), to quest for. This marks the second adventure pack to receive the Epic Difficulty makeover. Two new types of reincarnation have been introduced as a DDO Store exclusive as well, allowing players to fully respec existing characters, including multi-class choices.
Update 3 brings a lot of massive changes to the game, both in expanding the free-player experience and in introducing brand new content suitable for all players. These changes show that the DDO Unlimited team is showing they listen to player feedback and are willing to make the game more enjoyable for free-to-play and subscription players alike. As this is update is the first created after the F2P business model transition, all things point to DDO Unlimited continuing to build upon its 2009 success well into 2010.