When I mentioned that I was playing Dungeons and Dragons Online, several of my friends expressed disdain. Sure, it may be free now, but they'd played it in the original beta and it sucked - and they just couldn't be convinced that it could have gotten any better. Meanwhile, it was hard for me to wrap my mind around the massive number of changes the game had gone through. Over time, it has changed from a game that I had once found nearly unplayable, to one I could barely tear myself away from. There's a lot of controversy about a game that suddenly went free to play, and has been sucking in players since. But since subscription rates are up 40% since the subscription model change, Dungeons and Dragons Online is definitely getting something right.
Interface and Combat
One aspect of DDO that stands out is its break from the typical combat system of auto-attack plus skills. The game plays like an action RPG, and although it offers an auto-attack feature, it proves easier and more beneficial to manually attack enemies. There's an ounce more of unpredictability, and a great deal of flexibility built into DDO, more so than in most MMORPGs on the market.
Unfortunately, this can also be seen as a complaint. Some find that combat is nothing more than hack-and-slash, with no use for skills or abilities - just swing your weapon until the enemy is dead. The beginning gaming experience can be misleading in that regard; it truly can seem like there is no need for crowd control. Yet for all the groups that I experienced, there was a very real success gap between groups that rushed into the fray and simply beat things to death versus those that were careful about choosing combat targets and using abilities and spells to disable enemies that would be left to kill later. While it may seem like there are fewer tactics to use against enemies than players might be used to, that does not mean that tactics are useless - it simply means they must be used wisely.
A Plethora of Character Options
There are six races and eleven basic classes in DDO, two of each of which are specially obtained via favor or purchases in the DDO Store. There are no racial restrictions to classes, although certain races do perform better with some classes than others. Just like Dungeons and Dragons, players are free to multi-class at their leisure, and this means that players are free to create hundreds of personalized builds - which, as anyone who has visited the DDO forums can attest to, they do at a prolific rate.
In fact, the ability to customize a character is so open in DDO that many new players will find it daunting unless they are previously familiar with Dungeons and Dragons rule sets. The open customization also means that it is very easy to make a critical error when building a character, especially if it's not planned out in advance. While DDO does offer 'pre-made' characters that spend points automatically for the player, these builds are relatively weak compared to a well thought out player build, and often present some poor choices in feats and abilities. Since there is no "easy reset" option, players may tinker several times with new characters before finding something they enjoy.
The New Player and Korthos
New players to DDO become familiar with Korthos Island, the tutorial area, very quickly. A small adventure pack of its own right, Korthos introduces basic combat and interface concepts with a great series of quests. Here players are introduced to the idea that they can't do everything solo, as they are introduced to traps and locked areas. They're also encouraged to explore their environment - as the search for rares in the Korthos wilderness, or the hunt for the arcane skeleton, can attest. They are even introduced to a few of the many types of puzzles they'll encounter later.
There are a few key issues with the Korthos area, however - the primary being that it discourages the idea of grouping. Players leave Korthos island having been able to solo all of the content, and for good or ill, they get a feeling of being untouchable, of being able to power through content with little risk to their characters. Stepping foot in Stormreach Harbor, new players can be quickly overwhelmed by the existence of quests that are plainly designed for groups, and must learn to either join groups and learn valuable grouping skills, or pick up a hireling and continue to try to solo through the content.
The truth is that there are many things that Korthos doesn't teach new players: for example, the use of the social panel. An indispensable tool for grouping - especially as players become more spread out among different areas - many players resort to using the general chat channel to look for group members, rather than utilize the better tool. New players also aren't taught about shards, crafting, hireling management, guilds, auction houses, mail, and many other things they find themselves suddenly introduced to with no tutorial to hold their hand.
For many new players, the jump from Korthos to Stormreach is a jarring experience, one in which illusions are shattered and dozens of new concepts are thrown at them without any guidance other than that of the community. Korthos is a good start, but needs more to help new players transition into the wide world of Eberron.
The "Dungeon" Issue
What is perhaps more unique to DDO is that every quest has its own instance, or "dungeon" if you will, in which a story takes place, including narration by a dungeon master (DM). In an attempt to stay true to Dungeons and Dragons, the focus is on the party experience - which means that outside of town, all wilderness, dungeon, and quest areas are instanced, leaving all other players to their own version of the world, existing in a parallel universe of sorts.
This type of system has received a great amount of criticism, just as it has in Guild Wars. It's understandable that instancing does take away from that "massive multiplayer" feel, which is what the genre is all about. On one hand, players don't have to worry about other groups griefing them, camping quest monsters or rare spawns, or rotating camps within a dungeon to complete a quest. On the other hand, looking at a social panel for a group feels more like hitting up an online multiplayer poker lounge than it does an epic experience where the world's population exists around you, not in a UI panel.
While wilderness areas, perhaps, could use a de-instancing to offer a more populated feel to the world, the instancing of dungeons offers a more classic, and more epic, experience to the player than does an open system where players can come and go at will. Dungeons are meant to be a chance to feel the thrill of the dungeon crawl by avoiding traps, experiencing events, and unfolding a story; this experience would be ruined by other adventurers traipsing through ahead or behind the player and their party, benefiting from already disarmed traps while having to wait for events or bosses based on a timer.