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MMORPG | Genre:Fantasy | Status:Final  (rel 02/28/06)  | Pub:Atari
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Dungeons & Dragons Online Previews: Game Preview

By Jon Wood on November 14, 2005

Eberron, Instancing, No PvP? No Problem.

A Hardcore DnD Fan Has His Concerns Addressed

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a press event for Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach. Before I even left, I knew what to expect. I was told that the game’s lead designer, Ken Troop was going to give us a brief overview of the game before we ourselves would have a chance to sit down in front of it.

Those were the expectations that I was told to have. The trip, for me, came with its own set of expectations. I am what you would call a hard-core DnD player. I still run a game with my friends and we tend to play at least two or three times a week, and have been for the last six or seven years. I love everything about the pen and paper version of the game. My girlfriend plays and my dog’s “ball” is actually a big, plush D20. That’s the kind of DnD nerd I am.

It is not just the game though, it is the chance that it gives me to be social with my friends. A good DnD game, especially an MMO, needs to capture both the feeling of the game and the social aspect in order to make me happy. Frankly, what I was hearing about DDO had my expectations riding low. Now that I have had a chance to see the game in action, I am actually excited about it again, as the people at Turbine seem to have captured the essence of Dungeons and Dragons.

When the first information about Dungeons and Dragons Online started to come out, I was furious. Not just angry, but Ben Stiller’s Mr. Furious from Mystery Men, jumping up and down on top of a limo in a blinding rage kind of furious.

First, the game was going to take place in the Eberron campaign setting. Eberron is the newest of the gaming worlds for the franchise. It reminds me of a cross between a mystery novel and the wonderfully ambiguous fantasy/magic/sci-fi feeling of something like He-Man. Quite frankly, simply is not my personal cup of tea in terms of pen and paper gaming.

Instanced quests also infuriated me. Why play an MMORPG if you can’t at least see hundreds of other people playing at the same time? That is the reason that I pay my monthly fees.

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Turbine took two things that I really don’t like, and put them squarely at the center of my favorite franchise. Was it a recipe for disaster? No. As it turns out, the combination of those two factors - which are seen as fairly unpopular choices by some members of the community - contribute greatly to a good game that captures the essence of pen and paper.

The Eberron campaign setting is a blessing for the people at Turbine for a number of reasons. First, the film-noirish, almost episodic nature of the campaign setting allows them to set their game in one central city (Stormreach) and not make players feel limited in the grand scope of things. This is something that would have been more difficult to achieve in the far more popular Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance settings with which players are intimately familiar. In both of those settings, the intrigue and adventure span the world. Limiting players to a city would have been a crippling decision. In Eberron though, it seems to fit. Eberron also allows the developers (and consequently the players) to carve out a unique niche in the world rather than have to exist in a pre-defined space.

Instancing: This may be one of the hottest topics in the MMORPG world today. To instance, or not to instance? Not to instance can result in a chaotic world that is very difficult to maintain from a story perspective. It can also be difficult to really feel as though you, as a player, are personally making a difference.

On the other hand, the lack of instanced quests does add to a feeling of reality in the game, as well as allowing players to freely interact while on quests even without being in a group. A highly instanced game like DDO (all of the quests are instanced) may not have the same “feel” as a classic MMORPG. It tends to limit the amount of social interaction available to its players, and creates more of a close-off feeling within the game’s community. It seems, however, to have been a perfect fit for a game like DDO, because the pen and paper version of Dungeons and Dragons isn’t about playing in a world full of hundreds and thousands of other players. Rather, it is about playing a game with three to six of your friends. Something that is ideally represented through instancing as you and your party complete their instanced quests.

Troop called this style “a private playground for you and your friends to enjoy”. I can imagine myself, once the game releases, getting my regular DnD friends together to form a DDO party and hitting the game’s dungeons and quests and having a great time. Sure, some hardcore MMORPG players will not be happy with this decision, but Troop also said that the developers were “trying to capture the essence of the pen and paper” and that they were not, necessarily trying to “be an MMORPG”; meaning that their loyalty seems to be to the franchise first, and to the genre second.

Turbine’s desire to capture the feeling of the pen and paper game could also explain the noticeable lack of some of the other typical conventions of an MMORPG: crafting and PvP. Neither of these two features work toward capturing “the heart of D&D”, and so, have been left behind. I can not remember the last time that I ran an adventure where the focus was to forge a sword. Sure, my characters generally have the ability to do this, but rarely is it necessary, and often, it is simply glossed over with a skill check.

Generally speaking, if you are a DM who is running a campaign where the goal is for players to kill one another, then you are doing something wrong. Yes, the freedom of a pen and paper game allows us to do those things, but they are not necessary to the experience.

When you put all of these factors together, you end up with DDO as it stood when I first played it on November 8th. No, it is not exactly what members of the MMORPG community may be expecting. It is not your typical MMO. What it is though, is an excellent digital interpretation - by no means an exact duplicate or replacement - of a game that I have known and loved for nearly 12 years.


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