February 28, 2006 marked the first day of official Dungeons and Dragons Online history. Five years have almost passed for the MMORPG from Turbine, years that have seen significant changes including a historical shift from a pay-to-play to free-to-play model. Although Update 9 is still in the works, Turbine is preparing to launch a celebration of this five year birthday with a special release on February 22, introducing a new anniversary event on top of a small patch. The DDO team, including Ian Currie and Fernando Paiz, gave us a brief tour of this special event, which will last about two weeks.
The special event this year is called “Euphonia's Challenge,” and harkens back to to the first tutorial released with the game. With it comes the public area of Smuggler's Rest, an area that hasn't been available for players in about three years, If you were part of the original DDO beta test, or were an original subscriber, this special public area that unlocks during the event will be familiar to you; players who have joined since DDO went free-to-play will be welcomed for the first time.
Euphonia's Challenge is no longer a short tutorial dungeon run, however. Instead, Smuggler's Rest plays host to a public event very similar to the Mabar Endless Night Festival held around Halloween. The island – which has grown in considerable size – hosts a variety of pirates. Like Mabar, these pirates are non-aggressive and come in a full range of levels. Players will want to pick their battles carefully, and figure out which pirates are best for them to attack. The size of this area makes sure that it's easy to find pirates no matter where you go, although the overgrown jungle and twisting paths can sometimes make it hard to see what's going on in combat, or pirates hiding behind a giant fern.
These pirates will then drop a few items for players to collect: treasure map pieces, compasses, and magic treasure maps. The last of these is most rare, and grants the player (and their party) the chance to collect a special instanced treasure chest in Smuggler's Rest. Regular treasure map pieces may be turned in at Smuggler's Rest to help toward the server's progression to opening Crystal Cove, while compasses allow individual players to enter the instance. The team notes that they've learned some lessons from Mabar to create this event, and one of the changes in functionality is that while the first opening of the Cove on each server will have a relatively steep requirement to celebrate its “server first” moment, subsequent openings will have a smaller requirement as the initial crowd doing the event dies down. Unfortunately, another change from Mabar is the removal of the ability to resell items to other players – though this presents less of a problem during Euphonia's Challenge.
Once enough map pieces are turned in, Crystal Cove opens for forty minutes (enough time to squeeze in two runs). This instance is fairly unique from other instances found in Dungeons and Dragons Online so far, and utilizes several new mechanics that the team hints will appear in the future as well. It may be run solo or in a group of any size, and players may select the difficulty of the instance by level (all the way up to 25), with penalties being suffered for instances below you in level and bonuses granted for those above yours. What this means for players is that the instance can be run at any level, with any composition of friends, at any stretch of difficulty they choose.
So what exactly is it? The team explains it to me as a “collection challenge dungeon” with a lot of strategy involved. Entering the dungeon, you find yourself in charge of a team of kobold miners who search the cove for crystals. These kobolds are a noisy bunch at that; all of their lines have been given new voice acting to entertain you as you work. Your goal is to collect at least 100 crystals in twenty minutes; if you manage to complete this goal before the time limit is up, extra crystals will continue to be collected as additional reward for your team. Items gathered can be bartered in for a host of upgradeable items, including weapons, shields, armor, gloves, rings, and trinkets, available through five different level ranges (every 4 levels from 4 to 20), offering something for just about everyone to earn through the event.
Managing the kobold digging team is a challenging effort. The cave is large, with several splintering paths, but your kobolds just won't run off anywhere to find you crystals: instead, you must manage incense torches, which can be placed – along with healing torches – in any sort of path you choose to lead the kobolds in. Extra torches, barrels, and other boosts to your kobolds can be purchased at the entrance of the mine, each of which also costs from the crystals you've collected. Basic crystal collection is a careful management of spending what you've collected in order to gain more, moving torches to direct the kobolds to new crystals, and using the right amount of additional items to help speed your collection.
This wouldn't be as challenging, though, if the kobolds weren't vulnerable to attack. Undead and pirates fill the caves, and will charge in to attack your helpless little yipping companions – who won't fight back, and can be killed. Thankfully, those kobolds can also be healed and buffed, and the waves can be fought off relatively well with only one or two players, leaving the rest of the team to manage other aspects of the instance. Once 100 crystals are collected, though, the difficulty steepens, and enemies stream in more often, and more powerful, to thwart your extra collecting attempts.
This may all sound very easy in print, and it can be easy once you get used to what's happening in the instance, especially in a group that splits duties among its members. Initially, however, the feeling is one of controlled chaos – charging up and down a torch line to make sure your kobolds are safe; removing torches to place a new line while watching the kobolds still behind you to make sure they find their way back; rushing back to the entrance to save your kobolds that were attacked while you were placing a line far into the corners of the Cove – all of it leads for a very intense, and very fun, twenty minute instance, one that many will be disappointed to see go at the end of the event.
Euphonia's Challenge is not all that players will be rewarded with for the 5th birthday celebration. Each player will earn a special commerative gift: a pirate cap. These caps come in six varieties and styles; each character will earn one voucher to redeem for these hats in Smuggler's Rest. The hats are rewarded on a “tier” system; the initial tier is based on the age of the character, and then elevated up a tier for each of three conditions (if they apply): having an active VIP subscription, having a Founder's Account, and having True Reincarnated at least once. These hats offer special bonuses inside the Euphonia's Challenge event, as well as other enchantable adventuring bonuses, and are worth redeeming if you're going to take part – as well as if you'd like a fancy pirate hat to show off in the future. The previous egg hunt will also be active this year for players who enjoyed it.
In addition to the events, plus various small tweaks and fixes, players will also be able to purchase a new “dark steel” color scheme for all four lines of the cosmetic armor sets, adding a nice dark look for the players who fancy things black or grey. Turbine's also ramping up to a beta of the free-to-play version of DDO in Europe in March (with French and German localization), which they plan to launch officially in April. While North American players will have to continue their wait for Update 9, the birthday celebrations certainly aren't a wash.