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E3 2005 Preview

Dana Massey Posted:
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From E3 – Wednesday May 25th, 2005

Turbine is hard at work on two new exciting franchises and during a one-hour session, they showed off both Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online. The former being the furthest along in development – we will start there. Turbine has a tough challenge to take the most celebrated pen and paper game in history and adapt it faithfully into the new medium. To do this they have chosen to set the game in Eberron, the newest world from Wizards of the Coast. This relatively new slate allows the team the unique position of reciprocal influence as their decisions help shape the franchise. The game and company names will draw crowds, but from what Turbine showed us, the team is not resting there. Dungeons & Dragons Online looks to be an extremely solid product with a bright future – even if you stripped away the massive names attached to it.

For those unfamiliar, the Wizards of the Coast world of Eberron is the newest release in the D&D family. The development team seemed quite excited about the high-fantasy setting this world provides them. The world is awash with floating towers, elemental airships and other amazing wonders - much less gritty than some previous D&D worlds. As mentioned, being a younger setting, it also allowed Turbine a unique opportunity. The license is not a shackle. For example, they have created unique and original creatures in house that have found their way into the Wizards of the Coast books, rather than be confined to a pre-existing library.

D&D Online has chosen to go for a small, community-focused approach to game design. Their servers will support only up to one-thousand players concurrently. This decision is not a technical constraint, but rather a game design choice that they hope fosters an increased sense of community and belonging, especially for those players who are new to the game. To facilitate this emphasis on community, Turbine has chosen to have the city of Stormreach be the central hub not just for new players, but all players. In most games, a player starts in a newbie town surrounded by newbies. This can be daunting. A few weeks after launch, this becomes a problem as new players must wade through and find their own place in a community that may not be easy to find. They want to give new players something to aspire to and a community to welcome them.

Like many others at the show, Turbine has also sought to remove the tedious parts of the past generation of MMOs. There will be virtually no travel required – and as such no horses. They want you to see your friends, get ready and then go instantly to the fun part: the dungeons. As such, the game is highly instanced and virtually devoid of empty pointless countryside and bunny bashing. This choice ties into the advancement system that does not reward killing monsters, but rather the completion of quests. It really does not matter how you complete a quest; simply that you do.

At launch, the team hopes to have one-hundred hand-made adventure areas for players to enjoy. Inside these physical spaces, players will sometimes find only a single version, while at other times the same map may be used for multiple unique quests. The team is high on instancing as it allows them to tell a better story, which is the heart of Dungeons & Dragons. Players will never just walk around a corner and find monsters mindlessly milling around. Instead, they will be triggered by your arrival, waiting in ambush, or enter the room from an opposite entry the same time you do. You are a hero on an adventure and the game is built to emphasize that.

The game also features multiple paths to victory. As mentioned, players gain experience through the completion of the quest – not through individual encounters. As such, this opens the door for the rogue to sneak through the dungeon and steal the trophy rather than being forced to slaughter all he meets. Another good example was a situation where the developers saw a room so full of monsters that they did not dare pass at that level. They poked around, and eventually found a puzzle nearby. Upon completion, it triggered a trap that wiped out the enemies in that room and let them continue. This situation would not have been possible from a game balance perspective if they had received experience for each kill in that room.

Another neat part of the game is how they have incorporated some D&D skills players may not expect into their game. For example, in one instance the player “heard” something in the distance. This was not simply a scripted pop-up, but rather a skill check against their listening skill. As the avatar in the demo had enough skill, he was able to hear the disturbance and adjust accordingly. This gave him a heads up that even other members of his party may have missed.

The “Dungeon Master” is an element of D&D that players probably assumed lost in the translation to an online game. Not so says Turbine. “DM Text” helps players through the missions and tells the story of the quest they are on. In the version we saw, this was simply non-obtrusive white text that flashed on the screen at key moments during the adventure. It was both functional - in that it helped you know what to do - as well as theatrical - in that it will be used to tell the story you are on. This was an exciting translation of the DM hovering over your shoulder people remember from the tabletop experience.

Visually, Turbine makes beautiful games – it is as simple as that. Dungeons & Dragons will once again raise the bar for the industry. Unlike some titles, this was not simply a technical wonder. Dungeons & Dragons Online looks to excite non-fans of D&D with beautiful wonders and wonderful art direction, while it also keeps fans of the franchise happy with a world that faithfully brings Eberron to the screen. Artistically, Turbine may well be the industry leader at this stage. Only a few games on the floor rivaled this title’s visual appeal, and one of them shared a booth with it.

Two hot-button issues the average MMO player always want to know are if the game is casual friendly and if the game is solo-able. It is rare that the answer to both is yes and no. As the game puts players of all levels into one area, it allows people to quickly find an adventure group if they choose and instantly hit an adventure. This means that players will be able to get in, have fun and get out without a huge time investment. However, the game will be primarily geared towards group play, with some exceptions at the early levels of the game.

Turbine has an extremely promising title on its hands with Dungeons & Dragons Online. There are some concerns - for example, the excessive amount of clicking that seemed to be required during combat – but with several months left before launch, they have plenty of time to get things down to a fine polish. So far, Dungeons & Dragons Online seems to have conquered the seemingly impossible task of translating the world’s most beloved tabletop RPG into a massively multi-player online game.

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Dana Massey