My first MMORPG was a little free game with terrible graphics and a horrible levelling experience. I played it for a while and then got bored after killing my hundredth rat. I had never heard yet of things like raids and dungeons. Then I started playing WoW. I’m by no means and old-timer – in fact I’m a wrath-baby but I have become quite an adept raider I think and I came to love my time in the game. I like the community, I like the infinite variety of things to do and the complexity of the world and it’s varied population.
Then on thursday I had a touch of bad luck – my computer’s power supply broke. I went to get a new one and while chatting to the shop-assistant I mentioned that I’m a wow-player. He told me he played DDO and then waxed lyrical about how much better it was. I had my doubts but decided to spend what was destined to be a very quiet weekend on WoW trying the game out – seeing as it’s free to play – and find out what it’s like.
My conclusion – it’s just not good enough. There are a number of things blizzard got right with WoW that DDO just doesn’t. In theory DDO should be a briliant online game- it’s got the power of the most popular and advanced RPG fighting system behind it, the storytelling power DnD is famous for and it’s got all this in an online game with enormous character uniqueness and customization capability.
So why doesn’t it work ? Well there are a few reasons I picked up, but I think they mean that DDO will always be a niche-market game while WoW stands with 11-million active subscriptions, and they aren’t the reasons that you may expect.
1) A matter of scale:
DDO tries very hard to stay as true as possible to it’s tabletop roots. The trouble is, this doesn’t work for an MMORPG. It just doesn’t. It’s one thing to have "raid" defined as maximum 12-players when you’re in a tabletop setting, it’s quite another online. It’s one thing to have every quest in a dungeon when every player is your friend who is playing with you right now – but it backfires in DDO.
In WoW you are questing out in the world – you don’t even enter a dungeon until level 15, as you quest you meet other players, some will help you with quests some will just pass you by but 90% of all the things you do happen outside in the world. You’re interacting with people all the time. In DDO every time you start a quest, you get cut off from everybody who isn’t in your party (so if you solo quite a bit while levelling to get used to playing your class – you may as well be playing diablo – the fact that it’s online becomes irrelevent).
This is why, perhaps, I’ve yet to see a mount in DDO (I think they don’t exist) – while in WoW they aren’t just nice – they are incredibly useful. Because you’re traversing the world, what fantasy hero doesn’t ride on his quest ? Well unless you’re Tolkiens hobbits – nobody else wants to walk everywhere. It also means to get between areas you have to fly/take a boat. You can’t walk and explore because the city exits lead to combat zones – that don’t have another exit. To make DnD work online you would have to break some of it’s traditions – not the things that define the game, but the things that are essential when it’s 5 close friends playing at home and horrible when it’s 5000 playing online.
2) Free to play done wrong.
Blizzard has a store where you can buy things for use in game. They do so little to promote it that many players don’t even know it exists. The things you can buy are: pets, a mount that can only do what you already can (but all-in-one).
There is nothing there that has any practical value in the game. Nothing that will give those who spend money in the game anything but purely cosmetic results. You cannot buy yourself a stronger character. You cannot buy better gear. You have to earn it.
DDO because they don’t have a subscription fee pushes the store in your face all the time. True you can earn storepoints just from playing but that comes pretty slow and so far I’ve spent mine all on healing potions. If you don’t buy you will soon find you cannot compete with those who do. That ultimately slants the game in favor of those with the most cash to burn instead of those with the most skill – and it annoys the hell out of you – especially as a newer player.
Blizzard developers probably spend more time on the forums talking about class-balance than any other topic. If the WoW developers have a golden rule it’s this: when two players meet for PvP or dueling – the one who plays his class and spec the best should win. Your playstyle should determine your class entirely by itself, there should never be a case of "but if I choose this class I can’t be competitive" – and that goes just as much for PVE as PVP. Now sometimes this is hard to do – occasionally a class is overpowered and can expect a nerf, sometimes one gets underpowered and can expect a buff – but that is the constantly pursued ideal.
In DDO even as you look over the paths there are ratings on how difficult it would be to play what you are looking at. The most interesting looking one for me was necromancer – but it was rated "Expert players only" – I opted for the Elementalist path instead, which was only rated "challenging".
The lack of balance is partly a result of the major amount of customization. Multiclassing comes in to push things even further aside – but all this means that you can’t be sure your character can keep up, can even survive, without a ton of research. Some have massive advantages -paladins especially while others are incredibly hard to play or level.
4) Too much downtime
A DnD tradition is that spellpoints can only be recovered at designated rest points. This is a good system in tabletop gaming, as it forces the group to plan their approach to a quest – when to use casters and what they should aim at. In DDO especially while solo’ing it just becomes a drag. As a wizard I should be able to rely on my spells for a purely ranged combat approach, even when soloing. Instead I need to save my prescious spellpoints over almost every battle as there may very well be a boss – and then I’m in trouble if I don’t have any left. So I have to risk my very low HP in close-combat with a staff or sword instead… yeah that’s not a good thing.
It prevents me from playing to my own class’s nature and strengths. Unless I run the same quest five or six times to learn exactly what the dungeon layout is like, where rest areas are and how best to spend them… but these are just quests – you do that with big raids, you don’t want to do it with a simple levelling quest. It’s boring.
There are potions that can restore spellpoints during play – but guess what, you have to spend money to get them… basically if my hireling is doing more damage than I can because I’m a weak little wizard fighting with a stick rather than daring to cast a spell… then the game isn’t working. Now this apparently gets much better as you get to higher levels, but then the game designers should make it a little easier to recover in earlier quests by giving you more rest areas and making them a little easier to find.
5) Not enough variety of attack
Having to prepare spells at a tavern then use on those small selections in quests – sucks. I am a wizard – I know lots of spells, I chose wizard over sorceror to get more, now you tell me I can’t use any of them except what I chose based on a general "this is what I expect to do" basis. I end up generalizing – choosing my best defense, best crowd control and best nuke spell and go in with that. No rotation, no experimentation – just the same 4 spells. You though WoW had fixed rotations ? To an extent but at least there are other spells you can and must use regularly to survive. A warlock who doesn’t have soulshatter handy is asking to die no matter how good his rotation is – we have bars and bars of spells. Some we cast all the time, some only now and then, but we got them handy when we need them and this means that fights can be more varied, require more tactics. You don’t have a one-size-fits-all-bosses-in-this-dungeon approach and that means the bosses can be more different than they are in DDO, than they ever could be.
Yeah, I seriously think WoW has better and more immersive lore than DnD even if a large part of the player population doesn’t care, it’s there. In WoW from the moment you start your character – you need to choose a race, and in so doing you are choosing a side. You’re picking your side in the major overarching conflict between rogue and alliance but also in several other political and military events. Forsaken may be choosing horde but they are also choosing a specific hatred against lordaeron and gilneas and even the rest of their own faction.
If you play a gnome you are choosing a race that didn’t join the alliance because they agreed with them in particular (they don’t really care about politics at all really -they choose their best inventor to be their king) they joined because their friends the dwarves did. Had the Orcs found them and befriended them first, they would have joined the horde.
So your are choosing a character from a culture – and that culture defines his political outlook. For a gnome loyalty to friends matters more than honor or glory or any of the other things. For an orc honor is all that matters at all. You are immediately part of the overarching story, going back thousands of years, you’re not just a bitplayer – right from the start, you are a part of history a small but ever larger part.
As your reputation grows (literally) you become allied with factions and though you are usually effectively a mercenary – you are honored for your endeavours and get chosen for the most perilous missions, and sometimes you take orders from the most important people in the land. People you come to respect for their nobility and their faillings alike. You participate in events that shape the future, when you do the wrathgate quests in Ice Crown you watch as the Horde and Alliance team up to challenge the greatest threat to life on Azeroth… and lose. See them knocked back and then betrayed by a subfaction of one of their own side groups as the forsaken rains plague barrels on Horde, Alliance and Scourge soldiers alike.
In the aftermath, Alexstraza the dragon queen asks you to visit your king (sorry I haven’t done this on horde), and you do so. Then you fight your way into the undercity with both Varian Wrynn and Jaina Proudmore fighting side by side with you. You watch as Variann comes within inches of killing Thrall in cold blood, and as Jaina talks him out of it (and suddenly that moment when Varian lets Saurfang pass to get to his son’s corpse – the son you had to slay from undeath after he fell at the wrathgate) has so much more meaning as you see how Wrynn had grown as a person and a king after those events.
And that’s just one story, there’s a world of them. All tied together and appart just like real history – you see pieces, you are a part of many pieces – you have a story, a legend that you build up.
In DDO – you are a mercenary adventurer who takes quests. If there’s an overarching story – you are never really pulled into it properly, more a case of little local stories. There’s no great secrets to unfurl with every quest. No bigger picture to fit into.
There may be lore, it’s even good lore and the voice of the gamesmaster is kind of a cool idea… but it’s not immersive lore. You’re a bitplayer doing jobs for money… you are not a hero of the alliance, a soldier of the horde. You have none of the experiences of your people’s joys and suffering that you get in WoW to make you a part of them…
In fact I can sum it up like this: Every one of WoW’s races have their own starting zone where your introduction to the game is intimately tied into the lore of your race. In DDO everybody has the exact same starting zone and quests. WoW wins this one hands-down.
Isn’t it tragic that the masters of mythology-geeks greatest fun – DnD in the online game utterly failed to capture that spirit ? That in fact it turns out that this approach to mythology only works for small groups of friends playing together treating every new adventure as seperate and cut off from all others ? That a game with it’s roots in an RTS (mind you, the first RTS to ever have any story at all) – turned out to be a greater story to be part off ?