Solo play in D&D is missing the point: lackeys, please?
The sad reality of online games is that you won't always have friends to play with. Schedules are tough to sync up, subscriptions lapse, and new friends that you meet online are often about as reliable as a weather forecast. The successful games are the ones that can offer players stuff to do when they're on their own, as World of Warcraft has proven. D&D Online has already made laudable efforts in this area by offering a "solo play" difficulty on all of their dungeons. Unfortunately, I've rarely had as boring of an experience as soloing dungeons in DDO.
It's no fault of Turbine's that soloing dungeons is boring. If you've ever tried playing the pen and paper version of D&D with just two people, you'll run into exactly the same problems that you experience when soloing in DDO. The classes just aren't balanced around solo play, and while you can certainly create certain builds that make it easier to solo, you're always somehow lacking: either you can't disarm traps, or you can't deal with groups of enemies, or your spot skill isn't quite high enough to catch all of those secret doors (and forget about taking your character into a group setting). The group dynamics of the game are what makes it so fun. You want a rogue for traps and spotting, a warrior to go in brawling, and a cleric for that little boost of divine help. Playing by yourself in a dungeon always feels like you're missing out, somehow.
That's exactly why I think DDO could benefit from a mercenary system like the ones found in Guild Wars or Diablo 2. While you can't always play with other people, having even one extra person in the instance makes the game exponentially more fun. If there were some way to bring in an NPC adventurer or two, of lesser power than an actual player, you could tailor your class build much more towards a standard grouping setup and let the NPC(s) fill in the gaps. D&D is meant to be played with multiple adventurers, and DDO is no different; anything else is just less than fun.
If your dungeons are modules, sell me modules.
Unlike other online games, exploration plays a huge and active role in the dungeons of DDO. You're constantly on the lookout for traps, secret doors, hidden passageways, and obscured levers. Like a more traditional platform game, you're presented with jumping puzzles, climbing puzzles, and swimming puzzles which allow you to fight special sub-bosses and collect extra treasure. This exploration-driven gameplay makes for a fascinating experience where you have to actually pay close attention to your environment instead of just passing through it, as in other MMOs, but it also has a serious downside: once you've learned the dungeon (usually by the second or third run), most of the mystique and excitement of the run is gone.
However, this game style closely matches the real experience of playing a Dungeons and Dragons module. You wouldn't replay a module four or five times, because by then you know where all the secrets are. It's content you've already mastered and abandoned. Dungeons and Dragons is about the experience of dungeon-delving with your friends, not treasure and XP runs. Since the dungeons already function as modules, why not treat them as such from a business perspective?
Offering new modules for purchase on a regular basis in the form of "adventure packs" and making the base game free to play (after the initial software purchase) would make way more sense to me, as well as many other DDO players. Why? Because it's something Dungeons and Dragons players are already used to: buy the basic game books for a starting fee and have the tools to adventure with your friends. When you want a new, pre-written adventure, you buy a module. That way you can jump back into the game at any time and play the modules you've already bought. From there, it's not that hard to convince someone to buy the latest adventure in their level range.
Your dungeons are good, but my dungeons would be great!
Players creating dungeons for each other is the butter to D&D's bread. What dedicated D&D player hasn't, at one point or another, wanted to crack open the thick and imposing Dungeon Master's guide and build a little dungeon for their friends to play through? It doesn't really matter how uninspired and derivative your "mad sorcerer in his castle" plot is. It's your plot, in a dungeon that you made, and it's a huge rush to see people cautiously advancing through your own, special creation.
This is such a central part of the Dungeons and Dragons experience that if Turbine could have easily implemented dungeon building tools for their players, I think that they would have done it already. But just because it's hard doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. Other games have done it before: the Ryzom Ring is a great example of player created content, and City of Heroes recently announced plans to let players build their own missions. These just serve to illustrate that it's possible for an established game to pull this off. Can you imagine the influx of new players to the game if there were a way to build your own D&D dungeons? The steady stream of interesting content alone might push the game more towards the $15 per month mark.
There are some obvious problems with loot and XP-farming abuse when you put development in the hands of players, but I think that we're far too focused on what's "balanced" in games these days. What happened to fun? If a player wants to sit and power-level themselves to maximum level by replaying an easy dungeon over and over (and over), who cares? If that's fun for them, more power to them. The rest of us can continue playing D&D as it's meant to be played: for the dungeon exploration experience on our slow climb to higher levels. Meanwhile, you've effectively killed any third-party power-leveling businesses that might plague your game.
Are we there yet?
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Dungeons and Dragons Online, as it stands now, just doesn't have enough there to be my primary game. Unfortunately, it's also too expensive to play on the side. Adding all of the features that I've discussed in this article might push it into an area where it would be worth $15 per month, but it also might not. This is a hard market to compete in.
In my opinion, DDO is a fantastic "second game." With its short play sessions, modular nature, and D&D setting, it's the perfect game to jump into with a few friends when you don't feel like playing your regular MMOG. It's just different enough to break the leveling tedium of WoW or Lord of the Rings Online or to let you cool off from a rough night of PvP in Age of Conan or Lineage 2. There's nothing else like it on the market right now, and I'd argue that it still has a lot of potential in the MMO space. It's just being held back by a few key factors, one of which is the pricing model. I think it's time for Turbine to take a serious look at what they want from the game and figure out a way to make it work as that "second game" for players. Otherwise, they risk it languishing in that grey, "almost good enough" area for the rest of its online life.
I'd rather see a game as cool and innovative as D&D Online succeed in a creative way than try to compete head-to-head and be found lacking.
||Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT weblogsinc.com.