Yeah yeah, they're both D&D games and MMOs, and there's bound to be similarities on a basic level. But what I'm talking about is more than that: an uncanny connection between the games and a deliberate design philosophy that both seem to share. As a player who's done a couple of tours of duty in DDO, I think I have enough experience to claim this.
Besides, everyone's already thinking about "the Dice Duel of 2013" as the papers are calling it. Two D&D MMOs will be facing off against each other, one with a new expansion and the other with a game launch, and both are gunning for the same piece of the pie. So let's deal with this situation now rather than later and look at why DDO and Neverwinter are more than kissing cousins.
I want to begin to defend this thesis by being honest about the big differences here. While D&D's rules are difficult to put into video game format, DDO undeniably tried harder to adhere as closely to the sourcebook and format as possible, right down to the rolling die and multiclassing. DDO has a more in-depth character creation system, an absolutely massive spellbook, the Eberron campaign setting, more classes, and the benefit of over five years of live development. It's a game that requires meticulous planning to custom-build a character and a fair bit of knowledge of the 3.5 rule system.
Instead of appealing to the hardcore fans of the franchise, Neverwinter is casting its net wider (and perhaps shallower) by loosely using the 4.0 ruleset and a much more arcadey approach to proceedings. It also utilizes more modern MMO design elements, has a better look and feel, and limits players to picking a handful of skills for any given mission. You're basically trading depth for a better look and an easier drive.
However, Neverwinter's biggest strength and edge is its Foundry system. Cryptic is obviously betting a lot that players will be deeply interested in both making and exploring user-created content, which harkens back to Neverwinter Nights and classic pen-and-paper roleplaying. How user-friendly and polished this system is to use and evaluate remains to be seen, but I'm obviously hopeful. Without it, the linear progression through the standard content is going to be too little to hold interest for the long haul.
While there are significant differences between the two, it's almost easier to connect the two titles. For starters, DDO is making a strong push to expand into the Forgotten Realms, something that Neverwinter would've had all to itself if DDO had just stuck to Eberron. Different teams and visions aren't going to completely gloss over the fact that they'll be sharing the same setting and the same inspirations.
Then there's the structure: a largely instance-based game with a large town serving as a primary hub. The point here isn't to explore a large persistent overworld but to form parties and engage in numerous dungeon crawls. And while Neverwinter is certainly harping strongly on the whole "action combat" scene, DDO is no stranger to fast-paced, button-mashing fights.
Need more? Both subvert the typical MMO UI by requiring mouselook controls. Both provide solo and group instances. Both eschew typical hit point regeneration mechanics by requiring you to rest up at a particular spot, down a potion, or find a healer. Both have skirmish-type group scenarios. Both are free-to-play. And I'm not even touching on the common ground that D&D provides, from Kobolds to traps to Drow.
Let me revise the weird kissing cousins metaphor I used earlier: I say that DDO and Neverwinter are more like brothers. Sure, they may look different and have varied approaches to doing things, but there's more of a familial connection than either one would admit.
The purpose of this column is just to get out of the way this whole DDO/Neverwinter discussion that would have to happen sooner or later. There's too much shared ground in a D&D MMO Venn diagram here to ignore. To me, it's just interesting that both seem to have more in common than not.
Where does it leave Turbine and Cryptic? While devs at either studios would never say it, both sides probably wish the other game did not exist. DDO is aging and falling from its F2P popularity highs, and it really didn't need a like-minded if prettier-looking upstart taking a bite out of its potential or current playerbase. Neverwinter, on the other hand, needs as much of a strong head start as possible, and it has to do this while proving to players that there is room for and interest in Cryptic's vision of D&D.
But we're not the studios; we are the players. For us, it's win-win. I'd rather have two D&D MMOs than just one because competition is good for consumers (raise your hand if you think DDO wouldn't be launching another expansion if it weren't for Neverwinter's impending launch). Both sides are going to have to work harder for our business than otherwise, which hopefully means better, faster, and more polished features.
Which you choose is up to you. Hey, there's nothing saying you can't pick and play both, for starters. DDO will appeal more to those who enjoy crunching stats and a classic D&D approach, while I think Neverwinter will gain the loyalty of those looking for a fun, fast experience without a lot of interference.
For me, it's not a question of loyalty or preference. Both games are (or seem) great in their own way. Obviously I'm casting my lot in with Neverwinter, but I have no grudge against DDO and don't see any reason why players can't cheer both games when they're connected at the hip like this.
Chances are that at any hour, Justin Olivetti is prowling the streets of Neverwinter to bring lawful goodness to where it's needed. He chronicles his adventures in his bi-weekly column, Neverwinter Days, and will appreciate any alms or feedback you have to give.