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Massively interviews Kate Paiz of Dungeons and Dragons Online

Mike Schramm

Dungeons and Dragons Online continues to plough on as a successful (to its players, at least) little MMO based on the official, original pen-and-paper board game. Just off the release of Module 6 and the recent second anniversary of the game, Massively got to interview their senior producer Kate Paiz. She talked to us about the upcoming Module 7 (including a little tip that lower level players will enjoy), the main goals of her dev team as Wizards of the Coast heads toward the release of the pen-and-paper game's fourth edition, and, oh yeah, that Penny Arcade comic that Ms. Paiz featured prominently in.

The interview starts right after the break, so grab your masterwork Vorpal blade, your +4 Shield of Blocking, and wade on in by clicking below.

Massively: Last time I chatted with you, it was just a couple of days before you were immortalized on Penny Arcade.

DDO Senior Producer Kate Paiz: [Laughs] How great was that?

What did you think about that?

Oh, I loved it. It's so great that they're paying attention to Dungeons and Dragons, and that we remember when they've paid attention to us in the past. It's always great to be a part of the pop culture of the games industry.

Well the joke was, and I mean it was interesting, but the joke was on those videos that they said you sounded a little, for lack of a better word, desperate. But the situation's not that dire, is it? DDO's OK, right?

Absolutely. Again, I think when I read the text that supports the comic, that he's saying that pretty much any developer who is not WoW is kind of scrabbling for the pieces left over of the pie, and obviously there's some truth in that, but that's not what I feel when I wake up -- we're here to build a great game, we have a very clear understanding of what we're trying to do. And of course it's a challenge -- WoW is doing great, and is a great game, and they've done a lot for the industry in general. But we know what we're doing, we're real proud of the job that we're doing and we're definitely full steam ahead, and we focus on that.

And I agree -- his commentary was talking about WoW, and obviously everyone's competing with WoW, but there have to be other goals in the MMO industry besides making a 10 million player game. Surely you can carve out a smaller space in a smaller game and stlll have success, right?


And one thing that kind of gives that impression, I think, that you guys are kind of fishing for players, is that you all seem -- more than any other MMO game I know of -- you seem to be super responsive to what players are interested in. If players want a monk, put it in, if you want to fight a dragon, put the instance in where you fight a dragon, and the joke was, "if you want a dragon monk, we'll put that in too." Is that mostly what pushes your design mentality, is it a lot of player feedback, or -- when you go down the list of things to do when you create an new instance, would player feedback be high on that, or what is on that list?

There's no doubt that player feedback is very high. Turbine has a long history of being very responsive to our players. We want to make sure that the monthly player subscription fee really sort of relates to something very real and very measurable for our players. So whether it's frequent releases of content given out in free updates, or keeping a really strong forum community and player community going -- those are the goals of all the Turbine games. For me, that's how you keep a live franchise feeling robust, feeling excited -- you can look at sort of at the whole MMO industry and miss that in what other companies' games may have made, but if you know who you are and know that you're out to please the players that you have and to keep growing that by the specific goals that you have, then I think you're able to really build something very specific and very measurable and quantifiable and people will respond to that.

Obviously that can't be the only thing, though, otherwise you would have a dragon monk in the game -- what else goes into your philosophy of design on DDO?

For us, number one, beyond anything is to make this game as true to the D&D pen and paper experience as possible. So a lot of players want us to continue that -- that's very popular with our audience, so there are very few things that sort of conflict with that. So we take a lot of feedback about how to naturally fill the MMO experience inside that pen and paper D&D experience. So one of the reasons we're kind of approaching the crafting prototype right now more as a prototype, get player feedback, and then make it robust is it's because we want to make sure that we're really driving value into the handbook, that D&D true experience. That's who we are, that's what we believe in, and we want to continue to be interested in that.

Ok, cool. The last time I talked to you also, you were about to release Module 6, and then you did. How did that work out for you?

I think it went great, and we definitely heard a ton of feedback from players, and looking at the play numbers people are definitely enjoying it. One of our big goals with Mod 6 was to make a raid that was more accessible, not just very hardcore high level players, but also include high level players who maybe hadn't played the other raids, or who didn't have the best, most uber gear, and again the play numbers on the Shroud show that people are loving it, they're really enjoying sort of the multiple levels of challenge. You go in, you can beat the first phase relatively easily if you've got a good group, but then as the raid progresses, it gets harder and harder, and again, depending on your sophistication as a player, you do accordingly well. But everybody gets that we were out there to make an experience that a lot of players could enjoy, and I think that that's absolutely been successful for us.

You showed me the very beginning of the crafting system and you said you got a lot of feedback on that -- what was the reaction to the crafting system that you released in Mod 6?

I think they thought it was great -- they definitely were asking for more sort of green skill recipes filling out the other weapons, so that's what we're going to be releasing in Mod 7 -- the rest of the kind of core weapons, when you're experiencing that system that you can outfit your character with whatever weapon feels appropriate and fits with your vision of who your character is. We also got some good feedback about sort of the accessibility, and this'll be incorporated into our next crafting release in Mod 8, so not coming in Mod 7, but just in terms of how much they want to be informed at low levels, and we got a little bit of feedback about how natural it feels and what kind of education we need around it and a leveling system and things like that.

I read in another interview that you said you wanted to "finish" crafting in Mod 8 -- what would you consider "finished"?

I don't think "finished" is the word I would use for it, but I think we're going to release "the system." So we're going to focus on getting an end-to-end experience for low levels, high levels and everybody, where you can feel like there's a natural progression and you grow in the crafting system and availability. Just as we release content on a regular basis and new treasure on a regular basis, we're going to continue to release recipes and continue to grow that and expand it and find new ways of giving players control over how they express themselves through the gear that they wear and through the items that they use.

Back to Mod 6 real quick, I just wanted to ask about good and bad. What was one thing that you think maybe could have worked better in Mod 6?

That's a good question. I think that players were looking... When we focus on our releases on just the high level stuff, players feel in the mid levels, a little left out. And so in past times, we've done releases where we put some high level stuff in, some mid level, and maybe a few low level dungeons, and in Mod 6, we had this amazing vision of a story to tell, and a complexity of dungeons that, while there weren't that many of them, they were really rich, and really deep, and the investment in crafting the experience kind of blotted out everything else. And I think for us, one thing to take away is that we've got to try and remember to cover the levels more and more cleanly because yeah, there are a lot of players who are at max level who are waiting for something new to come out, but at the same time, there are a whole bunch of other players still working their way through the ladders, and they are sensitive to the fact that in that release we didn't release something big for them.

And obviously you're not the only team dealing with that problem -- most MMOs have a huge number of endgame players at the top, but also there's a "long tail" of many players going up to the high levels. And so a lot of MMO devs are trying to balance that.


What do you think worked best in Mod 6?

Well again, I think the increase of the level cap was hugely successful and very popular, and the sort of different approach to the raid and making it less hardcore and more open to a variety of players was great. And I think that our new landscape, the Vale of Twilight, it's the biggest landscape that we've released to date, and I think that people loved it, they loved the underwater swimming area, they loved the sense of exploration, how some parts were a little more warm and fuzzy, and you go into the devil area and it's scary and gritty and the range that we expressed in that landscape really showed the culmination of the stuff that we've been building to all year.

Let's move on to Mod 7 -- we know the Monk class will be out, as well as a high level wilderness and a raid -- did you release names for those?

Nope, but you'll get that from us in about six weeks?

Ok. And we also heard, I think at Connect, that there'll be a new lowbie instance coming out. I was going to ask: can you tell us something we don't know about yet that you're working on for Module 7?

Sure. One of the things that we're talking about in terms of lowbie content is we're going to be doing a new wilderness area in Three-Barrel Cove, which is sort of our pirate-themed area, and we definitely want to get in a new island for them, and some new dungeons to go along with that. So again, we'll go through the details when we talk to you closer to release, but that's what we're looking at for meeting that lowbie need as well.

Cool. And you're still on track for May, I think?

Yep, absolutely.

One change I thought was interesting, that I think I read about at Connect '08, was that there'll be a "click once to attack" mode? Will that be instead of the real-time combat, or how is that supposed to work?

So basically all of the controls in the game will still work exactly as they do today, but instead of going click-click-click-click-click on the mouse button, you're able to press and hold, and just short of get a consistent attack. We were hearing that people were wearing through mice, we were hearing that people were getting cramps in their fingers after a couple of hours, and we wanted to give players the option of having a more granular kind of auto-attack feel that they could control more easily than our current auto-attack implementation.

So you're still pressing the button -- because one of the things that you sold the game on when it first came out was the "real-time combat." It's not like most MMOs where you choose a target and then attack, but you actually do hold the button down and it's like a still real-time thing.

Yeah. The way I think about real-time is that you can step back out of a swing's way. You can dodge darts and arrows and things like that in a very real way. In other MMOs, it isn't that easy to navigate where the monster's reach and you reach is and make sure that you're safe, but in DDO that's a very real part of the game. So again, what our focus was is that it triggers the attack combo chains in the same way that clicking does, but it also gives you an opportunity to mix up your style a little bit.

One thing that you all are really doing well that we've been hearing about is world events -- the Shavarath Invasion for the second anniversary and the destruction of the market tent went over really well and was enjoyed by a lot of players. Can you tell us about that a little bit?

It came from a couple of places. Again, we got so excited when we were planning for Mod 6 the devil invasion and that storyline, that we were really creative around, and that's kind of taken us throughout the whole year. And there's kind of a side joke in the dev team that the market tent has never been that popular. It's kind of hard, confusing on the inside, and you never knew which staircases to go up to the right vendor, and we just kind of felt like it was time to say goodbye to it, and it felt so perfect to us that the devils were going to come in, invade us, and that we were going to push them back and then they would come back with a vengeance. And it will continue, that Shavarath storyline, in Mod 7, in the new high level stuff, and then also in Mod 8 and throughout the rest of the year.

And to go back to the beginning, that's something that you can only do in a smaller MMO -- when you've got 150 shards full of players, you can't do live roleplaying stuff like that, and you guys really pulled that off well. That seems like a strength -- even though you're running a smaller game, you can change the world, and it doesn't take too long to plan it out. Anything else planned like that that you're looking forward to?

Nothing that we can announce right now, but we are really excited about some of the things that we learned and again, we've got a good sense of what's easily -- well not easily, but iterable about that and what we can continue to do on an ongoing basis. So I think you'll definitely see more -- don't have anything to talk about right now, but I think that, to go back to your first point, part of us bringing the pen and paper to life is that intimacy with the brand and is that intimacy with the game. When you've sat around the table with your six best friends and that was the way you spent your Saturday evening, that was the feeling that was very much about being there, being familiar, being comfortable, being in an environment where you could be creative and expressive as a player, and that's really what DDO is about. We want to bring that intimacy to our players, and that was a big part of why we did the live event the way we did. So that a lot of people could be in it, a lot of people could see it, on multiple levels on multiple shards simultaneously participating in this event as one big group, as one big community.

And what's probably most interesting about it is like you said -- it changed the world. There is no more marketplace tent now. And that's something that not a lot of MMOs are able to pull off -- you kill 15 soldiers and all those soldiers are back to life 15 minutes later.

Totally, right. That's just the way MMOs work, and I think for us, finding a way to engage storytelling in sort of a more aggressive way is important to us. Of course we don't want to do too much one-time-only content, where you saved the girl and now she's saved forever, right? That's just a part of how MMOs work. But at the same time, we're trying to find a way to have that expressive storytelling, and have that continuity of bigger themes and letting them go throughout the world, so opening the Twelve at last -- we were saving that for something that felt really, really magnificent so the players would understand that "this is big." And the devil invasion has really given us the right story to kind of hook a lot of that to.

The last thing I had is something you've already talked about. When I asked around to the other Massively writers for questions for you, almost all of them asked about Wizards of the Coast and D&D fourth edition. Last we heard, Wizards was still working on the rules and you were considering changes. Has anything changed with that, or have you heard anything from them that you might want to change in game?

I think it's the same answer as last time -- we're still in the investigation phase, we're talking to Wizards all the time about where they're going and what their goals are, and what's important to our players and how we can make the game feel right in that way, but I don't anticipate us making a full migration to it, whatever that might be. Pen and paper and online still have some differences just as sort of their core expression, but I think that if anything, we're going to look at a phased approach. They've got a tiefling as a playable race, and that's something that we're seriously considering, because tieflings are great anyways, and that's sort of the level that we're at right now.

It seems like it would be a completely huge task to revamp everything, and from what I've heard, Wizards is specifically trying to change things from 3.5 (because of the open source move and all the politics that come with that). But you are actually looking at including some of the new things, it sounds like.

Yeah, no doubt about it. We are deeply investigating all the changes in their various stages of completion. And deciding for us, what's the right task -- we're not going to take any of the classes that we have that are dropping out of the core handbook, we're not going to take away, right? That would be very upsetting to our audience, and would not make any sense for us as an independent... as an already-existing game. But we are trying to understand how we can keep current, how can we keep the brand feeling very now and very real and staying as true, as it's our core goal, to the pen and paper existence as we can.

Cool. Thanks very much for chatting with us.

No problem.

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