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Exploring Eberron: Back in the day

Rubi Bayer, @@rubi_

Welcome to February and Dungeons and Dragons Online's birthday month! Today's Exploring Eberron is on the long side, but I think you're going to find it well worth the extra time. To kick off our celebration of DDO's fifth anniversary, I chatted with some community members who have been around since the very beginning. We talked about what they loved way back then, what they love now, and how the game has changed over the years. You'll see some familiar names in this interview!

Michael Diamond is a salesman, father and Dungeon Master going back the better part of 15 years. Michael is the mind behind Tales of Greatness, a D&D 3.5 blog that follows a group of heroes from level one to 20.

Tihocan is the author of the Revisiting Paths and Shroud Loot Builder guides in the DDO forums -- if you don't have these bookmarked, remedy that!

Jaggie is a Warforged Bard on the Thelanis server. She's a roleplayer and guild leader for The Fellowship of the Golden Night. Since her talents for all things DDO extend well beyond the monitor, her posts on the DDO forums often feature cookies, drawings, costumes and other such crafts that she enjoys making of this game.

You know Sig and Anne Trent from DDOCast, but that's not the end of their community involvement at all. Sig is a committed fan of DDO and of all things D&D whatever the edition or publisher. A self-confessed rules junkie and fan of multi-classing and feats, he also writes for Open Design. Anne loves playing DDO and has been doing so for five years now. Over the years, she's been active in the community writing articles, advocating for new features, producing DDOCast and running its web site.

So without further ado, skip past the jump to see what this group had to say about five years of DDO!

Massively: When did you start playing DDO? What attracted you to the game in the first place?

Michael: I started playing DDO in the pre-launch beta and then after it went live. As a long player and Dungeon Master on the tabletop side of the product, I couldn't wait to get my hands on an MMO that was based on D&D.

Tihocan: I pre-ordered DDO when I read about it in a video games magazine. I was only interested in it because it was D&D (I spent way too many hours on Baldur's Gate I & II). So initially I was attracted by the RP experience.

Jaggie: I began playing DDO in late August of 2006. It started when my hubby tried out a free trial of the game. I was never much for MMOs, and so I wouldn't actually try it. On day seven of the trial, he somehow convinced me to make a Warforged Bard. That was a mistake forever -- since that day he's never gotten his computer back. He ended up buying himself a new computer because of my addiction to this game.

Sig: I started playing in 2006, pretty much when the game was released. I'd played nearly every D&D based computer game to that date and had been playing many MMO games since Ultima Online. It was pretty much inevitable I would play DDO.

Anne: I started playing DDO in February 2006 on release day. I've been playing D&D since I was 11 years old, back in the AD&D days. Having played Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Neverwinter Nights, I naturally gravitated toward DDO.

What elements of the game kept you playing (and subscribing)? What did you love about DDO back then?

Michael: The community within the game at first seemed to be a collective of people in my same shoes. What I loved the most about DDO after launch was the crispness of the atmosphere; everything was shiny and new, and we did whatever we could to figure out what was going to happen next.

: So it turned out it wasn't really the RPing, although I had some awesome experience grouping a few times with a crazy Dwarf speaking with a Russian accent over voice chat (hearing him charge pirates in Three Barrel Cove was really something). Anyway, I ended up focusing more on character development than RPing, and that's what really kept me playing: improving my characters through leveling up and getting better loot so they become as good as possible. I tend to enjoy playing odd builds and trying to make them work despite their flaws.

Jaggie: My fellow players, roleplay, and the wonderful story elements of the quests are what got me so hooked into this game. To this day they are still the key factors that keep me playing and paying for this game.

Sig: The first thing that grabbed me was the Dungeon Master voiceover. It appealed to my little D&D heart, even if it's a bit cheesy. That said, the key element that makes DDO great is the character building, and that is something that comes from its D&D roots. It doesn't just give you a handful of pre-imagined paths; it lets you get under the hood and create an infinite range of interesting strategies. One thing that sets DDO apart is that the game rules are mostly transparent, and you can open a D&D manual and see how much of the game works, what percentages you are dealing with, and so on. It's complicated, but you actually know how good any given choice you make is. You know exactly how much more damage a given sword or spell does and how you can leverage it best. Meaningful choice is a key to good game design that other games lack.

Anne: Well, DDO is D&D and that's what I loved about it back then and today. DDO is not table-top canon D&D, but it's close enough that it felt like a version of D&D that had its own "house rules." And because its D&D, the rules and mechanics are far more transparent than in other MMOs. Crunching numbers is a strategy in DDO that I really enjoy. The active combat is also what keeps me playing DDO today. I've been playing MMORPGs for a long time, more than 10 years. The standard combat found in MMOs gets awfully dull. In DDO, I can "physics dodge" attacks and spells, much like in an FPS game.

What are the biggest changes you've seen in DDO since then, particularly since the business model changes?

Michael: After the game went to free-to-play, the people and community did seem to change. In truth, this happened months before Turbine announced its decision to actually go to that format. Players left for World of Warcraft as The Burning Crusade was released, and with the drop in subscribers, Turbine was forced to make some choices about the overall business model. I think in the end, the community profited by separating out the people who really love the game and the way that the storyline has progressed.

Tihocan: To me, the biggest changes are those that made the game more polished and accessible. By themselves they are all small changes, but added together they make a world of difference. When I look back, I have a hard time remembering how we could live with no mail nor shared bank (transferring items between characters was such a joy!), no auction house nor trade channel. Unless you were lucky enough to pull a +3 Wisdom hat by yourself to trade for this awesome +5 heavy mace you saw on the forums, you were out of luck -- gold had no trade value. There was no buy-back nor locked items nor shopping cart -- I still remember that guy who accidentally sold one of the only Vorpals ever found on my server to a bartender, through a single mis-double-click. There was no bulk-buying -- how many mouse buttons died of intense clicking when restocking on potions or spell components? From the accessibility point of view, the game is much more forgiving now; you aren't forced to run around cursed forever or until a friendly "high-level" cleric removes your curse without asking for a fee; you don't need to stay logged out for a week to get rid of XP debt after a rough quest; you can actually solo with any class without getting systematically slaughtered; and even if you totally mess up your character, you may now fix your mistakes without restarting from scratch.

Jaggie: Silly to say, perhaps, but I found the biggest changes to influence my gameplay took place when Turbine removed XP penalties and added that wonderful regeneration effect in public areas. Thank the Sovereigns for that. I still remember the days of old when you would find Halflings and Elves and all other forms of players pancaked about the harbor crying out for a simple little cure light spell. More up-to-date changes? I'd have to say it would be the rapid player growth thanks to the free-to-play option that is now given. I've found that a lot more people in my local area now know of DDO, when before many did not, and many of them have either tried out, played, or shown a general interest in playing. I find it to be something rather enjoyable to talk about with others, and I like trying to coax them into playing with the offer of digital monster-shaped cookies and plane-based cakes.

Sig: Since the first update, Turbine has worked to make the game more solo-friendly while still encouraging playing as a group. I think they have a great balance for that now. Obviously free-to-play was a big business change. I've always been a subscriber, but that change brought in many new players, and the cash shop added a lot of play options to the game that I really enjoy.

Anne: Other than when DDO actually got its first real dragon, Velah, the Red Dragon, was a big deal, you know! But really, when DDO went free-to-play with a hybrid model for a payment system – now that was a huge change. This brought in a ton of players, and new kinds of players too. I would say that the culture of the playerbase felt far more diverse than before free-to-play. Though I've always been a subscriber, I really think the DDO Store gave more freedom to players to spend as much money (or even as little) as they wanted on DDO. After that, I would say that the Mabar Event was a big deal. It provided proof that DDO could do mobs in public instances where players didn't need to group. It also brought in a new crafting UI, which I hope Turbine will retrofit the other stations with soon.

What changes have you seen that you like the most?

Michael: As strange as it might sound, the Gygax Memorial was pretty special. As the great-grandfather of D&D, Gary Gygax should always be remembered at the spark where all of this came from. I think Turbine has done a good job, and as a player I appreciated his narration. In direct game mechanics, the advent of more solo content was and still is key to keeping the game going.

Tihocan: I think pretty much all changes that triggered storms on forums, with people leaving and calling DOOOOOOM upon DDO. I'm thinking here of the change to Evasion only working in light or no armor, the change to death penalty from XP debt to temporary negative levels and item damage, the change to enhancements from just a few enhancements to a point buy system, the change to raid loot distribution from two fixed items assigned by leader to individual random pulls with 20th reward lists, the change to Con damage not being insta-kill anymore... I'm glad devs weren't afraid to go against the so-called "vocal minority" to make the game better. OK, I'll admit though: I'm not a fan of dungeon alert.

Hirelings and the free-to-play option have been my most favorite changes to this game. Though I myself prefer a VIP account, I'm happy to see more players in this game thanks to its also being F2P. It gives more life and character to this game. I'm happy for it, and I hope many of those F2P players love this game enough to put some money into it, even if it's just enough to afford a lucky hat in the DDO store. Either way, I'm glad this change appears to have gone in Turbine's favor.
For hirelings, well, I find I generally curse them as often as I sing praises to them. Sometimes it can be hard to fill a group in a particular amount of time. Sometimes you just need that one extra Cleric or just one more tank to help clear the way to the loot. Behold, hirelings: pocket characters that make great last option alternatives... if you can keep them under control, that is. Some days they are great; other days you just want to hang them upside down and feed them to a pride of rabid razor cats. I suppose the ability to reincarnate and modify stats and skills is another of my favorite changes to the game. I've always wanted to fix things about my main character, whom I've had since the very beginning of my gaming days, but I never had the guts to full out re-roll her. Lesser reincarnation made it possible for me to do the things I wanted to my character without having to start from scratch all over again.

Sig: Free-to-play and the cash shop had the biggest impact, but for me, the change to the current enhancement system and the many ways Turbine expanded it are among the best design changes and something Turbine continues to develop. It's not part of the D&D rules, but it adds the complexity and depth you need in a game that you play for hundreds of hours over multiple years. I also think cutting free of Atari allowed Turbine to make a lot of good changes in the promotion of the game, which has led it to getting the audience it always deserved to have.

Anne: The new crafting UI, which you can see in the when using the Cauldron of Sora Katra in the Lordsmarch Plaza. Seeing what you can produce up front is a big deal -- you don't have to use a player-created tool or read a how-to document outside of the game to use it.

What changes have you seen that you like the least?

I think that one of the major things that went wrong was a lack of a clear crafting system. Giving players more things to collect and eventually do in the game gives people a reason to play more. It would also add depth and flesh out the world even more.

Tihocan: I don't like the marketing tricks that came with the change in business model. I find it lame for Turbine to try to take advantage of new players to make a few extra dollars. I'm thinking here of useless items one can buy in the DDO store, or misleading advertising (e.g., making people believe going VIP unlocks all races and classes, or that Drow gain useful exoctic weapon proficiencies). I feel it's a lack of respect towards the playerbase.

Jaggie: Very little about the changes to DDO have bothered me over the course of my many years that I've played. If anything, I'd only have complaints about minor various cosmetic changes that have taken place over the years. I miss the /death animation. No longer can I die infront of permadeathers while in the market. No more can I be a just another haunt running amok in Delera's graveyard. I miss those days much like I miss the times that I would join others in a long line up of conga-style sneak dances during player-hosted live events, or sat down and spun myself around while resting at a shrine. All silly things. Though they made my gaming fun, they don't much mean anything to my general enjoyment of the game. Perhaps if any change or bug really does annoy me, it is that that Spellsinger II: Spellsong Vigor song doesn't appear to function on Warforged. Sad times for my little bardling 'forged. Sad times, indeed.

I've never liked the glancing blows mechanic. It gives you consolation damage when you actually miss a target, and in my opinion, it takes away some of the game's strategy and gives players false signals about whether their characters are being effective in combat. Dungeon alert is also problematic. The idea behind it is fine, but the implementation is weak and arbitrary. It's a system designed to prevent you from simply running past monsters rather than defeating them, but it often triggers when a dungeon intentionally spawns a large number of foes for you to encounter or when monsters in other parts of the dungeon are alerted through walls or ceilings.

Anne: I both love and hate MyDDO. I loved it because I could post blog entries within context of the game elements such as my characters, my guild, and my DDO friends. I hate MyDDO because it had so much potential, and then all improvements on it seemed to stop. Not only that, some current features are broken and buggy.

What do you hope to see from DDO in the future?

Michael: Beyond a crafting system, I'd like to see the game stretch away from Stormreach and Xen'drik itself, maybe travel to some of the other places like Sarlona (adding Psions and Psychic Warriors to the class list) or take the game to Sharn and see what trouble this community can get into there!

Tihocan: I'm mostly hoping for something better than the current Epic content to keep developing our characters past L20. I can see myself doing a true reincarnation at most once on each of my characters to build them the way I want them now, but multipe TRs aren't for me, and right now I find Epic content frustrating, mostly because part of it encourages dumb solo farming.

Jaggie: There are a handful of things that I'd love to see being added to DDO in the future. Here are my three most-wanted.
One, I hope to see more in-game dev-run events in the future, even if they are little more then the days of Sir Lawrence and Tucurvul and the crazy fun of battling Giants, Mindflayers, super Kobolds and Beholders inside taverns and on occasion out in other parts of Stormreach. I'm not sure why, but being able to see or at least know that a dev is next to you and is plotting your absolute demise always felt kind of special. Fun. Makes you want to try to outsmart them... even if your fascinate spell only makes the giants and the beholders kill you that much faster. Two, Shifters as a playable race. I love the furry little beasties, and I hope someday they are added into the game. And last but not least, three, /chair. Seriously, what gives? My little 'forged is tired of spending hours trying to position herself onto a chair. My Elf is sick of pulling shards of broken pottery out of her posterior every time she accidentally sits on a table, and it's just not natural to see Halflings hovering over tables and stools alike. I know they are pretty hyperactive and all, but still. This little roleplayer wishes oh so much for the ability to see her characters being able to properly sit down comfortable for once. So, /chair? Please?

Sig: Primarily, Turbine needs to keep the quests and character options coming so there is always something new to try out and experience. I would rejoice if they removed the three class per character limit. I'm not sure what the design decision was, but I don't see much justification for it, and it would open up many new character builds to play with. I'd also like to see more openness on what they are developing for the future of the game. I think game designers should think of MMO development as more of a collaborative process between designers and players since everyone has made a significant investment in the game.

Anne: I want more openness on the "house rules" of DDO. For example, the hate/aggro mechanic. I can only make assumptions about it -- kind of like how I have to approach other MMOs. I have to assume that "more is better" when selecting powers to increase my hate aggro on my tank. Most of all, I want to see Turbine continuing to create quests and character options. I believe that this is important because it means that there will always be new things to experience in the game.

Michael, Sig, Anne, Jaggie, and Tihocan, thank you for your time, and here's to five more years of DDO!

Exploring Eberron is a novice's guide to the world of Dungeons and Dragons Online, found here on Massively every Friday. It's also a series of short summaries of lower-level DDO content, cleverly disguised as a diary of the adventures of OnedAwesome, Massively's DDO guild.

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