Tag Archives: Dungeons and Dragons Online

Five Turning Points of MMO History

The ever-evolving history of MMORPGs is a fascinating one. Sometimes I almost feel like MMOs are more fun to analyze than they are to play. It’s a complex story that could fill volumes, but for today, let’s just take a look at some of the biggest turning points in the history of MMOs.

Text MUDs:

Achaea, a modern MUD

The true origin of the MMO genre is debatable. You could trace it all the way back to analogue tabletop RPGs, and perhaps even farther back from there. But the birth of online RPGs likely lies with the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD.

MUDs were text-based games originally running over small, pre-Internet networks such as those at universities.The term was christened by Roy Trubshaw, a student at the University of Essex. Development of his “Multi-User Dungeon” game was later given over to Richard Bartle, and if you’re active in the MMO community, you’re sure to recognize that name.

When the Internet began to spread, MUDs became more accessible, and eventually served as the inspiration for the first generation of MMORPGs.

Early Graphical MMOs:

Again, we can argue about where exactly the story of graphical online games begins. Meridian 59 is credited by some as the first, while Ultima Online was where the concept began to gain significant popularity. It was the first game to be described with the term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game.”

This was soon followed by many other graphical MMOs. The most famous would probably be 1999’s EverQuest, which served as an inspiration for many of the games the followed.

WoW and Its Clones:

There is an eternally raging debate over whether World of Warcraft is the best or the worst thing (or perhaps both) that ever happened to the MMO genre. The one thing everyone can agree on is that WoW changed everything.

 

In the early days, MMOs had achieved a respectable level of success, with playerbases measured in the thousands. But WoW blew all that out of the water. It parlayed the brand recognition of Blizzard Entertainment, more accessible mechanics, reduced grind, and the increasing prevalence of high speed Internet connections into a perfect recipe for success, achieving a previously unimaginable level of popularity.

A low level zone from the MMORPG World of Warcraft

WoW eventually peaked at around twelve million players worldwide, a population greater than that of some nations. While it’s popularity has shrunken significantly since then, even now it remains more successful and more populous than the large majority of its competition.

The success of WoW created ripple effects throughout the genre. Everyone wanted a bite of that pie, and developers spent years churning out MMO after MMO that sought to emulate World of Warcraft. It was the era of the dreaded WoW clone. But these games often lacked personality, and none of them ever rose to rival the success of the game they so desperately sought to imitate.

The Free to Play Revolution:

For a long time, if you wanted to play an MMORPG, you had to pay a monthly subscription. That’s just how it worked. Oh, sure, there were a few exceptions. Anarchy Online began offering a free to play option back in 2004, and the original Guild Wars was buy to play from its launch in 2005. But those were mostly considered oddball outliers.

Things began to change in a big way when Dungeons and Dragons Online relaunched as a free to play title in 2009. Previously struggling, it saw a huge uptick in both players and revenues, and the world began to take notice.

Before long, big name MMOs were dropping their subscriptions left, right, and center, from Star Wars: The Old Republic, to Lord of the Rings Online, to Aion. At first this was seen as an act of desperation made only by dying games, but as the years went by and subscription games became an ever shrinking minority, it started to just be normal.

Nowadays, subscriptions are the exception rather than the norm, and most new games are free to play or buy to play.

Maturity and Diversification:

A screenshot from the new MMO shooter Anthem

That brings us to the modern day. The MMO genre has matured and stabilized. New releases are not so common as they once were, but there is more variety, more creativity. Gone are the days of WoW clones. Nowadays MMOs, MMO lite games, online co-ops, MOBAs, and battle royales all simmer together into a diverse melting pot.

In this writer’s opinion, the future is bright.


We Need More D&D in MMORPGs

The RPG genre first sprouted when Gary Gygax (and lesser known Dave Arneson) created Dungeons and Dragons. It’s evolved and splintered quite a bit since that day in 1974. This advancement has been unequivocally positive for gaming as a whole. We now have more options than we even know what to do with, as evidenced by places like Humble Bundle selling AAA for as cheap as one dollar. But maybe it’s time for one genre, MMORPGs in particular, to go back to its deep roots.

Top MMOs have spent so much time wondering what they could do, they never stopped to ask what they should do. For as much fantastic content, features, and innovation as MMORPGs have brought to the world, they’ve taken a lot of things too far. In the midst of all of this progress, they’ve forgotten a lot of what it even means to be an RPG in the first place.

As a handy dandy guide to developers, I offer these six ways D&D can improve your next MMORPG:

1. Reduce Number Bloat

Easy enough to start here since I wrote about lowered health pools not too long ago. To sum it up, it’s easier for humans to mentally calculate lower numbers, they’re easier to read, and it makes for more intense combat.

2. Actual Role-Playing

Not everyone likes full on role-playing. I get that. But I’d say that most people playing RPGs enjoy it on some level. They may not enjoy the creative aspect of pretending to be someone else on the spot. Give them a few guidelines to follow though and everything else naturally falls into place. D&D is great for role-playing because character creation itself makes role-playing more accessible. Attributes such as alignment, backgrounds, deities, and motivations offer up a reason to choose certain actions. Now just give us some actual choices besides which spot to grind in and BOOM – role-playing!

3. Fewer, More Meaningful Levels

In D&D level 20 is basically demigod status. In most MMOs, level 20 is a scrub newbie that toxic veterans laugh at. I’m on board with more frequent small advancements (something Dungeons and Dragons Online does well), but I want a level to really mean something. I want new abilities and new ways to play my character. What I end up with is +100 damage to magic missile. Levels are too much about buffing an arbitrary number and too little about impacting game play.

4. Game Masters

game master

Not too long ago MMORPGs used to hire GMs to organize impromptu quests. In D&D, a good GM is the difference between a campaign that spans several years and one that lasts a few sessions. So too can a similar impact be felt in MMORPGs. To facilitate a quest-driven approach to leveling, a lot of quests are needed. This need for quantity doesn’t leave a lot of room for quality. While some games manage some pretty impressive storytelling in their AI-led quests, they lack the ability to incorporate other players into the story. This is where GMs can completely alter an MMORPG experience and constantly deliver value to the game’s customers.

5. Drop the Trinity in Favor of the Quadrinity

Most MMORPGs balance abilities around tank/DPS/healer roles. D&D balances abilities around the roles of controller/defender/leader/striker. Defenders tank and shut down melee movement. Controllers kill large groups and crowd control. Leaders buff, debuff, and heal. Strikers deal massive damage to one target. This isn’t a massive difference, but in D&D terms facilitates a broader potential group of encounters that can be fought and overcome.

6. Add Challenge Ratings

D&D assigns a challenge rating to every enemy and monster in the game. This in turns allows for a programmatic approach to create balanced encounters. A balanced adventure results from a certain number of easy and hard encounters. Instead of MMORPG developers hand crafting encounters in raids and forcing us to beat the same things over and over to advance, a challenge rating based system could create near-infinite content to challenge us at every level. I’m not saying we need to abolish hand-crafted content, but saving time in one area frees it up for use in another.

While You Wait

If you’re looking for something like this to play now, there is an obvious choice. Dungeons & Dragons Online implements more of these features than other MMORPG. Of course, because of the focus on dungeons and instances, it does lack the massive feel other MMORPGs provide. Still, it does D&D better than any other MMORPG on the market. Maybe that’s a good enough reason for you to give it a spin until digital gaming seizes the opportunity to learn from classic tabletop gaming.


Lowered Health Pools – More Fun?

I have some strong feelings about (most) MMORPG health pools. And like any good opinion, it can be summed up with a meme:

mmorpg health pools meme

MMORPG health pools have grown to absurd propositions. DPS meters clear a million easy. More precisely, World of Warcraft’s top damage dealer serves out 1.5 million damage per second. World of Warcraft’s DPS currency resembles a country suffering from hyper inflation, and like a such a country, it’s hard to take seriously. High health enemies require monotonous ability usage to down. High health characters negate any semblance of combat intensity. Simple calculations give way to mandatory use of online tools to decipher true net effects. Gameplay starts revolving around bigger and bigger numbers, leaving little room for anything else.

The benefit of large health pools is that it’s easier for developers to balance. Boiling everything down to a few numbers rather than fine tuning systems takes a lot less effort and allows for more fractional balance changes. That’s noteworthy – so I’m not saying smaller health pools is easy to implement.

I’m simply suggesting that there’s a lot to be gained by taking the path less traveled. D&D has balanced around small health pools for decades. Some of the positive side effects of such a system can be found in games like (not surprisingly) Dungeons & Dragons Online.

5 Reasons to Lower Health Pools

1) Easier to understand and mentally calculate the effects of abilities, talents, items.

2) More room on the screen for things that aren’t ten digit numbers.

3) Forces developers to move into damage mitigation, which opens up more diverse play styles.

4) Ramps up intensity and sensation of danger (whether artificially or not) when every hit point actually means something.

5) Higher hit points tend to result in longer, repetitive fights. MMORPG battles stay interesting until you “solve” them. On average, I would expect lowered MMORPG hit points to lead to faster battles and fewer slogs.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do it

The main reason high health pools are “in” is because it’s simply less time consuming for developers. This frees up man hours to create more content, which is the current big selling point for maintaining active players. Personally, I’d rather see more time devoted towards a better base system. The content gap can be filled by procedural generation and emergent narrative structures.

Expansions and DLC are usually the primary culprits for numerical inflation. It’s easy to grasp that higher damage, healing, health, etc. is better. Sticking to a low health pool system necessitates developing less obvious character progressions. Horizontal progression is one option (pick the right tools for the fight), but damage mitigation is absolutely paramount regardless of the progression type. Unfortunately, most damage mitigation systems devolve into an obtuse Diablo style resistance system.

Again, tabletop RPGs like D&D offer a neat outline for engineering these solutions. Tabletop games are forced to work with smaller numbers, and there are some pretty cool lesser known RPGs out there like Iron Kingdoms. I know if I had millions of dollars to develop a new MMORPG, I’d spend a few hundred of that on tabletop player handbooks for market research.

At the end of the day, it’s about creating a product that maximizes fun. When choosing between high health pools and low health pools, the latter exhibits so much more potential.

 


Dungeons, Dungeons, Dungeons

dungeon gamblers den in DDO

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons Online again a couple of weeks ago. The game stays true to its namesake with a plethora of instanced dungeons to explore. Though they come in different shapes and sizes, there’s really nothing else to do. Unlike MMORPGs with open world content, DDO is all about dungeon delving. After a few early levels, all of these are really meant for groups. Players can substitute hirelings in a pinch, but unsurprisingly a true player is almost always preferred. This design choice has created the double edged sword that has largely defined DDO’s existence.

Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online is a lot of fun, but only with a group. That’s a pretty big caveat though because the population isn’t the most steady. The DDO traffic report shows the densest server with under 800 people at peak hours. The game itself isn’t doing so bad with about 3,000 people online at a given time, but that doesn’t really help the average player. Luckily, I’ve roped in a few friends to playing with me so I think I’ll be OK. When I do hop on by myself, the curious side of me can’t help but check the public groups. This doesn’t display groups deep into an instance, but the group counts aren’t exactly inspiring. I’ve had about a 50% success rate at grouping with at least one individual via public groups. That number might go up once I get past all of the solo friendly content.

Personally, I’m glad that there isn’t a lot of solo content. That’s a big part of the enjoyment for DDO. The class system seems really flexible and a hireling is better at filling holes than acting a sole companion. I’m still learning what’s in and out in the current class meta, but at my current level it doesn’t really matter. I don’t feel like any of my groups have suffered from lack of class synergy.

Unlike most MMO dungeons, DDO’s instanced content isn’t a scripted run through trash mobs with a few boss encounters. Well, not always at least. What’s cool is that the game doesn’t hold your hand, and I respect it for respecting me. My party and I are given a task to complete, and it’s up to us to figure it out. Treasure abounds, and I feel rewarded for putting in some energy to explore the nooks and crannies. I bring all of this up because I think it helps clarify my MMO dungeoning expectations.

dungeons ddo dragon fight

I don’t always have to been challenged. The low level quests in Dungeons and Dragons Online are pretty easy. Despite that, the game is still fun. When our group wants to fear the Game Master’s, we can always up a mission to Elite difficulty. Partying is fun in large part because of spending time with other human(s). We don’t necessarily need interactive abilities, but each player’s role can (and should) noticeably contribute. Freeform dungeon design with non-combat checks actually help me appreciate combat more. Ultimately, all of these attributes come down to flexibility. Dungeons can often feel constraining, and I think that pushes people away. If dungeons were more flexible, maybe it would lead to people clamoring for more group content?

It’s also possible for dungeons to be designed in a way that mirrors an open world. Overworld maps in hack and slash ARPGs like Path of Exile make the world seem big. Yet there are often specific story tasks for the player to complete. This keeps the focus on just playing the game and enjoying advancement when it comes. This is how to immerse people in adventure. Motivating the player with non-linear missions would dramatically improve dungeoning in MMOs. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to integrate this style of play into a persistent world.

Crafting a good mission requires events to play out in a certain way. Players outside of a particular group can affect the world dramatically in open world MMORPGs. Even themepark MMOs, critical by some for lack of meaningful impact, share this trait. Instanced content has been the way around this, but I think has largely been underutilized. Randomized dungeons like fractals in Guild Wars 2 is something I’d like other MMOs to take a stab at. There’s no reason why we can’t have randomized open worlds though. It just doesn’t fit in with our current mold of quests and sandbox game design.

a set of dungeon treasure chests in ddo

The technology to procedurally generate large land masses is certainly there. This gives players the flexibility to explore lands as trendsetters. I won’t say generating interesting content dynamically is easy, but it is possible. Taking the non-linear dungeon design and flexible grouping out of Dungeons and Dragons and placing in an open world style is very alluring. In many ways, that’s been the selling point of No Man’s Sky and despite some mixed reviews, the game has been wildly successful. Games that sell poorly don’t generate giant reddit posts. Online RPGs and MMORPGs have already done all of this with instanced dungeons, but maybe we can take the best of dungeons and put them in the open world?