It’s been some time since i wrote anything about DDO. Despite several forays into other MMOs that have begun to clutter my taskbar, the launcher for DDO remains fixed in the prime spot for waxing and waning periods of play. Trying out other games to see what they have to offer is thoroughly enjoying, and there’s no shortage of fun MMO experiences out there. The latest that i delved into was Marvel Heroes, a game which as a huge comics geek i am a little embarrassed to say was completely under my radar until last week. Marvel Heroes is a free-to-play game that has some cool mechanics, not the least of which is the opportunity to build yourself a roster of established superheroes. My roster started with Daredevil – a perennial favorite of mine – who i advanced to about mid-cap. The game definitely speaks to the fanboy in me through the inclusion of so much great Marvel Comics lore, but if i’m honest after a while it just felt like a button masher with increasingly powerful buttons to mash.
And so, even though i never feel like i’m completely out, nevertheless DDO pulls me back in. Since there’s some scheduled downtime right now, i figure it’s a good time to ramble on about what is, at the end of the day, my favorite MMO. Plus, since i’m on the blogroll with several other DDO players out there it’s only fitting that i write about it more than i have been. Folks like Gamer Geoff, Erdrique’s Blog, Samius Gurobo, Micki’s Delirium and The Order of Syncletica consistently keep me engaged with their adventure and gameplay blogs and i hope to elicit even a little bit of what they’ve got going on.
The reasons for my enjoyment of DDO are many and varied, but probably the biggest of them is that it’s just so darned different than any other MMO i’ve sampled. Sure, it has plenty of problems mechanically and commercially. A trip to the forums will make that abundantly clear…but then again, that’s true of literally any MMO. There are hardcore elite players of all games, whose dedication and playtime often astound me. So when you reach the point where you’re analyzing spreadsheets of gameplay statistics you’re naturally going to find faults and flaws in any system. The most common response to posters who voice their issues with gameplay boils down to “take a break, try another game.” And to this, i wholeheartedly agree. Variety is the spice of life after all. But beyond that, it’s important to see what else is out there if only to become aware that there is no MMO game that perfectly captures every element. Someday, a game may emerge that encapsulates an entire immersive experience with every customizable bell and whistle you can think of, but not today.
One of the things that keeps me coming back again and again to DDO is, frankly, my main character Schir Gold in whom i’ve invested considerable time and resources over the years. Thanks to DDO’s really cool “reincarnation” mechanic, whenever a toon reaches the level cap, you can reincarnate (True Reincarnation or “TR”) them and start a new life back over at level one, gaining valuable bonuses based on your previous lives (they persist throughout multiple reincarnations). This is a truly wonderful aspect to DDO, as anyone who’s read about my gaming experiences knows i struggle with altitis pretty regularly. In DDO i have just the one character because, when i feel the urge to try a different class, it seems more useful to simply reincarnate as a different class than make a new, separate character. Granted, this means i rarely ever have a toon at cap for joining guildmates in high-level content. In fact i’ve probably only participated in a dozen raids over the last 8 years i’ve been playing DDO. This kind of puts me in a strange place in the playerbase. When it comes to “heroic” content – the levels leading up to post-20th level epic stuff (lumping in heroic raids here as well) – i’m pretty competent. Self-healing, quest knowledge and experience see me through most quests with aplomb. Considering i solo-play almost exclusively as well, i can handle myself confidently in that sort of content. But throw me in a raid or EE content and i’m more likely to be piking or riding around in someone’s backpack.
This most recent spat of playing found me picking up on the tail end of Schir’s third life as a sorcerer. Since stackable past life bonuses cap out at three, i won’t need to replay this class except for fun, which the sorcerer most certainly has been for me. Actually, up until my first time playing the class, i’ve never in my life been much interested in spellcasters. But boy, slinging magic around as an Air Savant was a watershed moment for me and now i love spellcasters. Initially, i only took the class to beef up an eventual return to my favorite class, the artificer. Three sorcerer, three ranger, three druid was the plan – that way Schir’s spells, crossbow damage output and pet would be considerably more powerful. The plan to return to and stick with artificer is still in motion, and i’m currently on a third druid life as well…but i think i’ll try out a wizard next and probably get three of those under my Planar Gird as well. Playing MMOs solo has really taught me the benefit of “pet classes” who get built-in minions, and the wizard Pale Master gets a neat Skeletal Knight minion that i think i’ll enjoy quite a bit. Normally, i play pure classes (no multiclass) but i think i’ll dip into rogue for that one so i can handle traps and get the hella-useful evasion ability.
As to the non-character-specific aspects of DDO that set it apart from my experiences with other MMOs, the instanced quests make a huge difference. You won’t find any of the sort of standard “fetch” quests that keep the XP trickling in by collecting firewood for the farmer or killing five spiders in the basement or whatever. Quests in DDO are static, and every time you run them you’ll find the same mobs milling about the same places, fixed traps and treasure and so forth. While i can’t speak for everyone, there was a point in my DDO career when i considered this to be tedium. Where’s the challenge and excitement of discovery? Well, truth be told, once i turned the corner of my perspective, it became clear to me that the challenge is not in what is presented to you, but rather in what you present to the quest. Take, for example, The Lost Seekers quest chain – more commonly known as Water Works. A series of four quests in the 3-4 level range, at one time this was a big undertaking for low level parties that had great payoffs in XP and loot. Way back in the day, it represented something a full party would take on when they had ample time on their hands, a well-rounded group and plenty of resources.
These days, at least for multiple TR toons like Schir, Water Works is something i do almost straight off the boat from Korthos and it takes about 20 minutes for the whole shebang. Granted, Schir has inflated stats and twink gear out the wazoo, plus there’s things like hirelings and guild airship buffs that make it quite difficult to be killed. But during my most recent low-level runs it occurred to me that’s where part of the fun of this game lies. The content isn’t necessarily new or surprising, but the character approach to it is different each time based on power you’d accumulated since the last time. What i mean is that, each trip around on the TR train, i notice that i can handle a higher level of content at the elite level and accomplish the quest goals a little quicker, a little better and a little more efficiently. So for me, as a solo player, it’s rewarding to get the sense of achievement when i can realize i can handle, say, The Phiarlan Carnival line all on elite, or Stormcleave Outpost.
There is a caveat to all of this however, and it’s something i’ve noticed emerge in the forums over the past few years: the gap between veteran players and newcomers to DDO continually widens. A perfect example of this was my afore-mentioned Water Works run. For shiggles, when i entered the quest i left it open to the public. Figuring that if anyone wanted to jump in, they could tag along either to pike or whatever – i was going to blow through it myself anyway. Once i was on the second part of it, in popped a random fighter, and then a sorcerer. Greetings were made, and i continued onward. After a moment, one of them asked if we could repeat part one and i said sure, but that i was going to finish this one first then we could return. The next thing i know, i hear the distinctive *ding!* that tells me uh-oh, someone just died (they both did, actually). Before i could get back to their soul stones and even see what killed them, since i’d cleared a path already, they both ragequit on me for zerging. At that moment i realized one of the flaws that keeps DDO from continuing to grow their playerbase – new players are met with veterans at early levels and simply cannot hope to keep up. But for us veterans, it’s painful to take these quests slowly because to us, they’re rote and very easy to beat. We’re just doing them for the quick XP to level up and get to the really fun stuff. But to a new player, their experience of wonder and awe gets a little squashed when a single toon can rush into a room and defeat everything in sight before they even realize what’s going on.
Another drawback to DDO, again based on my multiple MMO experience, is the story-telling aspect. In fact, a recent forum post by Gamer Geoff posed the question of whether DDO was drifting further from it’s source material, the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons RPG. There were some interesting points made, and my contribution was that it was missing the interactivity between the characters and the story. Only sometimes, but rarely at that, do you get the sense that your character is making a difference or affecting the story in any meaningful way. Even if you read the NPC dialogue which, come on, not many people do, more often than not you come off as just a straight-up mercenary doing not-so-heroic things for loot. Sometimes there’s an intricate story to the quest…sometimes too intricate in my opinion. Take the Stormreaver for example – i’ve been playing DDO since 2006 and i still have no idea what the deal is with that guy. Either way, it doesn’t make any difference what dialogue choices you make as a player, the end is always the same – you either take the quest or you don’t. In contrast, look at Star Wars: The Old Republic. That game has a fantastic story, one which is tailored to each of the game’s 8 classes and features superb voice acting for each of the possible 16 characters (male and female of each class). For the most part, the story is linear and static, but thanks to Bioware’s consistent dedication to rich storytelling, you do get the sense that your character is a vibrant part of the story, making choices and developing a personality along the way. In DDO, not so much.
All of this is part and parcel to what i originally made claim to though, that there is no perfect game out there (at least that i’ve discovered yet). By perfect, i mean one that contains all the traditional aspects of MMO gaming that would please everyone all of the time. Each one i’ve tried has lots of things i like, but lots of things i don’t enjoy, too. Some games have excellent crafting systems, like FFXI and FFXIV – both of which blow DDO’s multiple craft systems and awful Cannith Crafting out of the water. Others have astounding storytelling and terrific mini-games like SWTOR with it’s voice-acting, varietal PvP and Galactic Starfighter. Still others impress with their dedication to source material like Marvel Heroes and Star Trek Online.
But all of that aside, i keep returning to the DDO. Perhaps it’s because of my decades of love for Dungeons & Dragons as an intellectual property (except for that abysmal movie). Maybe it’s because of the investment i’ve made in Schir Gold. Possibly it’s because of all the friends i’ve made both in and out of the game through my guild and fellow bloggers. But if i really think about it though, it’s mostly the actual gameplay itself. Despite lag problems and a huge list of known bugs that includes the infamous “ladder bug,” i actually haven’t played another game that allows you to move, jump, climb and fight while on the run while playing the most customizable characters you can imagine, all while interacting with classic D&D myths and monsters in a persistent world. Over the years, i’ve watched as the Harbor was destroyed and rebuilt, the Marketplace tent was blown to smithereens, walls were split asunder and portals to other worlds were opened. The landscape changes, and throwaway NPCs milling around the common areas sometimes return in more vital roles later on.
But the quests remain the same, and offer you a chance to test whatever skills and treasure you’ve acquired each go-around, gaining new tricks and gear for whatever your next life holds. And with that, the scheduled downtime is complete. Time to go a-hunting for some wizard gear i can use on my next life.