Dungeons & Dragons Online

Boy, isn’t it always the way: you get to spring break with a long list of things to do and then you get sick. So while I’m trying to get over this sore throat, I’ve been looking into the current computer and video games scene. Excuse the geekout here for a bit, if you’re one of my ungeeky readers. I’d blog this at Terra Nova, but it seems a bit short of a TN-worthy entry.

The marketplace for massively-multiplayer online games continues to confuse me. I can’t help but note that more than a few of the developers who speak in public about their industry just can’t seem to bend their heads around a few important baseline facts in their understanding of the runaway success of World of Warcraft. For folks who don’t follow this stuff, the basic thing you need to understand is that World of Warcraft is more successful by a massive amount than anything before it. In a context where most observers thought that the market for such games had almost hit an upper bound barring some dramatically new type of product, World of Warcraft (WoW) came in and simply delivered the same kind of product at a much higher level of quality and expanded the market by five or six times.

Observers, gamers and developers are still debating what that means. The developers at rival companies tend to favor the proposition that WoW’s success is largely a function of the big money its developers spent in making it, an argument that is sometimes made with a bit of sour grapes. Some developers and many gamers tend to look at its actual design and try to figure out why it works as well as it does (I personally give a lot of credit to WoW’s consistent aesthetics).

The money argument is a sound one, except that those making it often don’t pay close attention to what WoW’s developer, Blizzard, spent money on. They spent it on three things: relatively smooth technical functionality, art design, and the creation of huge amounts of content, all in service to an extremely clear overall conceptual and business plan that included some serious thought about how to manage later changes to the game design. The lesson I draw from that is not that a successful game of this type has to have a particular kind of design, but that to be successful, spend the time minimizing bugs and technical problems and make a ton of content before you get your product out on the market.

Hurrying to launch, even if you’re bleeding money, is basically a way to lose whatever investment you’ve made so far. We’ve seen this again and again in this marketplace: products with commercial potential pushed out the door before they were ready, and thus never achieving anything close to their potential success.

Now comes Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO), from a company that already made the mistake of rushing to market once, with their product Asheron’s Call 2. DDO is really a pretty different design paradigm, and I suspect people are going to draw the wrong conclusion from that difference if the game underperforms in the market (as I think it’s going to). The design idea of DDO is to get players to savor each adventure for itself, to concentrate on delivering a different content model that gets away from repetitively accumulative play of the kind that crops up in World of Warcraft, to capture (as much as possible) the experience of playing “pen-and-paper” games in the pre-computer age.

Not a bad idea. Except that from the outset, it’s hard to think why players would pay a monthly subscription fee to do that. DDO doesn’t have a “virtual world” to speak of. The need for interacting with other players outside of the adventures themselves is minimal. There’s little economy, little sociality, nothing much persistent to the world. There are already computer games where you can play online for free with other people in very comparable ways: Diablo or Neverwinter Nights, just to mention two. For a monthly subscription fee, you need to deliver something more.

Especially if content is king in the design you’ve got to offer. Especially if the content you have was exhaustively experienced by many of your potential players during beta testing and you don’t do anything to scramble or randomize that content after the beta test ends. Even DDO players who just want to experience the content and don’t care about levelling are finding that most of the other players are just rushing through dungeons and quests because they know where everything is and what every turn and twist of the plotlines are. So even new players who might enjoy for a month or two the content which is available to them are finding themselves shackled to other players who’ve done it all before and can’t help but know how the story turns out. (In part because the game pretty much requires playing in groups.)

If the main satisfaction you deliver is the collective experience of narratives, you’d better try to maintain some sense of surprise or novelty. You’d better have a technical innovation in mind that will let you deliver content differently as well as more quickly if that’s the centerpiece of your game’s market appeal. Or at least you ought to hold back some surprises, traps, twists, in the content you’ve designed and put that in after the beta test ends, before the game goes live. Otherwise, why bother? What is the point of chasing a market niche without technical and design insights that allow you to inhabit that niche comfortably?

I wonder a bit if DDO’s developers aren’t asking themselves the same thing right now. They walked into a cul-de-sac and I’m not sure if their eyes were open or shut when they did it. Regardless, they’re facing a six-story brick wall right now and unless they suddenly develop the ability to defy gravity I think that’s about as far as they’re going to go.

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5 Responses to Dungeons & Dragons Online

  1. joeo says:

    I think their problem is that they were aiming for a niche which meant that they couldn’t invest as much as Blizzard which meant that even people in the niche would probably prefer to play WoW.

    I used to play Runequest. Some guy and his wife took a couple years writting a computer game based on Runequest . They had the same problem in a more extreme form. It is kind of heartbreaking because they were able to produce the skeleton of a good game, but they couldn’t get the funds to do anything impressive graphically.

  2. kmunoz says:

    If I recall correctly, Final Fantasy XI also broke records in an absurd way when it came out. It had more subscribers than the other top three or four MMORPGs put together. It wasn’t knocked out of first place until WoW came along.

    You write that Blizzard spent money on “relatively smooth technical functionality, art design, and the creation of huge amounts of content.” I would definitely agree with the latter – even the mundane “grinding” tends to have story elements in WoW. One of the major complaints about WoW, however, is that it has yet to manage adequately its maintenance and support issues (due in no small part, I would imagine, to the unexpected size of the subscriber base). As for art design, I will say that it is consistent (with itself and with previous Warcraft titles), but I’ve heard time and again from FFXI players that WoW is “butt-ugly.” (And keep in mind that FFXI used to be king of the hill.)

    I feel that what makes WoW so successful is that it works well as an online game but also works just fine for an “offline” style of play. Solo play is viable in WoW, so that players aren’t forced to grind at a certain pace in order to be able to play with people whom they consider competent enough to group with. The casual gamer is also better served by WoW than by other MMORPGs for this reason. I suspect the drop-out rate for WoW is lower than for some other games, precisely because players don’t have to be there every single day and don’t have to wait around until they can find a group.

  3. rmkgs says:

    > World of Warcraft is more successful by a massive amount than anything before it.

    We really need to qualify this with “in the West.” WOW has indeed broken through, to become a hit on the scale of the Korean MMO blockbuster series Lineage/Lineage II.

    (PS. I’m working here off numbers from http://www.mmogchart.com/ – which covers some issues in comparing Lineage numbers with those of games sold on the “traditional” Western model. It remains pretty clear that the Lineage series was and is immense.)

  4. Endie says:

    I’ve experienced DDO in two ways. I’ve played with friends from real-life – including from my pen and paper D&D group – and that was great fun: it let us play pretty much our usual game but with spectacular GM’s aids.

    But hanging around with one other friend looking for group members was dreary, although not as horrible as us trying to do level 1 adventures with only two level one characters.

    The social and matching tools aren’t bad per se – if you can find them – but they’re not so good that they can support a game you cannot play at all without grouping. They needed to be Warsong Gulch efficient: in you go, say hi to the strangers when you arrive if you didn’t already have a full group. I just went back to WoW to start yet another alt.

    Having looked forward to it for ages, I’m verging on downcast that this one is going to fail (which, I am sure you are right to suggest, it will). And my fear over what Middle Earth Online will turn out like just ratcheted up a notch.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Lineage/Lineage2 are bigger than WoW, probably, in user base, though as that chart and others have noted, there are lots of ways in which their likely subscription numbers are lower. But I strongly suspect WoW has Lineage beat in revenue. In any event, its penetration of the North American and European market crushes any previous competition by a long margin.

    Endie, I think that’s another point a lot of DDO critics are making that has some justice in it–you want to make a game that requires grouping, you’d better have the absolutely most robust social tools ever seen in a MMOG, where the moment you put up an LFG flag specific to instance, bam! you’re matched.

    But the big thing is that I just don’t get their content delivery model. It’s a game where content is the only hook they have over any competitor, and the content appears to be excrutiatingly difficult for them to rollout. Hell, they’ve STILL got some of the content that they had at launch offline due to pathing-exploit problems. Without a content-delivery innovation, this is a product that never should have gotten past prototype.

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