Monday, May 24, 2010

DDO: deep or obtuse?

Dungeons and Dragons Online has an incredibly deep character development system. The game itself isn't all that complex, but when planning characters you may as well be playing EVE. You have to allocate stat points when you roll a character, which is damn easy to mess up when you first start playing. This is not Everquest, where the stats you get from gear will trump any other consideration. You will be feeling the effects of your choices at level 20. You also have to pick one or two feats from a list of dozens, pick out enhancements from an equally huge list as you level, and allocate points to skills.

Unfortunately, the descriptions rarely give you much of an idea of how useful something will be in game. For example, it's hard to know whether "jump" is a good investment of skill points until you know how often you really would want it (I've found exactly one instance so far that lack of jump skill screwed me in, out of dozens), or whether there might be some spell or dead common potion that can boost your jump skill when you do need it (yes and yes).

On top of that, as a friend of mine pointed out last night, the in game feedback often isn't too helpful. He tried to equip spells on a Paladin that had 8 Wisdom. The only feedback he got was "Stat isn't high enough." Umm, what stat exactly? How high does it need to be? An error message along the lines of "Must have at least 12 wisdom to cast level one spells" likely would have been a lot more helpful.

The situation we are left with is that you either have to follow a "flavor-of-the-month" build step by step on the forums, or you guinea-pig several builds until you find one that does what you want it to. There are character planners that can help somewhat, but no character planner can tell you whether an ability or spell is any good for your play-style. You have to take it for a spin.

Added to all of this, the fact that you can mix and match levels of different classes at will means that (A) you can design a character to do almost anything you can think of and (B) your opportunities for gimping yourself are nearly unlimited. I like the depth on the balance. It's a refreshing change of pace from most level based MMOs, where the majority of characters of a given class are nearly identical until at least the mid-levels. However, I have to admit it's not a real pleasure to get some random build up to level 3 and find out I screwed up and have to re-roll . . .for the second time.


  1. This is the primary reason why I've not been able to sit down and commit to playing much DDO. I don't like using FOTM builds, I don't want to spend days planning out a character before I even take a step into the virtual world, and most of all I don't want to find out that I gimped myself after I put a few days into a character and have to reroll.

    I'm sure eventually, I'll get motivated to give it a shot, but it's strange to have such a high initial hurdle to starting out. Of course, I might be easier for me if I'd played D&D more recently than 1992.

  2. Heck of an analysis, Yeebo. I think there are two reason Duneons & Dragons (the pen-and-paper version) does not translate well to DDO.

    1) You get lots of feedback in the live game as to how your character is performing. If you know what kind of game your DM is running, you can start to tailor your character to match that. In DDO, the only place to get that info is from third party resources.

    2) As well, your dungeon master can design challenges around the types of characters in the game. DDO's fixed challenges can't be tweaked to take into account characters that are not perfectly built. And at the high end, they are probably designed to challenge perfect character builds because that's what people play.

    None of that make DDO a bad game, but it shows why PnP RPGs make such rough translations to videogame systems.

  3. The thing that really irks me about DDO character building is how often your long-term best-interest conflicts with short-term playability. Cookie cutter builds routinely advise you to do unpleasant things like dump stat your primary spellcasting attribute or leave yourself needing a tome to qualify for crucial feats because an endgame character will get the stuff they need to overcome these handicaps.

    "Regret this decision now or later" is not a fun choice to have to make.

  4. What gets me is that no matter which "build" you use, whichever class is primary will always determine your "best" feats that you have to take or else wind up gimped.

    Any melee class will take:

    Two Weapon Fighting
    Improved Two Weapon Fighting
    Greater Two Weapon Fighting

    Only exception is if they take 2-handed fighting instead, but the general consensus is that TWF is better than THF.

    Now when you consider that 8 of the 11 classes only get 7 feats to use and 4 of those feats are already taken, and the other 3 feats are generally the same for a given class as well. . . . What you end up with is a big menu of things that distract you away from the "useful" feats.

    Then there are the stupid skills that are put as cross-class when they really should be class. Paladins don't get Intimidate? Seriously?

    And most classes only get 2 points per level, which is also crap. Sure, it makes you "make choices" except that. . . you guessed it, each class has optimum skills to go along with them, even if they're cross-class, and thus those are the only skills taken.

    What this means to me is that the "big menu" gives the illusion of depth, when in reality all it does is make gimped out characters possible.

    I actually do like that most damage is done by most characters simply using auto-attack. casters are the exception, of course, as well as paladins and monks needing a lot of clicking/hotkey using, but heck, even my wizard is still meleeing more than spellslinging. Something about low spellpoint pools needing to be saved for the big nasty bosses. . . . . .

    Hm. This sounds like a big complaint/rant, and yet I love the game and it's my "main one" right now. Guess it's true that you complain the most about the one you love, no?

  5. Good blog and comments. I found some of this information helpful for a new player to get perspective.

    I don't mind a deep character development system with lots of opportunity for bad choices. (If I want easy I'll go play Farmville).

    My gripe is the vague generic error message. I find this to be a problem a lot of software that I use. Being a software developer, I understand how much work it is to develop good user interfaces with good diagnostic feedback.

    You nailed it with your example. If I am unable to accomplish something, I want to know exactly why I can't and to have an inkling of what to do to remedy the problem. Without this, the playability suffers greatly. There is a point with any player (customer) where "challenging" starts to become "onerous". I have to think the bottom line is affected when too many people find it to be the latter.

  6. Wow, looks like I struck a nerve ;-)

    @Blue Kae: one option is to use the pre-made builds. The problem there is that eventually you will want a custom build, and you don't really learn much about the character development system when all your choices are made for you.

    @Anjin: DDO is the closest translation of a set of PnP mechanics I've seen in an MMO. And you are right, giving players such an immense amount of freedom doesn't work as well in an MMO (or any CRPG for that matter) for just the reasons you lay out.

    DDO does a fairly impressive job of letting you attack instances from different angles, but it's still nothing like having a live DM cater adventures on the fly to challenges your party should be able to handle.

    @Green Armadillo: Amen. So far I have yet to make it past ten, so I'm doing builds that are fun to play at low levels. I hope the fact that I have no intention of raiding means that I will be able to hit the cap and not worry about whether I could have squeaked out 5% extra DPS by having a painful early game.

    Regardless, if the low levels aren't fun enough for me to want to play through them I'm not going to make it to the upper levels anyway.

    @Magson: that's a good point, and I'd say a big part of the learning curve when you start is figuring out those four traits you pretty much "have to have" on your class of choice.

    In addition to that, you need to figure out what (if any) specialization you plan on and make sure you have have the pre-reqs ready to go by level six or so when they first open up. That's usually all but one or two trait choices.

    Between the two, it's certainly where I tend to screw up. For example, last night I realized I can't qualify for Tempest on my newbie ranger until level nine because I "foolishly" chose toughness instead of some obscure trait I've never paid much attention too at character creation. I guess arcane archer isn't a bad second choice. . . .

    @Jomar: What irks me personally the most is that the suggestions you are given on the character creation screen actually aren't all that great in many cases. You might be advised to pick things like diplomacy that are very rarely going to be useful for most characters. It's as if the advice there was written with game design elements that never really materialized in mind.

    Yeah, it's a deep system and all. But if Turbine really wants new players to stick around past the first four levels, they need to figure out how to make the whole process a bit less arcane. They have to be losing some potential customers.


    In any case, all that said, I'm with Magson. I'm having a blast in DDO despite the ease with which you can screw up your builds. I think the post and comments here have come off a bit ranty, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend taking DDO out for a spin. It's a fairly unique MMO experience.