Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sacrificing the low level game to balance the high level game

I made it back from a conference (to which my recent lack of posts can be attributed) last night. Despite my jet lag, I decided to spend some time messing around with DDO's update five. I’m sure that the higher level features such as the new guild airships , the class spec line changes, and the new module are fine and dandy. However, on my (maximum of level 8) toons, the only real difference I've noticed so far is that dual wielding has been nerfed to hell and back.

[Beginning: technical details, skip down for the main points]

As it stands, with the first level of two-weapon fighting, you are giving up 2 attack bonus and very likely a shield (even at low levels easily 6 AC) for a 40% chance to proc an attack with your off-hand when you swing your main-hand weapon. Should the off-hand attack proc, you still have to make your to-hit roll or it is wasted. For my low level rogue, this means I get one successful offhand hit in roughly once every two or three attack cycles (based on looking at my combat logs), where before I was reliably getting one or two hits per attack cycle with my offhand weapon.

For low level characters that can use a shield, the benefit of TWF (two weapon fighting) doesn’t seem to outweigh the attack and AC penalty. Particularly when you consider the fact that shields which do damage to foes that strike you are fairly common. Add in that that your main-hand weapon is more accurate, and I suspect you are looking at similar DPS to dual wielding using a sword-and-board while having significantly higher defense. Even for classes like Rogue that can’t use shields, it’s iffy. Such characters tend to have low attack bonuses to begin with, so a -2 main-hand attack penalty for an off-hand attack that may or may not proc seems questionable.

The offhand proc chance can be boosted to 60% and 80% by getting improved and greater two-weapon fighting at higher levels. But that doesn’t help out any of my low level characters, or any new player that excitedly tries out dual wielding only to discover that it’s next to useless (until much higher level). In order to slightly reduce the DPS that TWF builds were putting out at high levels, Turbine essentially completely trashed dual wielding at low levels.

[End: technical details]

DDO seems to have a problem in general that the low level and high level game are at odds. One symptom of this is that very often a build that is optimal at higher levels starts off quite weak. For example, endgame focused builds of hybrid classes often use the primary spell casting stat as a "dump stat," in some cases eliminating the ability to cast spells at all until the teens. Now we see this problem extending even to overall balancing of the game. Turbine apparently can't figure out a way to balance dual wielding save to cripple it at low levels, when squishy melee classes like Rogue and Ranger need a DPS boost the most.

Oddly enough, Turbine's stated reason for modifying two-weapon fighting wasn’t primarilly to reduce the DPS it does. Supposedly, they did it to reduced combat lag in raids. They claim to have nerfed one of the most popular fighting styles across the board to address an issue that the majority of players will never encounter. My reaction to that is (A) we are not stupid, we know that the main point likely is to reduce the DPS of TWF builds, and (B) if combat lag in raids really was their main reason for the change, they just nerfed the hell much of the player base…particularly low level players and new players… to improve the endgame. That would be an abysmally stupid approach to the problem.

New players are the lifeblood of a MMO. Making their gameplay more difficult to help out the end game vets that are already committed to your game is poor business. The vets really don't give the first crap about the low level game. New players, on the other hand, will stay or quit based on it.


  1. Thanks for saying this. The most frustrating thing in the TWF nerf discussions so far is virtually nobody is discussing what this does to low and mid-level characters. Everyone just talks about their epic level RAID grinders as if that's the only way to play the game.

    The low-mid level TWFers have been gutted by this incredibly stupid and dishonest nerf. This is going to attract and retain new players how?

    I'm playing my first TWF character after years of trying other things. I'd done THF and Sword&Board to death previously. This is a multi-classed stealth build that used to be fun to solo with. I'd got this toon within spitting distance of 7th level and the ITWF feat.

    A week ago this toon's fights felt exciting and it felt like each swing onscreen was actually happening in the game. Now fights with this toon feel like a really lame dance-fight out of West Side Story. The illusion that onscreen attacks were happening is largely gone and I feel stupid for having gone to the trouble of carefully structuring feats and finding a decent off-hand weapon. My off-hand weapon might as well be a pillow now.

    Turbine basically stole the fun out of this character. I'm pretty sure I wasn't paying them to do that. When my current VIP payment cycle expires I probably won't be paying them at all. In my workplace there would be consequences for being this inexcusably bad at one's job...

  2. Hmmm... as a new player, I'm glad I didn't go dual wield, but I can't say that making the game effectively less deep is making me any more inclined to play this game long term.

    It appears that decisions like this and LotRO pay-as-you-go are motivated by profit margins. That's fine, but I'm going to be spending my gaming dollars where I get the best experience and best value.

  3. This is not 100% Turbine's fault. They're implementing the licensed Dungeons and Dragons rules, which have the exact same flaws of builds not scaling well with levels. (Well, you don't get to dump your spellcasting stat because the PNP rules don't let you count gear buffs towards what you can cast, but anyway...)

    The stated rationale for the change actually did include specifically nerfing TWF. It's so much better than two-handers or sword and board - yes, at endgame - that everyone builds around it (including 17 points of unbuffed dex in feat prereqs). Armor classes get so high that you're better off spamming a ton of attacks in the hopes that you eventually score a hit (5% chance to hit no matter how many penalties you've got).

    That aside, I'm strongly considering looking for or maybe even starting a "level 11 = gkick" guild. I just think that the game is more fun at low levels where things like armor class actually work.

  4. Hmm, this may explain the somewhat frustrating fights I had last time I logged in with my level 3 (highest I have so far in DDO).

  5. @Dolemite: I have to agree that it's a little immersion breaking to see my TWF characters go through a long combat animations that aren't really related at all to the attacks they are doing. Before the offhand weapon would hit just when you'd expect it to from the animation, which I quite liked. I also dislike that the new proc system distances the game from the PnP rules it attempts to mimick.

    @Jomar: I still think DDO is a pretty good value, if you intend to play it long term. If you think about $60 for a box and $15 per month to sub, it doesn't take very long for a typical MMO to pass what I have spent on DDO so far. And unlike most MMOs I have permanent access to everything I've bought whether I pay or not. That said, you can be certain that the choice to go FtP in LoTRO was motivated by profit margins rather than charity.

    @GreenArmadillo: Turbine is in a tough position. MMO players expect game balance. However, the PnP rules are not remotely balanced. Some character builds are simply light years more powerful than others. Particularly when you get into prestige classes in 3.5, it's pretty easy to make a character that practically breaks the game.

    On top of that, MMO players expect a reasonable challenge at all levels. However, In PnP a high level wizard can slaughter a legion of enemies with a spell, and high level fighters can butcher just about anything they can get close to in single round of attacks. Obviously DDO wouldn't be very challenging if we had that kind of power at high levels. So instead Turbine ramps the power levels of mobs up to obscene levels that you never see in PnP. In the process they also break the underlying combat mechanics, creating ridiculous situations such as the extra AC from plate mail versus leather being almost pointless and a natural 20 being the only way to hit something. I say this not as a criticism so much as an acknowledgment that Turbine is in a tough spot.

    All that said, I think 60%, 70%, 80% would have been a much more logical progression for the TWF feat line. There is no reason in the world for TWF to suck as badly at low levels as it does currently.

  6. An excellent analysis, Yeebo. I never got to the meta-gaming aspect of DDO. I just picked whatever I was enjoying at the time. I suppose I would have been horribly gimped at endgame content, but I doubt I'll ever see level 20 in my lifetime.

  7. @Anjin: I personally don't care much for endgame focused builds. If the game isn't fun to me 1-10, I'm sure as hell not going to see 20. Picking skills that seem useful for your current content is a very reasonable way to learn the game.

    That said, if you plan to even hit the ripe old age of ten, I think you almost have to use a character planner or you will miss out on abilities. DDO has a very nasty habit of requiring pre-requisites that aren't at all obvious for some of the better enhancements.

  8. Considering all the new players they've recently gained, this sure doesn't seem to be a smart move. Players don't like having their fun classes nerfed, especially because of some end game reason which doesn't effect them.

    Hopefully they realize they've gone overboard with how it's affecting the lower levels.