Thursday, June 25, 2020

When you live in terror of "improvements" to your game

Dungeons and Dragons online has one of the more unique endgame progression systems.  Once you hit level 20 or higher, you can reincarnate your character and start over again at level 1.  Your name and sex carry over, but you can completely change your race, class and other build choices. You also get to keep all the gear you earned during your previous life.

The main reason to reincarnate is that your character gets slightly stronger every time you do it.  The first few reincarnations you gain more points to spend on your physical stats (e.g., dexterity, strength and constitution), and so grant you a considerable power boost.  However, additional lives beyond these continue to grant small bonuses, all of which stack.  For example, one life might grant +2 to a skill, another might grant +1 to a stat, another might grant a few extra hit points, another might give you a small damage bonus, and the list goes on and on.  If you have a lot of lives under your belt you can become quite a bit more powerful than a first life character. There are currently more than 100 possible past life bonuses.

Every time you reincarnate you need an item called a true heart of wood.  The easiest way to get one is to buy it from the item shop, but it's expensive.  At current conversion rates each one costs about $20, which puts the cost to do all current possible past lives (126 if I am not mistaken) at $2520 (!!!).  You can earn the hearts of wood you need in game, but only incrementally and only from certain quests.  For example heroic true hearts of wood, the type of heart you currently need the most of at 45, can be bought with Tokens of the Twelve.  Of the 597 quests in game, only about 30 grant these tokens.  The first time I wanted to reincarnate a character, I did some research and discovered that even after all the years I've been playing I didn't have enough tokens to get a heart.  I simply hadn't happened to do the right quests enough times.  I was forced to spend a solid week repeating the handful of quests near my level that would give me the most tokens and fragments of tokens.  It was not fun.

New players often get frustrated by this system.  When they find out that (a) they need to reincarnate at least a few times to get up to par for typical PUGs, (b) they don't have nearly enough tokens to buy a heart because they didn't know to ignore 80% of quests in a particular level range, and (c) the hearts are for sale in the item shop, but they are expensive as hell . . . they often get upset.  About every month or two a new thread pops up on the forums whining about this issue.  For example, you can see the latest such thread here.  In general, most players agree that the system needs improvement.

However, a contingent of players also always shows up and declares that everything is fine, that those complaining are just being cheap or lazy, and under no circumstances should any change be made to this system.  Until recently I thought this was all generic fanboyism.  No matter how idiotic a design or how screwed up a developer's actions, there will always be some loud voices defending them in any MMO.  I got a chuckle out this Daily Grind at Massively OP about "MMO Defense forces" because it rang so true. The developers of a MMO probably could be caught using players' credit card info to buy porn, and some players would still chime in with something like "You gave them your credit card info, what did you expect?"

However, in DDO and on this issue, I think there is more to it than just fanboys defending developers.  Years ago the developers in DDO proposed to all but remove any way of earning hearts for true reincarnation in game.  This idea was not well received by players (to put it mildly), but at first the developers ignored them.  To call attention to the issue, players staged a protest in game.  Eventually some news sites even started covering the protests, and the developers finally relented.  This is when the system that DDO has now was finalized.* Considering this system a vast improvement over the original proposal of "You can buy one in the store, grind for months for one, or go screw yourself,"  players took the deal.

I honestly believe that many of the players defending the system know how bad it is, but simply fear that if it's revisited in-game methods of obtaining the hearts will be further restricted or even removed. After all, the developers originally didn't want to let players reincarnate at all without hitting the item shop.  The problem with this is that reincarnation is one of the central game play loops of DDO.  It is the system that probably the majority of hardcore players use to advance their characters.  Hearts should be a heck of a lot easier to get in game, and buying one in the item shop should not cost more than a monthly sub fee.  If your most hardcore players are absolutely terrified for you to work on a bad system because they are convinced you will make it even worse, at the very least communication with your community has broken down.

Now of course there is more than just terror of incompetence going on when forumites defend this clunky system.  More than almost any other MMO I have played there is a serious disconnect between how the game is perceived by long time vets and new players.  This is likely at least in part due to the reincarnation system and the power disparity it produces.  When you are strong enough to solo enough quests for a heart in an hour of play, complaining about the system seems absurd and childish.  There is probably also general fanboyism, which you find in almost any game, at work.  However, I do think a lot of it is a deep rooted belief that any change will lead to something even worse than the current system.  I have to admit that after seeing several instances of developer "corrupt a wish" in DDO**, I can understand this trepidation.

*I am not sure if the current system was implemented, or simply not removed after the protests.  I wasn't playing at the time and reports vary.

**For example, recent changes to martial ranged builds.  There was one enhancement tree, Inquisitive, that pretty much everyone agreed was a bit OP and needed to be reigned in.  So how did the developers do it?  They did it by nerfing the multi-target damage of every single ranged build in the game by 20%.  Not just Inquisitives, all ranged builds.  Ranged builds that were considered weak before became even worse, and Inquisitive remains much stronger than most other martial ranged options.  When that is how a set of developers "fixes" things, it's not surprising when some players want nothing fixed.