Friday, September 18, 2009

It's Like Multiboxing On a Single Account

Recently I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons Online. I tried the game when it first launched and enjoyed it, but it never seemed worth the $15 a month. So I played off and on for a month and quit. Never looked back.

Now it's free to play. And you know what? They actually made $12 off of me yesterday. And you know why I was so willing to plunk down money on DDO when I never paid for microtransactions in any other game (including Runes of Magic, Atlantica Online) or paid extra for a freemium tier (in games like Dungeon Runners)? Because I didn't feel like I had to. I was already having fun. Paying extra felt like it was something I just wanted to do. That's the trick. Turbine did microtransactions right.

One of the features I've really been enjoying are the hirelings. Part of the reason for this is - I simply enjoy playing with more than one character. It just feels more natural. I grew up on games like Bard's Tale and Wizardry and Might and Magic where you took an entire part through dungeons.

Nowadays games like World of Warcraft design most of the content so that its soloable. But here's the problem: since they can't tell in advance what skills any player will bring to the table, the quests and mobs are designed for the lowest common denominator. Which means they don't deal much damage to threaten a tank because that would cause them to destroy the cloth armor classes. Which means they can't have so much HP that they challenge a wizard because the tanks would still be fighting their very first mob when that wizard gets to the level cap. Which means the quests can't require you to do things like feign death or sneak or disarm a trap as a part of the quest without inexplicably requiring you to do so with a specific bauble.

So the quests and mobs became more of a chore. They aren't that exciting. You have your spell rotation and know exactly what you are going to do for almost every solo mob in the game.

With games that allow hirelings, there's no problem like that. Designers can expect that you will have an array of different skills and will likely have a rogue, a healer, and a tank in the group. They can have quests that expect one person to be in one place while another player has to do something elsewhere (pull a lever, keep two monsters separated, whatever.)

With hirelings, you tackle the same group content that everyone else does. Only you have NPCs to pad the party out for those times when you can't find a group (one of the reasons I quit DDO originally was the sometimes lengthy spells I'd be jumping up and down in a bar shouting LFG) or don't want to find a group (not necessarily because I'm antisocial - maybe I just know my baby will wake up within the hour and want to start on a dungeon but know I might have to go AFK for 30 minutes at any moment.)

So Dungeons and Dragons Online has been a lot more fun. Since I can always find a group - I can make my own when other players aren't doing what I need or want to do - there's no unwanted downtime. I just go and find the quest, summon some help, and go. And the game play is more interesting: playing NPCs allow you to bring more skills to the table since you are no longer confined to a very narrow role.

It hasn't been entirely without challenges. The NPCs do exactly what I tell them and a single misclick can cause them to rather happily run through the acid laden spike traps until they die. But that's part of the fun.

What about grouping? MMOs should encourage grouping right? I agree. Hirelings also improve grouping. I've convinced some real life friends to give Dungeons and Dragons Online a shot. Early on, we ran into a problem: I play a paladin in my real life D&D campaign and I decided to recreate that character in game as my main. My friend also made a paladin as well. I also have a cleric and a monk and a wizard but I didn't want to play them at the time. There was a specific quest I wanted to finish, on my paladin. My friend's other character (he only had two slots) was still on the starter island and couldn't group with me. We weren't going to get far without a healer, unless we played the easier difficulty levels. But no problem! We bought one in game and off we went.

Hirelings in Dungeons and Dragons Online could be better. The way theya re implemented, they are temporary. But in some games they are permanent and have their own inventory and skills. Guild Wars, for instance, allows you to have Heroes that you can improve in game. That's a great way to introduce lateral progression to a game. Instead of simply adding more and more levels, a game with Heroes can add more variety to the Heroes, and players will be addicted on two fronts: collecting all the Heroes, and leveling each of them up.

I wish more games would move away from the dichotomy between group content and solo content. The solo content is generally just no fun. But the more interesting, challenging, and scripted content, the dungeon crawls, have historically been relegated to groups only. To make games more accessible to the casual time-challenged players, instead of dumbing down the mobs and the quests, it's much better to let players round out the party and fill needed roles with NPCs.

I wish EverQuest II had hirelings. But if they did it well, they'd probably lose my second account. And there are a LOT of EverQuest II players who at least dual box. So I guess that won't happen. :)

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