The team at Turbine is no stranger to the concept of taking chances and doing things their own way. While free to play games had been around for a while, it was the Dungeons & Dragons Online team that took the plunge and saved a dying game by being the first to swap a triple-A MMORPG title from a subscription-based model to a free to play model. At the time, it was a shock to everyone across the industry. Such a thing had never been done. A lot of industry veterans thought the team was crazy for doing it, but faced with the reality that the game was going to have to be shut down, the team took a chance – a chance that paid off in spades.Now they’re looking to do it again. On Monday of this week, Dungeons & Dragons Online released a new expansion entitled, Shadowfell Conspiracy. The expansion is packed with new features, new adventures, and more. While reading through the release notes, there was one section (and a major selling point of the expansion) that stuck out to me – a new concept called Iconic Heroes.
There are four heroes available to players depending on which expansion edition they purchase (and when). Those that pre-ordered any edition will receive the Bladeforged Iconic Hero. Those that purchase the collector’s edition will receive the Shadar-Kai Assassin Iconic Hero, the Sun Elf Morninglord Iconic Hero, and the Purple Knight Iconic Hero. Those that order the standard edition (without pre-ordering) will only receive the Purple Knight Iconic Hero.
So what are they? Iconic Heroes are playable characters that start the game at level 15. They have pre-determined skills and abilities, but you can choose to ignore them and spec them out however you wish (only the first level has to be in the pre-determined class). If you decide not to follow the path laid out for you, you can essentially have a free level 14 character of whatever class you desire.
One of the reasons Dungeons & Dragons Online initially went free to play was because of a lack of players. This is more than just a statement about subscription numbers. There were pieces of required group content to progress past certain points. If you couldn’t find a group, you were forced to replay an inordinate number of dungeons to get high enough in level to get through the group content by yourself. This was a real problem for the game. Once players started leaving, the problem just continued to compound itself like a self-fulfilling Doomsday prophecy.
When the game went free to play, all of a sudden there was a flood of new players and there was rarely a time when you couldn’t find others to group up with to get past the content you were unable to solo through. This is all ignoring the added benefit of the social aspects as well. More players make for a lively world that feels much more dynamic than a game filled to the brim with multiple ghost towns.
What’s all this to do with the price of live spiders in a mage bazaar? Everything. When I heard about players being able to start out with characters that are level 15 now, a couple of questions popped into my head. The first of which relates directly to the old issue of not having enough players to complete content with. I know for myself that once my character hit level 8 or so, I stopped playing. I would either start a new character or leave the game for a while and repeat the cycle. Keep in mind that each level is really 5, so level 8 would be the equivalent to level 36-40 in a regular MMORPG depending on how far along to level 9 you were so it’s not like I was quitting after playing for an hour.
So as I mentioned, the first thing I wondered (still wonder?) is whether or not there are enough players in the level 15 range to complete content with. If not, this is an interesting idea for a solution. Not only does the company make a decent amount of money by selling an expansion to players, but it gives old players an incentive to come back and start with a mid-level character while at the same time increasing the number of mid-level players in the game.
It’s this very act of being able to start the game at level 15 that has me concerned though. When EverQuest was in its heyday, there was an issue with players selling accounts. That’s not really anything new in today’s world, but since the game was so complicated at the time, you would periodically run into players that had bought a high level character but had absolutely zero idea how to play it. One particular story of a purchased account was so famous that the EverQuest development team added “Moving Burning Woods…” as a line in the rotating stream of humorous messages you read while waiting for screens to load.
While it’s funny to hear about, when you’re talking about a game that depends on people playing together, it was a very serious concern. With so much content needing (or at the very least, being far more entertaining with) a group, I personally hope this doesn’t bring with it a string of players that get others in their group repeatedly killed because they’re unaware of how to play a character they have little to no previous experience with.
To be fair, we all had concerns when Turbine changed the game’s subscription models and were proven wrong. Perhaps I will be again. In this case, I genuinely hope my concerns are completely unfounded. Time will tell. In the meantime, what do you think about the Iconic Heroes being added to the game?