Nothing New Under the Sun?
Ambrose Bierce said, “There is nothing new under the sun….” (And he was quoting a much older source.) In many respects, as cynical as it may seem, he's probably right. Everything that seems fresh and new has its roots in something else; something older. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of MMORPGs, where supposedly “new” games often show a little too much of their “nothing new” roots. A friend of mine likes to say that all the new MMOGs are “EQ-Lite with a few added features.” I haven't played a game since EverQuest that could make me disagree with him.
While EQ and its contemporaries (Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, et al)
may have seemed new and innovative in their day, they have decidedly
older roots; roots that trace back to the classic pen-and-paper
role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. And now, Turbine is
preparing to release a MMOG not only inspired by D&D, but directly
linked to it: Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach (DDO). Will DDO
be yet another game that mimics predecessors like EQ and World of
Warcraft? The answer to that burning question remains to be seen, but
let's take a look at some of the new features and modes of game play
that could suggest DDO is not your daddy's MMO.
Not Just Hack and Slash
If you're hoping to gain experience by running around beating up bad
guys, then you might want to reconsider DDO as your game of choice.
Players will not gain experience and progress through the game by
randomly killing enemies, but by completing quests. Sure
monster-slaying will be a part of those quests, but there are also many
quests that can be completed without laying the smackdown on a single
Adventure in an Instant…and an Instance
Quests in DDO will take place in instanced zones, which is to say that
when you and your party accept a mission, you'll find the appropriate
entrance and step into your own little world. I know, I know…instancing
is nothing new. Games from EverQuest (in later expansions) to City of
Heroes have made use of instancing, and Guild Wars features entirely
instanced quests. But DDO offers a new reason for their
instancing—intimacy. DDO seeks to draw groups of friends together in an
intimate setting; just as the pen-and-paper D&D drew friends
together to role the dice around their kitchen tables.
Most MMOGs help adventurers understand the combat strength of a monster
they're thinking about battling through some type of color-coded
system. If the text or graphical interface related to a monster glows,
say, red…then, generally speaking, the player knows at a glance the
monster is strong enough to chew him up and spit him out. Not so in
DDO. The only way a player will be able to tell if the monster he's
facing is too tough for him is when his spells or weapons repeatedly
show little or no effect on the beast, at which point it's probably
advisable for him and his party to run for their lives.
DDO is an MMO that will truly “talk” to its players, and the voice of
DDO is the Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master is DDOs virtual version
of the real-life DMs who gather their friends around the kitchen table,
get them started on a certain path, and then lead (or sometimes
mislead) them over the course of their quest. Text from DDOs omniscient
Dungeon Master will appear in the middle of the player's screen, giving
the game flavor, or providing information about the player's
surroundings, or hinting at impending doom. If having a voice in your
head (or at least on your screen) sounds slightly schizophrenic,
well…perhaps it is. But if you're a fan of pen-and-paper role-playing,
you're bound to appreciate the innovation.
Who's Afraid of the Auto Attack?
Well, certainly not the bad guys in DDO. While DDO will have an
auto-attack feature, players are going to find that if they wander off
in search of a Mountain Dew during a fight it's very likely they'll
return to find that their character is a corpse. DDO promises to make
skills and feats important, not just to add a little spice to game
play, but as an integral factor in whether a player survives or pushes
up the daisies.
So, in this world where there's nothing new under the sun, what makes
an MMOG shine? It's true that many of the features I mentioned above
have been covered in one form or another by various games, or will be
featured in other upcoming MMOGs. This generates a high degree of
cynicism in some gamers. The instancing in DDO, although only a lucky
few beta testers have experienced it so far, sounds quite similar to
Guild Wars, where missions are also entirely instanced. And many MMOGs
are highly quest-driven, making the disappearance of adventuring areas,
where players can level grind by slaughtering monsters with abandon,
nothing all that innovative.
Will DDO really give us something new? “Wait and see…wait and see,” the
Dungeon Master whispers inside our heads. And, sometime in the spring
of 2006, we will see…and then we'll know.
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