Updated Mon, Oct 05, 2009 by Sardu
by Reuben "Sardu" Waters
Getting into a new MMOG can often lead to a brand of frustration that simply isn’t shared across other forms of digital entertainment. As consumers we’re conditioned to expect that once you purchase digital media it should be ready to enjoy straight out of the box. Whether it’s a new CD from your favorite band, the DVD release of last summer’s sleeper at the theaters that’s destined to become a cult classic or even the newest console title to hit store shelves, those shiny new discs are synonymous with instant gratification.
Yet when it comes to MMOGs, obtaining the discs is most often just the first of many hurdles that we as gamers have to overcome on the long and winding road that we hope will lead us to our next great online gaming experience. More and more, titles are released containing at best a list of startup instructions and a product key in the box, so that we even have to wait for the game to install before we can view the PDF manual. Assuming all systems are go after the installation process, we’re then treated to a launch window that informs us that before we can ever push the shiny Play button and enjoy our new purchase, the mega patch of doom needs to begin which can sometimes take hours to download to get the client up to date.
Digital distribution should have been the silver bullet that kills the need to own a physical copy of a new MMOG, but in terms of accessibility it has only managed to create an even larger set of hoops to jump through. In the time it takes to download, install and patch a new title, you could have listened to a new CD a dozen times, watched a DVD half a dozen times or hit the half way mark on a new console game. This lengthy process only serves to compound the already rampant stereotyping of MMOGs as being a form of entertainment that requires too long of a time investment before ever paying off in the fun department.
In an era when open betas have become the de facto soft launch for many new releases, digital distribution has wiggled its way into our MMO gaming lives, regardless of our intentions to own a physical copy of the latest and potentially greatest new title to grace store shelves. Red flags go up and angry forum rants ensue the moment its announced that the open beta client release is being handled by a third party, especially when a monetary exchange is thrown into the mix which negates the concept of a beta being truly “open” in the first place.
Many of the top shelf MMOG publishers have begun using a catchall download manager for their stable of titles that in many cases circumvents both the necessity of owning a physical copy of a new release as well as the frustrations inherent in dealing with a third party for digital distribution. The recent release of Aion is a perfect example of how this method can be used to great effect, as anyone owning another of NCsoft’s titles can log in and play another game such as Guild Wars while the Aion client downloads in the background, all easily accessible from the same simple interface. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, Turbine’s approach with the rerelease of Dungeons and Dragons Online has shown us that there is indeed a light at the end of the accessibility tunnel.
The time it took between clicking on the download button and getting into the now free to play lands of Eberron was all of 15 minutes, which for all intents and purposes is a landmark record for the industry based on my own previous experiences. The way this was accomplished is by Turbine’s correct assessment that a brand new player just starting out at level one simply isn’t going to need access to high end content straight out of the gates. By reducing the core client install down to less than 300 megabytes, it allows players to dive directly into character creation in less time than it typically takes to install a full game directly from a DVD, meanwhile the full client streams in the background as you play with no noticeable hits to performance.
Not content to simply bash the gates of accessibility wide open with a +2 Hammer of Striking, Turbine smartly included a brief walkthrough of the character creation process within the launch window, giving new players a useful guide to read during the short wait. By the time you’ve gone through the information it contains you’ll be ready to dive into the game itself and also have a better insight as to how the DnD rule set differs from standard fantasy MMOGs. Even the accessibility of character creation has been taken into account, as players are presented with the option to select from a number of preset frameworks that can guide their character’s advancement (though can be abandoned at any time should you opt to steer your character in a different direction).
When taken as a whole, these key elements stand in sharp contrast to the launch version of DDO from 2006, which had a notoriously steep learning curve for anyone not fluent in the intricacies of the tabletop rule set. As a result, the newest online incarnation of the Eberron setting is seeing a rising tide of renewed interest, and has effectively raised the bar for MMOG accessibility to new heights. Developers and publishers alike should certainly stand up and take notice of what Turbine has accomplished here. As things currently stand for the industry, getting people into a new title is often times the accessibility equivalent of expecting them to crawl in through an eighth story window rather than a casual stroll through the unlocked front doors.