Turbine had a tough task ahead of them with Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. After all, D&D may be the daddy of all role-playing games, and an MMO may be the obvious next step for the franchise, but we've already got the likes of World of Warcraft to be getting on with - and judging by the size of its subscriber base, we're quite happy with that, thank you.
But according to senior game designer David Eckelberry, who's in London to show off the results of more than three years of work on the game, D&D Online is no WOW rip-off and no plain old MMO.
Yes, you can play as a dwarf, elf, halfling and so on; yes, a lot of your time is spent exploring dungeons, killing monsters and levelling up; and yes, you'll have to go down the pub for a bit of a rest every now and then. However, Eckelberry says D&D Online will introduce "a whole new style of gameplay" to the genre - something they're calling "action combat." The basic concept is that instead of just standing in front of an enemy and pressing the auto-attack key, you can dodge, roll, block and generally fight more tactically than you would in other MMOs. This, combined with the D&D rules system, "is really the key principle of this game," Eckelberry says.
But it's not the only thing that differentiates it from WOW and chums. For starters, you don't get experience points for killing monsters, so you can't just find some easy pickings, deck them all and wait around for them to respawn so you can level up quickly. Instead, XP can only be earned by completing quests - which brings us to what Eckelberry calls "private instancing."
This doesn't mean you're playing through the whole game on your own; quite the opposite, in fact, since almost all of the dungeons can only be entered if you're in a group. But the difference is that when you and your party enter a dungeon, you'll never encounter any other players as you explore. It's just you and your chums choosing your own adventure, essentially.
Eckelberry seems jolly excited about this; in fact, he seems jolly excited about absolutely everything in the game, which is surprising since he's spent no less than three years working on it. So what's taken so long?
David Eckelberry: These are big projects! I mean, MMOs are still a pretty new art. And games are really improved by iteration - by making something, examining it, polishing it, making it again, cutting away the parts that don't work, adding parts that do... It takes a lot of time.
Eurogamer: During that time, we've seen plenty of other fantasy MMORPGs arrive on the scene, and arguably they've nicked a lot of ideas out of the D&D universe... Is there any resentment about that?
David Eckelberry: Well, I can't judge whether they were infringing on intellectual property rights. Speaking privately: Were they? Maybe, even probably... But, you know, there's a long history of fantasy role-playing games. D&D has been the mainstay of those for 30 years now, and there have been legends and stories and hobbits and elves for a very long time, no one's going to stop those kinds of games from getting created.
But there are specific elements in D&D Online, such as the Beholder, for example, which is a trademarked D&D monster. We're the first and only MMO to have a creature like that, and there are plenty of other examples.
Obviously, the biggest difference is that we use the D&D rules and the D&D system. Any fantasy game could let you play as a fighter or a wizard, but there are tens of millions of D&D fans out there, and when they load up this game, they don't need to learn the rules - they know them already. That's a big advantage for us.
Eurogamer: Would you say the rule system is the key difference between this game and other fantasy MMOs?
David Eckelberry: It's one of three. The first difference is the D&D IP - we're making the D&D game, not something like it.
The second one is the action-based combat, the blocking and dodging and rolling. Obviously your character's ability matters in terms of how strong they are, what level they are and so on, but another big part of it is your own player skill - how good you are at seeing what monsters are doing, using the right spell, blocking against nasty attacks et cetera.
We're really the first kind of game to introduce some elements of tactical control. In a lot of MMOs, you just push the auto-attack button and you don't need to worry about anything else. Maybe you have a special kick or a taunt to push every once in a while, but that's pretty much the limit of the sophistication for the fighting class. We wanted that to be much more interesting, that was our big design goal.
The last point is our quest and story-based system. We don't give XP per kill, and we don't give treasure on random monsters - which encourages players to find alternative solutions to problems, to sneak around, to solve puzzles, to just explore their world and take different paths to success.
Eurogamer: You mentioned in your presentation that there are elements of console gaming in D&D Online; the combat system, for example, and the way there are jumping puzzles and so on. Aren't you worried that some MMO fans are going to say, "Well, I don't want the gameplay to have console elements, that's why I play PC games..."
David Eckelberry: I'll be perfectly honest: some people will say that. But not all games are made for all people. The great thing about the MMO business is that it's been growing so much... There's a lot of crossover now. Just about all of my friends who play MMOs also have an Xbox, and also have a PS2, and half of them have Xbox 360s now, and that crossover is pretty strong.
Yes, some people are going to want a very slow-paced combat system, but that's not what D&D's for. We have an auto-attack button so that if you're fighting a monster that's easy or you just need a second to type in something, you can use it, but the real precepts of our design are based on a more action-style game. We wanted combat to be more fun and thrilling, and that's how we accomplished it.
Eurogamer: How did you go about translating the pen and paper game into a videogame in a way that wouldn't disappoint fans of the original D&D?
David Eckelberry: Part of it is just being loyal to the themes and to the spirit of the D&D system. Of course, we weren't going to be turn-based, since turn-based online games have proved remarkably unsuccessful; Civilization's first attempts at online play were more or less disastrous. Turn-based play doesn't essentially work, certainly not in groups larger than two, since waiting on someone else to make a turn is fundamentally un-fun unless you have something to do in the meanwhile.
So the next question becomes, how do we represent D&D's tactical combat? You know, we're not going to lay out a grid and make miniatures move around. We're already fast-paced by definition, and pushing that envelope and introducing new styles of gameplay is something people will support, I think.
Eurogamer: There's an argument that what you've created here, with the "private instancing" and so on, isn't really a persistent world...
David Eckelberry: No, the world is persistent, your character is persistent, everybody else's characters are persistent... There's definitely a sense that there's a world out there. But you're right in that it's not about going out and finding out what's behind that tree. I mean, you can do that, and it could be any number of things - a monster, a treasure chest - but the real goal for us was creating fun team-based gameplay, and that's what the game's about.
Eurogamer: We understand that players are going to be charged a monthly subscription fee - but can you really justify this when the likes of Guild Wars lets you play for free?
David Eckelberry: What players are really promised with a subscription based game, and certainly what they're promised with D&D Online, is frequent and agressive expansion plans. It's not just that the servers cost us money to run and customer service costs. Our first content push will happen only about 30 days after launch, and then we'll continue to add more stuff every couple of months afterwards. We want to support a very large design team continuing to aggressively add content to the game, so you never run out of stuff to do.
Eurogamer: So will the expansion packs be free, then?
David Eckelberry: Some yes, some no. I think the first one will be a free patch, but eventually, on an annual or maybe semi-annual basis, we'd be talking about retail expansion packs, which will be bigger expansions.
Eurogamer: How do you feel about the feedback you've received from beta playtesters? It seems like there's been a lot of negativity...
David Eckelberry: There's so many hardcore players, people who say, "I've played D&D for 15 years and I would design it like this!" And with D&D, you can change the basic rules freely - in fact, the rules encourage you to do so. So unless this game is played as exactly as your game is being played at home, there's going to be a good percentage of people going, "I don't want to do this!"
The great thing is that fortunately for us, so many players have come in and gone, "This isn't the game I was expecting," "This is not a copy of World of Warcraft," or "This is not the exact D&D rules implementation that I wanted."
Fortunately, after a couple of weeks, most of them go: "But it's really fun." At first, many of our initial beta playtesters were like, "Whoa!" and then it's like, "Cool!", and that's the exact reaction we wanted.
And that's encouraging news for us. We can't grant everyone's wishes all the time. Of course we're going to have new expansions, more content, more classes and all those kinds of things. But players just have to bear with us, because there's 30 years of D&D to cover - we'll never get to it all!
In general, the responses to the game have been very positive. We're ecstatic about the pre-sales we're getting, everything is going really well.
Eurogamer: Just how much attention do you pay to fan feedback?
David Eckelberry: A lot. We have to, because that's what the beta's for. So, for example, we gave the players who really, really wanted it an auto-attack key. It won't be as efficient as using those tactical movement buttons, but you can do it.
Similarly, we did some major revamps on melée speed, and we slowed it down a fair bit - that was necessary to let players have a bit more time to think as they fight, and to bring the spellcasting balance better in line. We made big adjustments to archery, so you can move while you're shooting... A lot of things like that. The beta audience has been really important to us.
Eurogamer: Just to finish up then... Sell it to us. What does D&D Online have that other MMORPGs don't?
David Eckelberry: Really high quality content. The quest objectives, the puzzles, the traps, different approaches to doing a quest, invisibility and stealth and all those kind of things... Single player games are full of that high level of quality content, but MMOs? Never before.
It's been a real honour to work on this project. I've been working on it for three years, and I'm both very sad to see it ship because there's always new things I want to add, and also very happy, because I want new people to be able to play it other than just me and my team of designers.