But since release, DDO has definitely forged a small but strong fanbase. In the game's just under two short years of existence, they've already released fourteen major updates. The latest, Module 6, is due out next week, and Turbine offered us a chance to take a spin in the new content, and join Senior Producer Kate Paiz, Lead Designer Stephen Murray, and Quest Designer Joe Barry in a run through the brand new raid instance, The Shroud. Read on to learn where they took me and what it was like to take down a big red demon in the newest raid.
Since we were playing on a test server, I was none the worse for wear (in fact, since I was flagged as "immortal," we actually fell all the way down into Stormreach's Marketplace area, and we didn't die from the height). But our tour continued-- Turbine next took me to see the rest of the content they've added to the game since launch. I got to see the Warforged Titan fight, and they then took me to visit the Demon Sands (added in Module 4), and the Ruins of Gianthold.
Along the way, we chatted about what it was like to make a game based on such a popular property. Eberron is a fairly new setting in D&D lore, and Turbine's devs said that they really relished the chance to try and make some of it their own. "We're storytellers as well," Joe Barry told me, "and we want a chance to play with the palette ourselves." Of course, Wizards of the Coast oversees the D&D license outside of the MMO game, but Kate Paiz said it was a two-way street. "We talk to them about where we're going, and take feedback from them about where they want us to go."
While we did this, the devs chatted about DDO's solo and group instances, and how they tried not to restrict players to a certain type of gameplay, but reward them for playing the way they wanted to. Instead of requiring a rogue in the group, they said one solution they'd found was just to put a locked chest at the end of an instance, and that way they could give the rogue their moment of glory instead of making it necessary to have a rogue along. They ran into a problem with solo instances, however-- while the lower levels of DDO offer solo questing opportunities, the higher levels have characters that are so different from each other that it's hard to code for an instance that everyone can beat alone. The devs do see the draw of solo content, however-- they plan to up the XP and loot for solo quests, and Kate Paiz said that solo quests at higher levels were a possibility for future content.
Finally, we headed to the Module 6 content. Our first stop was the Giant ruins of Meridia-- The Twelve (a Wizard's guild type of group in Eberron) had set up camp here, and though they had not been interested in allowing regular adventurers into their plans in the past ("The Twelve are kind of snooty," said Barry), they've become desperate. Apparently demons from an outer plane are trying to invade and take over Eberron, and when demons from an outer plane are invading, you take all the help you can get.
We were then teleported to a gnoll treehouse in the zone to do a little hack and slash. ("We love gnolls," said Kate. "We find them to be a good popcorn monster.") Along the way we chatted about spells and where they came from. Turbine wanted to faithfully recreate some D&D spells, but not all of them could make the cut-- Earthquake was listed as one that they "had to pull at the last minute because we just couldn't get the experience quite right. But we hope to bring it back in future modules." And I was shown two new spells for Module 6-- Trap the Soul, and the explosive Sunburst, as a huge ball of fire engulfed not only the unsuspecting gnolls, but the entire party and the environmnt as well.
After having lowered the Gnoll population, we headed into the new Shroud instance itself. As you may have heard, the Shroud has five stages, and each stage is modeled after influences that will be familiar to any longtime videogamer. The first stage opens on a Giant ruin full of ramps and platforms, with four skeletons in front of the party, each labeled as the "red warrior, green elf, blue valkyrie, and.. well, if you don't know what the reference is yet, you haven't played Gauntlet enough. The skeletons each have a legendary, lootable item on them that can only be used in the instance, and the devs said this was one of the ways they wanted to not only allow casual players to play a high level instance, but also to make it clear that "equipment is not a win button"-- good gear won't get you as far as thought and communication in this instance.
After a little clearing, portals opened up around us, and from them swarmed various devils and fiendish enemies. When the enemies were dead, we hacked away at the portals, and when one portal went down, two popped up in its place. Three portals went up after that, and when everything was dead, we were able to move on... to a rest shrine and a strange-looking altar.
This altar is the start of DDO's new "crafting" system, but I only say "crafting system" because that's what the devs call it-- really, it's more like the Horadric cube of Diablo II-- you put equipment and reagents in, and take magical equipment out. I was given a bow and some power stones, I hit forge, and when the "mouth" on the window re-opened (the graphic effect is strange-- it literally "eats" your items), I had a bow with the Holy effect in my inventory. Later, they gave me another stone of power, I placed the Holy bow into the altar with it, and the a Chain Lightning effect was added to it. So you will be able to craft an item, and then recraft it to add more powers. The system isn't really a "crafting" system as its known in most MMOs, but it will provide some fun opportunities for players to hunt for reagents and hopefully put together some really powerful items.
Next, we headed to the second of five areas in the raid, and my favorite part of the instance. Players start split up into four corners of a maze, and at the center is a glowing stone with a shield around it. The shield can only be brought down when the four Lieutenants of Shavarath guarding it (chosen from "nine or ten" different possibilities, according to the devs) are first separated-- they each have abilities that they share with each other when close, so they need to be split up to be defeated more easily-- and then killed.
But, as the devs happily told me, there's a twist. When one of the lieutenants is killed, they become a blue ghost, and slowly make their way back to the center of the maze where the crystal is. If they reach that point, they respawn will full abilities and health. So players not only have to split the creatures up, but they have to make sure that they can destroy the crystal before the creatures' ghosts return to it and respawn. The devs' voices quivered with excitement when they asked me just what this gameplay strategy might have been based on, and I thought: ghosts, returning to the center of a maze to respawn? Pac-Man! The encounter is a great idea, and a fun MMO hack-and-slash spin on an old gameplay idea.
In the next area, the devs bragged that it featured no combat at all. Instead, we each started in our own rooms, and there were puzzles and various ways to escape them. I got placed in a room with a Go type boardgame on the floor-- every square I stepped on lit up the four squares around it, and the goal, I was told, was to light up the whole board. I couldn't do it, however (apparently there was a five minute time limit on it), so instead I blasted some crystals above. Outside of that room, we all had to haul water around the area, trying to revive twelve different fountains while avoiding various spelltraps (including a giant, glowing wall that supposedly instakilled players that didn't run the other way when they saw it coming) and animated swords flying around. It was an interesting break from the usual gameplay, but a lack of combat after that great maze fight in the last area made it a little boring.
But I didn't have long to wait before there was something to attack. In the next area, we came across (spoilers start here-- the devs revealed that this is where players find out the real foe behind the invasion of Eberron) a real-life pit fiend named Arraetrikos. His battle had quite a few phases in it-- we fought him as living swords swirled in and around them, and then he took to the skies and rained down meteors while we fought more of his devilish soldiers. Finally, gnolls appeared and healed him for a while, and after we took them down it started all over again.
We topped him, but the adventure wasn't over. Our questgiver told us that to visit the last area of the instance (and apparently align the last moon of Eberron), we had to pay the ultimate price. And so we did-- we died.
In the afterglow of a fallen pit fiend, the devs from Turbine told me that Module 6 is due out next week on January 30th, and then they explained what they've got planned for later this year in DDO. Kate expects them to hit level 20 by the end of the year, and Module 8 will continue the story of the pit fiend found in Module 6, as players will head to Shavarath themselves to fight devils, demons, and archons. I asked what they could do after level 20 (since that's the maximum level in D&D's ruleset, and Turbine wants it to stay the max level in the game as well), and the devs had no shortage of ideas-- they want to touch on epic levels, prestige classes, and continue to pull addition content directly from Eberron. Apparently they've gotten a lot of pressure, even from Wizards of the Coast, to head off of Xendrik to the Mournlands and Khorvaire, but the team said that there is so much yet to do in Xendrik that they don't know how soon they'll be able to head there.
But they're not worried-- they expect players of all kinds to really enjoy the new content in the weeks and months to come. DDO still isn't the biggest of MMOs out there, but it seems to have found a pretty sure footing, and there is no doubt that the team behind it is interested in making sure players have access not only to typical hacking and slashing, but also to some complex and rewarding game and group experiences. The Shroud is a very nice example of how MMO designers can break boundaries in what's expected of MMO gameplay, and add in new environment elements that players might not expect in a genre that's usually based just around swords and sorcery.