Dungeons & Dragons Online Q&A - DDO Shaping Up

It's been a while since we last saw D&D Online, so executive producer Judith Hoffman gives us an update on the game.

Given the popularity of online role-playing games, it seems a bit weird that we haven't seen an online RPG based on the granddaddy of all role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons. That will change later this year when Turbine releases Dungeons & Dragons Online, a game that will let you and players from around the world adventure in the D&D campaign setting of Eberron. The game will incorporate much of the 3.5 edition pen-and-paper rules, and you'll be able to create characters based on the many different races and character classes featured in D&D. The game has quietly been in development for more than a year now, and we haven't heard much from Turbine lately. Thankfully, Judith Hoffman, the game's executive producer, was kind enough to answer our questions, as well as give us an update.

You're gonna need a bigger sword.

GameSpot: Could you give us a brief update on the game? We haven't seen it since the summer of 2004. What has changed in the time since then? What has the team added to the game, and what lessons has it learned?

Judith Hoffman: Dungeons & Dragons Online has grown by leaps and bounds since the summer of 2004. Eight months of development time tends to do that! Almost every aspect of the game's gotten bigger and more polished, and right now, the team's focused on putting the finishing touches on our alpha build.

Too many things have been added to name them all, but here are a few: We've added character generation and advancement, and the city space model has been refined. We've added a ton of dungeons and quests, and the number of monsters has more than doubled from what we had last summer.

One thing that we've been fiddling with a lot recently is the user interface. DDO doesn't play like any other online role-playing games out there, and our first stab at a user interface reflected that with a WASD-based control set combined with mouse-look targeting. Based on feedback and focus tests, however, a lot of players had trouble with the UI, so we've added an alternative interface with the mouse cursor for targeting, which should feel more familiar to online role-playing veterans.

GS: Give us a brief overview of the world of Dungeons & Dragons Online and how it's changed since we last saw it. At least a few players might find it strange to have the game based out of a single town rather than a huge, continuous world, like in Turbine's Asheron's Call games. How will the town and dungeon system work in practice?

JH: Dungeons & Dragons Online takes place in the world of Eberron and is centered around the bustling port of Stormreach, on the continent of Xen'drik. There's plenty of action on both sides of the city walls. Xen'drik itself is several times the size of the United States, and some of your adventures will take you very far from the city.

Long-distance travel in DDO is abstracted. We don't want you to have to run around endlessly trying to find the cool stuff to do or spaces to explore. We want to get you near the cool stuff faster. If you need to go somewhere for a quest that's a three-day ride from the city, you won't have to physically run from Stormreach to wherever you're going. Instead, you'll see where you're going on the world map (think of the red line in the Indiana Jones movies), and, assuming nothing interesting happens along the way, you'll end up at your destination.

GS: Tell us about the game's real-time combat system. Why was the decision made to put more emphasis on action game elements and player input to manually swing swords and cast spells? What does it add to the game, and how viable will this be at higher levels, when players have huge attack bonuses, cast much-more-powerful spells, and fight much-more-powerful enemies?

JH: To be quite honest, while most of us on the development team love online role-playing games, we generally don't like typical online role-playing combat, where you swing your sword in the monster's general direction or use the same two-spell combo until somebody runs out of hit points.

The combat system in Dungeons & Dragons Online borrows elements from all kinds of PC and video game genres, and we're very proud of it. It's fast-paced, tactical, and unique to our game. Our focus right now is on finding the right balance between character stats and your tactical decisions as a player. We want both of these to be important throughout DDO.

GS: What does the fantasy world of Eberron add to Dungeons & Dragons Online? Will we see elements of world-specific fiction, like advanced machinery and engineering, "dragonmarks" (a particular magical ability possessed by certain members of high-born families), or the remnants of the "Last War," which immediately precedes the campaign setting's own timeline? Are there other aspects of "classic" Dungeons & Dragons lore, not specific to Eberron, that the team is also focusing on building into the game?

JH: Eberron adds an awful lot to DDO, and Wizards of the Coast has given us a lot of creative leeway with Stormreach and Xen'drik, which is both exciting and scary at the same time. Fortunately, we've been working very closely with the folks at Wizards to ensure that our game captures the essence of both Eberron and classic D&D.

You can expect to see a lot of iconic D&D stuff in DDO, including monsters, equipment, spells, character classes, and races. Those familiar with the world of Eberron will also see plenty of familiar sights, including many of the things you mentioned.

GS: Now that it's been a few years since the game was announced, there have been new players in the massively multiplayer online space...many new games that have come and gone and attracted their own followings. How will the game fit into the competitive massively multiplayer landscape? Does the team envision a specific group of players that the game will most appeal to?

JH: We're actually tremendously excited and encouraged by what's been going on in the world of online role-playing games over the last year or so. Recent releases, like City of Heroes, Everquest 2, and World of Warcraft, show that there's plenty of room for growth in our genre, both in terms of innovation and market size.

As for DDO, we're not specifically trying to redefine the genre, but at the same time, we haven't been afraid to go against some of the accepted online role-playing game conventions. We're definitely a lot more than a "me-too" game with the D&D brand slapped on top of it. To that end, we definitely hope to appeal to gamers who have left or never tried the genre.

At the same time, we're making the first ever D&D online role-playing game, and this is both a tremendous opportunity and a huge responsibility. We're making this game with the D&D fan in mind, and we're taking pains to implement the 3.5 edition rules wherever possible.

It wouldn't be Dungeons & Dragons without a dungeon.

GS: For that matter, will the game attempt to appeal to novices at massively multiplayer games? How will the game let players who aren't already experts get into the game, and how will it appeal to beginners? Are there specific plans to lower the typical barriers of entry to games of this sort--barriers like gameplay (which practically requires players to seek groups) or extremely demanding time requirements?

JH: A lot of the features that make Dungeons & Dragons Online special--real-time combat, instant travel, a commitment to making gameplay fun at every point along the advancement curve--were designed with the atypical online role-playing game player in mind. Familiarity with D&D, while helpful, won't be a requirement by any means. So people who are new to both online role-playing games and D&D should be able to jump in and get started right away.

While soloing will be possible, our game is group-oriented, just like pencil-and-paper D&D. That being said, we don't like spending two hours looking for a group any more than the typical gamer does. So we're taking pains to ensure that there are no "required" classes for grouping, and we're making sure it's easy to find a group and get going within a few minutes of logging in to the game.

GS: And what will the game offer to those players who are veterans of online games? How is the team planning to keep the attention of these advanced players? With involved high-level content? Specific community-related options or other specific features?

JH: As you might expect, most of our dev team plays online games pretty fervently. As jaded veterans, we're tired of many of the same barriers mentioned above: boring combat, the level grind, unnecessary time sinks, etc. We hope that our solutions to these problems will appeal to longtime online role-playing game players as much as they do to newbies.

As far as high-level content goes, we have a lot of good stuff planned that we're not ready to talk about just yet. For now, I'll just say that there will be plenty of reasons to stick around once you've hit the level cap.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Dungeons & Dragons Online?

JH: Sure. Keep an eye out for alpha and beta sign-ups on our Web site, and be sure to check out our official forum when you get a chance. There's a really great community there, and it's a good place to go to learn more about the game. And if you're going to E3, we hope to see you there!

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