I spent a brief chunk of time this weekend - probably around an hour or so - in the Neverwinter beta courtesy of a key contest over at Epic Slant Press. I have mixed feelings about the increasingly common weekend-only paid open beta for new MMO's - they feel contrived to concentrate word of mouth (i.e. collect lots of social media posts - I suppose including this one - during/after the weekend, rather than scattered as players trickle in and out) while the short duration limits player access to the higher level game. Never the less, there was a post I was meaning to write about the competing Dungeons and Dragons Online expansion plans at Turbine, so I decided it was worth at least a brief look.
Like Bhagpuss, I am not especially fond of being forced into mouse-look mode with the requirement that I push the alt key to toggle the mode in which I can actually use the mouse to click on all of the UI elements that are visually placed on the screen. Combat was action clicky with visual cues to dodge - increasingly common in newer MMO's these days - but seemed smooth enough. I was underwhelmed with the RPG trope of the player character washing up from a shipwreck - incidentally, also the current tutorial sequence in DDO - but I suppose we all start somewhere?
Contrasting Neverwinter and DDO
Cryptic's Neverwinter will in fact be the second action-based non-subscription MMO set in the Forgotten Realms, thanks in large part to changes that Turbine has been making to their older Dungeons and Dragons Online game. Last year's DDO expansion created a lore excuse to move the game from the more obscure Eberron setting to the more popular Forgotten Realms - Turbine confirms that the original setting will not get new content, save for revamping/updating old content periodically in between patches where new stuff is available. This year's expansion will offer the option to start a pre-made character at a high enough level to skip all the old stuff.
Personally, I've spent way more time reading pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks than actually playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I've probably spent more time with forums, character planners, wiki's and podcasts than actually playing DDO. From my perspective, DDO's wide-open character class system - which allows an unusual degree of flexibility to make permanent choices that are either really good or really bad for your character - is a key selling point. Even I had a lot of trouble getting started in DDO due to the magnitude of the choices you face in character generation, but I'm not sure the solution is to go running to cram in pre-made classes with talent trees just because the new competition is doing so.
Speaking of which, Neverwinter offers one of five "classes" with skill
progression that feels very much like Diablo III's, with several pools
of skills, from which you get to equip and use a small subset. It's probably the right call for a game that seems more focused on action and short sessions, but there definitely appears to be less meat to chew on in the character department.
(On the other side of the coin, Neverwinter also presented me with many poorly documented choices during character creation. It was unclear to what extent my choice of deity, home city, background, etc were cosmetic versus impactful. Meanwhile, the limited information that is presented in game - e.g. the game's statement that my Cleric should focus on the Wisdom stat per DND rules - may be inaccurate in practice if some forum-goers are to be believed. Perhaps this issue is inevitable if you're trying to include familiar stuff for the pen and paper crowd? Also - with only two character slots and five classes - more possibly on the way - you can expect to delete and repeat if you want to try them all before settling on a main.)
Buy to Play versus Free to Play
One final area that I will be watching closely post launch is the business models. Turbine chose to call DDO's relaunch "free to play" in an era where such a re-launch was a pretty new thing. In today's parlance, though, DDO would more accurately be called a "buy to play" game in which - for the most part - players will need to pay for access to small DLC-like adventure packs and individual character options, but will face no recurring fees for their use. (An optional legacy subscription model also allows rental access to much of this stuff.) Under this model, I've spent a comparatively large amount per hour of time played, but there's no beating the flexibility this offers the player in how to consume the content that you've paid for.
By contrast, Neverwinter appears to be designed from the ground up without a subscription (unless there are plans for one that I'm unaware of?). The prices in the beta store looked rather high, but it's hard to have much context when the numbers stand to change in testing, and without understanding which of the purchases are necessary (or available in-game). One could imagine a model where this ends up costing longtime players more than they would have paid under a subscription system, while those who dabble could potentially pay little - or a lot if there are a certain number of things you need to unlock before getting underway in the game.
I deliberately did not invest much time in my temporary beta character. As a game that does not carry a box purchase price, there is no need for me to make a decision now on whether I will spend money. If nothing else, Neverwinter has that going for it - a low barrier to entry on a game that seems reasonably focused on getting players into the action quickly (other than all of those choices during character generation). Time will tell which way this DND duel plays out.