Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Designing DDO Druids

DDOCast spent a few minutes of this week's episode brainstorming about when and how the Dungeons and Dragons Druid class might arrive in DDO.  The challenges with this class exemplify some of the issues that all games face when adding new classes. 

The Mind is Mightier Than The Microprocessor
As nearly as I can tell, the big issue is that the class would require two major game mechanic systems that currently do not exist in the game.  In addition to spell-casting, Dungeons and Dragons Druids have the ability to shapeshift into just about anything (animals, plant creatures, elementals).  On top of that, Druids can tame dozens of creatures as animal companions, who can advance into sentient, intelligent beings that can then take a character class and gain class levels as if they were a free-standing character.

In a pen and paper RPG, these mechanics work because the game is being run by a living, hopefully intelligent Dungeon Master who can make a rational decision about what exactly happens if the player turns into a Fire Elemental while fighting Ragnaros (or whatever).  Unfortunately, a computer game needs to be told in advance what to do about every possible situation, which requires a far more limited stable of options.

Working within the system

DDO's most recent new class, the Favored Soul, is also a divine spellcaster.  However, unlike the Druid, the Favored Soul is effectively a Sorceror with different numbers plugged into some stats and a different spell list.  The class has some unique quirks, but none of these required new game systems to implement.  My guess is that the length of the wait for the DDO Druid will depend heavily on how much Turbine is willing to compromise on the class features (and how much compromise is possible before the class becomes nigh indistinguishable from its existing counterparts).

SOE and Blizzard have been able to implement shape-changing Druids in Norrath and Azeroth because they own the respective lores; if they say that the local Druids only know 3-4 forms, then that's all they know, and that's a reasonable number to implement.  Turbine has previously implemented some limitations on spells that are not limited in the pen and paper game; for example, the "summon monster" and "summon nature's ally" spells can summon any creature of an appropriate power level in the pen and paper game, but are limited to a single type of creature in DDO.  Even so, shapeshifting raises all kinds of complicated questions, especially when paired with other classes.  This level of effort is not feasible for a single class - if they really wanted to do this, they could also implement self-shape-shifting for arcane casters to gain more milage out of their work on the backend, but that would remain a major effort.

The animal companion system seems more promising.  DDO has NPC hirelings, who take up a slot in your party and can fill some rudimentary party tasks.  It also has uncontrolled NPC pets from a variety of spells, and a recent game update put significant work into fleshing out undead pets for the Necromancy-inclined Wizards.  In principle, these efforts might lay the groundwork for a more advanced pet system, though they're still a far cry from what longtime players might be expecting.

When to add classes?
The real challenge when adding one or more new classes to an existing MMO is determining how much effort it is feasible to spend on a single class.  If you look at, say, WoW, Death Knights entered the game with a variety of new ideas (no single tanking tree, pets and heals and damage, several new types of resources) and have had to change to behave more like normal classes in the long run for the sake of balance.

However, if you do too little, there's no reason for players to be excited about new classes.  In that case, you're just adding work for the class design team, who will need to devise a niche for the new guys for no good reason.  The question is when the tradeoffs involved become worth the effort. 

Will DDO Druids that look like Priests with slightly more robust pets and slight variations in their spell list make the cut?  Time will tell for Turbine and Stormreach. 


Yeebo said...

If it were me, on the shapeshifting I'd do this:

Give them several teirs of forms, with several cosmetic options within each tier. Use existing models for all of the forms. Scale the size of the models so that camera heights between hobbit and warforged sized are appropriate. If Turbine is feeling really frisky, there could be saves and resistances that change based on the form you choose.


One form per teir. Just as summoning does far less in DDO than PnP, shape shifing need not be all that flexible.

On the animal companions, rangers are supposed to have that system as well. Instead they get summon monster spells. A summon monster line that comes as bonus abilities instead of as spells is really all that is needed.

Yeebo said...

I'll add this on shape shifting:

Attacks are the really hard part to figure out. I left that elephant standing in the room for several reasons. The easiest version I can think of is to add a new hotbar, much like an NPC one, above your existing ones with attacks that do damage with bonuses based off a druid's level or wisdom. They only get more gnarly from there on out as far as I can see.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

As much as I love DDO, when it was first released I said it was going to be a harsh MMO license. This shows exactly the problem: the game can't compete with the mind, especially on a large project like this with a lot of inertia. Adding new systems is going to cause problems.

Not a position I envy.

Anonymous said...

I think that Turbine and the players are making shape shifting into more than it has to be. I think that the best way to handle it would be to make it almost like summoning a pet. The pet can replace your own character and a new hot bar would show up for your abilities. Except for fire and air elementals, I think they could use the existing pet system as a template. The system is going to be limited one way or another and the selection is going to be limited. They may as well just make an alternative pet system (much like a hireling)and make the character disappear. It would be easier to implement if they just changed the pet system to give pets their own command bar in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I just can't wait for the druid to come out, if it does, because in player vs. player that fire elemental/bear will certainty kill something.. haha

Xoan said...

I too can not wait for Druids to come out, but it concerns me as well. I read many of my concerns in the original post.

I am not an expert in the programing that Turbine uses, but if I were to wager a bet I would say that part of their problems fall under this expression. A computer can only be a fast as it's slowest part.

Basically what I am getting at is, this game has always had lag issue, they're problems with the code at the very foundation of this game. I played in Beta, and there was lag issue then too. Now several years later they are better, but they are still there.

That is why some areas are worse than others when there is no real need for it... or seems like there is. The fact is what we as players see as a simple graphic is huge, take water for example, to us it looks like a reflective surface if we have our graphics turned up. However, what is hidden in all that code is relationships. Where the water is against the wall, in the middle, in relationship to people in it, how deep it is, and etc. Just because you can not see the water at the bottom of the abbot's room doesn't mean it is not being watched, and guided.

Now imagine that something that changes shape. How often does your pet, summon, or hireling get stuck, and then warps back to you after you move away from it? With a character how annoying would it be to get stuck that often, and how could players find ways around/through dungeons by getting themselves stuck in walls and then shape changing so they can fall through.

So here is the issue... Now you have same problems with Water, in a mobile player character, and when they are released, you are going to be flooded witht them at the very moment you get a bunch of new players into the game to check it out. If you have the same lag issues as always those who play before and came back to check it out, even if they did not buy the new expansion, will be turned off by the lag.

Balance wise I think they are going to have the same problem that Monks had. In some areas they are over power, but in other areas, they were totally gimp. Monks could out DPS most classes, be more awesome while doing it, and nearly fly... but have them try and DPS a greater devil or demon, and they had to either switch to real weapons or pound their way through the DRs of the creatures they were facing.

There were no silver threaded wraps back then... What are Druids going to do against these creatures, do they give them spells like an Arty, or make druids add every arty they run into to their friend list so they can have silvered claws. Maybe take UMD for scroll use since they coming out with scroll versions of the arty spells.

The next problem is this, with the level increase to 25, the enhancement changes, and the druid effect... will we even have we recognize, or will this be like Star Wars MMO from nearly a decade ago