There’s one MMO that has name recognition beyond that of others, and which reaches outside the typical MMO audience. And that game is not World of Warcraft.
In 2010 WoW is getting long in the tooth at 6 years old. EverQuest is venerable at 11 years. And Ultima Online has been running for an astonishing 13 years, the oldest extant true MMO I’m aware of – unless Meridian 59 is still running (and I think it is.)
Dungeons & Dragons has been around for thirty-six years. Granted, D&D Online isn’t all that old, but that is to some extent irrelevant, since D&D Online aims to – and in many ways succeeds at – recreating the tabletop experience in an online, massively multiplayer way.
This is a lot more important as a selling point to people like myself, with a long history of tabletop play. And it might even serve to dissuade some people from becoming regular players. But there’s no question that the D&D brand has penetrated the popular consciousness more than any other. Even more than WoW.
This, however, is not the element of the actual game which makes it stand out – it simply gives it more name recognition than other games. Which is nice, but it won’t keep anybody for very long. What really makes DDO special is the history and depth that those thirty-six years give it.
Most MMOs have simplistic mechanics even though they may have complex equations in the code. The math is complicated, but the way that all the numbers interact at the fundamental level is pretty simple. This phenomenon became far more prevalent with the rise of WoW and the tendency among other providers to ape its success by rolling for the Lowest Common Denominator.
DDO has, bluntly, the deepest mechanics of any fantasy MMO; the only thing that may surpass it is EVE Online, although the venerable Asheron’s Call is pretty credible in this regard as well. “Character customization” in most titles is limited to fiddling with your character’s looks or to the choice between a small number of talent trees with very low flexibility. And your choice of class determines the shape of your abilities forever, although EQ2 gets some props here for having more breadth in its AA system than most, and the ability to swap alignments and thereby switch to an alternate version of your class.
In DDO, as in the D&D 3.5 rules in which the game is rooted, you may start out as a fighter, then move into Rogue for thieving abilities, then into Cleric for healing. Even within each class the possibilities are very wide, and a particular focus doesn’t automatically exclude you from doing other things. Want to wield a two-handed sword as a WoW Mage? Tough. In DDO you take a feat to do it, or use the spell that grants you the proficiency – you don’t even need to take a level in another class. But if you do, you can choose to switch back and forth as you wish.
So too the matter of ‘lore’, which even in the deepest and most storied fantasy MMO I can think of (EverQuest,) is pretty superficial. Eberron is the youngest of the many settings devised and published for D&D, and yet the amount of detail in its background absolutely dwarfs anything else in MMOs.
Both are the result of the game’s tabletop heritage. MMO designers program content – they only develop lore and mechanics for what they need, and sometimes for what they think would be neat to include. The designer of the tabletop setting (Keith Baker in this case,) doesn’t have that luxury, knowing that individual DMs will take what they’ve written and run with it, so the material needs to be much more exhaustive. There’s a CD of in-world music from Eberron, for example, and a cookbook full of recipes from the Dragonlance setting. Cultures, social mores, customs and important personalities all get fleshed out because somebody might use them at some point.
Not all of this makes it into DDO, of course – the online arean of play that an MMO can provide has its limitations. But the MMO’s content designers have years of lore and a wealth of sourcebooks and novels to draw upon, even before they start – and then there’s the general heritage of D&D to take inspiration from, thirty-six years of non world-specific content, creatures, magic and adventure.
But I have to admit that, to me, a lot of this is incidental. The game’s fun and looks good, and has an engaging setting despite the limitations of the MMO format and the technology behind it. But the thing I really get a thrill out of is when I see, in game, some timeworn tidbit of D&D lore brought to life. In no other MMO have I been so delighted as when I see a low-level spell like Hypnotic Pattern cast for the first time, bedazzling a crowd of mobs, or when I catch of glimpse of a Mind Flayer in a 2nd-level adventure, knowing that the thing would eat my brains for lunch, literally – but being set against its evil schemes anyway. Or when facing down a stronghold of Hill Giants as a doughty dwarf, or when putting on a shiny new suit of Plate Mail +4 for the first time. Or even when just seeing screenshots of Pit Fiends and Bearded Devils. The first time I see a Githyanki in-game I’m gonna hit the ceiling.
All this gives me a sense of groundedness that I’m missing in something like WoW, which as fine a game as it is, has a bland genericness about everything in it, from the places to the monsters to the abilities of the races and classes. DDO, like D&D, is not and has never been generic (although it has often been called so.) The tabletop game carved out for itself a niche within the fantasy genre in which it alone sits comfortably, and DDO fits right alongside it.
Weaned on this stuff as I was as a lad, seeing them in DDO impress the wonder of the D&D subgenre upon me. No other MMO compares in this respect, and only LotRO can come close, even in principle.