Dungeons & Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark Interview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Warner Bros.
Release Date:2012-06-25
  • Massively Multiplayer,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Turbine really took us by surprise with yesterday's announcement of Dungeons & Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark. While we've always been aware of just how much potential the game has, we had pretty much given up on a full-on expansion pack ever since retailer listings for a "Forsaken Lands" add-on disappeared into obscurity years ago. But Menace of the Underdark changes that in a big way - not only will it be the first time we've ventured to the Forgotten Realms in the MMO space, but it'll mark the first time we've explored the Drow underworld in a video game setting since BioWare took us there in Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark. On top of that, MotU is the first title in the history of D&D video games to offer a crossover between multiple campaign settings.

In other words, it's a big deal. Huge, in fact. And that's why we didn't hesitate for a second to get in touch with Turbine's director of digital communications Adam Mersky, as well as DDO executive producer Fernando Paiz and senior producer Eric Boyer, to find out just how ambitious their goals are for the expansion. Read on, fellow D&D fans:

GB: How long have you been chatting with Wizards of the Coast about the idea of taking the game into the Forgotten Realms?

Fernando: That's been going on for a good while. None of these things have happened really fast. We've been live with the free-to-play model from September 2009 so if you think back that far. We're now coming up on 2¬Ĺ years into this model sometime this quarter. So we probably started talking about this with them about six months after we went free-to-play where we really started seeing the success as something that was provable, that was going to keep growing the franchise, and then frankly had legs. That's right around the time that Turbine was firming up our plans to move The Lord of the Rings Online in the same direction because of the success of the free-to-play model. And well, it's been a long time coming.

Really, it's not an easy thing to get this kind of thing approved through many different folks, Wizards of the Coast being one. When we started, Atari was in the mix, so they were part of the conversations even though more recently they're working directly with Wizards of the Coast because of the licensing deals that have changed on that side of things outside of Turbine's control. But, yeah, it's been something we've been talking about for a very long time. I think ultimately what really sealed the deal for us was last year when Rise of Isengard presales started going and when we very quickly got to see that Rise of Isengard was The Lord of the Ring Online's biggest expansion pack ever, best selling expansion pack of Turbine ever, and it was under the free-to-play model where frankly there was some question as to how does a free-to-play game release expansions and does that make sense and do players buy it? And so having that experience under our belt really helped to finally seal the deal here. And we've been working on it in active development for almost six months now with art and design documents. And now the full team is on the project. We've grown the team and we're in the thick of it building out a new world. It's very exciting.

Eric: The concept of introducing Forgotten Realms into our game setting without having characters actually play a different game like a DDO 2 and have it interweave with our Eberron lore was something that only recently came into play with WotC giving direction about how we can merge the two worlds. And so we're establishing that story in our prequel, Update 13 releasing this year, and it will establish how the worlds blend. And then with the start of the expansion, we'll actually have a quest that you go through the whole journey to travel to the Forgotten Realms.

GB: It'll be a little weird seeing a Warforged running around the King's Forest, won't it?

Eric: That's right. That's right. Yeah, and with goggles nonetheless.

Fernando: Yeah, there's definitely some of that, but that's been one of the great things about getting involved with Wizards of the Coast and really kind of poking at what's okay and what's not okay and what can fit into the realm of the rules and the storylines and then ultimately what's okay in the DDO version of the universe which doesn't exactly have to be the same thing that's happening in the source books with WotC. But, yeah, it's been a long time coming. We're very excited about the story we've created with the Forgotten Realms experts over at Wizards of the Coast and we think the players will really enjoy it as well. Obviously, at the end of the day it's about taking players on a great ride and on some fun adventures and we think the players won't be disappointed.

GB: You said that Update 13 was going to introduce us to the method we'll use to reach the Forgotten Realms, but once everything is live and the expansion's been out for awhile, will it be possible for us to create characters directly in Eveningstar rather than starting out in Stormreach every time?

Fernando: No, that's not something that's going to be available in the initial release. The expansion is focused on epic levels and the epic content primarily will be what players will find in the Forgotten Realms areas. But that said, we're taking steps to make sure that you don't have to wait until level 20 to start getting involved in the epic storyline. It will start at level 16 with the Update 13 free adventure pack, which is the prologue to the expansion pack story and the setup for how players will eventually get to Forgotten Realms. So you don't have to start at level 20 - you can begin more around level 15 - and will be able to get into those dungeons and start playing. We're also taking steps to make sure that players are able to get up into the higher levels a little bit faster, move through the early levels in the game, group with their friends, and get to these great stories that they want to play in Forgotten Realms. And of course there are going to be big features like the druid class which will be available to all players starting at level one and pretty big updates to the game systems. Like, notably, we're redoing our enhancements UI. That's going to improve the gameplay right at level one for everybody, whether they be free players, VIP players, or players who are playing the expansion pack.

GB: Are you going to drop the Eberron Unlimited subtitle now that it's going to span two campaign settings?

Eric: Yeah, starting early this year we're going to be Dungeons & Dragons Online. That's also something that we had taken some time and had a lot of discussions with WotC about how we represented that. So we're officially going with Dungeons & Dragons Online as our primary title and then we'll add the subtitles when it's appropriate, for example, "Menace of the Underdark" for the expansion.

Fernando: Yeah, that's kind of a big deal and it's almost buried news in all the big news that's happening here is that Turbine now has permission to be Dungeons & Dragons Online without having to have a subtitle attached to it. So that's the brand of our service, Dungeons & Dragons Online. We'll be including adventures in Eberron, and we'll include content like Menace of the Underdark. Conceivably, we can expand to other D&D universes and other parts of those existing settings over time. So, really, we're just the online experience of DDO in the MMO space right now.

GB: How much different will the Forgotten Realms locations look from what we've seen in Eberron? For example, how will the Eerie Forest compare to King's Forest and how will Stormreach compare to Eveningstar in terms of art design and the overall feel of each location?

Fernando: This is a very important topic for us and if my art director was here in the room with us he could go on and on about the very many details he's putting into that. But needless to say it's important for us to establish a new look for the game to make it feel like you've arrived in a different world and we're taking a lot of steps to make that happen. So everything from new technology upgrades that are going to let us do better trees and terrain to creating the world of the land of Faerun in Eveningstar and the surrounding areas. There's a country called Cormyr and, of course, how we go into the Underdark and how we're going to realize the look of the Underdark and some special features that are going to come into play there. There's quite a bit going into it. Obviously, there's a lot of history and features in DDO which we're building on top of, so it all will feel like one game but you'll also very distinctly believe you've stepped into a new world and it'll be like no experience you've had in DDO before.

Eric: Yeah, we definitely want you to know if you're in Forgotten Realms or if you're in Eberron simply by looking at the scenery around you.

GB: If the expansion proves to be very successful, are you in a position with Wizards of the Coast that will allow you to add other Forgotten Realms locations? Eveningstar is conveniently located near Shadowdale, Hillsfar, and even Myth Drannor.

Fernando: Yeah, absolutely. And that's one of the exciting things for us is thinking about all those great future locations that we want to go. I'm not going to lie to you, it's not completely open and we have to work closely with them to make sure that our plans line up with any plans that Wizards might have or even plans that other licensors might have to develop in games where certain folks have areas of the world carved out. But it's such a big setting, so rich with lore and iconic locations and characters that there will be no trouble finding many exciting places to go and really, for us, it's about lining up the next several places we go to expand our world initially starting from Eveningstar and some of the areas we're going to venture into in the Underdark. But, eventually, we're going to go as far as we can in Forgotten Realms or other parts of the D&D universes.

GB: As someone with multiple level 20 charactrs, I'm likely going to be doing a True Reincarnation prior to the expansion's release. As such, I'm curious how True Reincarnation will be affected by the five new epic levels. Once the expansion is released, will characters have to reach level 25 before they can True Reincarnate?

Eric: We'll definitely be releasing the real system details later but ultimately the 1-20 True Reincarnation will not be affected by the epic levels. You'll have that same experience. What we'll be getting into the details on later is: what will you do with epic levels if you're at level 25 and you True Reincarnate? You've changed your first 20 levels that you're playing again, but we have another system to sort of incorporate with the epic levels that follows that. So, those people that have True Reincarnated three or four times won't be impacted by the epic levels.

Fernando: Well, there shouldn't be any negative impact from the epic levels, anyway. But in summary, leveling will work a little bit different past level 20. True Reincarnation will remain based on the first 20 levels, but we haven't really spelled out details of both how advancement changes beyond 20 and how that'll also factor in with True Reincarnations beyond level 20.

I think one of the core questions in the heart of what you're saying is: am I at some great disadvantage if I TR today or if I don't TR today? And I think the short answer is no. Right? That'll remain more or less consistent with the current system and past level 20 you'll be able to TR even going forward.

GB: At the moment, you've announced one wilderness area, the King's Forest. Will the King's Forest follow the same setup as the other wilderness areas we've become accustomed to? Is it going to be filled with explorers, slayers, and quest entrances? Also, I don't know if you can say anything just yet, but will there be a wilderness area or two in the Underdark?

Fernando: Yes, it is based on our current wilderness tech, but you'll also see some improvements and evolutions in both how our content team is using that stuff and maybe some small system upgrades there too. So, look for a few changes, but very much feeling consistent with the rest of the game. And without going into too much detail on our other content plans, I will at least confirm that there will be a wilderness area in the Underdark as well.

GB: I've chatted with you guys a few times over the years about the druid class and I know it's something that you've wanted to add for a very long time. I suspect it's probably been a very challenging class to add considering the shapeshifting abilities and new spell repertoire you have to consider. What more can you tell us about the druid and the challenges you've encountered adding it to the game? Additionally, what should we expect from their spell selection beyond what we've seen in the ranger's arsenal?

Fernando: As far as what was the hardest thing about it - sometimes it's not the sexy stuff that's the hardest or it's not the part that you'd think that would be hardest about the sexy stuff that ends up being hard. The thing that's gotten us for a very long time is shapeshifting. And it came down to an inherent limitation in our engine with players changing physical size in the middle of gameplay. Believe it or not, that's not a super easy concept to change in the engine. That's taken us a very long time and that's been a core feature that had sort of blocked us on what we wanted the druid to be because their really cool new trick is that they get to assume different animal forms and that's something no other class can do.

Apart from that, like you were sort of alluding to, there's just a lot of work that goes with realizing the druid and making them good. So that's one of the reasons that last year we ended up doing the artificer class, because we didn't get our shapeshifting tech in time so that we could do the druid last year but we also knew that we would be very busy this year with the expansion in the first half of the year and we just needed to get ahead on things. So we built the artificer as our first pet class so that we could build some of those mechanics and some reusable bits of technology and some learnings from how players liked the artificer and what we can do better so that the druid could be really great as far as having an animal companion. Like the artificer has their homunculus pet that can be leveled up and customized as you go. Beyond that, on spells, I guess I'll hold off on talking about specific spells other than to say that, as you expect, there'll be a mix of some ranger abilities or other magic that might be useful by other casters in the game, and a few unique spells for the druid as well.

GB: With the druid being added, there will be no more core classes left to add to the game. Are you considering adding more specialty classes along the lines of the artificer down the road?

Fernando: Absolutely. Our players love new classes. It's one of the things that adds great variety to players' experiences and that they love to do for alts and things like that. Last year, we came back to classes after the previous year of focusing on new races for a little while. I'm not sure what exactly will come out in what order, but we have a queue up on the next wish list of classes and races that we want to add to the game, and we'll pull them into our road map as major features in the coming years for sure.

GB: Before we get to the expansion content this summer, I know you're planning to roll out Update 13. That will be adding a new adventure pack and pets to the game, right?

Fernando: Yes, that's right. We have "creature companions", and that's going to be our new system for cosmetic pets. And those will be first available with Update 13 and you'll see a lot more of those become available over the course of the year. Initially, they're only going to be available in limited ways and we're not quite talking about all the details there but we can talk more about that in an Update 13 preview maybe in a month or so. But we definitely have plans to make them available a lot more over the course of the year. Over the course of 2012, players will have a lot of different ways to acquire different cosmetic pets including some that'll be earned in gameplay, some that will be offered as special offers, and some that will be purchased in the DDO store. They're just a really fun casual mechanic for the game right now.

GB: Alright, just so I understand this right, the creature companions won't actually be able to participate in combat? Will any of them add a bonus to ability scores or skills or anything? If not, would you consider adding pets that offered combat bonuses or stat boosts, or will they always be purely cosmetic?

Eric: Yeah, initially they're purely cosmetic. There's room to expand what they do but they will not be a combat or stat-boosting type of pet.

Fernando: One lesson that we've learned in our many, many years of operating MMOs as a live service is "never say never". So we're not going to say they never will help in combat or offer stats, but the initial offering is meant to be purely cosmetic and it's really a collectible thing for players to have fun with and a chance for veterans to show off the various pets that they will acquire over the course of their D&D adventures. They're just a fun thing for players to talk about and show off as these little cute versions of D&D creatures that we think the players are really going to enjoy having and just showing to their friends.

GB: Will a majority of the creature companions be earned through quests in the game, or is this something you're going to primarily take advantage of on the DDO store?

Fernando: There will be quite a few of them in the DDO store, but I wouldn't say the majority. It's important for us to have lots of different types and lots of different skins and gear and things like that for the pets in the fullness of time and that'll include having an assortment of them earnable in gameplay, again, later in the year, not in the initial release.

GB: It sounds like you have a pretty good handle on what Update 13 will include, but do you anticipate releasing any other updates prior to the launch of Menace of the Underdark? Will we see an Update 14 or even an Update 15 before the summer?

Fernando: No, there probably won't be another major update before the expansion. As you can imagine, it's a very big undertaking for this expansion to make it the size we want it to be. We're talking about making it the size of several of our regular updates all bundled together and still hitting a spring release around our anniversary for Update 13. That's quite a lot for the team to do, even though we've grown the team quite significantly. But after we release the expansion pack, we will keep that large team on and, if it does very well, we intend to keep a large team on DDO and have an aggressive set of content releases to follow. And that's really great news for those players that are always going to be clamoring for more, more, more, new locales, new characters, new stories, particularly in Forgotten Realms. And we intend to continue right along that vein with an aggressive content schedule right after the expansion.
GB: We've established that the expansion will include five new epic levels, at least two new wildernesses, the druid, and new spells, but will there be at least one new raid against the Demon Queen of Spiders? You can't send us to the Underdark without letting us take on Lolth, right?

Eric: Yeah, we do have a raid planned in the expansion pack.

Fernando: It's pretty safe to say that it's going to take twelve epic heroes to face off against a deity in her own domain. So, yeah, Lolth will be an epic encounter in every sense of the word and is fitting for our first epic raid.

GB: I would assume you'll be adding some iconic creatures with the introduction of the Underdark. Will you be adding Driders, Myconid, and other types of Underdark-specific enemies for us to face?

Fernando: That's right. There's a whole bevy of new monsters coming both for the overworld areas in the world surrounding Eveningstar and for the Underdark and a few other things here and there. So, yeah, there's a bunch of new monsters and that's one of the fun things for us. I haven't given you too many specifics, but we'll at least confirm that Driders are coming and they're a big part of the Drow faction and the Lolth worshippers there. Lolth is coming to prominence in our storyline, and in the world of the Forgotten Realms, and in all the events that are happening across various different storylines you'll see happening this year in different D&D properties. It's safe to say that her followers are going to rise to prominence and make their presence known.

GB: Can you give us an idea of just how big the Underdark and Eveningstar are going to be in comparison to the zones we've become accustomed to in DDO? Is the Underdark going to stretch across multiple zones, or will it be similar to the Menechtarun Desert and be presented as one large expanse?

Fernando: I don't want to put it into specific terms because, frankly, we're figuring out the specific plans as we go. That's not to say that we don't have plans, but it's probably better for me to play it safe. What I will say is that Eveningstar will be our major public area. Eveningstar will be the hub of the adventures that will take place within Menace of the Underdark. That's where our heroes will arrive first and that's where they will use as their home base for adventuring in the Forgotten Realms. It is very much going to feel like a large public area in DDO, as big as any we have probably. And then from there, the wilderness areas including the Underdark and the King's Forest, they're a good size DDO wilderness. It's not going to be like the mini wildernesses that are in the Reaver's Reach area for example, right? They're not going to be very small, tight areas and they're going to have plenty of adventures and things to discover.

The other thing I would add on that front is, just like we have plans to expand the content offering, one of the great things about the way we're building these wildernesses is that we have plans to expand them over time too. So, really, this is the beginnings of our adventures in this setting and part of the way we're going to expand it is by growing the world in a way where players will actually get to travel through it and expand in different corners of it over time as we grow the content offering.

GB: I know you've given us a "summer" release schedule already, but since that's a three-month period, can you give us a better idea of when we can expect Menace of the Underdark?

Adam: At this time we're saying summer, but I will say stay tuned. We'll be making some more announcements about that in the very near future.

GB: Alright, guys, thanks again for your time. See you in the Underdark!

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