Wednesday, October 04, 2006

So, what's the deal with DAOC?

Dark Age of Camelot.

Ahh, those four words, they really have an emotional effect on me.

Time-wise, I've probably invested more in DAOC than any other MMOG to date, even including my 3+ year stint on Everquest (Rallos Zek server).

But the word on the latest expansion does nothing for me.

Dark Age of Camelot is, frankly, a work of art... but in mathematical terms. No other game has the formulae, the back end, the very concept of what MMO PVP should be, like DAOC does. RvR (Mythic Entertainment's term for their specific interpretation of team-based PvP, "Realm vs Realm) is the most perfect execution of MMO PvP that has ever been wrought.

But I am afraid the game has about run its course.

Really though, 5 years isn't a shabby amount of time for a game to remain viable. And, of course, I'm sure that there will be subscribers for DAOC for many years to come. The game used to be the Dark Horse of choice for those who were tired of EQ's grind and yet not satisfied with WoW's lack of meaningful PvP. And it really is unchanged in what made it great. The problem is, unfortunately, largely out of Mythic's control.

The pitfall of the MMOG paradigm is that a large part of any player's experience is crafted by the players around him: The community can largely make or break the game. Right now, the population has shrunk (though it has slightly come up from where it dived when WoW went live) and, at least on the cluster where I play (Tintagel, aka "Penguin" for it being 3 merged servers: PErcival, Nimue and GUINevere... PE-N-GUIN), the people are too fractured.

Most of those still playing are Old Guard. They remember the way things were and want to try to keep things as close to that as possible. Additionally, the setup of DAOC inspires a great deal of loyalty to one's guild (particularly if it is an old guild), and as such nobody wants to disband their guild to merge with another. So, by and large, we have lots of small guilds, each unable to field an effective force (some not even a full group) who refuse to disband and form up into fewer guilds with more people.

So what, right? With alliances, chat groups and battlegroups, this can be overcome, can't it?

Well, the problem is that the RvR dynamic depends on guilds for claiming, upgrading and maintaining the strategic elements of the battlefield. A realm's frontier has seven keeps and twenty one towers. These keeps and towers must each be claimed by a guild, and then maintained at a high level at a cost of guild bounty points (which are awarded when members of a guild kill enemy players). Keeps in particular create a large drain on a guild's BP, one which the majority of the remaining guilds can't maintain. This leads to a fair amount of territory going unupgraded, if not flat out unclaimed, which makes it easy pickings for the overnight crew.

Which brings me to the next problem: The Primetime/Offtime disparity. I'm a prime-time player. My playtime generally would fall between approximately 7pm and midnight, eastern. This is when most of the population of just about any american MMO is on. But on DAOC, at least on Tintagel, there's enough people who are on early in the morning on a regular basis to be called a sizable chunk of the population. But that population isn't equally balanced between the three realms, though the imbalance isn't consistent from day to day. But what the upshot is here, is that many times it can feel to a primetime player that what he or she does in the frontier doesn't particularly matter, because the overnight crew will just come along and undo it after bedtime (or, as the case may be, the player may decide no heavy lifting on their part is necessary because the offtimers will be along in a few hours to do it for them). The "Alarm Clock Raid," once just a rare but extremely annoying occurance, is now a de-facto nightly event.

This poses quite the puzzle. It doesn't behoove Mythic to make game design changes that favor one time block over another, for obvious economic reasons. So inexorably, more prime time players become jaded as the situation wears on. They stop working together. They stop working altogether perhaps, and go roll a thidranki alt. Remember the old chestnut, "What if war were declared and nobody came?" Well, that's the view from primetime sometimes, thanks to the 6am Suicide Squad.

DAOC is a great game. It has excellent team-PvP oriented balance, more than 30 classes, 3 realms each distinct from the others in style and feeling, tons of PvE content full of quests and tricky encounters that require strategy (I don't care what some people say, Trials of Atlantis was an excellent expansion), a crafter-player economy without equal, a perfect player housing implementation, and a setup for endgame PvP that is palpably meaningful to every player of the game. The interface is a little clunky compared to newer games, sure, and the graphics feel a little dated, but the guts of the game far outclass most any other MMO you could name. But it isn't the latest, brightest flash in the pan.

It is obvious that Mythic knows this as well. They're working hard on their next big cash cow MMO, Warhammer Online (which many of us chuckle and call DAOC 2). The upcoming Minotaur-oriented expansion for DAOC sounds rather uninspired to me... like it is just going through the motions. Slowly, Camelot is entering that big MMO rest home to join UO, EQ1, AC etc in their fallow state... not dead (after all, even UO still sports thousands of subscribers even after nine years), but never again as alive as they were.

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