Four Things

Posted on June 17, 2010


For five years, I managed the Dungeons & Dragons license. During that time, I worked with a coalition of companies to produce 12 game titles (I don’t say “games” because some of what we produced was sequels and download content). Based on that experience, I’ve decided that for E3 I should share what I consider to be the four general failures of D&D-based games. Counting down from #4, they are…

4. No real association with D&D. I saw several games that were clearly developed a) with no real association with D&D, or b) with fond memories of some campaign the designers played in 10+ years before. Literally everyone who pitched their computer game idea to us said “We love D&D.” It was like they all read from the same script. We realized it meant, “We love our memories of playing D&D when we were kids, but have no idea what D&D is like now.” There’s no point to having the D&D license if you’re not making yourself part of 30+ years of gaming history. Then again…

3. Overly slavish devotion to at least one aspect of D&D. Some games slavishly re-created the D&D rules system. Others exaggerate the importance of setting. Do we really need to mention some famous person or place from Forgotten Realms in every bit of dialogue? It’s more important to create the feel and look of D&D than it is to slavishly re-create the game. In fact, it’s more important to have a stable game with smooth, intuitive mechanics than it is to slavishly re-create any aspect of D&D. There is no way you can have a top-rated title unless it plays well.

2. Laser-like focus on RPG aspect. I think every company expects to hear the question, “So how is this D&D?” So they make sure to create an RPG – with detailed character creation and development. When you go to GenCon or Origins and hear people talk about D&D, they’re talking about role-playing events, and about action. It’s tough to re-create role-playing (although, if you’ve got a multi-player game, you can build in opportunities for it), but for God’s sake don’t skimp on action or let game mechanics get in the way of it.

1. Loss of narrative focus. In making the effort to build real worlds that look like D&D campaign worlds and that make constant reference to those campaign worlds, many games lose the narrative thread. For me, this is a problem with all digital RPGs. The first big city you get to, and you get overloaded with quests and struggle to find people and places, and suddenly you can’t remember the point of the game anymore. I found this with Morrowind as much as I did with any D&D title, so I’m not just bashing D&D games here.

Honestly? Borderlands is a pretty darn good D&D game. Heroes use technology to overcome monsters. There’s random treasures. All the quests are either story-related, or are about building enough trust with the natives to get the next story-related quest. It’s stable, and the mechanics are smooth and intuitive. Character building/advancement exists, but it’s streamlined enough to keep you focused on playing the game.

So there’s my E3 Update. I wish I was on the show floor, instead of watching it on G4.