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Fifteen years feels like an eternity in the game industry. Looking back at February 2006, we were at the end of the PlayStation 2/Xbox era, Steam wasn’t a PC gaming juggernaut yet, and World of Warcraft was the biggest beast on the block.
That’s also when Turbine launched Dungeons & Dragons Online, the tabletop franchise’s first modern MMORPG (folks, don’t forget that Neverwinter Nights was the first online role-playing game to have graphics, way back in 1991).
Dungeons & Dragons Online (or DDO as it’s known to the community) turned 15 this year. Over that time, it’s seen Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast go from 3.5 Edition to 5th Edition. It’s gone from a subscription model to free-to-play. Publisher rights have moved from first Atari to Codemasters to Warner Bros. to, finally, Daybreak Games. And development moved as well, when Turbine went under and folks from the DDO and Lord of the Rings Online dev teams formed Standing Stone Games, the game’s current studio.
But through that time, DDO and its players have adventured through 60 content updates. It’s had 513 “Screenshot of the Week” posts from the players. It still has a vibrant community (Standing Stone didn’t share how many active players DDO still has).
Standing Stone studio head Rob Ciccolini has been working on DDO for almost nine years. In that time, he’s seen the game go to dread domains of Ravenloft and explore the towers of the spectacular city of Sharn, visiting some of D&D‘s most beloved module settings along the way. He’s seen new player races and classes come in.
And he’s witnessed the players’ continued love of D&D, something he shares with them.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How has this game survived for 15 years, in your opinion?
Rob Ciccolini: Well, there are a number of things. It’s a well-designed game. It has deep character options. When someone comes in, there’s certainly a lot for them to work with and explore. It has a framework that allows you to do group things, but you can also solo if you want. Each dungeon is handcrafted, so you can get a wide range of experiences depending on what you want. All of those lead to a very compelling experience. Plus, I mean, Dungeons & Dragons is a great game. It’s a nostalgic game. It leads the path in terms of how people look at it, how people treat gaming. Being attached to that is certainly something that we love, that position and that development is great.
GamesBeat: What makes it so well-designed? What are the mechanics that jump out and say, this is good? What are some things that Standing Stone has added to make it better?
Ciccolini: One thing I like about it is you get the meat of the adventure and the interesting stuff soon. Much as I love some of the other MMOs that have strong landscapes, like Lord of the Rings Online, where you have the big advantage of being in Middle-Earth, for D&D when you log in, when your group logs in, you’re in the dungeon looking for traps and finding monsters and figuring out puzzles very quickly. There’s not a 20- or 30-minute lead-in time. The experience from night to night is extremely varied. There are some nights where I’ll log in to other games, and I know pretty much exactly what I’ll do. I’ll be repeating content over and over again. It boils down to click or kill.
But for D&D Online, all of the dungeons are custom-made. You can run dungeons that are focused on combat, but if you want something different, you can run dungeons with puzzles. You can run dungeons where you have to work with traps. You have to work as a team on a number of things. You have to navigate mazes and find levers. There’s a wide variety of experiences.
Another nice thing about D&D Online is there’s so much content now. As you level, there’s a huge, wide variety of things to do. There’s a new experience every time you try a new character. And there are lots of new characters to try out. One thing I love about the game is you can’t go off into the wilderness and grab someone’s build and just blindly copy it. There’s so much to the synergy with your group, what you’re trying to solve for. There are a lot of build options, which leads to almost limitless customization for your character. There’s a lot there. Especially with cross-class, where you have a number of powerful classes and you can combine them in hundreds or thousands of ways.
GamesBeat: When you say the dungeons are hand-crafted, do you mean that the studio crafts them, or are there also components to where a player can be a DM and take a dungeon and do their own thing with it?
Ciccolini: We don’t have dungeon masters. We provide the dungeons. Which is kind of a good thing because quite frankly, if I could have more dungeon masters, I’d probably game more often myself. Sometimes it’s hard to find a dungeon master, and the nice thing about D&D Online is there’s a lot of emotional and creative energy that goes into running a good adventure. That’s not something a typical person can do multiple times a week. D&D Online provides a DM for you, so someone doesn’t have to do that.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some people love being DMs. But even they need a break occasionally. Logging on with your whole group and having the D&D experience without requiring all that setup is great sometimes.
GamesBeat: From what I remember of the 3.5 Edition days, it had a lot of prestige classes, a lot of ways to mix-and-match classes. Does the way you do that adapt that system?
Ciccolini: There’s a base D&D system, and then we build additional customization on top of it. The way we do prestige classes, each class has a tree that represents different ways that you can get there. For 3.5 it was prestige classes, but in 5.0 you might think of the different paths players can take at certain levels. Fighter has three trees. Rogue has three trees. All of those can bring them — a thief-acrobat under rogue plays very differently than an assassin.
The other thing we have is universal trees. These are trees that can combine with any of the classes. They’re not class-specific. That gives you nice combinations. If you want to have a cool bird of prey, you can follow falconry and incorporate that into your adventure. Inquisitors can use their intellectual skills. They’re handy with crossbows. Those are the types of universal trees to give even more depth to the kinds of characters you can play.
GamesBeat: Did I hear you say thief-acrobat?
Ciccolini: You did.
GamesBeat: That’s from the 1st Edition of D&D, isn’t it?
Ciccolini: Yes, it is. You can tumble through traps. The thief-acrobat can use a staff, which is not something you see in most games. That’s a very different feeling than an assassin using daggers, maybe using the Vistani fighting tree and sneaking up and taking out key enemies.
GamesBeat: Is it weird or strange to be working on a game where the rules come from 3.5 when D&D is well into 5th edition?
Ciccolini: Not really? A lot of the character options come from a robust set of systems that live above the rules. At some point I think we want to bring our basic rules to something more modern, maybe revamp them. There are some things about the current rules I’d like to fix. It’s fairly easy for a new player to use multiclassing and do it in an order that isn’t 100 percent efficient. I’d like to clean up some of that, certainly. We run into those problems, and those are holdbacks from the edition we’re working on. But I love both editions, so I’m a bad person to ask. I’ll gladly play 3.5 or 5.0 tabletop, either way. I’m not one of those people who advocate for a specific set of rules very strongly.
GamesBeat: There’s been considerable lore changes in the editions as well. Eberron has changed. How do you incorporate changes to lore? Or is your game just still rooted in this time, and those changes don’t matter?
Ciccolini: Conceptually, as you level, we tend to try to make any passage of time seem natural. But because we offer a lot of content at two different points, that’s not always possible. The other thing we do is, there’s a group called the Gatekeepers that guard gates into the planes. One of the things that’s happened is the Manual of the Planes, the old D&D artifact, has been causing a lot of problems, and they’ve been trying to keep things tamped down. But it allows the players the opportunity to visit different places that may not even be necessarily in the two worlds that we work with, in neither the Forgotten Realms or Eberron, because the Manual of the Planes is causing passages to open up. The Gatekeepers end up sending you to a number of places to deal with problems caused by that. That gives us the opportunity to focus on classic packs, reproducing that nostalgic experience of old dungeons as they existed for people who want that, bringing to life some of these modules that we remember, and then giving them a full treatment and letting you be standing in them.
It’s a real treat, being in those landscapes. Keep on the Borderlands, remembering playing or reading through that module. We’re working on the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, a series of old dungeons, and being able to stand in that. Playing through experiences in the same manner as when you played them the first time, whether that was 20 years ago or two months ago. We have Ravenloft. You can move through Sharn, which wasn’t classic, but dealt with the big sea of Eberron. There are a number of things that are just a joy to work with.
GamesBeat: I was going through some of the news posts from your chronicle, and there was a reference to White Plume Mountain.
Ciccolini: Everyone loves those weapons. I don’t know anyone who didn’t read through White Plume Mountain that didn’t want to go in and end up in possession of one of the three. Doing that and bringing those weapons to the new system at the time, where the weapons can talk to you and having intelligent weapons that have sentience, being able to upgrade those, that was really fun.
GamesBeat: Do you also incorporate any of the storylines from D&D 5th edition, like Rage of Demons or Elemental Evil?
Ciccolini: Usually we go toward — Saltmarsh just came out as a new area. We tend to work on the classic packs, bringing those to life. Sometimes we do. Our Ravenloft treatment is very much closer to the newer edition than the old module. The newer edition was a standout. It depends on what we think will translate better to our game and systems. Some of the new experiences are — the narrative is something that is more difficult, or not quite as fun in an MMO. There’s a lot of things where convincing a character of something is a great experience when you have a good DM, but not so much in an MMO. We’ll go back and forth and see — what do we think will cause the most player joy in this? Do we want to do the nostalgic old-school, or do we want to go with a newer treatment? It varies depending on the type of stuff that gets added.
GamesBeat: Saltmarsh would be the older treatment, not the Ghosts of the Saltmarsh book from 2018?
Ciccolini: That’s correct. Plus, we’re adding some bits. There will be some extra dungeons around that theme and area that you can do that might not have been in the original versions.
Attracing new players to an old game
GamesBeat: How do you get new players in? Are you getting new players on a regular basis?
Ciccolini: Sure. When we have an anniversary, when we have an expansion, when we have normal updates. We always are going to try to get new players in. The nice thing about D&D is it has a tremendous new player base. They’re always looking for new D&D experiences. As we go through and create content, we always have people that are like, oh, I remember that when I was younger, let me go check it out.
GamesBeat: Do you mean in your game or in D&D in general?
Ciccolini: Just in D&D in general. There are a number of older modules that even newer players are going back and finding again. Right now the people are understanding how powerful that social experience is, that it exists outside the game, and it’s nice to have — I like MMOs and other group games that are cooperative because I feel that it promotes that same sense of community. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are competitive games I like as well, shooters and stuff, but I really enjoy the cooperative aspects of games where the whole party is getting together and working toward the same goal. That’s where my heart is in gaming. This is exactly the kind of game I like. Obviously, Lord of the Rings Online does that as well, when you’re exploring the world. There’s a lot of group activity there. Those are the kinds of games I like. It’s a pleasure for me to work on them.
GamesBeat: Do you get that normal wave of … every time you have an expansion you get a lot of lapsed players coming back and sticking with the game?
Ciccolini: Of course. Everybody wants to come see the new hotness. You have a new expansion and people get all excited. But we get that for our normal content updates too. You never know. Maybe White Plume Mountain was your jam back in the day and you want to go check that out. There’s a wide variety of ways people come back. Also, we can’t underestimate the organic ability for you to talk to your friends about D&D. You find out their group plays once a week in DDO. Suddenly somebody new will come in because their friends play. The support of the community has been great. They’re the best way to get players, when you find out someone else is playing and you can come in and play with them. That’s just fantastic.
GamesBeat: How has your player base changed over the years? Or has it changed at all?
Ciccolini: A lot of our groups now are groups that play regularly together, rather than the flood of people coming in and trying to put together groups. But it depends on the night. Also, the way players play depends on the kind of content. We see a big difference in how the players play if we just released a raid. They all get into groups and decide what to do. Also, because the game ranges in difficulty so much, you really can customize how difficult you want it to be to get a wide variety of play styles and people who want to go into Reaper, where the virtual DM is really trying to kill you. Some people say, well, that’s a bit much for me. I want to experience the story and get some good loot, but maybe not at that level. There’s a wide variety of ways people play.
DDO’s legacy … and future
GamesBeat: Do you have any moments from working on the game where you think, wow, this is something I’ll always remember?
Ciccolini: There are a number of them. One thing I missed, and I wish I worked on the game during that time, was when we had a big event where we blew up the main area of Stormreach. Nobody knew what to expect. Nobody expected that area to change so dramatically before their eyes. That was great. When people first go in and start to experience the creepiness of Ravenloft, that was one of the iconic moments as well. One thing I think players should want to check out, our brand new raid is all based on music, something we haven’t done before. I really think players should check that out. It’s a fantastic raid design. But one of the reasons I like this is that — everybody has different moments because everyone has different experiences growing up on D&D or coming to it more recently. For me, going through White Plume Mountain is like, oh wow. The first time I saw a manticore in the game, that’s probably more resonant for me specifically than a lot of other players who might be like, wow, Ravenloft was amazing. They’ve played through Curse of Strahd and there are a lot of elements we reflected there.
GamesBeat: One thing that blew my mind was the fact that you have over 500 screenshots of the week mentioned in the chronicle. Do you ever sit and think this game would almost be old enough to drive?
Ciccolini: Well, I think you’re describing the experience of us getting more experience in anything we do, to a lesser degree. But yeah, it’s also come a long way. The screenshots more recently have the players on mounts, or people moving through Keep on the Borderlands and Ravenloft. They look so different. Also we have a lot of new races. Dragonborn look so different than the older classes, or aasimar and tieflings. These changed the whole look and feel of the game in terms of how the players work around them. There’s been a lot of changes, and you can see that in how the screenshots over time have, in my opinion, gotten better. But I also think the players — the screenshots are just indicative of how passionate the players are right now.
GamesBeat: It seems like old MMOs don’t die anymore. They continue as long as players want to play them. How much life do you think DDO has left in it?
Ciccolini: We’re better than when we started with SSG, so if we go another two decades, I’ll be totally psyched. I’ll happily continue doing this. We’re strong. The players like the experiences that we provide. The game is constantly changing, so they have a good reason to keep investing in it. One of the things that happens is there’s a certain kind of player where, when you invest your time into an ongoing long storyline game like this, you feel as though your time is well spent because that new content rolls out and these characters offer things you can experience over and over again. Whereas if you play a one and done game, once you’ve explored the limits of that game, you may have DLC, but it’s a limited scope. These games provide a much more vast landscape of experiences.
The other thing that I think helps these games is you’re playing your own character. You have a lot of character options. The character is your own. You’re not adopting a persona that someone else thinks is cool. You’re finding a way to make your own character cool. I love the Witcher as much as the next person, but you’re playing someone else’s conception of a character. One reason players like playing games like this is they feel an ownership over their character, and a sense of agency. They make decisions about how the character interacts.
GamesBeat: It seems like there’s also a sense of responsibility that comes with making this game because people have been playing for 15 years in some cases. Do you ever feel that?
Ciccolini: Every day. Every day. There’s a huge responsibility for the games we do because this is a legacy that I want to be true to. It’s a legacy for the type of game it is. It’s not only a legacy for the game itself. It’s a legacy for D&D. It’s a legacy for Standing Stone Games. It’s a legacy for all of the wonderful devs who have worked on the game in the past. That’s a big responsibility. I want to provide as much player joy as I can. Doing that is something that I think about every day. That’s part of my job, to both provide player joy, to make smart decisions so these games will go on for decades and players who love these games can play them, and also so players who love these games, their children can play. That’s the kind of breadth of experience that we want.
Families play this game. Parents will play with their children. We get letters from people who think that they have evolved their family time and they feel closer because they’re working together with an entire family. I really like hearing that people are sharing those experiences. I really like hearing that people are sharing experiences like, hey, I haven’t seen this person since high school, but we reconnected because even though we’re in different areas, we can play together now once or twice or many times a week in the game. This is the responsibility, I think, that all the devs feel in their hearts when they work on the game. Sometimes, it can be challenging to live up to those expectations, those memories, that legacy.
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