It’s been a while since I played an MMO, hasn’t it? And I’ve never played one quite like this before. I’ve mentioned Black Desert Online a few times in the past and nobody really took much of an interest, so I suspect most of you are indifferent to this thing. But I’ve never let indifference interfere with my blathering before, so we’re going to spend a month with this game.
Over the past couple of weeks I had a blast in Black Desert Online, and then I stopped having a blast and the whole experience felt more or less like a waste of time for reasons I’ll get into later. But first let’s talk about what drew me to the game.
Familiar Yet Strange
Black Desert Online is a Korean MMO and almost everything about it is strange to me. The design is strange, the release schedule is strange, the business model is strange, the setting is strange, the interface is strange, and the dialog is strange. I can’t tell how much of the strangeness comes from the developers and how much comes from its home culture. Note that in this context, “strange” does not mean “bad”. It’s just, you know, unexpected.
I understand that Korean games are ridiculously grind-y by reputation. When I hear something described as “grindy”, I think of the ancient past of 2002, when I played Dark Age of Camelot and the most expedient way to level was to stand in the same spot and farm the same cluster of mobs for an hour. Black Desert might be grindy, but it’s not that sort of grindy. Maybe it’s grindy by the standards of kids today, or maybe it breaks from the norm set by other Korean MMO titles, but it’s not a grind in the sense of killing the same monster 60 times in a row.
The strange thing about the release schedule is that they didn’t immediately target the North American market. They went for South Korea first (which is pretty understandable) in 2014, but then in 2015 they released in… Japan and Russia? They finally got around to North America and Europe in 2016 and South America and MENA in 2017.
This isn’t a complaint or anything. It’s not like North America is automatically entitled to get stuff first. It’s just an unexpected choice because NA is often thought of as a very lucrative market so developers like to target it as soon as possible. Conversely, Russia is often a low-priority market because it has a reputation for being a difficult place to operate. I wonder if this unorthodox release order means the usual conventional wisdom is no longer true. Is Russia an easier place to do business? Is North America not as lucrative as it used to be? Or does Publisher Kakao Games have other practical / logistical reasons for pushing NA and Europe off for a couple of years?
Even the title itself is a little strange. It’s called Black Desert Online, but the overwhelming majority of the gameworld is generic European forest. There are places that are swampy and places that are a little rocky, but it’s all the same color with the same trees so none of it feels particularly distinct. More to the point, I played all the way to level 50 and I never saw anything that looked like a “desert”. According to the wiki there is one eventually. Shame it didn’t came sooner. The relentless green was pretty but it got kind of same-y after a while. Imagine if World of Warcraft was designed so that the entire continent of Lordaeron looked like Elwynn Forest, and the game was called “Outlands Online”. It’s just… odd. I wonder if something is getting lost in translation here.
Above I said the setting was strange, but the thing that makes it strange is the fact that to us westerners it’s completely mundane. When it comes to climate, architecture, clothing, proper names, religion, technology, and government, the world of Black Desert is distinctly European. Which is strange, given the fact that it was made by Koreans.
Imagine you’re a Japanese gamer. You play a lot of MMOs, and the vast majority of them are focused on Samurai and Feudal Japan. Then a new game comes out of North America. So you check out this new MMO to see what strange wonders those crazy foreigners managed to come up with, and it turns out they decided to make yet another game about Samurai warriors in Feudal Japan. It’s not wrong per se, but doesn’t it seem like a missed opportunity?
While the world itself feels like a tenth-generation Everquest knock-off, the player character designs are distinctly Korean. Each class is locked to a gender, so if you’re a Witch or a Sorceress then you’re a woman, but if you’re a Wizard or a Striker then you’re a dude. All but one of the 16 character classes are designed to look like Korean magazine models and K-Pop stars. Everyone has a youthful look.
The stereotypical western character design favors men that look ~30 and women who look ~18. This extra age for the men means the male characters get more of the square-jawed “rugged” features that don’t develop until the late 20s, and we often have a lot of focus on giving them a large variety of beards and mustaches. In Black Desert, both men and women look like they fall within the 18-to-20 range, with one or two of the female designs dipping down into the mid-teensThe face designer is so robust I suspect you could fix this by moving the features around. The game allows you to put age lines on your face if you want to be old, although I was never able to get it to look right. My attempts to make a grizzled old war vet always looked like a young man wearing old-person makeup..
The point is that a large part of this game is focused on giving you very pretty characters. This ties into the business model: They give you the Barbie doll for freeEr, not “free” as such. I mean, the game still costs money up front., and then charge you for the outfits and accessories.
The evolution of the modern MMO has been a long, slow process of making combat less of a chore. Everquest was lots of grinding and lots of downtime. World of Warcraft took that system of babysitting hotbar buttons and sped it up a bit, and gave the player a regularly-shifting backdrop of environments to do it in. It was more interesting by virtue of being more varied, but there was still this uncomfortable distance between you and your character. You’d hit a number on your keyboard and your character would begin an animation that would eventually create a particle effect that would someday result in a number appearing over your foe’s head to let you know you’d hurt them. The game might hook you with its vibrant colors and bold (for the time) character designs, and it might pull you in with its skinner box based reward system, but it was not kinaesthetically pleasing.
You could use the movement keys in a fight and dance around as much as you wanted, but the enemy would still hit you because positioning didn’t matter. The combat was designed to be playable on dial-up, and there was lots of slop built into the system so it wouldn’t turn into a mess of jankyness and rubberbandingRubberbanding is when you (or another player) move some distance in the game before the server realizes that where IT thinks you are and where YOU think you are do not agree. So you are snapped back to where you “should” be, like a rubber band snapping closed after being stretched too far. during the inevitable moments of pronounced network latency. Back in those days, being able to backpedal away from an enemy to dodge its attack would have been an exploit, not a strategy.
But then the network got faster and packet delivery became more timely and dependable. So then it was possible to mess around with the mechanics and figure out how we could make these games more responsive and action-oriented. I liked Champions Online at the time because it closely tied the hitting of a button to the dealing of damage. It felt less like directing an actor around the stage and more like controlling a character directly. Then Guild Wars 2 came along and suddenly Champs seemed sort of stiff and muted. Now we have Black Desert Online, and Guild Wars 2 seems sort of one-dimensional.
We need a word for a game that incorporates “Fighting against large groups of foes with heavy attacks, light attacks, and stunlocks, with well-telegraphed enemy attacks that reward consistent dodges, counters, and blocking.” Because I’m tired of saying games are “Like the Arkham games“. Like calling all shooters “Doom clones”, it points to a gap in our nomenclature. People (including me) also call them “brawlers”, but then we end up mixing them in with stuff like God of War and Bayonetta, which isn’t quite right. There are a lot of ways you can sort these games and I strongly suspect a lot of us are using the same words to describe very different things. Maybe when I say “brawler” I mean a game with counters and combo meters and when you say “brawler” you mean “game with punching”.
Regardless of what we call it, Black Desert Online has it. Every class is different, but they all have a variety of abilities that focus on fighting waves of cannon fodder. Some classes get moves to close distance and do burst damage. Some get moves to dodge out of the way. Moves to stunlock. Moves that hit everything around you. Moves that focus on outmaneuvering foes so you can hit them from behind and do extra damage. Moves that knock foes down so you can do bonus damage. And so on.
Every class has a really unique feel to it and aren’t just the same basic powers with a different outfit and set of particle effects. The combat feels good. It’s fast and responsive. It stays interesting as you levelOr WOULD, if it was balanced properly. But we’ll talk about the leveling problems next week.. The bad guys flinch, stagger, and otherwise react visibly to your hits. It looks cool. It works in the context of an online game.
I’m not saying this game is Street Fighter or Batman: Arkham Feudal Age, but this is the closest an MMO has come to that kind of button-mashing fun. You can play this with a controller, and it actually feels pretty good.
All of this is really hard to do. I don’t know enough about online games to say that this is the first one to really nail this sort of fluid combat that can rival a single-player game, but it’s the first one I’ve ever played. If there’s anything else that feels like this out there, please tell me.
The Black Spirit
The rest of the game might look European, but Black Spirit is very much a Korean idea and he’s easily the most interesting character.
When you roll a new character, Black Spirit welcomes you to the world. Apparently you have just struck a bargain with this guy. He’s offered you power, and in return you gave him…? You don’t know. You’ve got amnesia, which was apparently part of the deal. The Black Spirit is your main quest-giver throughout the game. You can summon him at any time, and he’s always encouraging you to gain more power and use it recklessly.
This is such an interesting idea. In most games your tutorial buddy is a friendly but irrelevant NPC who is quickly forgotten the moment you exit the starting town. But here he’s arguably the main character and he’s got this interesting and mysterious relationship with you that comes off as mildly adversarial.
His design is striking and he feels fresh and intriguing. I’ve spent my whole life soaking in fiction that drew its supernatural elements from western traditionsI’m not into literature myself, but I guess a lot of this stuff can be traced back to Dante’s Inferno and Paradise Lost?. Demons are always horned bipeds, angels are usually idealized human with feathered wings, and there’s typically some sort of abstract struggle between good and evil with Earth at the center.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that stuff, but after a few decades I feel like I’ve seen it all. Some dying peasant staggers into the village square, talking about how High Priest Nefarious has opened a “portal to the Netherworld” and that the lands, “Will soon be covered in darkness forever, unless we can-(coughs, dies)” As soon as I hear the bit about the portal to hell I start nodding my head, “Yeah. Okay. Another one of these. Got it.”
But I have no cultural context for Black Spirit, which makes him intriguing in a way that (say) Diablo is not.
Also, his in-game voice is this spooky warble that you’re not supposed to understand, which means his dialog didn’t need to be localized, which means he doesn’t suffer from the horrible problems that afflict all the other voiced characters in Black Desert OnlineI’ll talk about the English vocal performances next week..
He starts out as a little floating shadow with two red eyes, but the longer you work with him (and the more you level up) the more he grows. He starts out with this fun little “mischievous trickster” vibe, but by level 30 or so he starts to look downright menacing. The design changes gradually as the story goes on, which makes for a great reveal. While playing the game I was always eager to see the next step in his evolution.
I don’t want to oversell him. I played all the way to level 50 and I never encountered any sort of reveal that hinted who this guy is, what he wants from you, who you are, or why you made a deal with him in the first place. As far as I got, he was all hook and no payoff. But by the (admittedly low) standards of MMO characters, he’s remarkable.
The character models in this game are incredible. Not just because they’re gorgeous and incredibly detailed, but because they have an extreme amount of customizability. Where one game might give you a selection of haircuts and colors, BDO gives you the ability to fine-tune the length and wave different parts of the hair, adjust the overall shine, and apply a different dye to the roots, the strand, and the ends. You can adjust the voice and facial expression. It’s amazing. Sure, everyone is sort of crafted to look like a supermodel, but if popular culture has taught us anything it’s that people don’t get tired of looking at supermodelsActually they do, but on an individual level. Culture-wide, young attractive faces are always an easy sell..
(There’s actually one male character specifically designed to play into the “Hulking Warrior” stereotype rather than the “boy band” look all the other dudes have going for them. I tried him out but lost interest because his movement felt sort of ponderous to me.)
I wouldn’t mind a little more variety that takes us out of the 18-24 range in terms of age, but if you like crafting and customizing a character then you can have a lot of fun here. And yes, it’s possible to go full on Monster Factory if that’s what you’re into:
I mean, if you want to make a really ugly character then this probably isn’t the best game for that sort of tomfoolery. But maybe you like playing against the intent and expectations of the developer. Whatever. It can be done, is what I’m saying.
The other thing the game has going for it is that it breaks away from the tyranny of level-restricted gear that’s plagued numbers-driven RPGs since the beginning. You’ll never see a piece of equipment and think “Oh, this looks cool. Too bad I can’t equip it for three more levels.” Aside from some perfectly reasonable class restrictionsObviously my kung-fu guy can’t use a wizard staff to cast spells., anyone can wear anything.
This means you don’t have the usual continuous turnover of gear, where your outfit changes every 20 minutes because you keep finding new gear with very slightly higher numbers on it. I took my witch all the way from level 1 to 50 without ever needing to change gear.
Instead of dropping new gear, the loot in the game is based around upgrades for that gear. You find gems that impart bonuses and you put the gems into slots. You find upgrade stones that have a random chance to boost the numbers a bit. I like this because it means if you find a look that you really like, you can take that outfit and turn it into epic gear through upgrades.
The process is dense and poorly documented, but it’s there.
So What’s The Problem?
So here we have a gorgeous world with lots of customization options, an interesting hook for your character, and combat that surpasses anything that’s come before in the MMO space. This game should be my MMO for life. I’ve leveled three characters into their 40s and I’ve loved all of them. There are still 13 more classes for me to try, and hundreds of little details and sidequests I haven’t explored.
So where did it all go wrong, and why did I stop playing? What could the developer do to persuade me to quit when I’m having this much fun?
The complaining begins next week.
 The face designer is so robust I suspect you could fix this by moving the features around. The game allows you to put age lines on your face if you want to be old, although I was never able to get it to look right. My attempts to make a grizzled old war vet always looked like a young man wearing old-person makeup.
 Er, not “free” as such. I mean, the game still costs money up front.
 Rubberbanding is when you (or another player) move some distance in the game before the server realizes that where IT thinks you are and where YOU think you are do not agree. So you are snapped back to where you “should” be, like a rubber band snapping closed after being stretched too far.
 Or WOULD, if it was balanced properly. But we’ll talk about the leveling problems next week.
 I’m not into literature myself, but I guess a lot of this stuff can be traced back to Dante’s Inferno and Paradise Lost?
 I’ll talk about the English vocal performances next week.
 Actually they do, but on an individual level. Culture-wide, young attractive faces are always an easy sell.
 Obviously my kung-fu guy can’t use a wizard staff to cast spells.
Game at the Bottom
Why spend millions on visuals that are just a distraction from the REAL game of hotbar-watching?
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
A video discussing Megatexture technology. Why we needed it, what it was supposed to do, and why it maybe didn't totally work.