Black Desert’s Beauty Could be More Than Skin Deep

We’ve been peering at Korean MMORPG Black Desert Online [official site] with some interest since plans for a western release were announced in 2014. We’ve cooed at trailers, pondered the combat system and applauded the character creation tools. To learn more, we sent Agent Messner into the fray and he returned with exciting news. Could this be the MMO for those of us who are weary of the genre’s formulaic structure?

I am bored to death of MMORPGs. Not their potential mind you, but the execution. The seemingly endless chains of quests, the sole focus on murdering everything that doesn’t give you a quest (and some things that do), and, perhaps most of all, the way developers think that shoving more quests into the meat grinder is the solution to prolonging a game’s lifespan.

This is exactly what I was expecting to see when I sat down and hesitantly logged into Black Desert Online for the first time. Here we go again, I thought. But within my first hour of playing, Black Desert Online revealed that it was more than just a pretty face (and some not-so pretty faces). It made me feel something that I haven’t felt while playing an MMORPG in a very long time: I felt lost. The good kind of lost.

If you were to take most of the bigger MMORPG releases of recent years and cut them open what you’d find is that, despite how their skins might differ, they all possess the same bones. Structurally, the genre hasn’t changed much since World of Warcraft. And as the language of MMOs—terms like ‘dungeons’ and ‘raids’—becomes less of an magical concept and more of a retreaded staple, all the joy of discovery is slowly drying up.

Black Desert Online — which should be arriving some time in March — doesn’t invent a whole new language for the genre, but it does add a new lexicon of ideas that have, for me at least, made the conversation around MMORPGs interesting again. Playing this game feels like exploring an unfamiliar room with the lights out. I’m not immediately aware of where the walls are, and bumping around in the dark when I’m used to knowing all the fixtures of a room feels so damn refreshing.

Despite that sense of being in a dark room, you’ll still be wrapped up in the most basic RPG concepts like leveling up, managing gear, killing monsters and completing quests. You might not know where the furniture is but you’ll know what kind of furniture it is when you stumble across it. Black Desert uses all of those familiar features as a foundation to explore more interesting ideas that its more statistic and progression driven peers rarely visit. And where Black Desert steers close to tradition, there always seems to be an effort made to introduce some wrinkle to the formula that you might not have expected.

A great example of this is the knowledge system, which acts as a repository for all the lore, characters, places, and interesting little tidbits you discover on your adventures. Knowledge isn’t just for those of you who like to read every little detail, either. Its snakes its way into all sorts of cracks in the game, influencing certain systems in a manner that feels satisfying and cohesive.

Just about every non-player character in the game has some opinion of you that you can influence by engaging them in conversation using the tidbits of knowledge you’ve picked up on your journeys. But not every character will care about what you have to say, so finding the right topics of interest is a hunt in itself.

That particular mini-game can be confusing — a problem made worse by Black Desert Online’s unwillingness to explain how everything works — but once you understand its quirks it can be a fun distraction, running around town trying to win everyone’s affections. It’s not nearly as silly as The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion’s conversation system, where you’d take turns insulting and complimenting a character in rapid succession until they’re likely so confused they submit and spill all their sweet secrets just to get the whole awkward affair over with.

Instead, each round of the game has a different objective that you must achieve by deploying your topics of knowledge in a specific order. There’s an element of random chance that can make the whole affair feel more like a card game, what with each topic having its own stats that impact your overall chance of success. If you succeed, you can double down and make the character like you even more, but if you fail to grab their interest with your conversational arts they’ll lose any affinity they had gathered for you during that conversation.

What I really enjoy is that the point of all of this is that characters in Black Desert aren’t always willing to spill all their secrets to you just because you’re the hero, and they feel far more fleshed out than the window dressing NPCs you’ll see in other games. Many of the quests in the game can only be unlocked once you’ve earned the respect of the quest giver. Beyond that, characters might also have their own knowledge to share, a unique special item they’d be willing to loan you, or might even allow you to purchase rare goods once they like you enough.

Knowledge also seeps into how much energy you have, which is a slowly replenishing resource you expend on certain tasks like crafting, stealing from NPCs (yes, you can do that), and a whole host of other things. Don’t worry, this isn’t like Archeage’s ‘labor points’, which were a way to limit how much a free-to-play player could accomplish in a given amount of time. As it stands, energy isn’t tied to any financial model and it expands rapidly as you acquire more knowledge.

It’s an interesting relationship that gives extra energy for completionists who manage to hunt down all the possible knowledge on a given topic. The game will even provide some clues as to where you should look, as certain things can be a little easy to miss, like letters left on tables or characters who are tucked away and out of sight.

When I arrive in a new town, my first mission is always to walk around and talk to every character (thus unlocking their specific topic of knowledge). It ends up being aa fun and productive way to learn who’s who while also picking up any immediately available quests and learning the locations of any persons of interest who I might need to come back to later.

By far the biggest reason why Black Desert Online has managed to keep attention has to do with how obsessed the game seems with creating a convincing world to exist in. While I understand the benefit of mainstay MMORPG features such as fast travel and matchmade dungeon groups, all of that casual-ization for the sake of convenience has butchered the sense of wonder and atmosphere that older MMORPGs have in spades.

Too much convenience can shatter any sense of investment in your virtual life. There’s no real sense of being in a place when you can pop open a window and warp to a dungeon you’ve completed dozens of times with a group of random players you’re rarely encouraged to interact with. In a way, MMORPGs are terrible at defying the internal logic of their own worlds. You rarely feel like a virtual citizen, just a dungeon-running sweatshop worker doomed to always chase that next piece of better equipment.

While I’m still too early into Black Desert Online to judge it conclusively, I have a feeling that it is going to be one of the more convincing online worlds of recent memory. There’s so much attention paid to making everything feel logical and cohesive, even in small details like the fact that the horse you ride doesn’t magically vanish when you dismount. If you’re going to take a horse out of your stable, you’ll need to bring it back when you’re done with it. If you hop off and abandon it in the woods and never return to reclaim it, it risks becoming injured and you’ll be forced to pay those costly medical bills.

I love playing an MMO that isn’t always trying to push me to forward but rather allows me to breathe, soak in the ambiance, and go at my own pace without feeling like I’m missing out. It’s the first time in a long while that I haven’t been paranoid about how slowly I’m levelling. I’m more than happy to just play the game and enjoy it. In that way, Black Desert Online feels more like a single-player RPG than an MMORPG. And yes, that’s a compliment.

Of course, eventually everything new and exciting about Black Desert will inevitably become routine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of its ideas gobbled up by future MMORPGs to become their own tropes either. But what I can say is that Black Desert might be the MMORPG for people like me who are dead tired of the same old song and dance. I don’t think it will be the next big evolution that it bills itself as, but I do think that it’s poised to finally bring some much needed water to a genre dying of thirst.

Black Desert Online launches in March. You can apply to be part of the latest beta right now.

49 Comments

  1. TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

    The russian version can already be tried for free for anyone interested, it’s sort of badly english patched but decent enough, it’s just a quick google+VPN away.

    The article here focus on NPC interaction mostly, but the rest of the game is about horizontal progression: being a trade baron, owning “production nodes”, controlling a city, having your own workers, being in the most successfull guild when it comes to exploiting the world, this sort of stuff.

    There’s almost no PvE content though, as this is 90% based on guild wars, castle sieges, “node wars” and just making your own mark in the world. There is also no fast travel and no way to link your warehouses around the world; this is intentional and it gives meaning to what would otherwise be trivial, but it’s hard to explain before someone gets a better idea of all the mechanics at play.

    For that, this series of videos goes through pretty much everything that’s useful to know.

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      Oh and, fair warning: the russian version is free but it’s also a serious P2W hell.

      The upcoming western version is nothing like that but it’s going to be B2P.

      • caff says:

        It all looks utterly hellish, from those videos.

        • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

          As in a clusterfuck of mechanics or an art design you don’t like? I can imagine the latter is not going to resonate well with some.

    • malkav11 says:

      The knowledge system sounded intriguing but if the focus of the game is open world PvP, then really it’s pretty much just the other sort of MMO everyone keeps trying to make – the sandbox PvP heartbreaker. And while neither is intensely original, I have some hope of enjoying a WoW-esque themepark MMO with a few innovations and a potentially cool new setting and no hope whatsoever of enjoying any sort of PvP.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        More about structure rather than anything else though, as random player killing is heavily discouraged by a quite severe karma system.

        I’m actually hesitant myself, i too prefer PvE content and i don’t think some content based theme park is necessarily evil as long as the side serving is fresh and well thought out, but i’m willing to give this one a try even if it’s not my ballpark on a superficial level.

        No big fan of the PK mentality and the inevitable forum drama and personal attacks, but the well structured guild wars system there might actually turn me back into a PvPer, who knows.

        Ultimately it’s a natural fit of the rest of the mechanics, you’re there to make an impact in the world and guild play is encouraged, as you even get various boosts and a salary. The latter is off course higher if the guild has more disposable income, and that’s for example controlling a city, setting taxes and so on.

      • Premium User Badge

        Styxie says:

        That’s a fairly accurate summary of what I wanted from EverQuest Next.

    • hawken.grey says:

      I think that it’s worth saying that the “no PvE” thing is a matter of perspective. I would say that there is not the usual PvE instead. As a primarily PvE player, I played the Korean version for several months with a few max level characters. There are hundreds of hours of PvE gameplay to be had, but it’s just not in the form of WoW style PvE. Still, it is focused around character progression.

      On the PvE side, there are open world raid-style bosses. There are houses to be aquired and owned, a trade empire to set up, horses to be caught, bred, and trained. There are workers to aquire, exploration nodes to capture, fishing boats to build, and just generally a ton to do.

      That all said, it’s a great game, and I quite enjoyed playing it for the time that I did, but I would like to see some instanced dungeons added. I think this would really fill out the PvE side of the game for me. There’s much debate though in the community about how to handle this though.

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      Harlander says:

      I was pretty interested in this after the article, so I started watching those videos.

      “Once you’ve finished the tutorial, the best way to level up is to grind. Just grind and grind and grind.”

      Uuggghhhh.

      People don’t call their work “the daily grind” because it’s super fun and fulfilling, damnit.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        Well, it’s not exactly like that. The video mostly points out that it’s a very effective tactic, and it makes sense if you want to powerlevel.

        You’re going to need to know how to AoE grind though, it requires some experience and skill. I don’t see it as a bad thing honestly, if you know how to kill the most stuff in the least amount of time you should be somewhat rewarded for it i’d say.

        • Premium User Badge

          Harlander says:

          I don’t know if I’m having some trouble because “grind” maps internally to a different concept than people who talk about MMOs are using.

          To me, it describes repeated, tedious activity. If it’s repeated but still interesting, it’s not grind.

      • Chillicothe says:

        “By far the biggest reason why Black Desert Online has managed to keep attention has to do with how obsessed the game seems with creating a convincing world to exist in. While I understand the benefit of mainstay MMORPG features such as fast travel and matchmade dungeon groups, all of that casual-ization for the sake of convenience has butchered the sense of wonder and atmosphere that older MMORPGs have in spades.

        Too much convenience can shatter any sense of investment in your virtual life. There’s no real sense of being in a place when you can pop open a window and warp to a dungeon you’ve completed dozens of times with a group of random players you’re rarely encouraged to interact with. In a way, MMORPGs are terrible at defying the internal logic of their own worlds. You rarely feel like a virtual citizen, just a dungeon-running sweatshop worker doomed to always chase that next piece of better equipment.”

        Witness. However, it in and of itself is not a guarentee a fun time cuz that KMMO Grinder basis. Thing is, you can’t go with some solid questing AND some grind as people would freak that the stuff that’s given out for falling back-assward into endgame is now behind work/grind/skill walls.

        So people continue to make McDonalds Ballpit MMOs with a hyper-skill intensive cherry on top that fail at player retention, while pointing at ones like Wildstar that try and fail to keep retention as what not to do to keep player…retention…err…

  2. Rizlar says:

    By far the biggest reason why Black Desert Online has managed to keep attention has to do with how obsessed the game seems with creating a convincing world to exist in.

    This is what I want from an MMO! One to keep an eye on, it seems.

    • kalzekdor says:

      Yeah, a convincing world is why I would be playing an MMO, and not some multiplayer ARPG like Path of Exile. I want to be immersed in the world, to feel like a citizen discovering a strange living world.

      I recently picked up a copy of FFXIV in a bundle, and tried it out during the trial period. I used to play FFXI back in high school, and I really liked that game. One of the main differences that stuck out at me about FFXIV was that it felt more like a game, while FFXI felt more like a window into another world.

      It’s exemplified best by the Airship that will let you travel between the major cities. In FFXIV, the Airship is just a fancy teleport. You walk in, it’s there waiting for you, a short (skippable) cutscene plays, and you’re in another city. In FFXI, there were actual transit schedules as the Airships made their rounds. You might have to wait 5 minutes for the next ship to arrive. Then spend 10 minutes on board the Airship, perhaps chatting with the other players on board. If you were in a field when an Airship passes over, you can look up to see it pass overhead on its way to its destination. It may not have been as convenient as a magic transport box, but it sure as hell lent a bit of substance to the world.

  3. GemFire81 says:

    This looks really good but when it comes to MMORPGs I have been deceived MANY times. Totally agree with being bored with mmos, they have taken a horrible turn. Removing different Roles so all there is , is DPS that try to self heal with no tank – HORRIBLE. Literally nothing special at all in any of the new mmos. Collect 8 quests in town, go out of town and slaughter everything without even taking hardly any damage, go turn in 8 quests and get 8 more. This is all just wrong and has completely destroyed MMORPGs. They should rename these games to CMMO for Casual MMO since they are not really RPGs at all and barely even an MMO since no one even talks.

  4. Askis says:

    So it looks pretty, sounds intriguing, has a character creator I could probably spend hours in, but what kind of monetization are we looking at here?

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      B2P with some microtransactions for cosmetic stuff/convenience, that’s for the western release only. You’re also unable to resell those thing for in game money, which is somehow a divisive decision but something that they’ll probably stick to.

      Money is a big deal here because the enchanting system is still very-much-korean. It’s getting tweaked to “western tastes” but we don’t know how much, thing is it makes a lot of difference and making money off microtransactions in other versions is considered a mild form of P2W as it dramatically alleviates the extremely punishing randomness of it.

      • Rhodokasaurus says:

        It’s interesting how some cultures see “pay money for an unfair advantage” and think that sounds just fine. I wonder what’s inherently different about us as a people.

      • Askis says:

        Ah yes, looked at the proper official site now, since Lucky Fennec linked it below, pre-orders start at 30€, so I guess that’ll be the base price on release as well.
        I just hope they’ll let people try the game after the Beta phases, a non-F2P MMO might keep players away if they can’t see if they like it first…

  5. montorsi says:

    Korean MMO. Look, we’ve been here before.

  6. Jabberslops says:

    Well that is disappointing… I was interested in this game and considering signing up for the Beta, until I watched video of the combat and realized it was more of the same Korean/Japanese style “Fast pause” combat, where the animations are fast and then pause at every hit or contact. I prefer smooth and “fluid” combat animations. The only only game I could tolerate that type of combat was Phantasy Star Online on my Dreamcast.

    • DigitalSignalX says:

      Try Blade and Soul. The combat is amazing, like a refinement of Tera and Invictus. It’s full of all the other MMO tropes you either love or hate, but you can simply ignore it and play it as an online spectacle fighter.

      • Glokta says:

        Blade and Soul combat is almost exactly the same as Tera’s. Perhaps a little faster and more reliant on blocking or countering, but they feel basically the same. I wouldn’t even really call those two real action combat MMOs. There are dodges and i frames but it’s more a game of managing cooldowns. By “Invictus” I’m assuming you mean Vindictus. Vindictus’ combat is leaps and bounds ahead of both B+S and Tera as far as action goes. It’s smoother, all about positioning, and has very little hotbar skill activation. It feels more like Devil May Cry the MMO than any other of the so-called Action MMORPGS. The big difference is that it has a dodge with i frames for every chAracter (though I haven’t played since Hurk was released.) It’s dungeon/instance based so some people don’t like that, but the gameplay just hasn’t been matched by other MMOs yet. Genuinely surprised more don’t try to rip it off.

        The big problems with it are optimization, horrid grind, and very Korean upgrading systems. Getting higher level gear is just maddening. If you want to make it yourself be prepared to gamble because at higher reinforcement levels there’s a pretty good chance your weapon will break and you’ll be left with nothing. And you’ll need better gear to get through the raid content, which is the most fun part of the game.

        There’s lots wrong with Vindictus, but anyone saying another MMO has better action gameplay is just wrong.

  7. malkav11 says:

    The knowledge stuff sounds a bit like the diplomacy system from not-particularly-lamented Sony MMO Vanguard. I have no direct experience with either so I’m not sure if it’s an accurate comparison, but that’s what it sounds like.

    • rexx.sabotage says:

      Vanguard’s diplomacy was actually in fact a card game.

  8. Lucky Fennec says:

    The ‘official site’ link in the opening paragraph of this article actually points to a Black Desert fansite (black-desert.com), not the official game’s website (blackdesertonline.com).

    Might need a link correction here!

  9. MisterFurious says:

    “Structurally, the genre hasn’t changed much since World of Warcraft”

    You mean EverQuest. EverQuest established the formula and World of BoreCraft, and everything else just copied it.

    • malkav11 says:

      There are dramatic differences in the core structure of WoW’s design compared to Everquest’s. Insofar as Everquest popularized a certain type of large shared world full of repetitively killing the same enemies over and over (it certainly didn’t originate them – that would be early DikuMUD(s)), it was definitely one of WoW’s primary influences and the most popular MMO before 2004. But it was about just that – finding a group of enemies with a decent experience rate and camping them with a group to farm experience until they stopped paying out and it was time to move on. WoW shifted the fundamental progression archetype to that of being funneled through a variety of zones via interlinked narrative questing, with just randomly killing enemies having very limited payoff. And heavily de-emphasized the need to group to progress. And sanded off a whole lot of player-hostile game design. And made an intensely customizable UI. And so on and so forth. WoW was a sea-change for the MMO genre. Everything since has been very much either following closely in its footsteps or aiming at sandbox PvP.

      • Premium User Badge

        Aerothorn says:

        Malkav is absolutely right. Raph Koster writes more about this at link to raphkoster.com

      • Sleepery says:

        But he used a clever and original play on words to illustrate his point! I’d have gone with World of Snorecraft though. That would have totally won the internet.

  10. racccoon says:

    Black Desert is a very much needed game.
    The current games are just running on as old empty gas tank, they keep filling it up, but its got a hole in it. lol

  11. Xzi says:

    Classes are gender-locked. Disappointing given how much customization can be done with the character creator otherwise. The game itself definitely sounds appealing, especially since they decided to make the right choice in payment model for the NA release.

  12. lagiacrux says:

    agreed.

    blade and soul is probably the best combat in any mmo i’ve seen. getting close to maxlvl currently on my assassin and i’ve spent almost as much time in the arena as in the field leveling.

  13. NephilimNexus says:

    Wake me when a Korean MMO lets me make a believable looking black character.

    • Crane says:

      Around about when a Nigerian MMO lets you make a convincing looking Korean character, I guess.

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      Jerodar says:

      At least they added more options for skintones in the NA/EU version: link to imgur.com

    • Smoof says:

      I’ll take normal looking women, please.

      I can’t play a game where I’ll be embarrassed to be looking at screenshots.

      • Distec says:

        Well, there’s a character creator. So go ahead and make what you want to see… I guess?

    • ZestFully_Clean says:

      Managed to pull off a decent black sorceress in the KR version but it took “Way too much” effort to do so and dark skin tones are completly missing. NA options have been much better from what I seen of the standalone character created.

  14. Foosnark says:

    The article and comments are making me less interested in the game actually. Which makes me realize, I like so-called “theme park” MMOs, as long as there’s no forced grouping and there are servers without open PVP.

    What I want is a cyberpunk, PVE-centric, soloable game somewhere Guild Wars 2 and Champions Online. And Diablo, I guess. And the good bits of Hellgate London. Hmm.

    • Distec says:

      I have room in my life for both “serious” MMOs and theme parks.

      I just find that – with a few exceptions – I’m not really willing to pay money for the latter any more. I’ve spent enough of my time solo grinding in the well-ploughed fields of Azeroth and found it pleasant enough, but I kinda want enforced group play if the “MMO” part of this thing is going to make any sense.

      I’ll still boot up F2P theme parks to knock out content in fits and starts. Games like SWTOR are a bit like comfort food in that I know I’ll steadily make progress on my own and I won’t be forced to cooperate or deal with randos/jerkbags. But there’s little staying power and, of course, they don’t cost me anything.

  15. qsg35738 says:

    hy

  16. Gibs says:

    Alright… I guess I’ll give it a try when it comes out.

  17. KingSnorky says:

    By far the biggest reason why Black Desert Online has managed to keep attention has to do with how obsessed the game seems with creating a convincing world to exist in.

    I believed you until we got to the screenshot three paragraphs later of the mutant balloon-headed man.

  18. Atrak says:

    Hmm Black Desert sounds interesting, but I think i’ll just keep waiting for Chronicles of Elyria. Reading it’s developer diaries actually give me hope that it will be something unique and interesting of course only time and it’s release will truly tell.

    link to chroniclesofelyria.com

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      Harlander says:

      Oh man.

      I can tell already that that game’s gonna break my heart.

  19. JuergenDurden says:

    i just wanna point out that the lady in the top pic looks like a strawberry

  20. The One True Nobody says:

    “I love playing an MMO that isn’t always trying to push me to forward but rather allows me to breathe, soak in the ambiance, and go at my own pace without feeling like I’m missing out.”

    It’s not the game that doesn’t let you. It’s the players.

  21. Fiddlestickz says:

    So it’s basically a second fulltimejob for the sake of immersion, no thanks.