Box! ['MMOG Nation' is a new regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the addition of the Drow race to Dungeons and Dragons Online.]

Adding content to a Massively Multiplayer title is par for the course. Ongoing storylines, additional zones, new classes, and new gameplay elements are all standard additions to make sure users feel as though they're getting their money's worth. New character races are also a fairly common addition. They tend to coincide with expansions, and often show off new technical capabilities of the game's engine. Everquest 2 is getting the 'Fey' in its upcoming Faydark expansion, World of Warcraft is debuting two new races with the 'Burning Crusade' expansion, and even Ultima Online eventually added an additional player race to the primarily human world.

At the end of June Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) added a new player race, too, but it's not an expansion tie-in. It's a poorly thought-out freebie given to players who accrue faction with some of the in-game organizations. It's also not just a new race; it's pandering to the sordid id of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) players everywhere. The release of the Drow race ties directly into the poorly considered backstory of DDO, and is just one of many signs that Turbine just doesn't get it. Today I'm going to talk about who the Drow are, where they fit into D&D and DDO, why Turbine has squandered a great campaign setting, and why this bodes ill for the future of Massive games.

(Click through to read the full, inaugural column from Mr. Zenke!)

Nerd Raaaaage!

To begin with, some context for my nerd rage. The new player race is the Drow, the darkly tinted elves who in many D&D settings reside underground in subterranean caverns collectively referred to as the Underdark. They worship a dark goddess (formerly a demon queen) named Llolth, like long walks in the dark with spiders, and generally enjoy being nasty baddies that table-top players love to hate. Their society is based around matriarchal feuding houses and a deep religious fervor for their goddess. Because of the female-focused nature of their society, male Drow tend to get the fuzzy end of the lollypop. One such 'disadvantaged' Drow, though, has become a fantasy icon and I believe is the ultimate reason why the Drow have ended up in DDO.

Drizzt Do'Urden The Forgotten Realms fantasy series now known collectively as 'The Legend of Drizzt' tells the tale of Drizzt Do'Urden, Drow ranger and nice guy among jerks. A soft-spoken and caring character penned by R.A. Salvatore, the scimitar-weilding dark elf has been a fan favorite since his first appearance in 1988's The Crystal Shard.

'Favorite' may be an understatement, as the fanboi-ism surrounding this (admittedly compelling) character borders on the disturbing. If you've even been playing a MMOG and noticed a character walking around with a name like Drizzzt or Drizzit or Drzzzit, this character is the origin of that unpronounceable mish-mash. Dual-weilding swords and acting as if the weight of the world were on their shoulders, these "roleplayers" are the worst kind of drama queens. Endless retellings of their character's backstory, and constant references to important characters in the Forgotten Realms setting make them almost unbearable to talk to; they make all of us upstanding nerds look bad.

Old Drow? New Drow!

In contrast, the Drow of Eberron (DDO's Campaign Setting) are a primitive race living in the jungles of Xen'drik. Living simply hundreds of years after their rebellion freed the elven races from enslavement to a society of giants, the Drow of DDO aren't necessarily evil ... but are still generally bogie men. Adventure parties traveling to the continent's interior do not want to meet them in the dark. Their inclusion into Dungeons and Dragons Online as a playable race is couched in phrases like 'allied with foreign-borne heroes' and 'gain the approval of the Drow tribes'. In order to unlock the Drow as a playable race, a player must first gain the favour of a number of organizations in the game's town of Stormreach. Only after a player has successfully ground a large amount of favour out of the town's patrons will they be able to create a Drow character.

My frustration with the inclusion of Drow into the game is thus threefold. Firstly the Drow, as civilization-hating xenophobes, are not a group you'd think would line up outside the gates of Stormreach to aid in the defense of the town. Worshipers of a scorpion-god named Vulkoor, they don't seem like the type that would get very worried when some fool adventurers get themselves killed robbing tombs. Their appearance, attitude, and even clothing in the game seems wildly out of step with their established role in the campaign setting. Secondly, the mechanism used to unlock the race is out and out boring. I find grinds of any kind a frustration nowadays; whether it's from cynicism or boredom I just won't sit still for a pointless grind anymore. WoW and Everquest II have proven you can have a long and enjoyable run up to max level without ever feeling like you're grinding. Titles that do less are frustrations to be avoided.

Thirdly, I view their inclusion not as a benefit to existing players, but as an obvious pandering move to attract new players. The 'dippy Drow' contingent out there is very strong. As Drizzt's Wikipedia article states, 'His popularity reaches beyond the D&D gaming community, appealing to a wide range of fantasy and science fiction fans.' Harnessing the popularity of R.A. Salvatore's character to work as a marketing engine if pure brilliance on Turbine's part; that doesn't mean I have to like it. Attracting shoulder-dragon wearing, henna-tattoo tracing gamer hippies is an admirable goal only if you're in a marketing department. The rest of us, I can assure you, want as little exposure to them as possible.

Petty? Moi?

DDO DrowThese may seem like petty concerns, and they are. If Wizards of the Coast ok'd the use of the Drow as a playable race in DDO, I'm not really in any position to argue. What this indicates to me, in the bigger picture, is Turbine's willingness to skirt the edges of canon for profit. Most dyed-in-the-wool D&D players, especially Eberron fans, have numerous complaints about the 'feel' of DDO. While it's got a lot of interesting elements to it, in many ways DDO feels nothing like Dungeons and Dragons. It only really gets the Eberron feel across through the occasional flavour text or world element; the use of the relatively unknown continent of Xen'drik removes the player from all the familiar elements of the campaign setting as it is laid out in the published books. 'Fine,' you may be saying, 'who cares if a few D&D nerds are disappointed?' True, D&D nerds are a minority in American culture ... but how many people saw the Lord of the Rings films?

The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is Turbine's other big project right now. Pushed back, endlessly delayed, and with precious few tidbits of information available, reaction from the MMOG community thus far has been a resounding 'meh'. Looking beyond the cynics, though, this title should be a barnburner of a title. Hung around its shoulders is the single most important, well known fantasy license you could ever hope to get your hands on. Translating the adventures of Frodo and Co. into a workable gamespace would be a challenge for anyone, given the pressures of the license. What's unnerving to me is that, with an already proven track record of abandoning the 'feel' of a setting when it becomes inconvenient, how much of Middle Earth will we recognize in LOTR Online?

You Smell Of Catass!

World of Warcraft has done phenomenally well, no doubt about it, but the massive genre is still not a well-understoood part of American society. The reputation for smelling of catass still haunts those who regularly brave persistent online spaces, be they trolls, superheroes, space pilots, or pirates. A highly successful Lord of the Rings game would go a long way towards bridging the gap between MMOG players and the general public. Being able to show your Aragorn-loving Mom what Middle Earth looks like from the inside would be a powerful experience; a flop of a game using the LOTR license could actually reverse some of the understanding that titles like WoW have managed to garner for the genre.

The shadow of the Drow, then, falls across everyone who hopes to see more people playing Massive games. Turbine was given an amazing opportunity with the Dungeons and Dragons license; the opinion from many sides is that they've squandered the chance to draw pen-and-paper players more fully into the MMOG fold. Their next big title could reach out and touch every person to see the trio of Peter Jackson films; the possibility exists that LOTR Online could go for WoW-like numbers if all the stars align. Despite that promise, I just don't see that happening. LOTR looks to be just another ho-hum fantasy knockoff. Turbine's use of the D&D and LOTR licenses is a cautionary tale for every company looking to develop a massive title, and yet another disappointment for players who just want more ways to have fun.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]