Black Desert Online is Pearl Abyss’s buy-to-play action MMO, most well-known for its robust character creation system. The game has beautiful graphics, a detailed trading system, action combat with an emphasis on combos, and a great, customizable, housing system. The game has a lot to offer, but a large number of people simply stopped playing a couple months in.
Launching in March 2016, Black Desert Online was fairly popular, with most servers reaching high population every day for a nice amount of time. There were daily competitions between players to see who would appear on the leaderboards for certain crafting disciplines, and who would get the coveted icon by their name, indicating that they were in the top 5 of their chosen craft. However, by November, the population dwindled enough for the company to merge the servers into a single Megaserver with separate channels.
Something about Black Desert simply couldn’t hold people’s attention. The main complaints were attached to the leveling system. The grind from level 1 to the soft cap of 50 took a very long time, and most of that was pure farming, without even a quest to keep you occupied. Leveling past 50 was the ultimate end-game goal, but that took a while, and most casual players resigned themselves to their own personal hard cap, as the leveling areas beyond that were incredibly competitive, with high-ranking guilds completely taking over and killing anyone who approached, turning their small amount of time dedicated to leveling into a battle against players with a lot more time on their hands.
Armor and weapons for endgame PvP were incredibly hard to get, and relied on luck. The best equipment was dropped off of world bosses that had no tells for their large, sweeping attacks, making players of melee classes basically useless, as they’d constantly die and lose out on loot at the end of the fight. Loot tables for these fights were affected by whoever did the most damage, just increasing the divide between the people in powerful guilds and those trying to keep up. When that wasn’t fixed, people started to leave, as progression seemed like a pipe dream. This led to many videos, and even articles from larger MMO websites, of people explaining why they were dumping the game.
The final shoe truly dropped when Valencia released. The Valencia expansion opened up the titular area of the game, the desert- a large swath of dangerous waste that was best traversed by camel. Players that had been avoiding leveling past the cap were essentially unable to set foot in this land, because Pearl Abyss had made a last minute change- camels were now awarded through a quest line that could be obtained at level 55. Attempting to move across the desert, an area in which you do not show up on the map, has a chance to give your character heatstroke during the day, and hypothermia at night, resulting in a constant loss of health unless you got to safety. Without the proper mount and equipment, exploration was a fool’s errand, and created an entire new continent that many couldn’t enter.
The focus on hardcore players upset people, and obviously gamers wanted to enjoy content and explore without taking weeks to be able to survive in those areas. The divide between casual and hardcore was a simple matter of who had more free time, not who was willing to do difficult content.
Normally, when an MMO loses so many players, that’s the end. World of Warcraft and Blizzard can jump rope with their subscriber numbers because of its overwhelming popularity and enough funding and staff to quickly fix glaring issues. Meanwhile, able to absorb the financial hit, Square Enix completely rebuilt and relaunched Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn after the disastrous response to the original Final Fantasy XIV two years before. But what can smaller games do?
Working with what they had, Black Desert did the unthinkable. Turning on their heels to listen to players, Pearl Abyss offered incentive to actually play, even if you weren’t in the top percent, and began patching changes into the live game as soon as possible.
Over the course of several months of patches, the experience from killing monsters was slowly changed, and their drops increased. Leveling from 1-50 no longer took a month, but days. Pearl Abyss raised the soft level cap from 50 to 56, which still took a couple days to reach if you didn’t have much free time, but opened up the game much more. With most of the areas now available to most players, the new world bosses would get attention, and more interesting and powerful gear would soon pop up on the marketplace.
Black Desert Online even released several log-in rewards to incentivise players to check out new content. The issue with returning to games is the horrible feeling of catching up to those that didn’t quit when you did, and Pearl Abyss did a good job of relieving that stress.
In the 30 minutes players waited to get your free items, they could use their free daily grinding hour to level up, giving them 200% experience, and taking a bit of the boring time-wasting out of the process. The rewards themselves made getting back into the game easier, as they dumped money on you, letting you buy new gear, or horses, or whatever you cared about when you played before. With the large ocean expansion, Margoria, having just released, new ‘Awakening’ weapons that change up your old class, and a new class around the corner, returning players have a lot to look forward to.
The community has started filling out more since these changes, with the game’s publisher, Kakao, even taking on new staff to handle what they expect to be a bit of a boost with the release the the new class, the Dark Knight. The more popular farming areas have people partying up again, and you’ll occasionally even overhear some roleplay as you ride through Heidel City to craft.
MMOs can learn a lot from Black Desert’s year on the English-speaking market. In the genre as a whole, it isn’t rare to see people say “The game gets good at [blank],” as if the beginning of a game is just a hurdle to get over to reach the fun parts. Increasing experience gain at lower levels may not make the game more fun at that point, but leveling can act as a sense of achievement. If you get to the difficult part of a game faster, it doesn’t really undermine the achievement of reaching it, it just cuts out the boring grind.
Players shouldn’t feel pressured to force themselves to the highest possible level to enjoy new content as it comes out. Simply offering new things to the top 30% of levels can cut down on anxiety for players. Instead of, “I need to spend weeks to see this new content,” you get “I should level a little so I can explore this new stuff!”
A year is a short time to completely turn a game around, so Black Desert makes a wonderful example of what a game can do to improve. As we approach the first anniversary of this weird game, it’s important to take into account the work and patience that went into making it the best it could be for all kinds of players.