Desert Oasis: Reframing player perceptions of Pearl Abyss’ MMO Black Desert

    
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Hello and welcome to our revival of the Black Desert column! The Desert Nomad decided it was time to reroll for the new meta, and it’s back, better than ever at the Desert Oasis! I’m Carlo, the MOP commenter formally known as Arsin Halfmoon, and I’ll be your desert guide as we dive back into this beautiful MMO.

As we re-enter the ancient Black Desert, we’ll attempt to reframe the game’s reputation into something with a little more complexity and depth. There’s more to this title than just another grindy Korean game. But before we do that, we’ve got to address the elephant in the desert: the fact that the game has pay-to-win aspects and has historically had mixed reviews.


So why would you play an MMO with mixed reviews?

Yes, Black Desert is a divisive game. It sits on Steam with a review score of “mixed.” And as far back as I remember, it’s always been mixed. Reviews of the game run the entire gamut. There are folks who see its business model as an egregious violation of our rights as consumers. But just as many people praise the game’s flexibility to fit well in their busy lives. Honestly, I prefer it this way. To a casual consumer, yes, it’s a risk to invest so much time in a title with that review score. It just makes sense to opt for something like Final Fantasy XIV because it’s such a fun game. (Although it’s worth noting that as of this writing, Final Fantasy XIV’s recent reviews are also mixed because players are warning potential buyers not to buy the Steam version.)

But Massively OP readers are more sophisticated than that. We tend to see past the misleading veil of a mixed review and give games a chance. And this game really does deserve a chance.

But isn’t this game pay-to-win?

Yes, the game is pay-to-win. I will plant my flag there and yell “spot taken.” That became especially obvious when Kakao granted players the ability to break down cash shop outfits into cron stones – items that prevented gear from downgrading upon a failed enchant attempt.

From a business perspective, it makes sense to do this; it gives outfits two incentives to purchase. The first is for the aesthetic, which would ideally justify the first purchase. The second is practical: If a player does not want a particular outfit anymore, she has a way to get rid of it without being a complete waste, and players then have a reason to buy an outfit multiple times, ensuring a steady income for the game. If a player decides to take advantage of this system, it’s his choice.

I certainly find the game’s pay-to-win monetization strategy as a fair critique, but it’s not a fair critique to overly emphasize it, especially since there’s so much more to the game than just how it makes its money.

Yesterday, a player asked if there were any free outfits in BDO. I eagerly replied, “Yeah, it’s the Karlstein outfit. You can craft it with something you get from grinding.” I thought that was the end of discussion, but then someone piped up: “No, that ‘free outfit’ isn’t free. You need to grind for like 30 hours just to get the outfit.” The player went on argue that every system in the game is designed to get players to buy more things because the only other way to get it is through grinding.

And he is right: To get anything in this game requires grinding.

But that’s the problem with so much of the criticism for this game. People treat the grind as if it’s part of the problem rather than seeing it as one of the game’s most important and well-developed features. Instead, I believe the game’s systems are more focused on the grind than the pay-to-win, and that’s a good thing.

Yes, it’s all about that grind

A key component of the entire MMORPG genre is the grind, and because of that, we can choose our grind. Our favorite games have found innovative ways to differentiate that grind. There’s dailies like in World of Warcraft, dungeon runs in Final Fantasy XIV, and event farming in Guild Wars 2. Black Desert goes with the classic approach: kill monsters until you’re strong.

The reason people seem to get so irked about BDO’s grind; however, is how unapologetically transparent this grind is. In the games I mentioned, people know it’s a grind, but at least there’s exciting music, giant monsters, and a story behind it. But the BDO developers doubled down and literally filled a spot in the world with a bunch of respawning, loot-filled monsters. Players go to the spot, run in a (min-maxed) circle and kill monsters until they’re rich – or are killed by someone with huge fists. That’s just Black Desert Online.

But what makes it stand out is the amount of love that went into the grind. It’s a refined grind. Every combat related system around the game is built around it.

The reason people grind in any game is because it’s productive and we get a level of satisfaction from it. I’m going to abstain from calling it fun because not everyone sees it as fun, but it does satiate a certain progression need. Pearl Abyss knew very early on how much grind there would be in this game, so it invested a lot of time on its combat system, and that shows. It’s weighty, fluid, and simple. It’s got good flow, so it makes people want to take part in it for the grind. It’s solid, core gameplay that clearly lots of people find very enjoyable.

But that complexity of the grind isn’t just in the combat. This particular grind system has a great component of human interaction: PvP. I maintain that the open PvP system adds excitement to what could otherwise be a boring activity. Grinding can get monotonous, and sometimes that ninja stabbing you in the back makes for a good wake-up call.

And that’s where the genius of this game comes in. Every player interaction outside of town becomes meaningful. It becomes a set of decisions that at the end of the day ultimately affects the grind, your grind. This simple addition really adds a layer of depth that can’t be found in MMOs that force cooperation. Players have the power to choose what to do if someone rolls in on their turf. They can fend him off or talk their way out of it. There’s a surprising amount of depth in the mundane, day-to-day interactions in Black Desert. I’m sure I’ll go deeper into this in future editions of this column, but it all boils down to the inherent desire to defend one’s grind spot.

There’s so much to dig into when it comes to Black Desert. And I sincerely want people to appreciate the game’s complexity past its pay-to-win aspects. Love does go into this game, and those who choose to dig in and live in the gameworld can find authentic enjoyment. To attribute their enjoyment and investment in the game as nothing more than the product of a cynical attempt to get them to open their wallets doesn’t fly well with me, and as Massively OP’s writer for this column, I will go toe-to-toe with this misunderstanding.

So, do you agree or disagree? Please do let me know in the comments – I really want to hear what everyone has to say. It’s super valuable information, especially if you totally disagree with me!

The Great Valencian Black Desert is a dangerous place, but thankfully there’s always a chance for respite. Join Massively OP’s Carlo Lacsina every other week for just that in Desert Oasis, our Black Desert column! And don’t worry; he promises he won’t PK you. Got questions or comments? Please don’t hesitate to send a message!

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Wiseman0

Loved the article by the way, as well. People forget (or don’t know) that grinding existed even on subbed games before cash shops… They have to stop using that as an excuse.

(I couldn’t edit my statements,so I left it here)

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Wiseman0

“There’s dailies like in World of Warcraft, dungeon runs in Final Fantasy XIV, and event farming in Guild Wars 2. Black Desert goes with the classic approach: kill monsters until you’re strong.”

This doesn’t make any sense. For one, those dailies in WOW do exist in Black Deserts end game, as well as farming…You have a perceived notion of what “you” think end game is. Plenty of people are doing dailies and life skills (farming,fishing, cooking,etc..) in the end game, as well as combat. You actually have to do some of these other things in order to even be the strongest.

My eyes got big when I saw these words..”But that complexity of the grind isn’t just in the combat. This particular grind system has a great component of human interaction.”

….but then the only thing you mentioned was PVP. Sigh.. Yes, you’ll have to crazily grind to be the world’s strongest hero.

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Taelon “Great Bird” Boot

Forewarning: Im going to compare this game to Mabinogi alot.

I used to play this game around it’s release. Is the combat fun? Yes. The grind? Thats debatable, obviously. To get stronger, I suppose I’d say I prefer a game like Mabinogi’s grind, where you’re essentially training your character by using specific skills that make those specific skills more powerful. Leveling to the softcap is easy enough in BDO. It’s what comes after that sucks.

BDOs grind was bearable for me, but just that. It was only something I could stand to do by itself. RNG in my opinion is lazy development for progression in any sense, and Mabinogi isnt a good role model for it necessarily, but Black Desert is just as bad, if not worse for that. Im digressing, but the main point Im getting here is if I’m doing something that actually kinda sucks, and I have to worry about some dude with just way better gear than me coming up while Im grinding and killing me because he wants my grinding spot, the bottom line is there is no talking or interaction. He’s going to try to kill me without me being able to fight back. I dont know if you’re playing on like an RP server or something, but that’s how it pans 99% of the time. If you complain about it at all, you’re also a “carebear.” No one is delusional enough to believe that you can be “skillful” enough to kill someone you have to hit 200 times without getting hit because they outlevel or outgear you and want your spot, assuming they just dont want to bully you. No one who has ever killed me back when Sausans were meta asked me to move, nor would I ask anyone if I felt like enough of a jerk to ruin their day by preventing them from getting any exp.

To be clear, I don’t hate PvP. I love it. I used to PvP constantly in Mabinogi before the MTU lagfix stopped working for me. I loved PvPing in Archeage. I like PvP. Call me egotistical, and I don’t need to prove this to anyone but Im well off enough at virtually any video game that during balanced PvP i have nothing to worry about versus the average person and for that reason I dont shy away from it. BDO is very very very very far from balanced. Not only is the disparity between geared and non geared players huge, but it perpetuates/perpetuated itself in the way it handled loot from boss monsters against total damage to a boss. Not to mention the nature of fighting some of these things in a laggy enviroment where simply dodges don’t really suffice for survival, if blocking even does. Ontop of that, certain classes are just much better suited to 1v1s. You can’t switch on the fly.

The game wasnt always P2W. If it is now, that’s news to me, but it’d be better for it it were affordable and time gated, but Im never probably going to give it a chance again. I don’t have the time or money to catch up or blow the exorbitant amounts Korean MMOs typically expect you to pay to catch up with the people who do nothing but play this one game or spend money they didnt spend time earning on it. 10$ a week to become stronger wasnt crazy for me, but buying an outfit every time I want to upgrade gear may become ridiculous. Those outfits are almost 20-30$ each if I recall correctly. I appreciate the multi-purpose nature of it, so its not useless, but Im sure that’s not what people use them for if that’s the case.

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Fervor Bliss

Was so worried about the PvP that I did not play the game for a long time. The artwork and 4k won me over. So well done.

P2W what game with a cash shop does not have advantages for purchase. You would have to just stop playing MMO’s if this is your issue.

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Schmidt.Capela

My main issue with this game isn’t the P2W; while I can guarantee you that I will never, ever, spend any money on any MMO microtransaction that improves my character’s stats, that alone wouldn’t be an absolute deal breaker for me as long as paying for those was never required to progress or to have fun with the game.

Non-consensual PvP, though, is an absolute deal-breaker for me. It doesn’t matter how low the chance might be; you could make PvP less likely than successfully upgrading a piece of gear to max level without using chance-improving items and its mere existence would still be an absolute deal-breaker for me.

If not for that I would likely already have BDO in my library, BTW. Recently it was on sale for less than $3 where I live; at that price I often purchase games on a whim, even if I think I won’t like them in the long term, as long as they don’t include one of my red flags. I do get quite a bit of joy from exploration even if I dislike the gameplay, after all.

Nephele
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Nephele

I’m sort of in the same place. There’s been a few times over the past few years that I’ve actually been very tempted to pick up BDO. The PvP requirement has always stopped me cold though.

I don’t mind meaningful PvP in games, but it can’t be constant and continuous. For example, I love territorial control systems, but I don’t love having to fight for my guild’s little slice of territory every single day. And I especially don’t love that being the ONLY thing to do once I’ve hit the level cap.

I might be completely wrong about BDO, but everything I have seen, and heard from people that have played the game is that the entire “endgame” revolves around PvP. And that means, it’s just not for me.

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Arktouros

Well for one there’s no level cap or what you’d normally consider end game to a game like BDO. Even the top 1% geared guys out there are still playing and still grinding and generating income as upgrades just get exponentially more expensive as you get up there.

So with that said the majority of meaningful PvP happens in BDO at node wars and conquest wars. These are weekly occurrences such as one node can only be fought for on Mondays or regions are only vulnerable on Saturdays. This usually happens for a few hours in the evening at scheduled times.

The rest of the time out of that scheduled time is usually spent working on that near endless gear progression. That means grinding mobs, doing life skills, playing shadow areana, and all the myriad ways people use to generate income in this game. If you had constant and continuous PvP during this time, outside of Shadow Arena, you wouldn’t make much if any progress and so most people typically seek to avoid PvP during these times in favor of pushing PvE to push their gear progression. Even then there is a PvP server with additional reward drops so those usually more PvP oriented will move towards that server for the additional rewards that server provides with those risks. However on the 40 other channels while PvP certainly can and probably will happen it’s neither constant or continuous and typically is quite rare depending on where you go and what you’re doing.

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Chase Masters

I’ve been playing for quite a while. I also was concerned about that. But if your PvP flag is off it is very rare. Since I made level 40 (I’m 56 now), I was killed once accidentally due to collateral damage in a grinding area. The player came up to me and apologized. Ganking and grieving is extremely rare. This game is about node wars and the “Karma” system they have in place seems to keep the former mitigated.

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Schmidt.Capela

What I don’t get is, if the chance of unwanted PvP is so low, why not remove it altogether? If PvP is like you described then allowing players to completely opt off wouldn’t make any gameplay difference even as it would attract players that are keen on never opening themselves for unwanted PvP.

BTW, my issue isn’t just with PvP actually happening, but with unwanted PvP being possible at all, regardless of how rare. I don’t care how “mitigated” PvP is, how players that attack me might be punished, whatever; what determines if I discard the game is, would it be possible, at all, for a motivated player to fight me without first securing my explicit consent? If the answer is yes then I’m absolutely not playing.

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Arktouros

It’s very simple: Why would any company make changes for a group of people with an extreme, hard line stance?

I mean it’s not like you’re paying customers here. You’re a theoretical customer who’s demanding they change their product before you’ll even try their product. The chances that you and others will suddenly start playing and showering them with untold riches justifying all their time and effort is actually pretty low (especially given the fact you’ve stated pretty clearly your stance on microtransactions as well).

The fact is they’ve somehow managed to come up with a pretty ingenious set of systems that simultaneously allows freedom of PvP but also seems to curtail it so people don’t abuse it to the levels we see in other games that allow it. They can choose to waste their time going after people with an extreme stance or they can spend their time catering to everyone else and focus on updating the game and creating new content instead. So far they’ve chosen the later, and everyone wins.

Well everyone without an extreme, never-compromise, all-or-nothing stance wins at least.

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Natalyia

If you never level to 50, you can’t ever be PvPed in the open world. There’s some content that gates you from (awakened weapons, and questlines in Kamasylvia & beyond), but if you want an absolute prohibition on any possibility of PvP while you explore the world, you can have it.

Most of the world isn’t so jam-packed with critters you can’t explore it, and gear isn’t level-gated, so you could be tanky enough to run away from very high-level things.

If you enjoy exploring, and the aesthetic of the world they’ve made, it’s absolutely worth $5-10 to wander around, admire the scenery and see the sights. Much of the questline is available before 50 as well, so there’s that available too.

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Bruno Brito

I certainly find the game’s pay-to-win monetization strategy as a fair critique, but it’s not a fair critique to overly emphasize it, especially since there’s so much more to the game than just how it makes its money.

If your PvP game has a p2w element, there’s no “overly emphatization”. It’s unfair. Period.

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Kickstarter Donor
Blazing Coconut

That is certainly an opinion. But you can argue that letting people play for more than 30 minutes a day will advantage someone. Every system in every game is a method where some people have an advantage and others don’t. Whether it’s in people without jobs who can play 12 hours a day, or someone who has a better computer and has less lag, or in this case someone who has more disposable income and can better themselves that way.

There are many things that are unfair, unless you are going to play chess with identical pieces with two people who have had the opportunity to study the game an exact amount, then you are not going to have a fair contest.

In this case it’s because you are worse at having disposable income to spend on making your character better. That’s no worse than Grindy McGrinder able to spend 40 hours a week climbing to the top. It’s just a different advantage.

It may not be one that you like, but it’s no more unfair than any other aspect of MMO PvP contests.

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Bruno Brito

Time is effort put into the game. Money is effort that comes from outside.

It may not be one that you like, but it’s no more unfair than any other aspect of MMO PvP contests.

It’s way more unfair than GW2 PvP for sure. And that comes from someone who HATES GW2 PvP.

But hey, it’s more fair than Allods.

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Kickstarter Donor
Blazing Coconut

Oh I understand your opinion. I just disagree that one form of fair is any better than another. The option is in the game, I’m playing the game by buying a thing.

Me getting the thing is a given. I can spend time grinding, requiring little skill. Or I can spend time working and buying, requiring little skill. MMOs are just bad games for fair PvP in general.

But your original contention that it’s unfair period is fine. I just add in that every system in MMOs is unfair and that using $$ or time has no bearing on the value of fair other than your opinion (or mine) on the matter.

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Bruno Brito

I can spend time grinding, requiring little skill.

This is not accurate. Not every game has a gear progression, nor is every gear progression locked behind mindless grinding. We’re not playing Ragnarok here. PvP gear normally requires PvP, which demands skill. Not every game has weak PvE, so, there are some PvE’s which requires a lot of skill.

You don’t just kill boars for cards. Even Ragnarok which was mainly a mindless grind had Biolabs, which required minute precision to deal with. You wouldn’t get geared in Biolabs without a great guild and you being a great player. Period.

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Kickstarter Donor
Blazing Coconut

Again you are stating an opinion as fact. I get what you think, I just don’t happen to agree with it. There has not been a game I have not been able to do all content in, pve or pvp. Yet if I played ranked fighters, ranked fps, or ranked anything I am at best average. So if skill is really required then how does a scrub like me clear all the content and all the achievements in a game? Simple, MMOs are a time = success equation. There’s knowledge needed to maybe build craft, but if you put in the time you will get the stuff.

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Sally Bowls

Thank you for the article. I am sure I will read all the future ones. For a number of reasons, I doubt I will ever play BDO, but it is certainly an interesting game. And the biggest thing to come along in MMOs in quite some time.

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Anton Mochalin

I have no reason to distrust people saying BDO is good but after playing it for a couple of days myself I still have a question: how do you guys deal with that drawing distance popping of objects you approach? That was the reason I stopped playing, can’t see how I could enjoy any gameplay with that.

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Arktouros

For me I started getting into the game features and realized that the depth of the game was amazing and it was a lot of fun to play and maybe trees and NPCs popping in probably wasn’t a huge thing in the grand scheme of the rest of the game. I mean hell I spend 99% of my time not even looking at the game when AFK auto pathing to wherever it is I am going anyways.

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Matt Comstock

I agree, BDO is far more than a grind with P2W mechanics. You mentioned the fluid combat to keep people interested in the grind, and I can’t argue with that. Although, as a person who prefers PvE, I find the open-world PvP component causes some anxiety rather than excitement. I’ve opened up to PvP a bit, but I still prefer to do things without the fear of being ganked by a Ninja.

I’m sure you’ll move into it in later discussions, but the lore and diversity of other systems of the game are often overlooked. The lore is rich, albeit sometimes hard to ferret out– although i think they have been re-tuning some of the quests to make the story and perhaps the lore a bit more transparent. The other game systems are of course: (1) the intricate housing/lodging/crafting/production system; (2) gathering/refining; (3) horse training (and capturing); (4) Trade System, hauling cargo for a profit; (5) Fishing/whale hunting; (6) Hunting, with the matchlock; (7) Sailing and Sea Monster Hunting; (8) Guild progression and benefits; (9) Node wars, Conquests, etc; and (10) New Shadow Arena.

May have missed some, but the point is that BDO has quite a bit to offer. I’m enjoying other games right now, but I’m certain I’ll be back.

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Juu ken

The term “pay 2 win” is not only grossly overused, but also very unclear. If you ask 10 people what pay 2 win is, you will most likely get 10 different answers. That destroys every basis of discussion about the topic. You as well, Carlo, missed to exactly define the term, thus every attempt to say “Yes, I agree with you.” or “No, I don’t agree.” is futile.

For me, BDO is in no way pay 2 win. There is no buyable mechanic or item in this game that gives a player a meaningfull advantage over others. None. Sure, you can make more silver by purchasing stuff with real currency, which COULD translate to more possible upgrade tries, but that ignores the fact, that this game is HEAVILY based around RNG. You could have the worst of luck when spending hundreds of bucks, at the same time you could be very lucky while spending no money at all. Apart from that, you can spend silver in this game for other reasons as well.

As for the grind part. I think, grinding is not so much a problem if you design it in a way that is fun. The combat system is an integral part of that, but also choice matters. That is something BDO is lacking big time. I want to have a meaningful choice when grinding. I want to have many different places, with many different mobs and mechanics, that give me the same amount of XP. That’s simply not the case. I want to have the choice between grinding in a group or grinding solo. As it stands now, you’re almost every time better off grinding solo in this game. That. Is. Not. Good! I want to have the choice to fight against many easy foes or few hard foes, while getting the same amount of XP within the same time frame. I don’t have that in BDO. It’s almost always more profitable to go for the many mobs that fall with one hit. Which btw. makes a mockery out of the praised combat system, because you basically need only one single attack for these mobs. So, the fun part about combat (the diversity) is being negated. Broken by design.

PvP: Oh, PvP … First off, I hate PvP. “Whaaat? What are you doing in a PvP game then?” Well, … not PvP, that’s for sure. I just don’t enjoy it, and I don’t participate in it. There are lots of other things you can do in this game, and I hope Carlos will touch on these in later columns. Anyways, what I do, when forcibly confronted with PvP, I let people karma bomb the shit out of themselves. They kill my toon, I let it stand up, they kill it again, I let it stand up, they kill it again, I let it stand up … until they fling some insults in my direction and finally get so annoyed that they move on. Takes patience, works every time. Spot taken, I guess … On a more serious note though, the open PvP system in this game is kind of schizo. On the one hand you’re allowed to kill others, any time anywhere, but at the same time it punishes the one who attacks, by stacking karma (too much karma and you’re hunted by players and NPCs, also you cannot interact with merchants in normal cities, jail is a factor too). Makes no sense. If you allow such a thing in the first place, you have to be ok with people choosing the rogue playstyle. The punishment however effectively destroys this particular choice you, as a developer, put in the hands of the players.

That’s not to say I want open PvP to be unregulated. I just think it’s regulated very badly. The most sensible thing you can do to regulate PvP is AGAIN … choice. I want to have a choice to turn this on and off. If I turn it off, I cannot be attacked by others. Build in sound time gating (or other hurdles/penalties) between on and off and you’re all set. But then there will be people telling you: “Whaaat? Then I cannot kill people I want gone from a spot!” No you can’t. You would have to share, compromise, or join a group with them, which brings us back to the point I wrote about earlier – incentive for groups. In the end it’s either this or karma bombing or annoying the hell out of each other. Maybe seperated PvE only servers would be another solution, but then you lose the choice to chime in whenever you feel like it.

BDO in my books is a game that always takes several detours to reach a game design goal, instead of going straight for the obvious and most reasonable solution. It does that in almost every single module. Inexplicably. Staggering, stumbling in the dark and pissing off people left and right while doing so. Often times needlessly so …