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


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!
Previous articleCrowfall details the random encounters players will have with War Tribes
Next articleBethsoft has just launched Elder Scrolls Blades into mobile early access

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments