But I’m not going to complain about the shackles of tradition while reaping the benefits. I had nothing to talk about this week. I haven’t played many games at all lately, let alone new ones. I’ve already had three Oblivion Adventures posts in a row. The quickest well to draw from for inspiration is the handy-dandy bucket of childhood rage. So we’re going to celebrate the holidays and their spirit of kindness by making fun of an online game from about a decade ago. Gather round boys and girls, we’re going to talk about DragonFable.
Starting all the way back in 2002, a company named Artix Entertainment released a game called AdventureQuest. It was a free-to-play RPG made in Flash and playable in-browser. It’s accessibility along with constant content updates gained it a lot of fans. Being kids with plenty of free time on our hands, me and my friends played our fair share. It was enjoyable enough, though it didn’t leave a lasting impression me. But eventually Artix Entertainment announced a new game, DragonFable. It was going to be a free turn-based RPG like AdventureQuest, but with so much more. The beta for the game started on November 31st, 2005, and I jumped in.
It was a little rough around the edges, but I was optimistic for its future. There were so many features they promised to implement, and I felt the game could be much better with some minor tweaks here and there. I don’t remember how long I played DragonFable. It was years before I gave up on it entirely. But slowly, eventually, Artix Entertainment wore down every last shred of enthusiasm I had for them. Allow me to make something clear: I have nothing against the employees of Artix Entertainment personally. I’m sure they’re fine people and, honestly, there isn’t anything offensive about what they do. They found a comfortable little niche in browser-RPGs and aren’t hurting anyone with it. They don’t have the type of anti-consumer business practices or shady operations that typically cause the public to loathe a company. And if you enjoy their games, that’s fine.
Okay, we understand that? Foundation of respect established? Alright then.
DragonFable and the games I’ve played by Artix Entertainment make me MAD. I get angry, I get frustrated, and it baffles me how they can stay wrong in the exact same ways, over and over, for 13 years. SCREW these god damn games.
Alright. Now that we’ve got that out of my system, let’s go more in-depth. Months ago I played DragonFable again, for the first time in years. I took some screenshots of my journey. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?
The Adventure Begins
Like most online games, we start with a character creation screen. Options are limited. You can’t choose a race, there are only 3 classes and they each have set clothing. At least they let you color your armor, which matters a lot since it never changes. Not a great start, but I suppose it could be worse.
We need a hero just as cutting edge as this 2006-era browser game. The edgiest edge lord I could think of was the esteemed Blackclaw Doombringer, who you may not recognize due to his name being spelled correctly. Note that it lists my race as human, but there is no way to change race on the character creation screen. It’s possible that there’s some way to change races elsewhere in the game. Then again, it could just be another pebble thrown onto the mountain of promises, improvements and planned features Artix Entertainment never bothered with. But no need to be negative, everything is going well so far. Let’s start our adventure!
Good, yes, alright, okay. So in fairness to the game, this could have been the problem of my internet connection. On the other hand, that error message is hilariously unhelpful. At least we can gaze upon the majestically dark and brooding armor of Blackclaw Doombringer. Black and red was the edgiest color combination I could find, and the fact that it’s un-ironically one of my favorites is something we’re just going to glaze over.
DragonFable continues the proud tradition of online games of the era by immediately throwing you into an unnecessarily confusing user interface. You can start the game from multiple points in the greater story, which is puzzling enough to first log in to. On top of that they have buttons for: several random new-ish quests; a visit to the pet store (which is a regular store that doesn’t need its own button); warping to your hometown or your house, neither of which you have to start; the DragonFable Facebook page; stat changes, which haven’t been explained and you can’t use yet; collectible badges; the potion shop; a guide for returning players; and something called Ballyhoo. I don’t even know what that last one is. Looking it up, it appears to be a way to get free stuff by watching ads. C’mon guys, this is an unfocused mess. Ah well. Let’s just start the first saga and see what happens.
Enjoy this while it lasts folks, it’s more or less the comedic high point of the game. I also enjoy that they let me create a name over twice the size of the textbox for it.
The only dialogue I skipped was our hero saying “A dragon!” after a big dragon rose from the bottom of the screen. So now you’re up to speed on the extremely intricate and well-developed storyline. You have to be careful with fourth-wall breaking humor. These aren’t necessarily terrible jokes, but just spewing them everywhere without building any context lessens their impact. Of course we’ve barely started. Surely there won’t be much more-
Alright yeah I set you up for that. This particular...style of humor is shoved down your throat repeatedly and without mercy. I kind of liked it when I was a teenager, but even towards the end of my time with the game I was getting sick of it. It’s a fine line to draw, but there are ways to execute bad jokes successfully or poorly. This intro also indicates how seemingly little the team planned in terms of plot, word-building, or anything at all before launching into content creation. We don’t know this dragon’s name and I don’t think he even shows up later. If he does it was years into updates and I’m positive his purpose in this scene was never explained. At any rate, a priestess and the fuzzy little mascot from AdventureQuest step off the dragon and walk right by, prompting us to follow.
Okay, now this I can get behind. As can my boot. I take the obvious option.
And just like that, my good will evaporates. I don’t want to be a scrooge, but seriously. This came out in the mid-2000s, and the year that “OMG!” was a hilarious thing to say to people above age 13 was...well, never. So there’s really no excuse. It doesn’t add anything to the comedy of the scene, quite the contrary. This type of thing could be funny if it were out-of-place and subverting expectations, but there are no expectations to subvert. No grand fantasy status quo has been established, there’s no juxtaposition. It’s not funny when everyone sounds like teenage role-players on AOL instant messenger.
And now we reach the nuanced and complex combat system. DragonFable features traditional turn-based combat. The only difference from most single player games is that it plays free in your browser and has regular updates. Player versus player combat was one of the many promised features that amounted to nothing worthwhile. Since it didn’t have to worry about balancing that, I find it pretty irritating that the combat in DragonFable is crap. It’s lackluster, basic, run-of-the-mill if we’re being generous. There are other problems with the game, but the combat is the worst of them all. Of course, at this point, it literally comes down to pressing a button. So I’ll come back to this when we have a little more to work with.
Ah yes. Surely I deserve a reward for completing such a mighty task! After all, I clicked the right of side the screen to walk to the fight, and then when it started I clicked the attack button several times! The sacrifices I make for this blog.
If I’m not mistaken, the progression in this game is completely linear. For at least the 10 levels I gained before I quit this mess, I would always receive 20 HP, 5 MP and 5 stat points. Makes you wonder why they would bother displaying it. Ah well, at least for the first 20ish levels you still have new skills to look forward to. After that I guess they just hope that the Skinner box is deep enough that numbers alone will urge you forward.
So we meet up with the priestess and instead of making a bunch of vague prophecies that mean nothing, they make a bunch of terrible fourth-wall jokes about vague prophecies. They still mean nothing of course, but now they make you cringe as a bonus. On the upside, this is one of the only times where our name actually fits a text box.
I will take a brief break from waving my grumpy old man fist to talk about the art. It’s nothing amazing and perhaps I’m just easy to please, but I like it. It’s clean, it gets the job done and it features a lot of color and variety. I can’t help but feel there was a lot more thought that went into the visuals than there was to game design. Yes, we’re already back on the negativity train after a few sentences. I tried, alright?
A Knight on the Town
Nothing much interesting happens in the tutorial past where we left off. Or before it, for that matter. We eventually reach town, where we can upgrade our stats. It’s pretty standard, and to be honest the effects are minimal. Getting high enough level to use certain weapons is what really matters in this game. Insofar as anything matters with such horribly simple combat, but that’s getting ahead again. Anyway, it’s a well-known fact that all you can upgrade is stranth, so I went all in on during my time with the game. From looking it up it seems every 10 points of strength nets me a single point of increased damage. So by spending literally all of my points for over a dozen hours, I got 5 extra points of damage. For reference, in this time I acquired weapons that were dealing about 30 points more than my starting weapon. So stats are mostly worthless.
Exploring the rest of town, we find that knights are all named puns. That’s cheesy, but fine if they don’t draw attention to it. They do. It’s the same situation with the Pac-man shaped table. The imagery is funny on its own, but it becomes less so when they explicitly point it out. But that’s not why I took this particular screenshot. Oh no. I took this screenshot because it features some of the worst-looking text I’ve ever seen. Keep in mind, this is a set-piece, single player CUTSCENE. They could do anything they want with the text. And what do they choose? Plain text, dark red colored, no drop shadow, no border, no text bubble, no ANYTHING. It’s like the developers deliberately sought out the worst possible way to present text, questing through the Lands of Legibility until the found the sacred Temple of Typography...which they immediately demolished.
Hoo boy, lock-picking. So I spent something like 15 minutes at this door in the town castle, trying to figure out how it worked. That isn’t to say I spent 15 minutes trying to solve the puzzle. I mean I literally spent that long just trying to determine how it even functioned. Then I threw in the towel and decided to look it up on the internet. Are you ready for this? Are you ready to find what the solution is for not just this, but all of the lock-picking in DragonFable? Okay.
...it’s just a combination of buttons.
It’s a set sequence, different for every door. You just guess every single step until you get all of them. If you screw up and click the wrong word, you have to start the whole thing over. There is no way to check your progress. There is no way to decode it logically. There is no skill, no challenge, not even the most basic semblance of a game. I’ve seen some pretty bad mini-games in my day, but this is the absolute worst. And you wanna know how many times you have to randomly guess correctly to open the lock? For this door, it’s SIXTY SIX (66) ENTRIES.
...f**k you, DragonFable.
Here’s something fun, as illustrated by the first quest I did. You see that single, tiny enemy standing in the middle of this giant room? It is impossible to walk past him. There are invisible combat triggers on either side of him. About half the enemies in the game work this way. This isn’t helped by the level design. In all the time I played, I never saw a genuine puzzle in the game. I never saw optional content either, unless you count branching paths of roughly the same length that lead to the same place. After years of DragonFable, I finally saw a single side path that led to a treasure chest with bonus loot. I was really excited about it. Think about that. This game features so little variety, choice, or substance to its level design that a single side path with actual purpose was downright exciting.
I never saw another optional treasure chest again.
I’m skipping more as we go, but you’re not missing much. This game is extremely repetitive, even for an MMO. This is ridiculous, because it’s technically single-player and has no excuse to be so uniform in level design and combat. Speaking of uniformity, what we’re looking at is actually a boss monster. It has slightly more health, and is bigger. Now, asking for a boss to have some unique abilities or properties beyond higher numbers? That’s not a high bar to set. That is a limbo bar. And I’m not even asking for that. I’ve dialed back my expectations more than an ex who won’t give up flooding your voicemail, and here is all I ask for a boss: It should at least be palette swapped. That’s it! I’m not asking the god damn world here, Artix Entertainment! This game was made recently, 2005 onwards. It’s not hard to do. I am asking you to move a friggin hue slider. I should not have to ask that.
Oh okay, a level one quest. That sounds pretty easy. I think I’ll just breeze by that for a quick reward. I mean I’m level 7, so this quest should be much easier than the usual-
OH GOD WHY DO THEY HAVE LASERS?!
Alright, so on one hand, lasers are always cool. On the other hand, this illustrates so many problems with the game. First of all, that enemy is level 8. This is a “level 1” quest. Two lessons from this: 1. Most quests in the game scale with your level, and 2. This game lies. But what’s even more frustrating about this attack is that it’s an awesome laser beam that changes absolutely nothing. With just a few exceptions, every single attack from every enemy is exactly the same. Most enemies have multiple animations, but all any of them do is flat damage based on the enemy and its level! And enemies of the same level have almost exactly the same HP values as well.
Same is the Name of the Game
This slime looks different and interesting to fight. It has several decently executed fight animations. But it is exactly the same as all the other different enemies in its area. All are level 3, all have 25 HP, and all have attacks that do about the same damage. They have no special abilities and no special properties. If it weren’t for their elements there would be literally no difference between them and the dozens of other enemies that level. So for all your player skills (which are basic to begin with), every enemy is fought the same way. You figure out which combination of moves for your character does the most damage while taking the least. Then you use that same combination in every forever, because you’ve already won the game.
This fairy here was the only enemy I fought in my entire dozen plus hours with the game that did something other than attacking. What she does is fully heal herself at random. I could use my ability that damages enemy MP to slightly reduce the amount of times she does that. Of course, she still has the same attack, HP and loot (experience and gold) as every other enemy her level. So really she’s just an enemy that takes an annoyingly long amount of time to kill.
Despite the fact that next to nothing is different about any enemies, sometimes things still go wrong. Here we see me targeting a level 10 Wisp. Note its HP and MP, which are about twice that of the usual enemies that level. It does proportionately high damage as well. Now if we shimmy that cursor to the side...
...we see a level 12 Wisp with no MP (not that it matters since 99% of enemies don’t cast spells) and the HP and damage of something less than half its level. No idea why. So sometimes there IS variety in the enemies, in that their numbers become annoyingly high or low for no reason. I’m sure this, like many other things, is just a bug. But this quest has to be, say, 8 years old? DragonFable doesn’t ever go back and change content. If it basically works, that’s good enough for all time. Instead they continue to pump out new stuff with none of the fundamental problems fixed, week after week, for over a decade.
Occasionally the level design in one of these quests will “open up”. I was actually willing to throw the game a bone here. The ability to not fight the entire conga line of crappy enemies is a pretty sad thing to be happy for. But hey, at least I can make a conscious choice about something. Then, after I carved a path to the doorway, this happened.
...f**k you, DragonFable.
It’s about time we wound down our DragonFable adventures, but let’s just tackle some miscellaneous grievances. For those of you who thought I was cherry picking with bad writing or difficult-to-read text, observe. Observe the horror. I know taste is subjective, but this feels awkward in the way only unsuccessful humor can. Again, it looks like something a teenager on a message board would write, and not in a good way.
Fun fact: Your equipment doesn’t stay equipped when you log out. Every time you re-enter the game, you need to re-equip everything you were wearing. It’s a small thing, but irritating. There’s a way to fix this and save equipment, but it requires...
Ah yes, this game can’t be completely free, can it? In fairness to DragonFable, its paid content is relatively unobtrusive. Even though it can make you just flat out better than others, the game is mostly single-player so that isn’t a big deal. Similarly, this equipment hassle is just that: a hassle. It’s just such a small annoyance that it feels petty, and bugs me that I have to pay for the privilege.
This game is actually pretty big in terms of content. They keep dutifully updating it, along with a host of other games. In addition to AdventureQuest and DragonFable, Artix Entertainment runs the games MechQuest, AdventureQuest Worlds, EpicDuel, OverSoul, HeroSmash...the list goes on. I’ve tried several of these games, but over time I’ve learned my lesson. The interfaces change, the settings change, and they may even shuffle around the particulars of combat. But it always leads to the same fundamental problems. The writing is juvenile, the level design is linear, and the fights all feel exactly the same.
At this point I would usually throw the game a bone for its music. However, DragonFable barely has music. For years, one of the promised features for the game was simply “music”. It was one of my most anticipated features back in the day, hoping for something to rescue me for the eerie and lifeless soundscape that plagued the experience. After enough time for me to pass through high school and college, the game now does have some music. All the same, it’s mostly restricted to towns. The majority of play time is still spent silent, punctuated only by the same dozen combat sound effects over and over and over. It’s a shame, because what music there is works fine.
Here’s a taste, one of the only songs I heard in my time with the game. It’s not great, but it’s alright. Anything is preferable to the dead silence that haunts most of the game.
For someone to truly dislike something, it can’t just be bad. When I see, for example, Big Rigs, I don’t actually get angry. A number of wondrous emotions pass through my head, but none of them are anger. This is largely because I had no expectations of Big Rigs. I wouldn’t have even heard of the game were it not for how terrible it was. For DragonFable, it’s a very different story.
I love turn-based RPGs. I enjoy MMOs. I played a bunch of AdventureQuest and wanted more. That enthusiasm, that expectation, kept me playing DragonFable for years. And slowly but surely, all those positive feelings were washed away. What really frustrates me about DragonFable isn’t that it’s bad. It’s that it didn’t have to be. I don’t think it’s a problem of man hours. I honestly think with changes to the fundamental design (mainly in differentiating enemies, though there are other issues), this game could’ve been much better with the exact same amount of work put in. And that drives me insane.
But hey, let’s not focus on the negatives. Every game is special, everything has potential and if you just hold enough holiday spirit in your heart than floating rainbow puppies will descend upon you and oh who am I kidding. You wouldn’t have read this far if you didn’t enjoy a good verbal thrashing. So allow me to end with the last screen I ever saw of DragonFable. I figured I’d give the game one more shot to prove itself to me. So I booted it up, took the first quest I could find, and saw this.
F**k you, DragonFable. And happy holidays, everyone!