Pacing and gameplay evolution are very important and at times overlooked factors in any MMO. The actions and motivations of a day one player are very different than those of a two year veteran, and good game design takes that into consideration. What can be enjoyable in the first month might very well be considered a ‘grind’ one year in, and something that might cause confusion after a few weeks could be a key feature keeping someone around month after month.
Themeparks get off easy in this regard because the developer is always in control of the rope pulling you forward, and they decide what is available to you day one, day one hundred, and ultimately on your last day. On the other hand a sandbox by design does not have such a rope, but rather multiple points-of-interest that server to motivate and influence, but never force, player behavior.
DarkFall has not always had the smoothest progression path, and while improved today it still has a ways to go before it’s fully there. Beyond the differences in control and UI, I believe the initial pacing of the game is currently solid. Skill gain from 1-50 is IMO relatively fast for most skills, and a skill at 50 is generally ‘good enough’. In relatively short order (10 hours?) you can be well on your way to establishing your preferred method of combat (melee/archery/magic), and in that time the average player should be comfortable with the controls, immediate environment, and basic concepts of the game. You certainly won’t be a master at anything, but your character should begin to establish an identity and purpose (being a part of a clan at this point will of course help in both regards, but motivated solo players should be fine).
In-game this means exploring and finding local mob spawns that are a good source of skill and loot gain, building up your bank, and learning the basics of crafting, PvE, and PvP (likely from getting attacked) combat. If you are part of a clan at this point you are likely still focusing more on PvE than PvP, with the major difference being that you are hunting mobs around your clan’s current location rather than a starter city, perhaps even in small groups. You can still join in on any PvP runs (with the knowledge that you will likely be going up against superior enemies and 1v1 situations will result in death, so just play your part and help out rather then trying to play the spearhead of any attack), and you will be included in major events such as sieges or large raids.
At some point later down the road (30-40 hours?), player motivation and gameplay should shift from discovery and growth to role execution. At this point your core skills should be around 75 or above, your secondary skills should be coming along, and you should have a solid understanding of most in-game mechanics and happenings. Your in-game time should be shifting away from focused skill gain to doing and reacting to what is happening around you (which is why a clan is key for all but the most self-motivated individuals), and through those actions your skills will continue to increase more ‘naturally’.
In-game this means you are now hunting mobs with a more focused goal (enchanting mats, gold for a specific skill/goal, rank 40+ weapons), and really working on your PvP skills, both group and solo. You should be able to hold your own in most combat situations (although power-gamers will still dominate you), and most importantly that initial rush and panic will be controlled.
The final ‘phase’ in a sandbox is true role pursuit and acceptance. Whether this means being a powerful economic force, a name to be fears on the battlefield, a regarded tactician, or simply a local area menace, you should have SOME purpose other than more gold/skills. Your character should be ‘done’ in most areas, with perhaps some secondary goals that serve more as a side project than a true need.
In-game this is where a sandbox shines, because the number of options and possibilities should be great, and the ability to change direction should be possible without a complete re-roll. This is also the stage of the game where upcoming additions and changes affect you most, and you should be heavily involved (directly or otherwise) in the ‘end-game’ of politics, city warfare, and empire building. The amount of content here should be nearly endless, as things such as alliances and military power change almost daily. Your allies today might be your enemy tomorrow and vice versa.
It’s this final phase that is both the major strength and current weakness of DarkFall. On the one hand, it deserves credit for having such a solid and functional end-game this early in its MMO life. That you want to and can siege a city without the server blowing up is more of an accomplishment then you might think, considering MMO history like SB (SB.exe), AoC (instanced city fails), WAR (the whole endgame), WoW (world PvP and Wintergrasp fails), Aion (fortresses). At the same time, clearly some issues exist, such as OP AoE magic, 6 hour sieges, ships and warhulk functionality, etc. And compared to other sandbox titles such as UO (pre-tram) and EVE, DarkFall is lacking the true depth those titles features in areas such as economic balance and possibility, non-combat influence/power, and RP/fluff possibilities (think player-made orc clans in UO).
The good news is that because of it’s solid base, developer time can and is being focused on adding and expending those areas rather than continually trying to get the core working, so while DarkFall might not be the game for you right now Mr. Exclusive Crafter Economy guy, it should/will be at some point ‘soon’, and when you do join up, you’ll have a lot of other options to entertain you as well.
(DarkFall-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a DarkFall account, I get paid 20% of the client cost. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on DarkFall, your opinion is wrong.)