Friday, April 25, 2008

LotRO: Book Thirteen and One Year Anniversary

On April twenty-fourth, the one-year anniversary of the Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine unleashed the Book Thirteen: Doom of the Last King content update. Book Thirteen is now the fifth (of six) such updates for which players didn’t pay anything beyond their monthly dues to get. The new expansion introduced players to the new region of Forochel, added the hobby of fishing to the game and added the Defiler class to players as a new healer for the monster (Creep) side in Player-verses-Monster Player content. (You can see the full release notes in the LotRO Lorebook).

The first thing I did was get my Hobbit butt out to Michel Delving to snag the new fishing skill. On the way out of the housing area I got lost as they have modified the housing area entry way. There is now a little access road and a small pond where before there was nothing. Once I got all switched around again, I got to MD, located the hobby trainer in the Bird and Baby Inn and got my hobby set up along with my first fishing pole. Turns out, fishing poles are available to crafters as well and a friend of mine in the kinship made me a really sweet one with +5 fishing skill.

After asking around, I found out there is a bait shop in Straddle so I could use bait with my fishing to increase my odds of catching something. So off to Straddle I went. Straddle is a ways outside Bree so it’s a bit out of the way. Conveniently, however, there is a small pond right next to the bait seller. I equipped my pole, which removes both on- and off-hand weapons, right-clicked the bait in my bag to get the buff and started fishing.

Fishing in LotRO is similar to WoW: you click the fishing icon and your character will cast a line into the water and wait. When you see the signs of a struggle in the water, you click the fishing skill icon again which will attempt to reel in whatever it is on the line. After ten minutes, I had little more than some junk fish, kelp and a couple rusty daggers. Later on, while exploring in Breeland, I managed to catch two large gold fish trophy taxidermy items which I handed in. One now hangs in my home.

Due to the content expansion, all of Evendim and a couple of other places such as Nen Harn (sp?) lake in Breeland appeared undiscovered to everyone. I’m not sure if it’s due to the amount of water in those zones (due to fishing) or geography changes. There are other areas in the game with large bodies of water (The Shire, Ered Luin) which were unaffected so I suspect it’s the geography changes.

The new zone of Forochel is awesome! First of all, the topography is varied and interesting. Beginning with an icy forest area, the zone rapidly gives way to some glacial crevasses to navigate with occasional paths on the sides to get up to other areas. Once out of the cavernous pathway, the road opens to tundra and hills. Then there’s the giant lake in the zone. Unlike Evendim’s lake, you cannot swim in the large lake here for long before you’ll die of the cold. While the lake’s position in the top-middle section of the zone could pose some travel problems, the roadways in Forochel were for the most part clear of mobs. Getting around on horseback won’t be half as bad as Evendim. One note of warning – swimming in the lake will kill you and you can receive damage by walking on the ice flow at the lowest point of the zone near the lake. The damage I got was about two-hundred points per tick – not significant but a pain if you’re trying to walk stealthed through the area.

I took time to visit several of the camps in the new zone and chatted with some of the quest-givers. There is a new reputation faction available – the Lossoth. I haven’t had time to check out the rep rewards yet, but there’s rumored to be a shaggy new pony and horse available. I’m still happy with my current pony so I’ll probably pass. I did complete a couple of quests, one of which resulted in some hip-waders I’ll be using while fishing!

One thing I found out today: if you stand next to one of the steam vents for a time, you will get a cold-resistance buff which lasts thirty minutes. It doesn't seem to work next to fires though, only the steam vents. I'm not sure how long you have to stand there. The last time I got the buff it felt like thirty seconds or so.

Other improvements in the update included some animation changes (when my hobbit jumps he balls his fists and moves his arms in front of him now instead of to the sides) and some added sound effects. Summoning a horse results in both - instead of silently reaching for the sky to get your horse, you’ll whistle a couple times and look around. Some players were annoyed by the whistling sound. I don’t care for it but not to the point where I’d disable my sound over it. Standing in a town where there’s a group mounting up to move out sounds like a group of NY road workers with a convention of supermodels walking by but I just ignore it.

Overall, I’m very happy. I played about three hours last night and still have a large part of the new zone undiscovered. The stuff I have been through, I went through quickly. Looking forward to more sneaking, exploring and fishing! And a new Book quest!

For the anniversary, there are tokens which drop from mobs around Middle-earth. Get a number of these tokens and you can turn them into specific vendors (I spotted one in Bree and another in Rivendell) for gift boxes in the game.

Random blathering

Saylah over at Mystic Worlds had a great post about Why We Solo in MMOs. The post is a great read and the comments are also interesting. There are quite a few people that for one reason or other have to solo in MMOs and game designers ignore them at their peril. A large part of WoW’s popularity is its soloability. Many of LotRO’s struggles have to do with the difficulty of solo quests (both in finding them and in some cases doing them). LotRO has improved throughout the book updates (time will tell as I am now leveling a human lore master).

As I mentioned in my comments on her blog, preparing a game for solo content is necessary due to the leveling mechanics of most games. The whole server, when it first opens, starts at level one. Then, over the course of weeks and months, the level of the general population rises. What you end up with is a large number of people at the level cap and everybody else left behind. For those people behind the curve the game will need to provide some accommodations for solo play as groups will be few even if one were inclined to group; based on the feedback in Saylah’s article, the accommodations should be generous and many.

A post by VanHemlock on his blog about the old AC terminal mission sliders (note: the link is not working at this time – go to the main page and look for the article “The Terminal of Empowerment” if the problems persist) provides some interesting counter-points. Terminals in AC apparently (I have not played the game) allowed for users to essentially create their own soloable instance depending on what they wanted / liked to do. In City of Heroes, a game I have played, NC Soft had some similar ideas where you could talk to a contact to attune your mission settings and then race around getting missions from other NPCs at the settings you chose. The result was some of the most monotonous game play I’ve seen. The maps were all based off of other, similar maps and it’s really no fun stepping into officer building model number four for the hundreth time and knowing that the big bad guy you need to take out is up three floors in the third office on the left beside the potted plant.

While I’m all for solo content in MMOs (I do spend a lot of time soloing) that content needs to be viable and feel like part of the world at large. It needs to be new and exciting in its presentation and carry the same possibilities of randomness that walking through an in-game city provide. Immersion in a video game, especially an MMO, requires the same kind of randomness real life provides (the same kind though not necessarily the same degree – watching a group of players suddenly racing down the street on horseback is random; having them run you over and kill you is also random but I don’t think players want to risk death penalties just for walking around in a city). The CoH instances, which were the death of the game to me, were too static. When you present people a puzzle they’ve heard a thousand times, it’s not really a puzzle anymore but just a question to which we already know the answer.

Dynamic content still has a ways to go in MMOs but the article is an interesting look at the way one game tried to pull it off.

I created my first viable alt since my burglar. I have tried to get into the Hunter class (too much like every other ranger / hunter) the Guardian class (great defenses but hits like a tween-age hobbit girl) and the Champion (dps, more dps, wtf dps, rez plz). So in tinkering around I tried a class I had dismissed at first: the Lore Master. It took a fair amount of patience to get to level ten. I used my pet raven and hit my two or three spells per fight and thought it all rather dull. As I got to ten though, I picked up my mez (works on all but the undead and it’s cool down is less than the duration so I can chain-stun mobs). I also got some goodies to improve my pet damage or defense and some nasty debuffing spells. The Lore Master is very fragile, but the bear pet is a great damage mitigator.

Bildo has some info on his blog about the upcoming Age of Conan. Looks like there will be an open beta coming May first.

Site Updates

I cleaned up the Usual Suspects links a bit. I removed some old defunct ones and added Killed in a Smiling Accident where Zoso and Melmoth are holding court these days.

Friday, April 18, 2008

When a game becomes a job

Tobolds had an interesting comment on this blog about gaming attitude.

The increasing acrimony [between casual players and hardcore raiders] is probably just an effect of burnout. MMORPGs are curious in that many people don't stop playing when they stop having fun; instead they keep playing with a more and more negative attitude, complaining all the time on the official forums. And as Ontherocks remarks, the negativity is directed badly at other players. Not only casuals vs. hardcore, but also mages fighting warlocks, or other classes crying for somebody else to be nerfed. It is an illusion that you could have more fun if only fun was taken away from somebody else. World of Warcraft certainly has balancing problems, but these are more due to the impossibility of balancing classes in a way that they are equivalent but different in solo play, group play, and all the various forms of PvP.

I’ve noticed this before as well. I think a lot of the drama that exists between players (or entire guilds) is in large part because they’re not finding the game fun anymore. Everyone loves when a game is all new and shiny. You have no idea what’s going on - around every corner there are new surprises and adventures. Leveling brings new skills and ways to play your character such that even when asked to kill yet another ten boars, you’ll race off to do it because you can kill them in New! and Exciting! ways.

Then you hit a wall.

The wall could be the level cap, or a questing dead end or a game mechanic that changes your class so you’re not able to do the things you used to. That’s when you start trying to rationalize continuing. I suspect that the longer a player has played a given character, the harder that wall will hit and the less likely they are to start over. Most players will just try to struggle through it … and get pretty irate in the process.

LotRO is my third MMO (after City of Heroes and the World of Warcraft) so I’ve been there before. As a result, I have made some general observations in an attempt to maximize my fun and not have to deal with turning a video game into the worst-paying job I’ve ever had. These won’t work for everyone, but they have helped me to keep my head screwed on straight.

1) Try new locations. When I’m starting to get down about leveling a given toon, I’ll start looking for a new place to play in. The North Downs was getting pretty old for me, so I went over to Evendim for a bit. Sick of the Barrens? Try some of the higher-level stuff in Silverpine or the lower-level stuff in Stonetalon. Sometimes all you really need is a change of scenery. I’m an explorer by nature anyway, so looking around in a new area can be fun all by itself.

2) Try a respec. This doesn’t work all that well in LotRO as the specs (traits) aren’t all that pronounced at lower levels, but in a game like WoW, it can make a big difference. Even if someone else says your new spec is totally stupid, who cares? If it’s fun, it was worth it. I respecced my arms / fury warrior to fury / arms and that’s what kept my interest alive through to 70. Flailing away with two weapons and near infinite rage was a blast. When you change the way your character functions, you change the way you interact with the world and it basically changes the game for you.

3) Read the quest text. Too often, I’ve caught myself just ramming through content. Depending on the game, there could actually be a lot of interesting stuff going on behind the scenes. So you were asked to kill ten boars. Why? Why boars and not wolves? Is there some other objective involved? Reading the text tends to get me more personally involved in the story. I’m not someone out grinding boars for XP, I’m killing them to save the good people of wherever from the dreaded boar disease of somethingorother.

4) Establish “for me” time. It may seem odd in a video game to set aside time to do what you want to do, however, so much content is driven because the company is telling you to do something that sometimes it’s just nice to tear off and do something because you want to - even if there’s nothing in it for you other than to say you did it. In LotRO during Open Beta, we couldn’t go beyond level fifteen. One thing I really wanted to do is see Rivendell. To get to Rivendell, you need to pass through mobs that are level thirty-five or more. I went anyway and now it’s a regular thing for me. All my alts make the trek to Rivendell after the level fifteen class quest. Go places you’d like to see and see them. As a burglar, I’m constantly going places just to go. I was sneaking around Annuminas (a level fifty area) at level thirty-five. I sneaked my way out to the Council of the North base in Angmar around level forty-two. It’s fun to push the boundaries of what should be attainable and go places you want to go just because you want to.

5) Hang around / level with friends. One thing that I enjoy a lot is gaming with like-minded people. They can motivate you when you’re down and the company can help make dreary things fun. Killing 500 wargs gets old fast, unless you’re also chasing around your silly minstrel friend who doesn’t seem to realize she’s not a tank.

6) Know when to let go. If you’ve tried to make things fun and it’s just not working out, maybe it’s time to try something else. Even if it’s just for a little while. I know too many other players that will cling like grim death to a toon just because it’s their highest one. “My main is thirty-five so I really should focus on getting him to fifty before rolling another one.” Says who? I got my guardian in LotRO up to thirty-seven and decided I didn’t like it. So I created a hunter and got him to thirty-three and THEN created a burglar who became my first fifty. You can’t always tell right from the get-go what class / race combo you’ll really enjoy so don’t be afraid to experiment.

It also could be the game itself. For better or worse, LotRO is what it is. I find it fun and that the good outweighs the bad. I roll with an awesome kinship on a fun server. Not everyone is so lucky in their friends and not everyone will like the game. WoW is a great game, but when you've played all the classes and the races and seen what there is to see, that's pretty much it. Many people are not fond of the PvP system they have or the raid-till-you-drop stuff at endgame. For many, level seventy equals done. I’m always a fan of trying new games - by all means keep looking to find one that’s fun for you.

And while I’m on the subject, video game companies should make accessible free trials available for their creations. I don’t mind chat restrictions to keep the spammers at bay, but make sure your trial is open enough that I can actually see everything in the game. My biggest gripe about my EQ2 trial was that I couldn’t get a house. Not a huge deal, but at the same time it would have been cool to see how a “house” in EQ2 worked. Even if it had limited furniture options, I could still mess around and see what kind of system it was. Got a game involving space ships? Let me fly one! Now! I don’t care if it disappears after I log off or it’s underpowered or whatever. Give users a taste of how cool your game can be and they’ll plunk their money down for subscriptions.

It’s also worth noting that players will likely have to let go of the games you’re playing at some point. Either because you’ve done all you’re interested in doing (like me in WoW), because the game becomes a hopeless grind (like CoH became for me) or because the game company says “that’s it folks, thanks for playing” and then closes it down.

7) Listen to what others say but listen to yourself first. It's your money. It's about to become the gaming company's money. The only important question is: are you having fun? If you’re not having fun, then it’s not a game anymore. Following the advice above, you may find the fun again. If not, it’s time to let go: either of the class you started or of the game itself. There’s nothing wrong with playing a game and then deciding it’s not for you. There’s something fundamentally silly though about sticking with a game you started hating a long time ago.