Forever Spoiled

I’ve never been a fan of any game, MMO or otherwise, that advertises itself as a “revolution”, or which claims to have “revolutionary” features. Mostly these end up as bullet points during the hype-cycle, spawn some discussion and debate in gaming circles, then fade into oblivion when the developer announces, “Not at launch”. Or that feature is released in a completely bastardized form, barely recognizable from the initial description, and not at all revolutionary. Viva la Revolución and whatnot.

Revolutions, in any form, real or digital, are generally not fun for anyone involved. When it comes to gameplay or mechanics in video games, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or experienced a truly “revolutionary” idea. And I’d like to keep it that way. Revolution is a complete tear-down of an existing system to replace it with another, presumably more appealing to the oppressed. One, I’m not oppressed in my entertainment choices and, two, I don’t consider disregard for good mechanics an idea worth exploring.

Evolution, on the other hand, is preferable and, at least in gaming, necessary. In many ways it’s a given, considering the relative youth of our type of entertainment and the kinds of people who create them. They continually strive for new and better ways to create fun. Take something, a mechanic or system, a story, a visual style – anything – and push it’s boundaries. Combine it with others, find something new. Make it something more.

*sigh*

These thoughts are all the product of a rather sad revelation; a permanent dissatisfaction with something I very much used to enjoy – crafting in LotRO. The culprit for my disillusionment – All Points Bulletin. I recently gave the game a try during the “Key to the City” open beta event. I’m not going to discuss the game here other than to say that, while I found many things I liked about APB, I just don’t think it’s a game for me. I’ll play through the time I’ve bought (once it launches), and maybe it will change my mind, but I don’t foresee staying with it. I wanted to like it, but it just didn’t click.

However, there was one part of the game that completely blew me away – the part about which everyone is raving. The customization. My word; APB makes City of Heroes’ character customization look almost simplistic. A child’s coloring book next to a masterful stained glass window. Now, considering how lauded CoH is for it’s customization options, how can any other game even compete?

For those of you who may not be familiar, APB allows players to customize the appearance of nearly everything in the game, from your avatar’s physical appearance to their tattoos, clothing, weapons, and vehicles. The tools Real Time Worlds (RTW) created to enable this are marvelous in both their usability and their flexibility; this is an example of the finest in user empowerment, and the industry as a whole (not just MMOs) needs to take a moment to recognize and appreciate what RTW has accomplished. Whether their game succeeds or fails, this system is something that needs to be kept alive.

I spent nearly all of my game time in APB playing around in this system. I struggled at first, but mostly because, upon entering the tools, I had trouble adjusting my thinking to what I was presented. Once I wrapped my brain around what I’d been given, I realized there are no real limits to what is possible. It’s pretty much a game by itself, and I would pay money for an offline version of this tool if it could create just a little bit more than it does now; it creates “decals” that can be placed on nearly anything, and I would want it to create more “objects” that could be shaped and attached to human models.

After having played with such a powerful system, how can I possibly go back to the Easy-Bake oven that is your standard MMO crafting? “A + B + 2-of-C,*click*, wait for progress bar” and out comes your leather armor. Wow, how…thrilling.

This is not to criticize the artists at Turbine. Far from it. LotRO is one of the most beautiful games I’ve played. The item design, particularly the high-level raid armor sets, are gorgeous and desirable enough to help me want to run through that content, even multiple times when necessary. And I don’t think that a system as extensive as APB would be appropriate within LotRO. But even taking a subset of those tools and making them available to players for crafting would be an amazing step forward.

Can you imagine being able to combine various components of armor or weapons and create new designs? For an example piece of torso armor – a scalemail base, with Elven leather pads in chosen locations, and “upgraded” (i.e. fancier) leather pads at the shoulders and elbows? All with their own colors and surface design or texture? The possibilities are mind-boggling, and the “fun factor” of crafting, in my mind, jumps up several levels. There are numerous additional components to just torso armor – the neck, chest-piece (directly over the sternum), abdomen, and hems, for example – that could all have component options from which to choose. Weapons work just as well: pommel, grip, guard, and blade are all components of a bladed melee weapon.

Implementing this into LotRO, with its existing mechanic for “crafting”, would be difficult to say the least. However, a system like this could still be made to work within the current framework:

  • Recipes could still be used. Instead of recipes simply dictating what components are necessary for which output, recipes instead could be used to ensure that different visual components could not be mixed together (thus preserving the canon). Bree-Land, Elven, Dwarf-make, and Moria/Lothlorien variants of armor or weapons can still be made, but only the same type of components could be combined into a single piece (i.e. all Elvish or all Dwarf-make). The other mechanic of recipes – controlling who can make which items – is preserved. Single-use recipes for special statistic increases are also still possible (see further points below).
  • Harvested components would still be required. Though APB has nothing like this (that I ever encountered), it’s easy to maintain this mechanic. Because recipes still exist, material component requirements can still be enforced. Single-use and critical successes for recipes can continue to function, with the requirement of special components during crafting (much like they do now). Also, as it generally works now, materials used would also translate into the statistics of the item – Toughness, Armor/Damage, statistical bonuses, and so on.
  • “Critical Success” is still possible. Critical successes mean two things right now: slightly different appearance (though I’m not sure this is always the case), and different stat boosts provided by the crafted item. As recipes and materials are still required, this mechanic doesn’t really need to change at all.
  • Statistic increases would still exist. Similar to critical successes, this aspect of crafting really wouldn’t change. However, with the greater flexibility inherent to the system, stat boosts could actually be more customizable. Want a bit more of an Agility increase than the recipe would normally provide? Use certain materials, or make sure you don’t have stiff leather pads in certain key areas.
  • Crafting skill levels would still exist. The type of system I’m envisioning would probably result in fewer overall recipes. I don’t think this is a bad thing. But crafting levels (Journeyman, Expert, Artisan, etc.) should still exist, to represent the time and effort invested by individual players. However, instead of controlling to which recipes a player has access, crafting level could instead control which materials a player can use in their recipe, and the visual styles to which a player has access. Skill level could also contribute to base item statistics (Toughness, Armor, Damage) in conjunction with material components.

Most of the fundamental ideas around crafting would remain; mostly this comes down to visual appearance, and a greater flexibility in resulting item statistics. In my opinion, the best part of a system such as this is that, in general, it would work for more than just armor and weapons. Imagine an interface where players could mix components for cooking foods or scholar’s potions? Or combine runes, inks, and writing materials to make scrolls? Stones, metals, and different styles of settings combine for Jewellers. Outfits, by far one of my favorite systems in LotRO, work identically in terms of crafting the items, as does the actual ownership, equipping, and transfer of items when they are sold (they are still represented as icons which fill an inventory space).

Other aspects of player appearance and itemization, i.e. “armor sets” and rare drops, could still work as they currently do or they could be modified. Participation in high-level content (or maybe I should instead say “significantly involved content”) could still reward tokens for bartering, or they could drop special components or recipes (permanent or single-use for either type). Use of these components or recipes in crafted items would result in unique visual pieces (i.e. a special sternum piece that is only available from The Rift) and could even produce Bind on Acquire items to prevent the sale of “high end gear”.

The real value-adds of a system like this are many; greater immersion, greater player involvement in the economy, higher player satisfaction, and (the most important) significantly increased options for players to customize their appearance. The celebration caused by the Outfit system should attest to the importance we place on our avatar’s appearance.

A lot of the systems in APB are built around the mechanics of the customization tools and were done so “from the ground up”; these tools aren’t a replacement or upgrade of existing systems. This fact alone makes it extremely unlikely that anything similar to what I’ve detailed above would be implemented in LotRO. Ever. Not only is it a major overhaul of a relatively small system (and we’ve all seen how quickly changes have come to other “small” systems *cough* housing *cough*), but it would require a complete overhaul of most of the player and item models used in the game, and the implementation of a system that would put all of the pieces together, at runtime, for every player. That’s huge. I’m guessing (though I’m no expert) that that is nearly New Game Engine huge.

But, a person can dream. And the fact that APB has implemented such a system means that it can be done. This is the direction MMOs are headed – the Web-Two-Point-Oh-Player-Generated-Content-Etc.-Direction – and all developers need to take note. Not having systems like this may become a detriment in the future. Were a system like the one I’ve described ever to be introduced it would solidify LotRO as a world-class game with few, if any, peers. And the kinds of fun it would introduce would be untold.

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