Monthly Archives: August 2010

A Call to Arms

A post over on Wolfshead Online caught my attention this morning (he hasn’t posted often recently, but when he does, watch out!). Though I did not play EverQuest for any significant amount of time (less than a year total across it’s entire history), what he does state in regards to the upcoming EverQuest Next needs to be recognized, and is valid for any MMO – present or future.

I wouldn’t ever argue the importance of EverQuest, or the impact that it has had and still has on the genre; as one of the “founding” games of MMOs, the decisions made in its design have had far-reaching impact. And, given the market at the time, its design made sense despite the fact that it’s not generally considered friendly to casual players (by far the lion’s share of the MMO market). Most importantly, I agree that EverQuest Next is SOE’s last chance at attaining relevance in the genre.

In some ways, the post is a shopping list for “Build the Dream MMO Everyone Keeps Talking About”. There are some points I’m just not sure can be achieved. But maybe I’m wrong.

What is important are the major points he makes about what needs to be changed in the next round of MMO development, and to be honest, I agree with him wholeheartedly. MMOs over the past few years have lost something of their magic, and have headed in a direction that I don’t entirely think is a good one. Yes, this includes Lord of the Rings Online.

Kill the Scripted Experiences

Enough is enough; if players want a tightly scripted experience there are dozens of high quality games available from which they can choose. Lose the sanitized, on-rails experience of WoW and it’s derivatives, and give the power back to the players to create their own experiences. Drop out of the rat race of get-gear-so-you-can-get-better-gear-rinse-and-repeat. Limit the game’s dependence on instanced content; instead of only providing players with a tightly controlled experience, allow them to create their own experiences as well as enjoying those provided by the developers.

Do I think EverQuest Next needs to be a sandbox game? Maybe. Do I think themepark MMOs are bad? Obviously not; LotRO is, and will be (for the foreseeable future), my favorite game. Ever. It is the game to which I always return. But I have a themepark game in LotRO. I don’t need another; if EQ Next hopes to succeed, it has to break from the trend of coddling players by slowly feeding them highly scripted content. It just can’t compete.

Community. Community. COMMUNITY.

It cannot be stated enough. Community is by far and away one of the most powerful, important aspects of an MMO. And yet it is constantly one of the most underrated. Which is ironic, considering that these games are designed around a multiplayer environment. Somewhere in the recent past, the criticality of community got misplaced. Personally, I lay blame on the runaway success of (you guessed it)…World of Warcraft. Not on Blizzard so much, but on WoW‘s rise to utter domination in number of subscribers. There was just no way for any company to anticipate, and then handle, the kind of success that WoW achieved, seemingly right out of the gate. As they became overwhelmed, Blizzard neglected the policing of their community and took a fully reactive approach to customer service. “If you have a problem, tell us and we’ll try to fix it. Otherwise…”

And as WoW saw its inevitable crop of clones, the focus on community fell further and further down the list of priorities. Why invest in community? WoW has an abysmal community and look how much money it makes!

Obviously, community is important. Even Blizzard knows this, despite the fact that WoW is recognized as the cesspit-in-the-middle-of-the-slums when it comes to community. Look no further than RealID, and its obvious intent of cleaning up behaviour on the forums, as proof positive. Sure, it blew up in Blizzard’s face, but the fact that they made an attempt means they know it’s a problem that needs solving.

Community, in my mind, has always been LotRO‘s greatest strength. Be it the nature of the lore and world, or the balance between solo and group content the game has achieved, but there’s something about LotRO that encourages and maintains the best community of any MMO I’ve ever experienced. But again, if EQ Next is to succeed, it needs to take community to the next level. This includes things like truly empowering “volunteers” (a participant with more tools or power than your average player, but less than an official GM) and hiring live GMs to police the servers and run live events.

And it also includes highly encouraging grouping; not the way it’s done today, through instances designed for X number of players, but by making the world itself dangerous enough and challenging enough that players actually want to group up. For anything. And everything. Sure, provide for solo content, but make it secondary, and make it easy enough (single game world?) and beneficial enough (multiple advancement paths? scaling experience/loot gain? something *gasp* new?) that players want to band together.

Quest Not for the Holy Grail

This is the point on which I agree the most. Ditch the quest as the primary activity for players in a “virtual world”. Quests do a few things very well. Top among those things are the delivery of story. Also is creating a sense of scale (as in the relative power and place a player has within the world). Lowest on the list is creating a sense of involvement.

Sounds a bit counter-intuitive, right? But consider the current, standard “quest mechanic”; it is a democratic, Equal Opportunity, “All For Everyone” system. All players have access to the same quests (unless it is paid content in a Free To Play game), and therefore the outcome of a quest can have no lasting impact on the world. Players can’t permanently kill a Signature monster in LotRO because that monster must be available for future players to kill. And yet, as the major activity in which players are involved, every quest must appear to be of the utmost importance, and epic in scale. Otherwise, why would we bother? It’s a paradox we’re stuck with as long as quests are the sole focus of a game.

Quests are finite, static things; there is no way for developers to keep pace with the players in the content-development-vs.-content-consumption lifecycle. Players will always outpace developers, and they (the players) will always document every step of the way, robbing the game of its mystery and surprises. When quests are the end-all-be-all of a game’s activities, we end up with three things:

  1. Instances/Raids
  2. Reputation Grinds
  3. Bored Players

The first two being designed to mitigate the last. Repeatable content and grinds have become the de facto standard for maintaining player involvement, and hence subscriptions. When that’s the manner in which you engage your players, the process and goal of creating a living, breathing world becomes secondary. At best.

In Conclusion

I want to be clear – none of the above is a criticism of LotRO, or any other current MMO for that matter. These games are all successful; as a player, I enjoy them. I love them. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be playing them (and writing about them). We’re not talking about current MMOs, we’re talking about EverQuest Next. The next generation of MMO. The above points, and Wolfshead’s entire post, are things that SOE needs to take into consideration if they want EverQuest Next to truly succeed.

However, these are also points that current MMOs need to keep in mind as they move forward. These games are ongoing concerns, built for the long-haul and designed to run for years. Which means they need to stay on top of the shifting trends in both market and design. Turbine should be watching EverQuest Next very closely, because, to be perfectly honest, there are only three things keeping me in LotRO at the moment – the lore, my kinship, and the sightseeing.

See what’s missing there, Turbine? It’s not the gameplay. I can get that kind of experience almost anywhere. And it’s not the story. To be frank, the story for LotRO has become something of a mess; it’s fragmented, downright confusing (I have well over 40 quests active at the moment), and, with the exception of the Epic Quests, utterly forgettable. Which is tragic. This is Tolkien’s world we’re supposed to inhabit; the seminal work of fantasy for generations, and one with the greatest depth and creativity imaginable. Nothing about it should be forgettable. I still love the game, but not primarily because of anything from Turbine’s efforts.

Should SOE address Wolfshead’s post, and give us what he’s asking for, I’d say Turbine and every other developer would have a real contender on their hands. And SOE would find itself back near the top of the heap; maybe not in terms of subscriptions (Who cares? Niche games have proven time and again to be very successful), but likely in terms of leadership, vision, and customer loyalty.

Set Phasing to Maximum

Last night I had one of those rare conversations about MMOs that pop up so infrequently for me (I don’t have many Real Life people with whom I share this hobby, and my wife is patient and tolerant but unaware of the nuances that fascinate me). It’s not often that I have a chance to discuss gaming at length, and this conversation in particular got me thinking about the possibilities for the near future. Heavy stuff, I know.

Specifically, my friend and I got to talking about the phasing technology that seems to be an important part of The Old Republic. For those who may not be familiar with phasing, here’s how I understand it: like instances, phasing create private pockets inside the game for the player (or group of players) where they can explore or interact with an area without interruption by other, free roaming players. The best example of phasing I’ve read so far are the story-driven conversations players will have in TOR, where phasing will allow them to approach and engage an NPC in a public area, but prevent others from randomly wandering in and ruining their moment. Basically, no jerks barging into the middle of your conversation to ruin it by running and jumping around, spamming emotes, and generally breaking immersion. The player is phased out of the public area, or others are phased out of your area (I’m still not sure which), seamlessly dropping out and entering into the general game world. Or maybe it’s something bigger. Either way.

I love this idea. Capital-L “Love”.

Sure, some purists will say this is contrary to the nature of a massive, open game world; these are the same people who generally disagree with instancing. However, I think this could be a powerful new tool for MMOs, changing the way content is delivered and experienced. Much like the changes that instancing introduced, as long as its done in moderation it can be extremely effective. And it’s not like BioWare is leaning anywhere near a sandbox-style game world; I think they’ve made it clear that TOR is not that type of MMO.

But I’m enthralled with the idea not so much because of how BioWare appears to use it, but because of the ways it could work, or be made to work. Yes, the example above is a great use, and certainly enhances BioWare’s ability to deliver story in a personal, powerful way. But let’s extrapolate a little here, and consider a few of the potential uses (or, at least, how I’d like to see it used).

First and foremost is this:

“The basic idea is that there is NO servers, just the game world. Your decisions directly affect what you see in the game world. Players that have made similar decisions are in the same ‘phase’ of an area as you.

Yes, this breaks down logically very quickly. Will players just go poof? Will friends be able to play together if they make different choices? What happens when I’ve made decisions that are different than everyone else and I get phased into my own space?”

~ Response by heartless at Keen and Graev’s

The idea of separating the game world into existential phases has endless possibilities. Quite literally – endless – as every choice could spawn a different phase. And, granted, the concept has other potential issues, as heartless even states. Would it be possible to phase oneself out of the general game, to the point where you are playing alone? How would you continue to play with your friends/guildmates after making your own personal decisions? It’s a bit like trying to think about time travel – too many loopholes and logic-breaking possibilities.

Archet is Burning!

But consider phasing applied to a game world, instead of temporarily applying it to a player in order to preserve the delivery of story. World of Warcraft does this a bit in Northrend (so I’m told). LotRO should do this, as the game has some problems with timelines; for example, the movement, placement, and progress of the Fellowship. How do you represent the location of the Fellowship for all players at all times? They tend to move around as the story progresses (that’s the point, isn’t it?). But you can’t remove them from the world for players just starting out simply because your elder players have progressed the story past Rivendell. Turbine dealt with this in it’s own way, but it’s not entirely logical and requires a huge suspension of disbelief. The members of the Fellowship exist in multiple places at the same time, but we are supposed to believe that when we encounter them in Rivendell and then in Lothlorien, that time has passed in the game even though it is barely reflected in the world (if at all). Turbine has achieved its own version of “phasing” in small ways, by using instanced rooms where major characters appear (or don’t, based on what you’re doing) for spans of time; Aragorn in The Prancing Pony and the various members of the Fellowship in Rivendell are two prime examples. It’s somewhat tough to swallow, but we do it anyway.

If applied liberally, however, phasing of the game world could reap huge benefits for players looking for a better storytelling experience or heightened immersion. The Fellowship could be at all necessary places at all times, but only visible to me, Player A, where they should be based on my personal progress in the Epic Quests. Player B would still encounter them in Rivendell, whereas I see them in Lothlorien. Towns and outposts could be bustling, deserted, or entirely destroyed based on my actions, and I would see that area, and share that area, with the other players who made similar choices. Not every choice would spawn a different phase of the game world as described above, but major events, encapsulating large chunks of content, could be represented differently to different players.

Realistically, in a game such as LotRO, this should only be implemented in a timeline-based scenario. The town of Bree is in a given state (Normal, Damaged after a major attack, or Rebuilding after being damaged, for example) at different points in the story timeline, and appears that way for all players who have progressed to a certain point. And it would have to be done rather subtly. Bree could not be entirely destroyed, ever, because players revisit that area continuously, either for functional reasons (Auction House, Bank, Craft Hall, etc.) or to help lower-level friends with content that falls earlier in the timeline. But cosmetic changes could be made to the environment, giving the appearance of change over time. The “backdrop” of the game world, the environment with which we never interact, is a vastly underutilized tool for storytelling.

Also consider the potential when applying phasing to NPCs and monsters in the open world. In general, all system-controlled NPCs (both friendly and hostile) are pretty much static; shopkeepers and quest-givers are generally in the same place all of the time. Middle Earth is like one, huge 7-Eleven – it’s all available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Monsters come and go as players dispose of them, but population levels and the type of monster in a given area remain fairly static. Now imagine that we apply phasing to these aspects of the game.

This man is a rock.

Friendly NPCs could move around, even disappear due to death, based on a player’s progress. And to enhance immersion, an NPC in a specific location could be phased from a Named character to a Generic character; Player A may have experienced the death of Second Watcher Heathstraw at some point in the story, but doesn’t see Player B talking to thin air when receiving a quest in Bree’s Market Square. Instead, Player A sees Player B talking to a “Bree-town Citizen”and all is right with the world; two NPCs occupy the same physical location, and a player’s choices or progress determines which NPC is visible.

The possible uses are even greater for monsters within the open world. It’s always bothered me that after killing Taluntum (a named monster in Mirkwood and the target of a quest), that that very same monster – identical in name and appearance – is back in his hut a few moments later. If I’m still in the area, I can even watch him reappear. “Great work, Drannos! You’ve rid Middle Earth of that scum for a grand total of 2 minutes! Here’s your reward!”. Let me tell you how much I feel like a hero.

Glutton for Punishment

Identical to the Heathstraw example above, replace Taluntum (after I kill him) with a generic Orc. Different model, different skin, generic name, not even a Signature enemy. This way, when I’m hanging out in Burgul-stazg killing Orcs I can watch another player engage an Orc standing where Taluntum once stood. The other player sees and attacks Taluntum, but I see that player attack an “Orc Marauder”. Additionally, population levels could be shifted and Monster types could even be changed entirely. I see an entire tribe of Orcs, but maybe you see a few Orcs, or even a few Worms! Who cares that we’re fighting two different creatures when I decide to jump in uninvited? As long as we’re not in a Fellowship, it’s all about our personal story, right? When was the last time someone said, “Thanks for helping me kill that Orc Marauder“, when you swooped in and saved their bacon? At most I get a “Thanks!”. At worst, nothing. Two entirely different monsters may be a bit extreme, but it’s not unrealistic, nor does it break the game.

I repeat, in a game like LotRO changes like this would need to be implemented subtly. Otherwise, the game logic becomes more broken, immersion suffers greatly, and everyone starts having much less fun because they’re just plain confused. But a few touches here and there, and the experience would become immeasurably more enjoyable. We would be  that much closer to a “living” world, because some part of our actions would be permanently reflected in our surroundings.

I could never guess at what influences any of the numerous design decisions that result in a game like LotRO. As a whole, they were all good decisions, because they resulted in a game that I love playing. However, it would seem to me that developers of modern, “themepark” MMOs all operate under a flawed assumption; in order to be impactful and meaningful, a player’s choices must be reflected in the game world. Because implementing this would quickly break the game for 99.9% of the players, instead we are left with virtual worlds that are clearly indifferent to our presence.

Honestly, all I really want is for my choices and actions to be reflected in my character, and in the world I see. My choices only need to impact me. Not the world at large. I’m not especially concerned with what others see, as long as we’re all pretty close. After all, it’s really my story I’m living, isn’t it?

Returning to an Old Friend

If you are at all interested in Black Prophesy, you should check out this article over on MMO Reviews. It includes some nice video of Black Prophesy in action.

One of my very first “true” MMO experiences, back in the misty, bygone era of 2002, was Neocron. This was the first MMO over which I obsessed, following any information I could find until release. I pre-ordered it, and was there on launch day. By “there”, I mean watching progress bars slowly fill (or not fill, as was the case just as often) and eventually joining others in a slideshow of what the game was supposed to look like. It was, to be nice, a bit of a lag-filled mess. This was back in the day when truly horrendous launches were not only permissable, but expected. However, once they got some issues ironed out, the experience was far better. It wasn’t the best game, but at the time, Reakktor really seemed to be trying to push some of the MMO boundaries – it was a Cyberpunk/Science Fiction setting (almost unheard of at the time), it had some First Person Shooter mechanics, and it was very “adult” themed (there was even a Red District in the game, strippers and all).

I have fond memories of the game, though I did not play it for very long, and got no where near “end game”, if there even was one. I’m still not sure. It was essentially my gateway into MMOs. I had dabbled in Anarchy Online and Dark Age of Camelot, but neither had managed to really “hook” me.

Neocron hooked me. It was Neocron that prompted me to look for another MMO when I decided to leave, instead of retreating back to single-player titles. The game captured my imagination, and immersed me unlike almost any other game before, or since. The feeling of wonder I had playing Neocron is essentially what I wish for with every new game, though I know I can never go back; like Home, you can never go back.

I was excited when I heard Reakktor was working on a new game, and thrilled when I started to see real information begin to trickly out on Black Prophesy. I was ecstatic to see that it was going to be a flight sim game, and after seeing the videos on MMO Review, I’m even more so. As a proposed Free To Play title, checking it out seems like a no-brainer; if it plays like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and looks as good as the video, I could see spending a good amount despite the fact.

Call the Officio Assassinorum

Target: THQ. Assignment: Termination for Crimes Upon Humanity

From the Office of Sheer Stupidity, subsidized by the Department of How To Destroy Your Game Before Launch (a division of the Department of How to Fail at Game Design by Not Knowing Your Audience):

“But you won’t be able to be a Space Marine right away, because that’s a very unique class, if you know the universe. The road there is a great road, and they are in the game.”

~ Danny Bilson, of THQ in a recent interview with Eurogamer

This astounds me; the sheer idiocy of that statement, and how it demonstrates an utter and complete lack of understanding of the Warhammer 40k game, its players, and the MMO genre as a whole, is monumentally awe-inspiring. Not good awe. Soul crushing awe. The kind that makes me want to go home, pull the shades, and crawl into bed.

Mr. Bilson, a few points for you to note, because you and your team clearly know little to nothing about the Warhammer 40k game, and even less about MMO players:

  1. Players of the tabletop game may, at any time, use a Space Marine Army. There are no pre-requisites or achievements to be completed, or permission granted from Games Workshop.
  2. Warhammer 40K players choose their armies as much for their theme and playstyle (and yes, their appearance) as they do for their stats. Any army can stand up to the Space Marines if utilized correctly.
  3. Toe-to-toe, a single Space Marine can stand up to most other single units. This does not make them invincible, and there are many single units who can take them down. It’s called class balance; your team needs some serious education, fast.
  4. The Space Marines are probably the mostly widely beloved, frequently chosen, and iconic armies of Warhammer 40K. Not giving immediate access to this class to your players, you are GUARANTEEING FAILURE for your product – years before it launches.
  5. MMO players really don’t like “Hero Classes”. They don’t work. I don’t care what Blizzard says about Death Knights…you’re better of taking a lesson from SWG on this one. Trust us.
  6. If this decision stands, I hope you’re prepared for abysmal failure, on par with APB. If you make Space Marines a microtransaction, god help you and have mercy on your soul, because not many others will.

Other than that, this pretty much sums it up.

That’s two games taking a dive on my Excite-O-Meter.

And one last thing. To Games Workshop: how can you possibly allow this?

Camping Out in Middle Earth

After our yearly “camping” trip (I use quotes here because we do family camping on a site with our cars, not the kind of camping that involves hiking and any real inconvenience), I decided to take a look around LotRO and find some places I thought would make for good camping. We had perfect weather this year, and I was really struck by the picturesque beauty of the park where we camp, on the south shore of Lake Ontario.

Before I get to Middle Earth, here’s my inspiration for this post.


Despite Bree-Land being, overall, a beautiful zone, I could only find one place where I would want to camp out – on the shores of Nen Harn in the northernmost area of the zone.

The Shores of Nen Harn

The Shire

The Shire might have some of the best traditional campsites available; few pests to bother you, lush scenery, and a town is never far in case you need supplies. Plus, it has some fabulous waterfalls!

Green Hill Country

Bindbole Woods

Pond in the Greenfields

Ered Luin

I’ve never tried winter camping, and I don’t ever plan to do so, which meant that the Dwarven areas in the north of Ered Luin were pretty much out. However, there are some very nice spots in the southern parts of the zone.

Nen Hilith. Mind the Wolves!

Near the Wardspire

The Grimwater

North Downs

As you can probably tell, I very much prefer camping near water. In fact, if we’re not near water, or on the water, I’m generally disappointed with the trip entirely. This makes camping out in the North Downs somewhat problematic for me, as only the southern area near Meluinen has any real water, and it’s mostly infested with Orcs! I can take pests, and even some wildlife, but I draw the line at camping amidst bloodthirsty monsters.

The other end of Nen Harn. Trolls just over the hill behind me!

Lone Lands

Like the North Downs, the Lone Lands suffer from a distinct lack of water and where you do find it, it tends to be packed full of “less than desirables” such as Trolls and the Undead. I stretched a bit, but found a few nice spots nonetheless. I broke my rule about water here, and also chose the safety of camping with others (the Earth-kin in this case).

Hanging out with the Earth-kin!

Northwest Harloeg. Few pests, no undead. Winner!


Evendim has to be hands-down one of my favorite zones in Eriador. The lake, surrounded by mountains, is idyllic, and the whole area is dotted with ruins just waiting to be explored. I actually had to edit myself in this zone, picking only two of the best spots I could find.

On the island of Tinnundir, just outside the Warden's camp.

Barandalf, at Lithost


I love the Trollshaws for it’s wooded mountains and lush forests, but like many of the zones in Eriador, it’s lacking good spots near the water. Tal Bruinen is the exception, and as long as you don’t mind the Worms, there are nice spots to pitch a tent and set up camp.

Tal Bruinen, south of Echad Candelleth

Final Thoughts

I stuck to Eriador for this initial tour; clearly Lothlorien and Mirkwood both have some sites that would prove ideal campgrounds, with stunning scenery. Also, I obviously skipped several zones in Eriador; Forochel and the Misty Mountains for the previously-mentioned winter camping, the Ettenmoors for the previously-mentioned bloodthirsty monsters, and Angmar because, well, it’s Angmar. Dreary and ugly and not generally an area I would choose to visit unless absolutely necessary. And then it’s not a vacation, is it? Plus, green and brackish water doesn’t really qualify as water. Also, I skipped Eregion because I consider that to be a part of Moria, having been introduced at the same time. It will be my first stop on the next leg of my tour, encompassing Eregion, Moria (spelunking!), Lothlorien, and Mirkwood.

Wandering around Eriador looking for campsites did make me think about lost opportunities. I know why I play the way I do; driven to accomplish as much as humanly possible in the time I spend playing. Developers create a metric ton of content (and then some) because it’s in their best interest to keep us playing for as long as possible. Playing equals paying (until September 10th, that is). For those of us who cannot commit a full work day’s worth of time to playing, it means that every moment we’re in the game, we’re essentially frenzied little OCD-monkeys squeezing everything we can out of every moment, just for a hope at experiencing any significant portion of that content.

We (as in, normal humans with normal schedules) are kept so busy with the developer’s content that it’s nearly impossible for us to sit back and enjoy our own content, such as the company of others. Go figure, social content in a multiplayer game.

As sad as it is, if there’s no reward mechanism in place, I have little time to devote to any aspect of an MMO. It’s not a matter of desire – I have more than enough desire to participate in this type of gameplay. It’s a matter of opportunity and time; I have to maximize the rewards of every minute I spend in-game if I am to keep up with my guild. At this point, I’ve given up entirely on playing anything other than my Burglar – I just don’t have the time. With only a handful of hours every week and, ironically, even less on the weekends, I’m a focused achievement-machine when I log in.

What I wouldn’t give for the opportunity to just sit around a campfire with friends and kinmates, just spending an hour or three socializing, sharing, and laughing. And yes, maybe toasting some marshmallows – or whatever Tolkein would have called them.

So, aside from pining over what might have been, anything I’ve missed? Is there a perfect camping spot I might have overlooked?