Monthly Archives: November 2010

Proof At Last

No one can argue that Turbine has some extremely talented artists and designers; arguably, they’ve released some of the most engaging and beautiful content of any MMO to date.

However, I’ve long been a believer that Turbine’s designers also have a terrible secret, hiding in plain sight of all LotRO players. I believe that, at some point in the initial development of the game (probably an alcohol-fueled company party) several designers came together and made a bet – to see who could come up with the most horrendous piece of fashion that players would accept. And I finally found proof; an item so ugly that it is an affront to humanity, so gaudy that it must be part of some conspiracy (or just a sick joke…).

 

Dear...Lord...
Names have been changed to protect the innocent…

And it’s probable inspiration:

 

Courtesy of Walmart

If he (an alt of Dagrin of Vilya) weren’t in the Rift at the time, I would say he’s part of a killer holiday party, and had been hitting the Perry’s Porter and Longbottom Leaf a little too hard.

Granted, it’s not the worst hat in the game, but it comes darn close. And it is proof that someone at Turbine has a very interesting sense of humor.

“Highly Opinionated” (!)

Justin (Syp) of Bio Break, writer extraordinaire and one of my favorite bloggers, also writes the LotRO column (The Road to Mordor) for Massively, site extraordinaire and one of my favorite MMO sites. Now, I always appreciate a mention and a link…

“The Pix’led Life — A highly opinionated blog, although that’s certainly not a bad thing!”

~Justin, Massively.com

I read that and laughed so hard, my wife asked me what was wrong!

Then I went back and read some of my recent posts…and he’s not wrong. Hmmm, looks like I need a bit of attitude adjustment; I’m turning into a cranky ol’ gamer without realizing it!

My Ignorance is Purely Selective

A few weeks ago, Zubon posted some thoughts on the difference between fans of Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s been a lifetime in blogger-time since that post, but it’s been running circles in my head ever since. (For one, what about those of us who are fans of both?)

I agree with a lot of what the post says, particularly when it comes to the greater tolerance of Star Trek fans for material that is of lower quality, and with the reasons Zubon gives. When you have a multitude of offerings within a franchise, it’s far easier to put aside the bad and focus more on the good.When you only have one or two offerings in a given format (e.g. movies) per decade, the requirements for quality are much more critical. I think this is the reason the Star Wars books rarely get heavy criticism for their varying quality – there are just so many more of them from which to choose that it makes it easier to pick the ones we like and put aside those we don’t.

We were discussing this last night, and oddly enough both my wife and I agreed that, as far as Star Trek goes, the first two versions (the original series and Next Generation) were by far the best and, where “family” television is concerned, the only realistic options from the range of shows that are available. Everything else is either far too violent (Deep Space 9, some of Voyager), too intellectual for kids (Enterprise, Voyager, and some of Deep Space 9), or of no interest to those who actually care about it (Enterprise and Voyager, mostly). Namely, me.

But all that is beside the point.

What really got me thinking was the perception of a “unified faith” in Star Wars fandom. Zubon is right; as a whole, Star Wars fans take the sanctity of the entire universe far more seriously, and demand far more consistency and consideration from every decision made by LucasArts/LucasFilms/whoever-is-really-responsible-for-this-stuff. When our concept of the Star Wars universe is betrayed, it truly is a defilement; it hurts in ways that Star Trek fans may not be able to conceive.

“Maybe that comes from The Vision. There seems to be an expectation that there will be one central Star Wars story line. If you mess that up, you have ruined the entire universe. One bad decision about who falls to the Dark Side and now everyone is stuck with that as canon.”

~Zubon, Kill Ten Rats

Except that for many of us, the long-time fans of the IP, so much damage has been done that it’s hard to cling to the belief there there is such a thing as The Vision. How can we considering the haphazard, ignore-everything-except-pure-profit treatment of Star Wars? For many of us, George Lucas has trampled over so much of the original magic and allowed so many bad decisions to be made that we’ve developed selective ignorance purely as a coping mechanism. For whatever his reasons, there is just so much about the current state of Star Wars that old school fans have to ignore if they are to maintain their love of the franchise.

We were (in many ways) betrayed by the Prequel Trilogy, and have been constantly battered by the current generation’s strip mining of our beloved stories. For me, it has become a literal “acceptability” matrix of sorts:

Original Trilogy(*) Prequel Trilogy Television (“Clone Wars”) Video Games
Story Sacred Canon Blasphemous Garbage (Midichlorians? Really?) Unknown. Slightly Interesting? Varies. Pretty good to Bad.
Slightly Damaged Canon
Characters Relatable, Endearing, Growing. Perfect. Shallow, Whiny, Utterly Unlikable. Several should Die In A Fire. Unknown. Mostly Uninteresting? Mostly Positive (outside Prequel-based games).
Stupid changes. Han shot first.
Setting Enthralling. The Gold Standard. At Best: Coruscant.
At Worst: Blandly Undamaging.
Standard Fare (best guess). Standard Fare (overall).
No change.
Visuals Revolutionary. Created Techniques. Real Creativity. Deep, detailed, but soulless digital. Interesting and appealing (but mostly to younger fans). Varies. Mostly good.
Minor (Unnecessary) Improvements.
“Action” Classic. Simple elegance. Duels were pretty good. Few dogfights. Unknown. Varies. Mostly good, with some excellent examples.
No change.
Audience Appeal Anyone Lucas’ children (Podracing) and marketing focus groups Children (and die hard fans) Fans of the IP
Anyone
(*) The Original Trilogy has here been separated into the original release (top) and the “Special Edition” (bottom) released for the 20th anniversary.

I left out books because, one, they are of wildly divergent quality and, two, because almost everything about them is completely personal; visuals, setting, characters, “action” – the quality of all is more subjective than any other form of media. (And yes, I’m aware that the entire matrix is subjective, but I hold books to a different standard than other media.) Also, the library of books covers the complete range of entries in the canon, as opposed to a specific time period as do the two trilogies and the television series. They just seem to be impossible to evaluate as a single category.

Call me biased (clearly I am), but that’s how I approach the Star Wars material. And I get the feeling I’m not the only one. One thing became abundantly clear to me while putting the above table together – about the only thing that LucasFilms consistently get right is the setting and the visuals. This is the one aspect where there is even a hint of consistency; and sadly, while this may be the easiest thing to “sell” to people, it is also the aspect with which people connect the least. As much as we love the flashy combat and pretty spaceships, it’s the characters with whom we connect, and their stories that stick with us. Lightsabers and the Force are cool, but it’s the redemption of Anakin Skywalker that we love.

So why does any of this matter? Well, it matters for a few reasons.

First, as a long-time fan of Star Wars, and now as a father of two children, the state of the Star Wars IP matters to me. For better or for worse, I am heavily invested, emotionally invested, in Star Wars. Art does that to people, and in the modern era of franchises, art with which we feel a connection is not a static thing. It’s not as straightforward as a painting or a book anymore; it changes and grows over time. And I want to share that art, and that love, with my children. So, naturally, I care about the quality of Star Wars. I want my children to experience the fun and wonder I did and, if they choose, find something to love as I did. To me, that is the original Star Wars, not the marketing-blitz-merchandising-tsunami that modern Star Wars has become. Sure, there are positive aspects of the IP even now (some of the games and toys, and even the television series) but the motivation behind the IP has shifted drastically; the heart of Star Wars has become twisted and the soul has withered.

Two, it matters because there are still offerings in the Star Wars universe that I eagerly anticipate. Namely, The Old Republic. As much as I dislike the direction franchise has been headed these many years, I look forward to this addition to the Star Wars material. Both because of it’s format (an MMO) and because of its setting (the Old Republic). TOR is an expansion of the Star Wars universe, and every expansion is another opportunity to get things right and do something truly exceptional. In many ways, BioWare is adding to Star Wars in the only way that has a real chance at success – by adopting a segment of the timeline that is almost completely unexplored (and untainted). They have more creative freedom, and aren’t operating under the shadow of Luke, Leia, Han, and everything we fell in love with over 25 years ago.

Finally, it matters because I say it matters. Star Wars fans have invested an incredible amount of time, energy, and money into what is essentially a hobby. If Lucas had left things as the original trilogy and it’s accompanying merchandise, I would say the he’s done his part and doesn’t owe us squat. But the moment he opened the Expanded Universe and turned it into a multimedia empire, he became beholden to us, the fans. His empire is built from our love, and he has a responsibility to us. It falls to him to maintain and protect the quality of the franchise; not to let it be raped in the interest of market saturation and quick profits.

It’s a mandate that George has failed. Abysmally, at times. That’s why we have the state of rabid love/hate that characterizes Star Wars fandom. That’s why fans like me have developed coping mechanisms just to remain fans and stomach each new piece of Star Wars that’s released. BioWare is in a precarious position with TOR, and I certainly don’t envy them.

Dev Diary: No Such Thing as “Free”

Oh...no...I think I may cry...

Update: just when I was about the get a little doom-and-gloom, Turbine had to go and announce Isengard…oh well, this post was almost complete, so here goes. I still have hesitations over class items in the Store, and it does feel a bit like Turbine is covering mediocre design decisions by distracting with a big, yet completely vague, announcement for something still a year off.

I had another post in the works when I saw that a new Dev Diary had posted to the LotRO site. This most recent post covers one of the new mechanics for the November Update – class consumables. My initial reaction to these (when I read the November Update patch notes) was fairly optimistic; as a Scholar, the more items I can create the more valuable I am to other players and to the economy, and a lot of these class consumables are created by Scholars.

However, for a few reasons, this update now appears to me as a possibly dangerous idea. But more than the fact that I’m not convinced that these items are an outright “improvement” to the game, the whole thing makes me a little nervous. Has Turbine turned a corner here and begun to show us what “Free To Play” is really going to be about? Are items such as these what we can look forward to in the Store? Have we taken that first step on the path to Pay To Win?

Here’s what got me twitching in the back of my brain:

  1. First, the addition of even more consumables that we’ll need to carry around with us just strikes me as Turbine moving in the wrong direction. As if we didn’t already have a metric ton of items taking up what little inventory space we have. And it creates yet more buttons on an already crowded screen. I mean, really? This isn’t too terrible, however, until you consider what it could mean about the future of the game, and the kind of ideas that are either being tossed around the design meetings, or being handed down from on high. For example…
  2. The difference between the crafted versions of items, and those bought in the Store make me very nervous. Take the Overpower Tactics pictured below.

    Store-bought on the left, crafted on the right

    Notice the difference? Look closer:Now, there is the obvious difference in level requirements (15 vs. 25), but both of those items are Tier 2 consumables, and the Tier 2 Store-bought item provides a better buff than the crafted version; that’s an 86% increase over those made by Scholars. What about the highest tier of items? Both will presumably have similar, if not identical level requirements, yet if they follow the example above, the items bought with hard cash could very well be far superior. Can you see why this makes me a bit nervous?

  3. “But, Drannos”, you say, “players can use both of these items simultaneously to double their buff! Players will need (or want) both!”. Exactly my point! Is that a good thing? Again, it hints at a direction in gameplay with which I’m not entirely comfortable – the Pay to Win scenario. What player isn’t going to walk into endgame content without these items? Both of these items? By making both usable simultaneously, could Turbine be creating a scenario where raid leaders require their players to purchase cash shop items?

Doom! DOOM I tell you!

I don’t mean to be a complete naysayer; it seems like most of my posts about LotRO recently have been full of negativity, and that’s not intentional. I’ve been having a lot of fun in the game, it’s just that the aspects I’m enjoying aren’t much different (if at all) from what I’ve already written about, and Turbine isn’t giving us a whole lot of new things to discuss. It remains to be seen how these items will play out in the actual game. And, of course, it’s always up to the players to decide how to spend their money, and what items to leverage in the game. It’s not the class items that bother me so much as the specific differences between the crafted versions and the cash shop versions, and the indications this kind of setup could have for Turbine’s feelings about the future of the game. It’s beginning to feel like Turbine is cornering us into cash purchases.

As always, I give Turbine full marks for listening to their players; they do a better job than most in this industry. And, according to the Dev Diary, these items were designed after listening to us players. However, as a father of two, I can tell you that handing over that which is requested can often be worse than the alternatives.

I think Turbine means well with these items, but you know what they say about the road to Hell? What’s it paved with? That’s right.

Class consumables.

(Or good intentions…whatever…)

Immediate and Energetic

In my Single-Player Life, I’ve jumped immediately from Borderlands into Metro 2033; thanks to Steam’s standard operating procedure, an amazing sale on Metro 2033 let me pick it up practically for a song, and I’m glad I did. Very glad. Metro 2033 has turned out to be, without a doubt, one of my top games of the year (did it come out this year?). Between the story, which I loved, the pitch-perfect tone and atmosphere, and the amazing visuals, I am hooked.

Between the two games, I haven’t been putting in much time in any MMO. LotRO, for now, consists of logging in once in the morning to run a few reputation quests and, of course, beat my head against the brick wall that is the “Poorly Hidden Chest”. Still no Aged Deed for Drannos…and I’m not holding out much hope at this point. Hopefully Turbine will either get enough backlash from this event to make them think twice about using this particular system again, or they will make it a yearly thing and give all of us not-so-lucky players another shot at the pretty pony.

And, yes, I know I probably sound like a petulant child at this point, but I’m still pretty annoyed at the whole situation. “Luck” rarely plays out for me, in the Real World or online, so I’m used to putting my back into it and investing effort to make progress. That won’t cut it this time.

Borderlands had me for 80+ hours (according to Steam); Metro 2033, though far shorter in it’s single-player component, has had me for far, far longer. Both have been amazingly fun, and both scratched an itch that has been coming on for a long time; the immersive and energetic gameplay of shooters is a welcome change from the strategic nature of MMO combat. But I’ve always been partial to post-apocalyptic settings, and Metro 2033 is so well done, with so many small details adding to the overall experience, that I keep going back to see if I can find anything new.

Both games have me thinking about MMO shooters, and why there really aren’t any yet; at least, none yet that achieve the same frantic fun that comes with a good FPS married to the depth and quantity of story/content traditionally present in your standard MMO. I had high hopes for Dust 514, and then for the zombie shooter being developed by Undead Labs but as both are slated for consoles and never PCs, that pretty much rules them right out. Maybe Earthrise? Or The Agency? The Fallout MMO? Never know, and we can only dream.

In the meantime, I’m slowly making my way back into LotRO through my long-neglected alts, and debating between firing up S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl or Dragon Age, two Steam purchases I never gave their full due. Either way, I’m finding a renewed energy for MMOs, and gaming as a whole, as we come to the closing weeks of what everyone will undoubtedly refer to as a “dry season” for the genre.

Please, Turbine, Never Again

Let me preface this post with a few facts. One, I am something of a freak about mounts. It has long been my goal to own every mount in the game, even if I never use many of them, or have no way to show off said accomplishment; I had set myself this goal long before the introduction of this year’s Harvest Festival. Two, I think that, overall, this year’s Harvest Festival is the best festival yet. Hand’s down. With one exception.

Dear Turbine,

On behalf of the many players, showing monumental persistence and patience, who have not been graced with good fortune this Harvest Festival, I would like to request the delivery, at your immediate convenience, of one (1) Skeleton Mount. We’ve certainly worked hard enough for it, and considering that effort in LotRO has nearly always paid off in the past, we don’t find this to be an unusual request.

No?

Barring that option, I would request that the mechanic used to “reward” this coveted item, a limited-time-only random draw based purely on luck, never be used again. Never.

Perhaps, in their zealous pursuit of designing something new and exciting, the Design Team failed to realize the impact that this particular decision would have on their players. Let me describe to you what I have been seeing, and personally experiencing, over attempts to obtain the Skeleton Mount.

There is a ton of frustration, and even some despair. I know. I’ve felt it; I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will not achieve one of these mounts. This doesn’t stop me from checking the chest every day at 6:04 AM EST, like clockwork. But it’s a little painful every day, to feel my hopes rise just that little bit as I watch the progress bar fill and wonder, “Is today the day?”. And every day is one less day we have a chance.

Are these the feelings you want to create in your players? Frustration? Resignation? Jealousy? These feelings aren’t fun. They rob us of our enjoyment.

It’s not that it’s a rare drop. We, the players, have shown that we will endure nearly anything for a chance at a rare drop, running instances time and time again, ad nauseum. The odds don’t matter to us. One-in-one-hundred or one-in-one-thousand; we don’t really care.

There are two factors that make this particular lottery so tortuous (and I call it that because that is what it is). One, it’s a limited-time offer; we have 30-some chances at this, and that’s it. We will face down any other odds with a smile and hearts filled to the brim with sunshine because we know, for any particular item we want or need, that no matter how rare it is to see one, we can always try again tomorrow, or next week. Or whatever. The only limit to our chances is our determination and the effort we put forth.

Which brings me to factor two – that our effort has no bearing on our chance of success. It doesn’t matter if we log in once or once a day. As far as we know, our chances are the same every day. For someone who has dedicated years to playing in your virtual world, this is something of a slap in the face. LotRO is supposed to be fun – it’s a game, remember? Like a sport. And while any sport will have winners or losers, part of the reason it’s fun is because our effort counts. With a lot of determination (and, yes, sometimes a little luck), we can try for victory, and even if we lose we know that we tried our hardest, and that our effort made a difference.

The Skeleton Mount isn’t fun. It’s not a game, it’s a lottery.

Perhaps I’m the only one (but I don’t think so), but I’m beginning to sense real jealousy over these mounts. Not the coveting-what-I’ve-yet-to-achieve kind of feeling so typical in an MMO that is gear-centric and achievement-driven. But the real jealousy that comes from another attaining something we desire out of sheer good fortune. Not because they worked for it, or deserved it for some reason, but because the numbers just fell in their favor that day. I get enough of that in Real Life; I don’t want it in my entertainment of choice. In a world where our effort is always rewarded, this one thing is a glaring blight.

I’m not asking for the mount; I’ll keep trying on my own and, hopefully, I’ll get lucky. I’m not asking that the mount be given to everyone. What’s done is done. I’m asking that those with the power to do so decide to never implement this kind of system again. It’s not fun. It taints our enjoyment.

Thank you for your time.
Drannos Tannaren, Vilya Server