Monthly Archives: January 2011

Revisiting Archet

On a whim, I decided last night to roll up a new character and revisit one of the starting areas. After hearing about the revamps of both Archet and the Ered Luin starter zones (I don’t know if Turbine put the same effort towards the Hobbit areas), and being bombarded with reminders about the reworked Loremaster class, I thought it would be worth looking into all that shiny newness I’ve been neglecting while hanging out in Mirkwood.

I have to say, I’m very impressed. I decided to run through Archet, as that is the area with which I am most familiar (six out of ten of the characters I’ve played to any extent have been ‘Man’ characters – no Hobbits yet, sadly).

I know that revisiting existing content is likely beyond the abilities and budgets of most developers; on the other hand, some developers turn it into a full-blown expansion! But I can’t imaging that the effort is anything but a positive return for the game as a whole, as long as the developers factor in two things: one, what have they learned about what works and what doesn’t, and two, what their players think and feel. Both new, incoming players, and existing players alike.

The conundrum of starter areas (for themepark games, at least) is obvious for any MMO that succeeds past launch; as your existing players progress through the content they are less likely to play in the low-level zones and those players will be crying for more and more end-game content. Unless they are alt-aholics; and even then the chances that players will continually roll new characters over and over again is slim. I can’t think of any game that allows unlimited characters per server. Even if you place major hubs, with their various services, in the midst of low-level zones, the chances of high populations of players diminish as your population “ages”; take a look at Bree vs. the Twenty-First Hall.

This leads to low-level areas lacking in active players, diminishing the possibilities for socialization and for players to consume group-based content. They’ll just skip past the quests or areas they can’t complete. Additionally, when zone populations are significantly heavier in the later zones, new players only feel the need to rush towards the late game. They will blaze through all of the carefully crafted content without reading a line of story or absorbing a minute of context that gives meaning to the later zones. For a story-driven game, this could be disasterous. It pretty much ruins the whole “themepark” aspect of your MMO if your players don’t enjoy at least a portion of the first 90 percent of your content.

Major expansions (or changes to the business model) have the effect of creating “population waves”. New content draws new players, who tend to level together and progress through the content at approximately the same pace and time. But even expansions are only a temporary mitigation as new players move into the end-game. Every game has a limited number of players available to it (yes, even WoW); the stream of low level characters will eventually dwindle to a trickle. And then how do you attract and, even more important, retain new players?

Most themepark developers, Turbine included, help solve this issue through class design. If players are restricted to specific roles and abilities, they are “encouraged” to roll alts in order to access certain playstyles or to see content from a slightly different perspective. Consider it: how many classless themepark MMOs are out there? Only a few. Providing that type of flexibility is not conducive to delivering story, encouraging grouping, and ultimately player retention; its an alternate, more subtle, form of grinding.

Also, to a lesser extent, content revamps can help (when resources and budgets allow). Rework and polish the content for incoming players, give your players incentives to go back and revisit older areas, while at the same time providing more people with which those new players can interact. This is the “win-win” everyone so desperately seeks. Downloadable Content (DLC) serves the same function for “non-persistent” games, both online and offline. Encourage players to keep coming back; more time playing the game means more dollars for the devs.

All of this is the long way to making my point; Turbine has done an excellent job with the reworking of Archet. Combined with the fact that all of Volume 1 can be done solo (and perhaps Volume 2, shortly) if necessary or I so choose, and I find many, many reasons to go back and visit. And, as Syp points out in his recent article, all at a time when I’m starting to stall with my Burglar; I’m at the level cap, running instances and even some raids, but unsure of where I should focus considering upcoming changes to Radiance, Legendary Items, and the release of Isengard.

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Aside

Not one to usually post back-to-back, but I just came across (thanks CSTM!) this post over on the official forums. And, overall, confirmation from Sapience (page 2). Either way, it’s the best summary of upcoming changes and releases I’ve seen … Continue reading

Differing Opinion

"I'm gonna sing the Doom Song now..."

“Wait…why are you attacking them?? They’re just standing around, minding their own business, being…undead, and you wander in and start beating on them! How is that heroic?”

So sayeth my wife this weekend. She’d come into the office while I was grinding Eglain reputation in Garth Agarwen (undead, dark-waters, and bog-lurkers). Four brief sentences and a roll of the eyes;  her take on what occupies such a massive amount of my time. And a friendly, if unintended, reminder to not take these games so seriously. In her defense, she was poking fun; she’s always been understanding of a hobby that dominates so much of what I do, and is as accepting as patience allows (and she’s got a lot of patience).

The remainder of the conversation was fairly predictable in how it played out:

Me: “Sweetie…they’re undead. Zombies. They’re evil.”

Her: “How evil can they be? They’re just standing around. You’re the one who’s trespassing!”

Me: “But they’re minions. Of The Dark Lord.”

Her: “Dark Lord. Sure, but what did they do to you?”

Me: “They’re…MINIONS. Enemies of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth.” (This is where I knew I’d lost.)

Her: “Hmmm.”

Me: “Look. They’re wretched. See? It’s called a Wretched Gloom-Water. I’m putting it out of it’s misery.”

Her: “Uh-huh.” *kiss*

I consider myself fairly good with words, and I can generally hold my own in a debate. But it’s hard to argue in the face of that kind of opinion; she doesn’t actively dislike games, she’s just never understood the appeal or been able to make the logical (or illogical) jump required to immerse yourself in the experience of an MMO. Suspension of disbelief and all that.

At least I got a kiss.

Not-So-Disposable

A comment on Massively caught my attention this morning:

“It is truly amazing to me how the gamers have changed over the years. Now all they do is complain. This is whats wrong with the MMO industry, They have spoon fed most of ya to the point where nothing they do now will impress. too many spoiled gamers!
Give the game a chance, 99% of ya have not even played the game yet. So we all know what assumptions do. Just sayin.”

~Haukeye

It’s not a particularly new comment – people have been stating this for years. And while I do agree with the comment, it’s tempered by the reality of obligations and priorities that I think many of us face in the Real World. Also, I think the assessment of “spoiled gamers”, while probably true in many cases, is also too simplistic.

It’s all well and good to say, “Give ’em a chance!”. Especially because Masthead is an independent studio trying to put out a game that actually takes some chances in it’s design. I want to give them a chance; I would love nothing more than to reward that type of risk-taking. But the comment above is the statement of, I presume, a young gamer; at the least, someone with few real obligations and plenty of disposable income.

For many of us, this kind of attitude just isn’t realistic (especially in this economic climate). Money is tight, and free time is even more precious. After all of my real obligations  have been fulfilled (bills, food, diapers, kids, etc.) the money I have to feed this hobby is pretty limited. I’m lucky in that I don’t have to make any “hard” decisions, but I’m probably in the minority in this regard these days. (Not that “food or games” is a hard decision). Take a look at sales figures for the gaming industry over the last year or so and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Sure, some games are setting all-time sales records. Even MMOs. But overall the industry is suffering just like the rest of the world.

So, yes, Haukeye, I would love to just give Masthead a chance and drop 50 bucks on a game that hasn’t proven itself, or even really sold me on its ability to execute. I’d love to be able to take them on their word that the features they describe are actually in the game, work as they should, and are fun. But I don’t have that luxury; I have to carefully pick and choose where I place my dollars and where I spend my time. And free time is really the catch here – I’m not going to shell out serious cash for a game I’ll never play. I don’t have the funds to just throw money away.

I’m not a “spoiled gamer”; I’m a middle-class husband and father. If a game company wants my money, they better damn well prove the value in what they’re selling.

So far, Masthead hasn’t done that with Earthrise. So, sadly, I have to play wait-and-see. But I’ll be watching, closely.

‘For Jimmy’

(A week ago, our kin leader, Jimmly, lost his battle with cancer. Friends of Frodo held a ceremony for him shortly after, and I found the experience so touching, and so real, I wanted to write about it. Very quickly, what I was writing became a eulogy of sorts – a (very small) tribute to Jimmly. So instead of trying to fit what I’d written into a blog post about gaming, I’m putting this up as what it is – a remembrance of a dear friend.)

Friends of Frodo has lost our founder – a co-leader, a companion, and a dear friend. I didn’t know Jimmly as well as many in the kinship; I joined after he took a leave of absence from gaming so he could focus on his health. But shortly after his return to the game, I quickly learned many things about him. He was passionate about the things he loved. He had a voice you could never forget, a quick wit and was even quicker to laugh. He was generous, with his time and attention, almost to a fault. He was an eternal optimist, who found joy in all those around him and in every aspect of the worlds, real and digital, in which he lived. He was a friend to all.

As one of us wrote, “Jimmly was the best friend I never met.”

We’ve lost someone important to us, and for that we mourn. We mourn for his wife, his kids, and his family. We mourn for ourselves; for laughter lost, for quips we’ll never trade, for experiences we’ll never share. We mourn for a world a little less bright, having lost someone who desired, and deserved, so much to live.

But from our sorrow we should find inspiration. Our ceremony for Jimmly was one of the largest online gatherings of which I have taken part, and was a real funeral. Yes, there were true tears and true sadness, but also true support, true caring, and true friends. Our kinship was Jimmly’s creation, and is a testament to him; to the values he held, and inspired in others, and to the power of his personality. People from all over the world, from disparate walks of life, were drawn to him, and to the community he built. In our kinship I have formed real bonds, and have real friends; I would wager every member would say the same. And while each one of us plays a role in making Friends of Frodo what it is – a gathering of friends, a second family, and a true kinship – it all began with Jimmly. We are his legacy, undoubtedly one of many.

Thank you, Jimmly. We are forever grateful.

Tolkien was a firm believer in the power of music and song in every aspect of life; in his tradition of incorporating song, even in print, I’m including the following (but as I’m not a poet, I’ll have to rely on Jackson Browne).

For a Dancer by Jackson Browne

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You  never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
’cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
There’s nothing you can do about it anyway

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know

For Jimmly!

Embracing the Mundane

Get a shovel...

I do some of my “best” thinking when I find myself doing some of the most mundane activities – washing dishes, folding clothes, showering (we’ll leave that one where it is…), or shoveling snow from my 150′ driveway. As much as I need a boot in the seat to get out there and do it, I actually enjoy shoveling that snow, especially at night. Everyone keeps telling me to get a snowblower, but I just can’t seem to motivate in that direction. (It would destroy my little pool of sanctuary; there’s something about snow at night – the entire world is “muted”, the snowfall seems to go on forever in every direction, and I get a rare moment of peace and quiet.)

A few nights ago, it occurred to me that some of the most fun, and particularly some of the best roleplaying, I’ve experienced in MMOs has been during some of the most mundane activities.  Or perhaps I should say, “non-combat activities”. Which, compared to combat, can seem fairly mundane; no less fun (in many cases), just less dynamic.

When it comes to group combat scenarios, it seems like everyone just gets down to “business”. We’re all still having fun, and often can even hold general conversations about any given topic. But the focus is pretty much on the task at hand – putting down some fiend or another, or tackling a group challenge. Unless you have a very dedicated group of roleplayers, adding the complexity of maintaining a fictitious persona on top of everything else is probably just a little too much to ask.

On the other hand, when we’re able to sit back and relax and take things at our own pace, the social aspects come to the fore. Activities such as crafting, interior design (housing), and festivals and celebrations all allow us to focus on the people and the world around us, not just on the target that needs killing. This, I think, is why people still point to systems within certain games as truly spectacular; housing in Everquest 2, crafting in the original Star Wars Galaxies, and festivals in LotRO. In APB, perhaps the worst design and launch of an MMO to date, the customization system was lauded as, far and away, the best mechanic; it helps that the action side of the game was so poor and prone to cheating, but still – those tools were amazing.

Interactivity is key; the ability to work with and influence the world outside of killing its inhabitants is the biggest step towards both encouraging the kinds of social interactions that build community, and empowering players to create their own memorable experiences. It allows us to express ourselves creatively, both personally and interpersonally. We can’t spend all our time fighting; even digital people need downtime.

In Memoriam

Founder and co-leader of our kin, Friends of Frodo, and our dearest friend, Jimmly, lost his battle with lung cancer this past Wednesday. To his family and all his friends – our deepest condolences and most loving thoughts.

Though I did not know Jimmly (and his many alts) nearly as well as many in our kin, I had the pleasure, the privilege, and the honor to spend many nights by his side. Jimmly was an amazing kinmate and friend, always helpful, always upbeat, and perpetually optimistic despite his illness.

James Huntington Turner

May your adventures continue forever.
You will be missed.