Monthly Archives: February 2011

They Keep Dying On Me

Drannos, Take Four

I never achieved The Undying for Drannos, my main in Lord of the Rings Online. I managed it with a few other characters, but it’s always bothered me that the character I play the most will never have a full set of achievements. Because of this, when I heard there was a similar title for reaching level 15 without dying in RIFT, I knew I had to have it. Even though I had no solid proof it was real. Even if it meant starting over. Three times.

Once was because of fatigue in deep water (I’m guessing…I’m still not sure). The others must be due to some kind of blind spot from which my Razorbeast suffers, because we keep getting blindsided by adds just when we squeak out a victory against a small group of mobs.

Other than that, this weekend in RIFT has been pretty smooth. I’ve only had to experience the queues a few times (right now, in fact, otherwise I’d be playing and not writing!) on the first day and today. For the rest of it, I haven’t gotten to play as much as I’d like, but that’s because of the Real World and family more than Trion’s immense popularity.

However, it does make me more than a little nervous for the actual launch – you know, when they let everyone else in. And I’m quickly getting to a point where I’ve decided to stop playing. Put the game aside for a week, or a month or so…

Not because there’s anything wrong with RIFT – far from it. And not because of a lack of interest. I’m dying to play the game and see the areas beyond the tutorial and starter zone. I never made it out of those during Beta.

But it is C-R-O-W-D-E-D, and not in the good way.

The tutorial zones are “phased”, or “layered”, or whatever they’ve decided to call it. Basically, they’re instanced, only that you don’t get to choose your instance and you can’t switch. But it keeps the crowds from getting ridiculous. Or, at least appearing ridiculous. There are no such restrictions on the main areas, however. And while it’s nice to see a healthy population growing, and to see people excited for the game, I tend to be a solo-centric player; I know, it’s anathema to a virtual world that I just want to be left on my own until I decide to be social, but there it is. I like exploring and wandering and not bumping into a half dozen players around every corner. LotRO has spoiled me in this, and while some may see it as a sign of an anemic server, I see it as a benefit. LotRO is like the Esurance of MMOs for me – the technology when I want it, people when I don’t (want to play alone). I’m starting to feel downright claustrophobic in RIFT.

And it’s a mixed bag of good news/bad news, too.

Good news! The client is rock solid, even with 40-60 players fighting an Invasion in close proximity to one another; I experienced barely a stutter or hitch, and it makes me hopeful for large-scale PvP.

Bad news… The Rifts/Invasions don’t scale well to that many people. Tab-flipping through targets just to get in a few shots while watching health bars plummet is not challenging. Or fun.

Good news! The “dynamic” content does a great job of both keeping players engaged, with lots to do at all times, and making the world feel more “alive”. You can see the Rifts coming while you’re out questing, or if you’re not that observant you can listen and watch for the zone-wide “Dungeon Keeper announcements” that just tell you where to go (“Sterling Hills in under attack! … Sterling Hills, everyone. STERLING. HILLS.”).

Bad news… It’s complete and total overload! Between questing, Rifts, Invasions, Footholds, Artifacts, Collections, Crafting, and who-knows-what-else-I’m-forgetting? I’m getting the feeling that this is an MMO on ADHD. The MTV of this generation – lots of flashing lights and quick takes from odd angles that flash by barely seen; with a dozen things vying for your attention and pulling you in a half-dozen directions, it’s hard to just relax and enjoy the scenery. And it’s such a GORGEOUS world!

I know that last one is completely personal. And it’s petty to complain about having too much to do. Trion has built a feature-rich game in an absolutely amazing environment, and I haven’t even made it out of Silverwood/Freemarch yet! But I feel like they could have taken one mechanic out, saved it for an expansion, and they’d still have a ton of content and activities. And given us a chance to admire what they’ve built. Instead, I’m popping Ritalin just to keep from going completely over the edge.

As it is, I’m already considering waiting a month before activating my copy (had to go with the box copy for this one…too many goodies!). My hope is that Trion either adds capacity to the existing servers, or adds new shards while locking down the servers with the heaviest populations, temporarily suspending the incoming players from creating characters. Partly it’s my fault for picking a popular server – Faeblight, RP PvE – but if there are still queues of over 1000 players a few days into the headstart, adding everyone else in will just make it unbearable. And nearly every server is ‘Full’ right now. Turbine did something vaguely similar leading up to the F2P conversion by prohibiting transfers of existing characters to Landroval (one of the most popular servers and the unofficial-official RP server). If Trion doesn’t do something about population levels, I will wait a month or so before activating, just to let the bulk of the players move ahead (or move on to another game once their 30 days are over).

It might put me behind some people with whom I very much wish to play, but if I’m not enjoying my time playing through, then what’s the point? Besides, a few solid days in-game ought to catch me up!


A Rifting We Shall Go

(Its really hard to find a post title that hasn’t already been done about RIFT today!)

Nothing fancy or long-winded today, as the Head Start for RIFT opened up at 1 PM. Check nearly any other blog and you can find details on the queues people are seeing, but is that really a surprise?

Congratulations to Trion for what, so far, appears to be a good launch. I had to wait a bit, even logging in at ten seconds past 1, but the game ran near-flawlessly.

If you’re playing RIFT and are in the headstart: Drannos, Guardian Riftstalker (for now!) on Faeblight.

See you in-game!

Anti-grind Grinding

D. Face goes here

Ever have one of those nights where your child just won’t sleep without you next to them, and then kicks you in the face/stomach/groin? Yeah, me too.

For some unknown reason, I was up this morning around 2:30, and as I often do when I find myself awake in the quiet hours of the day, I decided to get some time in with my favorite caffeine-substitute, LotRO. (Though I did brew up some tea, so maybe that’s what really got me going…)

After my minor revelation in RIFT‘s Open Beta, I figured I needed to re-evaluate my approach to LotRO if I was going to maintain my love for the game; I’ve put too much focus recently on finishing Deeds and Quests in the older areas. Almost as if I unconsciously decided I was going to “wrap up” Eriador and Moria before moving on. So I decided to finally go to Enedwaith.

Well, I didn’t get there.

But not without good reason. It’s all the “Echad This” and “Echad That” locations for horse travel from Rivendell – I can never remember where I’m supposed to go! And I can see the smirk on that dirty Elf Stable-Master’s face; he’s just dying for me to drop a few hundred silver on him and his friends as I ride from Echad to Echad trying to figure out why I’m not getting any closer to Enedwaith. I think they changed the names on me at one point, because I ended up in Gwingris twice (twice!). How about some “Location: Region” details in the Travel window, Turbine? Help a player out!

Nonetheless, I found myself in Echad Mirobel, staring across the river towards Enedwaith and pointedly ignoring the snickering coming from the direction of the stables behind me. I figured, “Mount up and ride over there! Adventure awaits!”, which I did, until I passed the first Half-Orc outside the outpost. “Hmmm”, I thought, “I think I still have a Deed for those guys in Eregion.”

And so it began. Again. It’s like a sickness…

What I actually found was a great way to grind without grinding. I just wandered the area, from mob to mob, with no particular goal in mind except to kill specific types of creatures. Half-Orcs, Dunlendings, Wolves and Wargs, Lizards and Crawlers, Crebain. I had a lot of Deeds left in Eregion, even some first-tier ones. But despite the fact that I was staring down the barrel of 2000+ kills, just wandering around with no particular destination did wonders for my attitude about the whole thing. I really didn’t mind. And to make it even more enjoyable, I found some really nice nooks and vistas I’d either missed or glossed over the first time. Such as this campsite out in the middle of nowhere.

Was this a quest objective? I hope not...

Or the western entryway into Pembar.

Stupid Half-Orc wandered into my shot

And I finally got my Ridge-Racer title for running the Hollin Ridge!

That's a lot of grey. Need to come back when it's sunny...

The big difference was my attitude going into the whole thing (either that, or sheer exhaustion clouding my brain). Usually I approach grinding Slayer deeds as a task to be tackled, like housework. I Google for the best location to quickly grind through Mob X in Region Y. Which makes it barely palatable. But by just wandering, following the trail of mobs I needed, I actually found a lot of fun in the whole process. It was very relaxing, almost meditative. And it made me feel like I was exploring again, even though I’d been in that area many times; without a set destination and a specific goal of “Kill 400 Crebain” I found I could just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

It almost makes me want to go back and do it again. Almost.

It’s In The Details

I've got Argonath on the brain...

Random thought as I wrap up a nice session in RIFT – not only is the above screenshot characteristically gorgeous (as is so much about the game) but it also represents something I’m quickly coming to expect from Trion – attention to detail.

Here’s why: running around the Defiant “starter zone” I’ve quickly gotten in the habit of letting the Explorer in me determine where I go and what I do. There is so much “off the beaten path” in RIFT that it is well worth the time and effort to strike out in any direction and see what one finds. Not only are there Artifact collections (I love shinies, too!) but there are the rifts themselves, Footholds, Invasions, and I’ve actually found small “quest hubs” in areas where I wasn’t explicitly pointed. A serious departure from what I’ve come to expect in a themepark game; its getting to the point that I’m not sure I can call RIFT a themepark game anymore.

Nonetheless, I was out gathering for a quest (yes, of the ‘Kill X of Y’ variety) when I spotted the above statue, which is actually quite massive, off in the distance. I get to the shoreline and see that it’s sitting on its own little island, but it definitely looks reachable. Off I go.

When I got out to it…nothing. Not a thing. No mobs aside from trash, no encounters, no Point of Interest, not even a “You’ve Discovered: Big Statue” which RIFT flashes when you find a new area. And you know what?

It made me happy. It was a great little moment; I wasn’t disappointed in the least! Because it shows an attention to detail from Trion that is sadly uncommon, even rare, these days. They didn’t put something that big out there for any other reason than that someone felt it should be there. Who knows, maybe a quest will send me back out there, or a piece of lore will be revealed that gives it some context or explanation. But not today. Today, Drannos discovered a beautiful statue, facing out to see, on a tiny island, which did nothing for me besides give me something to find. And that’s refreshing. It’s not about Achievements or Deeds or Badges for Trion (though they have those too), it’s about building a rich, immersive world for their players.

No offense to Turbine and the others, but I’ve been spoon-fed content for so long that I forgot what it was to really explore. To wander. To find things for myself. So much of what I do in other games has an ulterior motive – you don’t go anywhere or do anything that doesn’t pay off in some way; landmarks as Deeds and killing for Traits. Sure, sometimes I get to further a story; there are some truly amazing sights and experiences in all of these games. But sometimes we just need to play the hero. I’m not slaying Orcs because they threaten anyone, but only because 250 of them are an item on a checklist and when I cross them off, I get a stat boost. A small one. And on we go to the next item…

What about discovery for the sake of discovery? And the sheer fun of playing in a virtual world?

Bigger Picture

Oh, the places we'll go!

I was listening to the Return of the King score on my commute this morning (yes, I’m that kind of Tolkien fan…or maybe a Jackson fan?) and it got me excited for all of the things the future holds for LotRO. Let’s face it, there are just some experiences that Turbine cannot skip or ignore, so even though we have no idea of when they will come, we know that, at some point, they will come. Lately, I’ve been so mired in grinding through deeds that I think I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Assuming LotRO will carry through to Mordor (and beyond!), there’s so many amazing things we’ve yet to see!

Here’s a list of content to which I’m most looking forward, and how I would love to see them implemented (loosely in the order I think we will see them released).

Keep Reading…

“Poor Implementation”

Turbine posted a new Developer Diary this morning, detailing perhaps my most-anticipated and celebrated change coming with Echoes of the Dead – the removal of Radiance. For those not familiar with this particular mechanic, Radiance was added in the Mines of Moria expansion as an additional character statistic that was granted through specific sets of armor. It was meant to be a complimentary system to Hope, designed to counter Dread which can often render a player helpless (if their Dread is too high, they cower in fear).

Like many players, this is a serious cause for celebration for me. With my main currently mired in this particular grind, I am more than happy to wish “Rad runs” a hearty farewell. My Burglar is currently stuck in “Radiance Purgatory”, with enough Radiance to just squeak into the newest raids (Dar Narbugud) but not enough to be truly effective. And I don’t have much time to grind out the content (Small Fellowship or otherwise) that would help me attain enough Radiance armor to be comfortable. Instead, I’m a burden on my kin, and I miss out on running good content with great friends. Not fun.

Ask any player in the endgame about the problem with Radiance, and you’ll probably get the same answer – it’s a pure gating system that prevents players from progressing into higher level content. To make matters even more painful, it’s the worst kind of “grind gear to get better gear” treadmill. Tedious – and that’s being nice.

What really surprised me about the Dev Diary (and frankly, disappointed me as well) was the description of what Radiance was meant to be – a deep system combining Deeds, Traits, and gear. Instead we got a horrific grind. But the way it’s described makes it sound like something I would have enjoyed, and could have really gotten behind.

“We wanted to not only itemize this statistic, but also tie it into skills and deed paths. We wanted to provide players with more character customization and differentiation as they moved into the upper portions of the game. Further, by tying Radiance more intimately into the progression of the character, we wanted to remove strict gear dependencies and provide a more encompassing and meaningful statistic for characters. In essence, the idea of Radiance was a large and inclusive statistic that provided players with something functional and inherently desirable to their character.”

~ Allan ‘Orion’ Maki, Update 2: Radiance Removal

I consider anything that provides opportunities for “character customization and differentiation” to be a very good thing. Perhaps if they had built more avenues into attaining high levels of Radiance instead of tying it solely to instance-based gear, it could have worked. Sadly, this appears to be simple wishful thinking, as Maki states in no uncertain terms that Radiance has been fully removed from the game, and makes it sound as if adding it back in would be nearly impossible (if players would even accept it without full-scale revolt!).

Honestly, I’m a little sad to see Radiance completely removed from the realm of possibility. Having gotten a sense of what it was supposed to be, I think that if Turbine had taken the time to implement it as designed, it could have been a strong addition to the game. I’ve always loved the scenes of Frodo fighting his way through Shelob’s lair, holding the spider back with only the power of light. It’s a hallmark of Tolkien, and if Turbine had been able to give us something like that, I don’t think anyone would have complained. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see a developer admit to their mistakes, and it renews some of my faith in Turbine – it’s not purely about The Store and profit. They want to provide players with a fun game. The honesty displayed by Maki is well worth checking out (as well as additional commentary over at CSTM).

Equal Treatment

We’ve reached a point in our family life where we’re beginning to discipline our younger son (we have two boys – one 5 years old and one nearly 2). It’s not at the same level as our older, but we have begun to set limits and actively say, “No.” to certain things while also explaining why. This is an important distinction for us as parents because where before it was a matter of safety for the yes/no threshold, our younger son is starting to really get “into things” where my wife and I feel the need to draw a few lines and enforce acceptable/not acceptable. Setting expectations vs. corralling them and all that. Once kids get an attention span longer than a few seconds, it doesn’t suffice to turn them away or distract them; they’ll just go back at it unless its made clear.

This is just a really long lead-in to a question that came up between my wife and I last night, which I naturally and immediately turned into a thought about MMOs. The question was, “Shouldn’t we be disciplining [the younger] the same as we did [the older]?”. But what did we discipline our first child over? Because in a lot of ways we just can’t remember (memory loss due to long-term sleep deprivation).We remember that at the same age, we were already disciplining our older son through timeouts and similar consequences. But over what issues?

There is an aspect of first-child-second-child at play here; in all honesty we probably were much more strict with our older son because it was our first time, and we didn’t want to “screw him up” by letting him run wild. Hence the personality differences that seem to be common between older and younger siblings. And even at this age, there is a personality difference, and that influences discipline. Our older son was just more curious and strong-willed, so we had to say “No” a lot more.

We want our kids to be brought in a home that promotes fairness and equality. But do developers need to guarantee the same treatment for their players?

Stick with me as a think through it; obviously, the game needs to promote “fair play” in that exploits and cheating between groups of players (or players and the environment) is minimized. But what I’m thinking about is the concept that themepark MMOs need to provide access to the exact same content to all players. Unless it’s a microtransaction model, players pay their entry fee and can ride all the rides (given enough time and/or effort). The experience is the same every time you visit; you might skip a ride or two every once in a while, or ride them in different order, and the park occasionally opens a new ride, or closes down an unpopular one. But the experience is essentially the same for everyone.

Isn’t having access to the same quantity of content enough? Sure, there might be rides that everyone rides (e.g. the Epic storyline in LotRO), but does the progression through content have to be identical no matter what race/class/faction/etc. is chosen?

And I’m not thinking of something like the “storyline for each class” that The Old Republic, either. Despite the wealth of content that represents, the experience would be the same every time one played an Imperial Agent, or a Smuggler, or a Trooper. What I’m talking about is the opportunity for real choice, and real cnosequences in a player’s experience. At least, as far as the story any given player will receive; once again, I think developer’s confuse the concept of player choice with global impact. We (players) don’t need our choices to be reflected in the world for everyone to see. It would be enough to have our choices reflected in the world we see.

I know this represents a lot of extra work for a developer. But I’m not convinced the 1500-or-more-hours-of-content design philosophy is really necessary anymore. If a developer were to come right out and say, “Look, you could pour 20+ hours a week into the game. But your going to burn through it in a handful of months. We’re designing for the player who can commit 4 to 5 hours per week, and we want those players to be successful and viable.” That would be a game for Real People, with Real Families and Real Jobs in the Real World.

Then a developer could design the content with choice and consequence in mind. The experience changes for every character created, and you can deliver an experience that offers a few hundred hours from start to endgame. Sure, you’d have players with tons of alts, but developers already have that in spades. And for those of you thinking, “A few hundred hours of content isn’t conducive to retaining player subscriptions for the long term”, I’d say that’s a good point – given the current design philosophy. But at 4 to 5 hours per week, you’re looking at one to two years of playing to work through a few hundred hours of content. And I’d be willing to subscribe to a game that lets me experience all of its content without feeling like I have a second job just so I can participate in the endgame.