Gaming Roundup

November 26, 2009

I’ve been in LotRO hibernation mode for the past month in anticipation of Siege of Mirkwood, so I’ve had plenty of gaming time to invest elsewhere. As well as ploughing an obscene number of hours into Bioware’s latest, I’ve managed to play quite a diverse array of other titles (somewhat aided by my recent PS3 purchase). So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been playing:

Uncharted/Uncharted 2

My interest in Uncharted was piqued earlier in the year when I played the first 15 minutes on my friend’s PS3, and so with the combination of an ecstatically reviewed sequel and me managing to land a new job, I was persuaded to open my wallet for a shiny new PS3 Slim.

The original Uncharted is a sparkling gem of an action adventure. Endearing characters and witty dialogue, beautiful graphics, engaging platform scrabbling and solid cover-based gunplay. Sure, it’s only a few steps removed from Dragon’s Lair when it comes to authored and linear gameplay, but let’s face it, sprawling open worlds with extensive player agency usually get in the way of good storytelling. As great as they were as games, was anyone particularly engaged by the main story threads of Fallout 3, GTA IV or Far Cry 2?

Uncharted was without doubt the most enjoyable game I’ve played in quite some time, and then Uncharted 2 managed to effortlessly top it in every way imaginable. It’s the most beautiful game of this generation by leaps and bounds, and every single aspect of the original’s engine and design has been given a similarly impressive overhaul. Uncharted 2 is absolutely sublime from the first moment until the last, and is easily my game of the year. Indeed, as 2009 draws to a close, it could even end up edging out Portal as my game of the decade. It’s that good.

Metal Gear Solid 4

I really should have learned my lesson after the annoying MGS2 and almost unplayable MGS3, but what can I say, I was curious. MGS4 builds unwaveringly upon the key aspects of previous instalments, i.e. frustrating controls, terrible pacing, bewildering story, senseless and archaic game mechanics. Let’s just say that coming to this straight after Uncharted 2 did not provide a particularly favourable contrast. If you have any doubts after playing previous MGSs, heed them!

Little Big Planet

I’ve only been dabbling with this one, and while I haven’t found the single player game to be particularly engaging, it all starts to make a heck of a lot more sense when you add an extra player into the mix. I can only imagine that the 4-player co-op is ridiculously fun, and I hope to experience it at some point.

WipeOut HD

I purchased the original WipeOut alongside my original PS1 way back at the UK release in, err, 1996 or something, so this was more of a nostalgia purchase than anything. The core gameplay in HD is almost untouched since that heady Brit Pop period, but it sure looks impressive nowadays. A perfect game to fill those random 10 minute sessions.

Flower

A beautiful and often moving little gem that has you waging war against industrialism with a single flower petal. With it’s languid pace and ambient soundscape, Flower is as much about creating a mood as it is about providing a structured gameplay experience. If you are in any way interested in the idea of games-as-art, then Flower is probably something you should check out if you get the chance.

Machinarium

A gorgeous little graphic adventure that will bring joy to any fan of the genre. Short, sweet and perfectly formed. Definitely one to savour.

Borderlands

Surprisingly great fun in co-op, but a little soulless as a single-player experience. Also, like the MMOs it so heavily adopts from, the levels too easily get in the way of playing with friends, which is a shame. Great concept though, and something I hope Gearbox will continue to refine and build upon.

Modern Warfare 2

Being essentially Call of Duty (2003) with 6 years of polish, a spoonful of hype, a dash of controversy, and a few more set pieces. Not much more to say, really. If you haven’t already bought it, you probably aren’t going to.

Left 4 Dead 2

Being significantly more of a sequel than Modern Warfare 2. The new campaigns are brilliant, the new special infected slot effortlessly into the mix, and how did we ever manage without melee weapons? Also, have you noticed how the game dampens voice chat during the storms in Hard Rain? L4D2 is more proof, if ever it was needed, that Valve are geniuses. Be warned though Valve, if we see L4D3 before HL2: Episode 3 or Portal 2, I’ll be sharpening my knives.

Short Dragon Age Review

November 16, 2009

Dragon Age is pretty much a contemporary Baldur’s Gate, complete with party-based combat, conversation trees, motley crew of companions, and imminent threat to the world that seems perfectly willing to postpone its grand plans while you run around performing menial tasks, stealing anything that isn’t nailed down, and trying to bed any lady (or gent, if so inclined) that obliges you with the appropriate conversation option.

This is all splendid old-school RPG fun, but I can’t help wishing that the setting was just slightly less generic. It’s feels like Forgotten Realms wearing a slightly-different-and-less-colourful hat, and the extent of the apparent George R. R. Martin influence seems to have been to go through the script and replace all occurrences of ‘Sir’ with ‘Ser’. The only advance in ‘maturity’ from the Baldur’s Gate days seems to be the persistent gore effect, which I had to promptly disable in order to salvage every conversation from comic absurdity. Indeed, the setting and story were the most disappointing aspects of Dragon Age for me, especially since they were so strong in Bioware’s last release, Mass Effect.

The gameplay itself is enjoyable enough. The combat is solid and challenging, if a little repetitive. The interface, graphics, dialogue and voice acting are all as good as you’d expect. I just couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by it all. Perhaps the game’s protracted development cycle was simply too long. It felt like something that should have been released a couple of years before Mass Effect, and the quality of the gameplay footage from ME2 seems to leave no doubt as to which of the two is Bioware’s flagship franchise.

In summary, Dragon Age is an accomplished RPG with an almost painfully generic setting and a disappointing-by-Bioware-standards story. Saying all that, I did sink about 80 hours into it, so it must have been doing something right.

LotRO: Where Am I? A Game for Explorers

October 21, 2009

Inspired by Massively’s Where Am I? series, I recently started an  exploration game on my Kinship’s forum.

The rules are simple:

  1. Someone posts a picture of a location (I posted the first one).
  2. The first person to post with the name and map coordinates of the location where the picture was taken is allowed to post the next picture.
  3. Private instances are out-of-bounds, but any public area of Middle-Earth is permitted, as long as the developers intended avatars to be able to reach it (there are a couple of ‘behind the curtain’ bugs that we know of).
  4. The picture should be of a distinctive location, i.e. no pictures of generic trees or walls with very little context.

It has proven much more popular than I expected, with over 40 locations and about 250 posts in the thread, and I’d certainly recommend it as an enjoyable activity to liven up any Kinship forum. I guess it would translate to any MMO, though I have an obvious bias for LotRO’s beautiful landscapes :)

Here are a few of my entries to give you some ideas. Some are easy, some less so!

That’s my character in the last one. He probably won’t be there if and when you find the location. Happy hunting!

PC Gaming Round Up

October 12, 2009

As usual I’ve been spending most of my gaming time in Middle-Earth, but I have managed to squeeze in a few other games recently:

Tales of Monkey Island

Episode 3 of Telltale’s 5 episode Monkey Island revival arrived last week, and while it was certainly entertaining, it seemed markedly truncated in comparison to the preceding episodes – the whole thing taking place in just a few areas. On the plus side, it contains a couple of interesting puzzle themes beyond usual ‘use banana on metronome’ affair, and it saw the genuinely amusing return of reasonably-old favourite, Murray the Demonic Talking Skull.

At this rate we should see episode 5 by the end of the year, and then what next for Telltale? A Maniac Mansion/Day of the Tentacle season would be at the top of my wish list, but I’ll probably end up picking up whatever they settle on.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

A beautifully crafted game that fully deserves the many plaudits being heaped upon it. Ok, the brawling is pretty basic and the stealth is rudimentary, but it’s all implemented so perfectly that it’s difficult to see how changing anything would improve the gestalt. You’re Batman, and Batman should be able to take on half a dozen goons at once without breaking a sweat, or if the goons are armed, he should be able to dispose of them one-by-one as they are gripped by paranoia. The balance between feeling powerful yet vulnerable is extremely well judged.

Actually, I find it almost impossible to fault any aspect of the game at all. The voice acting, the art direction, the pacing, the atmosphere – all exemplary. Even the PC port is outstanding, although Microsoft can take Games for Windows LIVE and shove it up their Arkham. You’d think it would be trivial to ensure that one of your products, i.e. GFWL, works reasonably well with another one of your products, i.e. Windows 7.

Lucidity

Lucidity seems to be the first of LucasArts attempts to cash in on the growing popularity of indie games such as Braid and World of Goo. I’ve only spent about 10 minutes with it so far, and while the art direction is very nice, I haven’t yet been sold on the gameplay, which seems to be a cross between Tetris, Lemmings and some old fan-projection puzzle game I vaguely remember playing on the Amiga.

I’m sure there is much more to the game than I’ve so far seen, so I’ll reserve judgement at this stage. However, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Lucidity is neither a Braid nor a World of Goo. Ok, I knew that before I bought it, but I felt duty-bound to support LucasArts in their new endeavour of developing original game ideas, heck, any games that aren’t Star Wars! The last great game that LucasArts produced was Grim Fandango, back in 1998, and that makes me feel very sad.

Left 4 Dead – Crash Course

Crash Course being the semi-campaign Valve threw together to appease angry fans after the announcement of L4D2, or perhaps the long-planned DLC to get lapsed players back into the habit just in time for the sequel. Either way, it’s a huge ton of fun, as you’d expect, though in a slightly nostalgic sense. One last dance with Bill, Zoey, Lewis and Frances before we abandon them to their probably-gruesome fates and head off to meet our new cast in the Deep South. It’s nice to be running around in new locations, but don’t expect the overall experience to be particularly novel.

Looking forward to:

Machinarium, Dragon Age: Origins, Left 4 Dead 2, Siege of Mirkwood (naturally)

Keeping an eye on:

Borderlands, Modern Warfare 2

Aion: First Weekend Thoughts and Impressions

September 28, 2009

Aion was released last week, and despite my being in the EU headstart, I only managed to put some significant time into it this weekend. I’m not really sure why I felt the need to purchase Aion. I’m very happy with LotRO as my main MMO, and this would be the case even without the imminent release of Siege of Mirkwood.

I think a couple of things sold Aion to me. The first being the promise of exploring a new and pretty CryENGINE rendered world. The second was not wanting to miss out on the excitement of a new MMO launch. Heck, even AoC and WAR, despite their myriad launch issues, were massive amounts of fun in the first couple of weeks, mostly due to the novelty of the experience and the vibrancy of their busy worlds.

Busy, busy, busy

Busy, however, is a subjective term, as Aion has made me realise. Never have I seen so many hundreds of MMO players crammed into the same places on a regular basis. While this is likely a consequence of having just a single leveling path for each of the 2 factions, busy zones are regularly instanced into multiple channels to mitigate congestion, with each channel as heaving as the last.

It’s difficult not to be impressed by the scale of Aion’s launch, even if that does have a downside for most players – while with last year’s big releases, Funcom and Mythic took the approach of launching with a sufficient number of servers to ensure that the initial player rush was more or less contained, NCSoft are seemingly deliberately trying to squeeze too many players onto too few servers, as evidenced by ubiquitous login queues.

NCSoft obviously expect the initial player rush to subside as the ‘WoW tourists’ succumb to their homesickness, and in a desire to avoid the costs and negative publicity associated with closing superfluous servers, they’ve chosen instead to subject their initial players to login queues. Although frustrating for many, it’s probably the right decision.

Those that enjoy the game and plan to stick around will endure the queues, as was proven in the early days of WoW. Those that are likely not to stick around will probably make their decision based on their game experience, not their queue experience, providing they can actually get into the game, of course!

I’m guessing that in a few weeks time, login queues are likely to become a rare occurrence, or at least much less severe. By then, the majority of launch players will have the measure of Aion, and great swathes of them will have realised that the game just isn’t for them. This isn’t because Aion is a bad game. In fact, it’s a beautiful, extremely polished and fully featured MMORPG.

Beyond the queues

What Aion isn’t though, is a more enjoyable leveling game than WoW, and while the PvPvE end-game might well be truly unique and revolutionary, I doubt that the early and mid-game is compelling enough to inspire your typical WoW player to work their way through to that wonderful end-game. Even those players that do find Aion’s leveling engaging are unlikely to find it compelling or different enough to neglect the social ties they have made elsewhere for long.

The classes too are fairly uninspired. You get all the typical MMORPG archetypes: tank, melee DPS, sneaky assassin, bow-wielding ranger, glass-cannon mage, pet class mage, pure healer & buff-focussed healer/DPS hybrid. This would be more tolerable if the classes had new and varied mechanics to make them interesting, but instead, all we seem to get is a straightforward chaining mechanic.

I rolled a Chanter, which is the healer/DPS/buffer hybrid, and at level 16 all I have are half a dozen fire-and-forget buffs, a couple of heals, a nuke, and a few chain related melee attacks. Similarly to the chap that reviewed the game over at Eurogamer, a typical round of combat consists of a predictable sequence of button presses until a mob is dead. Ok, the same charge could be levelled at most MMORPGs, but never have I found it so conspicuous as in Aion.

I’ve also dabbled somewhat with the crafting, and with this being the first Asian MMO I’ve spent any significant time with, it helped me develop an appreciation of just how much grind is tolerated in that corner of the world. I’d hate to imagine what a non-Westernised Asian MMORPG must be like!

Wish you were here

I guess I fall squarely into the Middle-Earth tourist demographic, because  while I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with Aion this weekend, I kind of wish I’d had the same idea as Spinks and just scratched my curiosity itch in the beta. Actually, I did plan to make use of my pre-order beta access, but I ran into a worryingly common control-related omission that prevented me from playing until the launch patch was implemented.

However, I do not begrudge having given NCSoft my cash. I am likely to have as many fun hours out of Aion as I would a typical single player game (the gliding-as-shortcut alone has provided much entertainment), and my small contribution to Aion’s launch success will hopefully play its part in inspiring further development, and ultimately competition, in the MMORPG space. A significant number of WoW tourists may even decide to emigrate, and whenever Blizzard is forced to abandon some of its complacency, we all benefit.

LotRO’s Warden: A Template for Complex Combat in Console MMORPGs?

September 24, 2009

Partially inspired by the venerable Melmoth’s recommendation, and partly because I’ve been grouping with them more frequently at end-game, I’ve recently rolled a Warden to see what all the fuss is about.

For those unfamiliar with the Warden, they are one of two new classes introduced with the Mines of Moria expansion at the end of last year. They are a tank of sorts, but with an interesting twist. Instead of having to fill up several quickbars with a multitude of distinct abilities – as is the norm in LotRO and most other MMOs in the DikuMUD/EQ/WoW template – the great majority of Warden skills are triggered by stringing together just 3 distinct attacks (Spear = damage, Shield = defence, Fist = threat) into combinations, called Gambits, and then hitting a 4th skill to trigger the desired effect.

4 skills, and you have the basis of a class as interesting and complex, and arguably more so, than many of the classes in LotRO or WoW. Throw in a skill to clear the current Gambit, and a few different stances and special attacks, and you have a control scheme that starts to look more at home on a 360 or PS3 control pad than on a traditional keyboard and mouse arrangement.

With Turbine already well into development on a console based MMO, the Warden stands out as a highly conspicuous design decision. It’s almost as if someone high-up at Turbine instructed the class developers to make a class that would work on a control pad without sacrificing complexity. If there is any truth in this, it raises the question of whether Turbine consider the Warden to be a viable template for console MMO combat, or just an interesting diversion on the road to a better system.

Could we imagine a console-based MMORPG made up entirely of Gambit based combat? Several classes each with their own array of specific Gambits, perhaps? Instead of a core selection of damage, defence & threat for tanks, a support class could have damage, healing & buffing. A DPS class could have damage, debuffing, threat reduction. Perhaps players could even construct their own classes by choosing a custom selection of core Gambit types, similarly to choice of power sets in Champions Online.

Going one step further, and taking a leaf out of the Rune Keeper’s book (LotRO’s other relatively recent class addition), we might imagine a classless system where players ‘attune’ in strength towards certain roles at the expense of others, simply by their choice of Gambits. This attunement might persist over time, meaning that players that often tank will see their tanking Gambits increase in effectiveness, and they may even be able to unlock new tanking related Gambits, but conversely, their healing Gambits will remain weak and limited. At some point a healer may decide that they’ve had enough of being blamed for wipes, find an appropriate NPC, and pay to have their attunement reset.

I haven’t played Champions Online, but from what I’ve gleaned, combat also works with a limited number of buttons. However, in contrast to the Warden, the focus is on the fast and reactive use of a limited skill set, rather than a more slow and strategic selection of a much wider range of unique abilities. Perhaps a console MMO could include classes of both of these types. Uncomplicated brawlers with reactive combat vs. strategic casters with Gambit-based combat.

While I don’t imagine for a second that the future of PC MMO gaming is under threat from console-based MMOs, I would certainly be more inclined to try a console MMO if it promised combat complexity on the level of LotRO, and it’s hard to see this happening without use of something like the Warden’s Gambit system. I for one will certainly be very interested to learn about the combat-system specifics of Turbine’s new MMO when it is eventually announced.

LotRO: What will the Siege of Mirkwood end-game look like?

September 11, 2009

Jeffrey Steefel, Executive Producer of LotRO, was interviewed at PAX by TenTonHammer regarding newly announced expansion, Siege of Mirkwood. Watching the full video of the interview yesterday, I picked out that the expansion will add the following end-game instances:

2 x 3-man instances
1 x 6-man instance
1 x 12-man instance (Dol Guldur)

In case you aren’t aware, that’s exactly the same amount of instance content that was added in Book 8 – a free update, no less. In contrast, Moria launched with 7 x 6-man instances and a lair raid.

So what’s the deal? Is this what end-game will look like for several months, at least until Volume 3: Book 1 is released next year?

Well, we need to discard our usual conception of an expansion that invalidates previous end-game content. Siege of Mirkwood includes Book 9, the conclusion to the Volume 2 epic story, and players should progress naturally from Moria content to Mirkwood content. Those interested in raiding aren’t going to be able to skip the Moria content, and the reason for that is our old friend radiance. To paraphrase Jeffrey Steefel, Dol Guldur is going to require ‘tons and tons of radiance’. If you want to raid Dol Guldur, you’re going to need to acquaint/reacquaint yourself with the radiance treadmill.

All isn’t all dread and gloom, however. Instead of Moria’s 10 levels, the level-cap is only increasing by 5 this time around. This will make Moria’s end-game instances significantly easier, but it isn’t enough to trivialise them completely. Those that have found one or more of the hard-modes too challenging will now find them much more forgiving. The Watcher will now be manageable by pugs and casual raiders, at least with a bit of persistence. Additionally, the prospective changes to radiance gear bartering should further facilitate acquisition.

In consequence, Dar Narbugud will likely become almost as accessible as The Rift was back in the day, and those extra 5 levels will allow the vast majority of players to make good progress there. In a likely scenario, Dol Guldur might require something like 100 base radiance, and this should now be a pretty realistic goal for those that can raid a couple of nights a week. 3 or 4 pieces of DN +20 gear, the rest +10 or +15 pieces, and the requirement will be met. In the worst case scenario, it might be necessary to obtain a full DN set, but I believe this is extremely unlikely.

So what can we expect from the new instances?

Jeffrey Steefel demonstrates a little of the Dol Guldur instance during the interview. He mentions that it is a multi-boss raid, and going by former precedent, we might assume this means it will include 6 bosses – enough to provide barter items for a full armour set. Dol Guldur, being a former stronghold of Sauron with a rich history in the lore, certainly deserves an epic instance of this magnitude.

On the other hand, multi-boss raids take a considerable chunk of development time to put together, and Dar Narbugud was only released a couple of months ago. Have Turbine had enough time to produce another substantial 6-boss raid instance so soon? Isn’t it more likely that the raid will only include 2 or 3 bosses? Without any other information to go on, and since Dar Narbugud was originally scheduled for Book 7, I’m going to assume that Dol Guldur has been in development for quite a while, and will indeed be a full multi-boss raid.

The other new instances we know even less about, but it would probably be safe to assume that they share a little in common with the similar ‘cluster’ added in Book 8. That is, the 3-mans will be interesting and challenging, probably designed to take about 30-60 minutes, and the 6-man will take about an hour and contain a few challenging bosses. I’d love to see a huge Carn-Dum like affair for the 6-man, but alas, I think it unlikely.

Loot wise, I wouldn’t be surprised if these instances provided (via bartering) +15 radiance pieces to complement those obtained from the Book 8 cluster, cumulating in 90 radiance for a full set. This would sound the death knell for the original Moria 6-mans, however, so we’ll see.

LotRO: Siege of Mirkwood Impressions

September 7, 2009

Turbine/Codemasters inevitably annouced the next LotRO expansion/DLC pretty much the moment I walked out of the door for an internet-free weekend on Friday. There is lots to take in, but on the whole I am feeling pretty positive about Siege of Mirkwood. Some initial thoughts:

- Increased level cap to 65. I like level cap raises. I like questing, levelling up and replacing all my gear, and I love the cries of anguish from achiever types that all their ‘hard work’ has been invalidated. Great stuff. Also, an increase of 5 levels hopefully means at least 5 levels worth of levelling content, which somewhat allays my fears about only getting one new zone.

- Southern Mirkwood looks like a decently sized zone with a fair whack of content. Ok, it’s not Rohan, but heck, Mirkwood is still cool and we’ll get to Rohan eventually. Jeffrey Steefel hinted in the TenTonHammer PAX video that with the Hobbit movies coming out over the next couple of years, there were exciting opportunities to head into Northern Mirkwood etc. I think we should take this as a pretty solid confirmation that Turbine are definitely looking to cash in on the movie hype.

- The new 3 & 6-man instances and the new raid sound interesting. The mentioned radiance requirement for the raid is likely to be highly contentious, and if several DN pieces are required, they are going to see a very unhappy bunch of players. On the other hand, The Watcher and DN will be significantly easier at level 65 than at level 60, and this should facilitate ‘catch up’.

- Skirmishes, if sufficiently fun and rewarding, sound like they could offer a social-orientated filler activity for ad-hoc groups. I very much like the idea of having my own levellable companion NPC tailored to my specifications. On the surface, skirmishes sound like a really great addition to the game.

- The ‘Enhanced Combat Responsiveness‘ sounds great. One of the biggest complaints about LotRO from the ignorant and unwashed (i.e. players of other MMOs ;)) is that the combat feels ‘unresponsive’. This should address that complaint somewhat. Essentially, auto-attacks will now be interruptible by skills, meaning the only delays players will now experience should be the trailing animations of skills they have themselves triggered. This should make combat feel closer to global cooldown-based combat systems like WoW.

- Horses being changed from items to skills, and the introduction of account-wide storage, just seem to be part of the trickle of new features and polish that can be expected in a maturing MMO. Basically just Turbine trying to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case, the WoWses. Storage especially is a growing problem in LotRO and anything that frees up a few more bag slots is a very welcome addition. And yes, it will be nice to be able to zone and speak to NPCs without dismounting, although this is something that took me a while to get used to when I spent some time in WoW earlier this year!

- We’ll probably need to hear a few more details about the Legendary Item system revamp before deciding whether it is much of an improvement or not. Being able to somewhat customise the legacies on crafted weapons will be a huge improvement, and the introduction of a 4th runic slot, possibly crafted if I heard Mr. Steefel correctly, will add some more depth. My guess at this stage is that we’ll have to replace our level 60 weapons with level 65 ones and it is these that will be levellable to 60 (for the uninitiated, LIs have an associated player level restriction, e.g. 60, and this is distinct from their own level range, e.g. 1-50).

- Despite being a mini-expansion, the price point of $19.99 sounds very reasonable, and I’d be happy to pay up to £20 when Codemasters announce their pricing. As an early lifetime subscriber, I’ve only actually paid £20 in the last 2 years, and would actually quite like the opportunity to hand over money on a more regular basis, especially in response to substantial content updates like this.

So in summary, my initial impressions for Siege of Mirkwood are good, though no doubt I’ll be coming back to exercise a few ‘detail devils’ in the weeks to come.

LotRO: Easy social content with compelling rewards. Why not?

August 26, 2009

Book 8 Patch 1 saw the introduction of 5 new daily quests for endgame players. These ‘bounty quests’ involve heading out to various locations around Eriador and killing named mobs for item experience rewards. A player can obtain over 500k+ IXP in just over 30 minutes of questing, sufficient to fully level a legendary item in just 6 days. This is far and away the most efficient way to accumulate IXP now.

3 of the bounty quests are soloable, and the other 2 simply require small fellowships of 2 or 3 players. However, there is no reason not to do all 5 quests in a full fellowship of 6 players. Just find a Hunter to provide some group swift-travel to speed things up, fill up with interested people, and you’re good to go. In my Kinship, there are several of these groups happening on a daily basis. They are just so convenient and rewarding, and with so few restrictions, that there is almost no reason not to do them when the opportunity arises.

As well as the lucrative IXP rewards, I’m finding that there are huge social benefits to this kind of quest design. About 50% of the time doing these quests is spent travelling to the next location. This provides amble opportunity for spontaneous chat within the fellowship – light roleplaying, a bit of banter amongst friends, established Kinship members getting a chance to get to know newer members. With the frequency of PUGs forming to do these quests, I can imagine new social connections being formed all over the server on a daily basis. Challenging content has its place, but it usually requires focussed concentration, and can often be somewhat intense and stressful. In contrast, these bounty quests provide easy collaborative tasks that allow relaxed social interaction to flourish.

The actual quest locations are usually quite busy, but not in a competitive way. The mobs only spawn for those with the quest, and there is a trivial delay between one group finishing and the mob spawning again. Queuing etiquette, at least on my server, has been exemplary. Indeed, excessive politeness seems to be causing more delays than queue-jumping – “Please, after you.”, “No, I insist, you first.” It has given me a new found appreciation of my server’s community. A nice counterpoint to the minority of players that tirelessly flood the custom GlobalLFF channel with their inane bilge.

With these bounty quests, Turbine have found themselves in the strange position of being able to offer rewards that are equally desirable to a casual solo-orientated player as to a grizzled raiding veteran, and without promoting financial inflation. Both players get something nice that feels like a healthy chunk of ‘progression’, and so both are happy. Almost every level capped character – main or alt – has a legendary item that needs levelling, and this quest will therefore remain popular until other factors change.

As a minor downside, these quests have the effect of creating a huge disincentive for running some of the older IXP rewarding content. The most lucrative of the original Moria IXP instances gave somewhere in the region of a paltry 20k IXP, and these instances are now only useful for the occasional legendary item scroll (those that add a particular damage type to a weapon, for example). The previous best method for obtaining IXP, the crafting resource instances, will now mostly be used for their main purpose, and also for a slow and reliable method of obtaining gold leaves (Lothlorien barter items). It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for Turbine to go back and adjust the numbers a little for the sake of consistency.

The Turbine dev responsible for the bounty quests has admitted that he didn’t anticipate them being as popular as they’ve turned out, and indeed, a different developer was apparently responsible for assigning the surprisingly generous IXP rewards. One possible prospective change that has been hinted at is to increase the quest cooldown to 3 days. This would be a shame in my opinion, because it would reduce the number of social occasions that the quests currently facilitate. If they really must be nerfed, my preference would be for a straight IXP reduction. I reckon most people would still happily run these quests for 200k instead of 500k IXP.

Of course, looking at this more cynically, it could be suggested that this is Turbine’s attempt to pacify the casual majority for the radiance mess. Also, assuming the next expansion is on schedule, we are now entering the final phase of the Mines of Moria era. It has became somewhat of a tradition for MMO developers to start handing out rewards like candy as an expansion cycle draws to a close. Grinds become less and less compelling as a gear reset approaches, so ‘bribing’ the player base with easily obtainable rewards becomes a more effective method for distracting attention away from the ‘cancel subscription’ button. We’ve also seen this with the introduction of crafted 2nd Age items and 1st Age item bartering.

Whatever Turbine’s reasons for furnishing these quests with such compelling rewards, it seems fairly apparent that content such as this has many positive social consequences at any stage of an expansion cycle. Promoting social ties and feelings of community amongst players on the endgame treadmill must be a more effective way of prolonging subscriptions than just providing the treadmill alone. Indeed, I’d like to see more such content in LotRO, preferably with increased variety and the potential for a larger number of participants. I can only hope that the forthcoming ‘skirmishes’ – the scalable instance content likely arriving in Book 9 – will provide such an experience.

Are we experiencing another ‘Trammel’ in MMORPG design?

August 6, 2009

Richard Bartle’s compartmentalisation of MUD/MMORPG players into 4 types – Achievers, Explorers, Socialisers and Killers – is well established in the lexicon of those that take an interest in MMORPG design.

Even though every MMORPG player is most likely some sort of combination of these types – a fact seemingly acknowledged in the popular test derived from Bartle’s research – we can probably assume that a majority of players have a tendency to prefer just one type. When we talk about Achievers, we are talking about players that prefer that aspect of the MMORPG experience over the others, but who don’t necessarily dislike the others. Therefore, talking about ‘Achievers’ as a group seems to be meaningful, with the caveat that there is probably no such thing as a pure Achiever.

The perceived wisdom used to be that MMORPG designers should attempt to appeal somewhat equally to all player types, but problems inevitably arose when the enjoyment of one type infringed upon that of the others. Back in 2000, the world of Ultima Online was split in two by popular demand. The PvP-free world of Trammel emerged, and this proved to by far more popular than the PvP world of Felucca.

The legacy of that split lives on today. WoW’s PvE server population dwarfs its PvP server population, and on PvE servers it is relegated to a consensual activity of marginal impact. In LotRO, PvP is relegated to a single zone called the Ettenmoors, which a player is never obliged to visit. AoC and WAR were both heavily designed to provide a PvP-free experience on the assumption that there would be many that wanted it. In recent times, only games like Darkfall, an unashamedly niche title, have attempted to embrace non-consenual PvP as an inherent design goal. Ultimately, I don’t think many would now argue that an MMORPG needs to appeal equally to all 4 types in order to be successful.

Fast-forward several years and there are signs that another conflict between the types might be coming to the boil. Achievers and Explorers have been knocking heads together for a while now, especially with regards to gating of content (yep, if it wasn’t obvious before, this post is yet another outlet for my axe-grinding).

Achiever types traditionally thrive in content gating situations. From launch until recently, WoW contained a fairly strict raid progression requiring much content repetition in order to slowly inflate player stats to the point where higher tiers of content could be attempted. Raiding became a highly competitive activity, not just between guilds on the same server, but between guilds globally. This was all fantastic for the Achiever types, but what about the mass of players that didn’t give a damn about ‘server firsts’, and just want to experience the shiny new content that their subscription dollars had paid for? Explorers undeniably got the short end of the stick during this period of WoW’s history.

The Explorers were forced either to join the numbing grind, or to hang up their hiking boots and call it a day. Somewhere deep inside Blizzard HQ, the chief exit-questionnaire-number-cruncher must have squawked loudly that the balance was swinging too far towards the latter choice, and consequently, Wrath of the Lich King saw raiding accessibility greatly increased. Achievers must now make do with ‘hard mode’ achievements in order to distinguish themselves from the masses, and the masses get to actually see the new content. Time will tell whether this uneasy compromise will manage to appease both camps, but I’ve certainly heard plenty of rumblings from Achiever types that they now find WoW raiding too easy.

In other quarters we have Turbine’s use of Radiance to gate raiding content in LotRO. The masses have spoken out against it, rather vehemently, and it seems like Turbine have had the good sense to get the message. We have been told to expect increased accessibility sometime soon.

So, given that Achievers and Explorers both seem to enjoy raiding, can they both coexist peacefully? Or is there a fundamental conflict between what they both want from the experience? Are we hitting the point where the tide is turning against Achiever focussed content, just as it did against the Killers all those years ago? Will traditional ‘hardcore’ raiding become less and less popular, even niche, in a similar way to non-consenual PvP?

Maybe it can be explained in relation to player demography. If we assume Achiever types have a tendency to be younger, and drift more towards the Explorer temperament as they age, perhaps Blizzard’s changing raiding strategy is simply an adaptation to its changing playerbase?

And Socialisers, what do you think about all this? ;)


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