Tag Archives: lotro

Embracing the tide of fleeting persistency

Bhagpuss nailed it. He just went ahead and nailed it.

Ever since I started playing multiplayer games and then switched to their “massively” department, my interest in single player games took a nose dive. For a long time, the explanation was clear and apparent: it’s just more fun to play with others, to experience the community, the teamwork, the competition. The social component, you see. Case closed, right?

Well, after quitting WoW in 2011, I was really rather fed up with all things social. My desire to play with someone else or against someone else hit absolute rock bottom, and yet…

Building up Steam

Skyrim was the perfect game at the perfect time for me. I had figured out my work-life-schedule, wanted to play something in my free time and couldn’t be bothered with other people. And everyone around was (still is, it seems) gushing about how that freshly released game was the best thing since sliced bread.

So, I went out and bought it. And had to set up a Steam account to play it. Yes, I know, I know. But, look, I had not played a single player game in years (the last one being Neverwinter Nights), so what use would a Steam account have been to me? For me, Steam was basically “that anti-cheat software Counter-Strike introduced a decade ago”. Never having played Counter-Strike either (except once at a private LAN-party, when my friends convinced me to try it and an hour later I begged them to stop threatening to fall asleep otherwise), I never had any use for it. To this day, my Steam library consists of just two games: Skyrim and Civilization V. I think I forgot my account password. Again.

Anyway. Skyrim. Me. Ready to go.

On horses and brigands

I lasted 16 hours. That’s what Steam tells me how long I played. In total. For a game that cost 60 Euro, that’s not a great value return. What went wrong?

I’ll spare you the rant about the silly console-oriented UI, won’t go into what I liked and what not. We’re talking a game that’s four years old now. Everything that had to be said about the good, the bad and the ugly has been said, written down, printed out, archived and subsequently shredded for data privacy protection purposes. No need to go there again. None of it was the problem anyway. Let me tell you what was, but first, let me tell you in advance, that this is entirely subjective. I mean, the elements I’ve been observing were objectively there, but my personal interpretation of those is subjective and doesn’t aspire to the status of some absolute truth in any way.

I remember getting a horse. Acquiring a mount is a good old MMO-staple, so that felt familiar. So, how do I call the horse? Oh, I don’t, it’s just there, I simply … mount it. Cool. How do I dismiss it? Oh, I don’t either! I simply climb down and then it stands there. So this wasn’t so much “my horse” as “a horse”, which I acquired the “legal” right to use. That was great, just like in the real world! So authentic!

So authentic … when it’s so authentic, you can’t help but wonder: what does it eat? What does it drink? When I leave it standing outside and it rains or snows, will it get a cold? Why is it not getting tired when I use it to ride for hours on end? Why, for that matter, am I not getting tired? Why does that stupid thing just stand there motionless, staring at me, waiting for me to act? No real horse would ever act like that!

I remember killing brigands near a cave. Then placing them in funny poses. Come on, you did that as well. Everyone did. Because we could. I remember returning to that cave some time later and finding them there, just as I left them. Again, realistic. But then again, since it was realistic, it compelled my mind to think further. And I remember thinking that this effectively means that this world I’m traveling has a fixed, finite number of brigands. Which, in turn, meant that I could rid this entire world of brigands by killing all of them. The pretend-world, after all, was, although large, not large enough to prevent me from doing it by making it take so long that a natural restocking of ranks would occur, which was undoubtedly not simulated anyway. Nor was it designed to make them bond together, flee, hide, fortify or try to stop me in any other way. I was their God, not just a hero or a Dragonborn, but an honest-to-god … God, as they lived and died by my mercy, just like everything else in the world that would only exist when I deigned to gaze at it, when the holy SaveGame would be loaded. And it freaked me out.

Uncanny Tamriel

The Uncanny Valley describes the phenomenon that human perception of a simulation improves as the quality of the simulation increases and then takes a sharp plunge (the namesake valley) when the simulation becomes “almost but not quite” real. There is a fantastic video on youtube showing Emily, a computer-animated person. She looks totally authentic, to the point where it needs to be explicitly restated at the end that yes, you really were watching an animation until then. And then there are a few short, fleeting moments when something about her eyes or her mouth moves in a way that instantly sends shivers down your spine, triggering some dark, primal, instinctive fear.

This is a part of what happened to me in Skyrim. “Come closer,” said the game, “take a look at my authentic and realistic brilliance!” But that’s the thing: when you get closer, you notice cracks you didn’t care about before, but which now seem deeper and darker than anything experienced prior. Or to quote Bhagpuss: It’s the way non-persistent worlds get so close to seeming “real” and then stop dead that causes the disconnect, I think. It’s jarring in a way the ongoing “we know this doesn’t make sense but we’ll all pretend it does” endless MMO Valhalla isn’t.

Massively Singleplayer

I honestly think that’s really it, for me. The way this fake-persistency makes everything seem so artificial, the attempt to make the world come to life making it appear dead to me. It’s the lack of a necessity to move on, to evolve, to preserve, to regrow that makes the game world appear to be all about me. And a world that is all about me can neither be realistic nor interesting.

Not too long after my Skyrim experiment ended, Star Wars: The Old Republic was released. I hesitated at first, but ended up getting it after a colleague recommended it. I played (almost) all the way to level cap without ever grouping or interacting with anyone. And yet it felt “right”. I was part of an online world inhabited by other people with their own goals, interests, schedules and preferences. It was my preference not to interact with them. But nevertheless, they were there, and their presence made the world seem real. And the fact that we shared that world made every little action much more persistent than a brigand corpse that never goes away or a horse that doesn’t either could ever do. At least, for me.

And, let me tell you, I played SWTOR, even during just that first time, for much longer than 16 hours. Making it a much better value for money proposition as well.

Nightfall Online

I remember – and will probably always remember – my first vivid impression of LotRO. I was running around the starter zone (obviously) and coming across a busy square time and time again. I played for quite a while and the hour was turning late. During the evening hours the square I had to repeatedly cross was buzzing with people. And when the time wore on and the PM turned AM the buzz slowly died down. Just a few adventurers would still be going about their business. Night fell and the people playing the characters went to bed. So did the characters. Night fell. The NPCs stood there, of course, unchanged, unmoved, always at the ready. But the world had calmed down regardless. Night fell. The way night falls in the real world, with real people going to sleep. Real people who would see you run across a square – or not see you when they were asleep, or when you would not be there yourself. Night fell.

Once you’ve been there, you cannot go back.


The Rem Awakens

Now look at this, all dusty and rusty…

*deletes spam comments*

*updates theme and layout*

*sweeps the place clean*

Better. So, is anyone still reading? Looks like I haven’t posted anything in … oh, just over 4 years. What I’ve been up to all this time, you ask? Well…

I’m still working at the job I started when I stopped blogging. It quickly became obvious that it’s pretty much my dream job. Likewise, my employer thinks highly of me as well and I got promoted fairly frequently. Now I’m on my way to “lead level”, which is a more complicated process than previous promotions.

Two and a half years ago I met a wonderful girl. She’s my best friend, the love of my life, the best conceivable partner for everything and my dearest darling. We married last year.

This summer, we moved from Berlin to Frankfurt to increase the probability of me getting project assignments near my home. And indeed, after four years of weekly flights and being recognized on sight at hotel receptions, I’m now actually sleeping at home most of the time and traveling to work by bus. Amazing!

I played (in many cases “tried”) a number of games over the years, which I might elaborate on in more detail in future posts. I know, you’re not holding your breath. Can’t blame you for being skeptical.

  • RIFT – unsubscribed pretty soon after writing I wouldn’t.
  • Skyrim – took all of 16 glorious hours for me to lose interest.
  • SWTOR – shortly after launch, stopped one level short of the (original) level cap.
  • EVE Online – loved its incredible depth, subscribed for 6 months, stopped playing after 3.
  • The Secret World – pretty much at launch; it was great, it was weird, it was different, it was awesome, and it sadly failed to grab me.
  • Guild Wars 2 – some good ideas, but not my cup of tea.
  • SWTOR – shortly before meeting my future wife, played a new character to level 45 over the Christmas holiday period.
  • Titan Quest – a first attempt to introduce my  (then not yet) wife to gaming. We both hated it and the introduction almost ended there.
  • Neverwinter Nights – a second attempt at playing together and first signs of fun. The game felt incredibly dated though and weirdly unwieldy.
  • LotRO – we played for a bit and she liked it! I felt incredibly annoyed by the spineless cash-grab the game had become. Didn’t get out of the starter area. However, she said she enjoyed having a nice story, so…
  • SWTOR – oh look. There we go again, this time together. We played a pair of characters all the way to level 35, then stopped because we had lots of stuff to take care of (getting married for example). Didn’t play anything for a year and a half. There was a good chance that that would have been it for good.
  • SWTOR – here we go again! Having settled in in our new home and our new life rhythm, we decided to give the hobby another go.

That’s where things stand. Let’s see where they go.

I am playing a Champion again

In LotRO, I played a Champion: a heavy armour (cf. plate) wearing melee damage dealer. The class concept of the Champion boiled down to a simple principle: kill it before it kills you. You had the Fervour stance, which you were basically using at all times – it increased your damage by 15%, massively boosted your power regeneration and completely disabled your avoidance. So your only line of defence was your armour and the ability to kill things quickly. A side effect of this configuration was that you were really, really motivated to maximise your damage output – not just at some abstract point in the distant future when you face a boss encounter and someone tells you that your DPS is low, but pretty early on, because your progress through the levelling game was directly impacted by how well you utilise your damage dealing abilities.

In RIFT, I am playing a Champion again. Well, actually I am playing a Warrior. Champion is only my “main soul”. And naturally Warriors have tanking souls as well, where the emphasis shifts to survivability, but I’m currently focused on damage dealing souls and that old Champion-feeling is back with a vengeance: how well I progress is directly related to how efficiently and effectively I deal damage. I can’t self-heal and the mobs – even very standard normal ones – don’t just take the punishment, but actually fight back. They cause enough damage to put me – in the long term – in very realistic danger of death if I am not being careful and efficient. And the quicker I can kill it, the less damage I take, the longer I can keep going before having to stop and drink. It all gets emphasized when dealing with rift invaders instead of normal mobs. The better I play, the better my gaming experience becomes. Revolutionary constellation, isn’t it?

Now, I don’t want to claim that RIFT is somehow OMG-hard. It isn’t. Nor do I want to jump on the “WoW is easy” bandwagon. WoW isn’t “easy”. Not in its whole. The problem is that WoW picks the spots in which it decides to be hard very selectively. Any glimpse of challenge is rigorously confined to level-cap dungeons and raids. Which, sure, are hard, but getting to that hard bit requires quite a number of preconditions (many of them social and organisational) to be met. The levelling game, on the other hand, is a joke, especially post-Cataclysm. At some point, someone at Blizzard got incredibly terrified that some hypothetical player will cancel their subscription upon encountering a quest they could not complete, and that hypothetically lost revenue could not be accepted. Thus the levelling game apparently was tweaked, tuned, adjusted and balanced for the damage output of a healer combined with the survivability of a clothie damage dealer. Consequently, levelling takes no effort whatsoever.

And then we wonder why there are so many “bad” players, especially damage dealers. If you are never challenged, how would you learn? Or why? If mobs die so fast that it is almost an accepted fact of life that you won’t be able to practice your “real rotation” until level cap .. well .. how would you practice your rotation then? If good play is not rewarded simply because its results are indistinguishable from the results of bad play, how would someone learn what constitutes good play and why it’s important? It is a weird vicious circle, in which the endgame is positioned as the one true thing, but you have so many levels to get through before you can get to it, so the levelling is streamlined and accelerated, which only further devalues the levelling and accentuates endgame, so levelling is trivialised and sped up further, which makes it even more inconsequential, and so on and so forth. The more it is trivialised and marginalised, the more it feels like a drag and a meaningless timesink.

Again, RIFT is not fabulously hard or anything. But it puts you up against mobs who can pose a danger to your health. Who survive your attacks long enough to make a difference in whether you hit the right keys or not. And while it’s far from screwing you over when you screw it up, the better you play, the better it goes.

Another advantage is that when the difficulty level is just that bit higher, it makes playing together with someone an actually advantageous endeavour again. In WoW, levelling as a team is mostly an impairment; there is always inevitably a coordination-and-thoughtfulness overhead, and since the “outer world” is trivial even for a single player, a team never gets a chance to make back in effectiveness what they lose in efficiency, and you only ruin each other’s rotations by cutting mob life expectations even shorter. When, on the other hand, there is a more decent base difficulty present, along with roadblocks you may face and optional challenges you might be able to jump at, The Team not only becomes viable again, but thrives and flourishes and is very much fun. Putting back the middle M in “MMO”. Cooperation only works when you have weaknesses your partner can compensate. I don’t want to be a self-sufficient superhero, I’d much rather be part of a team.

Travel and Exploration

I have not seen Gilneas yet. I heard it’s rather impressive. It would hardly cost me any effort to visit it. And yet, I haven’t done it. Does it not put a dent of sorts in my claiming that I want to have “more to do than just raiding” and “a world to experience”? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. Because of the two E – effort and experience.

All I have to do is hop on my flying mount, zip over and look at it. The same way one would look at screenshots on the internet, or a YouTube video. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Of course being there in person means you can run around, climb around, get interesting looks and perspectives, some of them may be pretty awesome. But still, it’s not a matter of “going to Gilneas” or “exploring Gilneas”, but really just happening to be in Gileas. Consuming Gilneas. And then getting the hell out of there, because you need to catch the teleporter to where you need to be next.

I often hear Melmoth complain about the need to travel in LotRO. Funnily, I mostly didn’t perceive travel in LotRO as an annoyance (with the exception of Forochel, where the main epic story mostly consisted of two people sitting at opposite sides of the Bay and making you ride back and forth around that damn freezing-cold thing carrying meaningful one-liner messages). I used to think of it as an experience. When I was in Bree and there was a reason to go to Rivendell, there was the possibility to take a swift ride (i.e. instant travel) from the stable master at the South Gate, but I would rarely use that. In most cases I would mount my own horse, just a plain, simple, brown horse, no pink elekk or angry mammoth, and get on my way.

I would ride eastward through Bree-land, circling around the Midgewater Marshes and remembering the little stories and events I was part of when I was just a beginning adventurer. I would enter the Lone Lands, pass the Forsaken Inn and ride on, frequently looking up towards the Weathertop, towering impressively and visible even from a distance. I would reach The Last Bridge, a monumental construction. I would usually stop there for a bit, especially if the sun was about to rise or set (LotRO doesn’t follow the real-world time of day, but instead a roughly 3 hour cycle, with 6 times of day and 6 times of night, each about 15 minutes in length), because the colours at those times were amazing; and especially when travelling with a friend, because it was a good place to halt and enjoy the scenery.

Then I would enter the Trollshaws, not quite where the lore would have them, but moved south for a greater gameplay relevance and experience, with their beautiful red-leafed trees and the winding road leading further east. At night, a couple of stone trolls (elites) would patrol the road. We used to kill them to make life easier for young adventurers who might have been travelling nearby. We’d sometimes steer off the road a little and towards a stone troll den, killing a few and looking intimidatingly at the others, so they’d remember to fear us and not dare to make too much trouble. Then we’d continue our travel.

We would cross the Bruinen and climb the steep path towards the last part of the journey, a barely touched wilderness where Turbine really managed to capture Tolkien’s description of the journey, the path gradually getting lost between plant and beast, confusing and making the traveller think he’s ultimately lost, and just then he would realise that he’s already there. And then you would descend into the wide valley to the swelling sounds of cheesy string music and the colour palette turning brighter and more vibrant, The Last Homely House in view.

This experience is what made Rivendell an actual place, rather than a postcard motif. We’d sometimes travel there on the eve before a raid night, so we could meet up with the others near Glorfindel the next day. Sometimes we’d go there for a quest, sometimes we’d go there so Alqua could do her scholary business in Elrond’s unique library. Sometimes I’d travel there because I wanted to mine ore in the Misty Mountains. Or for whatever other reason.

The only location I’m lacking to Explore Kalimdor is Orgrimmar – not even Durotar, just Orgrimmar. All I need to do is take the portal to Hyjal, jump on my gryphon, fly, reach, ding, gratz, done. I can do it any time. And since I can do it any time, I can’t be bothered to do it at any particular time. It just doesn’t feel like there’s an experience attached to it.

November games

While we’re all celebrating WoW’s 5th anniversary by letting “many whelps!” out, especially on the “left side, even side!”, I feel reminded of a November evening last year, the 17th, to be precise. It was the evening, when we went to kill Thaurlach, the Balrog, one last time at level 50, and then sought out our favourite spots (and companies) for an early logout. It was the evening, when Shadows of Angmar drifted into the past, taking many wonderful things with it. It seemed to get better from there – before it got much, much worse. So, now we’re here. And we certainly need more DoTs!

The difference

I loved LotRO. I truly did. But it never made me wish I’d have switched to MMORPGs earlier. WoW does. Call me names, if you wish, but that’s the difference.

I told you

This is not directed at those who read this blog, but those who do, know whom it’s directed at.

I told you. I didn’t, admittedly, do it in the most diplomatic or clever way, but rather in the form of an emotional outburst. But I told you there are issues, there are problems. You told me I’m the problem. You told me to take it or leave it. And I left. Others left with me. Only the problems, the issues, they didn’t leave with us, they remained with you. Now you’re stuck with the under-performers and the ride-hitchers, whose equality rights you were so eager to protect. Those who sleep through the raid and only wake up when it’s /roll time. Who don’t want to bring a character as soon as they’re geared, but to have their next alt geared instead. Who laugh when you bring the topic up, because they don’t understand why you suddenly have an issue with it. Because you failed to make a stand when you could have had. You cannot now, and thus you’re stuck with the split mentality, which you failed to acknowledge for too long. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

And yes, I bath in gloating. Because I told you. And you didn’t want to listen.

Status: cancelled

It is done. Logged into my COG account, looked at the beautiful landscape in the website’s background, the Gandalf-impression at the top and some ugly hobbit next to him, sighed and clicked the red button (and then was anti-dramaturgically redirected to the PayPal site where I had to log in to, you know, actually cancel the subscription).

So, this is it. Goodbye LotRO – I loved you, but won’t miss you. Thank you for the good times, the many hours of fun and the wonderful people I met (and ventured forth with).

My subscription still runs until the 18.09. – this is what you get when you decide to quit a game basically the next day after entering the subsequent period. But, then again, it made the decision easier, there was more of a safety cushion, more “I can go do that now, but don’t have to really leave yet” factor due to it. But by now, all possible doubts are gone. Don’t think I’ll be ever coming back either, to be honest. WoW is lots of fun right now, and then there’s still AoC waiting for its chance (which might never come), Aion looming behind the horizon as well as Mortal Online in the role of “the next, totally different thing”. The road goes forward, not back. Yet it was a nice time, and a nice game, be it even just because it had the Misty Mountains *winks*

The character (ability) development

In an RPG/MMORPG/MMOG your character usually starts at level 1 with only very few abilities, and some time later reaches the level cap, at which point it possesses a whole multitude of those. In some systems abilities are not only tied to character level (or any measure of progression), but are found, earned or acquired from drops, quests or talents/traits; however, the general notion is: you start with few, you end up with lots. Still, there are different ways to get from A to B, and today I’d like to compare two, as I have become aware recently, radically different approaches.

World of Warcraft. Of course. My Warrior is a level 28 now. Let’s have a look at the gameplay. At this point, my choice of offensive skills is very limited (and before anyone wonders, yes, the Warrior is a very offensive-minded class). Without being improved by specific talents, most of them are rather weak, highly conditional or simply inefficient. As an example, I know I’ll get the Slam ability at level 30 – but without either a talent deep down the Arms tree or another talent even deeper down the Fury tree, to use it not only isn’t beneficial, it’s actually detrimental to your damage output. Strictly speaking, in a regular single-target fight, I have 2-3 skills for doing damage, and 2-3 skills for tanking. They overlap for a total of 4; mostly just a shift in priorities.
At the same time, though, I already have lots of “tricky” abilities, that are there not just for the sake of purely dealing damage. I can strengthen the attacks of all nearby fellows, weaken the attacks of all nearby foes or fear them into running away, attract several enemies at once with damage or shouts, hamstring, disarm, shield wall, shield block and so on. Not everything is a “regular single-target fight”, after all – the most exciting things are not. So, it’s far from being dull, although the “daily grind” part isn’t at its most exciting either.
So, what’s the perspectives? The perspectives are rather friendly, but only mid- to long-term. In either spec, the actual and typical style of play doesn’t really enter until you get down the talent tree a good bit. Which is, I think, definitely a good thing, because that really makes the different specs radically different, rather than slightly coloured flavours of one and the same thing. On the flip side, however, it means I’ll have to stick to my 3-skill-rotations until about level 50. From what I understand, and have researched so far, it’s pretty much the same for most if not all classes and specs. Is this bad? Actually, no. It means there will be significant development and evolution of the things I can do and how I can do them all the way to the golden 80. And then, I’ll rightly sit down and say “okay, and now, let’s optimize this!” – which is a good thing, because I like it.

LotRO. Here, the opposite approach. Taking the example of the Champion (surprise!), when you reach level 20 and get your Relentless Strike, it’s your seventh or eighth attack skill. That’s certainly some variety early on. It is, however, also pretty much the last significant attack skill you ever get. For the next 40 levels you will be gifted mostly with “utility” – the stuff you were not bothered with in the beginning. You learn to clobber and hamstring, to self-heal and recover power; you get short-duration self-buffs and a short-duration AoE-stun; a few upgrades on your original skills. Things like that.
Basically, the class is done and deployed at level 20. After that, it’s just “rounding out the edges”. The way you fight will not significantly change thereafter. Or, well, it might, but it will be due to your having learned or discovered something new, rather than your character having done that. It’s maybe a little radical in the case of the Champion, but the trend is strong and omnipresent: lots of class-defining abilities up front, rounding out edges and potentially adding versatility later.
Is this bad? Not really, either. There is something to be said about giving people things to play with early on, letting them feel the class and where it’s going, how it’s going to be, right away. But it also turns the levelling process a little bit anti-climatic, when you keep expecting some new awesome skill or ability, but all you get are things you won’t use more than once a week. I guess it was also a reason, why I’d invariably lose interest in an alt somewhere around the mid-twenties latest – when all is set and learned and all that changes from there on is the colour of the icons.

To sum it up: WoW will withhold crucial rotation skills or the ability to efficiently use them from you until late in the game, while feeding you complementary abilities along the entire path. LotRO will let you have your rotation right away to enjoy and have fun with, at the price of reducing later gains to being mostly supplemental. Both approaches have their pros and cons.

Area of Effect

Reading the Mage Q&A last week I couldn’t help but stop at this point and wag a finger in the air in a silent expression of agreement:

Ghostcrawler: We used to call the mage the master of AoE damage, but we’ve since decided that’s not a great niche for anyone. The “AoE class” feels mandatory in situations where you do have large crowds of enemies to contend with, but then the AoE class gets bored when everyone else is maximizing their single-target damage on a boss.

How long have I been preaching this, or at least something very similar, on the subject of the champion class in LotRO? How long have I been pointing out, that the ability to totally destroy X trash-goblins at once can’t be regarded even remotely crucial? How long have I been shaking my head at the “kings of AoE” notion, because it’s a trait that tends to become less relevant, the more challenging an encounter gets (hint: when “pull together and nuke” is a valid strategy, the encounter can be safely classed as “trivial”)? How much effort did I put into streamlining my skill rotation and gear to reach for unexpected levels of single-target DPS-output (all your right-side slugs are belong to me!)? How disappointing was it, when starting with MoM champs were more and more pigeonholed into a niche only justified by the lacklustre content? I’ll tell you: so disappointing, that I eventually quit the game (although that was caused by many, many reasons, not only this one).

See, I know Blizzard has their own track of questionable design decisions. But quotes like the above make me hope, that these guys at least understand what this thing is they’re working on. That, and when you move to a new garden, you always want the grass to appear greener than in the old one *grins*