Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My Time's My Own : LotRO

My unexpected return to Middle Earth continues. Since repatching LotRO a couple of weeks ago I have found myself logging in almost every day. Some days I play for several hours.

Why? I asked myself that and, while there are probably any number of reasons, I think it has a great deal to do with the vastly reduced number and simplified nature of quests available to me as a Premium player.

Syp posted recently about the difficulties of returning to an MMO that's been around for a long time. It absolutely can be overwhelming. He also posted about the difficulty of keeping up with multiple MMOs and that's something that I find increasingly challenging, too.

Like Syp, I like to cultivate the impression that I play a plethora of MMOs and I have played, or at least dipped into, a lot of them. I think the count must be somewhere north of a hundred and fifty by now.

MMOs, though, take a long time to "play". Even if you only potter around, see the sights, stick with the low level areas or the easy stuff, you're looking at an investment measured in hours per week rather than minutes.

If I'm intending to do current content at the level cap I've found that I can realistically only handle a couple of MMOs at a time and even then probably only of those is going to include a run at full-on "end game" content. To that playload I can add another three or four titles that I'm either trying out, messing around with or bingeing on.

There are a lot of MMOs I once played that in theory I'd like to play again. I have a mental list on which certain titles persistently appear - Fallen Earth, Allods, Dragon Nest, ArcheAge, Rift, World of Warcraft... and Lord of the Rings Online.

Every once in a while I'll patch one of them up and log in. Usually I'll wander about a bit, look at my bags and banks, check my mail, flip through my quest log and then...give up. As Syp says, "it can feel absolutely overwhelming when you try to get your head around the mountain of content". And the even bigger mountain of stuff in your bags.

Occasionally, though, something just clicks. Last year I spent a couple of months in WoW mostly because the pre-Legion invasions offered both an accessible re-entry point and an easily understood goal. In LotRo this time it wasn't anything so dramatic or obvious that set the hook.

As I recounted at the time, the thought of a free horse was just enough of an incentive to persuade me to take the necessary time to clear enough bag space to open the Anniversary gifts. Going through my bags to decide what to throw out led directly to an investigation of the Task system. I liked the sound of it.

This time when I mounted up and went exploring, something I'd done on previous short-lived returns to Middle Earth, I was able to do more than just take a few screenshots. I fought stuff and had room to loot what dropped. Then all I had to do was ride into town and hand in the skins.

This seems to me to be the essence of virtual world gameplay although I'm not sure how much it has to do with MMOs. It's an entirely solo, automated process. It is, however, one of the handful of key experiences that drew me to what we loosely describe as MMO gameplay in the first place.

I really, really like hunting down creatures and returning to town to hand in their body parts. Or, in the case of sentients, their possessions. I liked collecting the pelts from rabid bears in Qeynos Hills, the ears from gnolls in Highpass, the helmets from Lucan's guards in Freeport or the belts from the Crushbone orcs.

Bounty hunting in these fantasy settings offers a clear and straightforward proposition that always seems to make sense. Naturally the city guards want the threat outside their walls curtailed; naturally they are authorized to pay a small stipend to anyone able and willing to keep the wolf from the door - literally. And equally naturally they want proof before they pay.

The LotRO system uses Notice Boards as did Vanguard, another MMORPG that had an excellent network of local bounties. That, too, seems entirely convincing. I find this sort of thing simultaneously more convenient and more immersive than traditional questing.

It's not that I don't like questing. I love a well-written quest, but questing, as it has become in all the years since WoW began to introduce and codify the new orthodoxy, is a very time-intensive and formal experience.

In most modern quests, even the very best of them, for example in The Secret World, the experience of the player is more akin to participating in interactive fiction than either playing a game or living in an imaginary world.

Each quest has a sequence of stages that must be taken in order. Everything must be done in exactly the anticipated sequence or the whole thing will stall. At many points the player's character will listen to other characters speak or watch other characters act. The player may be asked to select responses on his or her character's behalf but all the responses will be in the words of someone else.

When I started playing MMOs with EverQuest there wasn't a lot of that sort of thing. The game, as many observed at the time, appeared to have been named ironically. In EverQuest you really never needed to quest at all and I didn't, not very much.

Most of the quests I did were simple. Someone wanted something delivered (FedEx Quest) or killed (Kill Ten Rats Quest) or made (Crafting Quest). Occasionally someone wanted you to take them somewhere (Escort Quest) but that was usually the time you'd decide you were going in the other direction.

Even back then there were immense, convoluted quest chains that took hours or days or even months. EverQuest invented the Epic Weapon quest after all. I didn't do those. Didn't like 'em. Didn't do 'em. Never needed to do 'em.

That was the thing. You could get by very happily without questing and that was the way I liked it. And then WoW came along, with their faster leveling pace that was tied to doing more than just killing things. You had to follow a story. Lots of stories. And then we got Quest Hubs and it was Game Over for the kind of leveling experience I most enjoyed.

LotRO, when I played it first time around, was quite literally all about the quests. The entire ethos of the game is based on Frodo's Quest, the one that there and thereabouts started the whole genre fantasy fiction ball rolling.

I remember the increasingly onerous, exhausting commitment to questing in Middle Earth and I don't remember it fondly. All that swimming and riding. All that stiff text. All those unpronounceable names. There were several reasons I stopped playing LotRo and quest overload was among them.

This time I don't have that and I don't need to worry about acquiring it. When Turbine moved the game to the F2P model they saw questing as a key part of their offer and they chose to package up the quests and sell them separately. They are very keen to let me know that.

Every time I enter a new zone they send me a note asking if I'd like to buy the quests. They have icons over every quest-giver that indicates if the quest on offer is free (there are a sprinkling of those) or whether I need to open my wallet. Even the animals in the forest have "Pay Me - I'm In A Quest" symbols behind their ears.

And I'm at liberty to ignore them all. If I don't stump up the cash I can just carry on doing my tasks and the odd free quest that turns up here and there, none of which is going to be very complicated or very long because if it was it wouldn't be free.

That, more than anything, is why I'm still playing LotRO two weeks after my return. I've added a level to both the characters I'm playing and yesterday I used some of my LotRO points to remove the gold cap from the account, which is an indicator I plan on hanging around for a while if anything is.

It's not all plain sailing. There are traps for the unwary. I picked up a simple "Go to Rivendell" free quest. I thought it would be a nice day out so I went and what did I find when I got there but Elrond, trying to guilt trip me into picking up the Epic Story where I left off at the start of Chapter Four.

I might. I might not. The important thing is I feel this time it is entirely up to me. I feel as though I am playing the game instead of, as so often in quest-driven MMOs, as though the game is playing me. And my characters feel free to go where they want, when they want and do what they want.

There's a hybrid genre somewhere between MMORPG and Survival Sandbox just waiting to be made and this is a little taste of what it might be like. And it tastes good.


  1. The three games I always want to play but never do are LOTRO (haven't been past 10), EQ 2 (haven't been past 10) and EQ (levelled to 52 "naturally" as a warrior). I patch, log in, run a few things, but cant quite get it to bite. Part of it may be the overwhelming aspect, others is just timing and interest - there are so many great games out there it's hard to get a hook in old ones.

    1. There are a lot of new games but as far as MMOs go I have to say that, interesting though they may be, not many of them seem to be as good as the old ones. I've played a fair few new ones since GW2 came out nearly five years ago and so far nothing's pushed it off the top of the pile. Be great if something would.

  2. "Even the animals in the forest have "Pay Me - I'm In A Quest" symbols behind their ears."

    I got a good chuckle out of that, thank you. :)

    I do enjoy the scenery of LotRO, I suppose it is a mix of the skill of the artists involved (I suspect it is an art as well as technology) and their commitment to the source material's guidelines.

    For me, personally, as an additional MMO I'm making a run at WildStar again, prompted by the recent free level 50 promotion. In the past I had felt overwhelmed trying to make progress with all the things to do that WildStar would fling at me as a low level player trying to decide how best to make progress. I'm hoping that as a level 50 who is not concerned about raiding that I can relax and explore without the "pressure" of advancement. I'd most like to tinker with the housing system as my hazy goal. :)

    1. Those signs over the heads of bears are very peculiar. I only started to see them when I arrived in The Trollshaws. Immersive they are not and they do noting for the scenery - or for screenshots!


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