Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Road Goes Ever On...And On...And On : LotRO, Twin Saga, FFXIV

The MMORPG genre is a very broad church indeed. It stretches from spreadsheet spaceships at one end to prancing ponies at the other. Looking at the big picture, there isn't perhaps quite as much distance between Twin Saga and Lord of the Rings Online or FFXIV as you might imagine.

They all have central storylines revolving around momentous power struggles among godlike entities for a start. They also have tab targeting and hotbars, dungeons and boss mobs. All the good stuff.

One stark difference, though, is the extent to which the developers appear to give consideration to the value of time. The player's time, that is.

Twin Saga follows the common practice of Eastern MMOs: you can click on a quest in the tracker and have the game auto-run you to where you need to be. It's a particularly flexible version that delivers you not just to the general area but right to the precise creature you need to kill or to the object with which you need to interact to complete the quest.

When you're finished, another click takes you wherever you need to go to sign off on what you've done. Oftenyou need to see the same person who gave you the job in the first place but equally often they aren't where they were when they gave it to you.

It allows for a very relaxed, smooth questing experience that keeps you moving through the landscape without a lot of doubling back (although taking side-quests messes with the flow  somewhat). It also means that you can sit back and enjoy the view as you travel.

Neither LotRO nor FFXIV, at the equivalent levels, seem interested in running package tours for armchair adventurers. Although they both have equally dominant central storylines, (in FFXIV's case, like Twin Saga's, unavoidable if you want to open up certain options for your character) how you get from where you are to where you need to be is your responsibility.

To be fair, neither game follows the full, old school practice of giving you a vague description in the quest dialog and then leaving you to run around until you trip over whatever it is you're looking for by sheer luck or stubbornness. They both have some form of quest tracker that allows you to select whatever you want to work on and have the general location highlighted for you on the map.

After that, though, you're left to your own devices as to how to get there. This, I think, is supposed to be immersive. Or maybe it's meant to be morally instructive, inculcating some kind of protestant work ethic or boy scout sense of self-reliance.

Having played all three games in sequence several times recently I'm in two minds. I did find an odd sense of satisfaction in traveling from Rivendell to Forochel but it took so long I ran out of time the first night and had to camp half way, coming back to finish the journey the next morning. That's the next real morning, not game day, by the way.

What's more, what I was doing wasn't actually all that different from the auto-pathing in Twin Saga. I was going to a Stable Master, looking to see what routes he serviced, opening the map and choosing the best option, then mounting up and letting the game auto-run me to the next staging post. At which point I'd do it all over again.

LotRO has instant travel of a kind but there's some arcane rule over what you can and can't use as a Premium player and in any case by no means all routes have an instant option. Mostly I just sat on the horse and let the countryside flow by. Actually, mostly I tabbed out and web-browsed. So much for immersion.

LotRO's maps are vast. Incredibly huge. I don't think I ever realized while I was playing the first time just how sprawling the game-world is. I happened into Angmar the other night and after a full five minutes of riding on my reasonably fast pony I looked at the map and saw I was - maybe - five percent of the distance across the map. West Karana is like walking across the room compared to this.

Eorzea feels quite big but that's mainly because it's awkward, I think. It, too, has an automated travel option via the Chocobo Porter system and like LotRO it's one that leaves a lot to be desired. There aren't too many stops and most of the questing seems to happen in the wilderness where the only option is to travel on foot.

FFXIV famously made a huge concession with tradition when it allowed jumping. It was an innovation made grudgingly. While it's true that you can't be blockaded by a six inch rut in the road as you could in FFXI, there are still a lot of impassable slopes. Just because you can see your quest destination marked clearly on the map doesn't mean you can get there - or not the way you think.

All of this leads to some very different gaming experiences. Whether or not I prefer one over another comes down more to mood than any innate superiority in one design over the other, I think. The trip across Middle Earth was okay the once but I surely wouldn't want to make a habit of it. By the time I reached the snowlands I was very happy to have it over with.

Once there, though, I was entirely absorbed exploring the bleak, forbidding landscape, I'd never been past the first village before but with a couple more levels notched on the hilt of my sword I felt confident enough to press ahead and see what lay over each next hill. It made for an immersive and exciting session but that's because it was all new.

In FFXIV, where I'm criss-crossing the Central Shroud and occasionally running back to Gridania for a hand-in, I would kill for an auto-run button. It's a beautiful forest but I've seen it so many times now and when it comes right down to it there's not really all that much there, is there?

Against that you have to set my lack of interaction with the environment in Twin Saga (whose world is called - hang on, let me look it up...nope, can't find it...I'm sure they mentioned it once, somewhere). I have no idea how anywhere connects to anywhere else let alone what's in any part of any zone where I didn't have a quest to do. Maybe there isn't anything!

In the end any automated movement option, be it GW2's waypoints, LotRO's pony express or Twin Saga's UI driver, is only an option. No-one has to use it. I could just ride my giant ginger guinea pig around until I happen to spot the cluster of crocodiles I need to club to death. Like all easy options, though, if you know they're there it's hard to resist.

If I had to choose I think I'd come down on the side of automation. It doesn't detract as much as you might imagine from my involvement in the world  - not as much as getting really annoyed about yet another ten or fifteen minute run just to get to somewhere I've been countless times before. Then again, if you always know where you're going you never run into anything you weren't expecting.

There's no easy or right answer to this one. I do think that weak compromises like staged rides and limited instant travel are prone to create more problems than they solve, though. And once you start highlighting quest locations on the map you really might as well make it straightforward to get to them.

Or maybe I'm just spoiled after two days of click 'n' run.


  1. I'm in several minds about this. Way back in the early years of WoW, land travel (and obscure hints in quest text) was a big part of things. There were flying taxis and airships/boats for really long trips, but for the most part you had to unlock the far end of any segment to use the fast travel, so you would have walked the distance at least once. This meant that you truly got to know your world and greatly increased your immersion in it. Explorer types would spend ages poking into every corner, or even attempting to glitch through the game textures into areas that were unfinished - Eg. Old Ironforge, or under Orgrimmar, back before flying was introduced. I even started writing a blog dedicated to explaining all the hidden spots and obscure quest locations one zone at a time. I did publish one on Durotar but had several more in various stages of readiness in draft. Then Blizzard released Cataclysm, which totally trashed the world.

    Getting a land mount was a HUGE deal. Originally it was only available at level 40 and was pretty slow, with the fast one available at 60. Even with these available, you still had to have actually travelled overland to open up the taxi points. I remember many times escorting lower-levelled people through areas simply to help them get some of these unlocks, or using my stealthy rogue to get into areas I was generally too weak for. The introduction of flying mounts into WoW was great in a lot of ways but made this sense of discovery and the attachment to the zones a lot weaker.

    You also had to walk to the entrance of a dungeon before you could enter, though if your party got two members there first they could use the summon stones to teleport the rest of the team in. Group finder is obviously a lot more convenient – but you lose the social aspect.
    Even some aspects of the combat system have changed how a player interacts with the world. In Vanilla WoW, many zones had wandering elite level monsters that if not watched for carefully could absolutely smash the typical adventurer. Good old Hogger in Goldshire being probably the most famous example. Even small packs of normal NPC’s would overwhelm a solo adventurer so you had to pick your fights and clearing space to work was important. Being aware of monster spawn points or patrol paths was important too. The modern version of WoW has dumbed things down so much that just running past mobs is mostly viable.

    All of this meant that travel was slow, often annoying but it felt a whole lot more real. I haven’t started a new low level character in WoW since shortly after Cataclysm yet I still remember intimately the (old, now somewhat changed) low level zones. I doubt I could even remember a single zone in Pandaria despite having played through at least half a dozen times.

    In SWTOR however, I’ve unlocked fast mounts, instant teleport-to-base widgets and have made use of my housing and starship as a travel hub. This feels entirely natural and has probably helped me enjoy the zones much more. SWTOR zones were a lot more instanced than Wow ever was though.

    The closest I’ve come to the auto-run thing in Twin Saga would be in Trion’s Devillian. I’ve not really played that game a whole lot so its a bit unfair to compare but i simply don’t care anything at all about the world, the zones, or anything about the monsters I’m killing. Some sort of invaders from the ocean i think in the starter zone. There were crabs at least, and some sort of humanoids. Even the randomly generated monsters in Diablo games had more character!

    I love the convenience of the various modern travel options but they sure do come with a cost!

    1. Excellent description of how things used to be. That was absolutely my experience except that in EverQuest most of that was dialed up to 11. I have had a whole post in mind for months about the "running past mobs" thing. That's a fundamental change to how MMOs work that seems to have just been slipped in with no-one noticing.

      I think my preferred choice is to have quite a lot of set points for instant travel but to require that you visit them overland to open them up. I first saw this in EQ, when there were dragon's teeth at each teleportation spire that you needed to collect before you could port there. The extreme version of the system is GW2's waypoints.

      Then again, I really, really love flying, which is the freest of all travel options but not instant. Vanguard had superb travel options including spire portals and flying and yet the world never felt trivialized by it and exploring was superb there. And I like limited flying like gliding or levitation too...

      The more I think about it, the more I think there just is no "right" way to do travel, only the right way to do it in the context of each specific MMO.

  2. I thought Twin Saga was absolutely terrible - for many reasons if not the travel aspect. I remember the only cool thing about that game was the mobile player housing...

    And it looks like we had the exact same idea about returning to LOTRO haha :D There's this magical draw about the world and travel that makes up for SOso many awful aspects of the game, it's weird. It is not just dated but plain bad in so many frustrating ways but I can't stop loving the environment of it all. Even the slow travel and huge distances I appreciate - I wouldnt want anything faster than the pony express.

    And am not sure I buy into the whole "it's optional" thing in MMOs these days; features change games and communities, whether they are free to choose or not. If I'm the only one sticking to horses instead of insta-beaming, my world is lonely all the same and social encounters are the poorer for it all. But I'm the social beast whereas you are a self-professed MMO soloer. ;)

    1. Out of curiosity, why did you think Twin Saga was terrible? As an example of its type I'd say it was one of the best I've seen - it's beautifully designed, visually sumptuous, well-written and excellently translated. Is it just the kind of game it is that you think is terrible or was there something specific about this particular anime MMO that made it a lot worse than all the others?

      Not sure I'll be pursuing LotRO much longer. It's a very convincing world but it's such a slog doing, well, just about anything. It can be relaxing if I'm in the mood but as the novelty wears off I can feel the returns beginning to diminish already.

    2. About TS: most sleazy, uncomfortable "humor" and dialogue of all time packed with juvenile innuendo. :D Absolutely terrifying from the very questlines onward. And don't get me started about the wall of texts and exposition.

    3. The humor is certainly juvenile but I laughed more than a few times. The smutty tone, which I found more surreal than offensive, seems to just vanish sometime around level 10 or so. It may make a comeback later but I'm level 30 now and no sign of it yet. As for "walls of text", it's about on a par with FFXIV for the amount of reading involved I'd say (although obviously it can't compete on the sheer volume of cut scenes) but the font and UI are so much easier on the eye it feels a lot more comfortable to read.

      I think all the Japanese RPGs I've seen have been incredibly verbose compared to either Western or even Korean or Chinese ones. It's a positive for me but I can see why it might be off-putting.


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