Wednesday, March 30, 2011

LotRO Revisited - Part 6 - Free to Play

At last we've come to the reason that I'm even talking about Lord of the Rings Online again in the first place: the fact that it's now to free to play.  But what does that even mean?

It means you don't need to pay a monthly subscription to play LotRO.  You don't even need a credit card.  You can play this game for dozens of hours on end and not spend a dime.  To do this you just set up an account on the website, click a button to download the game client, and start playing.  Easy.  Extremely high quality content for what you pay (nothing).

So, how is this possible?  The game developer clearly still needs to make money to pay for operating costs and ongoing development.  So they replace a fixed monthly subscription fee with a large set of optional "micro-transactions".  In other words you don't pay a fixed $15 a month, but instead you spend a couple bucks here and there on smaller purchases.  This will likely result in smaller per-account revenue, but by removing the steep up-front subscription cost it's possible to reach a broader audience and hopefully achieve similar overall revenue.  That's the basic business model, and it's an increasingly popular one.  But of course the devil is in the details.

The term "micro-transaction" conjures an image of being stopped every couple minutes to be solicited for money.  It sounds disruptive and cheap.  Certainly paying more up front sounds less obnoxious, right?  Well I'm happy to say that LotRO handles micro-transactions with class and restraint.

You can happily level a character up to at least level 30 before you really feel like you have to spend any money.  At that point you'll run out of free zones and maybe you'll put down $5 to unlock another zone for around 10 levels of quest content.  You don't have to, though.  The epic quest-line is always free, and there are always tasks, skirmishes, and level-scaling instances to keep you busy.

Smoothing everything over is the fact that you gain the real-money currency (Turbine Points) while playing the game.  Every deed you complete gives you some points.  So even if you absolutely refuse to spend real money on the game you'll still be able to pick up a couple things from the store.

So, what sorts of things can you buy?
  • Quest lines for levels 30-65
  • Additional skirmish instances to change up the scenery
  • Cosmetic outfits
  • Shared storage across all characters on your account
  • A wardrobe space for your characters to store and share cosmetic outfits
  • Shorter teleport home cooldowns and/or multiple home destinations
  • Short term acceleration for xp, crafting, or deeds
The larger priced items are content related (quests, skirmishes, etc.) or feature related (e.g. shared storage), and are usually a one-time purchase for the account.  They're less "micro" and more a replacement for that monthly payment.  The key difference being that unless you blaze through content too fast that it's going to be much cheaper.

The more controversial items are the true micro-transactions.  But you'll note that none of the them will outright make your character more powerful, they just make progression faster.  For example you can't buy levels, but you can spend a dollar to get a small percentage increase in your experience gain for 6 hours.  That means you'll level faster than someone who didn't pay any money, but it doesn’t give you better stats, or items, or anything like that.  You still have to play the game and overcome the same challenges.  It's fair.

The micro-transactions are all poised as purely optional efficiency boosts.  Sick of travel times?  Pay a quarter to make your next couple trips instantaneous.  Like crafting but don't have time for the grind?  Pay fifty cents to double the rate of craft skill gains for awhile.  This allows you to pick the parts of MMO grinding that annoy you and pay a little bit to have them go away.  The cynical way to look at this would be that they're making you pay to keep the game from being awful.  But the key thing to remember is that the free experience of today is the same thing people were previously paying a subscription for.  They didn't make it worse for free accounts.  You can pay for a more streamlined experience if you want to, but it's not necessary.  That's what helps the micro-transactions feel optional and not gouging.

I was really wary of the false promises of "free to play", but I've been extremely impressed with how elegantly LotRO has pulled it off.  I believe that you can play the game for free and have a perfectly good time.  I'm also happy to occasionally give them money to make my experience better.

Being presented with all these optional purchases forced me to confront what I really value about my MMO play experience.  It turns out that leveling faster isn't important to me, but looking cool is.  So my first purchases were an awesome looking set of cosmetic armor, some wardrobe space to save fun hats and such, and some more outfit slots so I can choose my look to match my mood.

I also bought some crafting acceleration to get my weaponsmithing skill up high enough to create my own weapons as I level.  I like feeling self sufficient.  Plus crafting is way more fun if you cut the grinding in half.  It's amazing how a numerical tweak can completely turn things around.

Beyond all that frivolous stuff I did pick up a couple quest packs after I cleared out the free zones.  I've enjoyed the skirmishes so I bought some more of those too.  I feel like now that I've spent some startup capital I can coast for quite awhile before my next purchase.  It's hardly been a free experience, but I feel like the money I've spent is well worth what I've received in return.


So, the real question: Is this the right game for you?

Do you like the depth and scale of MMOs, but have very limited time to play and can't justify a monthly fee?  Then the new free to play LotRO is perfect for you.  It doesn't matter if you progress through the game slowly because you'll pay for new content equally slowly.

Are you the sort of player who enjoys MMOs for the first twenty levels when things are fresh, then gets bored somewhere in the middle and quits?  Then LotRO would be a great fit for you because you'd probably quit right before you actually have to spend real money.

Do you get obsessed with your MMO and grind through content extremely quickly? Well then LotRO may still work for you because it still offers a compelling subscription option.  It's only $10, not $15, and you get a substantial grant of points every month (~$6 worth).  So it's kind of like Zune Pass where you get unlimited access but get to keep some stuff permanently if you ever cancel your subscription.

What I can't tell you is how well LotRO satisfies a player at the level cap.  I've got a character there, but I don't play him because I personally don't care for grinding the same content over and over again.  I do know that that there are raids, and there's a community of people running them.  But I don't know how well LotRO stacks up here.

From a value perspective LotRO is hard to beat.  High quality content, flexible pricing.  The real reasons to not play the game are if you don't like RPGs or you aren't particularly interested in the Lord of the Rings fiction.  If killing orcs in the English countryside bores you then this game is not for you.

If you do decide to try out the game, please set up your account using this link.  That referral will give me some kickback (and no, that's not what motivated me to write this series).  Be sure to create your character on the Gladden server, send me a note, and maybe we'll have a chance to adventure together.  See you in Middle-Earth!

Friday, March 25, 2011

LotRO Revisited - Part 5 - User Interface

We're now at part five of my ramblings on Lord of the Rings Online.  Time to stop beating around the bush and start complaining about what I really want to complain about: User Interface

"LotRO's UI is approachable, largely due to its similarity with WoW, but it lacks the same polish…  There are a ton of small issues with the interface - I could really go on and on."

During almost every topic I've covered on this game at one point or another I've mentioned problems with the user interface.  I should put a disclaimer here: I'm a professional user interface developer.  It's safe to say that I'm more sensitive to this class of issue than most people.  But the reason I do this for a living is because I think it's extremely important.  Good interface creates happy experiences; bad interface creates frustrating experiences.

Looking at the progress of this game over the years, it has gotten better.  They have fixed some hiccups in the experience.  But there are still warts, and the rate of improvement is too slow.  Too many problems that have been there for years are still festering.  The only conclusion I can come to is that refining the interface isn't a priority, and that they don't have the right kind of talent focused on these issues.


"Icons are too small and lack strong enough silhouettes to be quickly identified."

Let's look at the action bar screenshot above that I talked about last time.  There are a couple things you might notice, but the first is probably that the icons are incredibly tiny.  32x32 pixels, specifically.  You can scale this bar up, but the source assets are 32x32, so the scaled up version looks terrible.  By comparison WoW's source icons are 64x64, containing 4 times the amount of information.

So why are they so small?  Well, I'm pretty sure that's because of design choices made in the skill system.  If there are many skills to choose from then the icons need to be very small to fit on screen.  The decision to regularly give the player new toys has lead to these icons being small.

But the size of the icons isn't the real problem.  Depending on your settings your WoW UI might display at a similar size (from my informal sample I found many people had a 34x34 display size for their WoW icons).  No the real problem is with the contents of those icons.

You'll notice that the attack skills all have a red background to their icon.  Skills that buff or heal seem to have green backgrounds.  There's an intentional pattern here.  A terrible, terrible pattern.  By definition these are actions you need to perform in the heat of the moment.  Most of these are attack skills, so your bar is going to be a sea of red.  By giving the icons all the same primary color they've lost the most glance-able pieces of information.

The other problem, other than small size and uniform color, is that the icons are trying to be little paintings.  There's too much detail in those 32x32 dimensions.  I think it's time for a comparison:

Here we have samples from 7 different MMOs.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, it's just a set of MMOs that I personally have played (or have seen played, in the case of Rift).  Not all of the above have excellent iconography, but you'll notice the ones from LotRO really blur together into one mass.  The icons are too tightly grouped, they all have the same color, and it's hard to pick out strong silhouettes.

At this point you might think I'm nit picking.  But your average MMO player spends almost as much time staring at these action bars as they do observing their virtual surroundings.  I've known players to completely lose context of what was going on because they were overly focused on their bars.  It's a mission critical piece of interface, and on this LotRO does a real sub-standard job.


"The bag view is frustrating because you can't do key tasks from there like sell."

To the right in the screenshot you see my bag view.  Pretty standard, although once again you'll note that the icons are frustratingly small.  To the left is the window that you get when you talk to a vendor.  You'll note that one is a grid view and one is a list view.

So what if I want to sell something?  I've probably arranged my bags in some way meaningful to me so that I can find items later, so you'd think I'd sell from my bag view.  This is the MMO standard, but it's not how it works in LotRO.  I have to open up the Sell tab in the vendor window, browse a list view of my bag contents, and find the item there.  I have to track down the item in an alphabetized list where up until this moment I may have not known its name (the grid view doesn't show titles until you hover for a tooltip).  And I have to do this despite the fact that I might have organized my bags in some way where this would be a trivial task from the grid view.

This is frustrating to do even once, and if you've ever played an MMO you know that selling trash to vendors is something you do very frequently.  It's clear that the developers knew that this was awkward, because there are a number of features of the list view designed to make the experience less terrible.

You can lock items from the vendor window so that they won't show up as options to sell.  But of course you can't lock an item from the bag view, further reinforcing it's presence as a useless visualization.

You can filter the list view to different qualities of items, presumably to help find the items you want to sell.  But the filters are opposite of what you want.  You can filter only by increasing quality, not decreasing quality - so you can't filter down to trash.

None of this fixes the core problem: the original design was bad.  Either embrace the list or embrace the grid - don't attempt some unholy hybrid.

The Solution?

"WoW provided an open platform that enabled the community to patch up the rough spots.  Blizzard would watch popular trends and integrate those features into the core.  The end result is that the default WoW UI has become better and better over the years at an impressive pace"

At last we have a sign that the developers are paying attention: recently (as in within the last six months) LotRO opened up it's platform to support LUA scripted plugins.  This is huge.  This empowers the community to start making things better.  What's there now from an API perspective is very conservative, but it's still a huge step in the right direction.

There aren't a ton of high quality plugins available yet.  This stuff takes time.  But the basic tools are there, and the developer is listening to what the community needs.  If I didn't have a day-job I'd probably take matters into my own hands and start modding again.  Alas, I have no interest in burning out like that, so I'm just going to have to hope the plugin development community does what needs to be done.  Let the healing begin.


In the next and final segment I'll talk about the only thing all of you probably want to know: what does it actually mean to be "free to play"?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

LotRO Revisited - Part 4 - Systems

Well, this fourth part of my return to Lord of the Rings Online is maybe a bit more on the nerdy side.  It's not about what you can do, or where you do it; it's about how you do it.  The mechanics of the game.


Overall the combat in LotRO feels... okay.  I like to move around a lot as I play.  I'm not sure if that's because I think I actually get some tactical advantage, or if I just like to keep things moving to spice up the visuals.  Regardless, when I play this way in LotRO I can notice the differences between what the client sees and what the server is tracking.  It feels a bit… floaty.  I'll often run up to a monster and realize that for a moment it's still tracking some previous snapshot of what my location was.  The whole experience looks good, but it's not quite at the fidelity that I prefer.

"The average fight lasts around 30 seconds, which doesn't sound like much, but is forever when you're just trying to kill a freaking boar.  The result is you never feel very powerful."

This complaint seems to have largely been a result of the class I was playing.  The minstrel is intended as a healer role, and at the time I wrote the quote above I don't think they'd even added the minstrel's battle form.  But even with those enhanced offensive abilities a minstrel seems to be many times slower at killing stuff.  Probably a poor choice for my play style.

Since coming back to the game I've been trying a new character class: champion.  The time to eliminate a single opponent is more on the order of 10 seconds, if that.  I find myself free to heroically run at many opponents simultaneously,  which is far more satisfying.  It's a better fit for my playstyle, even if the melee combat does illuminate more of the latency issues.

It's a bummer that for this type of game you don't know whether your character class is a good fit for you until you've invested a lot of time in them.  By the point you have enough data to make an informed decision it's too late.  You're probably unwilling to start over, even if it'd produce a better long-term experience.

One thing that LotRO has that I've never seen in another game is the idea of a "fellowship maneuver."  Certain characters can initiate an attack where everyone in the party participates by clicking one of four icons: morale (health), power (mana), direct damage, or damage over time.  If the group coordinates you can pull off specific combinations that trigger even more powerful attacks.  Of course there's always that one guy who's not paying attention and clicks green at the wrong time, but when it works it's a neat mechanic.


The modern MMO is mostly just a vehicle for loot addiction.  It's all about the pursuit of making your character more badass.  Leveling up is one obvious part of that, and the other part is stuff.

In general the gear you get in LotRO works exactly the same as it does in most other MMOs.  But there are aspects that are themed to the fiction.  Jewelry plays a stronger role (although you won't be stumbling upon any of the primary Rings of Power).  There's also a pocket slot, which is a nice touch.  But despite the fact that the stats on the items have different names and the rarity colors aren't what you're used to, it's all very familiar.

And then you get your first legendary weapon.

A legendary item is an item that levels up, just like your character.  As it gains levels you can spend points on different stats, slot it with gems and runes, and even give it a name.  These items stay with you for a long time.  As a minstrel I tried to give all mine musically themed names.  Above you see the sword "Sharp Crescendo".  It's predecessor was a mace named "Percussive Force".  These items become a deeper part of your character than just the normal gear your slap on.  It's a fun system that makes loot that much more fun.

The Action Bar

"...they seem to have thrown too many options at you in an attempt to make it interesting.  But instead most of the abilities end up blurring together and leaving you bogged down with your overcrowded quick bar."

I get a new ability about every other level.  At first this was perfectly manageable.  But after awhile I started to dread visiting the class trainer.  Another ability?  Where am I supposed to put this?  This ability feels almost identical to another one I already have - when am I supposed to use it instead of the other one?

Yes, there is the possibility of loss of interest if what your character can do never changes, but this is taking it way too far in the other direction.  Let's get more specific.  Here's the action bar of your basic starting player, this one at level 6:

This particular character is a burglar.  There's a stealth toggle, a couple basic attacks, a debuff, a GTFO emergency button, and some health and travel items.  A perfectly acceptable set of actions, although probably not enough to keep someone satisfied in this style of game over hours and hours of play.

Here is my champion's action bar at level 28:

There's a lot going on there.  The bottom row is all pure attacks.  The next row up contains my personal buffs, some occasional use skills and health items.  The rows above that have very infrequent use skills, plus my mount.  The attack skills are roughly arranged in advancing order (this class builds up momentum as "fervor" points), with area of effect attacks bumped towards the right side.

As you can see I've already filled up my primary 12 key row.  The next time I get an attack skill, it will have to go above that.. somewhere.  It'll become harder and harder to organize, until eventually it'll be pure chaos.  So I present to you the action bar from my level 65 minstrel:

Yeah, and that's not even everything.  In addition to this here I have another vertical row of 12 skills on the right side of the screen.  As for this core mega-grid, I can't even tell you what all those abilities are.  The bottom row is my frequent use stuff, the tier one ballads (minstrels build up three levels of "ballads" that unlock "anthems", and then the cycle repeats), war-speech abilities (the minstrel's battle form that I've mentioned before), and some heals.  Above that goes the rest of the ballads and the anthems, plus some more heals.  Above that… um...  the next two rows are mostly gibberish.  I can pick out my craft skills and that's about it.  Apparently I never use any of that crap.

Some of that probably doesn't need to be there.  There's technically a skill window that I could use to access all of those abilities, but if it's anything that I might need in the heat of the moment then browsing the menu for a skill is a non-starter.  So everything goes in a big clump at the bottom of my screen.

A few of those could be removed by making fixes to other game systems.  For example you'll see three craft tools on that bar (Alt 1,2,3).  Those are there because you can't use a craft skill unless you have the associated tool equipped.  This includes gathering skills, so I'm constantly toggling between my prospecting pick axe and my woodcutting axe.  It's dumb.  To work around the dumbness I have to eat up three quick bar slots of permanent screen real estate.

Other icons on my bar could be removed with more integrated UI elsewhere.  I have two icons pinned for tracking resources: ore and wood.  That could easily be integrated into the map widget (as it is in WoW).  It wouldn't even be that bad to set from the skill window if my tracking mode didn't reset every time my character died.  So there are problems here that are partially due to game systems, and partially due to interface.  As you can see we're once again encroaching upon my favorite topic…


Next up I'll just cut to the chase and rant about user interface.

Monday, March 21, 2011

LotRO Revisited - Part 3 - Multiplayer

My last article about Lord of the Rings Online focused on the solo activities one could undertake in Middle Earth.  This article will focus on the "Multiplayer" part of the MMO acronym… probably what the rest of you play these games for.


 I didn't talk about the dungeon instances at all in my previous posts.  That's because I didn't really run many of them.  I know, ironic given that my main character was a support class.  I seem to assume a singleplayer stance until I feel confident enough to group up with others and know I'll be valuable to them.  Maybe I'm just too proud to risk being that guy that doesn't know what he's doing and gets everyone killed.

This second time through I'm running far more dungeons.  But it's not because I'm more confident, it's because they've implemented instance level scaling.  You can now run the Great Barrows with any group from 20 to the level cap of 65.  This makes it far easier to find a group, and far easier to balance the difficulty for a group's skill level (if it's too hard, just reduce the target level one or two).  The instances have also been broken up into multiple shorter sections, making it less of a time commitment to do a run.  Considering that LotRO has an older crowd these are very important concessions.

It's unfortunate that the game still lacks a quality matchmaking service (like WoW's new Dungeon Finder).  There's an in-game tool (pictured above), but nobody uses it (similar to earlier incarnations of woW's Dungeon Finder).  Instead you're stuck relying on either regional chat channels, or the unofficial global "looking for fellowship" channel.  I'd assume that fixing this problem would be the natural next step for the development team, but I also felt the same way about WoW and it took them five years to deliver the feature.  And unfortunately I have far less confidence in LotRO's interface designers.  It'd greatly improve the experience, but I'm not holding my breath.


Level scaling for instance is a actually a new feature for the game.  It came about as a side effect of development for something else entirely: skirmishes.  Where a dungeon instance is a handcrafted adventure, a skirmish is more of a random large scale battle.  There's some overall scenario, but every time you play a skirmish it will be different.  There are varied squads of enemies, random lieutenants, and boss battles.

One of the best parts about skirmishes is that you get a companion character to go into battle with you.  You can customize the class and powers of this character, and level them up over time, but you don't get much tactical control once it's time to fight.  This helps makes the battles larger (a 12 player raid actually results in 24 combatants on your side) as well as rounding out your weaknesses (you can spec your companion to heal you while you focus on dishing out pain).  The whole skirmish system scales to different party levels and sizes (you can even do skirmishes solo, with just you and your companion).  It's all very flexible.

I wouldn't recommend only spending your time playing skirmishes, but in moderation they're great.  It's best with a big group of people for good chaotic fun, but it's also good times just by yourself.


"I only tried it once"

I still haven't tried it since that one time.  And you know what, it looks like it'll stay that way.  There are only a few things that are restricted to paying subscribers , and PvMP (Player vs. Monster Player) is one of them.  So if I want to play a Warg and go for the throats of poor little Hobbits I'll have to shell out a monthly fee.  Sad.  Oh well, I don't think the Lord of the Rings setting is one that would really fire me up to pwn other players.  It's probably for the best.


Next time I'll be talking about the game's combat system as well as ranting more about the user interface.

Friday, March 18, 2011

LotRO Revisited - Part 2 - Keeping Busy

The last post focused on the world of Lord of the Rings Online, because that's the first thing you'll see and care about.  This post delves into the details of what to do within that world, once again comparing to my various quotes from three years ago.

Advancement - Deeds, Traits, and Levels

"It's impressive how enticing the deed system is considering how minor the effect is on gameplay."

I was a fan of the deed system right away.  But the more time I've spent with it, the more impressed I've become.  It's much better than an achievement system.  It's a sophisticated layered incentive system that will keep you coming back for the silliest little things.

I've never found myself playing a game like this and doing so many things that give me no experience.  That's a testament to how compelling completing these deeds can be.  Sure, I could go do more quests and level-up... but it might be more fun to just poke around and find these ruins in order to get another rank on my Wisdom virtue.  Oh and while I'm there maybe I can kill enough brigands to earn a title and maybe an upgrade in my Justice rank.

Having variety in this sort of game is a really good thing.  I'm not exactly sure why it is that choose we spend our leisure time being overwhelmed with too many things to do.  Maybe it's because these are things we can actually accomplish and check off our list?  Regardless, it's a good thing to feel like there are lots of valid ways to spend your time.  There are deeds for finding landmarks, killing specific types of baddies, completing quests in an area, using specific abilities a lot… you complete deeds constantly.  Sometimes you get a title, sometimes you get a virtue rank (which can be slotted for a little stat boost), and always you get a couple Turbine Points (the real money currency of the game).  It's just fundamentally more exciting than your average completionist-focused achievement.

"And as that the monsters in each region go up in level with me, it's not like I ever get the satisfaction of feeling more powerful.  So what are the levels buying me?"

I kind of went off on a mini rant about whether levels are really helping anything (perhaps derived from this article from Raph Koster).  It's not that I think levels are bad, it's more that I think perhaps they represent too strict of a divide.  I joined a group of fellow adventurers to run some content five levels above me, and I was useless to them.  At least half of my attacks missed.   I should be less powerful than them, sure; but what seemed like a small numerical spread apparently represented total incompatibility.  Is that fun?

This complaint isn't leveled at LotRO but the MMO genre as a whole.  I think the only game I've played where this wasn't a problem was City of Heroes, where effective player level could be bumped up or down while in a group.  This meant that the pool of people to play with was actually everyone online.  Extremely liberating.  I wish more games thought harder about how to unite players instead of separate them.  Oh well.


"Pretty standard MMO fare"

Yep, the quest design in LotRO is status quo.  Kill X Angry Baddies; gather X McGuffins; escort helpless Mr. X.  The flow of quests has seen a definite improvement over the past couple years (less back-and-forth than I remember), but there isn't a terrible amount of variety in what it is you do.  And this would be more of a problem if there weren't lots of other things to do that aren't strictly quests.  There are deeds and tasks and skirmishes to fill up your time.  It's easy to truck along and forget about your quest log for awhile, so it doesn't really bother me that the quests are vanilla.

"There's a primary story quest line that adheres to a higher quality bar, letting you follow the path of the ring without contradicting the fiction. "

The game has always had this quest line that connects you with the big names in the Lord of the Rings fiction.  You meet Strider in Bree, you'll track down Black Riders, you'll rendezvous with the Fellowship in Rivendell and go hunting with Gimli and Legolas.  It's great stuff.  But the problem was that it required an extremely varied mix of solo, small fellowship, and instance quests in order to progress through the books.  It was very hard to find the help you needed to work through the whole epic quest line.  But since I last played the developers have gone through and tightened up the experience so that the whole storyline can be played solo.  This makes it so that everyone can enjoy their best content, a smart move.


I'm not positive, but I think Tasks exist because someone realized that there needed to be something for non-subscription players to do if they weren't willing to pay for quest packs.  Tasks are repeatable quests that use the junk you'd normally sell to vendors.  So instead of trashing that "Orcish Tea Cozy" you could instead turn it in for a small amount of experience and reputation.  It's not glamorous, but I think the effect on the game is quite positive.  It turns an uninteresting part of the game into a decision: do I prioritize experience growth or economic growth?  The repeatable quests are gated to five per day, so if you're going to turn this crap into experience it'll take some storage space and patience.  If you'd rather just have the cash now you can sell them all as before.  It's a simple clever system that basically has no downsides for the player.


I don't think anyone would consider the crafting system a critical feature for MMO.  It's exclusion probably wouldn't cause anyone to pass on a game, but every MMO still seems to have one.  LotRO has a perfectly passable crafting system that even has a fair share of innovative ideas.  Like others it probably economically makes more sense to sell everything you find and buy crafted goods from others, but the system is there for those who enjoy this sort of thing.  I think I'm one of them, but I'm always wondering if I really do or if I just feel compelled to participate.

"Unfortunately finding recipes on the auction house is laughably difficult due to poor UI."

The auction system categories are constantly getting refined, which does make the experience better.  It's easier to drill into the right recipe section, for example.  However it feels to me like they're going about it wrong.  Maybe it's just the fact that they put Usable as a sort instead of a checkbox.  This makes it fussy to do something perfectly reasonable like find cheap upgrades for your current gear.  Ah, but this is a complaint with the interface.  The mechanics of recipes are perfectly fine.  I like the one-use recipes, I like how you can sometimes choose different output flavors, and I of course like the nice surprise of the crafting critical that gives you an awesomer version.

"the game lacks a friendly way to craft in bulk (I should never have to click a plus button 60 times just to smelt all my ore). "

Fixed!  I'm not sure why it took so long to add a "Make All" button.  Oh, again this was an interface complaint.  It's almost like there's a trend here...  More on that later.

"In my experience the stuff you can make is generally not of value by the time you can make it (given either the time to gather ingredients or the prohibitive cost of those ingredients on the auction house)."

Aha!  A real comment on crafting.  Well, it's worth saying that I'm having a little better luck with my second character's crafting experience.  Knowing the basics of the system helps you plan ahead.  I've definitely been able to create good upgrades for myself without having to spend too much time rounding up the ingredients.  Part of this was knowing to stop screwing around on the auction house and just vendor trash certain professions' components.  I'm sorry scholars and cooks, but you're not willing to pay enough to make it worth the trouble.

Another thing that's contributed to a smoother experience is the introduction of Bounty quests.  These are three times repeatable quests that reward you with a big pile of crafting ingredients and patterns.  This helps take a bit of the pressure off of rounding up some of the more obscure components.

Overall I think I like LotRO's crafting system.  It gives me something else to do besides obsessively leveling, and that's probably for the best.


Next up, stuff to do with other people.  Yes, the 'M' of MMO.  Um, more specifically the second 'M'.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

LotRO Revisited - Part 1 - The World

Now that I've put up my complete words from 2008, it's time to re-evaluate the Lord of the Rings Online of today.

"... there's no doubt in my mind that WoW is a superior game.  But when you've exhausted all of WoW's content, and you haven't written off the genre as a whole, you can do worse than to slum it out to LotRO."

Well, that's an unflattering quote to start off with.  It's also not untrue.   Basically the only times I've played LotRO have been when I've been bored with WoW.  There's never been a time when WoW was satisfying me that I thought about maybe playing some LotRO instead.

But this free to play thing changes the comparison.  It's no longer just about which game is a "better" game; it's about which game gives you the most enjoyment for your time and money.  I'm cheap enough to think about what $15 a month means to me.  Okay, $15 doesn't sound like much, but over a year that's $180, and I don’t know if WoW is that much better than LotRO.  Probably the hardest part for me is the knowledge that if I'm not playing the game then I'm wasting $15 a month.  The flexibility LotRO now offers of being able to play as frequently or infrequently as I want is extremely compelling.  And for my infrequent play style, LotRO may just be the better choice.

I'll get more into the free to play details later, but for now I need to close the gap between 2008 and 2011.

World and Travel

"Comparing to the fiction, [the game] basically only allows access to locations where events started to get interesting.  There's no Lonely Mountain, no Moria, no Isengard, and certainly no Mordor.  Spending hours of your time grinding through a field that the Fellowship breezed through doesn't exactly leave a heroic taste in your mouth."

Well, since I wrote these words there have been two large area expansions: Moria, and Mirkwood.

Moria is a huge labyrinth of underground halls and caverns.  When you see the Bridge of Khazad-dûm you will find it cracked in half, as that you arrive after Gandalf's passing.  It's an epic space that hits a wide spread of underground themes.  It's nice for awhile, but it wasn't long before I felt the need for some fresh air and open sky.  Thankfully when you've leveled your way through the content you emerge in the elven city of Lórien, providing a much appreciated change in scenery.

If you look on a map Mirkwood is huge, but the Mirkwood expansion only lets you poke around a small section of it.  It's an appropriately spooky forest, if a bit monotone.  Sadly I can't think of a single landmark that burned itself into my memory.  So I rode around for awhile until I found a cool scary tree for a photo.

From a palette perspective you could just consider Moria to be the "mine" expansion and Mirkwood to be the "forest" expansion - with not a lot of variety within either.  This is an ongoing struggle for LotRO.  The fiction isn't host to fantastical scenery.  Pretty, absolutely; imaginative, no.  What it lacks in inspiration it makes up for in quantity of historical locales, but here the slow drip of releases prevents me from achieving satisfaction.

For what it's worth the next large expansion is scheduled to release this fall and will add Rohan.  This should add key landmarks like Isengard, Helm's Deep, Edoras, and Fangorn Forest - definitely many things to look forward to.

"And this is where I think the license is working against the game: In trying to own up to the epic size of the world the developers have created an epic amount of work for themselves.  If it's taken this long to get us to the Misty Mountains, how long will it be until we're at the steps of Mount Doom?"

Apparently a long time.  What's released right now basically brings us to the end of Fellowship.  It's  been four years (2007 to 2011), and that doesn't count the development time prior to launch.  The next expansion will officially start progress into the Two Towers.  Insert some fuzzy math and at that rate it'll be around 2019 before the core landmass from the trilogy is completed and we can /dance in Barad-dûr.  By that point I expect to be able to play the game on retinal implants as I jetpack to work in the coastal Cascades.

What I can say is that what's available is lovingly crafted, and I expect that trend to continue.  But the rate of expansion remains maddeningly slow.


Next time I'll talk about all the sorts of quests and various activities to do in this finely crafted Middle Earth.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lord of the Rings Online... circa 2008

Recently Lord of the Rings Online went free to play, which is to say you can play the game without a subscription or even a credit card.  Of course there are all sorts of potential microtransactions available so that Turbine can actually make money on their game, but these are all completely optional.  Since there's no cost to me I decided to log in and check out the game (the last time I played was alongside the Mirkwood expansion about a year ago).  And as I evaluated the game in its current state against adjusted criteria I thought it'd be interesting to revistwhat I'd written about the game in the past here.  It was at that point that I realized that there was a lot of content that I wrote about the game that somehow never got posted.  So, I present to you what was intended to be an immediate follow-up to this post, further thoughts about Lord of the Rings Online, three years ago (circa early 2008).

Huge disclaimer: there are things I talk about below that have changed over the past three years.  I'll be following this post with my thoughts on how far the game has come.  But I'm intentionally posting this as is, even though some of the statements are now inaccurate.


World and Travel

This is the only part of what I wrote that made it to the blog already.  You can read about it here.

Advancement - Deeds, Traits, and Levels

One of the great innovations the developers have brought to LotRO is the deed system.  Deeds can be given for traditional stuff like killing 200 orcs, or they can come from something more interesting like scouting out every ruin in the region.  Completing deeds can reward you with titles, which don't have any effect on gameplay but are fun to get nonetheless.  Unfortunately, titles are usually the result of easier deeds, so the coolness factor of being called "Spider-Foe" is lessened when you know everyone else has that title as well.  I wish they had more challenging titles to earn for those of us who want to set ourselves apart. 

Deeds can also produce traits, which equip into slots to specialize your character.  Some of these grant you new abilities (like the capacity to wear heavier armor), while others just grant you an attribute buff.  Many of these are stackable, so if you unlock the Zeal trait multiple times the effect of the Zeal buff will be stronger.  Number-wise, the carrot on the end of the stick is small, but it's enough to encourage you to do something a little off the beaten path.

It's impressive how enticing the deed system is considering how minor the effect is on gameplay.  I've often found myself re-treading some old content just to get some interesting deed.  It makes me wonder if  all the extreme level banding is really necessary.  I seem to be willing to go out of my way for very small gameplay rewards.  The worry of all MMO developers is that without gating the content I will blaze through it too fast and cancel my subscription when I'm done.  But in my modern MMO experience I usually level past the quest content before I'm able to get through all of it.  And as that the monsters in each region go up in level with me, it's not like I ever get the satisfaction of feeling more powerful.  So what are the levels buying me?  All they're really doing is designating which regions I'm supposed to be playing at what times.  

Wouldn't the experience be just as rich if I everyone was the same level?  Maybe getting rid of levels is too extreme, but at the very least can we make the gaps less extreme?  There are 50 levels in LotRO, and taking on something more than 4 or 5 levels higher than you is a death wish.  What if you could reasonably engage something within 10 levels?  Would that break the game?


The combat in LotRO has always left me feeling a little unsatisfied.  It's standard WoW fare: various timed abilities mapped to a numbered quick bar.  You stand there, whacking at your opponent, firing off some pattern of special attacks, waiting for them to keel over so you can loot their stuff.  It's the sort of thing that doesn't demand your full attention.  The main difference in this game is that they seem to have thrown too many options at you in an attempt to make it interesting.  But instead most of the abilities end up blurring together and leaving you bogged down with your overcrowded quick bar. 

The average fight lasts around 30 seconds, which doesn't sound like much, but is forever when you're just trying to kill a freaking boar.  The result is you never feel very powerful.  It doesn't help that you will be fighting an unending swarm of sameness.  The respawn times seem shorter and the variety in foes fewer.  Expect to fight a lot of boars, bears, wolves, spiders, brigands, and orcs.  It's all true to the fiction, but once the initial warm fuzzies wear off you'll be wishing there was some more diversity.

User Interface

LotRO's UI is approachable, largely due to its similarity with WoW, but it lacks the same polish.  Icons are too small and lack strong enough silhouettes to be quickly identified.  There are odd inconsistencies in the click-ability of items, requiring that you overfill your quick bar.  And the bag view is frustrating because you can't do key tasks from there like sell.  There are a ton of small issues with the interface - I could really go on and on.

WoW provided an open platform that enabled the community to patch up the rough spots.  Blizzard would watch popular trends and integrate those features into the core.  The end result is that the default WoW UI has become better and better over the years at an impressive pace.  Here in LotRO there's no ability to make up for the UI's shortcomings, and the momentum from the development team is too slow.  I know user interface is my field so I'm a bit biased, but I strongly believe that WoW's choice of UI platform is one of the largest contributers to its continued success.


The introduction to the game is quite strong with solo instances and nice epic feeling quests.  But outside of that there's an excessive amount of fetch quests and back-and-forth travel.  There's a primary story quest line that adheres to a higher quality bar, letting you follow the path of the ring without contradicting the fiction.  But in general the creative uses of instances in the early regions seems to thin out and be replaced by less inspired content as you move forward.  Pretty standard MMO fare.


Given the Lord of the Rings fiction, LotRO doesn't let you turn on your fellows for standard PvP.  That would let the terrorists Sauron win.  Instead the game offers a special mode where some players play monsters and others play their heroes.  I only tried it once, and was unfortunately bogged down by the excessive travelling involved.  There was far too much downtime moving around to then die so quickly.  But playing as the bad guys did spice up the sometimes bland morality of the primary quest lines.  And it was certainly enjoyable to play varied looking characters (spiders and orcs and such).  But the time to reward ratio was too high so I only gave it that one try.


The crafting system seems pretty standard at first glance, but it has a lot more complexity to it than what you see in WoW.  For example there's a chance of crafting criticals that can add some surprises to a usually boring task (in the form of either a better version of the item or more components).  There are patterns for more powerful items that are balanced by being one-use only, avoiding flooding the market and making the common stuff irrelevant.  Unfortunately finding recipes on the auction house is laughably difficult due to poor UI.  And for the other stuff the game lacks a friendly way to craft in bulk (I should never have to click a plus button 60 times just to smelt all my ore).  In my experience the stuff you can make is generally not of value by the time you can make it (given either the time to gather ingredients or the prohibitive cost of those ingredients on the auction house).  Overall crafting seems to be more interesting that what you can do in WoW but lacks polish, especially around the UI.

It is worth calling out that the ability to dye your armor is awesome.  It prevents your character from looking stupid, which is good because you're going to be staring at them for hours on end.  I know support for this involves investment in some core tech, but really every MMO should have this feature.


There you have it - my unposted words from three years ago.  Next up I'll talk about how far the game has come since then.