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Archive for the ‘MMORPG’ Category

As those who read this blog much know, since it’s the bulk of what I’ve written about, I have been an online gamer for many years.  Although I don’t play any MMORPGs right now, the list of ones I’ve tried, and played for various amounts of time, is as long as my arm.  Over the years, as an intelligent forum poster and a thoughtful gamer, I have managed to make my way into a number of closed betas, including the ones for LOTRO, COH, and Champions Online, to name a few.

In each and every case, when I got into closed beta, I have found that, beyond the fact that the games are (as expected) somewhat buggy, there has been a definite let-down when I saw what each game delivered.  Each game I’ve beta’ed has had major, fundamental flaws in basic game design.  In City of Heroes, the major flaw was basically how violently it departed from the genre.  In Champions Online it was how far the game strayed from Champions, plus the violations of genre, plus the really horrible questing system.  In LOTRO it was almost everything about the game, since it’s just WOW with a Middle Earth reskin, right down to the pedestrian quests.  I’ve complained about these elements in the finished products that launched for all these games, so there’s no point to rehashing it all. Suffice it to say, in every closed beta, I have been shocked and disappointed by how poor certain aspects of the game are. (more…)

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Wow that was fast…

As readers of my blog will know, I tried the Open Beta Test of Champions Online back in August. My view of it was not very favorable, and my gut instinct after that weekend was to beg off.  However, a good friend of mine was really into it, and for some reason I found, after Open Beta (OB) ended and the pre-launch period began, that I was missing it.  I’m not even sure what aspect of it I missed, to be honest. But I turned it over in my mind for the time between OB and Launch (on Sept 1) and decided that I’d go ahead and get it (as I explain in the comments of that first post).

I played the game for about two months, and I have to say for the first 10 levels or so, the first maybe 10 days, it was fun.  Then as I got into the higher levels, all the flaws I had noticed in OB started to reassert themselves — or rather, they’d been there all along but the shiny newness of the game and in particular the fun of gaming with a friend of 30 years again, obscured those faults.  I won’t get into the flaws here, as I’ve already discussed those in my earlier post.

Again, if you’ve read my blog, you know that I am a roleplayer, and that I usually try to find a roleplay-oriented guild (or in CO/COH parlance, “Supergroup”) to join, as I find that enhances the experience. And so right away, I went looking for RP organizations in CO. I found a site called “Champions Online Roleplayers”, or CORP, and they had a listing of supergroups.  I looked around for one that matched both my style and my character’s, and I found one. It seemed fairly active, and had a simple enough application process, so I applied to them.  I had an interview/RP session in a day or so, and was duly accepted into the team.  They were good people, and I had fun with them for a few weeks, until the game wore on me to the point that I started logging in only for the RP sessions. And while those are good, I’ve been down this road before, and I know enough that once I stop playing the game for its own system, it’s time to go.  I canceled my account yesterday, and thus ends my adventure into the Champions Online arena. I doubt if I’ll be back, but you never know.

Now, that’s not what the title (“That was fast”) is about.  The interesting thing about this guild, and the thing that was “fast”, is the vast difference in speed between joining and leaving it.  Although the application/approval process only took a couple of days, it took them something like a week and a half to get my board permissions set up. I had to ask repeatedly, and finally after the third or fourth time it was rectified. In the mean time, for the first 10 or so days I was on the guild, I could not read any of the private areas of the guild forum, despite the fact that I was entitled (conceptually, if not in “forum code bits”).  So, it took them a really long time (relatively speaking) to get the board permissions changed for “off” to “on.”

What I find interesting, and more than a little ironic, is how much faster they were at revoking my permissions when I informed them of my departure. I want to be clear that I left under no acrimony whatsover. I never said or posted anything negative there about the game (and I don’t think they know that this blog is in any way connected with my login on their forum, as the names are not related, and I’ve never mientioned it).  I have never said anything negative about the game on their in-game chat channels. So even though I was thinking highly critical thoughts about Cryptic Studios and Champions Online, they could not have known about those, and I had not done anything to upset anyone in the slightest (so far as I know).  I participated in their RP and my relationship with them was 100% friendly. I point this out because they had no reason to suspect, as one might suspect with an acrimonious split, that I might post anything vile or do anything damaging to their forums.  And yet, literally within a few hours of posting my very simple resignation — a resignation in which, even on the point of departure, I did not criticize the game, citing only a “lack of time” as the reason for leaving — my posting status had been changed to “retired.”  I realized this mainly because the number of visible forums upon logging in changed from morning to afternoon. At that point, I thought, “Wow, that was fast!”

I want to make it clear, that I have no problem with them revoking my membership status. They should have done so, and I don’t mind that it was done at once.  It shows they are on the ball. But I thought it was slightly humorous that they were so efficient at revoking membership, while they were so slow at awarding it.  It seems to me they’d be better off doing the reverse.  When a new player comes in, you want that player active and involved ASAP. At once. You don’t want the player to have to wait days, or more than a week, to be able to read guild posts or make posts himself.  Although I liked the group there was a general lack of efficiency in the admin corps, and I wonder if this doesn’t show why — they’ve got their priorities a bit skewed, perhaps.

At any rate, both my membership status change, and more generally my membership in both guild and game, were pretty fast. And now I’m looking for something else to fill the time with (game-wise). For now I am trying to work on a Sims 3 Legacy. I’ve never taken one past the 3rd generation. We’ll see how it goes.

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One Grind to Rule them All

As readers of this blog know by now, I have been playing Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online for a few months now. My opinion of this game has changed gradually as my character has advanced to the upper levels. She’s now level 42, and has moved into the “higher level” areas — places such as Angmar and the Misty Mountains. The game-play of LOTRO has remained very consistent in some ways, and changed dramatically in others, at the same time. The real change however, has been a change not of kind, but of degree. The degree I’m referring to specifically is what MMORPG gamers call “the grind.”

What do we mean by “grind?”

Before I get into the details of “the grind” in LOTRO, let me first define what most gamers mean when they say something is a “grind.” To me, a “grind” is anything a game makes you do over and over again for no reason other than to increase the number of times you have done it. A great example of “grinding” is the way crafting is done in most games. If you want to level up your crafting, you have to collect hundreds of some resource, and then craft some useless object over and over again, to level up. Most people aren’t having fun while doing this. They don’t want to craft the useless object once, let alone hundreds of times. But the game makes them do it hundreds of times before they get to the “next level.”

Now, I want to be clear that this definition doesn’t just mean “repeating content a little bit.” I don’t consider having to kill 5 wolves to be “a grind” because it’s over in a few minutes. But when I am asked to kill 500 wolves, or 50, or heck even 20, now it’s a grind – because it’s going to take up a significant portion of my time (many minutes, maybe even several hours). And my time is being taken up by doing the same mind-numbing thing over and over again. This is what a grind is, at its heart – doing something over and over again that gives you no substantial “value add” to your entertainment. Boring the player to the point of falling into a stupor over and over again.

I’m going to be blunt here: I hate grinding. I think it has no place in a game, and should never exist even in small doses. If a designer is asking me to do the same thing more than 3 or 4 times, that designer has asked me to grind, and I’m going to object. Now, the reality is that all games have some “grind” aspects to them, and I have had to just live with that. But when a game is made out to be mostly or all grind, my objections become stronger… and they become stronger in direct proportion to the amount of grinding I am being asked to do.

The reason I hate grind is simple: it’s a poor, lame substitute for content. To me, “content” in a game is something unique, interesting, and fun that I can do. It’s certainly true that killing a “rabid wolf” once is content. But the 99 times I have to kill it after that are not content; they’re “grind.” That’s how I view it. I realize others will have a different definition, but this is my blog, so this is the definition I’m going to use.

Why games have grind

Lots of players hate grind as much as I do, and one will frequently see them complain on the internet or on web forums (as I am doing right now, in fact). So why do games have grind in them? Well, I think there are a few reasons, these being:

The grandfather clause of stupidity: Years ago I read the website of a really interesting guy named Musashi, or “Mu” for short. He has a bunch of long rants about game design, and one of his best and most interesting has “The Grandfather Clause of Stupidity” as its title. Succinctly, what he’s talking about is that games of today frequently have no better reason to incorporate a system (most often, a bad system) except that other games in the past had the system. For example, the “armor class” feature that most games have is taken from Dungeons and Dragons, which took them from its parent, Chainmail. Rather than creating a system based on how armor actually works in the real world, designers in 2009 will just co-opt the idea of “armor class” from D&D, and this will include whatever bad features were included in the original game, Chainmail (and there were many – because chainmail was a game for miniatures, not for roleplaying). This extends even more so to the computer gaming genre. The “grandfathers” of today’s MMORPGs are Ultima Online and Everquest. Now when these two games came out, online gaming was new, and there were lots of technical limitations to servers and clients. Therefore, just having creatures be “out in the world” and telling players “go kill 50 of them” made sense, because anything more complex than that (even things like cutscenes, animated art, voice-overs) would have been impossible using 1998-2000 tech. People were using dial-up and had 200 MHZ machines for crying out loud… they could not have done much more than the game allowed in those days.

However, we are far, far past the days of 1999. Computers have multi-core processors. People have high-speed DSL and cable modems. Artificial intelligence has advanced by 10 years since EQ launched. There is no reason that games of today need to be anything remotely like EQ, because the technical limitations under which EQ’s authors labored no longer exist – just as the technical limitations of using pencils, paper, and “to hit” tables no longer exist. And yet, designers keep incorporating all the same kludges that EQ and UO used because they had no other choice, on the logic that “it’s how EQ did it.” So when someone writes a quest to “kill 20 beefalos,” it’s not because the computers of today can’t handle something more complex, or because you couldn’t make something more complex work in a game, but rather, because “that’s what people do in MMORPGs” because “that’s what has always been done.”

And so, one reason why MMORPGs have “the grind” is because “they’ve always had the grind” and so, “that’s how they are supposed to be.”

Gamers as employees: A lot of designers, and players, think that an MMORPG is supposed to be a job, rather than just a fun diversion. They think you should have to “work” for everything you get in an MMORPG. You shouldn’t be able to just go kill one giant rat and get the quest done. You should have to kill 100 rats because doing that is “hard work” and completing the quest should “mean something.” I’ve always found this argument to be extremely bizarre, mainly because MMORPGs are games, and games are meant to be fun (not work, not a job). It’s also an odd argument because it’s not clear to me that anyone who is just clicking buttons and watching a bunch of pixels on a computer screen is ever going to “accomplish” anything that means something. However, this is one reason for the grind. If the designer thinks you should have to “work” while playing his game, one easy way to do that is to make you grind 1,000 of something instead of just 2. The other 998 are the “work” part.

The trainsitive property of MMO grinding: In mathematics, the transitive property says that if A = B and B = C, then A = C. I think in the minds of game designers, there is something similar to this going on. They know that grinding takes time, and that taking time needs people to subscribe longer, so they think that grinding will lead to longer subscription times. In pseudo-math terms, grinding = time and time = subs so grinding = subs. Of course, they’re ignoring a second set of equations, namely that grinding is boring, and bored players cancel, or, “mathematically,” grinding = boredom and boredom = cancel, so for some of us, grinding = cancel. Unfortunately because “grinding is a part of MMOs,” the game designers don’t consider this sequent set of “equations” – they seem to figure that we’ll all expect their game to have a lot of grind in it, and that nobody who likes MMOs would cancel because of grind. In fact other players will even tell you this: “If you don’t like mindless grind, don’t play MMOs,” someone said on a forum once… in defense of the grinding.

The uber-grind of LOTRO

Now that I’ve defined “grind” and explained why games have it, I will turn my attention to the second-grindiest game I have ever played (WOW is in first place in this category): LOTRO. My early writings on LOTRO do not reveal this, because the “grind” is minimized or masked in the game until you hit level 25 or so. In the early game, when they ask you to collect things that drop (paws, hides, etc), it’s almost always 10 or less. Although 10 can still feel a little grindy, it’s over quickly enough that I tend not to notice it too much. Also, in the low levels, they were very careful to make sure that the thing you were looking off dropped nearly 100% of the time off of the target. For example, if you’re supposed to collect 10 bear paws, after killing 10 bears, at least 9 and frequently all 10 will have dropped. Unfortunately this aspect of the game changes as you level. By level 40, in Evendim, I was asked to collect some bandit loot drops that required me to kill over 100 guys to collect 4 things. That’s a 4% drop rate… and 100 bandits worth of pure, utter grind.

Also in the early game, in LOTRO, you are engaged in the story much of the time. The first several levels are highly story-driven, with the tutorial, and then you get into the epic quests, which can carry you quite far. The Bree-land adventures are not grindy, and so it seems like the game is more story-based than other MMOs. But that’s a false perception. As you get into the Lone-lands and North Downs, the level 20+ areas, the grind gets more intense, and by the time you’re level 40, the grind becomes insane. For example, in LOTRO, “deeds” are given for killing certain enemies. In the low level areas, like Bree, you’ll get a title (like “Slayer of Spiders”) for killing 30 and then a virtue bonus (such as +1 to Empathy) for killing another 60. That’s 90 total enemies, which is a grind enough… but at least with that many, half or more of them come from doing quests anyway, so it’s not that bad. But in later zones the number goes up… you’ll have to do 60 and then 120 in zones like the Lone-lands or North Downs. Then you get into even higher zones like the Misty Mountains and now it’s 120 for the title, 240 for the trait bonus. And some go as high as 150/300 (450 total mobs to kill… talk about uber-grind!).

The fact is that by the time I got to level 40, I started to realize that almost all the content in LOTRO is grind-based. The Epic Quests are not, because they are story based, but you only do a few of those relative to all the non-story quests that are just grinds. Let’s look at the kinds of grind in LOTRO:

Trash quests: This category is probably 90% of the quests in the game. The NPC gives you a few paragraphs of text weakly justifying why you are supposed to go out and kill a bunch of enemies or go find drops off of enemies (that you of course have to kill first). The story they give you is utterly irrelevant (unless maybe it hints at where to find the things you’re going to kill). These quests are lifted right out of the other MMOs out there, and could be transferred without loss of relevance to WOW, EQ, Lineage, you name it. There is nothing “Middle-Earth” about these quests… they are pure, mindless grind.

Virtue deeds: The virtue traits, such as Empathy, Zeal, and so forth, require grinding to obtain in many cases. Some of them don’t, such as ones that ask you to find ancient landmarks (that’s exploring, not grinding). But the majority of them are just rewarded for killing a couple of hundred enemies, and hence are pure grind.

Class deeds: These are absolutely ridiculous “quests” that ask you to just use a special move 500 times to get a stat bonus. You are limited to raising this deed 50 per day, so it takes at least 10 days to get the deed. Most people seem to just find some trash mobs that are easy to fight, and just do their special move over and over again during a few dozen fights with the trash mobs, until they hit their 50 for the day. There is no thought to this… just mindless grind.

Faction reputation: Another thing you have to grind in the game is reputation with different factions. The reputation can grant virtues or access to special areas or items. The only way to gain faction reputation is to grind it by doing the things that raise faction over and over again. For example, you can raise Ranger faction by crafting some special sashes, as a tailor. Craft 5 and turn them in, and you’ll get 300 faction points. That sounds like a lot, except you need 10,000 faction points just to get the first “faction level”, then 20,000 and it goes up from there. Since 5 sashes are worth 300 faction, that means each sash is worth 60 faction. A little quick math tells us that to raise faction by 10,000 points through crafting sashes, one would need to craft about 170 sashes… and then another 340 to get the next level of faction. Of course, crafting sashes requires boiled hides – about 4 of each. So if you wanted to faction up by crafting, you’d need about 2,100 boiled hides to get the first 2 faction ranks, each of which takes 2 raw hides to make, or a grand total of 4,200 hide drops taken off of animals in the wild. Since each animal drops at most 1 hide, and sometimes none, you’d need to kill around 5,000 wargs to get 2 ranks of Ranger faction in Esteldin. Of course, making sashes is not the only way to raise faction, but any other way will be equally grindy. Quests grant you about 700 faction in most cases, so this means you need to do 14 quests, most of which will be asking you to do more grinding.

Crafting: To level up crafting, there’s only one way: grind, grind, grind. You’ll need to collect thousands of resources, and then refine them into hundreds of components, and then go ahead and make hundreds of items. For instance, to master the mere second tier (of 6) in Tailor, you will need 840 “crafting experience” points. You gain about 4 each from making components and 6 from making an item like an armor vest. Since two components make the item, by the time you’re done, that’s 14 craft xp. To make each component takes 2 boiled hides (4 total for two components), and then 1 boiled hide for the armor vest. This means you get 14 craft xp per 5 boiled hides, and since boiled hides take 2 raw hides to make, 14 craft xp per 10 hides you collect in the wild. This means you will need roughly 600 hides to master the tier 2 crafting. Again since hides drop usually, but not always (let’s call it about 90% of the time), you’re going to have to kill about 700 bears and boars to level up just the 2nd of the 6 crafting tiers. By tier 6 that number will be something like 2,000 if I’ve done my conversions right. This is pure, utter grind.

Looking at the above, many people would probably say, “Wow, that’s a lot of grind!” And it is. By now you might be thinking that surely there are some non-grindy aspects to LOTRO. And you’d be right… sort of. There is one, and only one, element to LOTRO that is not a grind: the Epic storyline. Those are pretty much the only quests in the game that are not “kill a bunch of these things” or “get loot drops from a bunch of these things.” Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of these quests. You certainly can’t just do them and level up to 60. Rather, most of the leveling is done via grind, and then every few levels (at least to 42) you do some “epics.” As I said above, epics constitute perhaps 10% of your game-playing time. The rest of it – all the rest of it – is taken up as with the above… grind, and nothing but grind.

Conclusion

LOTRO has done a very good job capturing certain aspects of Middle-Earth. The landscape and flora and fauna of the world are good representations of Tolkien’s universe. However, where the game utterly fails to be Middle-Earth-like is in all the non-epic quests. I mean really, when in the books, did you see hobbits going around killing wolves over and over again? Or dwarves grinding spiders? One of the really unfortunate consequences of all this grinding is that it takes one completely out of the head-space of Middle-Earth, and into the head-space of “standard gaming.” I’ve already done all these other grinds in other games, so there’s nothing new here in terms of the grind. It’s the same thing I’ve seen before, and everyone else has seen before. Doesn’t Middle-Earth, which is the richest, most expertly created fictional world/universe in the history of fantasy and science fiction, deserve better than this? I think so.

One thing has definitely happened as a result of all this grinding. Early on, I could not stop playing LOTRO. I hadn’t done fantasy in a long time, and it seemed a well done game. I would estimate that I played probably about 20-25 hours a week back then. Now, I have to almost force myself to log in, and after 45 minutes or an hour, I want to log out. The grind is too boring to do for more than an hour, and I am quickly losing interest. I do not like the grind, and since LOTRO is almost all grind, I’m starting not to like LOTRO.

Fortunately I do have my excellent Kinship, the Green Company, which is a role-play oriented group. And Middle-Earth is still an awesome world to RP in. So, I’ll stick around for a while, perhaps a long while, for the RPing opportunity. It’s worth $15/month to be able to role-play in Tolkien’s world, with good RPers who also know a lot about that world. But take the RP out of it, and you just have a grind with a thin veneer of Middle-Earth over it. And that’s sad.

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I have been playing Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online game for about two months now, and gotten my highest-level character (a Warden) to level 38.  There’s a lot to like about the game, but also a lot to dislike, and frankly I think Turbine has made a lot of the same mistakes that other MMOs like WOW and Vanguard have made, at least with regard to my preferences.  Frankly it’s starting to look like maybe the MMORPG genre is just not for me, since in game after game I keep coming up with the same issues. The #1 issue in all these games is the mindless, repetitive grind. I just don’t have the endurance for that. The game becomes a job sooner or later (in WOW, it was basically from level 1, which is why I didn’t last long there; in City of Heroes that started in the 20s; in LOTRO it started a bit later, in the mid-30s), and I start questioning just what the point is after that.  Now, in LOTRO, I have a good guild (a Kinship in that game) and we have great RP sessions, and there is a fairly good Epic story-line, so I will keep playing for those things, at least through the summer.  But the game is not as fun as it could have been, had they done a better job on the design – had they decided, because of the wonderful, rich, unique world they got to play with, that they were going to make it be different from your standard MMO, instead of just being “WOW in Middle-Earth.” Below is my (long, flame-inducing) review.

Visuals/Graphics 10/10
The visual design of LOTRO is excellent.  By this I mean the way the world looks – how trees and landscapes appear, how animals look in the world, how the shadows work.  Turbine has done an outstanding job of molding, shaping, and designing Middle-Earth.  All of the notable places from the novels are present (at least to the degree that the world has so far been “opened up”), and all of the ones I have visited look pretty much exactly as I pictured them when I read the novels. I would say, in fact, that Turbine has done a better job of making the world look and feel like the Middle-Earth of my imagination than Peter Jackson et al. did in the movie version – and that’s saying something, because I felt they did an outstanding job on this aspect of the movies, too.  But Turbine has done well: the hobbit areas feel like hobbit areas; the dwarf areas look dwarfish, and so on.  The world of LOTRO looks great, and they get very high marks for it.

Character Animations/Visual Effects 4/10

Strangely enough, given how well the static elements of the world (water, trees, mountains, grass, etc) are done, the dynamic aspects of it, such as character animations and visual effects, are mediocre at best.  The animations for combat are, in particular, choppy. My character looks gimpy and awkward – holding her weapon at an odd angle, and never seeming to really “uncurl” her limbs to actually complete forceful blows.  Bows and javelins are held in ways that certainly no Olympian would hold them.  It seems like despite their high level and supposed combat expertise, none of the characters of LOTRO have figured out the proper “form” to have when using a weapon. Animations are incredibly awkward and frankly painful to look at.  It’s really puzzling to me how they could have done such a poor job with animations in a game that was released in 2007.  The animations are better in City of Heroes and Star Wars Galaxies, both many years older than LOTRO, than they are in this game.  Turbine clearly didn’t put much effort into this part of the game, or if they did, then the people who designed it have little talent. I hate to be harsh but, honestly, the animations are ugly and really painful to watch.

Music/Ambient Sound 10/10
The music of LOTRO is just wonderful. Again they have something very good to compete with – the soundtrack of the movies. At first I thought that this was the only music for Middle-Earth that I could really get on board with, because Howard Shore did such a good job with it. But the composer(s) of Turbine came through in fine fashion, giving each zone its own theme song and making each one appropriate and most of the quite beautiful. I particularly like the music of Kingsfell in the North Downs, and Rivendell in the Trollshaws. The music is scored beautifully, and might be the best music I’ve ever heard in an MMO, barring perhaps Star Wars Galaxies, since they actually used the John Williams soundtracks, and it’s hard to beat those.  Still, Turbine did an excellent job on the musical score.

Sound Effects 4/10
Strangely enough, the sound effects of the game mirror the quality of the visual effects. In much the same way that the world is gorgeous but the character animations hideous, the world music is lovely but the sound effects for things like combat frequently leave a lot to be desired.  My Warden’s gambit attacks frequently sound like someone is ringing a gong when she strikes, or knocking on my door.  How that is supposed to reflect combat sounds with spears and swords, I honestly don’t quite understand, but the effect is jarring.  Worse than this are the “shout” attacks that melee characters and even minstrels have. These are taunts against the enemy designed to draw hatred (draw “aggro’ in the MMO vernacular), and probably were meant to be obvious so other players would know what I was doing when trying to draw hate.  However, get a few characters with “shout” attacks onto the battle field and it’s a jarring, unpleasant experience that frequently has me turning the sound completely off (since there is no way to just lower the shout volume).  Other games have taunt shouts (like City of Heroes) that are much less annoying. But this is symptomatic of the larger problem, which is that the sound effects for combat in general are amateurish and poorly done.  They really need to have someone go collect new sounds and update this, because when one combines the poor sound with the poor animation effects, combat seems like something out of 2001, such as the original Neverwinter Nights, than a 2007 game with expansions.


Character Design/Development – 5/10

Character design in LOTRO leaves an awful lot to be desired. Sadly they have gone the same direction as most WOW-copying MMOs (and let there be no mistake, the basic game is almost a replica of WOW).  By this I mean that you can’t really design your character much at all. Other than picking some facial features at the starting screen, characters all look very similar in game.  There are only a few types of armor or weapons that one can use in a given level range, so unless you feel like walking around with armor much lower than your level, your level 30 Hunter is going to look about like every other level 30 Hunter.  You’ll have all the same skills as all other level 30 Hunters, unless you purposely decided to gimp yourself and not buy all of the skills available. You’ll probably have the same exact weapon as every other Hunter of level 30.  Basically the only difference between Hunter A and Hunter B at a given level is which “traits” they have slotted in, and although these do allow for some variety, the total amount of variety we’re talking about here is quite low.

In short, what has happened is that basically the designers have built one character of each class and your job as a player is not to design one, so much as to “unlock” the parts of the character that the designers have already made for you.  Your unlocks happen as you (a) level, or (b) complete deeds (which usually amounts to finding points of interest or killing a lot of the same thing over and over again).  The trait system might be better if it were not such a grind, but it’s still an extremely shallow method of introducing character variation.  It’s a far cry from even the D&D idea of having a huge pool of skills and you choose which ones your character will specialize in – and in D&D that idea was not taken far enough to suit me.

The amount of customization here is trivial at best, and that’s rather sad, given how non-homogeneous the characters of the novels were.

Game system 6/10
The underlying game system of LOTRO is fundamentally the same as pretty  much every other MMORPG out there on the  market today.  You have an “auto-attack,” and then a series of “skills” or special moves. Each one has a cool-down time and an animation time, and the button fades out after use and slowly (over the cool-down period) lights back up.  This is basically the same fundamental system as the one pioneered by City of Heroes in 2004, then copied by World of Warcraft and eventually every other game on the market.  There’s not much original here with the basic game (Shadows of Angmar), and it literally amounts to a WOW re-skin.

The only difference I’ve seen is with my chosen class, the Warden, where there are very few special moves that you can just click on. Instead, the base special moves can be clicked in sequence to open up (temporarily) a combination move called a “gambit.” These gambits are the real work-horse of the class, as they’re the ones that do the damage or steal threat or what have you.  If the entire game had worked more like this, I’d give it a higher rating in this category, because the way gambits works is at least reasonably original (though there are too many redundant gambits for my taste).  But it’s just one of about eight classes, and all the others are very “been there/done that” before you even get out of the gate.

In addition to unoriginal skill activation systems, the quest system is, again, exactly like WOW, with the exception of the “epic” storyline. This is a storyline that follows the plot of the trilogy, and that part is original (to gaming) and quite fun. Unfortunately, the “epic quests” only account for about 10% of the total questing you do in the game, with the rest of the quests being exactly what you’d expect from WOW – about 65% kill quests, with the two main varieties being (a) just flat out “kill X of these”, and (b) “kill this thing and loot X of these things off of it.”  Early in the game the ‘looting’ variety is identical to kill X – that is, “take 10 things off of these guys” means “kill 10 guys and each will drop this thing.” However, in the upper levels they maddeningly reduced the percentage chance of a drop, so “collect 10 widgets” really means “kill about 200 guys, off of which there’s maybe a 5% chance a widget will drop.”  I absolutely detested this about WOW, and I detest it about LOTRO. If you want me to kill 200 guys, then tell me so, make something drop off of each one, and tell me to collect 200 so I know what I’m in for (or more likely, know not to take the quest at all).  Don’t tell me “collect 2” when you mean “collect 40” – it’s just annoying when that happens, and definitely not fun in my book.

The other issue I have with the game is that their con system makes absolutely no sense. In the normal MMO vernacular, a “white con” is an even match for your character, taking into account level as well as the target’s special abilities.  In LOTRO, a white con is meaningless. What matters is the “class” of the mob – class being things like “normal,” “signature,” and “elite.” Normals actually con too high – an orange normal is really more like a match to you. Signature whites are a match to your character, while elite greens will frequently own you (or even, a few times, elite grays owned my character).  Because con is tied to level but difficulty is generally not, the con is meaningless.  So they basically have this whole system in the game that is non-functional. That’s sloppy, in my view, and I deducted heavily for this.

Next, there is the forced grouping. I hate forced grouping. I don’t hate it because I hate to group – I group up plenty of times. But I don’t like to be forced to group to complete a story part. Sometimes I am alone working on a quest line… The first 5 parts of the 6-part story will be soloable. Then, suddenly, part 6 requires a full group. Now I can’t finish the story until I find the time and people to help me. It might be hours… days… once it was literally weeks until I could get a group together to do it. Meanwhile, by the time I do it, I’ve forgotten completely what the story-line was about, and now I’m just trying to get the damn thing out of my quest queue so I can move on.

Finally, the crafting in the game is so shallow that it’s a joke.  If you are, say, a tailor, there’s only one type of item to collect over a broad level range. So from level 15-25, all animals will drop medium hides, and that’s all.  And you can only make a few types of armor from those medium hides.  This leads to everyone walking around looking basically the same over a range of levels, and it means there is no thinking involved in crafting – none, at all.  Because you can set your character up to craft multiple things, I have literally collected 150 hides, and then set my character to “boil” them into 75 “boiled hides” (which is the refined material tailors use) and then gone to take a shower while my character does this. How is this supposed to be engaging or fun game play? It isn’t.  There is nothing in crafting that requires any sort of brain power.  Like the rest of the game, it’s all just checking off boxes.

Clearly, the developers at Turbine set out to re-skin WOW with Middle-Earth. Assuming that was their goal, they succeeded admirably. And as you’ll be able to tell comparing the two reviews, I don’t like the stuff I hated about WOW any better in this game.  Their crafting system is laughable; their combat system is stale and clichéd; their quests (other than the epic storyline) are uninspired and typical.  There are, of course, occasional exceptions, such as the epic quests or delivering pies in the Shire while avoiding hungry hobbits. But these occasional bursts of inspiration are buried under such an enormous mountain of mediocrity that it is difficult to find them.


Performance 9/10

The performance of the game is quite solid.  I have a four-year-old computer and a laptop and it runs well on both.  Lag only occurs in very crowded areas, and I’ve not yet found a game where this was not the case.  They have had a lot of issues with people hitting rubberbanding regions and being unable to log in lately, but they seem to have fixed most of those. Overall the game performs quite well.

User Interface – 5/10
LOTRO’s interface is functional, but nothing to write home about.  Unlike WOW, they do allow you to move elements of the UI around without needing a mod to do it.  But still I find the interface mediocre at best.  Certain elements can’t be (easily) moved, and the map is annoyingly impossible to zoom in and out of dynamically.  There are “levels” of zoom in the map window, but I’d like to be able to select one section with the mouse and expand it the way one does on a Google or Yahoo! map.  The artwork for the interface is mediocre and very WOW-ish, as is the style of it.  As I say above, it’s functional, but nothing we haven’t seen a dozen times already.

Community – 8/10
The community of LOTRO is pretty good.  I like the “mylotro” site, where players get their own blogs to blog about the game, and there’s a lot of good stuff on the blogs.  The forum is typical of gaming forums – lots of flaming, lots of cases of people staking out a position and then trying to defend it against all comers. Within the game the community is fairly helpful but also fairly quiet in many zones. Overall it’s a community I like being a part of, so that earns it a lot of points in my book.

Role-Playing – 10/10
I took a lot of time in LOTRO looking for just the right RP-based guild, and I found one.  It took a while to be interviewed and to join, but it was well worth the wait.  They are excellent RPers, and a lot of people on my server also RP.  The world of Tolkien just inspires good rolepalying, perhaps because unlike most gaming worlds, we already knew about it before we started, and already had an idea of where our character’s place in the world is. Either way, I’ve not had RP this good in a long time, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

Fun – 7/10
LOTRO has a lot going for it, but it also has a lot of elements that I don’t find as much fun as, apparently, other folks do.  I have great fun exploring the world, because it is well done, and I have great fun role-playing with my Kinship and other friends in the game, again, because the world is so well-done and because it is based on a wonderful intellectual property (IP).  It has a good epic story-line that I enjoy following, especially when role-playing along the way (which I have done for most of it).  However, it also has an enormous “grind” component. Far too much of the game is mindless and repetitive.  Too many quests are boring repeats of the old pointless MMO stand-by quests such as “go deliver this thing to this guy 10 miles from here and then come back to me” (“FedEx” quests), or “Go kill a billion of these things and then come back to me” (kill quests). Crafting is such a boring and repetitive grind that they ended up automating it (wow, that makes it better!), and harvesting anything but hides is a bamboo-shoot-shoved-up-the-fingernails type of experience.  Far too much of the game was created with a work/grind mentality, rather than as unique and enjoyable experience, and this impression increases as you gain levels. I can only imagine what the kill quests will be like in the 50+ level range, given how bad they have become by 38.

On the other hand LOTRO has some fun elements, and it does provide a good world for us to play in.  It doesn’t do these boring/grinding things any worse than most other MMOs, so I rate it as about average in this category, and finally settled on giving it a 7/10.  This isn’t a great score, in my view, and it means I’m probably going to keep playing it over the summer break while I have less to do than normal, but once the fall arrives I’d be surprised if I keep subscribing.

Overall – 7.1/10
Overall, LOTRO is a decent MMORPG, but you won’t find much of any real originality here.  The biggest thing it has going for it is the world, which of course, Turbine did not create, but adapted from the incredibly well-made world of Tolkien. Their ability to convert the landscape and create a musical score for the world has really been staggering, and this gives the game its main strength.  These elements also improve the role-play potential for the game, which may be why I see more role-playing in LOTRO than I’ve ever seen in any other MMO that I’ve played.  On the other hand, the actual game-play is uninspired and unoriginal, being little more than a re-skin of WOW, and the scope of character design is claustrophobically limited.  In the end this game is little more than “WOW in Middle-Earth,” and it’s really only Middle-Earth that is keeping me around for the time being (because I love that world).  If this were a totally made-up world, I’d probably have canceled already.

In the end I consider LOTRO to be an average MMORPG, nothing special, but not terrible. If you like these sorts of games it’s worth giving a look. If you love Tolkien then it’s definitely worth it (as I say, that’s what is keeping me in the game right now). If you’re after something new, original, or different, I’d say, look elsewhere, because this game has nothing new of any significance. And if you object to mindless grind, or are looking for real depth to the game systems, definitely search elsewhere. LOTRO’s world may be deep (thanks to Tolkien, not Turbine, mind!), but the game systems (like crafting, character creation, combat) have all the depth of a sheet of paper.

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As anyone who has read the posts on this site knows, I am an avid gamer, and my gaming medium of choice most of the time since 2003 has been the Massively Multiplayer Onine RPG (MMORPG).  These games are designed to be played for months, gradually, and to become a part of your “gaming life” for a long while.  I have played many, and each one has claimed a significant portion of my life for some period of time, as designed.

However, each one has also, at some point, grown stale and lost its interest for me, and in each case I have had to go through a protracted period of realizing it was time to let go.  Invariably, I have known with my head that it was time to bail on a game, before my heart was willing to admit it.

The primary reason for this has not had anything to do with the game, but has, instead, been all about the people. MMORPGs are games you play with others, and believe it or not, you can make some very real friends playing these games — even when they are people you’ve never met.

The first time this happened, and I have to admit in all honesty, the ugliest of my break-ups (because it was my first) was in the game I have to this day loved more than all the others — Star Wars Galaxies.  The game, as I loved it, no longer exists, having gone through two revamps that were so complete that none of the character classes, skills, or game systems that originally existed remain to any real degree.  However, the original version of the game was darn near to what I would call perfect in an RPG, and I loved it.  The game was designed to be a very social experience, and as with all MMORPGs, it had guilds (called “Player Associations).  For those who don’t play MMOs, a guild is basically a permanent, large group of people who work together to play the game in some way.  In SWG, the guild was your support group for things like doing hard content (you needed groups of up to 20 to kill a Krayt Dragon, for instance), for crafting items for you to use (no one could personally craft everything he needed) and ultimately it was the nexus of most player-run cities.

I joined my first guild in SWG, called the New Deeja Council. It was run by the best guild leader I have ever had the pleasure to work with, a lovely Twi’lek politician named Renea (whom we called “Nea” for short).  NDC was actually not a very good guild, because there were factions within it that worked at cross-purposes to Nea, and eventually some of the bigger jerks in the guild destroyed it by staging a coup.

However, there is always a silver lining, and a few of us who were more interested in roleplay (RP) than the others had been, and who were loyal to Renea, managed to cajole her into starting a new guild, which would also run its own city on Corellia called Kor Spera, and we called it the Kor Spera Fellowship (meaning “City of Hope” — since “kor” = “city” in Corellian, and “Sperare” = “hope” in Latin).

What followed was without a doubt my best guild experience in all of the MMORPGs that I have played.  I’ve been in guilds in Ryzom (Order of Dragonblades), Vanguard (Shadowfire), and City of Heroes (Redux, Aegis, Emissaries of Evil, and one more I shall not name, because I’m still a member), and even run a couple of them (such as Redux), but none has compared to KSF.  That guild was the perfect storm for me — it was in a great game, it had a great leader, and the people in the guild were just huge fun to game with.

However, when Sony made massive changes to the game, first in early 2005 and then in late 2005, culminating with their “New Game Enhancements” (NGE), which I utterly despised, I almost lost all of those friends.  The game had become something I no longer liked, and I was angry and bitter that I had lost (without any chance of getting it back, ever) the best game I’d ever played on a computer.  Because there was no other way to express it, I ended up venting my frustrations on the guild, both in game and on the game forums.  Finally Renea had to take me aside and ask me to cut it out, which should not have been necessary.  I did manage to stifle myself, but the reality is, I just should have quit long before that.

The problem, of course, was that although I now hated the game, I still loved all my friends in KSF. I played the game, despite no longer even slightly enjoying the game itself, from around March to November of 2005, because of them… because I enjoyed their online company too much to stop, even when the game, to my way of seeing it, sucked.  And since this was the first time it had ever happened to me, I did not realize what a mistake this was.  Finally, and fortunately, Sony forced my hand with the NGE — behaving so unethically and converting the game to something so horrifyingly bad and incompetently designed that even the lovely people of KSF could not counterbalance it any longer.

In the time since, this same situation has happened several times, but I have not let it go so far.  In COH, I did a lot of belly-aching on the official forums, but since my guild members on Redux did not read those forums, they mostly were spared my bile, and when I quit, I think it came as a surprsie to them.  In Ryzom, the guild broke up over the Thanksgiving holiday and then the game went bankrupt, so I just kind of lost it all at once and since it was the holidays, did not notice it much… I just started playing another game (Vanguard) after the holidays were over. In Vanguard, when I came to dislike the game, again I vented on private sites, and I did not vent (too much) on our guild site (perhaps a bit, but nothing like with SWG), nor too much in game.  I just bailed on the game after a few months and said good-bye to the guild.

Each time, it has been difficult, and except for the strange case of Ryzom, each time, I have stayed in a game longer than I should have on the game’s merits alone, entirely because of friends in the game. And that just happened again, culminating tonight.  I’ve been a member of a COH guild for a long time.  To be honest the guild is effectively dead… little activity and no RP stories have taken place in probably 6 months.  I’ve tried hard, as an officer in the guild, to revitalize it, but I am not the leader, and the leader has not taken most of my suggestions.  That wouldn’t bother me if he was doing his own thing, but instead, what has happened is, I suggest, people reject some or all of the idea, and no alternative is proposed so we do… nothing.

But that is not the main issue. The main issue is that, as it has done before, COH has grown boring for me. I’m not ready to completely cancel the account yet — I still log in sometimes when I want to do something utterly mindless, which is all COH is, as a game.  But I’ve become more interested in another MMO now (Lord of the Rings Online) and I am playing that way more than COH… and so I must, once again, “break up” with a guild.

I haven’t completely quit the guild yet — but just a little while ago I posted my resignation as an officer in that guild.  Hopefully the others will understand, but even if they don’t, I’ve had this happen to me enough times now that I can sense the warning signs, and I know it’s time. Heck, it’s past time… I should probably have done this 2 or 3 months ago.

Of course, in my new game, I’m already looking for a new guild. So the cycle is going to start anew, and I will more than likely be here posting, in 6 months, or a year, or whenever I get tired of LOTRO, the same sort of thing.  But at least now I know what is coming, what to expect, and what the warning signs are. I have not once made a post or even made much comment in game about COH and what I don’t like about it, so this time, instead of leaving everyone (as I did with KSF) with a bad taste in their mouth, hopefully they will feel like I made a positive contribution while I was there, even though I won’t be around anymore.

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Over the years, I have played many MMORPGs on the computer.  I began with Star Wars Galaxies, and then moved on to City of Heroes, Guild Wars, City of Villains, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, World of Warcraft, and most recently, Lord of the Rings Online.  This “musical MMORPGs” saga has lasted for nearly six years, since July of 2003 (when I started playing SWG).  Only one game has received the honor of being re-subscribed to (twice) after cancelation — City of Heroes, to which I still subscribe, though that may end soon, as I rarely play it any more.

One of the things that happens when one subscribes to an online game is that game updates, patches, changes, and alterations occur regularly.  Every so often, the developers will create new content (new quests or missions, new map areas, new classes or races) for the game and give it (or sell it) to the players.  If the update is small or moderate in size, it is usually made available as a “free update” — and such regular changes to the game are expected by the customers.  If the update is large or extensive, it is usually sold on CD/DVD in a package and called an “expansion.”  Each time a change is made to the game — whether as a free update/patch, or as an expansion — in addition to new content, old or existing systems will also be changed. Sometimes this is an unavoidable consequence of the expansion — for example, when City of Villains came out, with it came “super bases,” and a new type of currency (Prestige) that had not existed before, with which bases and base items could be purchased.  In short, as some games will even tell you at the login screen (as LOTRO does), the “game experience may change” over time.

Frequently, the existing players (including me) used to (and happy with) the way things are, become disgruntled by these changes, and frequently they will complain. When a new class enters the game, and causes the existing classes to be “rebalanced” and (most of the time) weakened, the players with the existing classes will cry foul.  They will post long and angy dissertations to the game forums explaining how their experiene has been worsened or even completely ruined.  It is rare that the developers, however, pay any heed to these complaints.  One reason, which is a good one, is that only a small number of players (perhaps 10%) actually post to the forums or even read them.  Thus the forums are a biased sampling, with the unhappy players frequently being strongly over-represented in the sample pool.  But another reason, which is entirely the fault of the players, is that the developers don’t think players are serious, because the players, for all their screaming and yelling (figuratively) on the boards, are still subscribing to the game… and still giving the developers money.

What the players need to understand in these situations is that we vote with our wallets, not with our forum posts.  You can make all the angry forum posts you want… if you keep subscribing to the game, like one person “screaming” in all caps on the SWG forums who in the midst of his screaming revealed that he had six (!) accounts, then the company doesn’t think you really mean it that you are unhappy.  The only real solution to a situation that you, as a player, find unacceptable is to, literally refuse to accept it. And as players the one way we have to reject a situation is to refuse to pay the developers any more for their game.

I realize that this sounds a lot like the old “fanboy retort” you often see on the forums when someone complains, which is usually something like “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” (though it’s usually much more rudely, and illiterately, worded).  But I’m not really saying, “Love it or leave it.” What I’m trying to point out is that our money is the only leverage we have — a 10,000 word post is probably never going to be read by anyone but a few bored forum readers, and certainly won’t get through to the developers of most games in most situations.  But a loss of 10,000 accounts, equallying $150,000 worth of revenue per month — that is going to make the bean-counters at the company take notice, and through them, eventually, the developers.

Therefore, I firmly believe that, as MMORPG customers, we must vote with our wallets. If you like a game and it is fun for you, by all means keep playing it. But if a company is behaving in a way that you feel is unacceptable, there is only one way to “unaccept” it — to cancel your account.  And that is therefore what I do when I find that things have become unsatisfactory to me.

Now to be honest, in all but one case that I can think of, the cancelations I have done, have been for sheer boredom with the game. That is, I have “played the game out” and grown tired of it, and so I no longer enjoy logging in and playing. COH is approaching that for me now (for the 3rd time in 5 years).  In this case canceling is not so much voting as pragmatic.  If I had infinite money I might not unsubscribe, because I will every once in a while feel the urge to play the game.

However, there was one time, one case, in which I walked not just because of the game, but because of developer behavior — and that was the case of Star Wars Galxies and the “New Game Enhancements”.  The year was 2005.  The game of SWG was 2 years old.  All through 2004, the developers had talked about the “Combat Upgrade and Rebalance” (nicknamed CURB). They had all sorts of cool-sounding plans for it, and they kept saying it would not be released until it was done. Then in early 2005, they released it, too early, unfinished, and nothing like what they had said. Basically, they’d converted SWG to WOW with a Star Wars skin.   This “CU” as it was called was pathetically bad, and at this point I probably should have quit the game. But, I had a lot of friends in the game and so I stuck with it.

Then the lies started. First, when they took “Mind” stats out of the game, which was one of two things that Entertainers could heal, they told Entertainers that Battle Fatigue (the other thing we could heal) would never be removed. One month later, it was removed without apology.  They told Rangers repeatedly that they would fix the class, and never touched it. They told the same to Bio-engineers, and to Smugglers.  They promised us when the Rage of the Wookiees expansion came out that there would be content for “everyone” on the Wookiee world of Kashyyk — and when it came out, there was zero content for Entertainers and hardly any for Crafters.  There were plenty more lies over the course of the next six months. But the biggest were yet to be revealed. One was “The CU is here to stay.” They already knew, from before the CU was launched, that it was not permanent, and that another system, the NGE system, would be coming out soon.  Thus, it was a lie.  And they told Creature Handlers that new pets would come out for them in the next expansion (Trials of Obi-wan), when in fact it was planned to remove CHs and about 20 other classes permanently from the game right as that expansion came out.

But the worst, most underhanded event came at the end. SOE charged everyone’s credit card for the Trials expansion the day before it launched, and 24 hours later they let out the information that in 2 weeks, a new game would be launched (still called SWG) that would make obsolete half the content that was supposed to be in the Trials, that people had just been charged for.  This was no accident… they purposely waited until credit card charges were finalized before launching information, because their policy was that they do not permit any form of refunds for any reason.  This whole episode was so obviously, deliberately underhanded and unethical that I decided from that point on that I simply could not give my money to SOE any longer, in good conscience. At this point, I voted with my wallet, and that day canceled my account.

By all reports, not only wasn’t I alone, but the response was staggering. I saw an estimate somewhere (can’t find the link now, years later) that in the few weeks following the announcement of the NGE, SOE lost 85,000 subscriptions out of about 170,000, or ~50% of its subscriber base.  As a result of this, they eventually offered a refund to anyone who regretted the Trials expansion purchase — reversing years of SOE “no refund” policy. And some months later one of the lead developers even admitted (sort of) to having made a mistake.

Unfortunately this sort of extreme financial loss (at $15/month, SOE lost something like $1.2 million in just the first month after NGE came out, and who knows how many millions since) is really the only way that one can have any influence whatsoever on what developers do.  And realistically, the response needs to be immediate.  Other than trying to “save face” in public, which is why they’ll never admit it to us, we can assume that it was no secret in private, at SOE, why they lost over a million bucks and tens of thousands of subscribers in November 2005… they can’t possibly be thick-headed enough not to connect the thing that happened in November (the release of NGE) with the loss of income.

It is this kind of financial hit that wakes up companies and shows them just what the consequences are of their irresponsible (and in this case outright immoral) actions.  We vote with our wallets, folks. So if a company is behaving badly, and you want them to cut it out, the best thing you can do is withold the only thing they want from you: your money.

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Guild Frustrations

The one MMO that I have continued to play in recent months is City of Heroes. Although the game, as always happens after I’ve played it for enough months, is starting to feel monotonous and uninteresting to me again, I’ve been hanging on in part because no other game has really captured me (although Galactic Civilizations 2 has done more than most in that regard), but mostly, because I am part of a guild, which in City of Heroes we call a “Supergroup”. I will refer to the guild simply as “The Avengers” (which isn’t their true name) to avoid any awkward references and to protect the innocent.

Now, I first started looking for a new Supergroup in the summer of 2007, more than a year ago. I had recently returned to COH after a long absence, and my previous hero group on the Justice server had mostly melted away. One of my old friends was still playing, but he had switched to the Virtue server because it was more active and had a better RP atmosphere than Justice did (Virtue is the unofficial RP server of the game).

And so this friend and I checked around Virtue and found “The Avengers,” a roleplay-oriented superteam. The guild seemed huge, and very active, and was heavily into RP… all good points, in my view.  My friend and I applied and got interviews, and both joined the team.

Now, at first I was a bit overwhelmed. There were many characters, most of whom had long histories of RP with each other and who were on a “secret identity” basis… That is, instead of calling each other “Elastigirl” and “Mr. Incredible” they would refer to each other as “Helen” and “Bob.”  This made it very confusing for a newcomer, and I almost needed a scorecard to keep up.  However, the group was active, there were regular RP events, and I participated in a few.

As the months passed, however, one by one a lot of the veteran members, the founders, and so on, faded away. Some canceled their accounts. Others hit leve 50 (cap) and made alts that joined other, semi-affiliated, guilds that were friends with ours, but still, were other groups with other RP times.  Some had a falling-out with the rest. Others simply… stopped logging in without any comment. Little by little, the activity level of the group has been fading.  For example, the group has a “regular RP night” once a week, Thursdays at 8 PM.  When I first started, this was usually attended by upwards of 15 people.  Indeed my friend, who lasted only weeks in the group and then bailed to switch to a new alt (he has alt-itis and they were only allowing 1 character per player at the time due to overcrowding in the guild), often would send me a tell asking if I was “soloing” and whether I wanted to team. When I would respond that I was RPing with The Avengers he expressed surprise — why wasn’t I in a “group” (temporary gaming convention, for doing missions etc) then? Because, I would answer, there are more people here than the max group size would allow (8).  By the spring this weekly meeting was down to about 6 regular people… by summer, we were lucky to get 4.  And in the last few weeks, I’ve been the only one to show up at 8 PM, with maybe, maybe, 1 or 2 other people trickling in by 8:45 or so…. by which time I’ve not been in much mood to RP, after waiting staring at what amounts to an expensive screensaver (the COH client) for 45 minutes doing nothing and waiting for people to log in to RP with me.

Now, if this were due simply to people not being able to make the 8 PM time, I might be a little less frustrated.  But the fact is, there are plenty of people online, just not on their Avengers alts.  How do I know this? Because the COH globals tell me so.  The Avengers, you see, have a channel, call it AvengersGlobalChat.  And I can see every single person who is currently logged in and listening to the AGC channel… Tonight, for example, at 8 PM, there were 13 people on, including me. Out of those 13 people, the sum total of those who bothered to go to the Avengers Mansion (HQ) for the RP session was… me.  Twelve other players who have Avengers characters (presumably, since they are on the global Avengers channel) were logged into COH, but could not be bothered to switch over to the appropriate character for the team RP. When I mentioned on the channel it was “RP time” I got one response… from someone who said he had intended to join but wasn’t feeling very well (understandable — I’ve no quibble with that).

Certainly this is a game and everyone has a right to have fun. And it may be that they were not having fun with their Avengers characters and are having more fun with alts. But, being in a guild implies a certain amount of committment and responsibility toward the other members. If you know you have a guild function at 8 PM, and if you have time to be online at 8 PM, then in my view, it is your duty to at least try to make the meeting once in a damn while.  Yet there are a bunch of folks who have been on every Thursday from 8-9 PM for months, and never once bothered to hop over to their Avengers toon and RP with the guild. This makes me wonder… why are they in the guild at all? What are they getting out of this RP heavy guild if it is not the RP that is available on RP nights?

And it’s not just the RP night on Thursdays.  Other activities are organized and regularly scheduled. We have, or had, a regular mid-level group that met every Monday at 8 PM for about 2 hours to do story arc missions… we’d all take the same mission at the same time and do it together (it completes for everyone at once if you do that).  We RPed our way through the story, and everyone seemed to be having fun. At first there were 6 of us. The last four weeks, we’re down to two.  I have no idea what happened to the other four. No e-mail, no tells, no notes… they just… stopped showing up.  And on Tuesdays I had paired up with another guy to do a super-duo, kind of like Batman and Robin. We got to level 12, about 3 weeks ago, and since then, he has not showed up at all, on any character, to any RP event.  I wondered if I did something to offend the guy, but this is not just about him and me… this is a symptom of a larger problem here.

I have been a member of a lot of guilds and groups over the years, and I am honestly at a loss with this one.  The only word I can think of for it is apathy.  I’ve tried to figure out what the reason is, but I really haven’t.  It can’t be the game — these people are on (as their globals indicate). It could be the group — maybe some of us have rubbed the rest the wrong way. But if that’s true, why keep your character in the guild and your login on the global channel of a group of people you no longer want to game with? Woudln’t severing ties make more sense?  Indeed, I *have* seen a couple of people do that (such as an ugly boyfriend/girlfriend breakup where the gf of the pair severed all ties). But this apathy, I just don’t understand.

Even the officers of the guild seem to be prone to it.  We had one leader who then idled out. He was replaced by another, who seemed energetic for a while, and then he too idled out. He was replaced by a third who promised reform and increased activity, who then also… idled out.  Nobody’s seen him for days now, and there is a whole “corps” of officers that mostly consists of people who only seem to log in once a week or so to prevent the loss of officer status (which is automated after a certain time period in COH). This leaves a lot of “dead wood” around in my opinion.

I think one of the problems is how this looks to new players. We have tried to do some recruiting, as people have started to realize that this is a problem, though nobody has really admitted the depth of it.  And we’ve added 6 or 7 new players in the last month or two.  Imagine joining a group with a list of 80 or 90 superheroes on the roster, most of them active in the last week or so… only to find out that almost every time you log in, you’re the only one on… because most of those “recent logins” seem to be quick log-ins just to prevent that time-out rule from taking effect.  I’d be highly disappointed, frankly, in the Avengers, if I joined them today. Hell, I know what they used to be like and *I* am disappointed with them, as a vet and a recently promoted officer.

Frankly at this point, I’m not sure what to do.  Although I’m an officer, I’m not the leader of the guild and I can’t really make executive decisions myself… I can only carry out the decisions of the leader.  Yet, as an officer, I really ought to be doing something… but I’m not sure what. I have brought some of this to the attention of the other officers, but the response has mostly been “Yeah, I noticed that too,” with no one having any solutions. And, as I say, the team leader seems to be, M.I.A.

My good friend who ran the first Supergroup I was on, over on the Justice server, faced this problem during one of my hiatuses from COH.  His solution was radical but probably the best one in this case: he told everyone still active to quit guild #1, and they formed guild #2. Since you had to be online and active in order to join #2, this immediately trimmed the fat and left them only with the meat.

Of course, he did that in the old days, before super-bases were around. Now, if you do that, you’ll lose your whole entire base, and all the work you put into it… and, most importantly, as it’s the most significant in-game function of a super-base, you lose your teleporter pads, which would have to be earned and purchased all over again — no mean task, and something that all but the largest groups would take a year or more to finish building (the base system is a massive pointless time sink).  So everyone active quitting the Avengers and joining the Fantastic Four is not going to work this time around.

One similarly radical but workable idea, though, would be for the leader (assuming he comes back from M.I.A. status) to simply boot the entire team, and then ask people to re-join.  Once again, all the idlers and no-accounts who are not really participating, as well as people who are no longer in the game, would be left off the roster, and we could start to re-build, yes, with a smaller group, but hopefully a more active one. I would also take the (equally radical) step of making a whole new team global channel, and asking everyone to join that who is part of the team.  I would not delete the old one — if old friends who used to be on a guild that aren’t any more, but want to stay in touch, want to keep the old vestigial channel alive to communicate with each other, they can go ahead. But I would start a new one for the new team, and make it “invite only”, and only invite people into it who are ON the guild. And I would institute a rule that says, “Leave the guild, leave the channel” (and boot people who don’t do it voluntarily). Again this is not to be mean or to sever ties with people, but to keep things organized.  It is very confusing when there are 18 people on the channel, but only four of them are still actually “in the guild,” with the rest being emeritus members, and even a few people who left after having quite vocal arguments with the rest of the team.  When you see 18 people on, and ask, “Anyone want to join our RP night?” and get total silence, to anyone who is not a veteran, it looks like you’re being ignored… when instead what is usually happening is that everyone else on global is not on the guild anymore, and therefore can’t realistically respond in the affirmative.

I don’t actually think any of that will realistically happen, though.  It’s unfortunately true that when guilds are composed of people who are friends with each other, and then house cleaning needs to happen, it’s very difficult to do. These people are (or were) friends, and it’s like firing your friend from a job — not pleasant to do under any circumstances. Yet, I think that for the health of the guild, a severe housecleaning is needed. I’ve tried hinting at it but not been too overt about it yet… I’m still relatively new as an officer and I don’t want to come across as trying to usurp power or something.

But still, if something doesn’t happen soon, and I can’t really do anything to fix things, I may have to start considering moving on to another guild… or another game altogether.  The biggest problem we have right now in our guild is a lack of real leadership, and I’m not sure that will change any time soon.

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