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Posts Tagged ‘MMORPG’

Why do gamers shoot themselves in the foot?

One of the most highly anticipated MMORPGs slated to launch this year is Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (TOR), an MMORPG derived from the highly successful single-player CRPG, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which came out in 2003 or so.  Star Wars: TOR will be Bioware’s first foray into the MMORPG class of games, with all their previous offerings being either solo CRPGs (KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect 1 and 2, and Dragon Age), or designed for a small group playing on their own local server (Neverwinter Nights).  Bioware’s previous offerings have all been smash hits, and the company has built up a reputation with gamers that is very rare in the computer game industry — a reputation for quality products.

Bioware’s RPGs have become more and more sophisticated over the years, with increasingly good animation, cinematics, and voice-overs. At their heart, however, all these games follow the same basic paradigm.  They have very strong stories that are unveiled little by little through the dialog.  They have strong companion NPCs. They have cinematic sequences and theatrical cut-scenes.   The Bioware games feel almost like you are playing a character in a movie.

This paradigm is deliberate, not accidental.  The games have been hugely successful because of these characteristics.  The majority of people who have played Bioware’s RPGs have reacted positively.  People buy Bioware games to have the very experience described above — that of playing your own character in a movie. (more…)

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Over the years, I have spent a fair sum of money on recreational activities, and in particular on my hobbies.  As a teenager, and through my college years, I collected comic books.  Weighing in at only 60 cents a month in the 80s, I could collect about 3 titles a month for 1 week’s $2 allowance, and later (once I started working part time), I could collect 5 titles a month for two hours of $1.50/hr pay answering phones after-hours at the local church.  I also played role-playing games, and it cost some money to buy the books, dice, lead figures, and other paraphernalia needed to play those games.  Usually these were expensive enough that they were relegated to birthday or Christmas presents.

In college, of course, my salary increased to $3.35/hr and up (the then-minimum-wage and slightly higher), but the price of comic books and game materials increased. Comics rose to $1.00 an issue, and at one point I was collecting about a dozen a month, raising the monthly hobby budget to $12 just for comics, and probably another $5-10 on gaming materials like “DM Screens” and “Dragon dice.”

I didn’t have a lot of money to spare in those days, and although I kept up with the hobbies, in the back of my mind, I always felt a little guilty — or maybe the right emotion is silly — for spending quite so much on a hobby.  Whenever I expressed this reservation to my mother, who is usually far more frugal than I am, she dismissed it, pointing out that I rarely ever splurged or wasted money on unnecessary items, and that everyone needs to spend a little on personal pleasure or risk going a little nuts.  Hobbies are a way in which we relax and have fun, and everyone needs to relax and have fun. (more…)

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This weekend, I finally decided that I would buy myself an X-box 360. I have not had the console anywhere near enough time to write a review, but it led me to thinking about something else, as a consequence of the game I purchased — Mass Effect.  Now, I already have a review of Mass Effect here, and it wasn’t very positive, so you might wonder why I bought it (a second time) for the X-box. There were a couple of reasons. First, it was on sale ($20). Second, as I said in the review, part of the problem seemed to be my dinosaurian computer system.  I heard from other friends that the game was much smoother on the console.  And so I tried it, and it is definitely much better on the console. When I finish it (assuming that I eventually do), I will be giving it a re-review.

Mass Effect, as you might know, is a Bioware game, which means it’s a computer RPG.  It is like most other RPGs in that you start out as a beginning (“Level 1”) character and the character slowly becomes more skilled and gains better equipment over time.  You can select from about 6 different classes. I chose (again, because I thought it was an interesting class last time) the “Infiltrator”, which is kind of a mix between electronics powers and soldiering skills.  What I like most about them is the sniper rifle.  I was reading up a little about the class on the Bioware forums, just to get some advice on the types of skills that help the most, and someone made a comment that was interesting, and got me thinking about RPGs and the difficulty level. The comment was, “It gets easier as you level up.”

Before I go any further, I want you, gentle reader, to think about that statement, because it is a general truth of how most RPGs — from Dungeons and Dragons to MMORPGs to Mass Effect — are structured.  Let me repeat it: It gets easier as you level up.  It’s true for almost all RPGs (the one exception I can think of is the Pen-and-paper game Champions), and I think it’s a bad thing. I want to discuss why I hold that opinion.

What do I mean by “easy”?

I’d like to discuss why this happens, but first let me define “easier” relative to “harder.” The ultimate failure in an RPG is for the character to die. In pen and paper games this is often permanent. In computer games it usually “resets” you somehow — you load from a save game, or respawn at a spawn point, or lose some experience, or something of that nature.  Therefore, death is the ultimate consequence.  Speaking in general terms, therefore, a hard game would be one in which death was frequent or difficult to avoid, and an easy game would be the opposite.  I recall my first D&D adventure. There were just two of us — my friend Stu, who was the DM, and I, who was the player. We wanted a “full party” but there were only two of us, so we each made up five characters, and then I played all 10 by myself, while he DMed and ran the NPCs.  It was a lot of fun, but even with multiple raise dead scrolls and all sorts of DM intervention and assistance, only 6 of the 10 PCs made it out of that (very long) adventure alive.  That’s a 40% mortality rate of our level 1 characters.   In the next adventure, of which I was the DM and he played all 6 characters, there was only 1 death by the end (one that “stuck” after scrolls and the like, anyway), so that’s only a 17% mortality rate.  Clearly the second adventure was easier than the first.  Our final adventure with this group had no deaths out of five, or a 0% mortality rate. I’d call that one the easiest.

Therefore, having an “easier” time in an RPG means “you have an easier time keeping your character alive.” The battles are less likely to be lethal. The enemies are easier to defeat. The traps are less likely to be sprung, and if sprung less likely to kill you.  And my assertion is that these things become easier as you level up the character.

Why it gets easier as you level up

There are a few reasons why RPGs become easier as your character levels up, quite apart from the obvious cause in any game — the gamers become more experienced.  In a regular, non-RPG, this is the only thing that really makes a game easier — you get better at it.  Turn on Madden NFL or Major League Baseball XXII, and set the game to “normal.” You will find over time that the games later in the season seem easier (notice, I didn’t say “get”, I said “seem”), because for a given (e.g. normal) setting, the game’s difficulty is constant, but after playing 16 or 100 games, or however long the season is, you, as a player, are better. That’s always going to happen, in any game, because humans learn by doing.

However, in RPGs, there is another layer of experience gain layered on top of the experience of the player, and that is the experience of the character.  As a character levels up, many things happen. He usually gains more hit points, and that makes him harder to kill.  He gains attack ability, which gives him (1) more options of ways to defeat enemies, and (2) the ability to damage enemies more or faster. And he will gain non-combat skills, like trap detection or conversation manipulation skills. This will make it easier to find and disarm traps, or to convince NPCs to do the character’s bidding.

These changes, these advances in character power, make the character less likely to die than he was in earlier adventures, and thus, make the game easier as you go.  A higher level Infiltrator in Mass Effect, to use the first example, has an easier time of it because his snipe ability gets better.  A higher level wizard in D&D can cast Power Word Kill, and one-shot kill an enemy, or Meteor Shower, which is like a multi-cast fireball.  At first level he was lucky if he could fire a single magical crossbow bolt out of the palm of his hand once a day.  At higher levels, the thief or rogue can detect traps from across the room while half asleep. At low level he could stare right at the trap and miss it.

Hopefully, as the above paragraphs indicate, this is something that happens in most RPGs. It happened in Dungeons and Dragons. It happens in Mass Effect. It happens in most MMORPGs. The characters’ survival rate goes up as they gain experience, because the experience gains lead to character improvements that make the game easier to play.

Why are games designed like this?

By now, I will assume I have convinced you that RPGs get easier to play as the character levels up. I hope you’re already thinking about where I’m headed with this, which is that games shouldn’t be designed to get easier as you go forward.  But before we get there, you might want to wonder why games are designed in such an obviously reverse orientation (you would expect challenge to go up as players get more experienced, not down). There are some reasons for this, which are the following:

  • Easing players into the game. Although it’s true for pen and paper, this is especially important for computer RPGs, where the game is played in real time and there is little chance to think (as there would be in a Pen-paper game). The player has to learn to react quickly to his surroundings or else his character will die.  If you started characters with 20 or 30 abilities, all showing up as buttons on the hot bar, the new player would be overwhelmed.  In video games, then, it makes a certain amount of sense to start the character out with only one or two simple abilities, and then add one every couple of levels.  The new ability can then be practiced for a while until the player becomes comfortable with it, by which time he’s gained a few levels and it’s time for a new ability.  I have no objection to this line of reasoning and I would not suggest changing this aspect of it — go ahead and start with few abilities and then increase them.
  • Lower level characters don’t need mega-abilities. Many games withhold the “mega” powers, like Power Word Kill or Meteor Swarm, to the higher levels because, for lower level characters, these abilities would be overkill. When a single dagger does enough damage to 1-shot an orc, there’s no need for Power Word Kill, a spell whose main claim to fame is that it can one-shot an enemy.  You need that in the higher levels, where it would take 100 dagger strokes to kill a foe, and one-shotting him is therefore very useful.  I have no problem with this line of reasoning either.
  • Characters become more powerful as they gain experience. Most games are designed to follow a story much like a fantasy novel or a comic book. It is a standard convention of the genre that older, more experienced characters are more powerful.  Although this is a sound principle, this is where the wheels start to come off, because “being powerful” becomes equated with “being harder to kill.” And since the main thing that makes an RPG difficult is dying, becoming more powerful = harder to kill = easier to play.  And here is where we get caught in the inescapable quicksand of pretty much all RPG design with the possible exception of Champions.  When characters become more powerful the challenges need to become equally more powerful. And I will grant that RPGs try to do this… The Malta in COH, a level 45-50 enemy group, are more powerful in absolute terms than the Skull gang. But the problem is that the power increases of PC vs. NPC do not match, so that a level 50 PC is 50x as powerful as a level 1, but the enemies are only maybe 25x as powerful… making the high level enemies an easier challenge for the player, than the low level enemies were.

Why making the game easier as the character levels up is a bad idea

Now I’m going to get to the point of this whole post: Why this is a bad idea.  The reason should be blatantly obvious but I will spell it out.  Although you can sometimes have a level 1 character played by an experienced player, you will pretty much never (under normal conditions) have a level 50 character played by a newbie, and all new players generally have to start out at level 1.  The player is gaining experience as the character does. It makes no sense to present the most difficult challenge to the player and then make the game easier as the player gets better. That’s why so many RPGs and especially MMORPGs get boring in the upper levels.  The game is super hard early on because you are weak, have few abilities, and can die in one shot (Magic-users in 1st edition D&D with 1d4 hit points, anyone?).  Then as you gain levels, it slowly becomes easier as the character’s ability to soak up hits increases.  What’s going on here is that higher level characters give their players much more margin of error. But a wide margin of error is needed by new players, not veterans — so why are we increasing the margin of error as the character (and by extension the player) becomes more experienced?  That’s what I call a bad idea.

Before anyone tries to claim that this lowering of difficulty as you go up in level is an illusion, I want to provide a few examples of how it’s not just all in my head.  The two I will use will be Dungeons and Dragons from pen-and-paper, and City of Heroes from MMORPGs.

In Dungeons and Dragons, weapons do a fixed amount of damage. A dagger always does 1d4. A longsword always does 1d8.  Higher level enemies might have a small additive bonus to their attack (e.g., 1d4 +2), but that’s all. Hit points, however, go up much faster than damage bonuses do. In 1st edition AD&D for example, most NPCs got +1 to hit and damage per level, but even the weakest class (in terms of hit points), the  Magic-User, got +1d4 hit points per level, meaning that he rapidly outstripped the dagger’s damage. Thus a level 1 mage attacked by a dagger-wielding kobold had a 1 in 4 chance of insta-death. By level 10, that mage would have (on average) about 25 hit points, but the level 10 kobold (still wielding a dagger) would be doing 1d4 +10 (at most), averaging less than half the number of hit points per blow as the mage has, and making it impossible to one-shot him.  (We are leaving aside spells the mage could use to buff his hit points, whether the mage has a CON bonus, and other possible weapons, just to make the example easier).  Now, later editions of D&D have done some to correct this, but the problem still remains: at low levels, one or two hits can kill you. At higher levels, it takes a dozen hits to kill you. This dramatically increases the player’s margin of error, making it much harder to die by accident at higher levels. But again, it’s the new players that are more likely to make mistakes, so why aren’t they the ones given the higher margin of error?

Or, consider the game City of Heroes. I played a martial arts/super reflex scrapper to level 50.  Then I played more characters. Then I made up another MA/SR scrapper. At level 1, I had a much harder time surviving than I had with the same (essentially, other than name/costume) character at level 50. Why? Well, first, over level 25, I had health and stamina, which helped my character recover faster. Over level 25, I had “Single Origin” enhancements which could basically double the power and accuracy of my character.   Enemies get a little more versatile as you go up in level in COH, but they don’t become more powerful relative to your character. It takes about 3 kicks with martial arts to bring down a white conning enemy at level 1, and about 3 to bring him down at level 50.  Because living long enough to deliver 3 kicks is harder at level 1 than at 50, that means the game at level 50 is easier. In fact, at higher levels I used to talk on the phone or watch a video while playing the game, and not die once in a long mission. If I tried that at level 5 there would be a lot of face-plants. And remember, I’m not talking about back when I was a new player… I mean after I already had gotten the same character type to level 50.

I could give a lot more examples, but for the sake of space I will end with those.  The point here is that RPGs, by their very nature, almost always get easier for the player as the character levels up. This is a bad idea, because it’s the new player, not the veteran, who needs the easier experience, and yet it is the level 1 experience that is, in most games, the most difficult to survive.

Solutions

So what possible solutions are there?  When giving the reasons why the difficulty goes down as level goes up, I didn’t really disagree that the reasoning in most cases was sound. We do want to ease players into the game by giving them less options and thus hopefully less confusion. We do want to have characters grow in power as they gain levels. But there needs to be some sort of increase in the power level of the enemies as well, perhaps also an increase in AI… something to make the difficulty higher as you level, and lower at the start.  So here are my basic suggestions:

  • Give the best AI to the highest level enemies. A few games give a token nod to this idea, but I’ve not seen anyone do it well yet.  The higher level AIs should be smarter, not just more powerful.
  • Give new characters (and new players) some “panic buttons”. Things like (full h.p.) healing potions or scrolls of invincibility seem to only crop up at higher levels, when the characters are able to cast those same spells or do those same things. Here’s a news flash for game designers: a high level character is probably never going to need a scroll of invincibility. He is already nigh-invincible. The guy who needs it is the level 2 with the newbie player, who doesn’t realize that poison arrows are done as a “save or die” roll.
  • Give low level characters a bigger margin of error. This really has to do with the problem of hit points and “how many hits” you can take.  One way or another designers need to make sure that level 1 characters can take as many hits as level 10 or 20 characters.  If you are expecting a new player to be able to make all the right decisions or else die in one shot, you are asking for trouble in terms of player frustration.  I veteran player may know how to deal with potential one-shots. A new player will not.
  • Start the game out slowly and then speed it up. One big problem with computer games is speed.  Right now the idea is to give players few abilities to start with and then add more abilities as they level up. This effectively “speeds up” the game slightly as the player has to train himself to consider more and more options over time.  But it’s not the only way to speed things up. You could have things actually go more slowly at lower than at higher levels.  Have enemies attack, for instance,  once every 4 seconds at level 1, every 3 seconds at level 10, every 2 seconds at level 20, and so on.  (I am not suggesting these actual timings but just the idea of having it speed up over levels.)  Let the player ease into the speed rather than easing into the options.  Too often the game play speed doesn’t change, so if the player is having a hard time at level 1, there is no remedy but to somehow level until it “gets easier” (that is, the character lives long enough that the speed is no longer an issue).

I’m sure there are other ways to deal with this, but those are four obvious ones that came to my mind as I was thinking about this. New players are going to be poor players by definition — why give them the hardest time? The vets are the ones who can handle the tougher game-play.

You may be thinking “well that sounds good but it can’t be done.” I’m not so sure. Most non-RPG based games are already doing this. Most racing games start you out on easier tracks against slower cars and dumber (in terms of AI) opponents and then ramp it up as you complete races and prove that you can handle it.  Most fighting games in the vein of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat are the same way. Arcade games have been doing this for years. Each wave of Space Invaders or level of Pac-Man was basically identical except each went slightly faster.

Right now, most RPGs and especially CRPGs and MMORPGs are designed in reverse difficulty order… they make the lower levels harder than the higher levels, which makes it so that veteran players are facing substantially easier challenges than newbies are.  I can’t see how this could be thought of as anything but backwards, and although I know it has been a part of RPG design for as long as there have been RPGs, I think it’s a bad idea… and that designers need to re-think the whole thing.

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In a few days, Cryptic Studios, the creators of City of Heroes, will be launching their new game, Champions Online, which is loosely (and I mean, very loosely) based on my favorite pencil-and-paper RPG of all time, Champions (by Hero Games).  This weekend I downloaded the open beta to take a look at it, and it wasn’t pretty.  Here is an open letter to them, that I’m sure they will ignore, but it will serve as the only “review” I will do of CO, since I am not going to buy the game based on what I saw this weekend.

Dear Cryptic,

All throughout the last couple of years, reading your forums and your press releases, I could see the direction Champions Online  was taking, and as time went on it looked less and less like something I would be able to enjoy (at least long enough to warrant a subscription). I got tired of arguing with people and especially with trying to make you folks understand my point of view, so I moved on to other games, other things, etc.

Just the other day someone informed me that open beta had started, and as it had been a while, I decided to be optimistic and give the game a try, hoping that I had been wrong and that the game had turned out great.

I’m sorry to say that it really is as bad as I expected, and I probably would not find it worth my time to buy and subscribe. On the off chance that you folks might get some constructive feedback from my decision, I post this open letter here… and that, in all likelihood, will be the last your company will hear from me.

And so, why I won’t be playing this game after trying it out in Beta:

#1 Reason: My computer just can’t handle it. I have a 4 year old P4-3.2 GHz with 256 MB nVidia card (7800GS), and although the game is technically playable with ALL the graphic settings (and I mean, each and every one of them) turned down to nothing, it’s still a slide show in crowded areas, and my frame rates are not what I consider acceptable. As I have never in my life bought an entire computer just to play a video game (the idea of doing it is just ludicrous), this is basically the only reason I need. There are, of course, others. But I will suggest that Cryptic may have aimed a bit too high on the sys-reqs for this game. They’re pricing a large chunk of the audience out of the game (not just people with older desktops, but also nearly the entire laptop market, which is huge).

#2: The game feels clunky and unfinished. Yes, I know it’s beta. But it’s open beta. Launch is mere days away. At this stage in COH’s development, the game felt smooth, polished, and complete. Even in closed/early beta, the game looked solid and polished, the UI was slick and clean, and everything worked in a very intuitive manner. I’m honestly shocked by this, as I did not expect such a sloppy feeling to come out of the same company that made COH.

#3: The UI is a mess. It’s ugly, hard to use, and unintuitive. Again, see for reference, COH. That is a good UI. What you have here is just… hideous. The comic font, although I realize it is themely, is atrocious and totally inappropriate for computer-screen viewing. I have never before in a game had to sit up closer to the screen just to read what the quest-giver is saying. Just yuck, all the way around, on the UI.

#4: The open-world system is just unacceptable at this stage, given the instanced-mission method pioneered by this company. I’m happy to have other players around the world itself, but when I am doing a mission or quest, I want to own that mission (or, I with my team-mates). It is simply unacceptable to me that I have to stand in line to rescue an innocent or destroy an object. Not only does it utterly and completely destroy immersion, but it wastes my time, and I will NOT pay to have my time wasted. If COH did not exist, if it had not been made by this VERY company, I might not find this so completely intolerable. But when Cryptic pioneered the clearly superior instancing system, it is inexcusable that they abandoned it for a WOW style open-world system. I refuse to play any MMORPG at this point that doesn’t have significant privatization. ” I have to stand in line for content” = “I do not play the game”. Period.

I would like to point out that if #4 were not true, #1, the main issue that absolutely prohibits my purchase of the game (performance issues on my older machine) might not be true either. After all, COH is pretty resource intense and in the Atlas Park costume contests I used to lag like crazy. BUT… In COH, 90% of my time was spent in mission — just me, a couple of friends, and the villains spawned for us. And guess what? My system can handle it, and handle it without trouble! My frame rates in-mission were always excellent. So, if CO had simply gone with an instanced setup instead of this tired old open-world baloney, I might actually buy it. I could probably live with the UI, with the clunky animations, with having to turn all my options down, if I could play with a pleasurable frame rate. If they had instanced missions as the bulk of the content, that would be possible. Since they don’t, I have to play in the open world, which is unacceptable in the first place, and which triggers the performance issues in the second place.

As a result of these things, I simply can’t justify spending $50-60 on this game, let alone a monthly fee. I truly do regret this, as I love superheroes, and I love the Champions universe. But without instancing and with poor performance, there is just no point to buying it.

Sincerely,

Chessack

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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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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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I have written extensively on this site about what constitutes a challenge in video games, and about my dislike for repitition in video games. Nowhwere is the “repetitive  challenge” mentality more visible than in the Massively Multiplayer Online RPG variant of games (MMORPGs), and in particular Cryptic/NCSoft’s City of Heroes has earned my ire in this regard on more than one occasion.  Before I rant about this particular game, let me describe what I mean by the “repetitive challenge.”

Most gaming companies try to find what is fun for players, and give them fun things to do — at least, that’s what they say they do, and I have no real doubt that it’s what they are at least attempting.  However, they don’t seem to understand what makes a thing fun, and what doesn’t.  Frequently what makes something fun is the novelty of it.  The thing about novelty, however, is that it wears off.  It might be that, in City of Heroes, I had a really fun time fighting my first “False Nemesis” (Nemesis is a guy who made thousands of robot copies of himself, all very powerful, to throw the heroes off the trail.)  The first time he went “intangible” at 25% hit points, making him impossible to hit, or threw a force field around his allies, causing me to have to change my battle tactics, was definitely neat.  Unfortunatley, Cryptic Studios seems to have drawn a false conclusion from the fact that this one encounter was fun to do once. Namely, they seem to think that if a thing is fun to do once, then doing it ten times in a row must be ten times the fun… and a hundred times the fun to do it one hundred times in a row.

Of course, that’s not how fun works.  I don’t know anyone who loves a movie, and will tell you that the movie is just as enjoyable the tenth time you see it as the first.  It simply can’t be as enjoyable (though it might still be worth watching), because some of the enjoyment you get out of watching a film comes from not knowing what will happen next. That sense of suspense cannot exist in a repeated viewing, and when you’ve seen the movie enough to have memorized all the lines so that you know exactly what happens at every second, there’s no suspense left at all.

The same thing happens in a MMORPG battle against some NPC villain.  The first few times you fight this villain, it will throw things at you that you have not, perhaps, seen before.  This is enjoyable as it increases the suspense and the challenge.  But, after you’ve fought, and beaten, this same enemy several times in a row, the subsequent battles become rote, and not at all challenging. In fact, fighting the same battle over and over eventually will become boring to the player, and eventually will make the player start looking for another game.

Game companies would do well to realize this, but a lot of them don’t seem to.  Computers make blocking and pasting so easy now, that it’s too easy for the designer to make one monster or enemy and then just fill a square mile of dungeon with one copy after another of this monster, than to try to make original monsters around every turn. This type of lazy design should not be tolerated by the players, but it not only is, but is often applauded.  The players, inexplicably lulled into a state where they think of “work” as the point of a game, and think that “how hard you work” in the game should dictate your reward level, seem to actually prefer it if they have to do the same thing hundreds of times in order to get some “reward.”

Are these people having fun though? I’m not sure if they are.  I think a lot of them have turned their game into what amounts to a second job, a job full of mostly filler material at that, and are using that to fullfil some of their needs for reward and recognition… but not apparently their need for fun.

I’m not like the gamers who want their games to be work.  I work hard enough at work. I want my game to be fun… lots of fun.  I don’t like being bored, I don’t like having to play through hours of filler, and I don’t like repetition.  Which brings us back to City of Heroes.  In that game, I have exactly one level 50 character… I have three characters in the 40-50 range… and the rest are all level 33 or lower.  I have tons of alts, but why do I keep getting to around level 40 and then starting a new alt rather than just finishing?

The simple answer to this question is: repetition.  As you get into the higher level story arcs, they are stuffed full of more and more filler.  You will be asked to “go stop Nemesis from blowing up alternate dimensions” or something, and then you will wind up doing one mission after another on the same map, with the same exact goal (“disarm the bombs; save the hostages”).  The missions are just copy-paste jobs, one after another, all block copied from the first in the series.

Why would I want to waste my time on this stuff? It’s all filler.  It’s junk… none of it distinguishable from the rest in any way, all designed to just make me spend time in the game.  So I once again have a level 47 tanker, who I am not sure will ever get to 50, because to get there, I have to wade hip-deep through repetitive filler… Once again the company thinks that making me do work, is the point of the game.

And once again, for the 3rd time in about 5 years, I’m contemplating canceling my COH account.

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