Lord of the Rings Online had my character planting marigolds the other day. You might wonder whether these were giant, orc-eating marigolds, marigolds which, when full grown, would uproot themselves and, in bright yellow array, stride determinedly and gaily into battle with the forces of Sauron, like some sort of Mardi Gras edition of the The Last March of the Ents. But alas no, these were basic marigolds. Level one marigolds. Marigold noobs.
Why was I planting these marigolds, then? A good question, but a dangerous one, for one might answer with the question ‘why do I perform any given task in an MMO?’, which in turn prompts the question ‘why do I play MMOs?’ After these then surely ‘why do I play games?’ quickly follows, and then ‘why do I need entertainment?’ More questions develop in ever quicker succession: ‘what is that nature of entertainment?’, ‘what is my nature?’, ‘what is nature?’, ‘what am I?’, ‘why do I exist?’, ‘in what medium do I exist?’, ‘why does the medium in which I exist, exist?’, ‘by what form or power did the medium in which I exist come into existence?’, ‘what existed before the medium in which I currently exist?’, ‘WHAT’S THE POINT OF ANYTHING IN THE CONTEXT OF THE INFINITE COMPLEXITIES OF THE UNIVERSE, TIME AND SPACE?’.
Of course the actual answer to the original question should be a brusque ‘because a lazy hobbit NPC told me to’ (possibly accompanied by a sharp backhand cuffing of the questioner’s head), an answer which is shorter, more accurate, and comes with considerably less existential crisis.
Of course my Captain had a little trouble mastering the quest at first, being that she’d spent sixty five levels primarily slaying monsters and undomesticated livestock:
Hobbit: “So, first we need to dig a small hole in the ground…”
Hobbit: “Okay, well, that is quite the hole. Quite the hole, indeed. But, well, I think the greathammer is perhaps a little too destructive, shall we maybe perhaps try a trowel?”
Captain: “Ah, right, sorry.”
Hobbit: “Lovely! Now, we need to break the plant out of its pot.”
Captain: “I could hit it with my greathammer!”
Hobbit: “I… think it would be best if we just gently eased around the edges with this palette knife, and then carefully lifted the plant out by the stem.”
Captain: “Oh, okay.”
Hobbit: “Then we place it gently in the hole we made earlier, and fill-”
Captain: “-ed with righteous fury, we hit it with our greathammer?!”
Hobbit: “-it with earth. Fill it with earth.”
Captain: “Right! Riiiiight. Sorry.”
Hobbit: “There, all done.”
Captain: “And now I hit it with my greathammer?”
Hobbit: “No! No. You just leave it. Water it once in a while.”
Captain: “I… see. When…”
Captain: “When you say ‘water’, do you mean ‘hit it with a greathammer’?”
Hobbit: “Noooo, when I say ‘water’ I do in fact mean ‘*water*’. Say it with me: waaaaa-”
The maddening part of this quest, however, was the countdown bar. Each planted marigold required a bar to count down for three years. Or maybe seven seconds. Time dilates when you’re watching a countdown bar in an MMO, it’s much like waiting for a kettle to boil only the steam is coming out of your ears instead. You can’t fool a countdown bar like you can a kettle either: pointedly ignore a kettle and it boils over instantly, mad to be made into tea, but ignore a countdown bar and when you return you find that it’s sat there waiting for you in that evil ‘you were going to miss it so I held on for you’ way, the same way your partner keeps tiresome Uncle Prodger talking on the phone until you get back from your desperate dash to ‘the toilet’, a dash which just happened to coincide with your glancing at the Caller ID on the phone as it rang.
I can’t remember how many marigolds I had to plant, five, ten, Graham’s Number, it was plenty enough, of that I’m certain. I came to hate that countdown bar. I cursed it. I railed at it. I found a whiteboard marker and drew graffiti on it: moustaches, devil horns, rude messages regarding a good time if you call this number and ask for Countdown Bar. I did have to stop and hurriedly wipe it all off when Mrs Melmoth caught me putting the finishing touches to a magnificent phallus that emptied along it’s length as the countdown bar ticked away, however.
And the upshot of this is that I’m now unable to walk past a barometer without wanting to grab it off the wall and dash it angrily to the floor.
The problem doesn’t stem from the inherent nature of the countdown, but in the way it is used. Deus Ex: Human Revolution also has a countdown when you play its hacking mini-game, and yet it is an entirely different experience. The countdown in the LotRO quest is there to make you wait, wait for no reason, and do nothing else while you wait. It makes you wait, that’s what it does (you may want to play Leftfield’s Phat Planet as you read that sentence), it’s a negative form of countdown, which achieves nothing other than to drive the player’s attention out of the game. The countdown in Deus Ex is a positive countdown because it is counting down to the point when the task you are performing will fail. What this countdown does is increase the pressure on the player, and thus it makes the game-play more intense, while also drawing the player’s concentration further into the game as they focus harder in an attempt to complete the mini-game in time. There are many design considerations to study here, not least of which is the fact that MMOs seem to have an aversion to letting players fail outside of the end-game, and therefore challenges such as the Deus Ex hacking mini-game are few and far between. Yet these sorts of challenges are the very thing that makes a game a game, rather than a grind. Super Mario wouldn’t be half as popular if the levels were five times as long but it was guaranteed that the player would be able to reach the end every time.
The countdown in LotRO stops you playing the game; the countdown in Deus Ex influences how you continue to play the game.
It also didn’t help that the animation for planting a marigold looked more like an attempt to call down the Dove From Above, something which stands out all the more starkly when you have nothing else to do but stare at it for seven seconds. Be mindful of the Dove From Above though, after catching me drawing a big willy on my computer screen, I think it almost broke Mrs Melmoth when she later walked in and this time found me cooing at the screen like a dove.
The final annoyance is that you cannot stop calling the dove/planting marigolds once you’ve started, otherwise you have to start all over again. This further enhances the feeling that this isn’t a progress countdown, but a pointless delay countdown, a bureaucracy countdown. “Please Wait. Please Wait. Please Wait. Your subscription time has now reduced by an acceptable amount, please continue”. It’s frankly bizarre that planting a marigold should involve no movement whatsoever (FREEZE! Raise your hands slowly, and step away from the keyboard!), and that if you break that condition then you have to start all over again.
“Excuse me, Marjorie, I just need to squeeze past so I can start on the pumpkins.”
“No, I cannot move, you know this Pruscilla, I’m quite clearly in the midst of planting.”
“Oh come now, just shuffle over a little, and you can carry on with what you’re doing while I get on with the pumpkins.”
“No! I must not stop, otherwise all is lost! I’m risking everything just by talking to you. Just by breeeaaaaathing!”
“Marjorie, really, just move out of the way a little-”
“No DON’T! Oh you! Well I hope you’re happy!”
“Goodness me, dearest, I barely brushed you.”
“Nevertheless, I have been interrupted. I shall have to abandon these plants and start all over again.
Now, did you see where I put my greathammer?”