Thursday 16 July 2009

Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.

Oh my! Hello, I’m Melmoth Melmothson, you may remember me from such posts as “Sick Cows: Tauren who wear leather armour” and “Mummy, why do all my pick-up groups die of the plague? A guide to personal hygiene, your Ratonga and you”. Today and for the next few posts we’re going to be taking a look at Lord of the Rings Online, a game that is fortunately nothing to do with mastering gymnastic apparatus, becoming a boxing champion or a mogul of irritating tunes for mobile phones.

I’ve been exploring around the lands of Eriador a lot of late, my cunning plan to cut across Middle Earth ahead of Frodo and company to deliver an anti-social behaviour order to one Mr Geoff Sauron of 1 Barad-dûr Cresent, Mordor-on-Sea having been thwarted by the fact that Mordor-on-Sea seems to be one of those heavily protected gated communities. Gated content in MMOs really annoys me, it’s one of those annoying hangers-on to the whole school bully that is levelling. But where levelling has direct power over your character and what you can achieve with it, gated content is the small greasy weasely kid who hides behind levelling and leans around every now and again to sneer at you. It’s particularly galling in LotRO because the land is so beautiful and wondrous that the explorer in me is always wanting to see just what is over the next hill. Goblins, apparently. And all of them so vastly more powerful than your character that you can do nothing but run away and hide in that little cloak room on the second floor until recess is over. Sometimes though, one looks at the vista in front of them and thinks ‘I shall not be stopped from exploring this land. I will not be prevented from finding out what treasures are hidden by its folded blanket of hills and lofty canopy of forest. I am a hero of the third age, albeit a relatively unknown one, but then again I’ve never been one for self-promotion and thrusting myself into the lime-light, and I’m not bitter, no. Anyway, I am a hero! And I will adventure where I please, and any foes I shall face will be mighty ones, and if I fall to them it will be bec… oh shit!’. And then you’re running and running and running, and there’s this five mile train of wolves and badgers and lame ducks and asthmatic voles chasing you down the hill and into the village, and you find yourself locked in the cloak room on the second floor wondering what all those animals are going to be able to do with your dinner money anyway.

Look, if I fight wolves in the dwarf starter area, and I kill the requisite hundred and fifty thousand million of them for the Wolf-Slaughterer title, it’s fair to say that I’m pretty good at killing wolves, some might say that I am accomplished if not a little genocidal. Therefore, if I then go to another area, further afield than where one might find a new character normally, I should not find super wolves, ten times the power of a normal wolf, who have but to look at me in a slightly disapproving manner for all my armour to jettison from my body and my skeleton to explode out of my skin and bury itself five feet under the ground. I am a wolf slayer! Look! You gave me a bloody title to acknowledge the fact that I spent a lot of time killing wolves, why can I not kill these wolves? ‘Oh’, say the developers, ‘but these are different wolves’. Different how exactly? Were they privately educated? Have members of their number graduated from Sandhurst? Did they train at Hereford in the use of special tactics and weapons? Gated content is rubbish, and the way it is enforced in MMOs these days is even more rubbish, and it’s time that we moved on. There are a great many Bartle Explorers, that is to say people who have Explorer as their primary type from the Bartle test and not people trying to investigate the many nooks and crannies of Richard Bartle himself, and gating content only serves to reduce what can be an excellent additional game-play element into something one does at the level cap when they’re bored and they want an easy achievement. The art of exploration in an MMO is that the player still needs to meet challenges, it’s not some sort of woolly-hat brigade requirement that ‘People should be able to roam and ramble across the land wherever they choose (as long nobody does it across our own back garden, of course)’, it is about not preventing players from visiting a place due to a blatantly artificial barrier. And yes, some places should be out of bounds, I should certainly expect to be getting more anti-social behaviour than I can happily handle if I do happen to go directly to Mordor, do not pass Rivendell, do not collect the Glass of Aglaral. Of course dealing with the snivelling wretch that is gated content also means dealing with the larger more troublesome problem of the levelling bully, but that’s a blog post for another time…

I spoke earlier of titles, and this is something else that is both excellent and daft in LotRO. It’s excellent because it’s one of those achievement systems that you can partly accomplish simply through the expedience of playing the game. Yet there are other titles that take a little more persistence and daring-do, one can display these to anyone who cares to look, and thus demonstrate some bragging rights without having to force it into conversation in order to elicit a “Grats” which has evidently been forced through the keyboard equivalent of gritted teeth.

“So I was wondering if you had any iron ore to spare? I need some to finish this quest.”

“As a matter of fact I do! Hold on a second and I’ll just reach into my bag and tell you that I killed dragon.”

“Thank… uh, what?”

“I killed a dragon”

“Oh. Um, grats?”

“Thank you! I’m really very much better than you, aren’t I? Here you are asking for ore, and here I am having killed a dragon.”

“Yes, I… I guess so?”

“I mean, really you should be bowing down before me. Don’t you think?”

“You… want me… to bow down?”

“Well I have killed a dragon.”

“Look, I just wanted to trade for some iron ore, I’ll just go and see if…”

“I KILLED A DRAGON! Now, give me all of your money. And take off your clothes. And dance like a cat. Hee hEh HEe ha HA.”

Remember kids, this is what the world would be like without achievement titles.

On the daft side, however, the titles are generally things like Tail-cleaver and Feather-foe, hardly the stuff of legend.

FRODO: “Excuse me, that man in the corner, who is he?”

BUTTERBUR: “He’s one of them Rangers; they’re dangerous folk they are, wandering the wilds. What his right name is, I never heard, but round here he’s known as the Pie-Eating Champion.”

I managed to get the Undying title for my dwarf Champion, which is achieved by reaching level twenty without dying, and it’s one of the few titles that I actually like. However, I’ve even turned that one off because the irony of lying on the floor of a dungeon waiting for a rez and seeing Bjomolf the Undying floating above your corpse is so sharp it could wound.

So ends the first segment of this little diatribe of thoughts generated by my recent time in LotRO. Now don’t even think to be sneaking a peek at the next post before I’m ready for you to see it, and just to make sure you don’t I have surrounded it by a pack of rabid moths which I think you’ll find are a surprisingly impossible challenge for you to overcome at your current blog reading level.

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