Monday 22 March 2010

Nowhere to run to, baby.

I tend to make notes when something in a game strikes me as worth writing about here on the blog. I have a folder of files filled with one or two lines of hastily typed text, intended to remind my future self of the essence of frustration or amusement – for it is invariably one or the other that causes me to pause for thought – and to allow me to continue playing the game at hand with little interruption, because I imagine there could be little more annoying in an MMO than having one of your party pause every couple of minutes to rattle off a blog post like some sort of roving reporter in a war zone, getting under foot and getting other people killed as they try to report live back to the studio from their scrunched up hiding place behind a wall on the front line, sat amidst a hail of bullets in a puddle of their own fear.

If this were Hollywood there’d be a flashback to my time in Vietnam at this point.

Of course I never went to Vietnam, primarily because I hadn’t been born, so you’ll have to imagine a flashback to the Funtington Junior School bike sheds, where a small boy hid from Tom ‘Fat Head’ Holder the school bully, who apparently objected quite vehemently to the term ‘fat head’. Who knew?

I seem to have digressed slightly. ‘Slightly’ as Ranger 3 and its pilot Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers digressed ‘slightly’ from their registered flight plan.

To recap: I occasionally make notes while I play. I made a note on Saturday night whilst trying to adventure in the depths of Lord of the Rings Online’s Moria. Unfortunately I’m having trouble converting that note into a blog post, primarily because the note is written in a Caps Lock Engaged style with a variety of invented swear words that would have diachronic linguists scrabbling for their language trees. I’m pretty sure ‘wankuntery’ is a new word, at least.

I say ‘trying to adventure’ and that’s the truth of it, because you can’t adventure in Moria, for me it’s a shining beacon of player frustration and obstructive design that is typical of MMOs. It is the highly distilled essence of that fundamental MMO philosophy:

‘If we build it, they will come; so we should probably put as much aggressive random crap in the way as possible, to stop them doing so, or at least drag things out for an extra hour or so of their subscription time’.

Not exactly a concise and convivial motto – some might suggest that it is, in fact, drawn-out, inaccessible and padded with unnecessary content – which makes it all the more apt considering the genre of gaming to which it applies.

Moria is an adventurer’s dream, or should be: it is a multi-level maze of corridors and rooms built through the very foundations of a mountain. It is, as you would expect of LotRO, jaw-droppingly impressive in both scale and substance, where narrow bridges of crumbling stone arch like flamboyant gymnasts across chasms that quickly disappear into infinite blackness like the gaping maw of some unknowable stone beast; where the giant heads of dwarves spout rumbling falls of lava the size of rivers from their rock-hewn mouths; and where tiny cramped corridors open suddenly and unexpectedly into caverns that could yawn open their roofs, swallow Middle Earth whole, and not even feel slightly bloated from the meal. It is a place that you want to roam, where you want to look into every nook and cranny and find out all of the secrets that it hides, but what you end up doing is the least amount of travel possible in order to complete the quests with which you have been tasked.

Everywhere you go in Moria there are mobs. Outside of the dwarf camps you can barely take a step without encountering some aggressive monster, and in many cases literally right outside of the camp, within a few yards of the guards, who have yet to acclimatise to life underground it seems, and therefore have a prowess of observation and an alertness to danger which might struggle to rival that of a blind mole, but only if the mole were dead. Moria is a dangerous place, as it should be, the dwarves are working hard to take it back, but they have only reclaimed a few major outposts, therefore the further you progress through the dark halls towards the exit that leads to the lands of Lórien, the less the influence of the dwarves, and thus the greater the danger.

My frustration stems from a combination of three MMO tropes:

  • Mobs placed everywhere the player wants to go:

    There’s a corridor leading from the Twenty First Hall towards the Second Hall that basically has an orc of some sort every ten yards. They move a little bit around their general placement area, but it’s a narrow corridor so they can’t go too far, and as such you are guaranteed to aggro every single one of them as you travel down that corridor. It’s a perfect line of Pacman pellets, it is so uniform that it’s hard to take it any other way than the developer saying “speed your way through this, you ungrateful content devouring gits”, a feeling compounded by the fact that the only time that this perfect uniformly spaced line of mobs – which runs the length of the corridor – is broken is when an extra mob has been added because there’s a junction with another room and it needs to be filled with something aggressive in order to stop the player from heading that way unobstructed. The advantage is that you can never get lost in Moria because you just need to take some string on a reel, let it drag out behind you, and every ten yards tie it around the foot of an orc. As an added bonus the line of string is so perfectly straight that you can use it in the future to mark out the separate lanes of a complex highway system.

    I dub them mobstacles. Not all mobs are obstacles in this way, only the truly, obviously, frustratingly, tediously, blatantly placed ones, those mobs that can be there for no other reason than to obstruct and hinder the progress of players, are mobstacles.

    And of course most of the quests send you to areas just beyond that corridor. Admittedly once you have a travel point at Orc Watch you can then make use of the game’s goat-based taxi service to obtain convenient passage to another camp entirely unmolested, and then jump off half way along the route where you want to begin your adventure proper. They’re like Red Cross Ambulances in a war zone, for some strange reason both sides seem to agree that, even though war is a hideous all-encompassing nightmare, these particular vehicles are out of bounds to man and God.

    Until you can take a United Nations goat across Moria, though, you need to either fight your way along the corridor to get to the place that you want to be, or you have to risk a gauntlet-like aggro run and hope you can find a safe spot where you can drop aggro and reset before you run out of places to run. Which leads me onto trope the second.

  • Mobs pursue you for miles:

    In an overland setting having a mob give chase for a while is fair enough, an accepted convention, if a little tedious when you just want to go somewhere unmolested. I imagine it to be something akin to being an attractive female walking down a road full of scaffolded buildings with fat hairy men hanging over the side and shouting “Oi, luv, phoar! Eh? Phoar!” while their mates whistle suggestively in the background. So next time you’re being chased across a field by a bear or a wolf or a boar, just imagine them shouting “A’right darling, give us a kiss, eh? Wha-hey! Eh? Phoar!”, it doesn’t entirely solve the fact that you’re being chased by crap animals across a largely deserted field due to a terribly tedious game mechanic that should have been dropped the moment it was conceived, but I find that it helps. Preferably the person who first conceived it should have been dropped. On their head. From the top of tall building.

    So mobs give chase; in LotRO they are quite persistent (you must be a blonde with a short skirt), but there’s generally somewhere that you can run, limp, hobble and crawl your way to that will eventually enable you to be free of their attentions, thus allowing you to return to your normal adventuring schedule. Now transfer this annoying feature into a maze, a very big complicated maze with every path littered with mobs that loiter around doing nothing other than waiting for an adventurer to wander past, at which point they spring in to life and give chase, and you get the following question:

    Where do you run to for safety in a maze full of angry mobs?

    There are several answers, including finding Nirvana Points – those points where you lose the last of your current aggro just before you enter the aggro radius of the next mob on your path – which are rare but occasionally you get lucky, but more often than not you have to fight your way slowly and tediously through a bunch of static annoyances to get to the place where you want to explore or adventure. Which would be fine, if it wasn’t for trope the third.

  • Respawns:

    So you’re exploring a little area that you haven’t been to before, and you’ve fought your way carefully and painfully to a point where you find yourself at a dead end. It’s a common enough occurrence, especially in Moria where the dwarves seem to have built everything in the most convoluted and incomprehensibly inefficient way possible

    “Right, I’ll put a staircase in here then so we can get to the next level up on that ledge.”

    “Well you could do that, but I thought it might be nice if we ran a small zig-zag corridor back and forth along the face of the wall, say ten or twenty times.”

    “Right. Wouldn’t it just be a little more convenient to just, y’know, pop a staircase straight up there? Y’know. ‘Oh no, how do I get up to that next level? Ah! Stairs! One, two, three. Upsy daisy, there we go. Sorted.’ rather than, say, ‘Oh no, how do I get up to that next level? Ah! A winding corridor, twenty seven miles long, which takes me up all of fifteen feet, this shouldn’t take much more than ten minutes or so. Unless the corridor is filled with angry orcs, ha ha, hoo boy, then I could be here for hours!'”

    “I like corridors.”

    “Fair enough so.”

    but it’s not exactly a problem, there wouldn’t be much to exploring if you didn’t find yourself having to backtrack. So you quickly make your way back to the last junction you passed, and you try a different path in order to see what wonders that one holds, you never know, it might even have, rarity of rarities – a staircase.

    I’m kidding of course! What actually happens is that you reach the dead end, turn around to head back and come face-to-face with the mob that you killed all of thirty seconds ago, who starts to stab you with malicious intent. You then fight tooth and nail through all of the mobs that you already killed on the way to the dead end, and just as you see the junction in sight, a patrol that you forgot about having killed not a minute or so ago turns up in the middle of the fight and you have to make a run for it. But you can’t run out because everything ahead of you has respawned, so you run back towards the dead end, where the stuff that you just killed – after having previously killed it – is still dead. You reach the dead end, and see that you’ve shaken off all the aggro except for the patrol who is doggedly determined to cop a feel ‘C’mon luv, just one kiss, eh? Phoar!’, and you defeat him by the narrowest of margins. Then you stand there doubled over, with your hands on your knees, panting and sweat dripping from your brow, trying to recover. At which point you glance up and see the mob that you just killed on the way out of the dead end, after having killed it on the way in to the dead end, is now standing over you spoiling for a fight. Or a kiss. You never find out because you’re already respawning in the graveyard. Thirteen corridors of mobstacles away.

I quit the game in frustration to preserve that ounce of sanity which I still maintained.

It’s a painful experience at the best of times, but having been playing DDO recently – where everything that you kill in a dungeon stays dead, and where the combat is fast paced and frantic – the prospect of facing corridor after corridor of mobstacles in LotRO, with each fight, in comparison to DDO, being like two asthmatic overweight cats trying to secure their own territory by yowling a lot and taking ineffective lazy swipes at each other whenever they manage to build up the energy to move, was too much to contend with.

It’s annoying because, a bit like DRM, it deters the people who would otherwise make good use of the content, who would spend time just wandering the halls and soaking up the atmosphere of such a brilliantly realised underground city, while not hindering in the slightest those players who simply blast through and then complain that there isn’t enough content to keep them, uh… content.

Despite the frustrations, I determined that there’s little point in missing out on it, so after I wrote that little note to myself, I logged back in and resolved to adventure as best I could, I went back to some lower level areas that I had been frustrated away from by mobstacles in the past, and went exploring.

It really is a most beautiful world.

Shame about the mobstacles.

Now I just need to destroy that note before anyone else finds it and has me up before the Inquisition on charges of obscenity and contumeliously reproaching the holy name of the developers.

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