Monday 11 October 2010

I nauseate walking; 'tis a country diversion.

I was questing in the Lone Lands on my Hunter the other night and ran into another one of those curious issues I have with the current crop of MMOs. I’ve not much enthusiasm to play Lord of the Rings Online at the moment despite having a lifetime subscription, my faith in the game is slowly being sapped by the continued inability of Codemasters to translate Turbine’s free-to-play vision onto the European servers, a mirroring of the debacle that occurred with Dungeons and Dragons Online, and where the most likely outcome for LotRO now is for Codemasters to announce that they won’t be going free-to-play after all, followed shortly by everyone without a lifetime subscription jumping over to the good ship US Turbine, and eventually all accounts being migrated over to Turbine anyway.

It’s certainly hard to summon enthusiasm to play a game that other people can play for free but with more features and also all of the latest content.

I decided to pick at the few remaining quests I have in the Lone Lands before moving on to the North Downs proper, and the one quest I had left was to kill trolls in Harloeg. Off I run, dodging through wave after wave of mobstacles, ignoring their attempts to stop me. Honestly, it’s like walking down the high street of your local town while trying to dodge all the people wanting to scrounge money, solicit your opinion on washing powder, or get you to sign a petition to prevent cruelty to strawberries. You have orcs running after you “Excuse me sir? Sir? Do you believe in Eru? Can I interest you in the Church of Saurontology?”; crows flap around your head, cawing about time share apartments in Mordor; wargs chase at your heels trying to get you to stop and answer a survey for the Meat Marketing Board; Wights try to pin you down and sign you up to Support A Spirit – ‘A donation of just fifty silver a month could enable a ghoul or ghost to help themselves to haunt again’.

Regardless, I reach the trolls without having stopped for a single survey, kill the requisite number in short order, and head back. It was while dodging a particularly persistent sickle-fly who was, I think, trying to sell me on the merits of a comprehensive double glazing installation, that I ran into a dead end. It’s a curious design of Harloeg – and many places in MMOs – that the natural route in and out is actually a sheer cliff or some insurmountable obstacle, with the actual escape route being out of the way paths tucked off in far flung corners of the map. Each path is, of course, narrow and laden with mobstacles.

This annoys me. It’s not the fact that I have to go out of my way so much as the pretence at exploration that’s offered, using the landscape to force me to spend more time trudging around and fighting off unwanted solicitations from crap animals as if this was adventure. If there was something to actually explore as I ran off in a five mile detour around the outskirts of the map to find the way out… if there was a mob that ambushed me who dropped an item that started a quest, or was at the very least an interesting fight, it wouldn’t rankle quite so much. There’s nothing of the sort however, and there never is. It wouldn’t destroy the aesthetic of Harleog to have a path running down that cliff face, it wouldn’t cost the developer more than a minute or two of a player’s time to allow them to just wander back in a more direct route, and they could still put a bunch of mobstacles in the player’s way to dismount them at every step and slow them down to a combat crawl, if they really felt it necessary to rely on such base and derivative tactics. Harloeg is a particularly fine example because there’s actually a piece of land – right where most players would run back – which starts to ramp up towards the top of that cliff, and then stops short, and where perspective won’t let you see this until you’re all the way to the top. Seriously, they might as well have a sign at the top that says “Haw, haw! Run back down! Run back and then run all the way around! Off you go! Run little player, run! And know that all the while you’re running and not getting to play the game or have any sort of entertainment, you are paying us money! Ha ha ha he he ha ha he ho!”. It would be a big sign, admittedly, and I suppose it might give the game away a little early.

I’ve ‘wasted’ hours in Minecraft in my exploration; I say wasted because invariably I did nothing terribly productive with respect to the game world or my character, but I did find fascinating geological features, discovered new places that sparked my imagination as to how I could turn them into a productive home, and I had so much fun that those hours passed like minutes. Trying to get anything done in MMOs such as LotRO makes minutes feel like hours. If you’re going to be a lazy developer and have quest hubs that load me up with quests, send me running halfway across the map to kill a specific type of boar because the ones right outside just won’t do, and the fifteen hundred I’ve killed up until now just don’t count, you really shouldn’t then get all creative when it comes to making obnoxious geographical hoops for me to jump through in a blatant attempt to artificially hike the amount of time I have to spend slogging around trying to get anything done, dodging pointless mobstacles all the while. Talk about rubbing it in.

MMOs also need to break out of the mindset that says placing static spawns of tedious uninteresting mobs between quest hubs and quest locations is anything akin to adventure, excitement or fun. It really isn’t. But perhaps more on that another time.

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