Tuesday 21 December 2010

It was the best of grinds, it was the worst of grinds

Even as m’colleague’s Cataclysm box languishes in the depths of a snowdrift somewhere, I’ve cancelled my WoW subscription. Got through the very first Worgen area, it was all very nice, but I just haven’t logged in since with everything else going on. Any of war (and indeed hammering) in Warhammer, fleet adventures in Pirates of the Burning Sea or heavy metal thunder in World of Tanks can quite happily take up an evening, but I’ve really been pulled back into Lord of the Rings Online.

I gave up on LotRO just after launch somewhere around level 27, when I recall content was getting a little thin and starting to involve a lot of travelling. This time around I’ve just hit level 27 on my new main character, I’ve hardly been outside Bree-land since getting through the introductory areas, and I’ve still got a full log of mostly outlevelled quests that I’m loathe to abandon. There are general quests, the storyline book content, dungeons, crafting, skirmishes and most recently Yule festival quests.

There’s been debate over holiday or festival quests ever since someone decided that just handing out sweets wasn’t a proper celebration of Easter and a repeatable “Collect five chocolate eggs” quest would be much more fun; nice additions to in-game lore or immersion breaking intrusions, fun little fluffy diversions or pointless grind interfering with normal play, implementation and player response varies considerably. LotRO seems to have some pretty well established regular events, and with this year’s Yule Festival there’s also a whole new zone, Winter-home.

There’s some interesting stuff in Winter-home. Snowball fights are always good. The theatre, where random players get called up on the stage to take part in a short play by performing suitable emotes, is rather fun, and the audience get to show their appreciation of a fine performance with a shower of petals, or lob rotten fruit if the acting isn’t up to scratch. The general tone of the zone is slightly unusual too (very minor spoilers follow, if the story is of great concern): it’s a festival town, where the Mayor ensures guests enjoy fun and games and feasting to excess, but they do so at the expense of exploited workers. Some quests involve helping the downtrodden (handing out festival coins, that could be bartered for in-game rewards, to beggars left on the streets after they helped build the town up), others keep them suppressed (moving those same beggars on so they’re not cluttering up the streets for the nice guests). Eventually you can work your way up to a final quest in the zone and either threaten to expose the Mayor’s corruption to secure better conditions for the workers, or help the Mayor put down a possible revolt, keeping him in power.

I actually felt bad moving beggars off the street, especially as your heartstrings are tugged a bit more by the game telling you they stumble off, frozen, without having collected anything, mumbling “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb anyone”. The final quest is a real dilemma, though; obviously The Right Thing would be to help out the workers, but the rewards for doing so are some tatty old clothes. Help out the Mayor, he’ll give you a really spiffy costume, including a top hat. Yes, a top hat. Many RPGs reward you for being virtuous, a classic example would be ridding a village of some terrible monster threat, and the poor farmers offer you the few copper pieces they can scrape together to thank you, you say “No, honest tillers of the soil, you need that copper more than I, slaying the beast is reward enough for me”, and the game gives you bonus XP or some other sort of character improvement. As far as I can make out, though, the Winter-home quest gives you nothing apart from the tatty clothes and a sense of enormous well-being for helping out the poor, you really do get the good stuff from being a git. Brutally suppressing a revolt doesn’t make the Mayor have second thoughts, he doesn’t cry “What have I become?” and invite everybody in to share a goose, he just kicks the ringleaders out and carries on. It wouldn’t be so surprising somewhere like Warhammer where pretty much everyone’s a bastard anyway, but it’s a little more jarring in a setting like LotRO and could give you pause as the Mayor points out your hypocrisy in helping the workers when you’ve been enjoying the feasting and such as much as everyone else.

For a few seconds.

For unfortunately the effect is slightly lost by the sheer MMOG-iness of it all. In a single player RPG the themes could really be developed, but MMOGs have to account for the Content Devourers. You imagine the developers slaving away creating the zone, adding the NPCs, carefully scripting the theatre events to take account of all conceivable player behaviour (fully aware there’ll be plenty of inconceivable player behaviour, but you do what you can), then they stick it up on the test server and Geoff starts a stop-watch to see how long it’ll take players to completely exhaust the content that took so many man-months to create.

“Thirty eight minutes and nine seconds” says Geoff, thirty eight minutes and nine seconds later, and that included typing up an exhaustive guide and taking screenshots. So they shove a couple of extra-blatant time-sink quests in (Winter-home’s best, or worst, example being Tidying Up, where you get to run around and click on 30 glowy bit of rubbish, waiting for a second or two each time) and make you repeat everything ten times if you want the final reward, with a once a day limit on most of the quests. Couple that with the fundamentally unchanging nature of MMO content, and instead of a microcosm of the class struggle with a festive theme you’re stuck in a bizarre pie-eating purgatory. You force the beggars to leave town, they shuffle off sadly, but are back within a minute. Instead of driving them off again you give them some coins and they’re thankful. Next day you give them more coins, then kick them out of town, while hundreds of other players do the same. The theatre puts on the same six-minute play ten times an hour, and if you’re desperate for all the deeds for chucking petals or fruit you sit through it again, and again, and again… Even the impact of the final quest, where you finally have to choose one side or the other, is somewhat undermined; to salve my conscience I helped the workers on my main character, but I couldn’t possibly miss out on a top hat (come on, top hat!), so I whipped an alt through the 30 quests, beat up some peasants, got the finery, and stuck it in the wardrobe so any other character on the account could use it.

Still, I’m hardly in much of a position to complain about repetitive grind. “Have you played an MMO before?” is the refrain of every static group on hitting similar issues, you know what you’re letting yourself in for with these things. It’s not like I was forced at gunpoint to run through all the quests. Repeatedly. Twice. It would be nice if there was a bit more cohesion between Story, World and Making Bars Go Up, but when it comes to the crunch you know there’s only one that really keeps people coming back. So maybe I’ll try another ten runs of the eating contest for a new title…

No comments: