Wednesday 1 December 2010

My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It's in the apartment somewhere.

I do wonder how much trouble they have in the meeting rooms at Turbine HQ when trying to come up with things to put into the Lord of the Rings Online’s item shop. It’s a game where, despite the frothing rantings of the most rabid of Tolkien’s self-appointed hardcore guards of lore, Turbine have tried to stick to the spirit of the books as much as possible within a game world where boars reproduce by asexual spontaneous self-parturition, and enough of them have by now been killed that you could carpet the whole of Middle Earth with their hides. Three layers deep.

Mini-pets are one class of item that springs to mind. World of Warcraft has an abundance of them, and many players will, for example, go out of their way to spend some of their £15-a-month subscription to play a pared down version of a £5 Popcap game in order to obtain an, admittedly very cute, singing sunflower pet. Warhammer Online has also started to expand its mini-pet lines, and both games offer mini-pets for sale in their minimal digital shop fronts. Turbine doesn’t offer mini-pets, but it has got around to offering its own version of WoW’s sparkle pony; the Steed of Night is expensive and no better than the reputation-based mounts available in the game. However, requiring no time but ‘merely’ money to acquire, the new time-limited-offer mount provides an option for those who wish to shortcut reputation grinds or simply want to show off a bit.

Turbine’s marketing is really starting to push forward their promotion of the store too, understandable since it is the foundation of funding for further development of the game, but it’s a fine line they have to tread, keeping the LotRO store at the fore of player’s thoughts without it coming to dominate the game, break all immersion, and thus drive those same players away. Generally the item prices on the store have been well considered, with the prices tending to hover around the neighbourhood boundaries of Impulse Purchase and Teeth Sucking Indecision. The items themselves are also sensitive to the legacy of the game, with the new cosmetic items on the whole being exciting and yet in keeping with the general tone of the world, although the turtle-shell backpack, which makes the more compact hobbit form look akin to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, is perhaps rapidly approaching the border guard of acceptability, armed with nothing more than a set of false papers, a fake moustache, and a rudimentary grasp of the native language.

Of course the Lore-master class is already able to collect non-combat mini-pets, with Radagast the Brown providing ample precedent with which to fend off the hardlore players, but it must be quite difficult for the developers to resist expanding that functionality to all players and then popping a small petting zoo of animals on the store for five or six hundred Turbine Points apiece. I can only surmise that either the pointy-haired bosses don’t have the level of control over game content in LotRO as they do in other games, or the ground-level developers simply haven’t told them about the possibility and are hoping that nobody notices Blizzard selling mini-pets on their store for £5-£10 a pop. Or perhaps the developers all sit around the table and invent reasons why it can’t be done:

Dev1: “Ah, no, can’t do mini-pets because we, uh, don’t have enough uh…”

Dev2: “… fur… texels? In the, um… badgerenderer pipeline…”

Dev1: “Yes, we’d totally overflow the, ah, yipyap wrapping… map…”

Dev2: “And then we wouldn’t be able to give the dogs a bone.”

Dev1: [rolls his eyes at Dev2]

Dev2: [shrugs ‘What?!’]

Mounts are another option where Turbine could go wild and yet have restrained themselves admirably thus far. The Steed of Night is an extravagance, sure, but it doesn’t sparkle, it doesn’t fly, it doesn’t breath fire or carry NPC passengers in convenient compartments on its back.

It’s not a sod-buggering faux-steampunk motorcycle and sidecar.

It’s a tricky balancing act that Turbine has to perform, and although I am quite fond of my mini-pets in other games, I’m also quite glad that they haven’t become an all pervasive item store status symbol within LotRO as of yet. It only takes one to see a Lore-master running down the street trailed by a train of various pets, mini-pets and mobstacles, looking like some sort of harangued medieval Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, to realise the detrimental effect that releasing mini-pets on Middle Earth would probably have.

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