Monday 31 January 2011

A bargain is something you can't use at a price you can't resist.

The general unwritten rule of polite society in Lord of the Rings Online has been that if you are a high level character killing mobs in a low level zone in order to complete a deed, you should give way to characters who are at the correct level for the content if they happen upon the group of mobs you are grinding. It’s basic courtesy of course, although the more green-skinned among us might question the nature and personal gain of being polite or generous to another person, but the community in LotRO is one of the few places where I’ve often found the rule to be adhered to in the main, without even the need for peer enforcement.

Until the game went free to play.

In part I think this is because there are a great many more low level characters running around in this new freemium era. In addition, however, there now exists an item in the LotRO store that accelerates deeds, making each valid kill count twice and thus halving the number of kills required; when the item is activated it creates a temporary buff on the character that has a relatively short duration of around fifteen minutes and which, as far as I can tell, cannot be paused in any way once it has been started.

MMO players have a hard enough time being good to one another as it is, and now there is the potential for them to have an item – for which they paid – ticking down its relatively (in MMO terms) short duration and doing them no good if they happen to stand aside and let someone else go first. It’s a bit like those game-shows where a contestant has a set amount of time to run around a supermarket and fill their trolley with as many items as they can, and if they make it back before the clock runs down then they get to keep whatever is in their basket.

“Right, Lego Lass, you’ve made it to the final. How are you feeling? Excited? No need to be nervous, you know what you’ve got to do: you’ve got fifteen minutes to kill as many wolves as you can. Okay my dear, take yourself to the starting line. Can I have fifteen minutes on the Kill Deed Buff Timer please? Thank you. Ready? Then let’s play Shopping for Slaughter! Three! Two! One!”

[A claxon sounds and the audience begins to bellow encouragement]

[Lego Lass runs around one-shotting wolves and shoving them into a shopping trolley, occasionally shoulder-charging a low level player character into a stack of baked bean cans and grabbing the wolf they were about to kill]

To my mind Turbine have created an item that actively encourages the sort of selfish behaviour that a large part of the community had been resisting. Perhaps it’s more an indication that this is an item that one should steer clear of purchasing? Deeds are tiresome tasks, however, and although that shouldn’t really be an issue to any dedicated member of the MMO Player Party (motto: ‘Entertainment through repetition! Repetition through repetition!’), they do become an excessive drain for each successive alt you create, and as an avid altoholic I can certainly testify to the temptation that such an item presents.

I believe this is another one of those areas where a company engaging in cash shop dynamics needs to tread with care and consideration, because as with any change to the dynamics of a game’s fundamental design in a certain area (no matter how small and insignificant that change may seem), the chaos effect of such a change can have a much wider ranging impact on the game as a whole, with ramifications that are often surprising in their nature, but predictably deleterious in their effect. The difference is that the subscription of a standard MMO is constant: players know that no matter what they do, the cost per unit (in this case one month of play time) remains the same; in addition, the duration of one unit runs in the order of a month or months. Cash shop items, however, tend to have units of duration that run for at most days, more often hours, and possibly even in minutes, and yet everything in an MMO such as LotRO, which has converted to F2P, is generally set up to require activities based around the original subscription unit of months. The final issue is that having to make a purchase for an item from the store impresses on the player that they have spent their money on this item, and thus if that item is wasted because, say, the mobs they intended to grind away at have suddenly become inundated with other players doing the same, and the next nearest spawn is five minutes away, the player has a far more immediate perception of loss than if they had had to waste five minutes of their £15-a-month subscription travelling to another spawn.

Crafting accelerators, for example, seem like a good use of this mechanic: halving the materials and time required to grind out the various tiers of crafting professions, and which can only be spoilt if you have failed to gather the correct amount of raw materials beforehand; crafting accelerators will not bring you into direct competition with other players in an area where the game has not been designed for such competition, which stands in contrast to the kill deed accelerators.

In conclusion, with the urgency demanded by these short-term purchased buffs, I predict a rise in the number of shopping trolley related accidents in Lord of the Rings Online in the near future.

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