Tuesday 26 April 2011

Whether you whine or grind

Lord of the Rings Online has reached its fourth anniversary; o frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! To the radiostereogramme! There must and shall be music! Sure enough, wheeling out the stepladder and donning a pair of fancy white gloves to rummage through the KiaSA archives from 2007 turns up Melmoth’s original ponderings on character selection. How time flies (unlike Alan the Chaffinch after an unsuccessful tanking attempt).

LotRO tends to do celebrations quite well, no doubt helped by the source material. The Fellowship of the Ring starts with a big old knees-up for Bilbo and Frodo so Middle Earth parties are well established for anyone who’s started reading the book, even (picking an entirely hypothetical example completely at random) an 11 year old who loved The Hobbit and enthusiastically picked up its weighty sequel but barely made it through Book I before chucking it in favour of Doctor Who novelisations where something actually happened without interminable singing and Tom bloody Bombadil. The seasonal festivals of LotRO offer all manner of fun for players like horse races, eating contests, shrew-stomping (sounds a bit deviant to me, but that’s Elves for you) and a maze; the recent Yule festival introduced Winter-home, an entire festival town zone. Completing events gets you tokens, and what do tokens make? Prizes, that’s right, including cosmetic clothing, special mounts, emotes and house decorations.

For the fourth anniversary, monsters around the world have a chance of dropping tokens that can be exchanged for surprise gift boxes, something I gather happened in previous years. New for this year are a special mount, some cosmetic outfits, and a number of house decorations that can only be obtained for new anniversary tokens, earned through contests. There are only three contests, though; the two traditional horse races that can be run once a day for a single anniversary or mount token, and the Battle for Glorious Beer. That sounds quite fun, and indeed it can be; everyone is handed a Dwarf Club of Unimaginable Power and stuck in an arena in a tavern where they have to smack other players around with said club (knocking them high into the air) and collect a glowing beer mug (not so easy with all the aforementioned smacking) in exchange for one token. With the mount costing three mount tokens plus 30 anniversary tokens, and the outfits and decorations costing 20 anniversary tokens each, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to work out that to get anywhere you need to repeat the Beer Fight. A lot. The gloss wears off pretty quickly, especially as you fail the quest if you’re completely knocked out of the arena before you can pick the beer up; the only saving grace is that the glowing beer mugs respawn so all participants get a chance, rather than the previous version of the event that only had a single winner. The fight runs every ten minutes or so, if you’re determinedly grinding it you have to wait for the announcement, speak to the questgiver, wait for the fight to start, bat people around, try and grab the beer, speak to the questgiver again if you succeed, then wait for the next round. The time between rounds is an irritating few minutes, not enough to go and do anything useful (you could probably just about reach the vault to do some sorting out, then have to turn around and head back) but more than sufficient to contemplate the futility of existence, if you’re that way inclined. Perhaps the intent is to encourage socialising, getting people together and forcing downtime, but if so it’s not really working. Apart from a few occasions of idiots taking the opportunity to constantly spam emotes, and one discussion of whether knocking people from the arena was griefing or the intent of the contest, all I’ve encountered is the grim silence of determined grinders racking up the tokens (me included), probably alt-tabbed off to a browser between rounds trying to find something just interesting enough to kill a couple of minutes without being so fascinating as to make you forget to alt-tab back for the start of the next round. Maybe I’m missing a prime roleplaying opportunity…

“Why, good fellows, are you all here to enjoy the famed Battle for Glorious Beer? I have travelled many leagues from Bree, eager to try my hand at this noble contest!”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“I say, what a stimulating tournament! Did you see the way yon Dwarf smote me so hard as to knock me clean across the room? Well played, sir, but next time I fancy I’ll catch you a blow first!”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“Ha, I evaded those boisterous roustabouts long enough to grasp the fabled beer, Master Gisli, I claim my prize of one Anniversary Token! Soon I shall bedeck myself in a fine new robe!”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“Another fine contest, my fellows, what larks, I greatly look forward to doing this eighteen more times…”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“Yeah, this is a bit repetitive isn’t it…”
*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
“I’ll just alt-tab off and hit Random Article on Wikipedia then. Did you know the Raskamboni movement is a Somali paramilitary group?”

It’s churlish to complain about completely optional new content, especially as the developers are doubtless terribly busy on Update 3 at the moment, but the anniversary “event” feels half-arsed; where Winter-home posed some interesting situations that were ultimately slightly undone by the fundamental nature of MMOGs, a single repeatable event for tokens is pretty unvarnished grind, especially for an anniversary “celebration” where many other games award titles, badges or items merely for logging in. Goldenstar summarises things well at A Casual Stroll to Mordor, with a follow-up after Turbine confirmed the event is working as designed. It’s a bit of a shame, but a mere couple more hours of beer fighting should be enough to earn a robe, and I’m learning all sorts between rounds…

*thunk* *thunk* *thunk* *glug*
There have been three ships named USS Mistletoe, an 1861 tug boat, an 1872 wooden tender and a 1939 buoy tender…

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