Monday 18 July 2011

No pleasure endures unseasoned by variety.

I’ve never played a character at the level cap of an MMO as much as I’ve played my Warden in recent months, and still I’m yet to set foot in a raiding instance. Dungeon instances in most MMOs just don’t interest me outside of the conditioned desire to gain better equipment for my character; Dungeons & Dragons Online is one of the few games I’ve played where dungeon running actually feels anything akin to the tentative exploratory delving that early pen and paper games often evoked, and only then if one was adventuring with a sympathetic party who were there for the experience (–noun: a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something) rather than the experience (–noun: abv. XP; reward for undergoing repetitive stress and tedium in a particular instance encounter).

I think this is, in part, due to the fact that LotRO has a fairly forgiving level of mudflation with each expansion, where in other MMOs a new expansion heralds the fact that characters who have defeated the greatest enemies of the land find that overnight they’ve become The Captains Average: Avengers of Mediocrity, while anyone who has not set foot in a raid instance is harshly reminded just how easy it is for the developer to negate all their efforts and reset their power to a Level 1 equivalent. That’s not to say that LotRO doesn’t have this, but it is far less extreme than in other MMOs that I’ve experienced. As such, I find that I am more willing to work on my character at the level cap, rather than reach the level cap and consider that to be the end of the game, not wanting to waste time grinding for gear that is never going to compare to that earned by raiders, and which will be entirely obsolete by the next expansion anyway.

As well as the slightly kinder mudflation, there’s also the numerous activities to undertake which will improve your character in a more permanent way than the grinding gears of gear grind tend to allow. I’ve taken to crafting, something with which I don’t normally bother, being as I am of the

1) Select gatherer profession
2) Sell everything on the Auction House
3) ???
4) Profit!

sort. I’m one who generally doesn’t find it terribly compelling game-play to stand around watching my character whittling three hundred spears, before flogging them all to an NPC vendor for a hundredth of the price of the raw materials. And playing with spreadsheets and applications to maximise profits on the Auction House is, in my mind, one of those activities which resides in a village a little too close to the ‘Is a Game’ / ‘Could be doing this in real life for real money’ border conflict.

In my case, Farming was a splendid example of this. My character’s vocation is Woodsman, where each vocation is made up of three professions, in this case Woodworking, Forestry and Farming. Woodworking and Forestry go together, gathering with the latter and crafting very useful items for my Warden with the former (once I’d got past all the pointless intermediary stages). Farming is the ugly stepchild of the vocation, the point where Turbine felt they’d try to force the interdependence crafting hand by giving most vocations a third profession which was generally dependant on a profession unavailable to that vocation. Farming provides items for the Cooking profession, and as such is fairly useless on its own; anyone who is a serious cook will have picked the Yeoman vocation, which includes both Cooking and Farming thus making themselves self-sufficient, such that trying to supply the cooks of Middle Earth with high quality ingredients is utterly pointless. I did notice, however, that I could produce pipe-weed with Farming, a cute cosmetic consumable which allows characters to blow smoke rings of various entertaining designs. Thus I began to level Farming, and I quickly found a way to do so with as little effort as possible, as MMO players are wont to do. Farming is one of the few professions where you can buy all of the ingredients from an NPC vendor, being as it is, technically, a gathering profession. Farming consists of two stages, sowing a field of seeds (using the ingredients you buy from the NPC vendor) and then harvesting that field once it is sown. What I quickly worked out was this:

  • Both stages give you points towards your crafting level.
  • The sowing gives you more points than the harvesting.
  • You still get the points for sowing if you don’t then harvest.
  • Ingredients are cheap enough that you can buy all that is required to get your entire crafting level.
  • You can queue up sowing for as much as your inventory of ingredients will allow.

Therefore, for each level of Farming, it was a simple case to calculate the ingredients required to complete each level, buy them at the NPC vendor, stand my character in a field and tell it to ‘Make All’, and then go and do something more interesting while I waited for the game to play itself. There was one caveat to this, which was what made the thing amusing to me: every now and again I needed to go and press the Shift key so that the game client didn’t log me out.

I pondered on that for a bit.

The game client was essentially saying “Well, you haven’t done anything significant in the past half an hour, I’ll save myself some resources and kill your connection”. It did this while I was actually ‘playing’ the game within the parameters of the design. You know you have quality game-play design on your hands when your players will be booted off your game because your own server thinks ‘Heck, he hasn’t done anything for ages, he’s either link-dead or actually dead, time to clear the ol’ connections’. There’s clearly a balance to be struck here: A Tale in the Desert is at one extreme of the scale, where you have to hammer your own armour out from a sheet of metal using individual hammer strokes and where most people probably walk around in armour which looks like a pineapple that’s been humped by a randy elephant. Lord of the Rings and its ilk are at the other end of the scale, where crafting is like government controlled manufacturing: phenomenal amounts of natural resources are poured into an inefficient process which churns and chugs away for time immemorial before one half-bent sword drops off the end of the production line and promptly shatters into a hundred pieces, while only a marginal increase in crafting expertise is achieved.

Crafting isn’t the only thing I’ve found to do to improve my character outside of dungeon instancing, however. There is my skirmish soldier to improve in order to make my skirmishing easier. Skirmishes are an area of content that can be run solo or in a group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see dungeons that allowed skirmish soldiers to tag along, allowing groups with fewer players than the Middle Earth Metric Standard of ‘six’

“None shall pass! Or six shall pass! No other amount shall pass, however!”

to undertake the content anyway. As far as I’m concerned there still aren’t nearly enough MMOs pinching ideas from Guild Wars. Except Guild Wars 2, those guys are totally ripping it off, if you ask me. There are also plenty of incidental improvements to the character to be had, most of which are just ‘quality of life’ items, but on the whole I find these to have far more lasting impact and worth than an incremental armour upgrade. There are various teleports to areas of the world which can be earnt through various deeds, for example. A lot of these are locked behind reputation requirements, but they are generally accompanied by other niceties such as cosmetic outfit items, mounts, and the like: items which will last and be used by your character long after that piece of teal armour has been vendored. It’s subjective of course, and one man’s idea of what’s worthwhile is always going to be different to another’s, but the nice thing about LotRO is that it offers so much to do for a player who isn’t interested in raiding, things which aren’t just restricted to doing daily quests for tokens to get the armour set that is slightly worse than the latest raiding version on display on top of your nearest major player hub mailbox. It’s a Make Your Own Sandbox kit: a wealth of options unrelated to raiding, which you can pick and choose your way through; craft today, skirmish tomorrow; go hunt reputation items, or complete deeds; finish the epic Volume content, or explore areas you have yet to visit – there’s always somewhere.

Raiding doesn’t have to be the only thing to do at the level cap, there are ways to provide variety and rewards outside of the gear grind, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking that I’d be deliriously happy with that sort of alternative end game in any MMO that chose to implement it.

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