Monday 6 February 2012

The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same.

I do wonder whether limiting the availability of legendary weapons to the raiding set is one of those attack roll fumbles on the part of Turbine, which results in their ranged assault taking an unfortunate intersecting trajectory with their own foot. I base this only upon my own circumstances, which may be atypical for the average Lord of the Rings Online player, but nevertheless some level of custom has been lost, even if that level equates only to the purchasing potential of the singular author of this post.

Confessing that I am somewhat averse to raiding would be as to your traditional vampire admitting that they are somewhat averse to sunlight; indeed, the last time I tried raiding my reaction at the keyboard could easily have been mistaken for the pained panicked gesticulations of one fighting off the unseen horror of supernatural fulguration, and I wouldn’t have blamed Mrs Melmoth for leaping with a cry from the arm of the sofa, blanket outstretched like a temerarious flying squirrel, and smothering me to the point of near death. And hopefully because she thought I was on fire, and not because living with my nightly game-induced rantings had finally driven her to manslaughter. So yes, I don’t raid – I may have mentioned this before. As such, upon reaching the level cap in LotRO, I was stuck for what to do, not because there was nothing left to do, but because I was prevented from my preferred path of ‘doing’ by the artificial constraints of the system. As with many MMOs these days, LotRO offers an alternative reward to experience points once a character has reached the level cap; I can’t remember if it was World of Warcraft which first offered this option in the form of increased gold, the first time a set of developers realised that “Hey chief, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that some players actually prefer basic questing over that curious hybrid of aggravated office politics enacted through the medium of Twister which we’re calling the ‘end game'”. I also can’t remember if LotRO’s system offers enhanced cash rewards, but one thing that it certainly does offer is increased item experience for the player’s legendary weapons.

In the last expansion I was able to earn, through working at the skirmish system, a token which allowed me to craft a Second Age legendary weapon for myself. Again, I think this probably wasn’t possible at the very start of the expansion, very much conforming to the ‘these are special weapons, for special people’ format of raiding being the One True Way to progress your character once it reaches the level cap. However, by the time I’d casually sauntered my way to the point where I could use a Second Age weapon, the raiding set were on to earning their First Age weapons, had thrown away enough Second Age weapons to arm the entire population of the Free Peoples, and thus it had been ordained from on high that the peasants of the player population were to be allowed to touch Second Age weapons; although they did have to hang a sign around their necks which read ‘Unclean’, so that everyone who mattered knew that these weapons hadn’t been earned through noble and honourable hard work, but instead these players had simply stolen their way to wealth through lesser means, such as skirmishing and questing.

It was fairly easy to reach the level cap in LotRO’s latest expansion, Isengard, and I still have a whole wealth of quests left to do – entire areas of the map that I’ve yet to properly explore, but I won’t go there yet. The problem is that I would feel I was wasting legendary experience by levelling up Third Age weapons (of which I already have a set which are maximum level), with the potential of breaking them down, and getting a portion of that experience back to apply to a Second Age weapon later on. I enjoyed the experience of crafting my own powerful weapon, naming it, and then levelling it up through questing and skirmishing; I liked working out which weapon title would work well with my weapon, of which I was quite proud, and then questing for the reputation to earn it; I was happy that the weapon would mean nothing in the wider echelons of power within the game, because it meant plenty to me. Hilariously I imagine that those Second Age weapons from the old expansion meant more to me than First Age weapons mean to most raiders, which seems to be more what the spirit of the system should be, even if the mechanics of it, along with the lamentable transitory nature of MMO possessions, results in something far closer to consummate consumerism.

I still use those Second Age weapons in fact, because although the power curve has moved on with the inevitable pressing drive of the expansion’s tidal wave –pushing all before it, and washing clear all that it leaves behind– they are still powerful enough in their own right for my character to quest happily and perform their role in a small group. They aren’t optimal, but they are meaningful, and for me the latter is the greater trait.

Thus, other than paying the rent for the kinship house, I won’t venture into LotRO for the time being. I’ve stopped listening to the podcasts and reading the discussions, and I haven’t looked at the LotRO Store in some time. I have, of course, read that Turbine are looking to start selling non-cosmetic (sinmetic?) armour in the store, a move which seems to indicate that they want or need to find other ways to make money from the player base. Having spent a not inconsiderable amount in the store in the past, I can say for certain that Turbine would still have my custom if they’d just opened up some basic options at the end-game outside of the standard raiding treadmill. Perhaps, though, I dwell in a curious no man’s land between the levelling game and the raiding one, which is only inhabited by a tiny subset of players. As one other curious anecdotal piece of evidence, I have noticed on several of the blogs dedicated to cosmetic outfits that recent submissions have consisted almost entirely of high-end raid items, as though some sort of creative coup d’├ętat was taking place, such that even the realm of cosmetic outfit invention should be purely the preserve of the ‘privileged’. Yes, well done dear, you’ve earnt the highest tier raid gear and managed to put each piece into its correct slot, this is a creative cosmetic outfit how, exactly? You are a unique and special flower though, just like all the other unique special flowers standing around you.

Thankfully Turbine’s payment system is slowly spreading across the genre, such that now I can freely dip into many MMOs. More importantly, I can reward those MMOs specifically offering me rewarding content and game-play experiences. In an ideal world my purchases would offer justification to a developer to produce more content of that ilk, but such feedback loops still seem to be in the embryonic stages of development at the time of this writing. One thing seems clear, however: that exclusionist approaches to the end-game cannot be the best way to maintain a healthy balance of player types, and that if you’re going to exclude non-raiders come the end-game, then why bother with a levelling part to your expansion at all? Concentrate on making exquisite raid content and keep your raiders happy, and at least you won’t be offering half-baked raids because you’ve split your resources, trying to maintain an illusion of a levelling game which has long since fooled anyone.

Not all sheep willingly follow the herd, and it seems to me that developers need to work out whether they should work harder at convincing the players that their interests are the same, or whether they should let part of their flock wander away, and instead concentrate on building the best enclosure possible for the remainder.

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