In my recent lowbie adventures through Middle-earth in LOTRO, I’ve had some time to think about the early game vs. late game a lot. One of the topics I’m forever chewing on is why these zones — particularly the Shire — are so incredibly beloved and memorable compared to the later ones. I have a lot of theories (I’m sure you do as well), but I think the biggest reason is that these areas show us *life* in Middle-earth, not just an endless field of death punctuated by the next quest hub.
These are cities and villages and hamlets with people more concerned about pies, reputation, estranged family members, naughty bears, and other trivialities (at least when compared with a “hero’s” normal schedule) than anything else. Some people hate it, I know. And it’s not as if these areas are without their darker places, what with the goblin camps, Barrow-downs, and happy-go-lucky spider jamborees. But the sense of life that pervades is what endears me to these areas, and it’s something I feel is lacking the further away we get from it.
(As an aside, I think Turbine recognizes this too, which is why there has been an effort to bring some of these qualities back in Lothlorien, Galtrev, and even some of the hamlets in Dunland. I don’t think they’ve recaptured that feeling, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Anyway, as a weird thought, I’d started to wonder if an entire game — an MMO — would work strictly within the confines of the Shire, using LOTRO’s design and quests as a springboard. Or, if not the Shire, then just one nice-sized zone of any kind. I think it’s an interesting limitation, because you’d begin with the knowledge that players would not be “moving on” to anywhere else. But within that limitation are possibilities that escape your typical nomadic playerbase. The focus of your character would be on putting down roots and living in a community comprised of both NPCs and players. Change, growth and development would need to be core features to compensate for the static locale (think Deep Space Nine versus The Next Generation). Combat would still be there, but it would be just a sliver of the potential for your character’s actions.
Perhaps there could and should be more sandboxy elements in this hypothetical “Shire Online.” Maybe you could begin your life as a very young Hobbit who’s kicked out of his or her parents’ home and told to go make a life for yourself. Would you become a farmer, an explorer, a trader, a postman, or something else? Maybe you’d build a home, focus on a collection, or take up mini-adventures.
What would interest me, personally, is that due to the static locale, a great variety of quests and quest-lines could be introduced and then either rotated through or have players access one or the other through a “choose your own adventure” system. We could actually get to know our NPC neighbors and each of us would develop growing relationships with them — love, friendships, feuds, political buddies, etc. Every day, we would log in not knowing what adventure and events are happening right outside our front door, and major events could even shape the landscape (figuratively or not) of the zone for years to come after. So even with sandboxy elements, I’d still love a more hands-on, theme park approach from developers who would produce specific content for the area.
Maybe we would even age, grow old, and eventually die — moving on to our sons or daughters or nieces or nephews as we “reroll.”
What do you think? The Shire or something else, could an MMO work if contained to a single zone, and how would you envision this happening?