Posted in Lord of the Rings Online

LOTRO: Growing a lush Treebeard

Thanks to the recent LOTRO producer’s letter, I got a huge mental boost of goodwill and excitement toward the game. Yet I feel like I’ve been dragging my heels in Gundabad for months now, not making much progress and not feeling very motivated to do so. A change of pace was needed, so for the first time this year, I returned to my Minstrel on the Treebeard progression server.

In a mild stroke of personal irony, when last I left her, Moria was about ready to launch and I had pushed hard to get her ready for it. Then it unlocked right as I bailed. So now I’m coming back halfway into this six-month expansion period — behind the crowd but with more than enough time to catch up before the goalposts are moved again.

It’s been absolutely fantastic coming back to Treebeard, and I spent all last week excited for the next time I could log into the game. Reconnecting with this character was nice, but nicer still was seeing that my kinship was still incredibly active, chatty, and running content all over the place. One of the reasons I want to catch up is being able to join in more group activities, and that’s going to keep me invested.

Of course, when you come back to a character it’s TRADITION to make a new outfit. I challenged myself to put together a look that was different than normal for me, and I ended up with this feathery waistcoat concoction. You can’t see it from this angle, but she’s also sporting a short-ish White Hand cloak that I think looks nifty. And, as always, I’ve equipped her with her trusty branch as a weapon. It never fails to amuse me when I run around hitting wargs and orcs with a stick.

There’s plenty to do, but having done all of this plenty of times before, I’m not worried. I spent last week finishing up several pre-Moria goals — Volume 1, Eregion, the new southern Trollshaws region — and got my first legendary items. It’s going to be interesting to keep these throughout her entire journey instead of replacing them.

As for the producer’s letter, I feel a great sense of hope for LOTRO in 2022. The business model changes, 15th anniversary, and the boost it’s sure to get from the upcoming Amazon TV series are all positive portents, as is EG7’s confidence behind this product.

I’m looking forward to exploring (and blogging about) Yondershire — more Hobbit stuff is good indeed. I am considering purchasing a premium house for this character, and I’ve even rolled up a Stout Axe Champion alt. So yeah, I feel like I’m surging forward in LOTRO once more.

Posted in General

I wish I had gotten into MMOs in the ’90s

I don’t live my life in a perpetual state of regret, but my propensity to reroll characters in games to try to play them better this time around trickles into the odd daydream that I have about doing the same in life. And what’s bounced around my head lately is the thought that I really should’ve gotten into the online RPG community much earlier than I did.

I know what you’re thinking — of course I’d say that because I love these games now and feel like I missed out on some formative years. But that’s not where my head is going with this thought experiment.

Rather, I think back to how life used to be and remember about a half-decade of soul-crushing loneliness. In college, I had a lot of great friends and what I felt was a fulfilling social life. But that all came to an end when everyone in my class graduated and I no longer could walk down the dorm hall to see them. From 1999 to 2004, I was pretty much on my own navigating the start of my career and living on my own.

And as an introvert, that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I like the solitude and freedom, and I had a bit of online social connections with fellow movie reviewers. But it really wasn’t enough, and I didn’t find anyone in my local area to forge new friendships with.

Looking back, the really obvious solution would’ve been to connect with guilds in various MMOs — except that I wasn’t playing them until about 2003. It wouldn’t have been a perfect solution, but I really could’ve used people to talk with and form friendships with, and MMOs are great for that. Sure, I would’ve had to pick between a limited selection of games, but considering that it all had that novelty of newness, why not?

Anyway, it’s a moot point — life turned out as it did, and I am more than socially satisfied in my life at present without feeling lonely. I just feel bad for younger me that had to struggle through that period when there was a fun option that I didn’t take because EverQuest and the like looked too daunting.

Posted in Elder Scrolls Online

ESO: Snake-ka-bob!

Whenever you’re juggling three or more MMOs at a time, it’s impossible to maintain the same level of excitement and interest between them all. It’s just how it goes — one or two are going to have your heart, another one will be about moments, and the last will find itself becoming the unloved child of the bunch.

And the crazy thing is that those priorities can reshift on a weekly basis. I’ve just learned not to force it with MMOs. If I’m interested, I’m into it; if not, I’m not going to treat the game like homework.

This is all a lead-up to say that Elder Scrolls Online has, as of late, become that last-place game. I kinda want to play it and enjoy it when I do, but it’s lacking that compelling spark that pulls me in. I suspect a lot of this is due to going through Blackwood, which I’ve found to be a fairly bland expansion zone. It’s not terrible, but very little about it stands out, either.

I mean, the main storyline is nothing to write home about, but that’s almost always the case with the bigger ESO plotlines. I show up to play the little side story arcs that end up being a heck of a lot more memorable and creative. But even in Blackwood, there haven’t been as many winners in that category. So I slog through the swamp, dutifully checking off main story objectives, and hoping that it’ll all be done soon so I can move on.

I think there’s a lot of fatigue with MMOs on the whole trying to create and sustain these apocalyptic storylines. It’s always an arms race to establish a bigger threat than the last time, even though you know said threat will get taken down in the final quest or raid.

So maybe MMOs need to stop with this and realize that stakes can be compelling even if they don’t have “or else the world will explode” attached to them. I’ve heard that ZeniMax is indeed de-escalating somewhat for this coming June’s expansion, which is a good move. I may even be done with Blackwood by then.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Online

DDO: Off on a wild hunt (or two)

Since I was already in the neighborhood of the Feywild, DDOCentral recommended that I pop over to the Court of the Wild Hunt to do the two new quests that came with Update 53. Why not? Gotta do them all at some point!

“Through the Tulgey Wood” sends me on my first hunt — to track down Hyrsam’s owl advisor. Said owl lies in the middle of a maze of hedgerows that can only be gradually unlocked by finding various levers and jumping through a series of portals. DDO really, really, really likes its levers. You’ll be clicking on more levers in this game than killing, sometimes.

To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of what was a quest clearly designed to waste my time through this method. I never had to resort to a map, so I guess that’s a good sign, but it’s the very definition of tedious.

That said, there are a few encounters that make the hunt worth it, such as a clearly inspired-by Alice in Wonderland tea party. I also solved a giant purple cow’s puzzle, confused two giant frogs, and eventually powered my way to the owl to get what was mine. (Loot. Loot was mine.)

Speaking of loot, today’s daily golden dice roll paid out in a natural 100. I got a new cosmetic suit of armor, a gobton of XP, and a tome that boosted my DEX from 26 to 32 forever. I am not complaining, folks.

The second Wild Hunt quest is “One Dame Thing After Another,” which reunites me with crazy windmill-fighting knight Dame Alonsa. I like her, even though her voice work (through the DM) is horrible.

This dumb unicorn right here wanted me to do a jumping puzzle. Golly, thanks for that. Aside from how much I generally dislike these, DDO’s unpredictable jankiness makes jumping a dicey proposition. But in my favor was feather falling and boosts to the jumping skill. Took me six tries, got to the top and a rather pathetic chest.

Aside from that, it’s a pretty straight-forward — and uninspired — quest. There IS an “epic chest!” in the middle of a room that turns out to be a faerie illusion that sends me down into a pit of hot mud. That got a whole bunch of pixies murdered right after, let me tell you, followed by the Huntsman’s beast itself. Don’t cry, he had a good life.

Posted in World of Warcraft

The high stakes of World of Warcraft’s next expansion

You’ve certainly seen the news that World of Warcraft is going to make its much-overdue expansion announcement next month. I say “much-overdue” because according to Blizzard’s long-established cadence of announcements and releases, the studio was due to reveal this last fall. But of course Blizzard’s been a hot mess internally and nobody firmly expected such an announcement.

In any case, we’re going to get one next month along with a reveal of the Warcraft mobile title that the studio’s been working on. And I can’t think of a time when the stakes were so high for an expansion — or even the announcement of such — for World of Warcraft.

It’s now been six years — since 2016 — since Legion launched, the last truly successful and broadly liked expansion. It was also the last time we saw Blizzard be truly ambitious with an expansion release, packing it full of fun and exciting features. Since then, we’ve had a one-two punch of sad, soggy expansions (Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands), both of which squandered their premise, relied way too hard on temporary power systems, and, in the case of the latter, ended in a severe content drought. User numbers for Blizzard as a whole have plummeted in the last half-decade, and WoW certainly is part of this problem.

Simply put, while there are players for WoW right now, there’s no real visible excitement for the current game or hope in the future. People hate the story, they’re tired of the meaningless progression systems, and they miss a game with true ambition. I know I can’t speak for everyone, but this is the general sense I’m getting.

So I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that the stakes are high, because they truly are. It’s do-or-die time for Blizzard. If the studio comes out with a lackluster expansion announcement that fails to do anything innovative, exciting, or ambitious, they might as well pack it in. “More of the same” CANNOT cut it this time around. Nobody’s going to wait — or come back — for anything short of an event expansion.

What would such an expansion look like? Again, let’s look at Legion as a prime example. Not everything from Legion worked, but so much did and it had broad appeal because it wasn’t hanging its whole hopes on one or two features. It had a raft of them — class bases, artifact weapons, world quests, allied races, zone choice, invasions, and so on. It felt grounded in the world of Azeroth while still offering some fresh takes. Players felt like their characters would actually experience meaningful progression again.

That’s the bar that is set for the future expansion announcement to clear. And I honestly don’t know if Blizzard has the drive, resources, or developers to achieve it.

Posted in Lord of the Rings Online

The problem of MMORPG verticality

Lately, I’ve been venturing into Deepscrave in Lord of the Rings Online’s Gundabad. And if I was hoping that the expansion would knock it off with stairs, I had another thing coming. If anything, this zone is ridiculous in asking players to go up and down skyscrapers’ worth of height. And in doing this, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how verticality ends up being more of a liability than an asset in online games.

Now, I kind of get why designers  go with this, because creating structures and spaces with crazy amounts of height and depth are visually impressive. In the real world, we’re awed when we stand at the base of a tall structure or peer over the lip of the Grand Canyon. Since it is much easier to whip up something like that in a virtual space, why not and get an echo of that emotional impact?

Yet verticality comes with a host of problems, most of which are related to navigation. For starters, when you create zones with enormous jumps in height, how are players expected to get up and down? Are you going to ask them to memorize where the staircases are or put elevators everywhere? Do you add other navigation aids — grappling hooks, ladders, etc — to assist with this? Do players have a way to safely descend via parachute, glider, or something similar?

Of course, if the game already has, say, flying or climbing, this is less of an issue. But that’s not always a given.

Not only getting where you need to go with vertical space can be a headache, but even figuring out where that is can be quite annoying. The associated problem here is the limitations of 2-D maps. If your zone is a flat space, then a 2-D map is perfect. But when you start adding new layers, floors, and great differences in height, then such a map becomes inadequate, fast. How do you portray multiple levels on a map? How do you tell your players to go up or down for objectives? Do you have level access points (elevators, stairs) clearly marked?

I’m not saying that vertical zones can’t be done, but the hassle of them isn’t worth the payoff. I’ve never met an up-and-down zone that is more interesting and satisfying than your standard flat zone.

Posted in World of Warcraft

WoW Classic: Taking off at level 70

I’m not completely happy with the number of group quests that Nagrand ends up spewing my way, but this actually turned into a few nice memories. When I was trying to nail down one particular quest, a guildie gladly flew my way — he had it as well — and we had so much fun doing it that we ended up knocking out six more group quests as a duo in short order. That was a satisfying feeling.

Then a day later, I went up to a small hill to kill Tuskar, a huge elephant. It’s a group quest but sometimes I can squeak those out with the help of my earth elemental tanking, so I figured I’d try it. But once there, I saw two Horde players waiting for him. So I hung back, let them tag it, and then joined in to help out. After that, I used a series of emotes to basically ask if they’d help me do the same — and through emotes, they let me know they would. Lots of hugs and waves after those kills, and I appreciated the connection that MMOs can make with us even to this day.

The really good news from this past week is that, for the first time in Burning Crusade Classic, I hit level 70! This takes a huge mental load off, grants me several nice quality-of-life improvements, and lets me focus on the next stage. All in one swoop, I…

  • …don’t have to worry about rested XP or logging out in inns (until Wrath)
  • …got my slow flying mount (yay flying)
  • …am getting tons more gold per quest turn-in
  • …received my Heroism ability

So now the next major goal with this character is two-fold and intertwined. I want to finish up Blade’s Edge, Netherstorm, and Shadowmoon Valley quests — and save up the 5,000 or so gold that I need for epic flight. I’m already 1200 gold in, so it’s a good start on that. Dungeons? Dailies? Eh, if they happen, they happen, but that’s not where my mind is at.

Posted in Books

Book Report: Blacktongue Thief, Battle Mage, and more!

Time for another round of five books that I’ve read recently! We’ve got at least three must-read gems in here, so read on…

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Without any preamble, let me just say that this is one of the absolute best fantasy books I’ve read in a long, long time. It hit all the spots I’m looking for: A funny and likable main character, a whole lot of interesting worldbuilding, and a good balance between grit and grins. It follows Kinch, a semi-talented thief who’s tasked with escorting a small band of travelers up into giant country to perform a vital mission. I listened to the audiobook of this (read by the author) and was blown away by the conversational language and gripping narrative. Against, you’ve got to read this if you like fantasy.

Battle Mage by Peter Flannery

I’ve never felt as conflicted as a reader than with this book. On one hand, it’s almost, almost bordering the realm of stilted and doe-eyed writing that’s the bane of many bad fantasy novels. Yet on the other hand, it has some actual depth and competence. It’s the story of a kid who makes a bad mistake that nearly gets his whole village wiped out and then has to redeem himself by becoming a super-powered battle mage who loves dragons. Parts of it are very good, very gripping, and other parts are a generic slog. I ended up with a DNF around 70% into this 824-page monstrosity, so my final verdict is quite mixed indeed.

Dead Space by Kalli Wallace

Give me a mystery set in an outer space environs, and I’ll gladly sign up for a tour. Dead Space follows a somewhat lowly security officer who wheedles her way into joining an investigation covering a murder on an asteroid. But things get complicated, and then more complicated, and then even more complicated until a whole bunch of reveals and connections are made. Top-notch stuff, other than some bizarre political posturing shoved into the midst of the text. Had me captivated start to end.

Black Stone Heart by Michael R. Fletcher

A man wakes up buried underground with no recollection of who he is — only that he can sense parts of his shattered obsidian heart scattered throughout the world and must re-absorb them to reclaim his memories. Thus begins a rather fascinating if grimdark adventure through a fantasy world that’s barely recovering generations after an earth-shattering war. There’s a great magic system, some terrific characters, and a few nice twists and turns. However, I wasn’t really buying the author’s attempt to have the main character torn between trying to become a better person now or slipping back into the terrible man he used to be. Scene after scene he’s like, “Oh I’m going to be really good… AFTER I mercilessly slaughter this person and steal their soul. But I want to be good!” The balance isn’t quite right there. Still, a gripping read that made me snap up the sequel right away.

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

What starts as an indentured servant fleeing with the child of parents who committed suicide and a wet-behind-the-ears cop who pursues her quickly becomes something far more interesting. For one, this is taking place on a giant generational world ship that’s in the middle of its 100-year journey to another planet. For another, the “world” is coming to an end because there’s this ever-expanding hole in the side of the ship that can’t be fixed. And so what we get is a sad but fascinating adventure at the very end of humanity as these people face their collective demise and try to give those last days purpose. It’s a book that got in my head, emotionally, and I had to put it down a few times because of that. But good stuff all around.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Online

DDO: Feywild mop-up on aisle 20!

With the main Fables of the Feywild storyline done — way to go, me — I wanted to mop up the remaining random quests scattered about the somewhat small countryside. First up is “Combating Corruption,” where I agreed to help a faerie by finding the corrupting force deep in the roots of a great tree.

I’d forgotten what it was like to run a “short” dungeon in this game — it’s kind of refreshing, honestly! Just run through a bunch of oversized tree roots, smash orbs, and melt packs of mobs down with arcane tempest. Good times. And hey, I actually got a really great cloak out of this quest which adds some extra hit points and seals me from any magical effect that would have otherwise insta-killed me.

Next up was “The Legend of the Lost Locket,” which sent me into an underwater grotto. With a permanent air bubble and gravity rather than swimming in full effect, this was more a cosmetic environmental change than anything else. Still, it was pretty cool.

Finally, in “The Knight Who Cried Windmill,” I followed in the steps of Don Quixote and fought an ambulatory windmill, along with an elderly knight. Ridiculous, yes, but it’s fitting in with the themes of the Feywild. And defeating it required more than just combat power — I had to lure the windmill over to certain gemmed dogs to have it squash them.