LOTRO and the overdose of the questing system

If you ever look at the sales page for a LOTRO expansion or a loading screen advertisement for a zone or expansion, inevitably the very first thing that will be mentioned on the feature point list is the sheer number of quests that this pack unlocks. Two, five, six hundred new quests — this sort of thing is not uncommon to see.

Born in the World of Warcraft era, Lord of the Rings Online grabbed on to the former’s questing system and used it — as most MMOs have since — as the backbone of its narrative and gameplay operations. Quests drove nearly everything: progress, loot acquisition, story, movement.

And out of all of those quest-happy games, those WoW clones, LOTRO seems to have gorged more than most on quests. Apart from its lauded and generally more involving epic story questlines, regular quests have served as filler rather than flavor. I think they were more flavor back in the early years of the expansion — just go play through the Shire’s quests if you want to see a wide variety of tales told and activities performed via quests. These days, quests seem there to give us something to do. To pad out the time. To make that feature list tally seem all that more impressive.

So has LOTRO overdosed on quests? I can’t even fathom how many total quests there are in the game to date, but it has to be over 10,000. Your enjoyment of the game is relative to how much you like — or can tolerate — a barrage of quests. Conversely, the number of alts that one makes seems to go down the more quests you do on your main character (and subsequently realize that you will have to do with the next one).

The developers have created an interesting pattern in the last several zones and expansions. Really, this goes way way back, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, especially going through Minas Morgul. The pattern goes somewhat like this:

  • You’ll arrive at a new zone or quest hub and hoover up four to eight quests waiting for you there.
  • Sometimes, one of those quests will be “complete 6 quests for Sir Questsalot,” which then triggers a whole bunch more rings (quest icons) over NPCs.
  • You’ll start working on the quests, most of which overlap in territory, while accepting a handful of new quests out on the landscape.
  • Turning in these quests, you’ll get even more quests that will, more often than not, have you go back to the *same* area you were just in. A third batch of quests will repeat this, often culminating with a mini-boss fight.
  • You’ll rinse-and-repeat at a quest hub until you finally exhaust all of the missions and are led — via a quest or two — to the next hub.

LOTRO’s developers obviously love the areas and cities they’ve created, and you know this because of how long they’ll keep you puttering about in a particular area. I’ve been slowly working my way up the terraces of Minas Morgul over several nights now, and I can tell you that it’s almost a joke how many quests keep sending me back to the same spots, just for different objectives.

It’s how the game is. It’s not a horrible thing, understand. Filler can be satisfying, in a way. Sometimes those quests prove individually interesting or tell a cool story. There’s a sense of advancement and progression. You can do a lot of things when you’re getting rewarded for it. And it is a great feeling to come back to a hub and unload a half dozen or more quest turn-ins in one go.

But sometimes… sometimes I get weary of the sheer volume of quests, which is why I wrote that post on streamlining the game for alts a few weeks ago. MMOs like The Secret World have instilled in me a much deeper appreciation for multi-stage quests that are fewer in number but boast more narrative and greater involvement. They feel like the name that these are given — quests.

After all, in Lord of the Rings, the Quest was given a capital letter to signify its magnitude, its journey, and its effort. Grabbing a handful of flowers in three minutes to shove into the hand of a bored elf doesn’t seem to merit the same name.

Battle Bards Episode 158: Winter returns

Do you feel a little… frozen this winter season? Winter is something amazing to behold, especially when video game composers attempt to capture its unique magic in their songs. Today, let the Battle Bards warm up your bones and your ears with tunes from the snowy vales and icy wastes of MMORPGs!

Episode 158 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Another World (Winter Journey)” from Aion, “The Long Winter” from Asheron’s Call 2, and “Sorceress of Melted Snow” from Allods Online)
  • “Sea of Snow” from Runes of Magic
  • “Violet’s First Adventure” from RuneScape
  • “The Snow Falls” from Pantheon
  • “Winter Night Crystal” from Black Desert
  • “Ice Cave (Day)” from Trickster Online
  • “A Perfect Snowball” from Spiral Knights
  • “Dazzling Snow” from Ragnarok Online
  • Which one did we like most?
  • Listener notes: Liraven and Spookydonkey24
  • Jukebox Picks: “Floor 2-2” from Streets of Rogue, “Main Theme” from The Invisible Hours, and “Holders of Power” from Ys 1 & 2
  • Outro (feat. “Winter Wonderland” from Ashes of Creation)

What do MMORPGs need to do in 2020?

It’s really starting to sink in that we are not only in the final days of this year, but of this decade as well. For me, the concept of decade identity got lost when we moved out of the 1990s, but still, the passage of 10 years is significant. We were in a different place in 2010 as a world and culture, and I certainly would not have anticipated being where I am at today.

But instead of looking back, today I want to look ahead. When we turn the calendar page to January 1st, 2020, a full new year of gaming developments will lie ahead. 2019 was so-so when it came to MMORPGs — we had some great expansions and the return of City of Heroes, but we also didn’t see much in the way of new launches. We need new blood to mix in with the old, because these aging titles are being asked to bear more and more of the responsibility for carrying the genre while the next generation is in development.

So here’s what I want to see happen with MMOs in 2020 — and what I think needs to happen:

New games need to get out there and launch

I’m not advocating launching titles half-baked and before they are ready, but seriously, we have had some games in development for five, six, seven years now. We’ve paid into Kickstarters back in 2012, 2013, 2014 that still haven’t seen the light of day. And the community is HUNGRY for a major launch (heck, just look at how exciting WoW Classic’s launch proved to be). I’m willing to be patient and wait, but out of all of the crop of upcoming titles, we have to be close to a few big-name ones ready to pull the trigger.

Older titles have to come up with reasons to keep us engaged

I think a lot of players are more than willing to come back to games provided that there is something genuinely exciting to see and do. Whether that’s a revolutionary expansion, a new type of server, player created content, new systems, better business models, or what have you, these studios can’t sit idle and ride out that long tail. A new year means a chance to set a vision for that year and stir up the playerbase for a great journey ahead.

Dead games should be revived

If City of Heroes and various emulators showed us anything last year, it’s that there is a big community out there that is more than eager to jump back into deceased MMOs if someone revives them. Emulators are more than glad to try to keep things alive, but companies would be smart to do that officially and help preserve these titles while making some easy revenue.

Also, Fallen Earth needs to come back in its upgraded form.

Developers should be more communicative

Some studios overdo this, sure, but the ones that are too silent and sporadic with communication — SSG and ArenaNet are two that immediately leap to mind — there needs to be more consistent and frequent talk from the devs to the playerbase. Bad things happen when players are kept in the dark too long.

The Outer Worlds completed! …and final thoughts

By December 2nd, one of the four major gaming goals that I set for the month had already been finished. I wrapped up The Outer Worlds after playing it for the majority of November, sitting back in a bittersweet satisfaction as the end credits told me of the fallout from my adventures.

Perfect game? Nah, but I didn’t expect it to be. Most fun new game I played this year? Definitely. The Outer Worlds was everything I hoped to gain from a Fallout/Futurama/Firefly hybrid, delivering a compact and satisfying experience in a narratively rich setting. I’ll agree with some viewpoints that I’ve heard — namely, that the runtime is short, the normal difficulty setting is rather easy (especially after the first planet or so), and some of the mechanics aren’t as explored as others.

I consider the virtues of The Outer Worlds to be much greater than their flaws, however. There was so much detail in these small areas that I enjoyed combing through every inch of the game. The crew I picked up was entertaining and extremely memorable, especially after going through their own side stories. And I felt as though I usually had enough options to roleplay and game the way I wanted to.

Sometimes I would make a save and then try out different choices to see what would happen, and more often than not, the devs had clever responses to those choices. You can be downright scandalous in this game while still being a nominal hero, but I would imagine that most players went through as I did — largely choosing the more virtuous options and trying to make everyone happy.

The final act of the game contained two huge storytelling beats that had great potential to be explored in future DLC or expansions or sequels, and I truly hope that Obsidian is hard at work on more of this game universe. I definitely want to adventure more in Halcyon and perhaps get the gang back together for one more ride.

Great game. Very satisfied with my purchase and will probably be doing another playthrough in a year or so when I’ve forgotten some of the details. I hope that this title gets its fair share of end-of-the-year awards from press outlets and fans, because I strongly feel it deserves it.

Sunday Serenade: FFVIII, Ape Escape 3, Timesplitters 2, and more!

Time for another Sunday morning dose of random songs that I’ve been listening to this past week! Welcome to Sunday Serenade — now let’s crank the jams up with…

“The Extreme” from FFVIII — True story, this came up on my playlist right when I was fighting a rather epic boss battle in FFXIV. Worked pretty well for that setting, too. It’s one of the better Final Fantasy boss themes.

“Theme” from Moorhuhn 2 — Because what techno really needs is a lot of chicken clucks. Superb.

“Biotope” from Zero Escape — Mello synth trance… really relaxing while giving just enough energy and beat to make me want to get up and get moving.

“Wild West” from TimeSplitters 2 — This one starts with a tense high noon standoff… and eventually transforms into a powerful action riff that’s steeped in all of the best western musical tropes. Shockingly good stuff.

“Village” from Monster Girl Quest — Upbeat village tune plus natural-sounding acoustic guitar equals a win in my book.

“Western Village” from Ape Escape 3 — Goofy, light-hearted track hits a lot of those western musical tropes. It’s also a total earworm, so beware before you listen to it!

“Rome” from Asterix (Gameboy) — This tune represents exactly why the Gameboy sound is so beloved. It’s unique and… gutteral. It’s just terrific.

LOTRO’s Minas Morgul is a dark horse 2019 MMO expansion

When we get to the end of 2019 — which isn’t that far away, mind you — there will be some talk about the best MMO expansions this year. And there were quite a few good ones, from FFXIV: Shadowbringers to ESO: Elsweyr to SWTOR: Onslaught. In fact, lots of good word-of-mouth from many expansions this year. But what will probably be overlooked, both for the game’s age and the relative quiet rollout of the product, is LOTRO: Minas Morgul.

And the more I play it, the more I feel that this ignorance is a shame, because SSG’s content team really brought their best to this pack. The early Mordor Besieged bit was take-it-or-leave-it, in my opinion, but it really picked up when the expansion moved into Morgul Vale.

I think it’s a combination of factors that is making this expansion not just likable but much more player friendly than LOTRO has been since Mordor came out a couple of years ago. If I had to put my finger on it, I would say the factors were:

  • A big bump in gear power, maybe the biggest I’ve seen from an expansion or epic story update. Getting up to gear level 400 makes a HUGE difference in time-to-kill of mobs.
  • Fewer areas that are overpopulated with enemy mobs. This was a big problem in Mordor and even in pockets of the Vale of Anduin, where it would be impossible to pull a mob without getting an additional seven friends joining in the fight.
  • A visually striking zone that, while “evil” and corrupted in theme, is still very interesting to look at and navigate, unlike Mordor’s oppressive gloom.
  • Some very interesting quest lines that tell stories with twists and fun developments.
  • Plenty of milestones and stable masters to aid navigation.

I can’t help but continually compare it to Mordor and find this expansion vastly superior in almost every way. About my only complaint is that the solo versions of the dungeons that are required for the quest lines can be lengthy and a mite bit difficult, although I haven’t hit a wall anywhere yet that has required an urgent SOS to guildies.

I’m going to reserve final judgment for the expansion until I get into the Minas Morgul city proper — I’ve been doing all of the “around” stuff first. As long as the city isn’t too difficult to get through with tight quarters and mob density, I think this expansion might well be the dark horse of 2019’s releases.

FFXIV’s aether currents are a better way to handle flying in MMORPGs

When The Burning Crusade added flying to World of Warcraft back in 2007, we all felt like it was the most liberating move the game had done yet. Having the ability to move about freely and explore this game world in a new way was a heady rush — and one that hasn’t really gone away since. I had previously loved City of Heroes’ flight for many of the same reasons: it was a boon to explorers, it was convenient, and it was simply fun.

And while flight is exhilarating to be sure, it introduces a significant problem into MMOs. By using flight, players can simply bypass the landscape obstacles, journey, and challenges below. Questing ends up being a helicopter experience of flying in safety to a spot, landing and doing the objective, and then airlifting out. Danger is vastly reduced and the sense of going on an actual quest, complete with meaningful travel, is eliminated. This isn’t even touching on another issue, which is that flight removes the player distance-wise from the crafted landscape and keeps them from getting immersed into the world that developers have made.

World of Warcraft has struggled with what to do with flying ever since Burning Crusade due to these issues. Flying is fun, but in non-superhero settings it doesn’t seem to work when left toggled on all of the time. Blizzard has erred on the side of grounding players for a long long time and then making them doing a lengthy grind with each expansion just to “earn back” flying. That has rankled players and feels like a clumsy solution.

Now that I’ve been going through Heavensward in FFXIV, I’m inclined to agree with my MOP colleague Eliot — Square Enix developed a much better solution with aether currents. The idea here is that flying is unlocked on a zone-by-zone basis, with the only requirements being a handful of quests and locating ten or so floating misty orbs on the map. Since both the locations and quests are discovered as you go through the main storyline, there’s no way to blitz ahead and unlock it too early. But around the time you finish up the main storyline in that zone, flying is unlocked for future use there, and so it doesn’t feel like it took that long to accomplish.

It’s a Goldilocks scenario: Neither too long nor too short. You do have to spend some time grounded, but I never am resentful of this because I feel like at every step, I’m earning that flight. I don’t get the impression that the developers are yanking away my privileges. After all, FFXIV is a game that’s all about unlocking features, one step at a time, and this fits into that format well.

I wouldn’t mind seeing this sort of approach spread to other fantasy MMORPGs with flying, to be honest. It is a darn sight better than what Blizzard is stubbornly clinging to with WoW.