Category Archives: Lotro

The 11 Commandments of Great MMO Player Housing

Briefly, for a split second last week, I was considering re-subscribing to LOTRO for the upcoming winter season of Q4. I have loved the world of LOTRO ever since joining late in 2013 despite its many flaws and these days, I like to call it my favorite MMO that I’m not playing. There’s always that pull, the call of Middle-Earth to return to its glamorous wide vistas, its merry horse rides and romantic visits to the Prancing Pony. How I miss playing my lute, sitting on a lonely rock under a tree.

The 11 Commandments of Great MMO Player Housing

But I know myself too well and the fickle beast that is MMO nostalgia. Jumping back into LOTRO would mean jumping back to the Gates of Moria grind of the mid-40ies, dealing with an overwhelming number of features and systems that are poorly introduced to newbies and the same old static MMO combat. It would also mean dealing with the loss of my housing plot which was lackluster to begin with, yet I gave it my all to make the little hut by the waterfall somewhat comfy and welcoming. For years, I’ve hoped Turbine would up their housing game as so many have – it’s one feature that would get me to re-sub in a heartbeat, if only it were properly revamped and made accessible.

Yet once again, it’s not to be; watching the upcoming LOTRO patch features has left me forever disillusioned with this developer’s idea of a good housing system. LOTRO’s premium housing is as expensive and inaccessible as ever, not that I had my hopes up for “premium” housing in the first place. Still, it’s grinding my gears! Player housing should be an integral part of MMOs these days and yet over and over, players are being let down in this department. When will this long-awaited “future of better player housing” finally arrive?

I guess it’s fair to mention Wildstar and Black Desert Online in this context, two titles which both made laudable attempts at accessible and fun player housing in more recent years. I loved my sky plot in Wildstar, the crazy customization and design options, yet Wildstar housing is so disconnected from the rest of the world that it never quite felt like a home but rather, that side-game you go play at when you need a break from being social. That’s the issue with instanced player housing which is both a blessing and a curse in so many ways. Pearl Abyss tried to solve this very issue most expertly in BDO – yet all seamless phasing and great housing options aside, the fundamental questions of “what to do with all this stuff now?” and “what is it good for?” remain mostly unanswered.

The 11 Commandments of Great MMO Player Housing

The 11 Commandments of Great MMO Player Housing

Musing on all my gripes with player housing old and new has inspired me to come up with a definite list of commandments or guidelines to ensure housing features are a fun addition to games rather than frustration. Your mileage may vary but here go my personal commandments for great MMO housing design –

  1. Thou shalt not make your MMO housing an exclusive or expensive feature.
  2. Thou shalt not create a limited number of housing options that are up for FCFS land grabs.
  3. Thou shalt not exact weekly or monthly housing tolls / upkeep costs.
  4. Thou shalt not pre-define indoor/outdoor decoration options and location of hooks/plugs.
  5. Thou shalt not unreasonably restrict the total item number of decor items.
  6. Thou shalt allow for social sharing of housing rights and visitation.
  7. Thou shalt not disconnect housing from the rest of the outdoors / world.
  8. Thou shalt offer great variety of cosmetic customization for housing, such as layouts, colors, styles, materials and music.
  9. Thou shalt give housing a meaning beyond cosmetics, such as storage, crafting, stabling, shops and neighborhoods.
  10. Thou shalt offer housing items from various sources, such as questing, raiding, crafting and trade.
  11. Thou shalt enable players to expand their housing space over time.

And yes, this is all easier said than done. I realize, I don’t know of any MMO that meets all commandments although Ultima Online came reasonably close and I also keep hearing the praises of EQ2. Then again, I’m not looking to play 2D top-down and generally much older MMORPGs these days, sooooo……I guess I want too many things! It’s a nice thought, though.

My Favorite MMO that I’m not playing (#Blaugust 5)

This post is the first in a two-part series for Blaugust 2015. Check out tomorrow’s sequel on “MMOs we don’t like but never played”!

The trouble with MMORPGs is that player engagement tends to be mutually exclusive of other titles. Many of us cannot or do not want to invest in more than one MMO longterm nor do we wish to pay for several subscriptions simultaneously. I have found a mixture of one sub-MMO and one b2p/f2p-MMO to be quite enjoyable in the past, especially when two titles really complement each other well but truthfully, I still long to immerse myself as much as possible into that one game.

That also means sooner or later, we have to leave some MMOs behind and they’re not always games we disliked or got bored of. Sometimes our timing just wasn’t right and we were late to the party. Sometimes we miss the community from other MMOs or we just can’t put up with a single but essential aspect, such as the graphics.

Gone but never forgotten.

My absolute favorite MMORPG that I am not playing anymore is LOTRO. In fact, I would go as far as naming LOTRO among my top 5 MMOs of all time. Possibly even top 3. I came late to LOTRO in 2013, joining the inofficial EU RP server Laurelin. I stuck to it for about 6 months, joined a fellowship, did all the content up to Moria and the dreaded mid-40ies EXP grind. The world blew my mind and remains one of my favorite virtual places to this day. For all its flaws and oldschoolness, LOTRO excels in immersion, world building/feeling and travel, one of the most precious and precarious things to capture in MMOs.

I’ve written about the music and sound effects as part of this accomplishment as well as the significance of scale or realistic armor design. It’s the subtle things that create immersion in MMOs. Other than that, Middle-Earth is just one heck of a beautiful place to visit and enjoy the turning of the seasons (between zones) and the fading light at dusk.

In the end I felt lonely; after leaving my longtime WoW community, I was unable to reconnect with people in my subsequent MMO attempts. LOTRO is not the most beginner-friendly game either. Soon I was overwhelmed by different types of grind while also really disliking the slow, stationary combat.

But I will never forget my time playing and listening to music in the Prancing Pony, the claustrophobia of the Old Forest before finding Tom Bombadil or the sound of my horse’s clippity clop over Bree’s merry cobblestrone streets. Some moments in MMOs are forever, no matter if we stick with a game or not.

Latecomers and MMO Citizenship

Back from a trip to the Adriatic coast in Italy which I spent idly hanging at the beach and enjoying their wonderful food, I have been catching up with blogging neighbours and my friends in Wildstar who have of course hit level 50 while I was away. My Esper is currently still at 40 without trying very hard, so I’m in no rush to get to any endgame or attunement questchain. I still haven’t done all the 5man dungeons in Wildstar and it generally seems difficult to find a group of people interested in running them before level cap. This strikes me as weird but is probably testament to Carbine not integrating the dungeons into the leveling process very well. I remember countless Stockades, Deadmines and Gnomeregan runs back as a WoW noob, then Maraudon, Sunken Temple and all the level 55-60 dungeons we would grind on our way to vanilla level cap.

Why are players nowadays skipping dungeons on their way to max level? I’ve experienced the same in GW2 too. Sure, these games will scale your toon and skills down to the appropriate level, still it never feels like the real deal to me running designated lowbie dungeons after hitting level cap. There’s that voice in the back of my head telling me I’m a dirty cheater.

On MMO Citizenship

Commenting on one of Wilhelm’s more recent articles on friends jumping into WoW almost 10 years into its life cycle, and remembering this tweet by Scarybooster, I realized (again) how important it is for me personally to get a chance to play MMOs at launch. I can live without alpha and beta “testing” honestly but I love the spirit and mass hysteria of launch week(-ends), no matter how plagued with bugs and annoyances. This is clearly the addictive phenomenon of shared collective experiences, as much as wishing to be among the first or being a member of the first hour. As clarified over at TAGN, I’d like to grow along with a game, I want to understand where it came from and where it’s going.

Every time Bhagpuss reminisces about the good old EQ times, which he does so well, I feel a bit sad having missed that particular train. A part of me briefly wonders if I should still visit today but no, I don’t think so. There’s simply no way to catch up, to acquire a reasonably deep understanding of EQ that I would personally seek as a player. It’s not just harder to connect to long established communities in MMOs – as someone interested in the design and mechanics of games, it’s an impossible amount of historical baggage to clear through. There is no ‘citizenship’ for someone jumping into EQ in 2014, not for a long time anyway.

eq

And then there’s the matter of dated graphics…(pcgamer.com)

This is something that I have experienced in LOTRO before and it’s partly a reason why I never made it to level cap (the other part being the mind numbing exp-grind which is daunting to solo). I was never a citizen of Middle Earth the way I would’ve been, automatically, as a launch player. I could’ve gotten there one day maybe, reaching a point where I felt comfortably established. All the same I would remain someone marveling at the veteran tales told in the Prancing Pony, never partaking in any.

Granted, games today make it easier for the late player to catch up and get boosted. All MMO business models rely on a steady stream of players over several years, not just a few months. I wouldn’t say you can’t jump into Wildstar months after launch with any noteable difference. At the same time, I draw a line somewhere around the one-year mark where joining new games is concerned. This is a purely personal choice; you can absolutely enjoy older MMOs, maybe you can even commit to them in the same way as veteran players and be entirely happy with your time in that new world, the way it is right then. I just know from experience that I couldn’t be.

I’m fine missing out on certain content or events happening in MMOs, missing an entire era of gameplay (or several) however feels like skipping the first book in an otherwise excellent fantasy trilogy. MMOs do their best to appear non-linear: they’re always accessible, repeatable, resettable. Yet there are also milestones and caesuras in our virtual worlds, game changers and evolving stories. It’s not all one big broken record so as long as I enjoy the tune, I’d like to listen to all of it.

Second Skin: The perfect MMO Gear and Impact on Longterm Commitment

The other day, I had a bit of an argument with my significant other concerning folk who like to transform themselves with help of expressive or more unusual attire, often in their private time. The topic wasn’t so much cosplay but people generally wearing clothes that come with a certain message of affiliation or membership, to name more flamboyant members of the goth/black metal scene as one example. This type of expression isn’t limited to the rock’n rollers among us though; it can be found anywhere, even for more conservative interests such as golfing or hiking. Dressing up for the occasion plays an important role in many social activities and for some people it’s an integral part of who they really are.

gothscene

Probably not on their way to the golf course. (www.timeslive.co.za)

At a first glance, this might strike you as a very superficial approach to identity. Why do you need to wear a certain style to feel part of a social group or (in some cases) to communicate associated belief systems? Isn’t our heart the place of true identity? Strictly speaking that is true – it doesn’t make you any more or less of a “punk” whether you’re wearing torn jeans and a mohawk or not. Clothes and looks are deceptive and they should never be a requirement for someone to belong to whatever culture or creed they relate to. I can be committed to a set of beliefs without looking a certain way.

At the same time, clothes can be a powerful catalyst of self-expression, even self-discovery and confidence building. There’s a reason why many actors, especially method actors require authentic clothing that goes with the character they’re not just playing but becoming. Inner and outer transformation go together. There’s also a more common phenomenon of someone cutting their hair after ending a longterm relationship or getting tattooed after a great cesura in their lives. Our body is a reflection of the things that are happening to us. Some people, not all people, simply choose to include that part of themselves more actively.

Loving variety, I hold a torch for people who go for the so-called deviant styles in our society, be it a part-time thing or fulltime commitment. It takes guts to go against social conformity and nobody deserves to be written off on account of green hair or piercings. That’s one of the criteria I try to push as a recruiter too, by recommending clients keep an open mind to more colorful candidates rather than blindly trusting another picture in a grey suit and tie. At the same time, I’m trying not to fall prey to inverted snobbery; I admit I have a soft spot for people who don’t fit the corporate cookie cutter.

The perfect MMO gear

I’m neither the most imaginative nor boring dresser in real life but when it comes to my MMO avatars, I’ve always cared a great deal about customization options and cosmetics. I don’t know if this interest is more prevalent among players that treat their avatars like an alter ego but I am guessing most of us have preferences regarding their MMO character'(s) looks and have things that can throw them in/out of immersion. Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the sub-par customization options of some games and the often lackluster or ill-conceived gear choices. And so I wonder: how have my past avatars’ looks, more specifically gear approach of the MMOs I’ve played the most, affected my playing longevity? Where and when did I truly feel at home gearwise?

World of Warcraft

wowclowns

I played WoW for over 6 years and would call my experiences with its gear a very mixed bag of hits and misses. WoW made me feel epic spellcaster and disco clown in equal amounts and even the better sets I collected over that time were more hyper-stylized than I would have wanted, glorified leotards with near-zero extra customization options. Transmogrification was added just after I left and to this day Blizzard haven’t added a dye system. I guess this means gear wasn’t an integral part of my character immersion in WoW despite a few definite favorites.

Guild Wars 2

unrealgw2

To this day I’ve never played an MMO with more beautiful, aesthetically pleasing gear than GW2’s, certainly none with a better dye system. While ArenaNet could’ve offered more variety in their initial character selection, there’s not much left today that you cannot do with cosmetic and town gear. And yet, despite loving the different looks of my Elementalist, I cannot exactly claim to have been immersed in my alter ego. This is tricky to explain: to me, GW2’s gear is almost too beautiful, like a painting or wonderful piece of art to admire from afar without wishing to take it home with you. I love looking at my character but she isn’t really me, not the way I think of myself as an adventurer. What can I say, it’s complicated!

LOTRO

humblelotro

I’ve never written a post on LOTRO’s gear. Instead, I’ve praised it frequently as my personal winner of immersion in so many ways – from scale to atmosphere, scenery and sound effects. There’s an authentic quality to online Middle-Earth that’s never been reached in other games. It’s therefore probably no surprise that my favorite MMO gear too, is in fact my Lore-Master’s humble Ferrier’s Robe with its leather straps, stitched pieces of fur and merrily dangling satchels (I imagine they would dangle). Combined with a simple hood and backpack, I never felt better dressed or more ready for adventure than in LOTRO. There is countless lovingly detailed gear in the game like that, with the kind of commitment to practicality that may only be found in ESO right now. I love my character’s looks in LOTRO – more importantly, this could be me tomorrow!

Sometimes less is more, especially where immersion is concerned. However awesome gear or not, it’s probably fair to say that it’s not our character’s looks or customization options that decide over the longevity of our commitment. That doesn’t mean they do not add a lot of enjoyment to the games we’re playing though or that there aren’t certain breaking points. Playing Wildstar right now, I am back to hyper-stylized but also practical gear. Mostly, I am happy that the game doesn’t make me run around half-naked.

What was your perfect MMO gear of all time? Do you feel your character’s looks have any bearing on how much you can enjoy a title longterm? I wager more customization is always popular in MMOs, no matter how much we love cosmetics. There are limitations to what I can wear or get away with in real life, so it’s all the more important my online selves enjoy that unlimited freedom of self-expession.

With a Crying and a Laughing Eye: A Look at GOTYs of 2013 and MMOs for 2014

It’s that time of the year and we are all horribly stressed. Everyone demands things from us at work and they only just remembered, there are trips to plan and if you are very unlucky, a ton of last minute Christmas presents to buy for your more-or-less loved ones. I am looking at my Steam wish list and wonder what to gift myself. It’s quiet right now, outside the world of consoles.

Looking back on a year of gaming, 2013 was as MMO-starved as initially expected. Even Wildstar took a pass at a well-timed launch, eager to make Q2 of 2014 even more unmanageable. Only TESO has finally come forth and snatched the magic date of 04.04.2014, fingers crossed! We shall see – such are the words of wise (and burnt) MMO veterans. I gave up on Guild Wars 2 this summer after the Bazaar of the Four(thousand) Achievements event and I am still stuck at the gates of Moria in LOTRO (edro, edro!). Other than that, I’ve had a look at TERA and found it to be very beautiful and just as flawed. I played some FFXIV:ARR too, only to forget about it. Such was my year of MMORPGs.

teraaa2

In lieu of many new MMO stories to tell, I am excited for a new year packed with MMO launches and Wildstar isn’t even among them. Here go my most-anticipated MMOs of 2014:

1) The Elder Scrolls Online
While the game looks far from perfect depending on what gameplay video you watch on youtube, it shows all the flaws (ugly character models, clunky UI) of Skyrim – game of games. All things considered, I choose to trust those (as I have no choice here in the EU where no beta keys have been released) who have named it a true Skyrim experience and put my money on TESO for 2014. You can laugh and point fingers when the time comes as I’m sure you will. (I would).

2) Everquest Next & Landmark
Still unsure about how Landmark is going to work and play into EQN, I look forward to some of the design progress SOE intends to take up from GW2. Rallying Calls sound hot and the Adventurer Class finds me mildly excited. Not exactly boundless euphoria (the cartoony graphics are still a major turn-off) but I think we can expect a polished package from SOE, with some unique twists as usual. And if not, well it’s all free to play, right?

3) Archage
Another game to be published by Trion, Archage piqued my curiosity although I can’t quite say why. Maybe it’s because the entire character customization and backgrounds look like ArenaNet had some weekends to spare, or because the game is supposedly this awesome sandbox with 120 classes and non-instanced housing. I don’t care for naval combat but I admit sending other players to prison sounds appealing.

4) Skyforge
Nobody knows much about Skyforge, the fact aside that Team Allods and Obsidian Entertainment (Neverwinter Nights 2) have decided to join forces in developing a new MMO. While they didn’t bother releasing any information in English so far and the only existing “trailer” is a lot of repetitive blah in vibrant colors, I have lots of Allods love to give to this project. All that said, that 2014 launch is highly dubious.

MMOs aside, I look forward to The Witcher 3 (SO MUCH!), Dragon Age Inquisition, Child of Light and Tom Clancy’s: The Division. That last one looks like there might be some splendid coop play to be had and I need to compensate for Destiny not launching on PC.

esobridge2

This better be good!

As for my GOTYs of 2013

Outside the world of MMOs, 2013 has been a fantastic year for indie gaming. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve had the greatest fun with smaller titles this year, taking me completely aback and delivering the sort of experiences many AAA-games can only dream of. I’ve also been late to some parties in 2013 which is why not all of my personal GOTYs were actually released this year. Sue me.

1) Don’t Starve
This quirky, dark-humored and deeply complex rogue-like, with its Burton-esque flair and stellar soundtrack, is undoubtedly one of the craziest bangs for the buck of 2013. DS is a polished gem of hilarious proportions and everyone should get it! Nuff said.

2) Dust: An Elysian Tail
My great love of 2013, Dust is every bit the work of love of its tireless creator. It’s a beautiful game packed with retro and indie homage, intuitive and fun combat, deep story and loveable characters, secrets to hunt down (spoiler!) and a stunning soundtrack, making for an easy 12+ hours of gameplay at a ridiculous price. Not enough good things can be said about Dust: AET, indeed.

3) Bioshock Infinite
While much can be debated on behalf of BI’s story, there can be no doubt that it ranks among the greatest AAA-experiences of 2013. Stunning visuals, complex narrative and intriguing characters have made this rail shooter a must-play in my books (and I don’t shoot that often).

4) The Witcher 2
Rather late than never, I am currently still playing the Witcher 2 and have completely fallen in love with its characters and immersive way of story-telling. People have complained about the frequent cut scenes but you’ll hear no complaints from me. The Witcher 2 features some of the best dialogue I’ve ever seen in an RPG, a carefree way of making choices and beautiful, atmospheric settings (that to be fair, could be more completely accessible). Oh, and dragons!

5) LOTRO (my MMO saving grace!)
Impossibly late to this one, I started playing LOTRO between December 2012 and January 2013 and have been paying subscriptions ever since. Even if I’m complaining about the experience grind before Moria, LOTRO is probably among the Top 3 MMORPGs I have ever played, with hands down the most immersive MMO world I ever had the privilege to travel. Much of this is thanks to things like perfect scale and sound effects which we have yet to see in other games. Also: player music!

Looking back, I almost feel a little sad parting with 2013 now but nothing that a great new MMO can’t fix. Beware 2014, such weight already lieth on thy shoulders! Do we dare to unleash our expectations – or should we play it safe, for now?

P.S. I’ve played ‘Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons’ few days after writing this article and it is officially added to my GOTYs of 2013!

Battle Bards – Episodes #8 and #9: EQ2 and Tavern Music

It’s Battle Bards time and as usual I am looking back on the last two episodes which there were the elaborate soundtrack of Everquest 2 and a personal favorite: tavern music. The Prancing Pony is one of those oddities in the world of MMO taverns, so in case you never noticed why that is, it’s time to tune in to this latest show and hear what we’ve got to say about wandering bards, fire places and jam sessions in LOTRO, WoW and elsewhere.

ppsmall

Never has a Battle Bards episode revolved around a more fitting topic or been recorded with such perfect timing (for it was Weatherstock that same night) – one might say the podcasting stars were aligned for this one!

Episode picks:

  • “Prancing Pony” from Lord of the Rings Online, composed by Chance Thomas
  • “Tavern Rock Volume 1” from Dungeons and Dragons Online, composed by Stephen DiGregorio
  • “Tavern” from World of Warcraft, composed by Jason Hayes
  • “Spelunken und Tavernen” from Drakensang Online, composed by Tilman Sillescu and Markus Schmidt
  • “Deepwater” from World of Warcraft, composed by David Arkenstone
  • “Pub” from Ultima Online, composed by ??
  • “Inn Music” from Final Fantasy XIV, composed by Nobuo Uematsu

 
A big thanks to those who have already left us a voice message lately, we’ll be getting back to you on our upcoming shows!

A Future of better player housing – from LOTRO to Wildstar

It’s probably a fair claim that player housing is one of the most wanted features in MMOs and yet also one of the trickiest to design and often misshapen ones. While the potential of letting users create and shape their own virtual space inside a game is endless, promising not just for more social interaction but longterm player attachment, developers of past titles have often missed to include that one imperative ingredient to all housing: significance. (Interchangeable with meaning, relevance or impact.)

housing

While it’s all good fun and giggles to decorate one’s own space and collect shinies, the attraction of housing is short-lived for the average player. Instanced housing is especially bad for this but even if an MMO offers outdoor housing or neighbourhoods such as LOTRO, there are only so many times one will invite friends over to marvel at interior design or enjoy tea at the expensive, golden party table. To make player housing an effective part of the game and community, there need to be more mechanics in place to create meaning and significance. There need to be reasons enough why people would want to spend time in/around their own house, why they would want to invite each other or explore homes. You want me to care about housing longterm? Tell me why!

Different ways to create meaningful player housing in MMOs

As romantic as the idea of an ingame “home” is, my guess is most MMO players aren’t looking to simply simulate a homebase. For one thing, we already have a home (duh). Secondly, players are already likely to pick individual homes for themselves – as in their favorite city or spot on the world map. One can build attachment to any place in an MMO. What really draws us in though are those places where we meet up, interact and do business. Places that have specific social functions, which is why cities have always been the heartbeat in games. They’re where stuff happens and where we want to hang out. I do not want to go sit quietly and alone at my instanced home’s doorstep in an MMO, even if it took me five days and as many corpseruns to get that doormat.

Ever since Turbine announced their player housing revamp for this year, I’ve been pondering on all the ways to bestow more meaning on LOTRO’s current housing model and better player housing in general. LOTRO is an interesting hybrid in the sense that while the system is instanced, neighbourhoods still hold a ton of social potential. It’s quite awesome how every single home has its own unique address which you can look up at the homestead gate. Alas, Turbine too failed at digging deeper with their housing system. For what its worth, here’s my round-up of suggestions on how to spice things up in the future and make player housing a more lively and exciting part of the game:

1) Cosmetics & Personalization:
Indoor and outdoor (yard) design should be a given. Design slots should be completely flexible within a building grid, similar to Minecraft. Do not force players to only put up “one painting per wall” or having to plant “small items in small slots, big items in big slots”. It’s limiting and makes decor feel generic.

Rather than offering x types of homes, let players build individual homes based on resources and property boundaries. Introduce painting, weaving, carpentering and farming professions. Make room and level expansions possible.

Feature nifty items such as a personal mailbox, message board, personal indoor tune, bookshelves (Skyrim), complete collectible themes/styles, quest/raid/guild trophies, pet barns and stables. LOTRO features an amazing score of collectible mounts, yet players cannot have any of them on display?

2) Social tools & opportunities
Instanced or not, every player home should have its unique address that can be looked up by others in a public “address book”. As an ever-curious and nosy explorer, I do not only enjoy traveling into the blue but looking up destinations an seeking out specific places. How about some yellow pages where home owners can add notes on what services or special features they offer?

Making a personal mailbox a requisite in order to receive any ingame mail comes to mind as a next step. Similarly extreme would be the measure of removing the auction house and instead letting players set up shops and vendor NPCs on their property, as was done in UO (and long is the list of players who worship it). Player shops create traffic and interaction, greatly increase the significance of professions and generate income for the owner. While we’re at it – remove banks too and make player houses the only place for safe storage!

Homes should be hubs for trade, gathering and crafting in general. Spending time on building and tending to the environment could each go with specific rewards and buffs. There are some great new ideas in Wildstar’s recent housing dev talk. Furthermore, player houses in the same area should be able to form mini-towns and unlock more features such as townhalls with special quests, market places with unique wares and the option to build custom event stages. Mini-towns could set up donation boxes in order to receive public funding for bigger buildings. Pecuniary administration is of course handled by the town-members elected major.

…Naturally, not all of these ideas are novel and some are obviously already live in LOTRO; however imagining all of them come together and taking it further, one can only muse how deep the rabbit hole of player housing may reach. There’s an untapped goldmine there if a developer is willing to take some bold steps and abandon a  few popular and convenient features that MMO players take for granted nowadays – being able to do and access anything from anywhere among them. It is impossible to restore meaning without limiting certain services in the game in favor of players frequenting their own and each others homes. Too long have city-dwelling NPCs taken over our virtual interactions. Just imagine: riding down your home street in LOTRO to do business at the market square, passing smoking chimneys (representing occupation) and busy neighbours laboring in their front yard. A micro-cosmos of its own. Where do I sign up?

A word on scale

While the recently published Wildstar update is very exciting, there is one thing that irritated me in the video documentary. What I’m talking about is scale which sadly seems to be off in Wildstar’s housing structures and related items, just the way scale is completely off in Guild Wars 2 – something I have lamented since day one. As great as monumental gates and streets made for giants seem at first, and Divinity’s Reach certainly is impressive, an off-balance environment scale in MMOs creates detachment. It feels unnatural and unauthentic in greater quantity. I do not want to sit in chairs that are three times too big for me or open doors that dwarf elephants. It’s hard to immerse myself while going through a Goldilocks experience. It’s not what I personally associate with a cosy home and it doesn’t create the atmosphere I feel when entering my small hut in LOTRO which is exactly the size it should be in relation to who’s supposed to inhabit it. Therefore, dear devs please take note: bigger isn’t always better!

hlp

That aside, I look forward to see Wildstar’s flying islands go live. They’ve yet to prove that having homes up in the sky is a good idea, but Carbine are making the biggest buzz about their housing right now and it’s nice to see developers taking this aspect so seriously. I am also super antsy for LOTRO’s update and hope to see a great many changes! To my fellow Middle-Earth travelers: what housing improvements would you like to see most? And what are people’s top must-haves for future player housing? May Wildstar herald much more goodness yet to come!

Tunes of Magic V – My top 10 songs to play in LOTRO

It’s been way too long since my last soundtracks roundup! For this fifth episode, I’m doing something a little different, namely introducing my 10 favorite tunes to play in LOTRO, on the harp or lute. And yes, if you follow twitter you may already have seen this – so this is for all my non-avian readers.

I’m a big fan of LOTRO’s ingame music feature; alas, unfortunately I am no fan at all of 90% of the player created music I get to hear in Bree or during questing in Middle Earth. Many songs picked by players are either out of tune and/or rhythm, or then they are simply misplaced in a fantasy themed game. No, I do not want to hear Lady Gaga’s latest hit when stopping in the Prancing Pony! I’m frankly surprised that playing on an RP server is no protection from this type of acoustic abuse.

Naturally, original LOTRO tunes aside, it’s either videogame or film soundtrack that works best for your musical performance. As the required .abc/.txt files for LOTRO are midi based, that is limiting your song choices. It certainly helps being a retro VG music nut like myself when browsing available tunes online. I’ve also attempted my own conversions with the Midi Converter but it’s not nearly as simple as it looks to get good results (generally classic/piano version midis work better). There are only a handful of libraries online, such as the Songbook of Laurelin (great for band pieces and folklore), Lotro ABC and the resurrected but unfinished Fat Lute.

My current solo favorites can all be downloaded at Lotro ABC for your convenience. With the exception of Ultima, they are all from classic console JRPGs, mostly composed by the unsurpassed Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu. All of my picks play extremely well in LOTRO and fall under the general category of “pensive and quiet tunes”. I regularly attract a crowd playing these in the Prancing Pony, so I happily share them with anyone desperate to find beautiful tunes that work well with barding in LOTRO. Enjoy my picks and spread the love! Let me know if you have similar recommendations and a merry weekend to all of you!

Off the Chest: Midlevel and Endgame Grinds no thanks, I rather have a Castle!

otc

My time is currently divided between different games, namely LOTRO, GW2 and Minecraft, which warrants this mixed topic today. While my MC enthusiasm went through a big time revival this past weekend, my LOTRO journey is somewhat stagnant as I fight (and struggle) my way through the early 40ies with the Loremaster – an interesting class I am still enjoying a great deal. As for Guild Wars 2…well, let’s say that relationship has somewhat cooled down of late.

Of midlevel grinds and music in LOTRO

I currently find myself stuck in the dilemma of preferring a musical performance in Bree over returning to my quest hub in the Misty Mountains. While progress was smooth on the Loremaster for the first 30 levels or so, things started getting sluggish in Trollshaws which is a beautiful map with wonderful music, but also features highly annoying ravines to navigate and badly paced quests. To add salt to the wound, you don’t get any swift travel to Rivendell before level 40 which pretty much cured me of caring about any of House Elrond’s or Bilbo’s riddle quests. There’s only so many times I can bear riding through the Bruinen and up those hills.

I’ve been told by LOTRO veterans that it’s the mid-levels that really get to you, so I guess that’s what’s happening at the moment. I really want to experience the Moria that Spinks is talking about though and reach the improved gameplay of Rohan which is supposedly a much better compromise between oldschool fedex grind and what we call adventuring in 2013. Still, the next 10 levels will be a drag and require numerous visits to the Prancing Pony (I have established quite a nice track list by now!) in an attempt to restore my sanity.

What needs to be pointed out again at this point: the music feature in LOTRO is the best thing ever! As the Ancient Gaming Noob justly asks, why do not all MMORPGs copy this already? Hellou? There are three great LOTRO features I expect all future games to have at release: player instruments, immersive sound effects and player housing!

My home, my castle

Coming down with the GW2 blues

I’ve mentioned being cranky about the pace at which ArenaNet are fixing some long overdue technicalities. While there is finally armor preview for the market place (and such a revolution it is), you still cannot search your own armor class there – and before you ask, NO you still can’t take screenshots in first person view! I get asked about this a lot when tweeting screenshots; what I do is make my character lie down and pick camera angles accordingly.

However, the small details aren’t really my biggest concern, annoying as they may be. Well-elaborated on by Bhagpuss, there’s a gradual change happening in GW2 that has announced itself some time ago and that’s slowly redirecting the game towards the textbook, endgame gear-grind we know by heart. For someone who was inspired by an open world, non-grind premise, someone who isn’t into farming dungeons, the crafting grind or alting, for someone like me basically, it gets increasingly difficult to find a purpose in Tyria. There is only so much exploration you can do and as I continuously fail to join lasting guilds, running dungeons or fractals with strangers isn’t something I choose to spend time on (as I would not be running them for gear primarily).

What this really shows us is that more open world games also need sandbox elements and tools in the long term – which are sadly missing completely. If ANet added only a few features that LOTRO has for example, that would make a world of difference to me personally. Alas, all I can do at this point is wait for the Living Story to continue, hoping it will evolve into the significant content Wooden Potatoes is referring to. Maybe I should consider guesting?

A Castle in Minecraft

Over a year ago, I burned myself out on Minecraft spending enormous amounts of time on learning everything there was to learn and building a huge fantasy castle up in the sky. Mostly, building that huge castle, really. And how could you not create your dream place in a game that offers that much freedom?

A ton of time and care for details went into that little project; ever since, I wanted to make a documentary of the finished thing but never got around to it. Well, now that all public voice-angst is off the table after Monday’s post, I finally put the full castle tour on youtube and here it is, including a big GEEK ALERT –

I love how much you can do with texture packs in Minecraft. As can probably be told from the video, I am a sucker for interior design; decorating and making places cosy has always been a bit of a thing for me. Back in school as a teen I wrote a paper on why I wanted to become an interior designer. I even went to interview an interior architect for it. Of course I didn’t become a designer after all but it’s still something I revel in when given the opportunity in real life or virtual. I also noticed from many other MC fanvids on youtube that the focus often lies more on the exterior – building whole towns and planning complex, large scale structures which are often somewhat empty inside. I’m exactly the other way around.

I’m happy to finally have this place immortalized for myself and those who helped me build it (mostly chopping away at the big mountain it once was). And maybe someone out there can get some creative ideas out of it after all. Minecraft really is a goldmine when it comes to tapping a player base’s creativity and the wish to spread and share ideas. If only more MMO designers adopted some of its virtues.

P.S. If you got all WoW and other game references in this video, you are just as geeky as I am!

[LOTRO] Putting a Finger on the Magic

Have you ever felt like a complete fraud while playing an MMO? As if you were the world’s biggest newb, way behind and knew nothing about this longtime interest of yours? That’s a bit how I’ve felt ever since playing Lord of the Rings Online. What on earth was I thinking not playing this sooner? What’s wrong with me?? Sigh.

I can’t turn the clock back and maybe it isn’t always the worst thing to let an MMO mature before jumping in. Still, I find myself baffled at how great a game LOTRO has become while so many of us were busy playing WoW, Rift and other titles, probably thinking this Tolkien-inspired soon-free-to-play game couldn’t quite cut it. How wrong I was.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the magic that makes LOTRO. By now I can say it’s possibly the most atmospheric and immersive MMO world I’ve ever traveled. This isn’t hyperbole; I wish I could say WoW had been as good at selling the experience – or Final Fantasy, Age of Conan, Rift or Guild Wars 2. But even that last one cannot quite compete and it’s not about the graphics. Tyria is the most visually stunning world there is. But Turbine’s Middle-Earth does something to the senses none of the others do – so well, you are willing to ignore other undeniable shortcomings. What’s going on here?

The Sound of Magic

Simply put, it’s the sound. It’s the fabulous sound effects in LOTRO that make it that much more immersive compared to other MMOs. It actually took me playing this game to realize something fundamental about us as human beings: just how much of our processing and understanding of the world around us relies on sounds. You will raise an eyebrow now, thinking “well of course, duh” – but think about it! We’re one of the few species that value their eyesight before all else. We’ve shaped our entire world, our society and culture around the function of our “first sense”. We live in a very visual world where we constantly judge how pretty things and people are. We are untrained and crippled when it comes to our hearing capacity. The experiences and sensitivity of blind people fascinate us.

And yet our brain registers, records and categorizes sounds nonstop without us realizing. Hearing requires no conscious effort; it happens in spite of us, there’s no closing our ears. Because of that, sounds are closely linked to everything we experience in our lives, even if we don’t know it. They are a constant undercurrent, the way smells and odours can be. And like those they can trigger emotional responses and memories.

“Half of the world building in MMOs relies on us completing the picture with our own mental imagery. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy.”

We know how a river sounds or wind howling around a corner. We know the tune of morning birds compared to evening birds. Most importantly, we know how places sound; it is not enough to add a soundclip or two to create a virtual environment. It takes an entire orchestra to create that real sense and association with “world”.

We know how a forest sounds. A beach. A farm. There’s cracklings and rustlings, whistling and jingling, huffing and puffing, japping and blabbering all simultaneously coming from different directions and sources. Plus, that sound canvas changes constantly as we move around. Our world does not consist of static, isolated sound bites. LOTRO captures that.

The Sound of Bree

The first time I rode my horse through the town of Bree, I was delighted at the “sound” of it; the low muttering, combined with jingling harness and the merry clap-clap of hooves on cobblestone. Around us, the town added its very own tune to the melody: carts being pushed around, NPC chatter, hammering, bells, fountains, birds in the blue sky above. Different sounds and noises around every corner. It was overwhelming authenticity. And oddly soothing.

That’s when it struck me: this immense, untapped potential that is sound in most MMOs. Not ambient and background music, as much as I love those too – but intentional, planned out and distinctive sound effects and “maps”. Whenever I approach a swamp or forest in LOTRO, I am already looking forward to the multi-dimensional (or -sensual) experience. Amazingly it carries even further: thanks to the quality of sounds, I can actually smell the forest in LOTRO. That third sense, forever out of a videogame’s reach, becomes tangible. The audio and visuals create such an impact together that my mental memory of forests triggers an idea, a hint of typical forest smells. This is truly powerful stuff.

The scent of sweet bark mixed with turf. Just a hint of rotten leaves and murky water.

Landscaping Sounds

Middle-Earth is the most authentic and plausible MMO world imaginable. You could attribute that to Tolkien’s legacy, the detailed lore, yet bringing that to life in an MMO is no given. It’s just as hard as world building is for all games. And yet the answer seems simple: making use of your player base’s mental triggers and associations. Taking lessons from how we process real world and translating that into game design.

No matter if an MMO simulates real world environments or more fictional, fantastic places, developers should take LOTRO’s example to heart; game worlds are as much about distinctive sound/noise compositions as they are about landscaping, zone design or sophisticated weather effects. Make your trip as multi-dimensional as you possibly can for biggest impact.

I would never want to miss this focus again in any MMO. Already I dread future comparisons. And yeah, LOTRO could do with better character models, a UI revamp and a complete questing and combat overhaul. But oh the sceneries, the travel and the sound effects of LOTRO are a one-of-a-kind package most other MMOs can only dream of! For those who have eyes to see. And especially ears to hear.