Category Archives: Lotro

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.

It’s a new day with so much to play!

Steam sales. Yes, we have all done it over these past few days – I know you have and so have I. Steam has been rather awesome for a while but the direction the platform has taken of late is fabulous from my humble end-user perspective; easy browsing (too easy!), purchasing and gifting games to folk on your friendlist, automatic updates, trailers and demos all in one spot, public wishlists and screenshot galleries….and now with the new big picture portal I have even re-plugged a gamepad to my PC. I used to think that XBOX live showed the rest of the console world how online is done properly – the same can be said for Steam and PC gaming. As somebody who has always looked forward to multiplatform, digital gaming instead of dusty boxes piling up on my attic, I am very pleased with this new era. That doesn’t even touch on the fact that with Steam I feel more like I’m paying my money to the right people, aka developers.

What this platform does so well is what amazon, youtube and similar sharing, networking and self-publishing sites have done for a while: check out what others are playing, read your buddies’ recommendations, browse similar titles, genres and special bundles. Before you know it, you own so many games you don’t know where to start! Which brings me to the inevitable topic of excess. I guess it fits our overall lifestyle in the western world that we now increasingly “nibble” at our games, try more of them but finish less. I don’t know if this is good or bad; I remember how I saved up my allowance as a child to afford a new SNES RPG, playing it to death for weeks. Games were more expensive then, too.

Today, I might finish one game out of three. Does that mean I enjoy myself less? I am not so sure. With more choice and variety, I actually get to keep my enjoyment level fairly high. I have the flexibility to switch to something else when the same level or riddle frustrate or bore me. At the same time, avoiding frustration all the time is to avoid that feeling of epic win; of being victorious over tedious obstacles. That is an old discussion we know so well from MMO design too. Still, do we all need to play games in the same way? Do we take pleasure from the same type of “win”?

A Trip back to Middle-Earth

After thoroughly enjoying the new Hobbit movie in cinema, hands down the biggest fun I’ve had over the Christmas holidays (during which I was ill with a nasty flu, yay) was with Lego Lord of the Rings. Yeah, that surprised me too! Being my first Lego title due to popular bias, the huge care, love for detail and humor that has gone into bringing the movie trilogy to life with Lego characters is simply stunning. Lego LOTR is straightforward gameplay fun, sticking very closely to the beautiful settings and script of Peter Jackson’s films, while surprising you with creative ideas and funny details around every corner. I finished the whole storyline in about 15 hours, after which I had discovered only 30% of the entire world and open world mode got unlocked. The fully explorable map of Middle-Earth is packed with more secrets, puzzles and playable characters to recruit (75 in total!). That last one was a neat flashback of the fun I’ve had with an old RPG called Genso Suikoden. What else can I say, if you’re at all into Tolkien’s world and the LOTR movies, forget your lego bias and give this game a try!

As if that wasn’t enough Tolkien for a week, I finally decided to put my money where my mouth is and give Lord of the Rings Online a try. It’s one of maybe three MMOs I’ve been meaning to play forever (together with Vanguard and FF14) but different issues kept me from it. One of them was probably timing; when LOTRO came out I was still deeply into WoW. Way too much about this new title looked similar to WoW’s approach at first sight, for example the questing system. I am also not actually a die-hard Tolkien fan. Anyways, by now I can say that no MMO I’ve ever tried was actually “just like WoW” (the way some people claim): Allods is not like WoW, Rift is not WoW and LOTRO too is not WoW. They just share basic features like all MMOs have to.

After a few hours of gameplay (and rerolling on Laurelin EU RP server), I decided to upgrade my account to VIP status for three months and give this game a fair chance. I am still taking in newbie impressions, so suffice to say that LOTRO already managed to surprise me. I am loving the oldschool feel of this MMO both in setting and gameplay approach. I struggle with the combat quite a bit and have a feeling this isn’t the game’s strong suit. Questing is very linear and a rather uneventful fetch&delivery routine so far. The world on the other hand is absolutely massive (travel gets a new meaning) and lives from its community – which is really what I’m interested in with LOTRO. There is something very soothing about playing my Loremaster, dabbling at crafts and hobbies, stopping at inns and listening to music being played by real players. At this point I should also apologize for having called this game ugly in the past: I don’t know what Turbine have done since launch but on my current PC with max settings LOTRO, dated as it may be, is still a beautiful game with lots of nice details for today’s standards (click image to expand!) –

As you can tell from above screenshot, I am currently parked in Bree and undecided where to go next. So far all general chat on my server is very quiet. I don’t know if Kinships are a must in LOTRO from the get-go (tips welcome) or whether I am missing something. Hopefully I will find more chances to interact soon. I look forward to explore more of this world. LOTRO is not exactly the most self-explanatory or beginner friendly of MMOs in many respects (which does not have to be a bad thing).

Musings on 2013

Looking at my full Steam library and having recently resigned from a job that has drained all my energy, creativity and joy in life for the past few months, my wishes for 2013 are very humble: to do more of what I enjoy, to be more me again. Odd how that always seems to be such a difficult task.
I hope to find a more fulfilling (or at least less soul-destroying) work place soon and I look forward to having more time for writing again, gaming and other new projects – one of which may very well be a collaborative gaming&geek culture blog in the German speaking hemisphere (something that is still very under-represented compared to English sites and communities).

I have always wished to turn my different passions into a living, at least a part time gig, and I feel geek culture deserves more serious voices here in the heart of Europe. You may think mainstream media are conservative over in the UK or US still but when it comes to gaming, art and entertainment, both younger and older audiences around here don’t have many places to turn to and platforms to share in, unless they speak English. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while anyway and tackling blogging in my mother tongue would assist me in professionalizing it where I’m living. I’ve had people tell me about monetizing and different options before, but so far I never felt this was the way to go for this little blog here.

This turned out to be a very editorial post, which I guess is warranted after a quiet December and in presence of the new year that is 2013. These artificial boundaries we create for time have their upside in symbolism. I like a blank page before me, I always have. And with that I wish all of you a belated, very happy new year, filled with time and opportunity to be yourself and do the things that matter to you most. Now I have some catching up to do on my blogroll!

P.S. If nothing else, you should absolutely check out the current, amazing indie bundle up on Steam! It doesn’t get much better than this!