Eden … without the nudity or snake

Horhoin, Dwarf Hunter on the occasion of his 50th level.So I finally made 50 in LotRO. This is no small feat for a player who, of late, has become increasingly casual.

In celebration of this great occasion, I shall now rant.

LotRO, has so much potential to be more than it is. But it falls short. I imagine to myself the lead designer saying, “OK, now let’s add fun!” Everyone else hears, “OK, we’re done!” and packs up to go home.

LotRO is a lot like an omelet without cheese and pork. A cottage, without an ocean or a lake. Eden, without nudity and a snake.

But let me explain …

Players, it is said, are divided among four categories:

  • Achievers feverishly work to complete the game.
  • Explorers seek the furthest reaches and finest details of the game.
  • Socializers look to interact with other players.
  • Killers thrive on conflict and competition..

I think most players are some combination of all four categories … perhaps with different weightings depending on the genre, the game and even their mood.

I think elements of all four are required to achieve the criticality that brings an MMO to life. Perhaps I’m bastardizing Bartle’s view of the (virtual) world, but I believe LotRO only addressed the needs of one of the four groups: Achievers.

Achievers thrive on the grind. Give them a mountain, and they’ll climb it (“because it’s there”). And LotRO has done the grind very well. The work to reach level cap isn’t really that onerous. There are (now) plenty of solo quests to see you the entire way through. The quests have wonderful narrative. And LotRO even tries out some novel quest mechanics (“avoid the nosey hobbits”, for example).

But honestly, it isn’t fun. I pretty much ignore the quest text. The quests really only come in only a few flavors: kill X of Y (or the closely related, kill Y to obtain X of Z); click on X at dangerous place B; move from A to B (carrying C) without aggro from Z.

In terms of kill X of Y, there’s nothing special about LotRO. The last useful combat skill I received (prior to L50) was Merciful Shot at 30. That’s 20 levels (and many months) to use one static combat algorithm.

Here’s my combat algorithm (solo):

  • Stance Precision ON
  • If multiple mobs: lay trap
  • If tough mobs (or in a hurry): Use fire oil
  • If tough mobs: Focus! (enables merciful shot later)
  • If really really tough mobs: Eat Lembas
  • Swift Bow (two arrows, long warm-up, easily interrupted)
  • 2. Core combat.
  • …Quick Shot (low damage)
  • …Merciful Shot (heavy damage, requires focus)
  • If Target > 50% morale OR no focus, goto 2. Core Combat
  • If Target < 50% morale, Merciful Shot (really heavy damage, requires lots of focus)
  • …Goto 2.

It sounds more interesting than it is. It’s become wrote key-presses. Like playing a piano song that’s been practiced for years.

Different damage types have minimal impact on how quickly I’m able to drop most mobs. I’ve had the same bow since L47, I think. And it’s not like there’s a huge list to choose from or situations requiring that I switch weapons. It’s all a rather simple and straight-forward calculation.

Worse still, there’s very little uncertainty about whether or not I will win a fight. Three con-white mobs is fine if I’m prepared. Single con-orange mob, up to to 4.5K is good. The 8K mobs are marginal. Some specific ones I can, others I can’t. Again, you know if you can after trying just one. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I could be doing “more”.

I used to think that MMO combat was a little like playing the slot machines. You put in your quarter, pull the big arm, and maybe you’ll win something. LotRO even misses this angle. Typically, there’s no uncertainty, and the drop (as sold to an NPC) always exceeds the marginal cost of killing the mob, but only slightly. A quarter slot machine that ALWAYS pays out 26 cents, is not fun.

Recently, I’ve found I’m surfing the web while fighting even the toughest mobs.

As for the other quest types?

Click on X at dangerous location Y … The quests don’t typically present challenging puzzles. Identify stuff in the way. Kill it. There are precious few surgical strikes (kill X quickly, dash in, then run). No figuring out the right order to kill mobs. There are a few timing challenges (must kill X within Y seconds and move on to avoid aggro from mobile add) … but they tend to be easy.

Move from A to B (carrying C?) without getting aggro’d by Z … Again, it tends to be either simple or frustrating. The mobs don’t actively chase. And if they did, there’s no way to effectively dodge or avoid or escape.

LotRO has these wonderful quest possibilities drawn from other game types. But it’s pointless. They have the form, but not the challenge, from the other game types.

But the grind is there to reward for hours of killing mobs whose names I no longer even bother to read. Slowly, that bar moves right. And when, finally, that’s done, there are other grinds. There are other character classes. There’s the reputation grind (in at least 6 exciting yet indistinguishable flavors). There’s the Epic Book grind. There’s the prospecting and crafting grind (available in any color you want, so long as it’s black).

I know for a fact that I’m obsessive. I suspect that it is this characteristic in me that LotRO appeals to. LotRO truly excels at the Grind.

But what about the Explorer, Socializer and Killer?

While the world may be vast, and may span environments from lush forest, to snowy mountain and steaming lava, there is no real variation. When in snows of the Misty Mountains, my fire oil lights and burns the same. I don’t suffer from the cold, nor do I slip and slide or lose my footing. Food isn’t any more plentiful in the Shire. Bows aren’t any truer in Rivendell. It looks big, but it’s all the same.

The mechanics of the game are smooth to the point of boring. I’ve found precious few circumstances where terrain matters … at the slightest hint of an unfair advantage, the anti-cheat mechanism kicks in. There aren’t any tricks you need to know to defeat certain mobs. There might well be myriad different mobs, but they’re all the same.

At any given time, there are only a half dozen bows available to my hunter … and there’s only ever one that’s of any value … the one with highest DPS, of course. Min-maxers would die of boredom in LotRO.

For Explorers, there isn’t much in LotRO. Oh sure, it can be fun to pose with Aragorn for pictures, but that wears thin, quickly.

How an MMO manages to miss the boat on social aspects, is beyond me. Where there’s an opportunity to connect people, LotRO heads the other way.

When you sell something on the AH, you’ve no idea who bought it from you. There’s no opportunity to seek out a long term relationship. There’s no way to differentiate yourself as a seller anyway.

There are so many quest gates and level restrictions are strict enough that it’s nigh impossible to keep a group playing together without real commitment. One is better off hooking up with random and (socially) pointless PUG’s to complete those quests.

I’ve never before played a game where guilds die so fast. I’ve been through two in roughly a year since launch. If you think this isn’t excessive, you obviously have no idea what a long term relationship is.

Within-guild communication is the standard chat channel. In the age of online social networking, LotRO hasn’t pushed the standard for communication at all.

At heart, I’m a socializer. For me, LotRO plays like a big single player RPG. That’s fine, for sure … but it barely qualifies as an MMO, in my opinion.

As for the killer, I can’t comment. I haven’t actually tried Monster play. Certainly, I like the concept of having a separate play mode with the intent of permitting one to put the hurt on the other side. I’ve heard anecdotally that Monster side is underpowered, and isn’t terribly “fulfilling.”

Can anyone out there comment on whether a Killer is likely to take any joy from monster play?

To summarize my long winded whine … LotRO is a fine game if you’re looking for a pretty time waster with decent content and story. Puzzle Quest is cheaper and gives much of the same reward.

Not that I’m complaining. LotRO is fine and my subscription is safe. It’ll be my reserve game, for days when there isn’t anything better to do. But I’m disappointed. The world Tolkien imagined should offer something for the explorer, the socializer and the killer, too.

Oh well. Only a few dozen war dispatches left to grind.

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