What if you like grinds in MMOs?

So grinds in MMOs are out at the moment. Out is immersion and player engagement. It’s all about slick story based gameplay and/or lobby-based PvP/ PvE. It’s all about the casual F2P crowd who will drop a tenner on a cosmetic cloak because it’s shiny and it’s less than going out to tMcDonalds. (This incidentally is why Gevlon isn’t quite right about money as a measure for player engagement – some people demonstrably spend loads of cash on things they don’t care about.)

In many ways, playing LOTRO is the antithesis of all these things, which is why I find it so delightfully old school. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t find it very alt friendly, there are so many different things to do with your character that it tends to foster fewer, deeper alts rather than lots of shallow ones.

But their attitude to reputation grinds is very interesting. My new warden has just levelled high enough to have access to a zone/ dungeon called Goblintown. This is quite an interesting piece of design, it was brought in via a patch before Moria was released along with other rep dungeons, so it’s been in the game for several years now.

  • 1. The main purpose of Goblintown is to let players grind reputation (with Rivendell in this case). It’s full of goblins. They drop reputation items. If you like grinding, you can go there either alone or in groups and kill goblins for your rep items until you get bored. It isn’t the only way to get reputation with the Rivendell elves, but I think it is the only way to max it out (I could be wrong on that though.)
  • 2. It’s tied deeply into the lore. Goblintown is the goblin stronghold under the Misty Mountains where Bilbo met Gollum in The Hobbit. In fact, one of the introductory quests is from Bilbo himself, who sends the character off to scout out the secret entrance so that he can make sure he remembers the details correctly for his book. You can also explore and find the cave where Gollum used to live, it’s quite an interesting and well detailed dungeon.
  • 3. Rivendell rep is purely optional. Unless you desperately want the reputation-based mount, there’s no special need to grind this rep at all. It is definitely a grind, but no one is forcing anyone to go there.
  • 4. The reputation items are not bound. So people who like grinding can always sell them on the AH to people who want the rep and don’t like grinding.
  • 5. Because it can be done solo or in a group, it makes for quite a chilled out kinship activity if people just want to hang out together and kill stuff in a social way (a sentence you won’t really see anywhere outside gaming.)
  • 6. At this point in the game, it’s a mid level instance. So a high level character can just mow their way through very easily. If collecting reps is your thing, it can be a relaxing goal to work through for an endgame character.

I am sure I will get bored of Goblintown long, long before I have ground out Kindred rep (the highest level), but as a MMO player, I love that it’s there as an option. And I do want to explore and find Gollum’s cave sometime. (The player doesn’t actually get to meet him until Mirkwood though, I think.)

How do you feel about the idea of rep grinds, particularly as opposed to daily quests (which are a kind of grind I guess but seem more rigid in terms of how much you can/ should do per day.)

Blue Booking, PvE Grind, and what do we do in games inbetween scheduled groups?

I have been thinking recently about the patterns in which I tend to play MMOs. I’ve been spending more time in LOTRO recently, and my guild there is mostly made up of older players. They’re grumpy and proud, and they are very very good at organising their gaming to fit lifestyles which involve kids, non-gaming commitments, and a mix of casual and hardcore players. They are also awesome (if any of you are reading this!)

This means a lot of scheduled runs, even for small 3 man groups. Of course you can just log in, see who is around, and put a group together, but players with time limitations prefer to be able to arrange their free time in advance. I’ve noticed that players are also quite conscientious about notifying the other people involved if something comes up in advance and they can’t make it. I’m sure there are also a lot of informal but pre-arranged levelling groups and skirmish groups which don’t use the bboards and calendar to organise.

And this reminds me a lot of my old pen and paper groups. We’d have regular gaming nights and if anyone couldn’t make it then they’d let the rest of us know.

It’s a good rhythm for any organised group hobby. You have ‘group’ nights. And then if you want to work quietly on your hobby you can either skip a group night or do it when no one else is around, or at home.

But I’m interested in what it means to work quietly on your hobby if your hobby is an MMO. Because these games tend to be based on progression, then either time spent solo will progress your character (in which case all min/maxers will feel they must do it) or else there is some other purpose.

Blue Booking in RPGs

Blue Booking is a pen and paper technique that has dipped in and out of popularity. And it is all about immersively answering the question, “What does my character do in between scenarios?” You can imagine a pen and paper scenario as a short story. A  bunch of people turning up to a group and improvising their way through a brief storyline which consists of a plot hook, a few scenes, some conversation, roleplaying, fights, and a conclusion.

So if your character’s life is a bunch of short stories (think of it as an anthology) then what happens inbetween?

The idea was that players could try to answer that question and the GM would award xp for good efforts. They might write a short story explaining what their character had done, or was trying to do, after the last scenario. Maybe it would represent a day in that character’s life, or introduce some of their family or friends who the GM could use in scenarios later.  Players might draw pictures or use any other type of creative activity to do this. They might have a private chat via email with other players to discuss what their characters were getting up to, and then let the GM know later.

And if a RPG scenario is like an instance (which it isn’t really, apart from the fighting) then MMOs answer the same question by actually letting players play through some of what their characters do between group adventures. But of course, RPGs are all about roleplaying so we expect players to seek immersive answers. MMOs – for a lot of people – have almost nothing to do with roleplaying at all. Most players won’t care what their character is doing between fighting dragons.

And yet, MMO design is so rooted in old immersive goals that these things tend to be built in anyway. The origin of our grinds is not just to keep people playing but to answer the question, so what does your character do when they aren’t killing dragons?

  • Maybe they are a crafter or tradesman, and have to keep up with the day to day demands of running a business. (In MMOs, that means gathering, crafting, playing the auction house or otherwise toying with the economy.)
  • Maybe they have an active social life with friends, parties, drama, love affairs. (Roleplaying.)
  • Maybe they are involved in defending their homelands. (PvP … sort of.)
  • Maybe they just like wandering the world (not really much to do in most MMOs here.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and are trying to impress superiors in some organisation? (reputation grind.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and trying to impress other players in an organisation, for example in their guild. (Organise guild activities, offer to help with guild website, other out of game activities.)

And you can see that PvE grinds and activities try to replace the notion of the blue book, with some occasional success. Many possible activities are not modelled at all (which is a shame because it would give non-raiders more to do in the endgame). Others are not well supported because devs just don’t like or understand the gameplay (like roleplaying.)

But truth is, the majority of players will prefer to log off and do something else in between adventures. They won’t want to play out every single thing their character does, or even the majority of it.

And here is where the blue booking side comes in. Even players who don’t want to spend hours gathering to simulate the crafting activities that their character does might still be interested in having the activity recorded. There are games where you can set your character to do something useful while you are logged off. You don’t need to actually pick all the grass. Maybe you could just leave your character to do it and then when you log back in the next day, your packs are full.

And this I think is where the opportunities are for integrating casual or even mobile gaming with an MMO. What does my character do between adventures could be answered with ‘runs a farm’, for example. I don’t honestly know if this is the way that MMOs will go; for every EVE which is trying to integrate a MMO with a shooter (Dust), there will be others who decide it’s easier just to leave separate games to be separate. WoW is looking to battle.net and the RealID to push the solution that says, “I play SC2 while my WoW character is not involved in anything,” for example.

But I am intrigued by the possibility of finding more and more varied answers to the question, “What does my character do in between group runs,” in MMOs.

The fun of deciding NOT to do something

Say it in whispers, but one of the things I like about MMOs is that it isn’t possible for me to do everything in the game. There just isn’t time, so I have to decide where I want to focus my efforts.

I know that other people don’t have the same time constraints and also don’t seem to get bored at the same rate, so they can throw way more hours into hardcoring it up. I just don’t find hardcore as fun as the more thoughtful gameplay choices that casual players have to make.

I’m playing far more casually at the moment, and that means that even in aspects of the games I enjoy, I’m always weighing up whether the benefits (including fun) of an activity are worth the time/ effort. Whilst a lot of hardcore gamers really thrive on grinding for hours for that last 1% bonus, as a casual I enjoy being able to say, “Nope, I’ll skip that grind. I can be 99% as good without it and put the time into something else.”

So for me, playing with time constraints (and boredom constraints) makes the day to day decisions of gameplay more fun. The decisions matter. I know I won’t have time to raid simultaneously on several alts. I know I won’t have time to get good at thousands of different specs. So I have to choose carefully and stick with my decisions. That’s fun for me; important gameplay changing decisions are fun. And it isn’t just time constraints that come into play – I enjoy exploratory gameplay where I’m learning new things. So I’ll prioritise that over grinding for achievements.

I could make time for more in game grinding if I really wanted to do that. Maybe that last 0.01% would make a difference to our raid performance after all. But I know the truth is that I enjoy deciding not to do something just because it’s there, just as much as I enjoy throwing myself into some new feature. I love that there is content which I deliberately decided not to complete, but that other people do. I know that to a hardcore gamer I must look like an unmotivated slacker.  But I don’t think that slacker really describes the way I play at all.

Do you pick and choose which parts of the game you play, or do you feel duty bound to do everything you possibly can to advance your character?

[LOTRO] When I’m 65 (and eyeing up the endgame)

outsidedolguldur

Fortress of Dol Guldur
I have been playing LOTRO in a very casual way, on and off, for the past few months. I have the great advantage of being able to call on Arbitrary for help when I get lost, need some in game advice, or want help with some quest or other, but otherwise I’ve been playing mostly solo.

I played the game for a few months when it came out, which was long enough to reach max level at the time and then get very ticked off at the (then) endgame zones of Angmar and the associated raids and instances. I picked up the Moria expansion a few months after it came out (and was discounted) and spent another month or two delving into Moria and trying out the new legendary weapons. Again, I enjoyed my time with the game, but drifted away when my attention was caught by something else.

And then the new skirmishes that came in with Mirkwood caught my eye, and I knew that I wanted to buy in again for a casual trip to Middle Earth. And so, for the first time in about 2 years, my burglar has actually hit max level again.

You can see from this that the way for a game to encourage me to resubscribe is to bring in some new and shiny functionality in a way that is easy to try as soon as I log in on my old character. New zones alone won’t do it, because I might not be the right level. So even Moria might not have grabbed me if my character at the time hadn’t been high enough level to go play there.

So … how’s Mirkwood?

dgpics I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with the elves in Lothlorien and Mirkwood. Moria’s epic but thoroughly confusing 3D architecture gives way to the more pastoral wooded vistas of the glowing golden wood and the murkier .. err.. murky one.

Mirkwood also benefits from being smaller in scope than both Shadows of Angmar and Moria – it has an easily comprehensible overarching plotline and stays mostly focussed on that. You are assisting the elves of Lothlorien in their push into Mirkwood and assault on the necromancer’s fortress of Dol Guldur. It will surprise no one (who is familiar with the source material) that this later turns out to be a feint intended to draw the Dark Lord’s gaze and armies away from a small NPC fellowship that is making its way towards Mordor.

So in many ways, Mirkwood is like Icecrown. You are part of an advancing army. You don’t know whether you will be able to overcome your foe. There is a grand fortification at the end of your journey. As you get closer to Dol Guldur, the quest hubs are fortified army camps and the quests will encourage you to capture more of the zone in piecemeal fashion.

The epic book questline that runs alongside the expansion is also a winner. Again the LOTRO team keep the questline focussed and interwoven with both the lore and the expansion storyline. You are working with a small team of elves on a very important prisoner exchange. In the course of the questline you get to know the individual elves quite well, and you will also get to strongly dislike the prisoner who you have to escort to the exchange point. I’m not used to feeling this kind of connection to NPCs in MMOs, so it’s a tribute to the LOTRO writing team that they can evoke this kind of emotional reaction.

The individual quests of the epic book are also astoundingly well executed. There’s a good mix of exploration, solo scripted questlines, killing, gathering, and the team also take the opportunity to showcase the highlight of Mirkwood, the skirmishes. Some of the epic book quests are implemented as skirmishes, so not only do you have the option to bring some friends along if you have any (or you can do them solo, since they scale), but you can also replay them afterwards.

Aside from giving the player a variety of activities, the quests are also very immersive. That means that if your character is lost and frustrated, the quest will make sure that you are too. If your character is nervously scouting ahead through a spider filled tunnel, expect to be nervously scouting through a spider filled tunnel (they will drop on your head unexpectedly, oh yes.)

One of the highlights for me was a quest where you are hunting for a lost dwarf in the swamps. You are warned to be careful of the boglights, but the quest is also set up so that the boglights will fake being images of the dwarf. You run up to them, the image disappears and reappears mockingly just around the next corner. The quest map and quest pointers play into the illusion and will direct you wrongly to the next illusion. It is only when you abandon those things and start searching on your own that you have any chance to actually find the missing dwarf.

You can decide for yourself if that sounds awesomely immersive or just annoying. (It’s actually both, but I can appreciate what they were doing with the storytelling.)

One of the other shining points of the storytelling is that after the main storyline is concluded, you can access several epilogues. That means as you travel back through the zone and hubs, some of the NPCs you had interacted with will have new epilogue quests for you. These give some closure and let you catch up with how events affected some of the individuals, whether it be taking news to faction leaders, helping some dwarves to honor their ancestors, or helping to bury dangerous artifacts deep in the tunnels of Moria where they can never be used again.

I would have loved this in Icecrown, where so many characters are left with dangling storylines. The epilogues make sure that no one’s story is skipped.

Another highlight of Mirkwood is the referrals back to LOTRO and The Hobbit.

combolotroquestI’m hoping this is going to be legible, but it shows how Mirkwood quests involve you making sure that Gollum isn’t caught by minions of The Enemy, and making use of the secret entrance by which Gandalf once sneaked into the necromancer’s lair to talk to Thorin’s father (which happened just before the beginning of The Hobbit.)

Pacing and Gearing and Reputations and Assumptions

I am always nervous about logging into an old game when I know my character is not well geared. What level of gear or preparation are they assuming for the new expansion? Will it be frustrating to play if you are a year (or more) out of practice and away from the cutting edge?

Turbine did a fantastic job with Mirkwood, at least for players like me. You can tell this because the only times I was frustrated with a quest, it turned out to be because I was doing it wrong. I was easily able to pick up new gear as I levelled by handing in reputation tokens or completing quests. Legendary weapons are also very accessible either via the auction house or reputation items – the key is that they mostly will not have optimal legacy abilities, but I found it easy to pick ones that were good enough for me.

The reputation in particular is very well done. You pick up reputation for the local elf faction for pretty much everything you do, and the reputation vendors are scattered through the zone in such a way that the vendors for your particular level of rep will turn up just as you achieved that rep level. That probably sounds confusing but in practice it’s very easy and natural to access reputation vendors and buy upgrades for your gear as you work through the questlines and quest hubs.

I capped out my reputation just about as I completed the book questline, which is a good example of how well the pacing is worked out. (I had done most of the normal quests too and a few of the dailies along the way, but never really pushed hard for reputation.)

Endgame or not Endgame

lonelands Lonelands, believe it or not!

Another place the LOTRO team score high is in introducing the player to the end game smoothly. As you run through the last of the book quests, you get stronger pointers towards the instances and raids. You even get a few tokens slung your way – not enough to really buy anything but enough to direct you to the token vendors to see what else you might be able to get in future.

The daily quests are introduced in the last few quest hubs, and worked into the overall theme of the zone (they involve patrols, killing orcs, and so on.)

But eventually you will have to make the choice: do you want to engage in endgame or not? Do you want to run the instances? Do you want to run the raids? Do you want to run the dailies? Or are you going to focus quietly on other things until the next expansion. It’s a decision all MMO players have to make at some point.

And the prospect of trying to learn new instances when everyone else is running them on hard mode and advertising for experienced players in chat channels is not really enticing to me. I don’t want to see them that badly. Plus  I have very little experience of grouping, and although I’m fairly clear on what my class is supposed to do, it’s quite likely that I’ve missed some key points. I think I could figure it out but I’m not sure if I really want to or not.

But I am not quite done with Mirkwood yet. Book 3 is coming out soon and with it duoing in skirmishes, which sounds intriguing to me since I do have a friend who plays. And also a new epic book quest, also intriguing to me given how much I enjoyed the current one. And meanwhile I can try to figure out how to make some gold in this game, catch up with all the Moria quests I skipped on my first run through, and maybe even buy a house to play with.

It’s amazing how free you feel once you decide that you don’t want to get tied into the endgame grind.

Thought for the Day: Why we need the grind

When we talk about the grind in an MMO, we mean some kind of repetitive action that a player must repeat for hours. Figuring out how to optimise the grind IS the basic unit of MMO gameplay. These are resource management games; the main resource is player time and the main gameplay is strategic. The grind is deeply embedded into the virtual world side of the game — it’s a way to simulate that an activity is time consuming in the virtual world.

This is why gold buying breaks the game conceptually (this is not a moral argument, by the way, it’s based on gameplay). You break the simulation by bringing real life cash into play, it’s like bringing a gun to a knife fight.

Every time a game introduces a buttload of new tokens with an associated vendor, players are  encouraged to strategise how to most conveniently get those tokens, and how they want to prioritise their purchases.

Every time a new reputation grind is introduced, players are encouraged to think about how to most conveniently get whatever level of reputation they need for the rewards they want. (This is why the most popular post on this blog is the one about how to get the Crusader title in WoW, it’s based on multiple reputations.)

Every time a player creates a new alt, they’re encouraged to think about how to optimise the levelling time.

Every time a game introduces a large game world, players are encouraged to think about how they plan to minimise their travel time.

Every time a game introduces a new gold sink, players are encouraged to think about how to most conveniently get enough gold in game to buy the whatsit-du-jour.

If the grind is removed … is what’s left really an MMO?

Brief encounters: Free Realms, Metaplace, Galactrix

a href=My journey in Free Realms continues to be one of discovery. This week I finally figured out how to take screenshots whilst simultaneously failing to take any good ones. Funny how that goes.

To take a screenshot: F12

To remove the UI (so you can get a clean screenshot): F10

If using Windows XP, screenshots will be stored in C:\Program Files\Sony Online Entertainment\Installed Games\Free Realms\ImageCaptureOutput

(NB. If the program actually asked you before it installed where you’d like it to go, this might have been more obvious — this is one of the minor side effects from it being such a seamless install.)

I’m approaching FR from an exploring point of view, so if I find myself getting bored or distracted from one activity, I just go and do something else. So it’s quite interesting for me to check what levels I have in different careers because it shows which minigames I most enjoyed:

Higher than 15: Card Duellist, Miner, Blacksmith

Higher than 5: Wizard, Ninja, Pet Trainer, Adventurer

Higher than 1: Brawler, Archer, Warrior, Chef, Postman

So this week I did try out a few of the combat careers, but was put off by the grind. I think this would be much more fun with someone else to play with. But given FR’s total lack of a working friends list, continuing awkwardness of befriending people you actually know, and my lack of being able to persuade my other half/ sisters to play, that will going to have to go on the back burner (for me at least).

I have liked the little mini combat encounters and dungeons that I have seen. But the 2* difficulty ones that you get after level 5 are harsh to solo on my little wizard, who doesn’t get any crowd control until level 10.

Miner and Blacksmith are both more solo friendly. I’m impressed that Tobold has hit level 20 in both, I was finding Blacksmith fun in small spurts but rather grindy overall. It doesn’t help that I still don’t much care for smelting. However, fun in small spurts is what this game is all about for me. I don’t need long sessions and I think it works best if you approach it like a bag of licorice allsorts (ie. just grab a handful of different flavours and see what you get).

I also tried out the Pet Trainer this week, although have still resisted the urge to buy a Pookie of my own (next week I’ll try to get a picture of her side by side with my cat to show the similarity). If you don’t own a pet — which costs real money — you can ‘borrow’ one for 20 mins at a time to train with. I was able to get to level 7 in the first 20 minute session;  the pet animations and sounds are absolutely enchanting, even to a tomboy like me.

I particularly love the way that the pet really gives the impression of slowly learning its new trick. And the trainer (ie. you) is so obviously trying to encourage it.

I’ve decided to limit myself to a similar monthly spend to a regular MMO with Free Realms to see how it goes. I may well buy the pet next month. I noticed that some cost more than others and note in the flavour text that they help you with treasure hunting. I’m guessing that this means they’ll help you sniff out collections when you are out in the world with them, but have not been able to test this yet.

In the spirit of getting more value from my paid month, I also exercised my option to make an alt. Two things I noticed here:

  1. With the alt, I was given the option to skip the tutorial. Hurrah.
  2. Male characters get the option to have cool tribal type face markings and female ones get make-up or sparkly hearts/flowers/butterflies? I’m not making any specially feminist snark here but I know that as a kid I wasn’t into girly stuff and I don’t see the point in limiting options. Plus who is to say that some boys might not want the face sparklies?

In any case, congratulations are due to the Free Realms team for having achieved a million signups in a very short period of time. They’ve made a great little game and thoroughly deserve it. (They also celebrated this with a new loading screen which no longer shows the character with the guitar ;) ). Now, about that friends list …

Metaplace is now in open beta

If you like building stuff, check out Metaplace. I haven’t had a lot of time yet to experiment but the little starting tutorial will give you a flavour for the power behind the tools. As is often the case with tutorials, there seems to be a huge gap between where the tutorial stops and what  you really want to know to do the things you want to do. But I’ll be amazed if a prolific fan community doesn’t spring up to fill in the gaps.

So… Galactrix

I’ve had a couple of train journeys worth of Puzzlequest Galactrix which is not enough for a proper review (even by my lax standards). But I am really liking the ideas behind it, and it does have the freedom of movement I want to see in a Space-type game — that sense of ‘I can fly anywhere in the galaxy!!’.

But crikey it does spend a lot of time saving and loading data. Does the DS have no RAM or is the DS port just  too ambitious/  unoptimised for that platform’s requirements? (One of my jobs in my last place of work was porting code/ drivers from specialist hardware to PCs or vice versa but you don’t need to be an expert to see when the job is … a bit lacking.)

Still, I’m having fun and that’s all I really ask from a game. First impressions from Galactrix — money well spent!