In which we give marketing advice to MMO publishers

Gravity noted via twitter that he’d offered some suggestions to Flying Labs (creators of Pirates of the Burning Sea) on how to improve their website to better attract new players – it’s a post on their suggestions forum.

<…> new users will make a fairly quick prejudicial judgement on whether to download the game. They’ll be asking questions like, will I get ganked, how much does it really cost to play and enjoy it, and what are the features.

Answers to these questions should be easy to find.

Sounds sensible, right?

So what advice would you give to your favourite game as to how better to attract new players or draw back returning ones? (Advice like ‘completely redesign your game’ probably isn’t useful.)

Here’s a couple of thoughts:

LOTRO: It’s difficult to draw players into an older game because they’ll tend to assume it’s less good than whatever they are currently playing. But LOTRO has a lot of unique selling points – the lore, the skirmishes, the great epic storylines, and the friendliness of the player base. They really should be pushing the friendliness more because it would draw in exactly the sorts of players they want. So I’d suggest for them a social push with lots of inducements to share information on social networking sites.

WoW: The price of entry is way high, especially since if you really did want to buy all the expansions it’s about twice as expensive if you do so online via Blizzard as if you just buy them from Amazon. (I know this because I checked earlier.) Just bundle the dratted things together and halve the price and loads more people would buy it if they liked the trial.

Sony: Oh. Haha. This online thing just isn’t working out for you is it? Sorry, I got nothing.

[LOTRO] Turbine to take over the EU Servers

Now this was somewhat unexpected news – Turbine will be taking over the running of the EU LOTRO servers from Codemasters from June 1st 2011. And all EU players will need to migrate their accounts to US servers –0- lifetime accounts, characters, items et al will all be moved across smoothly, Turbine claim.

Here’s the FAQ. They also say not to create a Turbine account until the official migration process has started (unless you already have one).

What we don’t know yet is what will be happening to the EU servers. The FAQ notes that all existing servers will become part of the US service, so it’s not clear whether that means there will be new servers to support the EU population or if migrants will have to pick an existing server to join.

I guess this sheds some light on the extended talks which held up Codemasters from implementing the F2P patch some months back. I always felt that Codies did a good job with LOTRO on the whole, but at the same time it’s always been clear that the US guys were getting a better service with elements such as my.lotro which weren’t available outside the US servers.

Note: If  EU servers stay the same (for all intents and purposes) as Longasc suggests in comments based on posts on the german forums, then it’s worth noting that the EU RP server, Laurelin, is actually marked officially as RP and CM’s enforce RP-based name complaints there. This is a markedly different approach to the US unofficial RP server which has no staff support.

[LOTRO] How not to check out new content

So there has been a new patch into LOTRO with new instances, a new raid, and a new part of the epic book and since I have a lifetime sub, I thought I would go check it out.

Of course, you can’t really check out the new bits of epic book quest until you’ve caught up with the part that you probably should have finished earlier. So this is where our heroine started her journey, trying to remember where she’d last left off.

lotro_ened3

While picking up my old quests and exploring/ getting lost in bits of Enedwaith that I had forgotten even existed I found a random stone that was glowy and clicked on it! Ping! A new deed popped up.

What this picture above means is that there are other mysterious glowy stones to find and if you can find all of them then your character will get a new title. “Calm before the Storm” is actually a pretty cool title I think, and this is a good example of how LOTRO deeds aren’t quite the same as collection quests but can sometimes have a lot in common.

As an explorer type of player, I love this stuff. It’s more interesting than just, “I see a shiny, I pick up a shiny, I put it in the right collection” which you get in Rift and EQ2 but you are still encouraged to go explore and find stuff. (Note: who am I kidding, there are probably player-generated maps online with all the mysterious stones marked on them but I’m going to pretend that isn’t true.)

Whilst still on the catching up phase of my questing, I failed the cardinal rule of things that you should do when you check out new content!

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Yup, this was the hole I later fell down and died, even though burglars actually got a new ability this patch to Safe Fall. (Colours look weird because it was dark and underground so I’ve turned up the contrast for the screenie.) So when you log in after a new patch – check whether your trainers have any new skills to teach you!!!

One thing about LOTRO as a game, and the questing in general is that it genuinely does run at a different pace to games like WoW or Rift which have been more optimised to stop players getting bored. In LOTRO, it is entirely possible that you will be sent to the other side of the zone to find a remote dwarf fortress with a hidden entrance – and it may take you over an hour to find it. Some quests are quick, some are not. After a while, I find that I adjust and quite enjoy the slower “scenic route” but it really isn’t a game for all tastes.

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And then, when you are least expecting it, they remind you that you’re in the LOTRO world with links to the main storyline and foreshadowings about where your character and companions may be heading in future.

One of the high points to me of Enedwaith is a solo section where you are able to sit in on a council of the neutral tribe of Dunlendings who you have been assisting. An envoy from Saruman has arrived to try to recruit them to his faction. You are there to represent the Dunadain (because the rest of the Grey Company is busy losing its collective bows or something). It’s a very well written scene, and will be a delight to LOTRO fans. The Dunlendings decide to stay neutral, but make it clear that they prefer your deeds to Saruman’s honeyed words.

And with that, I’m finally just about caught up to the new stuff. Arb has already tried out one of the instances and was raiding last night and her initial feedback has been pretty positive. I’m looking forwards to finding out for myself!

[LOTRO] Dev blog on raid difficulty

Arbitrary pointed me towards the latest LOTRO dev blog by jwbarry, which has a few interesting things to say about raid difficulty.

I think this is interesting because I personally don’t have to read for very long before I catch myself thinking, “Is that going to be fun?” jwbarry says that he was inspired by Demons Souls, the notoriously difficult and unforgiving SINGLE PLAYER platform/ fighter game – what he and many other players love about Demons Souls is that it’s hard but fair. When you fail, it’s because you failed and not because you got unlucky.

This is all well and good but there are reasons that Demons Souls doesn’t exist in a multiplayer format. And one of them is that when you fail you can just keep on trucking, try to figure out your mistake and get it right next time without having to debate whose fault it actually was with 11 other players.

This heavily influenced the design of Ost Dunhoth. You will wipe many, many times but it will be because the minstrel didn’t heal in time, the hunter stole threat, the tank didn’t back up out of the fire, your DPS didn’t coordinate on targets, someone broke a crowd control (CC), etc. It will be because of something you did wrong. You can then analyze this, learn from it, and avoid repeating the same mistakes. You can get better, not lucky.

This sounds like fairly standard raid design unless they’re planning on putting in lots of extra in game diagnostics, eg. “BURGLAR X JUST WIPED YOUR RAID!!!!11”.

So yeah, I’m not entirely sure about using Demon Souls as a difficulty gauge for multi person raiding, your mileage may vary.

Difficulty Tiers

I’m going to be honest and say that I have some issues with normals/ heroics and tiered difficulty in raids and instances. I just want to go kill internet dragons, why do the dragons have to come in normal and extra-spikey versions? It’s very confusing.

Not to mention that devs ideas of harder difficulty have not historically always been more fun. Here’s an example of the LOTRO ideas:

An example of a way mechanics upgrade: look at what happens when you fight a trash pull. If you kill a trash monster in Tier 1 and wipe, he stays dead. In Tier 2 a trash pull needs to be defeated as an entire pull. In Tier 2, if even one monster remains alive after you’ve wiped, the entire pull will respawn.

Now I could see circumstances under which having to redo trash packs would make people play more carefully and make the instance more fun. I could also see circumstances under which it could be very annoying indeed.

I think I’m on the fence on this one, it could be cool.

Further challenges sit above Tier 2 difficulty. These are the tasks that are asked of the players on the highest level of LOTRO. You’ll be asked to do it faster, better and harder than anyone else. To beat the challenges, perfection is expected of you.

I have come to realise over time that I don’t find being asked to perform to perfection all that interesting. I figure on Spinks at least, I had her rotations down well enough to be reasonably perfect for tanking/ dps but I’m not sure it made the game all that much more interesting.

Far more interesting was when we had to respond to unexpected events in the raid. But I don’t think that’s the kind of perfection he’s talking about here.

I’m sure they will have done a solid job on the new raid designs, jwbarry sounds as though he has a clear idea in his head of what he thinks of as fun raiding. I am just not entirely sure whether I agree.

There is a Lt that Never Goes Out…

…Well, until he does. Repeatedly.

To set the scene, the Lieutenant of Barad Guldur is the current final boss in LotRO. He rides a fell beast, and he’s /actually/ a Nazgul. Yes, we get to fight a Nazgul in Book 1, but not to actually kill one until the end of the Mirkwood content. It’s an unforgiving fight and we’ve been plugging away at Barad Guldur for at least 6 months – months that seem to have dragged for me.

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the design in Barad Guldur, though I’ve enjoyed all of LotRO’s previous raids (The Rift is awesome and you get to kill a Balrog, Helegrod has a massive undead dragon as a boss and is the only 24-man content in the game, Dar Narbugud has some interesting boss fights, through a multi-boss adventure). Barad Guldur has 3 boss fights. You can do all of them in normal or challenge mode. But that means instead of 6 bosses, you have 3 bosses that you fight twice in the course of conquering all the content in all possible ways. To me, that made it feel like it dragged on a lot longer.

We’ve also had a rotating raid group which doesn’t help with getting content down fast, but has been more sociable, for sure. So while I’m sure the length of time we’ve been bashing away at the content has suffered because of this – it’s just a fact of life for our kin and has only really impacted me because we don’t have many Capts so even when I want a night off, I tend to sign up to make sure the numbers are reached.

The start of Barad Guldur is awesome, a gauntlet you have to complete within a timeframe (it resets completely after 45m) where you rush up flights of stairs and get waves of Uruks, goblins and wargs. As chaotic fights go it’s awesome, and just the kind of content I like. But, after that, the instance falls a bit flat for me. The fights continue to be interesting, the first few times anyway, but they’re slow and repetitive. And, of course, because of radiance, you can’t just plough through bosses 1 and 2 on normal mode just to get to the Lieutenant fight.. no, it makes more sense to gear up the raid as much as possible with both normal and challenge mode armour drops. That definitely helped our survivability.

Anyway, back to the Lieutenant. The fight takes place at the top of the tower (and yes, if you wipe you have a stupidly long run up a zillion flights of stairs to go back to the fight). In the first phase, the group attacks the fell beast with the Lieutenant mounted upon it, and when it gets down to 150k health, the Lieutenant will dismount and the next phase begins. DPS is king in the first stage (without going into dull tactics), there’s a huge benefit to getting to the transition as quickly as possible. The second phase, involves tanking the Lieutenant and killing the beast and then the raid can concentrate on the final boss in phase 3. That makes it all sound so simple. It’s a very unforgiving fight and not much fun for melee, generally. There’s 10% power regen only throughout the fight. If anyone dies while the Lieutenant is dismounted, we’ve had almost certain wipes (though, I believe it’s not a certainty and there are tactics to deal with that, but not ones we’ve mastered).

So it’s taken us a while, and has felt like the longest slog in my raiding career. And yet last week we did it on second attempt, and this week we did it first time. It’s a relief sure. A pain that I’m top of the loot list and don’t especially want the armour drop (radiance is being got rid of next update and it’s not a great stats set for Capts), but I still think people should thank me for not being selfish and taking it anyway, cos I’m a total brat :-). But looting aside, it’s a definite relief and one that couldn’t have come soon enough. Not sure WHY we suddenly made this progress. We barely got the numbers to raid from the start of December till last week, to the stage the raid group almost fell apart. Without going too much into kin politics though, we really thought our chances were all over, until someone from outside the group suggested we might not go again – and suddenly sign-ups were up, we recruited another couple of possibles and last week managed to get locks for just the Lieutenant from the other raiding group in the kin (because not enough of us could make our initial raiding night when we’d traditionally do bosses 1 and 2).

Four-week break and not having to go on Friday seemed to do the business, though. But then this week we repeated the triumph after having cleared the first two bosses on Friday and then killed the Lieutenant first time. Obviously sometimes a break and a bit of a push is needed. Yes, we tweaked our tactics a bit, but not so much that I think any of us thought we’d have such a massive push of progress (previously we’ve killed the beast only 4-5 times, I think and then wiped within 30s). But, it’s all good and whatever it takes. Our kin is very good at killing the final baddie just before new content emerges, and we’ve done it again. Hurrah!

BUT.

TURBINE SUCKS.

Because there are no bodies to take screenshots of, they disappear immediately. And that SUCKS.

The Shape of Things to Come

This morning, I spent some time back in Middle Earth, mostly because I’d caught up with yesterday’s twitter comments. There’s been a new development, and it’s actually hit the EU servers at the same time as the US ones (nice work all involved). Five mysterious relic stones have appeared throughout Middle Earth, and are heralded by a letter that appeared on both Turbine and Codemasters’ forums:

Numerous residents of Oatbarton and the surrounding communities were aware of my intention to submit plants from my pipe-weed crop to this year’s Growers’ Festival. You may contact me for names of good, honest folk who can attest to this, such as my wife Opaline or our good friend Rosalyn Smallburrow, also of Oatbarton.

I have not changed my growing habits or techniques since last year, so there is little reason to expect that my submission for this year’s festival would be of lesser quality than my previous, prize-winning entries. I do not mean to boast, but my pipe-weed plants were shaping up to be of even higher quality than in years past! You can speak to the individuals noted above for their opinions, and they will certainly agree that my pipe-weed crop was proceeding exceedingly well for the season.

Given those facts, you can see that I take a great deal of pride in the quality of my pipe-weed. Imagine my alarm when I woke up this morning, drank my morning tea, prepared a small breakfast, and took my customary mid-morning stroll to observe my plants… and found them withered, brown, and wilted! They will win no prizes in this state! They are fit only for compost now! Unimaginable!

Right in the middle of my field, someone had placed a tall stone block bearing unpleasant symbols. I do not know what to call it, but I would not like it anywhere, let alone in the middle of my pipe-weed field: the pipe-weed field that was thriving yesterday, but after the appearance of this horrible thing is no more!

Starting in Oatbarton, I went to investigate and opened a deed to find five mysterious relics throughout Middle Earth. Now, being a lazy (but honest) Captain, and making use of the fact I wasn’t online on the day all of this broke, I cheated and used the guide over at Casual Stroll to Mordor, which gives locations of the stones. You don’t need to do that, there’s no real sense of hurry!

Initially, on twitter (thanks to all the people who were tweeting about this, it helped me get a sense of real occasion and also some of the speculations about the stones), there were many suggestions of what these relics could be – my favourite was that they might be tied to the five Istari (love ties to lore, after all). But, it became clear quite quickly, and from doing the deed myself – that these are heralding our new instance and raid cluster, due for February-ish. First of all, the title you get for completing the deed is ‘Calm before the Storm’. The relics all take aspects of debuffs in LotRO (there’s a fear one, a poison one, a disease one, etc), plus of course a big Evil one which almost certainly signifies the raid. Additionally, they’re all located near walled off locations, closed doors, possible instance entrances. And as mentioned by Roll One Hundred, they each signify one of five gaunt-lords (named in the comments thread as: Ivar the Blood-hand, Ferndúr the Virulent, Drugoth the Death-monger, Thadúr the Ravager, Gortheron the Doom-caller by Merric of Casual Stroll to Mordor). Interesting times, so we have the basis for a storyline leading up to the release of the next instance cluster for LotRO.

There’s some talk on forums this morning that simply doing this deed will be the gating system for allowing you to start these instances (sorry, couldn’t find the reference immediately). Remember, we’re losing radiance-gating (HURRAH!) and this seems a neat way to do it. When Turbine were asking what people would prefer to radiance, one of the options was deed-gating. It’s also become clear that you can’t complete the deed if you don’t have the relevant quest packs for the areas. So, any free-to-play players will need to stump up the cash for the various areas if they want to progress through to this deed. We have no idea if it will be a gating system though, but it does suggest the new instances will be spread throughout Middle Earth, perhaps another way to ensure quest packs are sold and used (which, in my opinion, makes  sense and would be the same as having to pay to get access to the instances!).

I have to say, I’ve been fairly down on LotRO lately, mostly due to raiding and kin issues, but this little deed sparked my attention again and showed how Turbine can drop little neat things into the game with little fanfare and manage to get us all that little bit interested again, even if you only do the deed for the cool title (which was my initial spur!).

calm

Gaming News: Roguelikes!, Kinect is a winner, should screenshots be exclusives?, LOTRO F2P is a winner too, pre-ordering gets complex, melee misery in Cataclysm raiding, Rift thoughts

I enjoyed writing a series of Gaming News posts on Sundays through the latter half of 2010, but did become very aware of how the gaming news cycles work and how non-news (like whatever random musings Michael Pachter pulls out of his hat) end up becoming headlines.

So I’m going to try to focus this year on stories that are actually news or have some interesting commentary that relates to current gaming news. Feel free to send me links during the week if you see anything you’d like to suggest! All contributions will be attributed.

Best Roguelikes 2010

Any fellow fans of Roguelike games out there? Andrew Doull posted the results of his Roguelike of the Year poll (981 people voted!)

Winner by quite a high amount, with a total 39% of the vote was ToME so if you are a fan of the genre and want to see what’s hot at the moment, go check it out. It’s F2P of course. No, wait, I mean it’s freeware, you can play for free and if you like the game and want to support it, you can donate.

Kinect ships over 8 million units, coming to PCs ‘soon’

According to Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s CEO), they have shipped 8 million Kinect units so far. Winextra (the link above) do some figure checking and conclude that MSoft have actually sold 2.5 million units, the 8 million figure is the number that they have shipped to suppliers (figures for how many of those have sold are not actually in yet, they might all have done). In any case, this is an astounding figure for a controller which is still not very well supported with games and requires a large amount of room space to even set up.

I’m still hoping to see someone take a shot (sic) at making a Kinect based shooter, I think out of all the current genres that would benefit from being able to drop the controller, it’s sports/ dance games, FPS and ‘point and click’ adventure games that would benefit the most. But really the ball is in the developers’ court at the moment. There are probably some awesome things that could be done with it, as soon as people can imagine them.

And my gut feel is that the biggest Kinect application, in the end, will not actually be a game. Maybe it’ll just be people using it for controlling the TV, maybe Kinect Avatar will spark off a whole new slew of virtual world mania, but this way of interacting with technology is only going to grow and spread.

However, I still find it creepy to think that my computer might be watching me. It’s bad enough with the cat.

Exclusive Screenshots

One thing you will notice if you read professional gaming blogs/ sites is that there’s a strange cosy relationship that they sometimes have with developers. I’m not sure at what point money changes hands, but this is why you’ll see exclusive interviews, screenshots etc on sites that you normally would not touch with a bargepole (Ten Ton Hammer with your annoying popups, I’m looking at you).

The guys at Rock Paper Shotgun went head to head with this culture this week when they published exclusive screenshots from another site WITH ATTRIBUTION and got threatened with legal action for their pains.

Standard internet posting etiquette usually states that it’s ok to quote other sites as long as you link back to them. We normally consider this polite. But how does that fit in with the idea of exclusive screenshots? I think swiping exclusive screenies should probably be off limits but there is also a point at which you have to say ,”the internet just doesn’t work like that.”

John Walker at RPS commented, “”But really, the idiocy of publishers giving out adverts for their games like precious, secret jewels has got to end. It’s self-defeating, and it’s deeply tedious for the readers of every other site/mag in the world who want to know about a game they may want to play.”

It’s certainly tedious for readers to be directed all around the houses for information rather than just being able to pick it up from their favourite news feed. In fact, I’d rather be able to pick up my gaming news straight from the official site and my pet bug is developers (Mythic used to do this a LOT) who publish all their news as exclusives on random news sites rather than on their own.

LOTRO revenue triples since they went F2P

In an interview with Ten Ton Hammer (podcast interview, no transcript), LOTRO’s executive producer reports that revenues on the game have tripled since it went F2P.

That’s great news for Turbine, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see any figures from Codemasters to be able to compare the EU numbers (or see how much of an advantage Turbine had from launching their version several weeks in advance). So we can assume that they’ll continue to do whatever they are doing. More bizarrely marked horses for all!

Perhaps not such a great result for players who don’t particularly want to be spammed with inducements to check out the cash shop, especially if they are already paying by subscription.

Rage Quit Jane offers another analysis of F2P players, “Thanks Suckers” (for buying expensive shiny cosmetic stuff for real money and keeping the game going). The bloodsuckers she’s talking about are the new EQ2 race which is being sold at a premium to people who want one now, and will be offered free to subscribers in a couple of months time. Or maybe she’s just talking about SOE.

The complexity of pre-order offers

A couple of pre-order deals that made my radar this week are the slew of Rift pre-order special deals, and Dragon Age 2 announcing a DLC which is included free if you pre-order the signature edition – ie. only if you PRE-order, as opposed to last time where you got the DLC free if you bought a copy that wasn’t second hand.

Hawley ponders on this trend in more detail, nostalgic for a time when you could just go buy the damned game and not feel that you have to check every possible pre-order combo to make sure you got the best deal.

I think this is one of the downsides of F2P. Not everyone enjoys the process of shopping or having to waste brain cycles figuring out how to get the best deal on something commodity based like a game or book or film. Whilst it leaves a gap in the market for blogs or websites that can do the analysis for you, it isn’t really fun.

Obviously for studios it’s all about the bottom line, but I wonder if making a simple process (buy box and play/ log in and play) into one that involves complicated buying decisions is really a good thing.

Melee vs Ranged in Cataclysm, round 2, and 3

I mentioned a week or so back that I thought there was some imbalance between ranged and melee in Cataclysm instancing. Just to show I’m not imagining it, here are a couple more authoritative views, from raiders.

Paragon got the world first kill on some heroic raid boss last week (has anyone else totally lost interest in the world firsts?), and published a note together with the kill shot on their website.

Dropping out melee characters in favor of ranged ones has been a recurring theme throughout this whole raiding tier, but we hope that it’s over now with only the end bosses and Sinestra left. Here’s to hoping next tier of raiding won’t favor ranged by design. Maybe even go wild and give some incentive to bring in melee, too.

(Incidentally, it’s a sign of how mature a guild Paragon are that they decided to use the publicity which they knew they’d get from a world first kill to highlight imbalances they saw in the game.)

Karuki at World of Ming also writes a very well written, heartfelt post about the woes of playing a melee class (Death Knight in this case) in Cataclysm heroics and raids.

My experience is with heroics at the moment. And I’m getting pretty good now at staying alive *flexes at heroic Stonecore* but the cost is spending more time out of melee range and being more cautious of the mobs. Which is fine, but won’t make the numbers look good.

Also an ex-guildie of mine, who is one of the finest melee dps players I know, isn’t pleased with how dps warriors are working out at the moment. So that’s something to look forwards to.

Reactions to Rift

Out of all the reactions I’ve read about Rift and the Rift beta/s, these two caught my eye. Caveat: I think it’s a very fun game.

Abalieno @ The Cesspit sees connections between Rift and Warhammer Online, in terms of the game engine, the programmers, and other themes, and doesn’t think Rift compares well.

Wolfshead writes about how he thinks combat in Rift could be improved. I don’t think there’s even a remote chance that they’ll redo the combat system at this stage in beta, and it’s not broken in any case. But I really enjoyed his analysis of how combat is the main way we communicate with the game world in MMOs these days.

And one of the reasons I stick with WoW and keep coming back to it is that underneath everything, Blizzard made the basic combat experience very snappy and fun. PvD is wondering though whether some of the WoW classes/ specs are edging a little close to each other in play style these days.

[LOTRO] Flogging a dead horse

Psychochild commented on my last LOTRO post that he was disappointed that one of the old Winter Festival horse rewards had been removed as an in game reward and moved to become a cash shop ‘store exclusive’. At the time, I was less bothered by this trend than he was. After all, the horse had been available for players at the time, and anyone who had gained it in game had at least a year to show it off before it went onto the shop.

But this week, Codies and Turbine have gone a step further. A scant couple of months ago, the hot holiday rare drop of the Halloween Season was a horse with skeleton-type markings (don’t ask me why, I thought it was hideous and unthematic). People spent days farming for the thing. And now guess what is on special offer this week in both Codemaster and Turbine stores? Yup, a skeleton painted horse could be yours for a mere 1495 turbine points.

It’s not the end of the world, a cosmetic mount is still a cosmetic mount. But evidently they are taking the position that any desirable in game reward should be available to buy for cash as well. This is really a logical extension of the F2P ideology, that people should be able to choose whether they want to get an item by paying cash or grinding in game. In fact, it’s probably a decent sales technique to introduce an item via the game, making it rare and distinctive so that players are aware of it and talking about it. Then slip it onto the shop later.

But I can’t help wondering if it diminishes the meaning of in game rewards, even meaningless ones like cosmetic skins for your horse …

[LOTRO] Wintershome

Amidst all the Cataclysm excitement (has it really just been a week?) I slipped back to LOTRO this week for a visit. And I’m just in time for the Winter Festival.

ScreenShot00151

Now this one took me by surprise because usually the LOTRO festivals follow a sort of pattern. There will be events and dancing in specific party locations in the starting zones – the party tree in the Shire is a particular favourite. Then probably some sort of a pub crawl for the inn league too and maybe some extra horse racing.

But they have been really working on their holiday events over the past year. (One might argue that given the slow pace of content otherwise, it’s probably just as well.)

At Halloween, there was a hobbit instance. And now, at Winter Festival (which they probably should have called Yule, just for consistency) an entire new mini zone. It’s called Frostbluff, and .. I’ve no idea where it is in Middle Earth, just that you can get a horse ride there from the usual suspects. We talk a lot about theme park MMOs vs sandbox MMOs, but this area does actually feel like a small enclosed theme park.

There is some lore behind it, the town was settled by people and the mayor made his life’s work establishing a famous winter festival. (ie. he build a theme park.) I won’t quibble any more about the themeparkness because there’s a ton to do here, and from what I have seen so far, it’s nicely put together. Not only that but right at the beginning you are confronted with a sense of injustice, of wronged workers who are being starved so that the mayor can get rich from the tourist trade.

I’m not sure if this was intended but it makes me wonder if I am supporting The Man just by trying any of the winter games. Or will the devs let me show the miserly mayor the error of his ways and bring some winter cheer to the poor workers and their families. I kind of hope the latter … but this is a F2P game now, so maybe they are trying to subtly press home the idea that imaginary people suffer when we buy shiny ponies from the cash shop.

But then again, can I really pass up the chance to see Mr Shakesburrow’s acting company, the Green Lily Orators, Bards, and Entertainers (G.L.O.B.E) for short? (The theatre, incidentally, is very cool. Player characters take roles in the play.)

lotroxmas2

This screenie is taken from inside the G.L.O.B.E theatre. Those are PCs in the audience and also on the stage; the audience is also prompted to throw rotten fruit or flower petals at the stage from time to time also depending on how well the actors perform, measured by whether they use appropriate emotes when prompted.

I am probably more morally torn by the introduction to this zone than I have been for the entirety of Cataclysm. And therefore I do want to spend more time there, figuring out what’s going on. Either way, this is definitely one of the coolest, most intriguing, and most expansive holiday festivals I’ve ever seen. A whole mini zone complete with storylines, activities, minigames and (of course) rewards … Yet, at the same time, it’s a strange theme park that isn’t very Lord of the Rings-ish in feel, even though they’ve really tried hard.

Maybe it’s just a paradox of holiday events that they will always tend to break the 4th wall, being seasonally themed amusement rides for players to correspond with RL festivals.

Having said that, some of the holiday rewards this time around are very cool. You could get a little stage to put in your own garden, to put on miniplays, and you can pick up titles such as “Star of the Show” or “Extra.”

Gaming News: Bioware’s Mystery Game, LOTRO takes hobbits to Isengard, Music games nosedive, Jagex beats patent suit, Activision closes more studios

blackfriday

So apparently this is a traditional week of sales in the US, which brings me to the picture to the left. What’s odd about this screenshot?  It’s from amazon.co.uk. Yes, I’m puzzled too.

In any case, keep an eye out for sales from your favourite US vendor (eg. steam, etc) this week. There does come a point when virtual shops become almost indistinguishable from any other type of online shop with the various sales, time limited offers, etc … which is of course the point.

CODBLOPS duly and predictable broke some sales records last week, despite reviews generally agreeing that it isn’t as good as the predecessor. I presume people are keen for their annual shmup purchase and if it’s disappointing will just whine about it until they get a chance to buy next years’. But it is interesting that the quality of the game doesn’t seem to affect buying decisions unless it really does dip below some kind of acceptable level.

Speaking of which, Activision now claim that Infinity Ward (the studio which made MW2) has now been successfully restructured which means that they have 3 studios working on Call of Duty games. But we don’t know which one will be tapped for next year’s episode.

A lot of MMO bloggers have been writing about Perpetuum this week, an EVE-like game featuring giant robots which is in beta and giving out beta keys at the moment. Interestingly, even the home page gives me an EVE vibe.

EVE itself has released footage of a rather stunning character generator that will go live alongside Incarna (the upcoming expansion that will allow characters to walk around inside space stations). I do still have my doubts about a game where in a standard starter guide, trying to scam other players is listed as a standard way for newbies to make in-game money.

Posts of the week are from Rhii and Alas, both on the subject of having to choose between friendship and progression in WoW. And this illustrates nicely some of the  structural issues in WoW which break up the community (not to mention stressing out players unduly) and which Blizzard has shown no interest in addressing by adding support for raid alliances or multiple guild membership. (ie. anything that would make it easier to be a member of multiple social organisations, some of which might be focussed on different in game objectives.)

The notion that if you want progression you need to pay for it by dumping your mates just reminds me of Fame (“Fame costs and right here’s where you start paying!!”). It doesn’t have to be that way.

Bioware’s Mystery Game

Bioware have been dropping teasers this week about a new unannounced game, promising to reveal all at the VGA awards.

Clues so far have been translated as:

Amazingly, people are attempting to sound somewhat excited about the picture of the man with the gun. I’d say it’s either going to be Mass Effect 3 (in which case they should have teased with a picture of Garrus without his top on) or … some shooter. Kotaku are guessing that it’s a multi-player spinoff of Mass Effect, but surely if it was a scifi game they’d show space or something cool?

I wouldn’t begrudge Bioware if they wanted to take a shot (sic) at a FPS. Good luck to them. But I don’t think they really get the whole PR thing sometimes …

We’re taking the hobbits to Isengard … in Autumn 2011

Turbine announced that the next expansion for LOTRO, The Rise of Isengard, is due next Autumn. It isn’t going to be a huge expansion like Moria, Turbine are moving away from that kind of update due to pacing issues. But it sounds as though there will be plenty to do.

Also they are due to release more raid content next year before that.

I think the pacing comment was very telling. Maybe players would prefer more piecemeal content releases rather than waiting around a couple of years for a big chunk of content all in one piece.

Music games face a downturn

Remember those halcyon days when Rock Band and Guitar Hero were the big thing? All in the past now, apparently gamers just aren’t buying the things in the same quantities any more.

Jagex beats patent suit

Jagex, developers of Runescape, won a patent suit this week and the CEO took the opportunity to have a snipe at the dreadful US patent system. I don’t have much to add except for yes, the US patent system is extremely awful and allows people to pursue frivolous patent claims which end up being very expensive to the defending party on very little evidence.

(I was surprised that the losing party wasn’t required to pay costs, I’d have assumed that to be standard.)

Activision closes more studios

Apparently if your last game wasn’t a huge hit, Activision loses interest. This week they moved to close Bizarre Creations (maker of Project Gotham Racing), although there is a rumour that Microsoft is among several companies interested in buying the developer.

They also closed Budcat Creations, a studio that has been working on Guitar Hero and Band Hero games (see above note about music games being down on sales).