A Brief Revisit to Middle Earth

It’s been quite sometime since I’ve spent any appreciable time in LotRO for any number of reasons.  I tend to keep it patched so I can hop in whenever the spirit moves me, but the last few times I’ve logged in I’ve sat paralyzed and logged out five minutes later.  Re-immersing oneself into a game can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don’t feel like you’re likely to stay a while.

I haven’t really be a regular festival goer in LotRO’s past events and really hadn’t planned on taking part in this year’s 5th Anniversary Event.  It had all but passed me by when I saw that it had been extended, so for no particular reason, I decided to drop on in, so drop in I did.

The festival was in full swing this weekend with lots of player activity in the main hubs.  This time, however, rather than attempting to pick up where I’d last left off, I ventured into Bree to see what all fun was to be had with the festival.  Thanks to Casual Stroll to Mordor’s festival guide, I quickly had things sussed out and to my surprise, it appeared that both festival mounts could be earned in relatively short order with little grind.

Quite cleverly, several of the quests send you hither and yon across Eriador conveying gifts to NPCs, retrieving lost invitations, setting off fireworks and talking with our old friend Gandalf, participating in horse races in Bree and the Shire and getting into the odd drunken beer brawl at Thorin’s halls.  With just a little forethought, several nice loops can be done taking you to many familiar and iconic landmarks.  Deliciously insidious.

For those of us prone to nostalgia (and LotRO is in many ways nostalgia squared– reminiscences of the game reminiscent of the experience of the books), this is almost dirty pool.  In many ways, LotRO to me has been more of a world in search of a game, but a wonderful and beautiful world and always a visual feast to visit.

Shire Race Grounds Bridge

So after a few of the quests and traipsing over familiar territory, the nostalgia gene kicked in.  So much so, that at least for this weekend, I managed to earn enough anniversary tokens to obtain the Fireworks Laden Steed on my Captain and nearly so on my Runekeeper.  An altogether silly mount that, as the name suggests, is laden with fireworks (which feature prominently in the festival and are quite nicely done), and from time to time lets one loose while riding along.

Two race tokens, 1 mount ownership document (purchasable from an NPC) and 40 Anniversary Tokens later, goal attained.

LotRO 5th Anniversary Festival Fireworks Laden Steed

For me LotRO is one of those games where its just satisfying to be in the world.  Toggling off floating names and just running around enjoying the world isn’t such a bad way to spend a few hours of the weekend.  Yes, I think I’ll be back sooner than later next time.

A trot across the Northern Bree Fields

Time is Money

Tobold asks the question when will WoW go free to play and how that might be implemented. Blizzard has certainly learned the lesson all good gym owners know– the neglected subscription is the ticket to success. Who among us hasn’t joined a gym or health club with a monthly fee and ahem how shall we say… neglected to make full use of it?

I have no idea what the average is, but it must be a significant percentage of members continue to pay but, even with the best of intentions, stop going to the gym regularly or at all. Call it guilt, call it taking a wee break, call it preserving your access should you want to play, it’s still recurring income.

Blizz may get there, but I don’t think they’ve lost enough people to justify going F2P yet.

For other games that, in Tobold’s words, don’t justify a subscription when compared to many players’ level of interest or commitment, F2P is just the ticket. DDO, LotRO and now STO are three that have come back on my radar specifically because they went free to play. Being able to match my spend with my level of enthusiasm and or time commitment is a boon to me.

Even with a traditional sub though, in theory I could maximize my return on the sub by consuming as much content as my time budget would permit. If I were only interested in the leveling game in SWTOR, and played obsessively since launch, I might have consumed all the storylines for all the classes/factions by now. I could see SWTOR going free to play at some point following the path others have taken– pay for fluff, utility items, progress enhances and or access to content areas/modules for progression.

Eve however remains the anomaly. One can legally buy characters, and effectively in game currency as well, but one cannot buy progression. Eve progression is skill based and skill training is time based. The only way to continue to progress is to continue to subscribe.

So why doesn’t Eve just sell time?

If I really want to spend the next year working through a skill training plan (not an unheard of amount of time) why not let me buy the time now, apply it to those skills I want to train and be done with it? If I’m going to spend $180 to learn to fly a Titan, why spend it over twelve months?

One of Eve’s major barriers for new comers is never being able to catch up skillpoint wise to friends who have played much longer. Granted that progression can go in any number of directions, but to switch from a hardcore miner industrialist to a 0.0 capital ship pilot would take a very long time.

Seems like a natural progression for Eve. Eliminate subscriptions, sell a time equivalent for skill training, or just skill points out right to be applied to skills of a players choice, make that freely tradeable like PLEX and you would have the most flexible model in the universe. Players could truly exchange time for money in whatever proportion they wish.

Earn isk by playing, purchase training and it’s truly free to play. Buy isk or training and your time budget is preserved. Of course the one element that likely prevents this from upsetting the games balance is that to survive in Eve, you still need to learn how to be a good pilot. Something that you just can’t buy.

Size Matters

With the NDA coming down on the hotly anticipated Star Wars: The Old Republic, those of us who have been as yet snubbed by EA/Bioware and not allowed into the beta are starting to get a better view into the game.

By all accounts that I’ve read so far, I think the expectation is evolution not revolution and that’s not terribly surprising considering the amount Bioware has invested in the game.  They simply can’t afford the game to be niche, so don’t expect radically new mechanics or game play.

True to form, Bioware appears to have thoughtfully injected story-driven instanced group content– Flashpoints– throughout player progression.  From my point of view, that is a good thing assuming Bioware has lived up to its reputation of providing compelling storylines that lead into and out of the instanced content.

IMHO, the tight integration of open world content and instanced dungeons makes for an entirely satisfying experience.  The poster child for this effort was vanilla WoW’s human starter experience in Elwynn Forest and Westfall that inevitably leads you to Edwin Van Cleef and the Deadmines, and ultimately beyond.

Of course, the DF wounded and then Cataclysm finally killed all this, though open world content became increasingly trivial solo content and thus the progressive story line experience was diluted to the point of nuisance.  Bioware hopes to have recaptured some of this magic, but we’ll see.

Part of what made these earlier experiences wildly fun of course was that we experienced them as a fixed group of five friends commited to staying together and progressing together.
So ideally, SWTOR would be ideally suited from a design perspective for our little group.  Except of course that SWTOR group size is four.


Group size has been a bit of a moving target over the years in MMOs and of course the degree to which group size matters is a fundamental design decision.  In the open world of Everquest, group size didn’t really matter than much depending on the challenge level of the content.

Wilhelm and I seemed to be able to find loads of challenging content as a dual-boxed foursome on Fippy Darkpaw and still had the flexibility to invite others as well when camped in a good area.  Group size seemed “suggested” rather than required.  In effect, you could scale your desired challenge level based on location and group size/composition and vice versa.

As instanced group content became the norm, group size started to matter quite a bit more.  Instanced content in most games tended to be tuned for an optimized group.  WoW chose five, Rift five, LotRO six, Guildwars six, DDO six, City of Heroes/Villains max of eight and now SWTOR with four.

Instanced content like WoW’s and LotRO’s (and I presume Rift though I’m not quite there yet) requires an optimal number and class composition.  EQ, EQ2, GW, DDO and CoX, not so much because of actual or effective scaling mechanisms.

So the question for us is how the heck do we experience SWTOR as our little group of five in a world that seems meant for four?

I’ve read that Companions work like henchmen in other games and can occupy group slots, so that conceivably would permit a group of five live players to occupy up to 10 total slots which would be two full “normal” groups, e.g., one group of three members and 1 companion and the other of two people and two companions.

I’m not sure I like the sound of that and as far as I know, SWTOR’s “Operations” or raid content isn’t available at lower levels.  Does anyone know whether “Flashpoint” instanced content can be experienced as a “raid” or 8 person group like the vanilla WoW end-game instances could (e.g., Scholo, Strat, etc.)?

It really bugs me that after so many years, MMO devs are still coming up with new (or continuing to use old) mechanics that manage to prevent people from playing together and/or experiencing all the wonderful content they’ve built into their game.

I’m not convinced that scalable content=meh if done in a thoughtful way.  I think instancing solves more problems than it creates, but instancing’s bastard child “phasing”– which is just hyperprogressive questing on acid– increasingly puts players in isolated boxes.

So how are others planning on experiencing SWTOR?  Solo and the LFD or random guildies?

Outstanding in My Field

As part of my return to LotRO, I convinced Mrs. P to return as well now that a major project that has been consuming her is winding up.  She hasn’t been as obsessive and I have, but has managed to get through the slightly disorienting “reacquaintance” phase of coming back to a game that you used to know how to play.

Saturday found three of us on, generally in the low thirties.  Dendromir, my Captain was a bit ahead of the pack, so I pulled out my Minstrel, Garfinkel, to join our wee fellowship for a bit of a romp through the Trollshaws and some cleanup in eastern Lone Lands.

Garfinkel was our LotRO group 2.0’s healer and primarily a group-oriented character.  Once upon a time, we more or less divided up tradeskills among those of us with the time and inclination.  The way it sort of worked out, Garfinkel ended up the Yeoman, leveling farming and cooking.  Realizing that everyone was a bit light in the food department, I resolved to hit the dirt today so to speak.

Oh the superlatives you'll earn!

Farming in LotRO has always been unique.  Over the various iterations since launch it has been revamped a few times.  At various points in the past, its been a money machine or second only to owning a boat as a money pit.  Traditionally, its also been a bit overly complicated.  And time consuming.

In the last iteration I recall, it also gave creedence to that old joke about how to make a small fortune in farming– start with a large one.

Once upon a time, it required no less than three crafting recipes and three vendor purchased ingredients (one unique to each recipe) to simple produce an item.  A farmer would purchase a “field” recipe, a “seed” recipe and a “crop” recipe.  You learned how to plant the field, harvest two different qualities of crop– one that could be processed into a usable item like “yellow onions” and the lower quality version which could only be processed back into seed, which could then be replanted for another attempt.

You purchased the applicable seed, the right kind of fertilizer, the right kind of water, went to the appropriate type of farmland (vegetable, grain or pipe-weed), and got down to it.  Reprocessing the lower quality output at least permitted you to “salvage” something out of what would be an otherwise unsuccessful crafting attempt.

The end result was often lots of bag clutter with odd lots left over and crafting menu clutter with three recipes to produce a single crop.  Left over seeds sold at a loss to vendors, basic recipes were often relatively expensive and the market tended not to be terribly great.  More importantly, with all the iterations: planting, harvesting, processing, ingredient making and finally cooking, going from seed to stomach represented quite an investment of time and often a substantial outlay of coin.

This round seems to have been streamlined a bit.  Turbine at some point eliminated the seed reprocessing step, so that’s one less recipe to buy and one additional time loop eliminated.  Likewise, they’ve done away with all crop specific seeds.  Now you simply by the appropriate tier seeds and they can be used for any crop in that tier.

While perhaps less immersive, its an immensely efficient improvement.  Zero waste, and it dramatically reduces bag clutter since I only need Artisan seeds for any number of different Artisan crops.  Likewise, eliminating the time burned on seed processing feels much better.

The task of the Yeoman is still not for the faint hearted.  Producing ingredients and cooked food items is still a substantial commitment of time to be efficient.  Witness this blog post, drafted while alt-tabbing out during long processing runs.

All for food that lasts only 5 minutes (or 20 minutes for the stat buff trail food).  Compare that with the 10 levels of use I get out of purple crafted armor from Wilhelm’s metalsmith or tailor… Granted, the gathering of raws or armor is not a zero time commitment process, but at least you can gather while questing.

Still, as a unique crafting element in the game, its not without its charms.  It would be fun to be able to truly build up a farming operation in your housing neighborhood on your own land, but of course that takes the slightly social element out, but would be an interesting game in its own right and offer a host of new items that could be used to enhance the growing process.

Oh Captain, my Captain

When we last checked in, our hero was stuck in the character transfer ticket queue.  Of course, no sooner did I post that then Turbine got around to letting me give them money.

Of course, even that wasn’t particularly easy.  One requests a character transfer through the Turbine support site, support.turbine.com and then after sifting through a 2,100 word FAQ, there is a four character long hyperlink from the word “here” (as in click here) to initiate the transfer request.  That leads you to open a customer support ticket where one fills your account name and the particulars of the transfer.  When completed, the transfer would be billed to the credit card on file for the account.

So Monday morning I received a live inquiry from support asking me to verify the last 4 digits of the credit card on the account.  It only dawned on me then that the support site and the ticket submission form, etc. required to actual log in, hence their necessity to manually verify that the request was legitimate (or at least that I was the guy who also stole the credit card on file).

I’m a bit surprised that Turbine is essentially relying on sneakernet to process these transactions (and yes perhaps a bit concerned that internal security at Turbine might not be all that I’d hope it to be).  That said, at long last and about 9 days after starting the process, Dendromir was finally on Firefoot.

Aye aye

Dendromir was one of the first characters I rolled after beta and one that I was using for a while with LotRO group 1.0 way back in the day before we decided we’d need a minstrel.  I don’t profess to be much more than a novice at playing a Captain these days, but it seems to have been one of those classes that has been tweaked and retweaked a bit.

Its taken me a bit to get back into the swing of things.  Captains seem to have fairly high survivability, but when played well.  I find that if I get in over my head, I’ve really got to take the most advantage of my reactive skills (e.g., those that are primarily only usable after defeat of a foe).  After doing a bit of research to refamiliarize myself with where Turbine has taken the Captain since launch, I’m getting the hang of it again and pursuing a few traits that help will accentuate the class’ strengths.

As I’m expecting him to be primarily solo/small group, I need a decent balance between quick killing dps as well as survivability (especially when caught by respawns or dealing with larger groups).  With the benefit of some nice armor upgrades from Wilhelm’s armorer, Nomu, leveling through the mid 30’s is no where near as precarious as it was with a random collection of low and mid 20s quest gear.

As a Captain of Gondor, I thought it only appropriate to run him through Evendim on his way to catch up to Gaff and Wilhelm who have already gotten to Moria.  Other than the interminable hobbit quests in Oatbarton (cute, but too long), I’ve generally enjoyed Evendim, but I’m looking forward to getting him into Eregion and points south.