Friday, February 1, 2013

Dwarves Eat Rocks

- and they sleep on top of their forges like cats on a fireplace mantle.

At release, one of LOTRO's strongest points was its expert map design. Every zone was landscaped and decorated to have its own identity and to offer both close-quarters, focused questing areas and wide, sweeping vistas. The Shire was an airy, cheerful place while the Old Forest was a claustrophobic clutter of trees and spiders. The designers put some effort into maintaining the illusion of Middle-Earth as a world and not just a setup for hacking and slashing at monsters.

Though they did not maintain this high standard with higher level areas, the most abrupt change came with the game's first expansion, Mines of Moria. With Moria, the game lost all sense of proportion, in terms of decor, gameplay mechanics, content and aesthetics.

The gameplay mechanics changes are subtle and i don't particularly feel like getting into LOTRO-specific details. They added up to a greater emphasis on outright farming, giving the player 'opportunities' to mindlessly grind hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in dozens of locations. The few apparent increases in complexity turned out to be simply redundant increases in gear-farming (the so-called "legendary" items) or forcing the player to rely on rote memorization of skill combos (the warden class) or a facetious melding of damage and healing in one class (rune-keeper) which was in reality just a simplistic push to specialize in damage or healing at any time.

Aesthetic choices, however, are a more accessible topic. LOTRO is more dependent on its setting than any other WoW-clone. It has the least leeway in mangling its source material, given how entrenched Tolkien's fan-base is. The rune-keeper class was instantly criticized by roleplayers as being too flashy, undermining the low-key place of magic in middle-earth. Monsters became ridiculously large and acquired ... enhancements like devil horns or big flaming spikes growing out of their shoulders, reminiscent more of Dungeons and Dragons than Tolkien. Weapons acquired WoW-ish glow effects.

Moria itself, as a location, is the least interesting place in the game. It is ridiculously overblown and grandiose. The largest caves anywhere else in the game could easily fit in the narrowest connecting passages of Moria. Everything is a highway-sized, level rocky tube stretching at least a dozen meters tall. Have these people never seen an actual cave?
What's more, Moria was supposed to be the greatest dwarven city. Make a note of that: a City, not a workhouse, not just a display of dwarven culture, but a place of habitation, a concentrated population of living sentient beings. LOTRO's version of the Dwarrowdelf, though, is nothing but a conglomeration of forges and mines alternating with gigantic empty hallways. There are no forms of entertainment, no farms (excepting one park) or any other kind of food supply, and most importantly, no houses. Dwarves apparently not only pull their food out of thin air but also take up no space. They just dig-dig-dig-dig-dig. The expansion was obviously a rush job. Cut-and-pasted environments, endless repetition, content even more mindlessly copycatted from competing games than can normally be expected from such products. Just a desperate push to get something big out there to keep the players busy.

These observations take on another dimension when seen in the context of the WoW-clone marketing scheme. The first expansion has a tendency to be the least interesting, the most focused on grinding players through timesinks, desperately cutting costs on such frivolity as quality. It seems the industry's consensus is that the game concept by that point has run its course, that it can afford to disgust players into quitting as long as it drags a few more months of subscription money out of them. WoW's own Burning Crusade followed the same pattern and i've heard similar criticism of WAR and Everquest 2. Even City of Heroes' first major expansion, before City of Villains, was that gigantic, pointless, content-starved grindfest, the Shadow Shard.
If the game somehow magically survives that first wave of expansion, developers become more willing to improve it.

Conclusion? Hold off on buying an MMO's first expansion.

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