Monday, March 6, 2017

Eternal Daybreak of the Spotless Mind

Cranked up my Lord of the Rings Online account a little while ago to catch up on the last couple of years of patches and was very surprised to see the logo on the opening screen had changed to a brand new company.

See, until recently it was obvious to everyone who bothered logging in anymore that the place has gone dead. Aging game engine, nothing to offer in terms of gameplay, and they'd painted themselves into a corner by trying to follow the flow of the books' narrative instead of developing Middle-Earth as a virtual world. Now it's spun off into a "new" developer and published by Daybreak instead of Warner Brothers. Now, the question of why a publisher owned by an American investment branch of a gigantic Russian strategic resource conglomerate's buying up the rights to aging MMOs is an interesting one in itself, but somewhat beyond the scope of this post. The real world can go to whatever hells it pleases so long as I get my fix of virtual worlds.

The switch to Standing Stone Games may save LotRO... "may" being the operative vacillation here. For a group of game designers branching off on their own, a Tolkien license could make for a pretty solid foundation, so they have a much stronger incentive to dredge Middle Earth out of the usual lingering MMO undeath. Can this be done? Despite having dumbed down its gameplay to an utterly effortless, mindless grind devoid of meaningful choices, you could always spot a scattered glimmer of creativity in LotRO's depiction of the world itself. So here's a recent mission in which you have to track the ever-popular white stag of legend through the woods.
You reach the last hoofprint on the left there and the trail seems to vanish. Climbing up the rocky hill, you catch it again in the soft dirt at the top, because as everyone who's been a fan of old wild west stories will tell you, it's much, much harder to track desperados across bare rock than in soft dirt.

It's not much. One step of one mission in one zone. The rest of LotRO is still composed of the idiotic Pavlovian "kill ten rats" routine, of UI arrows pointing you to the stationary mobiles you hit over the head with whatever all-purpose magic missile skill you wish for easy money. Still, the inclusion of a detail like this is encouraging, and surprising. Making players actually look around and think about their surroundings, asking them to remember arcane tidbits of boy scout lore? Blarsphemy, muvver! Nerf deer hoofprints OMGWTFBBQ!

However, even if Standing Stone were to start improving gameplay, maybe begin reinstating some of the bygone complexity of Shadows of Angmar like specific buffs/debuffs and cure skills, fellowship maneuvers, crowd control, a trait system with actual choices instead of blatantly spoon-fed red/blue/yellow options for every occasion, even if they were to do all that and implement some challenging, complex group PvE to boot... it's probably a decade too late to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Unlike EVE, which is arguably just as bad a game, LotRO has done nothing to retain the right customers, the ones who keep things interesting for the rest.

See, while wandering around I got randomly spammed by some idiot who wanted me to join his guild. Sure, why the hell not. A few days later I got kicked out. In between, I managed to get a couple of players into an instance run and man were they jazzed because, you see, they don't usually get to do things like this. You mean games are more interesting when you actually... play? Imagine that! I didn't bother asking them why they themselves didn't take the exact same action I did, take the minimal initiative to say "hey, there's this one dungeon I haven't done in a while, anyone else want to come along?" No, I just smiled and nodded and let the brain-dead sheeple wander off aimlessly awaiting more UI arrows to point them to the next ten rats they have to be told to kill.

Aside from that I mostly idled, watching guild chat to see what's going on, how these people act, etc.
Know what I found?
Sitting on my perch atop Nar's Peak, leaving the game running hour after hour as I did other things, do you know how many lines of text I'd find in kinship chat when I'd alt-tab back in?
Hour after hour, day after day.
From two to ten other players online. Zero talk. I used to complain about chat within MMO guilds being trite and pointless. Now players have regressed to utter catatonia. They have no interests, no fears or hopes or dreams, no plans or schemes or plots, no climaxes or denouements, and heavens forfend they might acquire such a dreaded malady as having opinions! Opinions are for social networking echo chambers where everyone's guaranteed to pat you on the back for toeing the line, not for open airing where you might hear something you don't like. Open talk is crazy talk!

So I ended up quoting the apathetic simpletons my old commentary on the LotRO community and they kicked me out. Done. Ghan-buri-ghan's more sagacious company anyway. I love that as everything else has died, morons are still creating guilds and inviting others to them, to feel as if they have an entourage. You name a guild, you spam invitations, you tell people how good it is to see them. It is a thing that is done. No need to actually organize and try to find some challenging or novel group content. Sure your forum has a total of three threads with three replies each in it, but you have a forum and that's how you know you're a real guild! You're somebody!

If this troglodytic automaton filth is all there's left to work with in MMOs, then there is no hope for improving the genre. Even if you do give these idiots quality content they'll just stare blankly at it, lost in thoughtlessness until the bell rings and it's time to salivate, time to follow the giant glowing map marker, time to do the "daily" content you're told to do.

Fuck, this species makes me sick.

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