Is Moria the Promised Land?

21 10 2009

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Here’s something interesting that jumped out at me while playing Turbine’s Tolkien-themed MMO The Lord of the Rings Online on Saturday. The Morroval are monsters that live in Moria that the player must battle. These half-woman half-bat demon things are an original Turbine creation based on small references to “fouler things than orcs lurking in Moria” in the books and Morroval NPCs are programmed to issue various statements during battles. Some of them are hints on how to fight them. If one says “Protect me, my sisters!” that’s your Loremaster’s clue to dispel corruption because they’ve got a nasty protective enchantment that can make them really tough to kill. One thing that they say really got me and made me think though. Just before they die they’ll ask the player “Why do you attack us in our home?”

The more I think about that, the more I think that that statement must be deliberately provocative. The storyline in the Mines of Moria expansion is that the death of the Balrog has created a power vacuum in Moria and various factions in Middle-earth are moving in to take advantage of it and claim Moria and its treasures for their own. Throughout the game, the player is supporting an effort by the dwarves to reclaim their ancient home and will see Mordor and Isengard orcs fighting against goblins and other creatures that have been living in Khazad-dum long enough that they could conceivably be considered “native Morians.” Here’s the thing, though — if you apply a post-modern filter to this storyline, shouldn’t your sympathies lie with the Moria goblins and the Morroval?

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Think about it. Khazad-dum was abandoned 7,000 years earlier when the Dwarves dug too deep in their search for Mithril and released the Balrog. That the Balrog is evil isn’t in doubt but what blame do the goblins who took up residence in the abandoned halls of Moria hold beyond doing what they needed to to survive under the brutal tyranny of the Balrog? At what point do the crimes of the past become irrelevant to the modern era? Yes, the Dwarves were kicked out of their home into a diaspora and have finally returned, but by what right do they claim land where hundreds of generations of goblins and Morroval have lived and died?

Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground between the three factions that could broker any sort of structured solution. Of course while hopeful peacemakers attempted to do so, the Dwarves would continue to build and expand their illegal settlements in the Dolven-view and the Twenty-first Hall while the goblins and Morroval fight back with what weapons they have — stealth, surprise and terror. It’s an endless cycle of violence where killing begets killing that merely begets more killing.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads one to make a moral equivalence where there really isn’t any. Yes, each side has some historical validity to their claims but ultimately my sympathy goes to that side that ultimately carries itself with greater moral elevation despite the often tough choices that war can create. In such a case, my sympathies must ultimately lie with the Dwarves not because of what the Morroval or the goblins do to them, but because of what goblins and Morroval do to each other and the kind of culture they create for themselves. Goblin and Morroval culture is one of stark brutality where the strong dominate the weak through murder and fear and rule by force is the norm. They make a virtue of killing and death and under their care Khazad-dum — a land of grace, beauty and freedom literally carved from the unforgiving Earth — became “Moria,” the Elvish word for “Black Pit.” No, the Dwarves are hardly innocents but when choosing between the imperfect and those who consciously choose evil (no matter that some of their claims may be justified), I’ll take the imperfect every time.

Any similarity between Moria and a particular country in the Middle-east is purely coincidental, by the way.





Getting Carried Away in LotRO’s Hall of Mirrors

19 10 2009

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After a hiatus of about three months, I spent last Saturday night doing something I haven’t done in a while — playing The Lord of the Rings Online. Now I love that game and if I had all the time that some of my guildmates seem to, I’d have at least half a dozen 60s instead on one along with a level 27 Champion and a few alts all hovering around 20. MMOs are like relationships — you occasionally need to take a break to see other games. (Please don’t tell my wife I wrote that.) I actually made a good bit of progress on my epic quests, finishing the first half of Volume II and finally convincing someone to take a trip to the Mirror-halls, one of the new three-man instances.

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Here’s the thing about the Mirror-halls. I love a lot of the stuff that Turbine does with their instancing and dungeon runs. There’d nobody better at telling a story in an MMO through the medium of dungeon design. They’re also really good at making the environment a more interactive and interesting part of a dungeon run. It seems to me that the mirror-halls is one their biggest missteps in the game. The big challenge in the mirror-hall is to reclaim the place from the merrevail (evil female demons) that have taken up residence in the place by adjusting the huge rotating mirrors to once again bring light into the place. That means that players have to run around adjusting these huge mirrors while fighting against wargs and morroval who are trying to keep the place in darkness. The place is a huge puzzle and is incredibly confusing.

The problem is that this is the the one area I’ve seen where Turbine’s creativity really ran away with them. Considering that this is a three-man instance and such instances were created to be challenging as larger content without the need for the huge time investment or a ton of people, why on Earth would you then go create an instance where even if you know the pattern you’re going to spend a huge chunk of time running up and down through confusing corridors turning mirrors just so in order to get just everything right? Then after all that, you follow it up with a boss fight that’s just brutally hard? Come on guys! Pick one or the other. If players are going to invest the time in getting the puzzle completed, would a simple tank n’ spank boss fight be too much to ask? Conversely, if the challenge is the fight, don’t make us fight the landscape getting there as well. This may be just me but having both at the same time smack of the classic World of Warcraft 40-man raids where every step had to be choreographed to within an inch of it’s life.





The Tipping Point? Nexon Reports 36% Growth in 3Q

17 10 2009

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Game Informer is reporting that Nexon’s America had a 36% jump in revenue in the third quarter. Between this and things like Dungeons & Dragons Online switching to free-2-play and the really fun League of Legends being offered for free I’m starting to think we may be reaching a tipping point where game developers are realizing that the traditional methods of revenue generation from gaming are being supplanted by a whole new method of monetizing products. What makes this especially interesting is that this is Nexon America, not Nexon as a whole which was already a successful Korean developer. Nexon America is a separate business entity designed to sell it’s products in the Western market. It’s apparently working.

The key of course is offering products designed with that kind of business model in mind and overcoming the impression of F2P being the catch-all for crap games not good enough to be sold at retail. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons Online, the game was always good. It was just saddled with the wrong business model. The design of DDO was always more suited to small groups of friends pushing their way through the content at a much slower pace than the ticking clock that a $15 a month subscription fee would allow. So what you had was people bulling their way through content over and over again in pick-up groups because they felt like they had to play to justify the expense. What people are finding now is that they can go through the game at their own pace and spend money or not as it suits their game style. From what I understand, the result is people spending a lot more money than they ever did as subscribers.

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The thing about Turbine is that they essentially lucked into an F2P game by virtue of having DDO. This isn’t something that would work with The Lord of the Rings Online because the game structure is completely different. Nexon, on the other hand, has games that explicitly built around this kind of mechanic. If you get the majority of your gaming news from hard-core gamer sites like IGN, GameSpy or GameSpot you may have never seen or heard of Maple Story or Mabinogi. If you’ve seen some ads for it you may have dismissed it as the cutesy free-2-play MMO that “real” gamers wouldn’t give the time of day. When I was PC editor for GameSpy I know I’d get calls constantly from PR reps throwing games like that at me that — blinkered as I was by the “real” games that were sitting on my desk — I’d just ignore and dismiss. To be fair, a lot of them are really bad knock-offs that aren’t worth your time. The beauty of being out on your own though is the opportunity to explore areas of gaming that you’ve missed (I’ve become a hard-core Mafia Wars fanatic). I’m beginning to realize now the kinds of experiences that I’ve missed out on.

Take Mabinogi. On the advice of a friend I downloaded it and started playing and I immediately couldn’t believe how good it was. Mabinogi is a classic example of a game that doesn’t push the envelope as much as origami it around into a new and pleasing experience. Everything you might expect from an MMO is there — questing, leveling, killing monsters, crafting. Rather than the more linear experience that suddenly levels out into lateral advancement after the level cap is reached though, Mabinogi is a broad-based experience from teh get-go. It’s a game that encourages you subtly through things like the “Part-time job” mechanic to really explore and do different sorts of things during the same play session. Rather than mindlessly grinding through monsters or quests, I found myself in Mabinogi really running around and dabbling in the many different things to do. It’s got a fun arcadey combat system and randomly generated dungeons that actually utilize items in your inventory to create them.

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More importantly, it’s got the kind of wide progression scheme that encourages you to get involved on your schedule rather than the game’s. Without those huge time-sucking raids or the kinds of tricks that encourage players to devote big chunks of time to make any sort of measurable progress. That’s the kinds of things you need to justify a monthly fee. If a player doesn’t feel like they need to be in the game in order to advance, they’ll begin wondering just what they’re paying all that money for. It’s also why people feel like they can only play one subscription-based MMO at a time. For most people that’s World of Warcraft, the king of that sort of vertical-based progression scheme.

In WoW you HAVE to devote time to raiding or PvP in order to advance once you reach the level cap and old content is abandoned once the majority of the player-base moves through it. Free to play games don’t need that and consequently they can devote less developer time to creating these huge content chunks. There’s certainly room in this world for both types of games but it seem like there are more people with limited time who would prefer the F2P model than the kind of “health club” mindset of the traditional subscription model that really only appeals to people with lots of disposable time. It’ll be interesting to see how Nexon does once its yearly numbers come out. If it does as well as it has over the last few quarters, I think more than a few big western game companies are going to sit up and take notice.

(and yes, I did put another picture of a sexy night elf in here.)





Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears

17 09 2009

My first piece for Gamasutra Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears just went up. As tough as it was to write, there’s nothing I like better than delving into the guts of the game industry and figuring out what makes this stuff tick. DDO is a classic example of a game hurt not so much by what was on the screen (I reviewed it over at GameSpy and while it was good then, it’s gotten much better) but by the decision about what business model to put on it. It’s amazing how sometimes the littlest thing can help or hurt a game — being in the right place at the right time, having a celebrity admit that they’re a fan, putting the wrong artwork on the box… The bottom line, as with the movies, is that nobody really knows anything before a title launches. It’s a lot of educated guesses and soothsaying. You can be smart and reduce the risk, but ultimately it’s still a roll of the dice. Are you listening, Mr. Kotick?
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In the mean time, I was once again impressed at the passion that goes into the people who work in the gaming industry. I’m not just talking about designers or producers like Fernando Paiz but also PR people like Adam Mersky and Atlus Online’s Jaime Ortiz (who’s a business operations guy). It struck me while talking to them that these are people who love what they do. It may be because this is still a relatively young and small industry where the first generation of pioneers is still around even as the third generation of money-men and MBA try to corporatize it, so enjoy it while it lasts. It’s not often you get to be present at the settling of a new frontier and this is a time in gaming that will never come again.

Hey! I just got an idea for tomorrow’s Angry Bear column!

Read Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears at Gamasutra.

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