Monday, April 30, 2007

More LotRO maps

Just a quick notice that The Brasse also has other LotRO maps than the Old Forest. Particularly the map of Bree might come in handy, it is a rather large town and sometimes a bit confusing. The map has all the NPCs and points of interest marked.

LotRO Journal - 1-May-2007

The first of May is a public holiday over here, so I took yesterday off and have a 4-day weekend. Lots of time to play LotRO, and still get some other Real Life ® things done. I played all afternoon yesterday, on an increasingly empty server, because the logon server was down from 3 pm to nearly midnight. The European side of LotRO has more technical problems than the US side, this is the second half-day of outage since release day here.

I don't know if Codemasters is giving out extra days as compensation, like Blizzard does, for outages like this. But one of the curious problems of a lifetime subscription is that you can't get compensated. Lifetime plus x days? On the plus side they decided to move the patch from today to tomorrow, so I'm gaining at least half a day of non-maintenance on this holiday. And while other people don't like the regular 9-12 am Tuesday maintenance window, I actually prefer this to the earlier WoW maintenance, because in LotRO I can still check the auction house before going to work.

My minstrel is level 18 now, and has finished all accomplishments in the Shire, except for the advanced slug-slayer one. The slugs are easy enough to kill, there just aren't all that many spawn points for them in the bog, and the respawn rate isn't high. As much as I love the Shire, I'm afraid I'll be forced to move on. Now I could follow the traditional route of going into Bree-land. But I'm also considering visiting the elf/dwarf low-level area first, and doing the accomplishments there, at least those with traits that I want to equip. Some of the mobs I would need to kill for that might still give xp at my level.

I also advanced my cooking and tailoring. For cooking I needed to climb the Weathertop in the Lone Lands to pick a herb, which was easy enough without a fight. For tailoring I needed to kill a level 20 signature aurochs, grazing in the middle of level 25ish elite orcs, which wasn't that easy. Fortunately a level 20 guild mate helped me. So now I can do expert level recipes for both cooking and tailoring. I just need to level up now, because I can't use these crafted goods before level 20.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

LotRO Journal - 30-April-2007

Lots of action this weekend in Lord of the Rings Online. I was mostly playing my minstrel, who is now level 17. This weekend I finished the epic epilogue quests with him and then did the complete epic book I quest series together with my guild, from chapter 1 to chapter 12. Very interesting concept: Instead of dungeons, LotRO has these "chapters", many of which are instanced events or dungeons. Generally much shorter than WoW dungeons, but they form a progressing story, with cut-scenes at the end of each chapter tying your adventures to the Lord of the Rings story line. And you can always come back and do the dungeons again and again, if you just want to do it for the loot, which is often quite good.

That was especially fun doing with a role-playing guild, hobbits only. That kind of limits us with the classes, especially since except my alt nobody made a guardian. But the only really hard dungeon was the chapter 11 Barrow Downs one, and we did all the other chapters without problems. The chapter where we needed to pick lillies in the Old Forest actually gave us some nice opportunity for role-playing the effect of the sleep-inducing lilly parfume. In chapter 11 we had a couple of defeats, but in a group with 3 minstrels, a burglar, and a hunter we actually did quite well to finish that chapter after a couple of attempts.

As planned I'm now running around in self-crafted medium armor. But my plans to make that "superb leather armor" hit a snag. The recipes are not only one-use-only, they also each require some rare drop from a named mob around level 20, some of them elite. So up to now I'm mostly wearing tough leather armor, and only two pieces of superb, because that was all that I could find on the auction house. And then I paid far too much for it. I'm now probably the best-armored level 17 minstrel in the game. Have to spend all these farming profits on something. :)

I did some more farming, because I still suspect that farming nerf patch to be applied soon, maybe Tuesday. When I was up to 2.5 gold, I promptly blew half a gold piece on learning cooking up to master journeyman. I could have done more, but the expert recipes already require level 20 to eat the food, so I wasn't that interested. I made a mistake leveling cooking at apprentice level with cooked carrots. While this is the cheapest recipe, I hadn't counted on needing pie crusts for the next level. I could just as well have done pie crusts all the way to master apprentice. Anyway, I leveled the journeyman rank to master on doing Coney Pies, so now I have a large supply of good food for adventuring. Cooking has two sorts of foods. One that gives bonuses to your stats, the "trail food". And the other kind, which increases your morale and power regeneration for 5 minutes. Very useful for combat, although you can't eat in combat and need to think of eating your pie just before.

Besides crafting, I was mostly adventuring. I'm trying to complete all the accomplishments in The Shire, to get all the traits and titles. The biggest problem is the "slug-squasher" one, because there aren't all that many slugs around, and too many people hunting them.

The most exciting adventure was leaving the Shire and going into the Old Forest. The place is a mace, full of monsters, and some of them are too hard for a level 17 solo minstrel, like the huorn walking trees. And if you try to flee and run into a dead-end, you end dead. :) I died several times, until I went to look for a map, and found the one I linked to yesterday. With the map it got a whole lot easier, and I didn't die again. I was trying to find the mobs that drop the rare parts for my superb leather armor, but no luck. One is an elite walking tree which I couldn't have killed anyway, and I never found the other one, the bat, although I was camping the spot where it was supposed to come out for one hour. Well, I found that bat part on the auction house later, so that wasn't catastrophic. And the Old Forest was a lot of fun, being so scary and dangerous.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hackers are idiots

Somebody is trying to hack my World of Warcraft account, by taking my publicly available e-mail address and entering it on Blizzard's site, claiming to have forgotten the userID and password. The flaw in that plan? Of course the information gets send to me, not to the hacker. What an idiot! Already happened several times with my Google account too, but never got the wannabe-hacker anywhere.

LotRO - Old Forest Map

I found a wonderful site called The Brasse with great hand-painted maps from Lords of the Rings Online. Especially useful is the map of the Old Forest, which is a nasty labyrinth. Im linking The Brasse map of it here, for reference.

The Brasse also has maps of EQ2, plus comics on various MMORPGs. Brasse did all the maps for all the EQ2 Prima guides as well as the atlas they produced. Really a great site, especially if you enjoy hand-drawn maps as opposed to the stupid screenshot maps you can find everywhere about WoW. Good to know that there are still some real map artists out there.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Whoa! The colors!

I'm stealing screenshots from Kinless and Potshot to demonstrate the difference between the graphics of World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. I could have done screenshots myself, but I thought using what other people think are typical screenshots of the game they are playing would be better.

The difference in style is very visible. WoW uses a lot more color, and is more comic style. LotRO's colors are more subdued and natural, without falling into the grey-in-brown trap like EQ2 did. LotRO has a significantly higher polygon count, and looks more realistic, just compare the trees. The over two years difference in age is noticeable, although of course that comes with the downside of probably needing a 2-year younger PC. In WoW your "shadow" is a round spot, regardless of your size or shape. In LotRO your shadow looks like it should look, a 2D image of you on the ground. I was seriously impressed when I crossed a ford in LotRO and noticed that in the water I could see both my shadow and my reflection. Water looks *so* much better in LotRO.

I always liked the WoW comic style. It has the advantage that you can exaggerate proportions to make things more visible. For example the treasure chests in WoW really shout "treasure" at you. LotRO's clickable items are smaller and less visible, but the game gets around that problem by adding an optional floating title to everything you can click on, and having important clickable things pulsate. I didn't like the photorealistic graphics of EQ2 or Vanguard very much. But I do like LotRO's graphics better than WoW's, although I must say WoW has the better animations. For me it is easier to imagine that I am living in another world if that world looks more natural.

Another important difference is how the characters look. I mentioned before that I made a female blood-elf, because I couldn't manage to create a male blood-elf character that didn't look too much like a pretty boy. If I would create several male blood elves, they would all look like pretty boys, just with different hair styles. In LotRO I managed to make two totally different looking hobbits, one old and gray, with a pot-belly, and the other young, with freckles, and muscular. Especially for a role-playing server it is important that you can deviate from the standard good-looking adventurer stereotype. In WoW, if you want to play somebody ugly, you need to choose a Horde race. In LotRO you can change the body type, or add wrinkles or scars to your face.

Both graphics styles are certainly viable, and if you have an elderly computer you might prefer the lesser system requirements of World of Warcraft. But if your computer is half-decent, Lord of the Rings Online sure is pretty. I'm a big fan of Nagrand, but The Shire beats it hands-down. I've always been an explorer, and having a beautiful world with impressive graphics makes that so much more pleasant.

Losing the console wars

Trick question: Which was the best-selling games console in March 2007? If you answered Wii, you weren't quite right. While the Wii beat both the XBox 360 and the PS3, it sold less than ... the PS2. And the Nintendo DS handheld sold even more. The Wii isn't so much winning the next generation console wars as losing it the least badly. Meanwhile PC games sales for the first quarter of 2007 are up 17% compared to the same quarter of last year, with the sales of the Burning Crusade playing a big part in that. Even the New York Times sees rosy times ahead for PC games.

With all their fancy multimedia and internet capabilities, the next generation consoles are still not as good as a PC for surfing the internet. And if you consider that you need a PC for internet surfing anyway, upgrading it with a decent graphics card and more RAM so you can play games can end up costing you less than buying a PS3! Plus the PC still dominates some genres of games, like MMORPGs or strategy games.

I'm not currently planning to buy any next generation console anytime soon. If by christmas there are more games out for the PS3 that interest me, maybe. But right now I just don't see any interest in buying any one of them.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Blizzard getting nervous

I had an e-mail from Blizzard, and several readers who got the same letter also pointed it out to me: Blizzard is offering a free Burning Crusade trial, suspiciously close to the LotRO release date. Apparently they noticed they got competition, even if they are still the 800-pound gorilla. Well, good for us customers, I say.

On the other hand this is a typical example of the development department not talking with the marketing department. The marketing department does the best they can do, offering a free trial. But with the number of people that have WoW without having bought BC being low, the impact of this campaign will be low. What Blizzard *should* have done is to examine the reasons why people leave WoW, and then ask the developers to change the game in a way that keeps people playing. Hint: Adding the Black Temple to the game isn't going to help here. Not sure about the other content additions in patch 2.1, they might be good, they might be the next incarnation of the Silithus grind and the horribly failed tier 0.5 armor upgrade quests.

Interestingly LotRO is about to outflank WoW on the casual side. Two years ago WoW was consider the easy-mode MMORPG. Now people hit the level 70 wall, and only a small percentage of players can break through this wall and into the raid content. So nowadays many players consider the end-game of WoW as "too hard", and are looking for a more casual-friendly alternative. And Lord of the Rings Online is offering just that. LotRO is generally a bit easier than WoW, you need to kill less foozles per quest to get the reward, there is less grind. If you really spend 1 hour killing the same kind of mobs, you are already rewarded with an advanced foozle slayer title and trait. I don't know what will happen when people hit the LotRO end-game, but right now LotRO is the casual alternative to hardcore WoW.

LotRO Journal - 27-April-2007

Short journal entry, because I didn't play last night, all the servers were down.

Now I know it would make a better story if I told you how incredibly surprised and outraged I was that I couldn't play. But in reality my reaction was more like "what took them so long?". The server crash is two days late. Probably delayed by the account creation page being inaccessible on release day, so it took people more time to create their accounts and overload the servers.

Of course I spent some minutes trying to enter the game repeatedly, and checking the forums. But once I realized the game was down for the night, I just wandered off, did some AH transactions in WoW, and then went to watch TV. I wonder if it's just getting used to downtimes, or whether my lifetime subscription has anything to do with it. If you consider a MMORPG to have a finite amount of content, and you already paid for all of it, it doesn't really matter so much when exactly you consume that content.

Warhammer Online delayed to 2008

I just got the Warhammer Online newsletter, which contained one important information:
We have made the decision to move our ship date for the US and Europe to the first quarter of 2008. (Release dates for Asia will be announced at a later date.) Since our acquisition by EA, we have been afforded many wonderful development opportunities and we plan to take full advantage of everything that is available. This includes taking several additional months to make the best MMORPG possible.
Many people already suspected this, but now it's official. No WAR before 2008. May I suggest a timing 3 months after the next WoW expansion? That tends to work well. :)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

You are who you know

I am wondering in how far your playing style in a game like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online is influenced by the people you play with, especially your guild. I used to be playing casually in a casual guild, then raided in a raiding guild, and now in LotRO I'm roleplaying in a roleplaying guild. If I were in a PvP guild, would I like PvP more? Would somebody else who is currently heavily into raiding be just as happy doing something else, if only his guild mates were doing the same?

Most probably there are both types of players. Those who absolutely know what they want, and those who adjust their playstyle to whatever their friends are doing. It is an old mantra of the MMORPG genre that people keep playing these games to hang out with their friends. But apparently that isn't the case for everybody, because otherwise it would be hard to explain why some people change guild so often. Some people seem to be on a fixed trajectory, at their own personal speed, towards more and more challenging raid content. And if their friends aren't able to keep up with that speed, they move to the next guild, further along on that same path, until one day they arrive in a guild which fits their playing style.

The problem with selecting your friends to fit your playing style is that people change. In retrospect it becomes clear that all that guild drama in my first WoW guild was caused by people developing in different directions, or at least at different speeds. It is very hard to have a guild in harmony when some players are developing into hardcore raiders, and others barely budge from their casual roots. Real life constraints often cause that even if the casual people are willing to raid for friendships sake, they aren't as available or prepared as the really determined players, and just end up slowing them down.

My current WoW guild has a slightly different concept, beating the problem of differing interests by simply being huge. With nearly 200 people in the guild, there is always somebody around with similar interests. The downside of that is when those 200 people barely get two Karazhan teams together, and sometimes have to cancel 25-man raids because not enough players turn up. With everyone basically doing whatever they want, there isn't much of a sense of common purpose. With me not knowing when and how much WoW I will play in the coming months, such a guild suits me just fine right now. But such a losely organized guild doesn't do much to keep people playing beyond the point where they get bored with the game.

I don't know whether it is the atmosphere of LotRO, or the smaller guild with a common purpose, or the fact that its a roleplaying guild on a roleplaying server, but right now I feel a lot more comfortable in my LotRO guild. There is very little of the "have to keep up with the others" feeling, which makes WoW guilds feel like work sometimes. The big advantage of roleplaying guilds is that roleplaying doesn't require you to have a specific level, talent build, or availability in larger blocks of time. It's nicer if you are available for planned events, but if you can't, at least you don't feel as if you just lost out on DKP and future loot rights or raid spots. And if you show up, you're included. There is no "oh, we don't need a second rogue for this, sorry" argument that keeps you from playing with the others.

Nevertheless I don't regret having hung out with the raiders for some time. It turned out that I'm a decent enough raid healer, quite respected by the other raiders. At the very least that gives me the confidence that selecting my personal playstyle is a matter of preference, not ability, which makes the sometimes rude hardcore raider's comments on this blog easier to bear. Raiding is fun if you are in the mood for it, and it's not rocket science, most people would be able to do it if they have the dedication. I just did enough of it to last me for a while, and just don't want to do it any more. I now enjoy hanging out with different people, doing something completely different.

So, how is it for you? Are you doing what you are doing because that is what you always wanted to do? Or did you just find a group of nice people, and followed their lead? If your current guild changed focus and started doing something different, would you switch guild, or stick with them?

LotRO Journal - 26-April-2007

I'll probably regret not power-farming now one day, but instead I went adventuring yesterday and made level 15. That is an important step, because at level 15 you get your first class quest from your trainer. Very, very nice, the class quest mostly consisted of an instanced solo encounter, and gave some very good results. In my case, minstrel, I got a nice club, and the ability to wear medium armor. Okay, this medium armor ability came as a class trait, not as skill, and so I had to use the only class trait slot I have at level 15 to equip it. (Translation into WoW-speak: I had to choose it as a talent, thus couldn't chose some other interesting talents.) But wearing medium armor instead of light armor is rather important for my survival, especially when soloing. So I consider it a big bonus.

Nevertheless I'm still running around in light armor. The reason for that is my tailoring skill. Although I'm blocked at journeyman, I was able to get some interesting recipes for level 16 medium armor, called "superb leather armor". The interesting thing here is that these recipes are single-use. So I won't be able to produce several of them for alts or for sale, unless I buy several sets of expensive recipes. But I can make a rather nice set of magical level 16 medium armor. As this is now less than half a level away, I'm not investing in any other medium armor right now. The light armor I'm wearing, self-tailored heavy quilted armor, isn't that bad. I only replaced the helmet, but the heavy quilted one made me look suspiciously like a garden gnome.

Overall I noticed that LotRO has a wider variety of armor *shapes* than World of Warcraft. I mean, my WoW priest ran around in the same shape of robe, just with different textures, from level 1 to 70. My LotRO minstrel already wore several different shaped pieces of chest armor, from things looking like padded armor to something looking like a leather coat. And the hats! Every time I get a new piece of head armor, it has a completely new shape, which does a lot to change the look of my character. In comparison my WoW warrior had helmet display turned off until level 70, because all the helmets he found looked like cooking pots, and didn't fit at all on the head of a troll (same helmets on a human or dwarf looked better).

Besides the class quest, I pursued some quests that incidentally lead to me acquiring more traits. I already mentioned my first racial trait, throwing a stone, which quite frankly sucked for a class that already has lots of good ranged spells. So I was quite happy when by killing a lot of spiders I got a second racial trait, hobbit stature, which increased my might by 20 points, nearly doubling it. I also got lots of different normal traits now, I'll have to sort through them and optimize the selection of those that I want to equip.

I also advanced a little bit on the epic quest line that everyone has. Well, every race has a different quest line, I assume, although I'm not sure whether they all come together at the higher level. I'm still in the epilogue, killing goblins in the greenfields.

In role-playing I got my hobbit guardian alt invited into my guild, and started the storyline of the guardian being the adventurous son of the more conservative minstrel / farmer. But I'm still in the Archet newbie zone with the guardian. There are so many things to do in this game, I barely know where to start. Isn't that great?

Spelling and grammar

It's always the first of April over at Daily Gaming News. So they posted the fake announcement of Blizzard introducing spelling and grammar exams into World of Warcraft, which players will have to pass to be able to play. The reason why that makes us smile is that sometimes we just wish it was true. We live in an age where people write as much as never before in the history of mankind: text messages, e-mails, blogs, game chats. And it turns out that one of the reasons why many people didn't write so much in previous ages is that they don't know how. They still don't know how, but somehow the social inhibition to prove they're an idiot by writing like one has become lost.

They simply claim that "u" and "r" are just socially acceptable short forms of "you" and "are", mix in some newly invented slang like "roxxor" and "pwn", some acronyms like "lol", and soon the phrases they're writing looks so unlike correct English that nobody even notices that they just spelled a couple of words wrong, and have no idea of the correct use of punctuation.

Blizzard will never test their players for spelling and grammar, but don't you sometimes wish that players in chat were writing something which resembled English a bit more?

A lot of content

I was about to write a comment to a post on The Common Sense Gamer blog, but it got so long that I decided I'd better post it here. TCSG quotes Blizzard VP Rob Pardo, who "says the reason why WoW is successful is because it delivers a lot of content; not just a grind; and that content takes time and creative effort to produce.", and complains that this isn't true, because the WoW end-game is a grind. True, but that isn't what Rob Pardo said. In fact, objectively viewed, all what Rob says here is totally correct.

World of Warcraft is successful because it delivers a lot of content. Take the famous "casual" gamer, including the middle-class variant which has a casual attitude, but plays quite a lot (that would be me). How much content does he have in WoW, if he doesn't want to raid or grind? A rough estimate would be about 2,000 hours before he has explored all the zones, did most of the quests, and played several character classes and races, Horde and Alliance. 2,000 hours totally qualifies as "a lot of content". I can't even think of other media offering anywhere near 2,000 hours of content. You can read the complete Dune series of books much faster than that. Even endless TV series like CSI with all sub-series, or Friends, don't come anywhere close to 2,000 hours. But World of Warcraft offers that much content, and that is a major reason for its success.

Rob Pardo says "not just grind", and that is true, there is a lot of non-grind content in WoW. He doesn't say "there is no grind in WoW", because that would be a lie. The reason why I'm more or less burned out of WoW, and why so many other bloggers are angry with WoW, or cancelling their accounts, is that 2,000 hours is not the same as "endless". It is totally possible to consume all that lot of content in the two-and-a-half years of WoW's existence, if you play more than 15 hours per week, which a lot of players do. And at the end of the content there is no game over screen telling you that you have finished. Instead there is grind and the raid game that is only attractive to a small number of hardcore players.

The problem that Rob Pardo states in that interview is that Blizzard is unable to produce content as fast as some players consume it. I mentioned it before, at the rate that me personally I'm consuming content, the Burning Crusade expansion was only good for three months. Content patches help, but they aren't adding so many hundreds of hours of non-grind, non-raid content either. For me World of Warcraft simply ran out of content, even if I'm totally willing to admit that there was a lot of it to start with. I just couldn't get enough of it, couldn't ration it, and used it all up. Now I'll need to play something else until they restock.

Running out of content you still want to play is a sad thing, causing some negative emotions. Many people become so frustrated and depressed from it that they start complaining about how bad a game World of Warcraft is. I don't really feel comfortable with that. I'd like to have more content, I'd like the developers to create more non-grind, non-raid content for the masses (aka "me") instead of raid content for the elite. But that doesn't change the fact that I quite enjoyed the last 30 months of playing WoW, 30 hours per week. In fact I'd feel rather foolish saying "I played over 3,000 hours of WoW and finally came to the conclusion that the game sucks". The worst thing I can say about WoW is that after all that time I'm not sure I'll want more of the same, even if they added accessible new zones and quests. But I never expected World of Warcraft to last forever.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

LotRO Journal - 25-April-2007

Yesterday was the official release of Lord of the Rings Online, and over here in Europe it went medium smoothly. The servers stayed up, there wasn't too much lag, and installation and downloading the latest patch went fast enough. But the website on which you had to create your account and enter your CD key was totally overloaded, and hard to impossible to access. Now fortunately me and the other pre-order customers are allowed to continue playing without a CD key until Friday. But if you didn't pre-order, trying to create a new account for LotRO yesterday must have been quite frustrating. I couldn't manage to enter my CD key all day, and only managed to get my lifetime subscription set up this morning. Apparently LotRO is selling well in Europe.

Now I received a mail acknowledging may payment and telling me "your next payment is due before 01/01/70". Well, I'll be 105 years old on that date, presumably dead. So that's their definition of "lifetime subscription". :) Realistically, LotRO will probably cease to exist long before that, not being compatible with the holodecks of 2070, or whatever other display technology they'll have by then. As Codemasters has no information about *my* lifetime, I could be dead and buried with my descendants having inherited the userid and password, a "lifetime" subscription can only be for the lifetime of the game, not the player. But surpringly, in a world full of legalese, terms of services and end-user license agreements, I couldn't find the legal terms of the lifetime subscription anywhere. In any case Codemasters needs to hire some better lawyers. They had announced a "golden ticket" type contest to be part of the special edition, and had to renege on that, because running a legally binding kind of lottery covering many European countries turned out to be an unsolveable legal nightmare. They couldn't even put a wax-sealed letter as promised in the box, due to some safety regulations. Then they had problems producing the cloth map, and had to put a "parchment" map into the box instead. So now the special edition and collector edition boxes contain a lot less stuff than promised, and players who bought them are understandably upset. Fortunately I read about that before, and while my local store had all three editions in stock, I just bought the cheapest one.

I was playing the game yesterday still with my beta client, without movies and high-res textures. Following some advice from the forums I then installed the full game client on another machine, my laptop, and then copied the movies and high-res textures over to my main PC. At first that seemed to work, but then I zoned into North Downs and was greeting with black textures, turning my whole screen totally black, except for the 2D user interface. So I ended up uninstalling the beta client, and installing the full game client from scratch. As I already mentioned, the necessary download for that went quite fast, and there was no problem. I already thought LotRO was pretty with the old textures, but with the high-res textures the game became extremely pretty. But to see the game in all splendor you really need one of this year's graphics cards and a decent computer. For the first time I also saw the quite well done intro movie. Now I wonder whether I could delete it, because I have to press escape three times more every time I start LotRO to get past the movies. :)

Back in the game I'm on a balanced gameplay between farming and adventuring, based on the in-game time of day. By increasing your gamma you *can* adventure at night, but it isn't as beautiful as during the in-game day. So now I adventure during the days, and farm during the nights. The hardest thing I did yesterday was trying to do a level 11 group quest solo with my level 14, killing a named elite warg. As minstrel I have a fear cry, which allows me to heal myself while the warg is running, but even with that I nearly didn't make it. I ran out of mana, my potions were on cooldown, and my life went down faster than the wargs. Just then a level 17 elf came along, apparently undecided whether he should intervene or not, not wanting to be accused of killstealing. So I quickly typed "help", and he helped me, and I won the fight with a sliver of life (sorry, morale) left. Nice quest reward too. But I guess you really need a group for the LotRO group quests.

Then I worked on my accomplishments and traits. I killed wolves for my first "racial" trait, a short range "throwing a stone" ranged attack. Then I did all the postmaster quests, transporting mail between the villages of the Shire. Finally I started doing the similar pie transporting quests. Lots of running in these two quest series, but the advantage is that you get to know the geography of the Shire really well. And I'm also getting close to the nice accomplishment reward you get for doing 75 quests in the Shire. All this is probably not the fastest way to level up, but I'm not in a hurry. The one thing I learned from WoW is that reaching the level cap is more a problem than something to aspire to.

I'm having a role-playing idea, of which I'm not quite sure whether LotRO will allow me to do that. LotRO has a system where one character can be the parent of another, but I'm not sure it works with alts. If it would, I would like to make a hobbit guardian, and make him the son of my elderly hobbit minstrel / farmer. That would have a lot of role-playing potential, commenting as "the father" on how hot-headed the son is, while complaining as "the son" on how stubborn and conservative the father behaves. And all that in guild chat, with father and son obviously never seeing each other. From a practical point of view, and quite fitting into the roleplay, the rich farmer could finance the son, with the guardian being the more gear-dependant class and always a thankful target for twinking. I'd probably make the guardian an armorer, so I can make armor for himself, and iron farming tools for "daddy".

Not that I think I'll get there anytime soon. I tried to level up tailoring, and found that I quickly got blocked. To become proficient at journeyman level (making level 10 to 16 armor) you need to do a quest which involves killing a level 21 signature boar. Now I'm all for creating a player economy. But making the crafting system so that you can only make armor for lower level characters and never usefully for yourself is rather stupid. But up to now, and like in so many other games, the crafting system is the only real disappointment for me in Lord of the Rings Online. I'll have to live with what LotRO offers there, and enjoy the adventuring part more, which is really well done.

Wikipedia fame

I have no idea how long it has been there, but I just found out that there is a link to my blog in a footnote of the Wikipedia entry on MMORPG. And it wasn't me who put it there. :) So, yay! Another step towards internet fame achieved. With me not running ads, fame is the only return I get from writing this blog. I aspire to one day have my own Wikipedia entry. ;)

By the way, if you currently search Tobold on Wikipedia, you won't find me. But you *will* find the reason behind my strange obsession with pipe-weed farming in LotRO.

Get a life ... -time subscription to LotRO

The subject kept popping up in the comments, and mbp has a nice blog entry about it: An surprising number of people feel that getting a lifetime subscription is a good deal, even if you don't plan to be playing LotRO non-stop for the next 18 months. It is not a purely economical decision.

A monthly subscription is like a ball and chain, tieing you to a game and restricting your freedom. Getting rid of that restriction is worth something to me. I could buy 6 months of LotRO for a bit over 50 Euro, of a lifetime subscription for 150, so normally the break even point should be 18 months. And I'm far from sure that I'll play LotRO for the next 18 months, because of other interesting games like Warhammer Online, and the next WoW expansion coming out in that period. But I am going to pay for the lifetime subscription anyway, because it gives me greater flexibility.

I like World of Warcraft. I am pretty certain that I will buy the next WoW expansion. But I'm so not willing to hang out in WoW after basically having "finished" the fun part of the Burning Crusade expansion. I'm also looking forward to playing Warhammer Online, but I'm not going to sit here twiddling my thumbs waiting for it. All of this means that the way in which I play MMORPGs might change. Instead of sticking to one game for a while, and then giving it up, I might switch back and forth between two or three games. Just like you'd want to watch the latest episode of a TV series when its on, you might like to play the latest WoW episode (be it a content patch or an expansion) when it comes out. But between these WoW episodes you might want to see the episodes of LotRO. A schedule of playing LotRO now after release, doing a bit of WoW after content patch 2.1, then coming back to LotRO for the June content patch and so on sounds feasible, although I'm not yet sure how it will work out in praxis.

And a lifetime subscription for LotRO helps here. Because right now I'm looking at my WoW subscription and ask myself whether I want to cancel it, and for how long. Maybe I get bored of LotRO in a month, and then I wouldn't want to cancel my WoW subscription. Maybe I'll be playing nothing but LotRO for the next six months, and then I really shouldn't waste a hundred bucks on WoW during that time. By taking a lifetime subscription to LotRO, at least I won't have the same problem in the other direction. I can stop playing LotRO without worrying about a monthly fee.

Tell you what, Blizzard: You offer a lifetime subscription for WoW for $200 / €150, and I'll buy it. For the reasons stated above. Which I think is a generous offer from me, seeing that WoW right now is acquiring a whiff of "past its prime" scent.

Dear readers, how much would you be willing to pay for a lifetime subscription to World of Warcraft right now?

Monday, April 23, 2007

The good old days of Molten Core

I was talking with a bunch of RL friends last night, during our pen and paper roleplaying session. They all play WoW, but on different servers and in different guilds. And they all expressed being unhappy with the Burning Crusade raiding game. The more successful ones are able to kill a couple of bosses in Karazhan, but complain that the loot isn't great, and each raid costs them a fortune. The less successful ones can't get past Moroes, or have problems finding enough motivated people for raiding in their guilds. And while the question of whether going to Molten Core at level 70 was fun or stupid was hotly debated, everybody agrees that at the time Molten Core was a lot more fun than Karazhan.

That is only anecdotal evidence, but I get the impression from different sources that the level 70 raiding game is even less popular than the level 60 raiding game. Which is a pity. And a danger for World of Warcraft, revealing a vulnerable soft underbelly in a year where several strong contenders are coming out. Take enough Lilliputians, and you can tie down Gulliver. The new free trial for Burning Crusade looks as if Blizzard marketing is getting nervous.

I stand by my earlier judgement that the Burning Crusade is a good expansion, but too little, too late. After three months most people have seen all or nearly all of the easily accessible content. The only thing that is left to do is raiding your way up to Mount Hyjal. Which would be fun if you could do it in another three months. But as the next expansion isn't scheduled before 2008, Blizzard had to stretch the content to make it last until then. And they did that by making raiding costly, hard, and not very profitable. What they failed to realize is that not many people are interested in a costly, hard, and unprofitable raiding game. The earlier ideas to make raiding more accessible to a larger part of the population seem to have been forgotten.

Now Burning Crusade certainly is superior to the old endgame in offering more top level 5-man dungeons. Grinding reputation by going to dungeons is far better than grinding reputation in Silithus. And the rewards for heroic 5-man dungeons are decent enough, except for the Badge of Justice rewards. But having better alternatives only aggravates the problem of the raiding game. Karazhan is a very unforgiving place, and the small number of players in the raid means that if any one of them loses connection or screws up, the whole raid fails.

At least Blizzard realized that the consumables situation for raids was untenable. It makes me wonder how many gold farmers are currently making a living out of supplying gold for Karazhan raiders. Making potions less prominent is going to hurt alchemists and herbalists, but is going to make raiding a lot cheaper. And it offers Blizzard a second chance to correct the difficulty level: Obviously if they leave Karazhan like it is, and reduce everybodies potion buffs, Karazhan becomes pretty much unplayable. Remove the buffs, and you need to adjust the difficulty level of the raid dungeons. That gives them an opportunity to overcompensate, and make Karazhan without buffs easier than it was before with buffs. Nobody is going to give a damn about Blizzard adding the Black Temple, if players can't even get past Karazhan. As long as players think that the good old days of Molten Core were better than the current situation, Blizzard has a problem.

Curiouser and curiouser LotRO patch

I was wrong. LotRO Europe *did* apply a patch today, but not the same one as last weeks US patch. We only got a minor bug fix patch. Farming is still as it was, and so are repair costs. Why Turbine would want to run the same game in two different versions is a mystery to me. Is that some sort of social experiment? Do they think Europeans should get the same number of days to exploit the farming profits as the US players got? I have no idea!

I'd still assume that one day they'll apply the same patch to the European servers, but I have no clue when. Next ordinary patch day would be the Tuesday in 8 days, because this Tuesday's patch was moved forward to today, because of the official release tomorrow.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

LotRO Journal - 23-April-2007

Today is patch day in Europe, in preparation of the official release day tomorrow. That means that the farming patch, which the US already has since last Wednesday, will go live in Europe today. Which is the end of farming as we know it. The patch deliberately breaks farming, making it impossible to grow anything at a profit, neither from vendors nor players. It also makes it impossible to cross-breed, and thus to advance your skill to the highest level. Farming is basically "on hold", until Turbine completely reworks the system. I think a less radical solution, like reducing vendor prices for the few crops that made money, would have been better. But I'm willing to give them time to create a new farming system which hopefully works as intended.

As you might have noticed, I liked farming in Lord of the Rings Online. I liked the interactive part most, sowing fields and seeing what harvest I would get. The plant processing meant having work you character for half an hour, without you being able to do anything, except chat, which wasn't that optimal. But at least that gave me opportunity to get a lot of other Real Life ® things done over the weekend, whenever my character was processing his crops. In the 10 pre-order days I spent about 40 hours farming, which is a lot, even if half of that was afk crop processing. But the good news in that is that I managed to explore every single aspect of the old farming system. I did make a lot of money, over 3 gold, but instead of keeping that money, I spent most of it, about 2 gold, to get my farming skill up to master, and for cross-breeding. That still leaves me 1 gold in my pocket to finance my adventuring, which is more than enough at my level.

Every tradeskill in LotRO has 5 ranks: apprentice, journeyman, expert, artisan, and master. And in each rank you can be proficient or master. The recipes that pre-nerf made money were all at master expert level, so most people stopped there. The artisan and master level require more expensive ingredients, so you lose a lot of money whenever you grow a field of those ranks. But I did it anyway, and did master the artisan level, and got proficient in the master level. I didn't get to master the master level, which would have given me the grandmaster title, but I found that the title "master farmer" was what I wanted to run around with. Right now being master farmer is completely useless, there is nothing I can make that anybody would want to buy, even if I just charged them my cost. But maybe when the system is reworked being master farmer becomes useful one day. Right now I only did it for the roleplaying aspects, it gives my hobbit a solid background as farmer who is only forced by the encroaching evil to go adventuring instead of tilting his fields.

Besides skilling up, I enjoyed the cross-breeding system. You start that with rare Sweet Lobelia seeds, which can be found in treasure chests, or received by a quest. You multiply those seeds, then cross-breed them with some other seeds you can buy to make Muddyfoot seeds. Multiply those again, and cross-breed into Dragonsbreath. Multiply those again, and cross-breed into Eagle's Nest. Eagle's Nest is artisan level, so I spent a lot of time growing these to skill up artisan to master. Every field loses you some money, but the alternative is growing strawberries. And as strawberries have the same yield, but sell for ten times less than Eagle's Nest, skilling up with strawberries would have cost me a lot more. The other advantage of going the cross-breeding route is that I stored away seeds and plants of every of these rare pipe-weeds. My guild is planning a role-playing event, a farmer's market, and I'll be running a pipe-weed stall, offering rare pipe-weeds for sale. That could be fun.

I only did very little adventuring over the weekend, wanting to achieve all my farming goals before the farming system got shut down. And I'm happy I did it, there is still lots of time to quest and level up. I did finish a few quests and reached level 14. But there is still so much to do in the Shire. Not only the quests, but also the many accomplishments and traits you can achieve. I'm still determined to get the lifetime subscription. But my immediate problem is getting hold of the LotRO box tomorrow. I ordered one from Amazon UK long time ago, but apparently they haven't even shipped it yet, so I'll never get it tomorrow. Might have to check the local stores whether they'll sell it already tomorrow. I'll try the same store where I was able to get Burning Crusade on release day, but the release of LotRO isn't quite that big an event, and I'm not sure I won't be without LotRO for a few days before I can get the game somewhere.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

First LotRO content patch announced for June

Turbine announced Shores of Evendim, the first big content patch for Lord of the Rings Online, for June. The patch will add a new zone, complete with 60 quests, 9 new monster types, and new items in the form of armor sets. A upgraded music system will also be added. And all this comes in the form of a free patch, just 2 months after release. Niiiice!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tracking deflation

I mentioned before that Lord of the Rings Online is similar to World of Warcraft. That of course also means it will suffer from some of the same problems, like gold farmers. So I surfed to the site of a recently mentioned company I won't link to, and no surprise, LotRO gold was already on offer, 3 days before release. Now cheating with bought gold is obviously the most useful very early in the game. And at the same time there is still very little gold in the system. Which means that if you buy gold for dollars, the price now will be the highest ever. Over the coming months the gold price will fall, but that price development can give us interesting information; for example if Turbine actively banned gold farmer accounts in a timely manner, gold prices would remain high.

So just for the record, as a starting point of comparison, currently 100 gold in LotRO cost $500. By the way, you can't compare that to World of Warcraft, because the purchase power of a gold piece in LotRO is higher. Actually I'm surprised 100 gold is even on offer. With 1 gold being 1000 silver in LotRO, and the "evil farming exploit" earning you 100 silver or 0.1 gold per hour, you'd need to farm 1000 hours to earn those 100 gold. At 50 cents per hour, you wouldn't even get a Chinese to work for you. And the servers aren't even live for 1000 hours yet, you'd need several people farm that much. Plus there is a level cap of 15. Somewhere people must have ways to earn much more than the farming income of 100 silver per hour.

Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) review

Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) has a very flexible release date system. While the official release date is on the 24th of April, many players are already able to play the characters that will be rolled over into the release version, and so for all practical purposes the game has already started for them. Thus I don't think it's too early to write my first real review of LotRO. Obviously a MMORPG is always a work in progress and could be re-reviewed several times, or looked at under different aspects. So this post describes how the game is now, how it plays in the low levels, and what the first impression is about where the game is going to.

At the core Lord of the Rings Online is a very good game. The graphics are pretty. The game runs well, even on average computers. There are few bugs, and they aren't of the serious kind. The game is very accessible, with a very good introduction for new players, and a well-working quest system. And of course LotRO profits from the Tolkien lore, and manages to leverage this lore into creating a living world in which everyone who read the books or saw the movies will feel instantly at home.

But of course no game is perfect. One issue is while LotRO does many things right, it achieves doing the right thing by taking the best aspect of previous games. LotRO is an evolution of the MMORPG genre, in the right direction, but doesn't introduce many revolutionary features. One reason why people feel instantly at home is because they played World of Warcraft before, and LotRO plays very, very similar to that. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you were looking for a revolution, you might get disappointed. If on the other hand you liked World of Warcraft, but got a bit burned out, and you are looking for something similar but new, LotRO is exactly the right game for you. In further reviewing LotRO, I will repeatedly compare features to World of Warcraft, which by sheer size is emminently qualified as a point of comparison.

Lord of the Ring Online has 4 races, humans, hobbits, dwarves and elves. You will notice that this list doesn't include any "evil" races. But that doesn't mean you can't play the bad guys. LotRO has an innovative PvP system called monster play. Any player starting from level 10 can visit special fel scrying pools and temporarily play a level 50 monster in a PvP zone instead of his character. There is a choice of different types of orcs, or a warg, or a giant spider to play. There currently is only one PvP zone, the Ettenmoors, containing several castles and PvP quests and objectives. Monsters are always level 50, but they can improve their stats by spending destiny points. You get 200 destiny points each time your real character goes up a level past 10, and you can earn them by doing PvP quests as a monster. The same destiny points can also be used to buy temporary buffs for your good character. Once enough players have reached level 50 with their good characters, we can expect interesting PvP battles. But as this only happens in the Ettenmoors, there is no PvP ganking like on PvP servers in WoW. PvP is completely consensual. And by making it a fight of players against player-controlled monsters, and not against other player characters, LotRO doesn't run into the same problems as WoW to balance characters for both PvP and PvE.

Once you have chosen your race and gender (with no female dwarves available), you can proceed to choose one of 7 character classes. Due to the Tolkien lore there are no mages and no priests. But lore-masters throw fireballs at their enemies and play not unlike some mage / warlock mix, just having a summoned animal pet instead of a demon. And minstrels act as healers. LotRO doesn't have hitpoints and death, but morale and defeat. Thus a minstrel "heals" by raising his fellows' morale with songs. There is a burglar class, using the term Tolkien used for the job that Bilbo accepted to do for the dwarves in The Hobbit. There is a hunter, master of bow and arrow. And there are three melee classes, guardian, champion, and captain, with different roles.

With a class chosen, you can spend some time thinking of a name, and modifying the look of your character with various sliders. And then it's off into your first adventure, an instanced introduction quest that explains the game to you. Very well done, as this first part is pretty much on rails, so even complete beginners can't get lost. After that you enter a newbie zone, which again is separated from the rest of the world. Only by doing an instanced quest at about level 5 you can proceed into the larger world. If you create more than one character, you are given the option to skip the intro and newbie zone, but then you also skip most of the quest rewards from there, so I wouldn't advise that.

Combat in LotRO is pretty much exactly like combat in WoW: a combination of auto-attack and pressing hotkey buttons for special effects. Some classes have variations of this theme, like the minstrel having balads that both damage an enemy and buff himself or his party, and which have to be played in a certain order. Or the champion who has some special attacks that grant him fervor points, and others that cost fervor to execute. The only combat feature that is radically different from WoW (but not totally new, Final Fantasy XI had something similar) is the possibility for a group to start special combo attack chains, which if correctly executed can have a major impact. Burglars have a special skill to start these combo chains, but otherwise groups get the opportunity to do so at random moments in combat.

LotRO has lots of quests, signaled by a golden ring (instead of an exclamation mark) floating over the head of the quest-givers. There is the usual range of monster-killing and fedex quests. There are some interesting variations, like a quest where you need to gather eggs without the rooster who patrols the farm seeing you. Or transport quests where you have a time-limit, and because you carry something aren't allowed to swim or fight. The most interesting quests are the instanced group quests, which play like a 15-minute instanced dungeon. But if you don't like to group, you can avoid the group quests and level up soloing.

Combat and quests are earning you experience points, which make you go up in level. Leveling up allows you to learn new skills. One positive point in comparison to WoW is that your old spells and abilities are automatically upgraded each level. The new spells and abilities you buy from your trainer are exactly that: new. And besides the active abilities to put on hotkeys which you can learn at every even level, there are some passive skills you get at uneven levels, so you don't always have to wait two levels before you get something new.

There are no talent trees in LotRO, but by leveling up you open up slots into which you can install so-called traits. The interesting thing in that is that you first need to earn these traits, before you can install and use them. You earn traits by doing various deeds. That could be doing a number of quests in one region, or killing a number of monsters. But you can also earn traits by doing long quest-series, like all the postman quests in the Shire, or by visiting all the places of interest in a region. These traits can be upgraded by earning the same trait again in a different region. There are also class-specific traits which are earned by using your spells and abilities, so if you use one combat move more often than another, you'll get that trait earlier, and it'll improve that specific combat move. The system is very well done, and a lot more interesting than just distributing talent points.

Besides combat you can spend your time in Middle-Earth doing tradeskills: gathering resources, crafting weapons and armor, making jewelry or scrolls, cooking, or even farming. The act of crafting itself is done reasonably well, but the balancing of the economics of crafting isn't done yet, and Turbine is still working hectically with patches and nerfs to get the system balanced, sometimes breaking more than fixing. Thus for a final review of the tradeskill system we need to wait until it is fully implemented.

Fortunately the crafting seems to be the only part of LotRO that has an unfinished feeling, at least in the lower levels. The game is full of little surprises, NPCs talking and living their lives, making at least the low-level areas feel very much like a living world. Again it is too early to say how well the mid- and high-level game is done. On release LotRO covers only one region of Middle-Earth, roughly the area of the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The other areas are going to be added in future expansions. Now don't despair if you are used to the glacial speed in which Blizzard is adding expansions to WoW; the one strong point of previous Turbine games was the high frequency of game events and addition of content.

I'm not giving out scores, saying whether Lord of the Rings Online is better or worse than World of Warcraft. Lets just say that they are in the same class of high-quality MMORPG with a focus on accessibility for the average player. There are a number of minor differences, where one might prefer the one or the other, but generally the gameplay and quality of execution is similar, at least in what I saw up to now. So in my opinion Lord of the Rings Online is one of the best MMORPGs around. Recommended.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

LotRO Journal - 20-April-2007

The game hasn't even really started yet, and the US LotRO forums are already in full flame war "nerf the other guy" mode. It turned out that the farming nerf was worse than expected, because while the patch notes said that only pipe-weed seeds would be reduced from 3 to 1 per poor plant, in reality the same nerf was applied to all other plants, fruits and vegetables. And as the farmers feel that this in no small part is the fault of people posting "nerf the farmers" posts on the US LotRO forums, they retaliate with "nerf the explorers" and similar posts. They demonstrate how a naked level 4 burglar, fresh out of the newbie zone, can make 100 silver per hour as explorer, gathering ores and woods, by just selling them to a vendor. Or how at level 15 a scholar can farm easy green mobs for materials, craft them, and make 100 silver per hour from vendoring the results.

Meanwhile Turbine posted a flawed policy on crafting, especially farming, which Nissl copied in a comment here. The relevant passage is "If you find yourself making money consistently by executing recipes and selling the proceeds to a vendor, do not expect that scenario to last. Farming is intended to be interdependent with other players, not vendors." Note that this excludes making *any* profit, no matter how small, by selling farmed goods to vendors. Now obviously you will always make a profit with the other gathering professions, even if you sell to vendors, so applying different rules to farming is very wrong.

Apparently the idea is that farming goods should be sold at a profit to cooks. Apart from the problem that only tinkers have the cooking skill without the farming skill, the larger flaw in that reasoning is that cooked food isn't really necessary to play. If you start with farming, which has fixed costs for seeds, water, and fertilizer, it is easy to calculate for how much vegetables have to sell to at least break even for the farmer. But if the cook buys the vegetables at this break-even cost, plus adds his own fixed costs for vendor-sold ingredients, a simple mushroom pie already costs a fortune, before the farmer and the cook have even made a single copper piece of profit. Nobody is going to use food that expensive, just to get a tiny buff or regenerate health and mana a bit faster.

Even worse is the situation with pipe-weed. Anyone can for free use the /smoke emote. Smoking pipe-weed grown by a farmer just adds cute smoke rings to the animation, and that only if the pipe-weed was one of the better sorts. The idea that players would pay large sums of money for that is ridiculous. Even if a few players would buy it, the market is necessarily tiny. It can be argued at which skill level exactly how much silver per hour a farmer should be making by growing pipe-weed and selling it to vendors. But saying that this activity should make a loss when selling to vendors is crazy.

My farmer on the Euro servers is still pre-nerf, and thus he is busy exploring the old farming system before the new rules break it. In the pre-nerf system there is a very interesting part on cross-breeding, where you have special cross-breeding recipes to grow new seeds. That is already costly at the old system, as you need lots of water and fertilizer to just try to multiply your seeds, and then cross-breeding them. But in the old system cross-breeding at least "works", in that you produce more seeds than you started with, so at the cost of the other ingredients you can sustain that activity, and slowly work your way up from Sweet Lobelia to Muddyfoot to Dragonsbreath to Eagle's Nest. Takes hours, costs hundreds of silver, and only produces pipe-weed that is worth less than the cost of the ingredients. But at least you can skill up this way and produce some rare sorts of pipe-weed for roleplaying. After the patch this system is going to be completely destroyed, as in future each field will yield less than half of the seeds needed to grow the next field. As you can't buy the seeds anywhere, there is no way to sustain cross-breeding. I don't know what Turbine was thinking when they decided to cut the seed yield instead of just reducing the price at which plants and seeds sold to vendors. Why first design a cross-breeeding system and then destroy it? It wasn't as if you would have made any money cross-breeding, so no risk of exploiting.

Anyway, as I like the pre-nerf farming system, and am highly sceptical that the post-nerf system is even remotely playable, I'm still spending all my time farming and not adventuring. I already had people here comment about that in an angry fashion, as they want me to tell stories of heroic deeds. But if you look at it from a story-telling point of view, starting LotRO like this is actually the proper way. There is a famous concept of hero's journey, which is the basis of much fantasy and scifi story-telling, including such famous stories as Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars. The hero's journey starts in the ordinary world, and the life of a hobbit farmer is very well suited to give such an ordinary world starting point. The story is more believable if the hobbit starts out as farmer, and then goes adventuring to battle the evil forces that threaten his peaceful existence. The typical MMORPG way, where you are born an adventurer and the first thing you do in the world is kill something, makes for really bad story-telling.

If you think of it, even in a fantasy world all wealth is produced by agriculture and crafting. If a dragon or orc has any treasure, it was stolen from somewhere, but produced by farmers and crafters in the first place. Thus the philosophy now explicitely stated from Turbine, but also present in all SOE and Blizzard games, that farming and crafting is a money-sink, financed by the gold that drops from monsters, is just the reverse of any realistic economy. Historically wealth is produced in peace times, and war destroys much wealth. In LotRO and WoW wealth is produced by war and destroyed by peaceful activities. And here we sit and lament that some people think that video games are a bad influence on children. They might actually have a point there.

Sensible people struck down by RMT allergy

There are many bloggers in the MMO blogosphere, many of which I respect very much. But something is very wrong if in a current blogosphere debate the only reasonable comment is written by John Smedley, president of SOE. The issue is that SOE hired a new guy named Dave Christensen. And the guy worked for IGE in the past, which is the worlds biggest gold-selling company. So now Scott Jennings, Heartless, and Michael Zenke, among others, are all proclaiming that this is the end of the world. No, the new guy isn't supposed to introduce gold selling into all of SOE's games (they already have that in EQ2), he'll just try to sell SOE games in Asia. His only "crime" is to have worked for a gold-selling company before. In the opinion of my peers that apparently totally disqualifies him from ever being hired by any game company. And SOE is supposedly causing the end of civilization by hiring such a pariah. What a hogwash! Apparently these otherwise sensible blogger are so overcome by their RMT allergy that their brains switched off.

Michael Zenke at least posted a clarification, with excerpts from a letter from John Smedley, stating some very reasonable things: 1) He left IGE. Isn’t that a good thing? 2) We put it in the press release precisely to avoid anyone else thinking we’re trying to hide a part of his background. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think we put that in there as an advertisement for why we hired him. Believe me IGE has image issues worldwide, not just in the US.

Real-money trade (RMT), the selling of virtual currency for real dollars, is a highly complex problem, which has been around for many years. And one reason why we aren't any closer to a solution is that everybody insists that the problem is *caused* by gold-sellers. Everybody pretends that we have a system of perfect game designers and perfect players, into which the evil gold-selling criminals invade to destroy the lives of the innocent. The truth couldn't be further away from that. Game developers design bad game systems, where advancement doesn't depend on your skills, but on the time you spend in the game. And where advancement and time can be tranferred to a certain extent from one player to another via gold. And we have not-so-innocent players who decide to cheat by buying this advancement. The gold-sellers just exploit the existing weaknesses of the game systems, and of the players. Painting gold-sellers as the only evil guys in this story is simplistic and not helpful at all.

IGE is not a criminal organization. The exact legal status of RMT is unresolved, because game companies don't feel confident enough in their legal position to actually take IGE to court. And the worst you can accuse them of is breaking the contract represented by the terms of service and end-user license agreement. If you ever let your little brother or girlfriend play on your account, you committed exactly the same crime. It is understandable that game companies don't like it, but it's hardly the crime of the century. Somebody who worked for IGE doesn't deserve to become a pariah because of that. Game companies opposed to RMT might even *want* to hire people from IGE, to gain better insight in how RMT works, and how the game company could change their games to prevent it.

What do you think made the CEO of IGE more happy: SOE mentioning IGE in a press release, or Blizzard introducing epic flying mounts costing over 5,000 gold pieces? For once SOE isn't the evil company in this story.

Evolving from game to world

The recent discussion about tradeskills revealed that there is a part of the MMORPG player base who consider the fighting of monsters to be the only important part of any massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Other activities, like crafting, decorating your house (if your game even has that), or hanging out in taverns to chat, are seen as waste of time, or money-sinks. Their worth is only defined in terms of how they advance your adventuring career, like crafting giving you access to potions needed for raiding. In that model you only need player housing to store your gear, crafting only to make you weapons, armor, and consumables for fighting, and visits to cities only for the necessary trips to your trainer or the auction house. But this model wastes a lot of the potential of online worlds. It turns them into single-purpose, nearly linear, simple games of character advancement. That certainly works for many people, but isn't necessarily the most attractive model for everybody. And by being so linear, this model also has serious problems of longevity.

Now experience has shown that virtual worlds without any sort of game aren't that popular. Second Life has a lot of hype, but very few paying customers. Even A Tale in the Desert, which has game parts, but no monster killing, only has a very small player base. To appeal to a mass market, the classical monster-killing, -looting, and character advancing has to be part of any successful game.

But that doesn't mean that the game couldn't have alternative occupations and advancements. There was a lot of buzz around Vanguard offering alternative careers in either adventuring, crafting, or diplomacy. Too bad the execution and balancing of that was flawed. And the balancing of the crafting system in LotRO isn't looking promising either, although at the base there are a lot of good ideas.

What a future MMORPG needs to offer is different ways to spend your time, beyond fighting either monsters or other players. If any game manages to create alternatives that are executed as well as fighting monsters is working in World of Warcraft, that game could well become the "WoW killer" people have been waiting for. A virtual world in which you could besides adventuring also spend time to decorate your house, to go shopping, to dress in clothes you buy for looks instead of stats, and where you could have jobs other than monster-slayer, has the potential to attract a much larger player-base. Only 16% of WoW-players are female, for example. Only 13% of male WoW players are over 35 years old. Killing stuff will always be highly attractive to young, male players, but game companies would be stupid to limit themselves to just this one target demographic.

But to be attractive to other types of players, the alternative occupations in the game must be independant from adventuring. There should be connections between the different systems, but few or no absolute dependencies. It doesn't help that Vanguard has a wonderful system to decorate your house, if the type of player who would like to decorate houses is forever unable to get there, because you first need to kill 1 million monsters to buy the house. To tailor clothes in World of Warcraft you need to increase your player level, and the only thing you can tailor in different colors is shirts. The diplomacy system in Vanguard starts out brilliantly, and then fails to lead you anywhere.

If I am currently playing with the farming tradeskill in Lord of the Rings Online, it isn't just because I can make more money farming than killing monsters. It is because I've killed enough monsters in WoW and other games, and killing them in LotRO isn't so different. But sowing fields, harvesting and processing plants, cross-breeding seeds, and advancing my farming skill, is a completely different and independently viable system. The reason why I'm so angry about the nerf is that it destroys this viability and independance. I'm just not as interested in a farming tradeskill which you only do because you need buffs from cooked food, but which you need to kill monsters to finance. Crafting as just a money sink in MMORPGs just isn't that attractive.

I am dreaming of a game where I could play a crafter who wouldn't be forced to kill monsters, if he didn't want to. A game where I could have my own house, decorated if I wanted to, and run my own proper shop and business from that house, with hired NPC vendors like in UO or SWG. And beyond that lots of other alternative lifestyles could be possible in a fantasy MMORPG. A diplomacy system that is self-sufficient and viable, where you travel between different places to talk with people and do politics. Or a system where you could play a sage, gathering information in libraries about ancient secrets, and the location of treasures. I'm dreaming of a virtual world, a MMORPG that is a collection of games, and not just one monster-killing games with a couple of useless side-quests. With violence in video games being hotly debated and under attack, it would be wise for game developers to try to offer something else than this violence. As long as any other activity in a MMORPG is subsidiary to combat, these games fail to live up to their potential.

LotRO Journal - 19-April-2007

Double joy, not only were the server back up last night, it also turned out that the Euro servers didn't get the US farming nerf patch yet. No idea when the Euro servers will be patched, but normal patch day is apparently Tuesday, and if Turbine doesn't decide than an emergency hotfix nerf is necessary, I'd still have the whole weekend to farm under profitable conditions. I might even manage to advance my farming skill further!

But before I can think of advancement, I'll make the money to support it. As processing plants takes long periods without interactivity (bad idea that), I turned to my laptop and started making an Excel file to calculate what the profits of the pre-nerf farming system are. That is I did what I would do to make money, planting 20 fields of Sweet Galenas with the mastery option on, and wrote down exactly my costs, from repair costs to the cost of ingredients, and my income for selling the pipe-weed. Planting and harvesting 20 fields and then processing the about 100 fair and about 40 poor plants takes about 1 hour. And the profit from that, after deduction of all costs, is between 60 and 120 silver, usually about 90 silver per hour. For comparison, a horse at level 35 apparently costs 4220 silver. So you would need to farm 47 hours straight to buy the lowest level horse. I don't find that to be an excessive profit. I sure hope that grinding mobs at level 35 to finance your horse takes less than 47 hours, thus at mid-levels farming mobs is probably already more profitable than farming pipe-weed. What Turbine might want to do is half the profit on the Sweet Galenas at expert level (or make it take twice as long), and then introducing another recipe at artisan level that makes 90 silver per hour of profit.

I don't see anything wrong or unbalancing to have a crafting activity in the game that earns you a mid-level horse in 50 hours. You just need to make it so that the activity can't be automated or botted, but requires player input regularly. If you can gather wood and ore for 90 silver per hour at that level, or farm monsters for more than 90 silver per hour, I don't see why it should be unbalancing to have farming pay the same.

Being on a role-playing server, and in a role-playing guild, doesn't mean you can't play in an intelligent fashion. With my guild being aware of the upcoming nerf, everybody who was already farmer of course farmed like crazy last night to get reap the benefits before the nerf hits us. But we spun a story around it, about a gypsy foretelling bad harvests and severe seed rot in the future, explaining why we had to get our harvests in now in a hurry.

Between farming pipe-weed for money and helping some guild mates with the Gift of the North instance encounter, I looked ahead on how I could advance my farming skill further. The problem here is that I only have one artisan level recipe, strawberries, and that one you can only make at huge losses. It costs about 12 silver in advanced ingredients to grow one field, but each strawberry sells for only 12 copper pieces, and of course you don't grow hundreds of them in a field even at the best of luck. I'll put the data on my spreadsheet tonight and see how much it will cost me to advance, but I'm sure it's hundreds of silver pieces of cost to get to the next level.

As far as I've heard I will then have to start cross-breeding pipe-weed seeds to advance. That requires Sweet Lobelia seeds to start with. I managed to buy a 12th seed last night, at the extortionate price of 20 silver for 1 seed, thus having enough for 2 fields. And this time I was luckier growing these fields, and my seeds started to multiply. This again being a money-losing activity (unless I resell the seeds, but I need those myself), I didn't do it all that long. But I ended up with over 50 seeds, which should be enough to get me past streaks of bad seed growing luck in the future. Of course I'll have to grow further seeds again before the patch, unless Turbine introduces another way to grow seeds I don't see how farming skill could be advanced. So I got my work mapped out for me before the nerf patch hits me. Leveling my character meanwhile is on hold.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

LotRO Journal by mbp

Many of my readers are bloggers themselves, which is why we call this a "blogosphere", in which ideas bounce around back and forth between writers. It is often impossible to say who started a specific concept or idea. So I'm not claiming that me writing MMORPG journal entries is in any way original. One of my readers, mbp, is also running a LotRO journal. I want to quote something about a LotRO "feature" from there, because it already annoyed me, and I haven't written about it yet: "One feature that I sorely miss is the ability to adjust the size of the user interface (menus, text and icons) independently of the screen resolution. I have a 1280x1024 pixel LCD monitor and if I use a lower resolution the image seems blurred as it tries to stretch to fill the screen. Unfortunately at 1280 x 1024 the on screen interface is too small for my liking but I cannot find a way to get it bigger. I now have a choice of blurry 1024x768 or squinty 1280x1024. It is quite possible I am overlooking something here - it seems like a glaring omission to me. I imagine people with 1600x1200 LCDs must be really suffering on this one.

You might be aware that I just bought a new high-end gaming computer with a dual core processor, more RAM than necessary, and a Geforce 8800 GTS 640 MB graphics card. So given my horsepower of course I tried to get the max out of it when playing LotRO and initially turned up the resolution to 1600 x 1200. And as mbp writes it is impossible to play LotRO at that resolution, because your user-interface becomes far too tiny. You *can* increase the chat font size, but not all the other fonts (like the quest journal) and user-interface elements. So I had to compromise at 1280 x 1024 resolution, where I still can read everything, but the game isn't too low in resolution. World of Warcraft is *much* better in that respect, having a scaleable (and fully modable) user-interface.

Gnomersy on better tradeskills

One of my readers, Gnomersy, took me up on my challenge to discuss a better tradeskill system. For technical reasons, and for being a bit too long for a regular comment, I'm posting his e-mail in this thread, and I'll comment it. Gnomersy writes:
Tobold issued a challenge to come up with a better trade skill system, so here is my attempt :P Similar to Tobold, I'll look at both the profitability and the crafting elements in a profession.

Turning firstly to profit, I haven't check this but I'm pretty sure that if you compare the vendor prices for ores to crafted items, you will find that the loss is small because the vendor doesn't pay much for ores. It is only when you compare AH prices for the ore that you realize the huge loss you are taking when crafting useless low level items. I don't believe increasing the amount vendors pay for crafted items is the answer because that will only drive up the AH price for ore (because now I will be willing to pay more for ore because I'm going to get more back from the vendor).

The obvious answer to this to make the crafted items valuable so players are willing buy them. In my opinion, the biggest problem is not the quality of the item but the amount you have to make. There are a number of low level green items which aren't bad for their level, but if everyone makes 20 of them to level their profession, supply will far outstrip demand (don't forget there will be dropped items as well).

One solution (which I will develop later) would be to introduce more variety in crafted items ie rather than just + stam pants, be able to craft + stam/str/agi/int/etc gloves, boots etc. That way, rather than everyone making 20 of the same pants, people can make different armor pieces with different bonuses depending on the market. Even so, if you look at the supply of items (items made in the course of leveling a profession plus dropped items and compare it to the demand (ie no. of players with an item inferior to that on offer) supply will generally be greater than demand). With a wide range of quality craftable items there is a possibility (albeit small) for a (very) patient and observant player to make a profit.

On the other side of the equation you can increase the demand. By this I don't mean more players because players will take up professions thereby increasing the supply side. The way to increase demand for crafted items would be to either make mobs drop less, create more slots to put armor (different slots for left and right boots LOL) or take away the ability to repair thereby forcing people to replace their armor. All of these would have dramatic (and possibility undesirable) impact on game play and therefore not valid options. In any event, after about level 20, the market for equipment is actually quite small. I have leveled a warlock all the way to 70 without buying any equipment from the AH except getting all the < lvl 10 greens I could get my hands on at the start. Of course my warrior would not have been able to get away with using a VC quest reward staff at level 50 but my point is that between quest rewards and dungeon there really is not be a big need to constantly go to the AH to upgrade your gear. In conclusion, I believe that there is insufficient demand for intermediate items (of non-consumable nature) for leveling a profession to be profitable.

I believe the raw materials will always be more valuable (from a gold point of view) than crafted items because the raw material will give something a crafted item will not - skill points. When you consider higher level characters power leveling a profession driving up the prices of ore, intermediate crafted items will never be able to compete. As such the only efficient way to level a crafting profession to take two gathering professions and switch over when you have buckets of money at level 70. There is nothing you could have made at the lower levels that you could not have bought (except maybe for engineering).

I don't think there is anything fundamentally wrong making profession leveling a money sink. As Tobold has previously posted, in WoW money = time. So essentially, the cost of leveling a profession can be seen as an investment/commitment of time in the hope of getting some cool rewards at the end.

I have only played WoW so I have not had any personal experience in the mini-games that Tobold refers to. However, from reading his previous posts, the mini-games can come in two formats. Those which are essentially time sinks to make it harder to bot or go afk during the crafting process. I don't particularly like the sound of this because I play WoW to kill mobs not do puzzles. Secondly, there are those mini games that link your success (with an element of randomness) at the mini game with the quality of the item. In this case there is essentially a chance that you will make a higher quality item that will sell better (because there is less supply). To me it seems like a lazy way to try to make the profession interesting and profitable (by leaving it to chance). I may be wrong, but I guess the end result would be that most people end up getting good at the mini-games and most items that are produced are of a similar value/quality anyway. Again you have an excess supply.

As Tobold identified, the other purpose to take up a profession is to craft items. I think the recent changes by Blizzard have been a step in the right direction in that there are now items worth crafting relative to effort required to make the item and loot that is available via drops (Did anyone manage to make Nightfall, the epic axe that required exalted from thorium brotherhood and a ton of mats that were MC drops?). As a tailor, the BOP side of the house is good, but won't make me any money because I can't sell them (I can sell my specialist cloths - but that's hardly an exciting).

If you look at the loot tables there are maybe 5 BOE items in tailoring that are on par with dungeon drops/rep rewards etc. These are sure money makers. To get them you have to grind until one falls into your lap or have enough money to buy one off the AH when it pops up. I don't have a problem with this system per se because getting these high level recipes should involve some effort and investment. (Maybe an epic quest where you can chose one of the recipes at the end might work as well - particularly if there are a large number of legitimately good plans to choose from). What I would like to see is more of these BOE items. Using tailoring as an example, cloth wearers have 8 slots that can be equipped with cloth gear. Broadly speaking cloth armor can be categorized as spell damage, spell crit and healing (putting aside cloaks that can be used by all classes so +AP, +RAP, tanking and other stats would also be desirable). Surely, Blizzard can come up with at least another 10 craftable items that are on par with dungeon drops. That's without even considering resistances sets. Having more variety will allow more tailors to have their own niche which will give some meaning and purpose to the profession. Apply this across all professions there will be quite a few very valuable plans around for people to find/buy/sell/trade. With enough rarity and variety in recipes, crafters will be able to distinguish themselves from other crafters with their recipes. This is a concept that Tobold has previously touched upon. The down side is that the AH will be have lots of epics (they won't be cheap if Blizzard gets mat balance right). The hardcore may be unhappy because you could deck yourself out in full epics without setting foot in a single raid. But, if an epic cost 500g each, it will still cost you about 4000g to deck yourself out. Very few people would actually go down that route - and so what if they did? With the current level of epics, having full epics is hardly god mode. If the plans were rare enough, they could be spread across a number of different craftsmen so you would still have to track them down. It is unlikely they would all be just sitting on the AH because the items would be too valuable just to make have constantly up on the AH. Most people would buy a few to round out their characters while getting most from drops. I also believe raid sets should be better to encourage raiding.

Additional thought could also be put into the mats. For tailoring at least, you essentially have to grind elementals. I'm in favor of having to get mats that only drop off dungeon bosses, so long as there is a reasonable supply (chromatic breastplate anyone?).

If the end game is about improving your character by increments, you can make it a lot more interesting by offering many different but moderately difficult ways to improve your character. I believe crafting is something that can do that - I have a crap helm that I want upgrade. I could kill boss X a few times in the hope it drops or I could kill boss Y for the mats a crafted alternative, or I could grind a bit for the money to just buy said crafted alternative. In about /played 8 hours I have a better helm one way or other. The effort would be roughly equivalent to that required to gain a level. Alternatively, I could raid and get the tiered sets. Even raiders would find the increased range of crafted epics useful - a warrior can have a tier 4/5/6 tanking set and crafted DPS set. Those who like off the beaten path talent specs will be able to itemize in a similar off the beaten path manner. You would have so much more control over how to set up your character. There might even be a chance that our toons will actually look different from each other (ok I'm reaching here :P) The 1-70 leveling curve Blizzard created is an addictive thing of beauty. If those principles can be applied to endgame character gearing, the endgame will be just as addictive.
Gnomersy correctly states that it is the AH price of ores that is so high that it makes crafting unprofitable. As I said that is a direct result of gathering requiring a lot more effort than crafting. You can simply solve that by making gathering easier (faster spawns for example) and the crafting more elaborate, requiring at least more attention, or even some skill.

I don't think that reducing the loot drops to make crafting items more profitable would go down well with the general population. Lots of people prefer looting mobs to crafting. But Gnomersy has identified the problem correctly, crafters making low-level items in large quantities just to skill up. A better solution might be a way to "practice" crafting, SWG had that if I remember correctly. You get the same skill gain from a practice item than for a real item, but you need less materials, and you don't get a useable item for sale at the end. You could get a "grey" practice item for sale to vendor instead, to balance the cost.

On the number of craftable items, Gnomersy is right on the money. This is one of the improvements in the LotRO tradeskill system over the WoW tradeskill system. For example as tailor you craft complete armor sets of the same level, and not getting first a recipe for level 5 boots, then for level 6 gloves, then for level 8 leggings, and so on. Making a complete set of 6 items gives you a better chance to sell them than making the same item 6 times for the same skill gain.

One reason why I insist to make crafting more interactive is gold farmers and bots. If crafting is both profitable and non-interactive, you can easily automate it, and just have a bot crafting stuff 24/7 to make money. The exact system how to craft could take on many different forms, but it should be about as complicated as the combat system, so that it remains accessible. Making items is only part of the equation, giving players an alternative way to spend time in their favorite virtual world might be even more important. Lots of people want to be an adventurer, but that doesn't mean that nobody should be allowed to be a full-time blacksmith. Games like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies had people voluntarily choosing to become full-time crafters, setting up a shop, building up a business, and that can be as exciting and fun as killing dragons. The important point is to make different activities equally viable, to get some interesting interaction. Crafters craft equipment for adventurers, and adventurers provide them with rare recipes and looted crafting components. A world that has different types of players is a lot more interesting than a world in which everybody does the same.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

First LotRO patch

No LotRO journal today, for the simple reason that I couldn't play last night. Tuesday is maintenance / patch day in Europe for LotRO. And this first maintenance / patch since the pre-order access started didn't go well. Apparently people were rubber-banding all over the place when they brought the servers up again, and so they had to do an emergency shutdown. Current estimate is that the servers might come back up at noon today, more than 24 hours late, and even that isn't certain. Not a good start. Especially as some of us paid extra for a pre-order box, basically paying for the 10-day head-start, and every day of downtime hits us extra hard.

I'm not sure if a patch broke something, Turbine is talking about "database hardware issues". There are no patch notes for Europe, but there *are* patch notes for the US, where a patch is due today:
The following changes have been made in the April 18 patch:

Item damage upon defeat will no longer occur until the player reaches level 10. Once you hit level 10 all bets are off, but you get a free ride til then! Keep in mind that item wear still occurs during combat.
The repair cost has been lowered on some uncommon/rare jewelry, weapons, shields, and clothing.
Signature, Elite, and Boss monsters drop more money.
Pipeweed seed processing recipes now only give out 1 seed instead of 3, like they were always supposed to. (Farmers, please drop the pitchforks! There are changes coming to better your plight. More details to follow.)
Yes, making profit with farming was declared to be a bug and was "fixed". As the US server pre-order access started 2 weeks earlier than the European one, the US has a level cap of 15, which the European servers don't have. And as many players already hit that level cap, they were all trying to advance their characters in the only possible way: making money. Somebody on the US forum calculated that farming bandits was already at level 15 exactly as profitable per hour than farming pipe-weed, but that is only the case if there is only one player farming them. Farming mobs has diminishing returns the more players are around, farming pipe-weed doesn't. And so hundreds of players were growing pipe-weed, and Turbine decided to stop them with this patch.

Of course this change throws out the baby with the bathwater. It doesn't just reduce profits, but makes growing anything unprofitable, even Sweet Galenas at master expert level. The profit you used to get per field was less than the new added cost of having to buy more seeds. Furthermore this "fix" totally breaks the only way to get past artisan level in farming. To get past artisan you need to "cross-breed" seeds. Remember me talking about the rare, non-buyable, Sweet Lobelia seeds I had troubles multiplying? To cross-breed and skill up past artisan apparently you need hundreds of these seeds. And with one field now needing 6 seeds to grow and returning between 0 and 6 seeds, you can never get more seeds than what you started with. With no way to multiply seeds, you'd need to find all these hundreds of seeds you need to advance in rare treasure chests, which is bloody impossible!

I can only hope that in a future patch they are adding some sort of new recipe to multiply seeds. That would make it possible again to make money, but with twice the work, first growing the seeds, then growing the pipe-weed. Thus profits per hour would be much lower than hunting mobs, but at least you wouldn't lose money with everything. Farming is officially defined by Turbine as a gathering skill, and at least gathering skills should be profitable. Imagine if repairing your mining tool after each ore node would cost you more than the value of the ore, that would pretty much kill all metalworking. This is currently the case with farming and cooking. Lots of vegetables can either be bought from a vendor or grown by farming. But somebody on the US forums calculated how growing mushrooms cost him more money per mushroom than buying them, which completely destroys the raison d'etre of farming.

Well, at least they relieved the situation with the repair costs. Me not having an income any more from farming, maybe I'll be more annoyed by repair costs now. Apparently repairing magic items cost so much, that some people preferred wearing non-magic armor, which isn't really in the intent of a MMORPG. But all in all the patch notes leave a distinct impression that the game economy isn't balanced yet, which is a bit disappointing.

LotRO review on CVG

With open betas and pre-order access periods it becomes hard to tell when a game is actually released. So we'll have to forgive CVG to already post a first review of LotRO. They give it a 9.2 score, an "Elite" medal, and call it the "next big MMORPG contender". Hmmm, I should have copyrighted that expression. :)