Sunday, April 15, 2007

LotRO Journal - 16-April-2007

The European pre-order access to Lord of the Rings Online started this weekend. Turbine had sent out e-mail to everyone with the pre-order key, telling them to not even try before the 14th, but then cleverly opened both the account page and the servers already a full day earlier. This avoided the "bursting door" effect, where everybody tries to create and account and log on at the same time, crashing the servers. Very smooth move.

So this was it, the opportunity to create my first character who wouldn't be deleted for release. Time to breath deeply, and think what exactly I want from LotRO. Now I am a "middle-class" player, somewhere between casual and hardcore. I'm playing MMORPGs since the last millenium, starting with Ultima Online, but World of Warcraft was the first game where I hit the level cap and joined a raiding guild. That was a fun experience, but a bit too stressful in the long run. One major reason for me to play LotRO is that I'm burned out from WoW. And I certainly don't want to find myself in a situation in a year or so where I'm raiding the witchking of Angmar every weekend, with a small Balrog raid thrown in on Wednesdays. So the obvious idea with LotRO is to approach the game in a different way.

The idea how to play it differently came from an unexpected corner, the guildmaster of a previous guild of mine. Now I left that guild because of guild drama and a big fight I had with some of the more hardcore members. But I remained in friendly relationship with several of their members. And it turns out that some of them, especially the not-so-hardcore ones, planned to start playing LotRO on a role-playing server. Now there is something I never tried. I'm playing pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, and other RPGs, since the early 80's, and still have a campaign running every two weeks. But I never role-played in a MMORPG. In fact the acronym doesn't describe what most people are doing. It should be MMOG, or even MMORG, for massively multiplayer online raiding game. The RP part is considered fringe among most players. Time to join that fringe. So I made a character on a role-playing LotRO server, the same that my old guild is on. As the guildmaster was visibly uncomfortable with the idea of me joining my old guild again, which is understandable due to the complicated multi-game structure, I decided that to get into role-playing I'd better join a role-playing guild.

So here I am, technically a hobbit minstrel, but role-playing more in the direction of a hobbit farmer. I gave my avatar grey hair, wrinkles, and the pot-belly of a man just past his middle age. Still strong enough to take up his pitchfork and his lute against the menaces of wolves, goblins, and the like. But more interested in his farm and a good meal than in hunting dragons.

I chose the minstrel class because I played all classes to level 6 to 10 in the beta, and minstrel was the one I liked the best. He fights in a way that is totally different from anything I've played before. He has ballads, and these both damage a targeted opponent, as well as buffing my character for a short duration. And these ballads are sorted in different tiers, with the restriction that you can only sing a ballad of a higher tier if you have one of the buffs of the lower tier on you. In addition to that he has melee moves and battle cries, plus healing spells. A well-rounded character, which plays very good in solo, but with the healing is obviously also a good choice for groups.

So over the weekend I leveled my new hobbit minstrel up from level 1 to 13. That involved doing lots of quests in the Shire. The Shire is a relatively peaceful place, so there are a lot of quests that involve more running around and exploring than fighting. That suited me just fine. Especially interesting are the quests of a new type, where you have to carry something somewhere, within a time-limit, and while avoiding NPC hobbits that want to intercept you. For example you can transport mail between the different hobbit villages, but you have to avoid nosey hobbits. If you get too close to them, the quest fails. So you need to run over the fields, but without getting into combat with the wildlife. And you can't cross streams by swimming either when you are carrying something.

Of course there are "kill ten rats" quests too, although in this case its shrews, not rats. Or wolves, spiders, goblins, et cetera. Up to now all these kill quests were relatively short, with high drop rates whenever I needed to collect items from mobs, often 100%. But if you are feeling like killing stuff, there are several traits that are earned for example by killing 60 wolves, or bandits, or goblins, or spiders. So I already spent some time killing wolves beyond of what I needed for the quest, to get their light hides (you don't need skinning in LotRO to collect these) and to fulfill the wolf-slayer and advanced wolf-slayer deed. The wolf-slayer deed gave me the right to call myself "fur-cutter" as a title, if I wanted to, while the advanced wolf-slayer gave me a trait, which is equivalent to a talent in WoW. You get slots to put traits in by leveling, and then choose among all the traits you have earned by deeds. Besides "kill 60 monsters" deeds, there are also deeds and traits related to you using your abilities a certain number of times, doing a number of quests in the same region, or visiting a series of points of interest.

Most quests are soloable, but there are a few fellowship quests. I failed to get to level 10 without dying, which would have earned me the "the undefeated" title, because I started a group quest event without realizing it was a group quest, and then got killed by 4 swarms of bees and 2 bears, all higher in level than the indicated quest level. Once I joined my guild, I did a couple of group quests with them. Some just play normally, just against more monsters. But I also visited an instanced quest called "A Gift of the North", where your group is teleported to an instanced copy of a place that also exists on the normal map, to fight through a quest event and kill a troll. Besides a good quest reward, and being fun, we also found lots of yellow and purple drops (the equivalent of green and blue in WoW). Especially purple tradeskill recipes drop a lot more frequently than in WoW, which is great. But I am also wielding a purple dagger now, which I found in a non-instanced group quest event on a bandit boss.

So why all this killing and questing if I wanted to play a farmer? Well, I would have liked to farm more, but leveling up farming loses you money, and I needed the quests and loot to finance the farm. Farming used to be extremely lucrative in the beta, but Turbine re-adjusted the prices to balance things better. In my opinion that still isn't well done. You can still earn lots of money by being a master expert farmer, it just costs you money to get there. Let me explain the system:

Farming works by you buying 6 seeds, 2 fertilizer, and 1 water, and standing on a public field to use your sowing skill. That grows a small patch of the plant you sowed, which you can then harvest. Only you can harvest your field. Harvesting gives you a random number of fair and poor plants. You transform the fair plants at the workbench into the final product, which you can sell. And you transform the poor plants into seeds. Unless you have a critical success, on average a harvest gives you 1 fair plant and 2 poor plants. The 2 poor plants provide exactly the number of seeds you need for your next patch, so seeds are basically self-replenishing. Add a few lucky crits, and you produce an excess of seeds. But your main income is from selling the product of the fair plants. For the economics of it, lets just assume we always just produce enough seeds to continue farming. Then it becomes clear that to make a profit, you need to sell the product from the 1 fair plant for more than the water and fertilizer costs you.

Now every time you sow a field or process a poor or fair plant, you earn points. You start out at apprentice level, and once you have enough points, you are considered to be proficient as apprentice. That gives you a title (apprentice farmer), and access to the next tier of recipes, the journeyman recipes. Once you are proficient at journeyman, you become expert, then artisan, and so on. But even if you are proficient at one level, you can continue working on that tier of skill. So if instead of doing journeyman recipes, you continue with apprentice recipes, you will reach master apprentice level. Once you reach master level in any tier, you can use the mastery option when sowing fields in that tier. That adds 3 soils to the recipes, but now yields 5 fair and 2 poor plants on average, instead of 1 fair and 2 poor. So the seeds are still self-replenishing (but with less chance to produce an excess of seeds, it seems), but you get 4 fair plants more, and thus a lot more plants to sell.

So far so good. As you would expect the higher you go up in recipe tiers, the more the seeds cost (but you only need them to get started), and the more money you get when selling your product back to the NPC vendor. But curiously the apprentice, journeyman, and expert tiers all use the same type of water and fertilizer, and always the same amount. The result of that is that 1 fair plant at apprentice level sells for far less than the cost of 1 water and 2 fertilizer, while 1 fair plant of an expert recipe sells for slightly more than the cost of the water and fertilizer. And the products from 5 fair plants at master apprentice level sell for less than 1 water, 2 fertilizer, and 3 soils, while at master expert you make a profit of about 6 silver pieces per field. And you need to be master apprentice and master journeyman, before you can become master expert.

So I spent certainly over 100 silver just to get my farming skill up. That is basically all the money I earned from quests and loot by going up to level 13, never buying any gear, only spending money for training. But once I had sunk those costs, and reached master expert level, I was earning money from farming like crazy. As I said, about 6 silver per field, so in an hour you can easily make the 100 silver pieces back. While I was broke all the way up to master expert, I ended the weekend with over 200 silver in my pockets. And now I'm producing money a lot faster than I could ever hope to do by adventuring at level 13. So the idea now is to make lots of money, and use it to equip my character better, and also to pay for the two other crafts I have, cooking and tailoring. Apparently those lose money at all levels.

There is a certain risk that farming will be further nerfed. But the last time they did that they just adjusted all prices downwards, which lead to the stupid situtation now that farming costs a fortune at low skill, and earns you the fortune and more back at high skill. I'd rather they make low level farming be cost-neutral, or earn you some meager copper pieces, but then make the profits increase slowly with level, so that at master expert the profit is reduced by half from what its now. The funny thing is that if Turbine leaves the system as it is now, the famous "gold farmers" will be exactly that. Why level up a character to farm gold from mobs, if you just need some seed money and level 5 to reach master expert farmer and earn the gold on the fields? But maybe that is what Turbine wants. Farming is totally non-exclusive and non-competitive. Any number of gold farmers can populate a field and make money, without having a direct effect on the other players. Sure, there is the indirect effect of the farmed gold on the economy. But at least you get rid of the problem that gold farmers camp the best spawns and regular players have problems killing those mobs because they are overfarmed. An interesting way to reduce player complaints about gold farmers.

I want to finish this long journal entry with some comments on the graphics of Lord of the Rings Online. LotRO sure is beautiful, much more so than WoW, but without needing the same huge hardware requirements as Vanguard. You can see quite far in this game, and then actually walk to the point you saw in the distance. Technically LotRO is very well done, with very few bugs, no crashes the whole weekend, no lag yet, no logon queues. And it even supports my G15 Logitech keyboard, showing my health, mana, and dread on the little LCD display.

One interesting graphical feature of LotRO is the day/night cycle. A game day lasts about 3 real world hours, of which about 1 hour is night. And the night is a lot darker than the night in World of Warcraft. You can light a torch with ALT-F10 (I tested it with a guild mate, that torch is only visible to yourself, not to others) to light your immediate surroundings. But unless you fiddle with your gamma settings, the night is nearly too dark to go adventuring. I often found myself farming at night, adventuring by day. And of course I spent nights roleplaying in a tavern with my guild mates. I think Lord of the Rings Online does the day/night cycle better than World of Warcraft. In WoW, if you only play in the evenings, you only ever see the game world in evening colors. But day or night just changes the lighting slightly, even at midnight it isn't really dark anywhere. So in WoW you tend to ignore the time of day completely. In LotRO day and night have more effect on you. Visibility is lower at night, which affects adventuring. And some quests are linked to the time of day, for example there is a quest to spy on a black rider, but he only appears at night, of course. The only thing I'm missing is a way to tell in-game time. I started to note the time when it becomes dark, so I know it gets light again in about 1 hour. And then I find myself an occupation for which the dark isn't bothering me, and wait with exploration for the daylight. Having to react to the light is a good thing, it creates more of a "world" feeling.

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