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Lord of the Rings Online Column: Freebird!

By Justin Webb on January 19, 2010

In an industry where “borrowing” features from other games is commonplace, it has always surprised me that no one has copied the music system from LotRO. It’s conceptually what I consider to be a “perfect” MMO system, allowing players to express themselves purely with very few systematic barriers. Why hasn’t it cropped up anywhere else?

For those of you unfamiliar with how it works, if you have a musical instrument in LotRO, you can enter music mode and then use your keyboard to play the instrument in real time. Using control and shift you can go up and down an octave, giving you a three octave range. The game also uses a modified ABC notation system, which allows you to convert sheet music into an ASCII file. If you convert a song into an ABC file, you can play it in the game (/play ). There are some synching commands too that allow multiple group members to all play the same song in time.

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While noodling around Middle Earth in LoTRO you will often come across players trying out new songs or just jamming out in public places. As a casual interested observer, the system seems to work really well. The sound is a bit tinny, and the syncopation feels a bit mechanical on scripted songs, but overall, this first-try implementation of this system – considering that it is (as far as I know) unique in modern MMOs – is phenomenal.

Wait a minute. Did he just claim it was “perfect”? Is he trying to make the forums explode? Let me explain.

Systems that allow a player to express themselves in any meaningful way are really hard to do in an MMO, since many of the traditional avenues that real people might use do not exist. In addition, the play experience takes place in an engineered world with many rules, constraints, and limitations on how a player’s avatar can look, act, and behave. For example, you can only dance (or use animated emotes) in ways that the game’s animators have built. Your “voice” generally isn’t an actual voice either, just text, and everyone’s text looks the same.

It is vitally important in an MMO to give the player as many ways as possible to stand out and express themselves. Players want to feel special; they want to feel like the hero. You can do it to some degree with clothing/armor. But again, this self-expression is limited by the amount of art assets that have been built. You can’t wear whatever you want. City of Heroes understands this, which is why their excellent character-creation process is so robust and extensive. Also, in a lot of games, the “coolest” gear is often reserved for the hardest (or most time-consuming) content. In these cases, wearing the “coolest” duds is signposting your achievements rather than a symbol of pure self-expression.

So, there aren’t nearly as many ways that players can express themselves as in the real world.

However, the LotRO system is ALL about expression. Granted, the expression is tightly focused – as music -- but just about any song can be played (if you are talented or put the work in), and lots of people can join in. It’s supremely social too. If you are playing a cool song, people who would otherwise sprint by will stop and listen … and chat … and sometimes become friends.

Our industry is great at delivering challenging content and play experiences, but not so great at providing opportunities for socialization or self-expression. Many people would argue that that is what the first and second Ms in MMO are all about. In a landscape where a guild can be just a dedicated friends list and a chat channel, we developers should be taking notice of social systems that absolutely knock the ball out of the park … which the LotRO music system does.

So, by “perfect”, I mean that it is a rounded system that is purely social and 100% expressive. It doesn’t require that the player be level X, or have skill level Y. It doesn’t require that the player kill 10 rats or complete the hardest boss encounter in the game. All you need is an instrument and a desire to try. There is no barrier to entry. You can’t fail. It’s also really entertaining.

Given the nitpickery that will arise with me using the word perfect, I should state that, of course, there are lots of other types of system perfection. And that the system itself is not implemented perfectly. Just that, in my opinion, the LotRO music system is socially and expressively perfect. Good job Turbine!

It’s also a great example of a system that helps build the metagame. By metagame, I mean any behavior that a player takes part in that is not part of the actual game. Metagames spring up when players obsess about aspects of their favorite game when they are not playing. The music system taps into a certain type of person. One who will enjoy hunting down the sheet music of their favorite song; or writing about music on forums dedicated to the system; or posting videos of their performances on Youtube; or writing iPhone apps to help tabulate songs; just telling their friends about their newest song at the “watercooler”. Games with vibrant metagames usually do really well.

So, why haven’t versions of this system popped up in any other major MMOs recently? . I’m guessing that maybe this system was the brainchild of some senior designer/engineer music savant who ran with it and therefore it required little developmental heavy lifting. Implementing a MIDI-like system slap bang in the middle of an MMO might be quite hard. Again, I dunno. Maybe it’s not as good a system as I think it is.

What is really suprising to me is that, given Blizzard’s recent propensity to trample all over their own IP (pop-culture-based dancing, motorcycles, helicopters, etc.), and their tendency to borrow liberally from their competitors, a play-your-own-music system would seem like a perfect fit for them. Hmmm, there’s that word again.

Also, adding a music system like this one would make any MMO instantly girl friendly.

Now … Freebird!

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Justin Webb
Justin Webb is a veteran MMO designer and curmudgeon who has worked for Hasbro, EA, and Tencent.

Justin's column will appear every Tuesday here at MMORPG.com.
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