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Lord of the Rings Online Column: Looking up from the Grindstone

By Isabelle Parsley on December 03, 2010

Every now and then I realize I’m a bit of a gaming nerd, and that I’ve got a touch of MMO-OCD. I’m not making light of what is, in real-life, a sometimes very difficult disorder to live with – but as far as games go I do have a tendency to keep doing some things long past the point at which they’re still as enjoyable as they could be, and because the familiar becomes something of a security blanket.

I’m not much of a risk-taker, even in games, so I’ll stay in a zone I know both because it’s familiar and because with so many things to do in each zone these days, it takes forever to actually get everything done.

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LOTRO is my game of choice right now and it’s structured like most other MMOs out there: the game world is divided into zones that are appropriate for increasing level ranges, with quest hubs scattered throughout. Also like many MMOs these days, LOTRO has a ton of non-quest things to do – they’re called deeds, and they’re just like WoW’s or EQ2’s achievements. Which also means that there are always going to be more deeds to do than you can comfortably accomplish, certainly in your first pass through a zone.

LOTRO’s deeds are even more compelling, in that they actually provide character bonuses in various areas: some are minor, like reduced travel costs or better vendor rates, but others directly affect your skills, stats or abilities. If you did all the deeds in every zone you visited as you went through, your character would absolutely be stronger and more versatile than a character that just raced through and moved to the next zone as soon as they got to the right level.

On the other hand, the level of world-PvE challenge in most MMOs these days is really fairly low key, and a character who just races through will probably not have much trouble getting things done, even though the compulsive deed-completer may have a more rounded set of skills and abilities. It’s not like those deeds, quests and mobs are going anywhere. They’ll still be there when you come back to the zone at some point down the line.

I don’t feel like a compulsive anything, most of the time. And yet, the last half dozen or so play sessions I’ve had with my main character (a Captain, for those who want to know) have involved wrapping up quest lines she’s a bit high for now and trying to increment some of those pesky critter-killing deeds. It’s been a little tedious.

Part of the problem is that I like long quest chains and I hate leaving the last few parts of them undone just because I happen to have mostly outlevelled them. I can ignore group-only quests fairly easily when I’m playing solo, but if Bob QuestGiver still has a quest for me I find it really difficult to say “Sorry Bob, I’m off to the next quest hub, you’ll have to find your missing pants yourself. I’m sure some younger adventurer will be around shortly to offer sartorial assistance.”

I’m not even sure why that is. The NPCs are computer entities – they won’t care if I leave them in the lurch – and I don’t really role-play much in MMOs these days, so I don’t really care if I leave them in the lurch; but still, I twitch away from moving on even when it’s obvious the challenge level has dropped to almost nothing. I’m not actually huge on risking my character’s life every fight and I don’t have a problem with being stupidly overpowered, but fight after fight where you mash mobs with barely a thought while you’re mentally composing your RL grocery list… that does get rather boring.

Fortunately I have some much more sensible friends whose compulsions (if they have any) don’t lie in the same directions as my own. When one of them asked me, a touch incredulously, why I didn’t just move on and check out a new area, I didn’t have a good answer. I suddenly remembered a zone I’d ridden – well, mostly fled – through a dozen levels previously, when everything was dangerous and mobs could have snapped me in half like a twig; it seemed like a really nice-looking zone with interesting new scenery and fun new mobs. And yet in the meantime I’d totally forgotten about telling myself I’d go back there as soon as I was high enough. “Just go already!” my friend said. So I went.

We all play differently and enjoy different things. I know several people who derive a great deal of enjoyment out of finishing every last quest and every last deed in a zone even if everything has gone grey to them, because they get pleasure out of the achievement itself. Other people I know may not enjoy doing it but they’ll do all the quests and deeds anyway because it makes them more desirable in groups, or because they feel like they’re incomplete if they don’t do everything they possibly can to make their character as strong as possible.

I’m sort of in the middle, which is something I know about myself but somehow keep forgetting. I love exploring new places and I enjoy the thrill of running awaaaaay! while praying that the critter breathing down my neck won’t hit me enough times to kill me before the leash kicks in. Finding weird, beautiful, dangerous out-of-the-way places I’ve never seen before is a real kick for me, and sometimes I even remember to take screenshots.

But part of me also likes to complete quests and deeds and likes to see my character improve and get stronger. Knowing I only have 150 more orcs to kill for a deed seems like a piece of cake – until I actually start killing orcs and find myself yawning in boredom within about 10 minutes. Monster-killing deeds aren’t much fun for me if it’s the only reason I’m actually killing the monsters.

Human beings are creatures of habit, but we’re also explorers, and we’re no different when we play games. Sometimes I need to remind myself that most MMOs are designed to provide structure but the experience is not – despite the criticism that’s often voiced – actually on rails. Nothing is stopping me from jumping over that waterfall or climbing over that mountain I’ve been looking at the past few weeks. The orcs, boars, wolves and goblins will all still be there when I get back.

So to all the other players out there who often get stuck doing something that isn’t really fun because they know it will pay off later, here’s my advice: stop. Do the FUN. Do it now.

I understand that the almighty End or Raiding Game have their own requirements that must be met in order to participate, and I understand that competition can be a real bitch at the top. But we play these games for enjoyment, don’t we? And if not, why not just take a second job? It pays better.

Whether you enjoy finding new horizons or whether you take pleasure in slaughtering monsters for personal advancement – just remember what it is you do enjoy, and try to do more of it. These are games: fun is supposed to be the primary objective; and if fun gets ground under the wheels of achievement and attainment, then maybe we should rethink whether these really are games or whether they’re just jobs we happen to pay subscriptions for.

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Player Perspectives
Isabelle Parsley, better known as Ysharros, is a long time MMORPG player and prolific blogger on the topic. She joins the MMORPG.com columnist team with this Player Perspectives offering every Friday.
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