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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

The Quiet MMO: Lord of the Rings Online

Posted by Ortwig Saturday June 23 2012 at 11:14AM
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I logged into Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) for the first time a year ago, knowing it was a free-to-play game, and, feeling a little weary of the level and gear grind, wanting to try out an alternative to the World of Warcraft (WoW) leviathan.  There had been something of a hub-bub over LOTRO going free in 2010—it was one of the first to do so—but other than that, I was a bit surprised how such a well-known title had such a quiet following.  Or maybe it was just that the Warcraft crowd was bigger and louder. 
I rolled an elf Hunter (Ranged Damage) from Mirkwood and named him Gilthalas.  Other character classes available are Burglar (Stealth), Captain (Support Warriors), Champion (Pure Warrior), Guardian (Close Defensive Warrior), Lore-master (Elemental Magic Damage), Minstrel (Healing Magic), Rune-keeper (Rune Magic Healing / Damage), and Warden (Ranged Defensive Warrior).  Playable races are Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit, and Man, each with several options for homeland.
There are quite a few more controls during character creation for designing your character look.  In fact, many of the newer MMOs, with the possible exception of Star Wars: The Old Republic, seem to give you more options here – I find that I tend to leave my first character pretty generic, but I do like having these options, especially once I get invested.
The initial scenario is pretty scripted, with Gilthalas being asked to help fend off an attack on an Eriadoran stronghold– these scenarios are designed, of course, to teach new players how to work the controls and introduce them to MMOs.  I distinctly remember thinking that the turning and movement controls felt strange, and ended up opting for using the mouse exclusively for movement; in WoW, I use the keyboard, so again, just noted it as a quirk I would need to get used to.  At the time, LOTRO seemed a little clunky, with small, sometimes hard-to-read menus – not a lot of difference, but enough that I had to work a bit to find my way around the interface. 
That said, there are some pretty significant similarities between WoW and LOTRO.  There’s a hot bar along the bottom, with buttons for commonly accessed items such as bags, character sheet, quest log and special abilities.  A mini-map of the area sits in pretty much the same place as WoW, and many of the keybinds are exactly the same—‘M” to pull up the map for instance.  Active quests are displayed along the right side of the page, and monster and NPC names float above characters, just as in WoW.  Also very similar is the quest pick-up and turn-in model, with rings instead of exclamation and question marks, floating above NPCs who have quests to hand out.  Text descriptions are written out in dialogue boxes, again, much like in WoW.
I played over a few days, taking on the first few quests, several of which were open, instanced dungeons, and then set the game aside.  I remember thinking at the time that overall the game felt like a less-polished WoW, and didn’t touch it again for another 6 months. 
Then came PAX East, the Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World beta weekends, and, in the lull afterwards, I found myself wanting to try out LOTRO again.  And, strangely enough, I found myself pulled back into the game.  I had started slow, but LOTRO has a way of growing on you. 
Some subtle things began to become apparent.  Architecture throughout the world was less “cookie cutter” than in WoW; most buildings look unique and different.  Important buildings such as the inn at Bree are actually instanced, making the building an environment of its own. 
Natural creatures (bears, boars, etc.) did not automatically attack me when I got a little close, even at low levels; instead they “threatened to attack” and often did not.  When they did, and I chose not to fight, they gave chase for only a short while before giving up.  In all, this made for a nicer, more realistic traveling experience.  In WoW, if you step too close, you will always—no question—be attacked.
Most travel is by land (foot or horse), so there is no flying over key content as is possible in WoW, and Milestones (the LOTRO equivalent of Hearthstones) have a 90 minute cooldown; I find that I actually prefer that travel be a consideration, rather than a mere inconvenience.  When using a horse at a stable to swiftly carry you to the next town, you have the option to dismount at any time if you see something interesting. 
And there are a lot of interesting nooks in LOTRO.  Little items that could be significant, ruins in the distance that may not have anything to do with your current goal, but beckon you to explore.  The soundtrack music is quieter, less bombastic, perhaps more bucolic (guitars are heard frequently), leaving room to hear the sounds of birds or wilderness animals; in general, the ambient experience of LOTRO is superior to the cartoon aesthetic of WoW.  At one point, as I was traveling through a field of flowers outside Bree, I was shocked to see a flock of birds making their way across a cloudy sky.   Panning down, the flowers stand taller than my character. 
Other small bits: character housing is available, and dyes are available to tailor the look of your clothes.  A few other things I haven’t spent time figuring out yet are bartering and deeds, and I am sure much more.  The crafting system is similar to WoW’s, but somehow feels more organic and natural.
But more than all this, I found myself actually reading, and being drawn into, the quests.  Part of this, I think, is the influence of the books on the overall tone.  Character voice plays an important part in this—all quest dialogue is written in the high Tolkien style—but it’s also the feeling that the quests carry more weight in this world, that you are participating in, and doing something that really is affecting, the story.   
One quest begins with a local dwarven blacksmith asking you to help find the culprit who has stolen one of his swords.  A bit of poking around and you find the perpetrator, but his story is that his family is being threatened unless he produces a blade for group of local ruffians.   Oddly, the other local townsmen mention that the perpetrator “always has an excuse.”  Interesting.   It turns out that the fellow is being threatened, but that the sword doesn’t do him much good.  When the brigand tests the stolen sword on some local wildlife, it breaks, and the brigand killed (hmm, the dwarf was bragging about the quality of his blades, too).  The gang retaliates by kidnapping the perpetrator’s daughter.  Of course, Gilthalas is asked to rescue her.  The rescue is no picnic either – you need to break into the brigand stronghold and protect the daughter from being killed in the escape attempt.  Turns out this last part of the quest really could use a group to handle the number of bad guys, but by this time, you feel pretty invested in the rescue, and want to help the poor girl out of her predicament.  Quest quality I think is one of the main reasons I am really beginning to think of LOTRO as a game I will be playing more often.
One other note—I think LOTRO may lend itself a bit more to roleplayers.  WoW plays its fantasy with a bit of a wink and a nudge, while LOTRO maintains that high Tolkien style; the other players I ran into during the game were friendly and tended to help each other out.  I was invited to group up on a number of occasions for small quests, and the talk over the line, if not in character, was at least in plain language instead of acronyms.  Not once did I see “DPS,” “Tank,” or “LFG” in the trade channel, and this in itself was refreshing.
I really do commend the group over at Turbine.  They’ve really stuck to the Tolkien ideal here, and have done the books justice – the John Howe-style artwork seems to be the inspiration for the way the game looks.  The world feels expansive, and more importantly for fans of the books, true.  With all the bluster of the big MMOs—Warcraft, Star Wars, Guild Wars 2—don’t overlook the quiet (1-2 million player) MMO that’s been around for 5 years now.  Lord of the Rings Online is better than you remember.