Planting A Seed?

What LotRO can learn from Seed's downfall

By Eáránë Táralóm - [email protected] TenTonHammer Staff

The question has been asked, could there be such a thing as a social MMORPG like Seed and the social MUDs of yore, and would you like to see your game give socializers some of the attention most games offer exclusively to achievers? My response? There damn well better.

Now, I’m no statistician. And I don’t know much about market trends, probability factors, or demographics. But I have played a few games, and here’s what I see seem to be major (albeit very broad) components in MMO’s:

  • Achievement opportunities – questing and instances, PvP
  • Social – entertainment capabilities and crafting skills, RP support
  • The Look – how does the game look, move, feel
  • The Lore – what ties all aspects of a game together

It used to be that everything was secondary to the achievement aspect of games – that and the look (busty babes and muscle-bound men). But gaming has passed beyond the realm of adolescent boys (except maybe in Korea) and has a much broader audience now. Female gamers and older gamers have begun to have their consumer voices heard.

Still, the gaming industry lags behind in supporting the social aspect of MMO’s, and I for the life of me can’t figure out why. Look at some of the games out there that specialize in socialization (interaction, entertainment, crafting): Second Life, not even a game (as we know them), but with hundreds of thousands of players. Millions play The Sims in one iteration or another, evidencing the gaming community’s desire to create and to make their mark on their gaming environment. And that’s not even an MMO.

Yet, so far, no successful MMO has been a good social game. Some had tried, but have fallen short. Star Wars Galaxies came the closest in my experience. After creating a pretty extensive avatar, you could your own mixture of skills – you could be an entertainer and a combatant, plus you could craft and be part of the ingame economy, if you so chose. But then SOE, in its infinite wisdom, decided to buff its combat system at the expense of the social aspect of the game, trading in flexibility for “iconic” professions and completely stomping on a much loved lore by allowing everyone to be a jedi. And to what effect? Star Wars Galaxies is full of ghost towns now.

Guild Wars was supposed to be the next level in social gaming, but NCSoft learned that forced grouping was a poor substitution for social interaction. Even World of Warcraft, which has broken all subscription sessions, and, according to many, set the barre for all games coming after, has an admitted dearth when it comes to social interation, with avatars that are so similar as to be an army of clones, and ingame support that at best is geared towards the enticing, with no substance beyond level, skill, and uber items..

But yes, WoW did set the barre high. Love the look or hate the look, it’s lush and unified – titillating enough to maintain interest but not as vainglorious as other games. It has a lore that has great depth and an incredible scope. And yes, it also boasts a glorious, full, and entertaining combat system, with a very broad appeal whether you are new or an endgame player.

However, the one major drawback for WoW is that it does not use the lore or the wealth of social potential to any advantage. For many players, the game is empty. Lovely, but empty. The lore is so full, and yet it is not utilized except for nods here and there in quest texts. Sure, there are books lying around, but how many players know there are there, or have the time to pause in an instance to read them? Many players are leaving WoW because the gameplay has gotten too rote, the factions have gotten too myopic, and because it caters too much to the endgame questor. (Even Blizzard is acknowledging that 40 man raids lasting hours at time were too prevalent in their game.) Many others have been staying in WoW because there’s “nothing better out there.”

All of this means that Turbine has an incredible opportunity right now. Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is poised to be the first all-around, complete offering in gaming history.

LOTRO certainly has the lore working to its advantage – perhaps the best known and beloved lore in Western history. Encouragingly, throughout the three years that Turbine has been working with Tolkien’s revered works, they have shown nothing but respect for the lore and a dedication to bringing the Professor’s words to gaming life, rather than riding on the coattails of the popular movies. Social gamers (and many folks who have never played an MMO before) are already primed and psyched to inhabit Middle-earth.

And it appears that the look of the game is not going to disappoint. The screenshots and landscapes that have been made public have been breathtaking. Will they be enough? Will the movement of the avatars, the reactions of the NPCs, the creatures that inhabit the world, the mobs, the interactions between it all allow us as players to suspend out disbelief enough to take us into the gaming world? As the game is actively in beta, no one can come out and comment on that. Time will tell, but it’s vitally important that Turbine find that sublime line between life and gaming.

Achievement will, of course, have to be engaging in LOTRO. Since Turbine has said that LOTRO will be a combat based game, we can be confident that they already have that pretty well in hand. After all, that is the nuts and bolts of an MMO, and if you don’t believe that, we need to have a whole ‘nother discussion. And their newest announcements regarding Monster Play (the LOTRO version of PvP) has gotten a generally favorable response, citing it as a way to appease certain gamers’ needs to assert themselves against other players without violating the lore, or without letting PvP take centerstage (which would be completely counter to Tolkien’s ideals).

So the big question is – will LOTRO be able to satisfy the social gamer? Therein lies it’s big, soul-searching question, that I believe will hold its key to success or failure. The development team has already stated that it won’t have special role playing servers or any extra support for RP – they will, however, support players who do wish to role play (no, that’s not double-speak).

How can Turbine support the social player without making a social aspect to the game? In small ways – small, very important ways. Allow players lots of latitude when they interact. Emotes, gestures, facial expressions – those all will become vitally important. A dynamic and flexible ingame communications method – also very important (and given the wide variety of players, there had better be lots of customization involved). Make crafting – if chosen – be a vital part of the ingame economy. Allow players to create items of great value.

Then there are the intangibles – places for small or large groups to meet spontaneously. Ways for guilds to forge an identity. Allow for some type of uniqueness, if not in item then in style. Even if character customization cannot be as intensive as City of Heros, let the player find a way to distinguish themselves from other players, in looks and not just in stats. But also - allow the player to act differently, as well as look different. Give them places to go where they can forge their own stories, instead of forcing them down the exact same path as every other player. Turbine has stated that every LOTRO player has the opportunity to be a hero – let the player decide what constitutes a hero, not a narrow set of commands and variables.

If Turbine does not take advantage of the huge gaming demographic that is the social gamer, then they will have a lukewarm game that will fritter on the edges of the gaming community, even with a fantastic lore base and a lovely landscape vista. Trying to outdo WoW by doing the same thing will be a futile activity. But finding what WoW lacks, and capitalizing on that – listening to the people who have stuck in the community since Day One who don’t want just a game, but a life – then they will have a success on their hands, I guarantee it. They don’t need to simulate life in Middle-earth – they just need to acknowledge our wish to pretend we’re there.

Is a social MMO possible? Not on its own, no. But I think it is possible, as part of a new dynamic. Has it been done yet? Nope, not even close - yet. Will Lord of the Rings Online be the first game to truly recognize how important the social aspect of MMOs is to the current gaming demographic? I certainly hope so. I’ve banked my last three years on it.

I guess we’ll all find out the answer to that question soon.

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Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016