The mill of God grinds slow but grinds exceedingly small…

This time last year I was deeply in love with a type of game that was new to me – the MMORPG. Sure I’d played in Second Life for over four years by that point so I had experienced the MMO part, and I had grown up playing paper & pencil role playing games such as MERP & Traveller so I had some knowledge of the RPG part, but to find myself playing a computer game that combined both was a revelation!

LOTRO, for that was the game, quickly proved to be a wonderful time-sink as I had a new world to explore that was free of the irritations that had built up for me in Linden Lab’s creation (lag, crazy management decisions, fugly landscapes, dumb but powerful players) and which offered me a play experience tailored to reaching an impressive goal. Unfortunately, within a few short months I began to realise that the green grass on the other side of hill might just be concealing a lot of thorny brambles.

Now, not having grown up playing MMOs I came to LOTRO as complete & unspoilt virgin. Yes I understood about existing in a 3D virtual persistent world, but I knew nothing about MMO combat or questing or levelling & skill progression. Like a man possessed with the desire to acquire new, exciting knowledge I threw myself into learning everything I could about just how MMOs work and this proved to be such a mammoth task that in my study of the details I simply overlooked the obvious, hulking elephant sat squarely in the room.

MMOs steal your time.

I don’t mean you become addicted and want to play every waking moment. No, every game or hobby does that at some point and it’s a normal reaction when doing something you enjoy to want to do lots more of it. At one time I would have given in and played as much as possible but now I’m married with kids that simply isn’t an option and I have to ration my on-line time and live vicariously through other people’s blogs, videos and podcasts. But this isn’t what I’m getting at when I say MMOs steal your time.

No, what I mean is that in the main the MMO business model makes money either through charging players regular subscriptions or leading them to make repeated purchases from an online micro-transaction store. The games themselves have evolved to feed the business model and a toxic relationship has grown up between them and you, the player. The games either deliberately space out content so you stay in game longer needlessly wasting hours of your time just so you pay another subscription fee, or they cynically build in mechanisms whereby you have to pay hard cash to overcome some inconvenience in the game.

Now I only have LOTRO to fall back on when I want to give examples but from what I hear many other games pull similar stunts to both greater & lesser degrees. To help me explain, let me give you some examples from 10 month playing Turbine’s LOTRO.

When Ranhold hit the right level, I wanted to start the process of getting his three legendary skills from his class trainer. All classes have the same route, you hit 35 (I think) and you can buy three books from your trainer that are ancient texts on your class. Unfortunately, because of their great age, several pages from each are missing and you are tasked with finding them. Once you do you can unlock one of three skills (one per book and presumably learnt from reading the great wisdom contained in each mouldy tome). Now, putting aside many logic issues (such as why rare books are for sale from trainers all over Middle Earth to all the practitioners of your class, and just how come these pages have fallen into the hands of any old bi-pedal creature in certain areas and of a certain level) the thing that really ripped my knitting about this task was how obvious it became that this was a just a mechanic to slow me down. It took me weeks of playing every evening and slaughtering hundreds upon hundreds of bad guys to find these pages and this was simply to keep me in the game long enough to charge me more subscriptions fees. Each book *could* have been gathered in a series of instanced quests that would have felt more logical and been far more fun than mindlessly hanging about waiting for the same orcs you had just killed for the twentieth time to respawn in exactly the same spots so you could kill them all again for the twenty first time and hope against hope the Gods of Random Number Generation would smile on you this time! But you see, the trouble with a quest line is it can be done in an evening and that isn’t good for poor old Turbine who want the poor sods playing their games to spew up more & more moolah. They can’t reach through the screen and pick your pocket so instead they manipulate their game so they can steal your time and charge you for it.

This wasn’t the only example, oh no. Reputation grinds always acted as a break on the story by stopping me in my tracks just so I could collect a bazillion twigs for no good or logical reason. Or what about kicking the crap out of several hundred (bad) dwarves in one mine just so I could get a goat from some (this time good) dwarves in another mine that would allow me to get around yet another mine full of dwarves (of which orientation I was past caring). And let’s not forget the three tasks assigned to you at around level 50? The ones that see you travelling all over the sodding place just to collect rare-ish drops from slugs and orcs and turtles and wargs and Uncle Bloody Tom Cobley for all I know? Why? For what reason?

To waste your time. To make you pay more.

And then there are the cash shop sinks. Every expansion Turbine seem to add a new grindy mechanic that includes an item you can get in game if you spend hundreds of hours killing hundreds of orcs just so you can then upgrade your Legendary Item in a system so designed to strip the fun out of feeling heroic you can only imagine it was designed by people who use Microsoft Excel to read War & Peace. Brian over at CMP said in one of his recent podcasts that he had resigned himself to the fact that every time Turbine put out a new expansion or update there is a very strong chance they will also add a new mechanic that will drive people to the store. This, to me at least, is simply not acceptable and not something I can accept.

But, I hear some of you say, I’m a Jonny Come Lately to these games so who am I to say that grinding is pointless or that adding cash item mechanics are bad form? True enough. I don’t speak for all MMO gamers, just me and I’ve spoken to lots of folks who love, or at least don’t mind, gathering reputation items and measure their success in gathering rancid pages from rotting orc corpses as quickly as possible. It’s just that it is not for me. I don’t like a company rationing my enjoyment of a game I’ve paid for. No, what I want is to buy a game and then play it how the hell I want to. I don’t want to have to spend hours and hours repeating menial, boring tasks. I may still choose to do that, but *I* want that choice and that is something I don’t think Turbine every truly offered me.

I also don’t like to feel as though I’m a wallet with legs to be opened and emptied when they feel like it. I want to feel like a valued customer and again I don’t think that Turbine have ever really demonstrated that I’m anything but a sucker to them.

Now please don’t feel I’m hitting just on Turbine here. Obviously I am but only because they are the only ones I have any experience with and I’m sure many game companies and their games are the same. I don’t play LOTRO any more and I’m damn sure I won’t play any game if I read even one review that mentions how grindy it is. Like refusing to continue reading bad book, life is too short to piss away playing games that just aren’t fun.

#LOTRO: An open letter to Turbine on why I will not renew my subscription.

I’ve never done this before. Oh I’ve ranted and blown off steam about this game or that, some broken feature or other, but I’ve never sat down and deliberately written a ‘letter’ to a company about why they have upset me so much. I suppose it’s mainly because I don’t think it would do any good – no company is going to listen to me are they? I don’t mean this on a personal level, but I am just a player and they have plenty of those without worrying about me. Still here I am and here is my letter to Turbine via their Community Manager, Sapience (aka @rickheaton). Now he’s a busy fella so I’ll get right to the point.

Dear Turbine,

I have loved LOTRO since I started in May 2011, enough that although it was my first ever experience with an MMO I gladly became a subscriber the following month. Since then I have played extensively and had an incredible time in the wonderful, beautiful world you have created and have happily spent several hundred pounds there in both subscription and store & Turbine Point purchases.

Yet now I find myself so upset by a single recent decision that I will not be renewing my subscription this year and I will not buy a single Turbine Point from your store again. I will do my utmost to ensure your company never has a penny of my money again.

Why you may (or may not) ask? What have we done to illicit such a strong negative response from you?

The answer is simple. The Update 6 premium wallet.

Now it is true that over December & January I grew sick of the grindy nature of the levelling & Legendary Item system, but I am not an idiot & I know that grinding is a part of pretty much all MMOs. No, it was not this that led me to my final decision.

It is also true that I have been looking around for a new MMO to play; from Star Trek to The Secret World to Guild Wars 2 I have been itching to try a new game, but never at the expense of LOTRO. Whilst I may not have endless hours of free time, I have enough to accommodate more than one game. Besides, my first love is always going to be Tolkien’s Middle Earth aand I have no intentions of giving that up.

Also don’t think I’m against the concept of in-game stores & micro-transactions: I’m not. You are a company. you need to make money to pay wages and develop games. I’m happy to pay for the service you provide in the full knowledge that your developers and staff can carry on making this and other games.

And please don’t imagine that I’m acting in anger over your recent “hiccups” in terms of communications and store items. Yes Isengard was messy; no I don’t care about stated items & even if the Landscape Solider was a total damp squib I don’t care as we all get things wrong. You are a games company & not a hospital and therefore when you get something wrong it is highly unlikely anyone will die.

No. What has so upset me is what I consider to be your totally unreasonable request that I pay 995 Turbine Points (that’s £10 to me here in the UK) for the convenience of using your new Premium Wallet feature. This is wrong.

As a subscriber I do not expect to be charged for an update to the game’s mechanics. This is not a storage expansion slot for my inventory or vault, this is extra functionality being added to an existing part of the game and that is what I expect my subscription to cover.

Now it is true that since you announced this wallet I will probably have received enough Turbine Points from you in the form of my 500 per month stipend to purchase this without spending another extra penny of my money, but I’m afraid that is not only not the point, it is simply not good enough. I do not like to be dictated to on how I spend my points, I do not like to feel forced in to a decision. They are my points, not yours and even though I have about 10,000 of them just sitting there I will not be told how I should spend them.

So even though I have the points. Even though I have the disposable income. Even though I have bought inventory, vault & wardrobe storage space from you in the past. And even though I have no need in the game for the wallet as reputation and barter items are not an issue for me, the decision to charge me £10 for this feature has so angered and upset me that I will not renew my subscription at the end of June this year and I feel certain I can foresee no circumstance in which I would subscribe to another game your company ever produces.

I say this as a calm and rational customer, not a febrile fanboy furious over the lore behind a bearded dragon. After all, I expect you to stare at my open wallet with naked hunger, I just don’t expect to find you trying to pick my pocket as well.

LOTRO: Shopping for Fun & Profit

I don’t know all the background, but when LOTRO went free to play last year the LOTRO Store was deemed one of the places the company behind the game, Turbine, would fund the ongoing development of the game; the idea being that whilst having X number of people paying a small monthly fee is all well and good, the removal of that monthly fee would bring in Y-more people who would then either join the X group or spend their hard-earned wonga in an easily accessible in-game store. Some may have wondered if the plan would work, but I think general consensus is that it was a brilliant idea. I don’t know the figures but I read that tons of people have started playing the game now the barrier of a purchase & subscription fee has been removed – hell, that’s what swung it for me. There I was, surrounded with my newly recovered MERP books and yearning to reclaim my Middle Earth inhabiting youth when I suddenly remembered seeing the LOTRO boxes down at the game shop in town. A quick google found that the game was free and I’d registered and hit download before I really knew anything about the game.

If there had been a reasonable price (<£40) to buy the game on download I probably would have paid it. If there had been a price to buy it and a reasonable monthly subscription (<£10) but with a free trial period to try it I still would have gone ahead. But if there had been a price to buy it AND then a monthly subscription fee with no trial period, then no matter how low that fee I would never have downloaded it. That’s just me – I mean, why am I going to pay twice for something I might not like? So I can honestly say that Turbine’s decision to go free-to-play directly influenced me to download it – after all what had I got to lose, eh?

By the end of the second day playing the game I was googling to see if I could get a Mines of Moria box set so I could have all the content even though it would take me months to even get to a stage where I could play any of it, that’s how much this game grabbed me! I was in the grip of a mania, but I know that I always am when I find a new game so I waited for it to simmer down and I could assess how I felt about the game in a more reasonable frame of mind – after all, Call of Duty: Black Ops spent the night with me only to lift my wallet in the morning. But whereas the Balck Ops love bubble popped after 10 looooong, painful days. The mania for LOTRO never passed.  I’m a whole month into LOTRO now and so much in love I want to take it out to dinner, marry it, have kids and move to a cottage by the sea… one with broadband though.

And Turbine are getting their worth out of me, let me tell you! I have spent more money in my one month in LOTRO than I would have in 4 months of paying subs. More for fuck’s sake! MORE! Turbine have worked out a balance of paying for fun and not paying to win that is almost perfect for me and I’ve had to stop myself more than once from clicking on the big gold LOTRO Store coin icon in game and ask “Do I really need this cool item?”. That is amazing – they have made a game so good I want to dry hump it, and then slapped on a business model that takes me for more cash than their original idea of just charging me to play – not just that but I happily open my wallet and let their orcs march in with a smile on my face and song on my lips. By christ I wish I’d have thought of that business model!

Still, they have to tread a fine line because no one wants to play in a game where that really cool super-warrior you just saw strutting through Bree turns out not to have the cojones to cock-punch the Balrog and grab all the loot, but just a very deep wallet. For my part I steer away from items that actually makes my character bigger, tougher, harder, etc. and buy the simple stuff that makes the gameplay more enjoyable and less of a grind. So far I’ve spent real Earth money the following items:

  • A horse. Not one of the £20 super-fast ones, just a basic Bree-pony. Nothing gets you down more than a 10 minute yomp through the (admittedly beautiful) countryside just to click on someone and complete a quest for 93 copper pieces and some pork chops. Get a horse, but if you can wait a little longer than me, you could buy one in game for about 700 silver pieces which might take a little time to accrue but won’t cost you a penny from your actual wage packet. When it came to Gorfrik, I had Ranhold post him enough silver to buy a horse this way and save me a fiver in RL.
  • Cosmetic clothing. Not a lot, just 3 or 4 items so I didn’t look like everyone else, but again you can buy this in game with silver pieces and not spend your real food money on it. When it comes to cosmetics, it’s worth remembering that it does nothing but look good
  • Anti-death tokens. Nothing sucks worse than dying twice in quick succession as the second time beams you home. These tokens cancel that allowing you to carry on and reclaim your honour. I *think* these can also be made in-world and therefore bought there, but I’m not sure.
  • Extra bag & vault slots. As a free to play player you only get 3 inventory bags. You *will* need more. Buy them. Same with the bank vault storage, although this can also be bought with silver (and then gold) pieces so save your loot and spend it wisely to avoid dipping into your real life bank account.
  • Virtue slots. You can only unlock these at the store if you are free to play. Sure you can play without them, but it places a break on how far you can develop, although that break is very far into the game by which time you might be paying monthly anyway and have them unlocked 😀
  • Experience/Deed Accelerators. Oh gods… having to find and kill 60 sickle flies can be such a ballache. Spend some money (mere pence) and get a 15-minute boost so you don’t have to grind so long on these repetitive tasks that really don’t enhance your gameplay in huge leaps – no one got to level 65 by killing 10 wolves in the Old Forest 😉
  • Expansion content. Free to play people have the whole of the world created so far to explore, but large areas of it are empty of people and quests until you buy the downloadable expansion packs. I haven’t so far as I’m not at these places yet (and won’t be for at least 2-3 more months giving you some insight into just how much content free-ers get) but I will.

I think that’s about all I have bought so far, bar the odd little thing here and there. The store system works really well, just make sure you check out if what you are buying with real money a) needs to be bought & b) can be bough in-game for non-real money.

As for me, well once the migration from Codemaster’s EU servers to Turbine’s American servers is done I’m going VIP monthly subscription – that’s how much I love this bloody game, but rest assured I’ll still be shopping at the store for those accelerators 😀