LOTRO: Weatherstock V – 2013

Made it to my second Weatherstock! Was it better than the first?

lotro-band

You bet.

I’m pleased to report that Turbine moved swiftly to address the whole ridiculous forced emote saga by implementing an opt-out in the Options setting. This was well-advertised in regional for us noobs who only show up once a year and are completely bamboozled staring at our unfamiliar UI and going through our inventory bags wondering wtf are these things… and being ever so tempted to give the game one more shot. (I really need 48 hours in a day to do that though.)

I just as rapidly turned that setting off, and while occasional sneak peeks into the Combat tab revealed several people doing their best to force emotes from others, being immune to it was lovely. More importantly, because the musicians were immune as well, the music was uninterrupted and any attempted griefing didn’t make a mark at all.

Oh, there were attempts at emote spam and what-not, but there are the standard MMO tools for that. A new chat tab, select only Regional chat and/or say, voila, no spammy emotes visible. Or /ignore player. Hide one’s entire interface and all becomes immersive. Stuff like that.

Something extra special this year was Turbine’s delightful gift to Weatherstock attendees. Sending a tell to (presumably an organizer to) register your name and one would get a title, Weatherstock Wayfarer, to be awarded later in the week or some such. Some might say this is especially cunning PR as it may tempt one to check back into the game later, hmm?

Band players and organizers were also to get special titles, like Weatherstock Band and Weatherstock Steward (if my memory doesn’t fail me,) which is a really awesome show of support for such a special player-run event.

I am aware that this produces some whining from certain parts of the playerbase (like raiders or PvMPers) who feel ignored by Turbine while the “crummy roleplayers” seem to get all the special attention, but really, let’s look at it objectively. If you raid, quest, PvMP, etc. you are playing dev-created content. You are a consumer of content.

Players singing and dancing along to a lively tune
Players singing and dancing along to a lively tune

Roleplayers CREATE CONTENT for other players to consume. They also create community. A very stable social community. There’s a reason why roleplaying servers in many MMOs boast some of the better crowds which even non-roleplayers seek out.

It’s lovely to see one MMO where roleplayers aren’t an ignored subset, left to *ahem*, stereotypically, ERP, to their own devices. For an MMO as strongly based on lore and immersive and being true to Tolkien, it’s good to have some nods to this, even as all the commercial stuff like the F2P store has to come in for survival and to compete with other MMOs.

Speaking of the store, there was also a free coupon to claim a dance emote being advertised. Which I thought was also pretty cunning. Somewhere amidst the six hours, just to kill time while waiting in between sets, I personally opened up the store to take a peek at it (and note I still had some 2400 Turbine points left over before I lost interest in the endless laundry list of quests that were basically shuffling to and fro across long distances.)

From the player help being offered across the chat channels, even a total nub like me worked out how to operate the store, select a dance emote, enter the shopping cart, enter the coupon code, note the 95 Turbine Point cost being brought down to zero (yay, free!) and reap the rewards on a level 9 character.

Not that I knew how to operate it afterwards, or was the least bit interested in dancing (else there’s always Google or ask for help,) but yeah. Presumably for players a little more invested in the game than me, after sampling, this might tempt them to go buy the character-based emote or other dances for their main characters back on other servers or whatever – 95TP didn’t seem like a lot, even to me.

To get back to the actual Weatherstock…

lotro-elves

All the participating bands gave us some glorious music for some 6-7 hours. A digital concert. For free. In an MMO.

Seriously, the mind keeps boggling every time one thinks about it, and it really behooves everyone vaguely interested in MMOs to check it out at least once. Just to see what LOTRO’s music system is capable of.

I keep hoping for someone to have posted short videos cut from the lengthy concert on Youtube so that I can link to them, but so far, no one’s gotten around to it yet and I’m bursting to share already.

So I’ll direct you all to either the raw footage from MMOreporter or the entire Livesteam on Twitch.tv by Pineleafneedles if you want to catch all 7 hours.

Both have, to me, annoyingly loud commentators talking over the sound of the music or people wanting to be famous blocking the camera at times – which is a good avertisement for going to Weatherstock on your own to pre-set all your audio to your own preferences and direct your own camera, but failing which, it’s the next best thing, I guess.

(Have I mentioned how much more flexible the LOTRO camera is, compared to GW2? All screenshots in this post were taken from my sitting position. Didn’t have to move a muscle.)

lotro-vista

I know you’ll look at the length of all the videos and balk (or at least, I know I would. I can’t deal with videos very well, that’s why I blog) so lemme provide you with some of my personal favorite highlights to fast forward to:

From Weatherstock 2013 RAW Livestream Part 1 at 38:30, Run Like Hell (original by Pink Floyd) from one of the Lonely Mountain Band house bands Old Winyards.

Same video, same band, at 44:23, LOTRO-themed lyrics of U2’s All Because of You. Yes, I admit to a special fondness for cleverly converted lyrics.

The Songburrow Strollers, at 1:23:58, one of the competing bands gave a HILARIOUS rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (original from Rolling Stones) re-entitled “Catfish Action” and very very hobbit-themed. This is a MUST WATCH!

Their final song is about plundering a biscuit jar and is also a good one to watch.

RKO (the Runic Knight Orchestra) did a beautiful rendition of Jim MacLeod’s Come by the Hills and a sneaky sneaky goblin-themed version of Jonathan Coulton’s Still Alive.

The Chosen Few did a very cheerful bouncey song about Grandma’s Feather Bed at 1:06:15 from the Weatherstock 2013 RAW Livestream Part 2. They also played a version of Still Alive following that and it’s interesting to compare how different it sounds from RKO’s due to the variation of instruments and arrangement.

Their final song was a knockout hit and another MUST WATCH. Living Next Door to Gandalf, it’s called. You’ll never think about Gandalf in the same way again.

A Rock and a Hard Place, a first time band at Weatherstock if I am not mistaken, did a nice version of Sympathy for the Devil from the Rolling Stones, re-titled Sympathy for the Dark Lord. Go Sauron!

The Breakfast Club did one of my favorites, Annie Lennox’s Whiter Shade of Pale, converted to an LOTRO-themed “Lighter Shade of Ale” followed by another great song, Petula Clark’s Downtown, now aptly entitled Breetown.

Flock of Smeagols, the band formerly known as Don’t Tempt Me Frodo, who would absolutely win best-named and best-dressed band prizes if given, played at 47:35… well, you’ll have to click the link to find out. God, I love this band. 🙂

lotro-youbet

One last favorite was Die Meisterbarden von Bree’s song – Jump by Van Halen – that they chose to play at the Battle of the Bands – where all the bands spread out to play their tunes and attract voters in the ultimate busking competition. Epic server lag hit as all the Weatherstock attendees started running about, so I doubt anyone has a good video of this.

(You can catch it instead at this pre-concert series from Pineleafneedle’s stream if you forward to 2:44:44 or thereabouts.)

There are a lot of other good songs that I haven’t covered. Picking and choosing from such fantastic bands is extremely difficult so do find your favorites and explore their other tunes. Mysteri from the LOTRO Players has a great summary in text of the whole band lineup and their tunes. So using that as a guide, one can more or less scroll back and forth in the raw footage for now. I’m sure some enterprising person will cut it later or at least provide timestamps for them all.

Well, we tried to bring it to 11... But Weatherstock was already too awesome.
Well, we tried to bring it to 11… But Weatherstock was already too awesome to crank up further. One of my last screenshots before the show-stopping lag hit.

I have to say, for such an epic event, things actually worked pretty great lag-wise. There was some stuttering with the march up to Weatherstock (which I managed to catch and thus get my squishy self up without having to worry about finding the correct rations for a summon.) There was a couple seconds of freezing on entering Weathertop as my ancient computer screamed in horror at trying to suddenly render the 100-200 players already up there. We were well-advised over Regional to set our graphics setting to Low (which I did) and to look at the ground or sky if necessary (which wasn’t, for me.)

On getting into the crowd, I had a bout of 5-10 minutes of constant logging in and crashing after a couple seconds to a minute or so. Which freaked me out until I put two and two together and realized that my very first crash had reset my graphics settings to the standard Custom high to very high I normally use to enjoy LOTRO’s scenery. So, of course, I would be logging in and then crashing out the next instant as the toaster known as my computer tried to render 500+ players’ varied costumes.

Cleverly, Turbine has an options to adjust graphics settings in the character selection screen before logging in. So it was a breeze to fix that back down to low and then log in and survive and stay connected. (Adjusting up to medium to attempt screenshots knocked me right out again after a minute, so yeah, low is best. And that’s why nearly all my screenshots are crappy.)

There were one or two missing musicians and a restart due to lag, but nothing really major until the finale. Which was completely understandable with the tons of people trying to move. And also very fast thinking on the organizers’ part to set up a straw poll using a third-party website when everyone completely froze and it seemed impossible to get a fair and proper headcount. Seriously, not every guild is up to organizing something on such a scale as this. LOTRO is lucky to have the Lonely Mountain Band.

A big kudos goes to Turbine for supporting this concert as well. I’m sure there were tons of behind-the-scenes people doing their best to diminish the lag speedily (resolved itself fast enough for everyone to re-gather and hear the winners play, and didn’t crash the entire server either, which is awesome) and a GM or two on standby to address untoward griefing.

A big thank you to all the bands and all the organizers for creating such a lovely event that can even attract not current players of that MMO to log back into a game.

lotro-aerialview

I heard the final report for the max number of players present at Weatherstock V was something like 642 players. Phenomenal. Broke all the previous year’s records as usual.

Here’s to next year’s Weatherstock. Bigger and even better!

(I can hear Turbine’s server room guys weeping already.)

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PSA: Weatherstock 2013 – Update LOTRO Today!

It may be deserted now, but just you wait! (5 year old screenshot FTW.)

Friendly reminder to all those interested in the greatest player-run music festival / concert to ever evolve in an MMO.

And it’s on a Free 2 Play game, so it won’t cost a cent to just log in and listen.

weatherstock_5th_annual_01_darkblue_600-Copy-512x600

Weatherstock will be happening in some five day’s time. They even have a Twitter account going.

It’s at an insomniac timing for my part of the world, but I think it’s doable. It’s a Saturday weekend so I just need to nap between GW2 WvW reset and wake up in time. Wish me and my alarm clock luck!

From last year’s experience, expect the event to stretch a little, just in case. Don’t go scheduling a raid at 5pm EST if you want to attend the whole thing.

Venue is, of course, Weathertop or the ruins of the Tower of Amon Sul, on the Landroval server.

You want to hit the human town of Bree by whatever means you have, and then jog or ride down the southeast road until you zone into the Lone Lands. Very nice people will be waiting by the inn there to escort your squishy self up if you are insufficiently leveled.

This time I’m going to be prepared and updating LOTRO beforehand.

So who can beat me in the number of iterations to sit through?
So who can beat me in the number of iterations to sit through?

I’m actually impressed, the launcher hasn’t crashed or stalled. Stay away this length of time from an NCSoft game like Aion and rest assured you will never be able to log in again without deleting it all wholesale. (Makes me tempted to also update Turbine’s DDO and peek in too, but argh, I have no more time for multiple MMOs…)

I may or may not be able to diagnose and solve last year’s black screen screenshot issue in the time remaining. Let’s hope all these updates just magically fix the problem.

Thank you to Beorbrand for the tip-off in my comments!

The Real Problem with the New Tomb Raider’s Trailer

There’s all manner of indignation ricocheting from about the internet about the new Tomb Raider reboot.

Depending on who you ask, this turns the strong and self-sufficient millionaire adventurer Lara Croft into a victimized young girl whom male gamers are supposed to feel ‘protective’ over, layered with audio and visual overtones of hypersexualized torture porn (tied up, impaled, almost raped…)

…while other folks are decrying the unoriginal trope of rape being the automatic heinous thing you do in female characters’ backstories to *ahem* ‘make them stronger’ for having survived it. (I’d have snuck in a TV Tropes link, but apparently they have collided with the rape content police recently.)

One person quotes another. A paraphrase here and there. Something else taken out of context. And lo and behold, the feminists are up in arms… again.

It’s kinda ironic considering that

a) The new Lara Croft is considerably less sexualized visually in her character design. She looks to have human proportions. For once. She’s not just “oh, boobies!”

b) The intent is to give Lara Croft an origin story. Show her progress from someone ordinary to the extraordinary larger-than-life game superhero we’re familiar with.

c) The real point of the attempted rape scene is to depict a decision point, a crisis moment in Lara’s life, where she actually takes a human being’s life for the first time.

To depict what might conceivably force an ordinary human being to kill another, while still yielding some measure of sympathy for the killer, because she’s the protagonist after all.

Considering how murder is frowned upon in general society, self-defence vs assaulting rapist seems an easily understandable way out. Admittedly, it’s a bit lazy storytelling, but could you do any better?

Give me an “original” scenario where one character is forced to take another person’s life – not in a soldier/sanctioned by war sense, thanks.

(The best one I can come up with so far is that she has to kill someone in order to protect another person. It’s not that big a crisis point considering gamers are used to being the hero and killing rampantly, ostensibly for the sake of protecting another.

David Cage managed it in Heavy Rain where Ethan Mars had to strongly consider the possibility of murder in order to get a clue to save his son (and there were self-defence and various kinds of excuses there too. I’m sure some -still- criticize it for being contrived.))

It all sort of reminds me of the time I spent on a school project ripping apart an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess for being sexist and demeaning to women in its costuming and tasteless ‘damsels-in-distress’ plotting. Our team was on a roll, showing how the camera angles always fall to the level of the female’s busts (ahem, chest) but rise to the male’s heads, making fun of Xena’s characteristic ‘ki-yi-yi-yi’ screaming, deriding the stereotypical fantasy tropes, etc. and our teacher smiled and nodded…

…Some time after which, I discovered that an entire Xena online subculture had actually appropriated the broad tropes and practically idolize the Xena and Gabrielle pair for being depicted as strong women independent of any man, analyze episodes for clever double entrendre ‘lesbian’ subtext, and create reams of the strongest not-completely-teenage-angsty-fantasy fanfiction to grace the interwebs.

Foot, meet mouth. Suddenly, my arguments seemed hopelessly childish and surface-oriented only. I couldn’t see past the bare midriffs to the strong character personalities portrayed beneath.

How can the same thing be two completely opposite things all at once?

From our frames of reference. Perspective. Good to change it now and then to see if there’s any truth to the other guy’s POV. There usually are a few grains.

If you’ve spent any time on this blog at all, you’ve no doubt had a taste of my philosophy, which runs towards a sort of secular Zen/Taoist ‘balance’ spectrum of greys and I’m fond of espousing the Babylon 5 Kosh saying, “Understanding is a three-edged sword.”

There’s -always- multiple sides to every issue. And I find it fun to dig them up and lay them on the table, rather than see people go back and forth at each other hugging their precious one side to their chests and not listening to each other.

In Tomb Raider’s case, I think I’ve figured it out. The real problem, if you check the E3 gameplay trailer for yourself, is in the voice acting.

Not the plot, not the trigger word of rape, not the unoriginality (so many video games are derivative anyway, didn’t we just play fantasy Vikings with Dragons just a while ago?), not whatever horrible attack on feminism is supposed to have occurred.

If all the audio is off, the action generally looks quite good. Some of the face animation is a little stiff, but well, not everyone has mo-cap faces as a budget priority. Insert your own grunts and sound effects where appropriate according to your imagination.

Turn the audio on, and oh my god, it’s like Lord of the Rings Online female bandits all over again. You know, the ones you keep fighting in Archet and Combe while trying to keep the audio as low as possible in order to avoid awkward questions from any other person in the house about why you’re watching hardcore porn. *gasp* *heeve* *grunt* *uhhhhhh* *aaaaahhh*

Try it when your main character is also female. Oh dear. Anyone like orgies?

(I hear they’ve reworked those voices now. Phew.)

/Someone/ decided to give Lara Croft a voice that is a hair too feminine for the face and body, if you ask my opinion.

And then made it much much worse by making her act like a stereotypical girl, screaming and squealing at every turn of events. I’m not saying she has to be a stoic silent male stereotype either, but does she have to be that most annoying example of femaledom – the one that screeches at everything?

This is supposed to make me, the player, feel ‘protective’ of her?

Apparently I’m not the target audience the designer is envisioning. I’d probably just want to drown her somewhere to shut her up. (That was a figure-of-speech, please don’t kill me, any feminists in the audience!)

Do you hear Skyrim’s Lydia squealing like a girl every time some rocks fall? (Especially since she normally sets off the traps in the first place…)

Zoey is just an ordinary young woman in Left 4 Dead, and sure, she’s going to scream sometimes when confronted by zombies, but it’s not every damn time nor does it sound so… exploitative.

Clumsy characterization is the issue in the trailer. I dunno if it’ll be any better in the longer format game, but her voice is off, and doesn’t gel with the animations. If you want her screaming because she’s wounded, then her avatar has to look like she’s wounded and stagger properly, and the voice has to come with appropriate timing – not just play on as a softcore porn soundtrack with random exhalations just because.

It’s an audio uncanny valley. It doesn’t convey the intent of the storytelling and just makes it comical at best, and disrespectful to the character if you view Lara Croft as serious business.

A little bit of silence would go a long way.

LOTRO: Weatherstock 2012 (and Analysis)

On Serendipity

I’ve always wanted to attend Weatherstock. The very concept and idea of the event is fantastic, a player-created player-run concert for players in a fairly modern triple A sort of MMO (which is usually the antithesis of player-created content), let alone the sheer scale of it – hundreds of attendees gathered in one place (again in typical MMOs, that’s usually unplayable lag city the moment 100-200 players converge together.)

Just as often, every year, I completely forget the date because I’m not a dedicated LOTRO player in tune with the pulse of the community.

(One of the things I’m most disappointed about in my LOTRO experience is the misfortune of accidentally choosing a server that didn’t evolve a strong community name for itself like Landroval, Brandywine, etc. It’s just a run of the mill kind of server, not crowded, not extremely notable, and didn’t help to keep me attracted to the game. Since that learning experience, in any other game I make a beeline to the most crowded servers there are, I’ll put up with lags and queues to see crowds and life in a server.)

I wish I could say that this year was different and this year I marked the calendar and set the alarm clock and what not.

Well, no, I didn’t. I happened to be awake at 1am on the transition between Saturday and Sunday night, and idly clicking on posts in my RSS reader looking for a good read when a PC Gamer post popped up out of the blue – Listen to beautiful player-made music at LOTRO’s Weatherstock music event today.

Cue double take. WTF, Weatherstock is TODAY? Like, RIGHT NOW?

Shit shit shit. And my LOTRO client is about 9 months out of date, I last logged in some time in October 2011.

On the bright side, it’s a 3+ hour event, if I started now, I -might- conceivably manage to get in before it ends. Up went the client, with me rolling my eyes at the usual glacial pace but egging on the program regardless, and I opened up the livestream hosted by MMO Reporter in the meantime to get a sneak peek.

On Anti-Serendipity aka Murphy’s Law

Unfortunately in retrospect, I seem to have gotten hit by an infamous ‘black screen’ screenshot bug. Updating a client in a hurry does that kind of Murphy’s Law thing on you, no prior time to have found and fixed the issue, and I just assumed screenshots would work normally. You know what they say about assumptions.

Only after the event and wanting to write this post now, do I find that I have 56 jpegs of completely black screens which are worthless in terms of recording the memories. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to shamelessly rip off two promotional posters from other websites as my only visual accompaniment (presumably additional promotion is fair use), and that you’ll have to deal with my descriptions and check elsewhere on the web for videos and pictures – of which I am sure there will be plenty soon enough.

First Impressions

Awesome. Spectacular. Both the visual and audio spectacle, that is.

Not as laggy as I feared, all things considered. The livestream hitched occasionally and there was one unfortunate client crash but most of the music could be heard and listened to. And when I finally made it into the game with the client, it was even better as I had control of my own camera and could position myself somewhere within auditory range. Less hitching on my own client.

Graphics were set to very low in tune with the advice, and I actually managed to get up to high graphics on my six year old DX9 desktop. Very high graphics crashed me out. Not that you or me would be able to appreciate the lag risk I took, since all my screenshots turned out black anyway! *wry grin* Stupid bug. Maybe next year.

On the Event Organization

You know, the work put in by the Lonely Mountain Band in organizing this event blew me away. Intensive amounts of effort went into this and making it run so smoothly.

My visitor to Landroval was an ancient low-level hobbit made gods-know-when in the mists of time. I read as level 7, though I’m sure if I hit something that got me xp, I’d probably shoot to lvl 12 at least from the level revamps. I was in a blinding hurry with no access to the Riding skill as a free player (I think) even though I opened a five year giftbox and found an event mount of some kind in there.

So I hoofed it barefoot from Michel Delving to Bree by swift travel and then ran like hell down the safe roads, calculating in my head the chances of strategically staying the hell away from the aggro radius of any scary Lone Lands mobs while dashing to Weathertop.

(One thing my City of Heroes experience taught me, after the gauntlet of the old Hollows hazard zone and Steel Canyon south to north, I don’t shy away from running abysmally low levels through crazy scary red and purple con mobs.)

Except I didn’t have to.

I hit the Forsaken Inn, grabbed the stable waypoint and locked in my milestone (no way I was runnning back from Bree if I died) and was set to go all gung-ho hobbit when a LMB member just automatically beckoned me to follow and smoothly cleared the way of any nasty wargs and crebain and critters and escorted me right up to the peak.

That was the role of the LMB Security Team, who also stood by at the top of the circle and cleaned out the perimeter of any respawning mobs that might disrupt the event. Impressive. Especially when you consider that a lot of these guys were miles away from the actual concert and thus not able to hear anything on their own characters. Maybe they used a stream, ventrilo or maybe an alt account to still be in touch, but selfless and generous all the same, in my opinion.

There were also other teams working their arses off as covered by Keli in this blog post – Freakout Zone for tech support and lag ridden players to recover, Vending to distribute hope tokens and pipeweed and ale, and Stage Crew that manage the bands, stage effects and all the background preparation work for an event of this magnitude – and it’s a lot considering that people have to create new characters on this server, get leveled up and trained in musical instruments, get costumes and what not.

(Imagine, just a bit of foresight by the devs in ease of server transfers or a not-completely-segregated-and-isolated server system and a lot of this work needn’t be done by players that have to push up against the restrictions of the game’s design. Fortunately, roleplayers and their immersion-seeking ilk are infinitely resourceful in dealing with the hand they are given, which is often, not much.)

Big credit and props and kudos to the Lonely Mountain Band for all that event organization. I am seriously hard put to envision many other guilds in other games doing similar things on this scale – I’m sure there are megaguilds out there that could, but few would, if you get my meaning. To run a social altruistic style mega-event that isn’t as handily supported by game design, versus a big mob kill or a pvp gankfest that are more in tune with the mechanics of a game.

(LOTRO does innovate some on this social front with the whole music system, the costumes and the emotes and pipeweed, etc. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we do have to credit the devs for the music system in the first place which allowed such a wonderful emergent property of a Weatherstock concert to evolve. Everquest is probably the other MMO to watch and see if the SOEmote idea goes anywhere.)

On the Bands

I am a new-made fan. I’m seriously going to have to go through all their Youtube videos at some point because there was some really exceptionally sounding stuff I heard up there.

Music is subjective, and while I admit to having a preference for the immersive type of songs which are either entirely composed and set in Tolkien’s world (as opposed to famous real-world songs replicated and played) or a recognizable real-world tune which set to Tolkien-related lyrics, one of the things I noticed and was most taken with was the differences in sound that the music system was capable of producing.

One memorable piece was entirely made out of drumming. Drumming! Who would think you can replicate the rhythms of percussion groups like Stomp in a frickin’ MMO?

Another thing I was taken with was the amount of care taken with the costuming and racial detail. There were white robed elves, an all-dwarf band in blue, hobbits representing, as well as bands of all races unified by clothing design. I have to say my favorite most memorable costume of the night was the dwarf in the Don’t Tempt Me Frodo band in a crazy horned hat all-red get up of some kind, almost ‘metal’ in style. (Not that I could see much with graphics on very low, and not that you can see ANYTHING considering I have black screenshots. *grumbles*)

I’m going to have to watch all the video recordings of their pre-concerts someday soon. Weatherstock for me is just a way to get a sampling of what these bands can do. There simply isn’t sufficient time for a longer format – it was scheduled for 3 hours and it was about 5+ hours by the time we were done.

No wait, my timing calculations are off, it was 1am where I learned about Weatherstock, 3.30am before I finally made it into the game, and it closed about 8.30am-9.00am (in my local time. Americans can just transpose by 12 hours for “normal people” EST times.)

That’s easily eight hours of concert, and god knows how many hours of prepreparation.

On the Audience

Now I understand the appeal of all the LOTRO costuming and outfitting fashion blogs around the place, such as LOTRO Fashion and Landroval Style.

The costume options have come a LONG long way from the much maligned pathetic mismatched color armor and silly hats that were endemic to LOTRO’s launch. I felt quite ashamed to still be in that sort of cheapo brown yellow green red purple clown outfit on my lowbie character when there were scads of people all around me in much more faithful and setting-appropriate, beautifully color-coordinated clothing designs.

That sort of dedication to detail completely added to the immersive aspect. Tolkien’s world has power, and there is a good subset of the LOTRO community dedicated to maintaining the lore of the setting. Utterly fantastic.

Just as a random memorable example, there were two hobbit ladies in a beautiful flower headdress get up of some kind (I’m sorry, I’m not a fashion and dress kind of person, that’s about the limit of my descriptive power without illustrative pictures where clothing is concerned) who danced together in a folksy circle in front of the bands. Wonderful accompaniment and not at all obstructive, since hobbits are so short and they’re such a part of Tolkien’s world.

Also somewhat amusing were two chickens that managed to make the run to Weathertop. These were player-controlled chickens (you can play a chicken in LOTRO Session Play, that I can recall) and while I was somewhat torn between trying to determine if they were out to grief and seek attention as they sometimes jumped recklessly in and out in front of the bands, I have to admit that when a chicken started dancing and tapping and drumming its feet in time with the music, it made an entertaining picture.

I suppose the point of holding such an event in the first place is that the audience also has a part to play in contributing to the concert. Naturally you get the more expressive folk, who dance, cheer, clap, bounce a bit and holler, as well as the quieter folk who stand wordlessly in the back rows or sit and lie back to enjoy the performance and serve as wall decoration and scenery. Both are just as important in their own way. And naturally, you will have a balance of folk who heed the rules by the letter, the spirit of the law, or not at all.

On Griefers

Which segues me right onto our next topic. I am going to detail and describe some of the incidents which happened, though I won’t give the griefers any credit by referring to them by name. This is not to feed or reward trolls in any way, merely that I find some of the sociological interplay fascinating and am fond of musing on such topics to figure out if there is any sort of game design that can influence or tweak player behavior one way or another, or if there’s anything players can do to regulate their own and other peoples’ behavior in a game or virtual world as opposed to real life.

I’ll say one thing right off. I’m actually optimistic about human nature as demonstrated by the Weatherstock 2012 subset. There were only 2-3 people who appeared to have a motive for sabotaging the event, and 3-4 relatively minor incidents, in a crowd of 500 people who were there to play and listen to music. That’s barely 1%.

Considering the potentially possible alternatives like a big group crashing a funeral gathering, or an organized mass griefing by the Goons (google them if yer curious, I’m not linking to those), the internet fuckwad radar didn’t ping much at all.

Griefer #1 – Livestream camera blocking

Some guy ran into the view of the MMOreporter’s camera angle. And stayed there. Not out of ignorance as people were advised to sit down, but willfully, because need attention, dammit. Did some emotes. Didn’t think it entirely through because it was a pretty booty, rather than an butt-ugly one, but the motive was there. Disrupt the view of the playing bands. Didn’t affect folks there who could adjust their own camera angles, but affected those who were watching from the MMOreporter’s viewpoint.

Disappeared within 5 minutes. I presume some behind-the-scenes work by the LMB Stage Crew contacting the GMs. Either that or got bored, but probably the former. Obvious harassment of a single player is obvious. Terms of reference breaking? GM smackdown, done.

Griefer #2 – Forced emotes

Some guy triggered some item that made everyone in the vicinity bow. Or some other emote along those lines. Except there were about 300 players in the vicinity, which means massive text spam that scrolls past the point of even knowing what the forced emote was, all the audience forced to stand up, the musicians may have been affected by the forced emote too, massive stuttering framerate lag and an interrupted song as the audio grinds to a halt.

Twice.

You know what? This one I blame on the devs. Enabling through game design. Bad devs! Whatever were you thinking when you create items in your game that can force other nearby players to do something they don’t want to do?

This is old history since MUD days and A Rape in Cyberspace. Learn from the past, fer heavens’ sake. Voodoo dolls and causing players to lose control of their characters to another player has never been a good idea. At its best, it is a mild amusing prank between people who were friends to begin with. At its worst, well, see the link. Stupid idea is stupid.

I am seriously hard put to think of any redeeming qualities to something that cedes player control to another. Perhaps if you interrelate this vulnerability with a lot of other benefits to some kind of partnership, then -maybe- you can develop the deeper aspects of trust and a relationship forming. Even then, it is best for both parties to consent.

(There’s an MMO, Perfect World maybe?, that lets guy characters carry around girl characters. Except both players have to agree, I believe. A Tale in the Desert has a big trust/vulnerability interplay in the Test of the Marriage, but both players have to participate in the act of marrying each other. Embers of Caerus want to implement permadeath pvp duelling, but hey, both parties have to agree to it.)

I guess it makes for a good story and drama if there is nonconsent by one party. See one-sided ganks in Eve Online and Darkfall and their ilk. Some people like that sort of tension and adrenaline rush and storytelling. That’s seriously the best silver lining I can think of. I’m all out of ideas now.

I don’t know how it stopped, but it did. Presumably more behind-the-scenes warnings given. Presumably if you spam a forced emote one too many times, it counts as harassment and the GMs can act on it then.

Griefer #3 and #4 – Letter-of-the-law chat trolls

These two guys were sharp. The first two broke the standard MMO terms of reference, rules, code of conduct type of deal, and opened themselves up to GM action.

These two guys pounced on the fact that ‘technically,’ very technically so, the musicians were actually spamming Regional chat with their singing.

This was a workaround because the reach of the ‘say’ channel cannot touch everyone in Weathertop, and presumably creating a private global channel and getting all 500 interested people to join would be an exercise in technical cat-herding frustration as opposed to just asking a couple of musicians to use Regional. (And you gotta admit, MMO roleplayers have a bit of an exhibitionistic streak, the very point of acting-in-character is that you gotta show it off to someone. Hopefully for their appreciation.)

So they first officially registered their protest on Regional (disrupting the singing) to the musicians, officially requested them to stop and use say only (most of these musicians have already scripted their songs for both say and regional according to event guidelines), officially registered disappointment that the musicians were ignoring them and continuing to spam (which technically, is rules-breaking, even if you have majority support), and officially made reports about spamming against the musicians. All very officiously obnoxious, of course. Obvious troll is obvious.

Pretty devious too. You see, despite the 10-20 odd people who got baited by the trolls and leapt blindly to the musicians’ defence, spamming regional further in a disruptive debate, a majority does not necessarily make right. Imagine the carnage if an organized group like the Goons formed a majority to harass a singular player or two. “We want to do it! There are a lot of us! We all agree!” cannot be a valid defence when a GM is called up to protect the interests of the poor victim who just wants to do his own thing playing the game.

In the same way, the GM must fairly defend the right of the troll to (as he so claims) continue slaying his wargs and goblins in the Lone Lands in peace and quiet, unharrassed by the irritating spam of some guy throwing strings of text into the Regional chat channel at a very fast pace. Let’s face it, on any other day, if some random guy decided he wanted to start singing something ridiculously immersion-breaking like Lady Gaga into Regional, you’d want the GMs to react to it.

That’s what GMs have to do. No one said it was easy. You have to balance and mediate and try to adjudicate between two parties, one usually highly aggrieved and one with the sole dedicated purpose of said other-person-aggrievation as a minigame.

GMs hired by a commercial MMO company are subject to the vagaries of a bureaucracy, of a hierarchy, of petitions to their superiors, of differing ranks of power as opposed to the ancient MUD days or small indie MMOs where essentially, dev immortals are god and tyrant, dictator, benevolent or otherwise, where what they say, freaking goes and they have the power to enforce it.

And I presume you have to follow the letter of the code of conduct as a GM, even if you try to heed the spirit of things. I think it was fairly cleverly handled all told.

A GM gave a warning on two channels, then left the players to sit around and debate on a Looking for Fellowship channel as the trolls got distracted by the flames and attention of people who intentionally or otherwise took the bait and diverted them from Regional to the LFF channel. Players who wanted peace and quiet could just dump the trolls on ignore. (I very quickly just clicked on their names and hit ‘report as harassment’ for good measure too as I ignored them and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the concert.)

I’m going to presume that behind-the-scenes again, the event organizers would be talking to the GM to handle matters. Weatherstock is a big event with community and dev support, and attracts positive press and attention, so it’s not as if there wouldn’t be extenuating circumstances by the time the incident reports wound its way up to the food chain and back down again.

And there were only about 10-20 minutes left of the event, so you know, if folks (meaning GMs and organizers) were both clever and diplomatic, it would be quite a simple matter to sit there in conversation with a GM and pretty much stall and delay the issue, while officially ‘mediating and arbitrating’ and ‘reaching consensus in discussion’ until it became a nonissue.

On Player Power and Other Social Solutions

We’ve been at this from a very standard MMO angle, GMs as arbitrators, because the incident happened in one, and that’s how it’s set up. It makes me wonder if other MMOs would have ways of dealing with such situations. I may have to leave off hypothetical cross-comparisons and analysis for another post, because the word count of this one is starting to alarm even me.

Lastly But Not the Least

Two more things. Along the spectrum of full fledged griefing and trolling down to the more harmless player participation in an event level, we have fireworks. People are requested not to fire them off as they cause visual lag, and the basic goal is preserving the sound quality of the performance, after all. And there was specific stage crew who were presumably tasked to create the special effects and probably used fireworks to do so.

What makes me curious is, how many of the fireworks that were fired off, unplanned, and fired by players who weren’t part of the planning committee, so to speak? Do we consider that griefing? It’s not as annoying as it’s more immersive, but you know, these things are a spectrum of grey. Same with those two chickens. Or how about the tall guy who is always forever blocking your view and refuses to budge at concerts? We had quite a few of those players. It’s not just black-and-white all the time.

And finally, I want to call out the professionalism shown by the band that won the Free People’s Choice, Mornië Alantië.

Silence is always less noticeable than bluster – and we had some bands that did bluster, comes with the territory I expect, some personalities are made that way and they’re charming when they do. 🙂 But I noticed, and I want to point out my appreciation of it.

If memory serves, the forced emote griefing incident occurred right in the midst of their very first song. Quite disrupted the audio and not a few folks in the audience wanted them to begin the set again. Out of fairness and respect to the other teams and the time limit given for each performance (or due to technical issues, I don’t know how their scripts were set up, but the resulting impression was positive), Mornië Alantië ignored the griefing incident with silent professionalism, adapting with the flow, and played right on, segueing to their second song then the next.

Essentially, the show must go on. Choosing to ignore the equivalent of hecklers in a digital realm, they let the power of their music speak for them. And it was great indeed.

And at the last, when they participated in the Battle of the Bands (and the chat troll police were out in full swing,) I noticed that their lead singer had swiftly removed all Regional singing, only doing so in Say. Couldn’t have been easy to alter his script midway through the concert, but he did without making any kind of fuss about it. And in the end, they just played on.

Fine examples of true musicianship.

(Disclaimer: I do not mean to denigrate any of the other bands by pointing one out, because I am sure there were other bands who did similar things which I missed. From my perspective, this is simply how I interpreted this one band’s actions. There were so many good bands.  My one regret in the Battle of the Bands was that I had to choose to go to one when there was plenty of great music echoing from all direction of the stones of Amon Sul.

I have so much catching up to do on Youtube. And next year, I’ll try to actually mark the date! And get screenshots. Functional ones. Sheesh.)

Music in MMOs – Potential for More

Finished Heavy Rain yesterday. While watching the bonus content on Making Of Heavy Rain: Music, something David Cage mentioned struck me. He described the important role music played in a game like Heavy Rain, then added, “Actually, we believe that music is probably 50%, if not more, of the impact of the images.”

And I got to thinking about the impact of music in MMOs, and its uses and functions.

Fair warning: I am no musician. I can’t discuss anything technical, but I wanted to think a little deeper beyond simply listing all the awesome and brilliant music in MMOs. Others have done that years ago even.

Suffice to say, the general consensus is that Jeremy Soule turns anything aural he touches to gold (Guild Wars, Elder Scrolls, etc.), Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online are often highlighted as memorable, and then the other MMOs seem to follow at random depending on preference, nostalgia or people just reminding each other that these tunes are pretty good if you paid some attention to them.

Music is a funny beast. Sure, it’s subjective, different people react differently to various pieces, but there’s also a fair amount of agreement in how humans as a whole react emotionally to music – else there wouldn’t be any purpose to making all those movie soundtracks. Movies use music to support the moving pictures, to stir emotion, to create iconic themes and aid the telling of the story.

Presumably, MMOs, given enough budget, strive to do the same thing with music.

Zones and Iconic Theme Music

One of the things I most commonly observe in MMOs is the use of iconic musical themes, tied to various zones. As the scenery and terrain features change from zone to zone, so does the music. It sets the mood of the zone, hints at the culture of any inhabitants, and creates a brand identity for the zone. Players seem to respond fairly well to this, and often can remember with nostalgia memories of specific zones upon hearing the music again.

Sometimes it’s not an entire zone, but just a small sub-area or local space with a special musical theme. Two notable spots in the MMOs I’ve played come to mind – the interior of Tom Bombadil’s house in the Old Forest in LOTRO, and the transition to St. Martial’s main street that is dotted with casinos in City of Heroes. One of my favorite places in a singleplayer game is Erana’s Peace in Quest For Glory (piano version) – a quiet grove of peace dedicated to a dead lady whom you never actually see in the first game, but is given so much character simply by the music that haunts her haven.

I don’t think it’s used as well as it could be in MMOs, as such music could actually serve to encourage a player to remain a while in a certain locale. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in Erana’s Peace not playing the actual game. And I’ve often just stopped in Tom Bombadil’s house just to listen to the music, but I don’t have anything else to do there but stare at the small cylindrical space and watch Bombadil skip around.

Maybe good music in taverns and inns where you’d conceivably want players to congregate might actually help, as well as add to the immersion of the world. Skyrim is a decent example of what I’m thinking of, though one would have to be very careful about repetition of a single piece.

Avoiding Repetition

Repetition seems to be the mind-killer, as far as music in games go. There are games, Final Fantasy being the most notable example, who have a special tune or two for battle music. You know, it works well at first. Combat starts, the battle theme plays, your blood stirs, and the whole thing feels good… until the umpteenth time some random encounter pops up and you hastily mute the music before you’re conditioned to throw something at your speakers when these specific notes start playing.

I’m not precisely sure if there are any good solutions for avoiding repetition. Variety naturally helps. I’m not sure how many variations one can justify on an MMO budget though, which brings to mind the next idea of supplemental music through microtransactions. Cash shops are already selling vanity costumes, animations and decorations for players to customize their experience of a game. I don’t know if music would sell in general.

If you’re Jeremy Soule, it definitely can, of course. I’ll confess to buying all of his DirectSong music tracks for all of the Guild Wars chapters. Never regretted it, because it turns roaming Guild Wars into an astounding auditory experience, and reduces that horrible spectre of repetitive music. Many times I’d hear something amazing, and have to stop and check the interface to see if the DirectSong icon is on, indicating that it’s playing the extra music – it often is.

Then there’s Left 4 Dead’s music Director, that actually customizes a personal soundtrack for each player and strives to avoid repetition. The game is also notable for musical cues that indicate special Infected or a zombie horde onrush. Translating that to MMOs, musical cues for dynamic events? No doubt a music Director is a lot easier to do for 4 players as opposed to 2000+ players a server, but who knows, we can dream. Technology and progress marches on.

Emotional Arcs in Cutscenes

Music is often used in cutscenes to suggest the emotional arc the characters are (and thusly, what the viewers should be) going through. This is the 50%+ of Heavy Rain for sure, the whole cinematic experience, soundtrack and all. I believe it’s done to varying degrees of success depending on the specific MMO game. I haven’t played SWTOR, but from what I see of the cutscenes on Youtube, it does seem like they did pay attention to that for the purposes of storytelling.

It makes me wonder if more innovation is possible on this front. Do MMO developer tools allow quest/storyline writers to customize the music, as well as the animation in the cutscenes? I wouldn’t know. Then there’s user-created content and creation tools for players to tell each other stories or create adventures for each other – should options for music be included in such designs?

Music Systems

MMOs are not just movies though. Striving for the perfect big budget orchestral themes to accompany high resolution cutscenes shouldn’t be the only approach to music in MMOs.

How else could we bring the ‘game’ or ‘interactivity’ component of an MMO in conjunction with music? What other innovative features might be possible, now and in the future?

Lord of the Rings Online must be mentioned here for its Player Music System – which is far and ahead the most innovative thing to date attempted for music in MMOs, imo. Self-expression and uniqueness (which players seem to love in MMOs, given the demand for customizable looks) in the form of playing musical notes that others can hear. Give players the tools and they will surprise you with their creativity. From the pleasure of additional ambient music while casually strolling past another player, to the incredible annual event of Weatherstock, the emergent content adds to both immersion in a virtual world and a sense of community.

Granted, it has its flaws. Not a few people feel left out or unable to appreciate the system because it rather hinges on a real life skill of musicianship. It can also promptly jar you out of immersion and into real life  if someone is playing something thematically inappropriate for the setting. User-created content is like that. The potential for beautiful pearls, but also a lot of neutral sand to sift through, plus the disgusting tires and the random half-full condom, if we stretch the beach metaphor.

Another interesting music system can be found in Runescape. You get to unlock music tracks and collect them all. Sound achievement familiar? Well, why not? Isn’t that one of the core features of the MMO genre? Why not make music a minigame?

Some games, like Runescape and Eve Online, feature an in-game music player for their own soundtracks, which is probably a neat option for player customization. I’m not sure how many people make use of the feature though. How much further can we take this idea?

Jukeboxes in MMOs? In other words, player-controlled, possibly cost a fee, used in order to send music to a local area. Has been done, but mostly in more obscure Asian titles like Granado Espada, according to my Google-fu. No one seems to have much to say about the subject. The browser MMO Glitch has music boxes, which send short-lived spurts of tunes out, which are more fun-like toy objects for the individual, rather than having any kind of social use. SWTOR is the new kid on the block with them, apparently. I can’t say much more than that because I have no personal experience with those MMOs (besides Glitch.)  I wonder if they are seeing any significant use?

City of Heroes has a notable history of having out-of-game radio stations, hosted by DJs, who hang around in-game to play music for those who care to look up the radio and participate in the social events and contests they also organize. Would it help to have in-game support for such things, and foster a greater sense of community that way? Or does the radio concept only work because of the modern superhero setting?

I don’t think we’ve yet hit any kind of limit on what roles and functions music can play in MMOs. I think the potential has barely been explored.

We just need to think further and deeper on this.

Music in MMOs: What does the future have in store for us?