GW2: A Light in the Darkness

Wow. Just… wow.

I did the level 55 Personal Story quest: A Light in the Darkness a day ago or so, and it is one of the most awesome experiences I’ve had so far in not just this game, but my MMO history. Crazy good level design. Huge kudos to all the folks involved in creating this.

If I weren’t already a die-hard alt-holic, this would make me take quite a few characters up high enough just so that they could go through it too. I’d classify it along the lines of the sort of rousing heroic storytelling sort of on-par with the Nightfall ending and the Eye of the North finale, so you can have an idea of whether you’d like it or not, if you’ve played the original.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me feel “oh no, I’m getting near the end of this great story, and I really hope GW2 comes out with another chapter, another sequel, another expansion soon, cos I want MORE, dammit.” (Yeah, barely one week into the game’s launch, realistic, much?)

Some spoilers follow, so be duly warned:

When you see such a grand painting on the loadscreen for the mission, you know you’re in for something really special.

Essentially, A Light in the Darkness sets up foreshadowing for (I presume) the eventual moment that you hit level 80 and get to go to Orr and Arah and (maybe) confront Zhaitan.

Just as the Ringbearer seeks out Galadriel for a vision of the future, you seek out the Pale Tree for a vision of the future by entering the Dream (which is ever so slightly more hazardous than looking into a bowl of sacred water.)

There’s some wonderful storytelling and voice work. The NPC companion whom you would have met in an earlier part of the story narrates the history of Orr as you progress through the map, mentioning key characters like Vizier Khilbron’s reading of the Lost Scrolls to stop the Charr invasion (which caused a Cataclysm that sunk Orr) and it immediately made me want to run back to Guild Wars 1 to see the Vizier again in the missions where we meet him, and check out all the references in the first game.

God, I love GW lore. Those of you coming into GW2 completely new to the world don’t know what you’re missing. (Take some time to work through GW1 later, if you can.) The lore bible is thick and goes back way more than 250 years in history and there are all kinds of references all over the place, ArenaNet pays so so much attention to immersion.

Speaking of which, this was the first time my Charr, who has been primarily staying in human and Charr zones working to help the peace treaty to stay more or less RP background and lore-appropriate, got to the Sylvari areas. And got to see Ventari’s tablet. (Screenshotting it was not easy, the stupid camera still needs some work done on it.)

It looks like the real deal, all right, and if you bothered with a New Krytan translation, you’d see that someone took the trouble to inscribe the tenets onto it.

I only bothered to check the first two lines, “Live life well, and fully, and waste nothing” and “Do not fear difficulty. Hard ground makes strong roots” so the rest of it could be an ad for dish soap as far as I know, but I doubt it, GW loves their lore. (The rest of the tenets can be read by referring to the Ventari Tablet wiki page.)

When you’re in the Dream, Arah looks glorious. Golden foggy and far away, but glorious. I can’t wait until I can get there for real, and see what has happened in the wake of the Elder Dragon, which I guess, is the point of setting up the foreshadowing.

There are a couple more optional conversations with Dream reflections of Destiny’s Edge, which allude to the storyline in the book, and explains a little more on why they’re all so screwed up now.

In a way, it’s very clever. One needs signature characters in an MMO in order to have some lore, but the signature characters, if too heroic, are always in danger of overshadowing the player character, making the player feel like Gandalf’s errand boy or playing a second-string story alongside the real protagonists’ stories.

GW1 lucked into avoiding this when players developed a fondness for Gwen, a happy child who hero-worshipped the PC in the tutorial (so we still feel important) and a general tragedy befell everyone, making folks wonder about her fate. Then the clever writers decided to revisit her and screw her up a little by the time we meet her again all grown up. A good story is all about characters who change, in significant ways.

In GW2, we have a merry band of adventurers, who, opposite from stereotype, are no longer all together and one big happy family. Quite the opposite, they’re all at each other’s throats, and while it would be a pretty grand culmination to see them working together to defeat the dragon -based on you, the exceptional hero actually managing to resolve their differences – some days, it feels like you’re never really going to get to that point. We’ll see. (I attempted Twilight Arbor storymode a while ago and -somebody- ran away again. My Charr bias is showing.)

There’s a rousing general’s speech and a grand melee involving the three combined Orders of the land and a couple of undead giants (remember giant of Nageling? Corrupt it, then x2, but scale it down somewhat for being on your lonesome.)

This is not the whole vista of what happens, just a small portion I cropped, so as not to completely spoil the effect. Just x2 to get a little closer to what happens.

I never fail to be awed by the number of NPCs, friendlies and enemies, this game can put out at any one time. And really, why not? I’ve always thought more MMOs should give a player more NPC allies. If you’ve a support or healing focused build, this may give you more a fighting chance, and the downed/defeated/revival mechanic means that even if smashed into the dirt, you can still get the NPC up again and it’s not the end of the world, game over, repeat escort mission and curse the NPC AI.

Some of the Orrian mobs also reminded me of Enchanted Weapons of GW1 fame. That’s all you see of them, their weapons. Egads, so you sort of end up guessing their class/skills, moving out of their attacks and prioritizing through guesswork based only on that. On the bright side, they drop heavy bones. I haven’t seen much of bone chips and bone shards and their ilk, it’s probably the zones I’ve been staying in, but I really want them to craft armor with stats I want.

And at the very end of the entire vision, you see this,

as the most spectacular Jeremy Soule music begins a triumphant heralding as you finish one last conversation with the Pale Tree’s Avatar, who tells you, it is time to face The Gate Guardian.

Ascending more steps into the golden glow, and it really is like Ascension in a sense, where you’re symbolically confronting some manner of guardian being (though not a doppelganger in this case,) you see It as a silhouette in the distance as the music swells to a crescendo, leaving you charged with maximum awesome.

It was one of the most spectacular fights ever, thanks to all the buildup. Also, thankfully, not too difficult, as it would really have ruined the whole experience if I had to keep restarting from a checkpoint. Just watch for the queued up big attack, avoid it, and one should be fine.

And just when you think it cannot get any better than this and the Dream ends and you’re back to “reality” in the Pale Tree’s Grove, they give you the absolute kicker of a choice.

Big big spoiler warning in the following pic, watch out:

Oh god. Your metagaming self knows -exactly- what is going to happen. Your worst fear is the one that is going to come to pass. That’s what choice picking in this game does, after all, it sets up the branches of your storyline.

It’s beautiful storytelling. How can you be a hero, a proper changed hero with a character arc and all, if you do not confront your fears?

There is no best choice. They’re all bad, in a good way. Potentially devastating to the character, but awesome roleplay story potential and sets up crazy anticipation waiting for the shoe to drop.

Immediately I want to make more alts so that I can see all the branches of the storyline again, dammit. I hope their maximum number of character slots is a really high number.

For the record, I’m playing a paladin-like goodhearted compassionate Guardian on this playthrough (he even helped the Skritt cos they’re so cute, even though most Charr must think of them as little thieving pests), so I went with the first choice. It’s going to set me up for tragedy later, I’m sure.

I’m dreading the arrival of that fate already. (But in a really good way.)

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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?