Welcome to the eighth installment of the Game Design Spotlight, a weekly piece where I look at the design elements of various parts of an MMO, like how a class nails the theme of a combat system and user-friendly features. players. Last week we returned to Final Fantasy XIV to peer into the currents of Aether and wonder, could is there more to it than how great is it now? Today I’m going to discuss one of the longest running titles that continues to spin and release new content: The Lord of the Rings Online.
I’m not a huge fan of his series, but JRR Tolkien’s novels like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have inspired many current works of fiction and I appreciate their imprint on various entertainment mediums. One of those iterations, LotRO, works in tandem with its releases in a narrative fashion, stringing together an ostensibly endless iceberg of lore in the MMORPG format. And yes, that box be intimidating.
However, the cohesive, self-contained stories players encounter throughout the game keep its formidable timeline at bay until in-game events build and align with the novels. These digestible stories blending into the epic adventure are arguably the best parts of LotRO. They only succeed because developer Standing Stone Games engages in a subtle approach to quest design. The quests seek to amp up immersion for players willing to read quest logs and pay attention to contributing items in an area that aligns with its overall concept.
Reduce quest bloat
LotRO approaches MMO quest design as an author layers his novel: whatever is written serves a thematic purpose or intentionally produces an aspect of universal history. There are no rolls, only strong or lackluster attempts to create a quest that maintains relevance and expands the game world.
If we look at precursor games like Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft, fetch quests, destruction quests, etc. cost a penny a dozen. LotRO does not present a revolutionary design choice to replace them, but fleshes out quests in areas where these games would be cut to save time for master pieces.
In addition, Standing Stone Games has completely reduced the burden of quests. In the starting areas, you will receive a series of linear quests. Side quests for extra bits and bobs are also relevant to your main effort, unlocking when you complete specific main storylines nearby. Players will feel guided from quest to quest – almost like reading a novel – and in my experience not all of them felt useless or disconnected from what I was doing. Partly because the picture the developers were painting was truly engaging and supported by subtle quest design decisions.
Players starting the game as Race Man or Hobbit in Bree-Land will enter Archet Dale as their starting area. Here you come across a once prosperous and bustling town suddenly cut off from the surrounding lands by bandits known as the Blackwolds. These men are funded by the agents of Angmar and seek to control the city of Archet, where you arrive just in time to do something.
Early quests oscillate between introducing you to skeptical townspeople of your curious arrival with companions seeking refuge. Soon, you offer to help Captain Brackenbrook, the great leader of the city, to win the favor of the citizens. The quest log that emerges from interacting with NPCs explains the objectives in a manner usual to other MMORPGs, but has a tinge of novelty. Alongside the questgiver’s phrases are novel-worthy descriptions and voice lines adding color to the situation.
After accepting the quest, a blue feather with a silver ring will float above their head, providing additional context that summarizes past discussion or presents new information. It’s a nuanced feature, but as the questline to save Archet from the Blackwolds escalated, those blue quills sometimes revealed upcoming premonitions and custom NPCs.
Additionally, NPCs would yell at your character depending on where you are on the main questline. A quest given by one of the village’s trusted sentries led to a quick betrayal, exposing the guard as a betrayal to the marauding Blackwolds. No matter how things developed after finding out this news, the guard was shouting that no one would believe a complete stranger every time you passed him, and he was right.
The proof Captain Brackenbrook would believe is the Blackwolds you’ll discover through the area. A light jog in the surrounding forest would reveal Blackwold scouts hiding behind thick trees, later a group of them blocking a passage to a nearby village. From start to finish, Standing Stone Games continues to up the ante with a steady pace of engrossing quests, each building on the previous one and things like sound design, area layouts, and more have helped to stand-alone story. In the end, it leaves an impression on you.
Leave with a memory
LotRO has a collection of short stories that you would expect in a huge world with a long history. These stories are best delivered through their quest design, giving substance to the cyclical activity of picking up and completing quests.
Not all goals will be as impactful, but for those that are, the immersion you receive from allowing the game to take you on a journey is memorable. Quests are often not my favorite activity in these games as I can handle it (yes you can in LotRO) but the quality behind setting up and running LotRO’s quests makes every streak up to the greats valid villains. You’ve averted a crisis, bonded with doubting NPCs, and found your place as a hero in a world in search of hope.
This wraps up another week of Game Design Spotlight! If you’ve ever played LotRO, do you like in-game quests? Is there a particular questline that sticks with you? Let us know below! Also feel free to comment on any games or features you’d like me to cover for future stories if you have any suggestions!