A few weeks ago, I made a decision. I was going to read more. As a boy, I enjoyed reading. But somewhere along the line, the tone of books targeted at me turned. Around the age of 13, I noticed that instead of fantastic adventures and mythical stories, all of the books on our library’s “recommended” section turned to tales of sober pre-teens dealing with everything from neglectful parents to the death of peers. Perhaps I came from a naive, privileged background, but these stories did nothing but bore me at best, and dim my future hopes for humanity at worst. I became disenchanted, stopped reading, and save for picking up a few books here and there along the way, have never been able to pick it back up.
As I’ve been running low on podcasts that capture my interest lately, I decided to try Audible. I’ve got about an hour’s worth of work commute five days a week, the perfect time to broaden my literary horizons. The first audiobook I decided to purchase with my Audible subscription was one that I’ve heard much about from within geek/gaming circles: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. As a standalone story (not part of some huge epic series), it seemed like the obvious choice on which to whet my audiobook whistle.
The version I bought included narration by Wil Wheaton. While I neither revere nor despise Mr. Wheaton, I was a little hesitant at first. Could I stand hours and hours of Wesley Crusher droning on in my ear holes? As it turns out, Mr. Wheaton did an adequate job with the text and I eventually forgot who it was that was guiding me through the story.
Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future where energy from fossil fuels is at a premium and only the wealthy can afford to travel about. There are few jobs to be had, and many meth labs set up in “the stacks”, piles of decrepit mobile homes, with scaffolding for both support and access to the upper levels. The stacks is where our main character, Wade Owen Watts, resides. While the real world has fallen into disarray, a virtual world (the Oasis, or as I like to think of it, Second Life on steroids) created by game dev genius James Halliday , is where a vast portion of humanity spends it’s time escaping from the harshness that surrounds them. Accessing to the Oasis requires a special type of virtual reality hardware that immerses the senses of the wearer to varying degrees depending on the capabilities available within the gear. Entry to the Oasis is free, but travel within the Oasis is expensive, which is why our protagonist Wade has been stuck as a low-level avatar, limited to attending virtual school and hanging out in private chat rooms.
But school isn’t the only thing Wade does to pass the time. When Halliday, the creator of the Oasis, died, he left behind a video that set in motion a worldwide treasure hunt. Hidden somewhere within the Oasis was an Easter egg that, when found, would bestow Halliday’s entire fortune, along with control of the Oasis, to the finder. Wade (Parzival, as he’s known within the Oasis) is one of the egg hunters, or “gunters” in the parlance of his day. With the stakes of the game being what they are, entire organizations in the form of both gunter clans and corporations, have sprung up with the sole purpose of finding the promised fortune. It is in one such evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries (IOI), that we find our major antagonist, Nolan Sorrento.
Wade comes to Sorrento’s attention after he becomes the first gunter to find a key and solve a puzzle that puts him on the path to the famous Eater egg. Sorrento first tries to recruit Wade with promises of a high-paying egg hunting job, but soon resorts to attempting to kill Wade (in real life) after his offer is refused, effectively solidifying him as the personification of the evils of capitalism.
The story includes a series of puzzles and games, mostly from the 1980’s (Halliday’s favorite era and the timeframe in which he grew up), and culminates in a race between Wade, other gunters, and IOI en route to a final, epic showdown between independent gunter clans and Sorrento’s paid IOI minions. Along the way, us Gen Xer’s are treated to such nostalgic set pieces as Pac Man, Joust, Zork, War Games, Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, Tempest, Dungeons and Dragons, and Rush. It’s a veritable feast of nuggets from both my and Ernest Cline’s (who was born a few years before me) childhood. I admit to catching myself in a half-grin more than once when one of the 80’s references triggered an old memory of a bygone time.
Ready Player One is a fun journey through some familiar terrain. Dystopian futures are all the rage on the big screen nowadays, thanks to the popularity of films like The Hunger Games, Mad Max, and Logan. The book spends some time in the early chapters establishing Wade’s predicament and the sorry state of the world at large, but it is mostly forgotten or ignored over the course of the rest of the story. So much so that Wade’s best friend Aech, a displaced teen with only a van to call home, is able to travel from place to place at will, energy crisis or no. I understand that the van is solar powered – which leads to even greater questions about why fossil fuels have caused a worldwide depression when solar power is a viable alternative. But, in retrospect, this is only one of several nits I could pick.
For one, as a protagonist I didn’t find Wade very likable. He hardly bats an eye when IOI sees fit to destroy the stacks where all of this friends and relatives live. He turns his back on his friends at his first taste of money and success. And for all of his implied cleverness, he practically provokes Sorrento into a physical attack with his curt and unsubtle insults during their first meeting. While Wade does eventually admit the need for friendship and trust towards the end of the novel, it takes him quite a while to finally come to that realization.
Something that many probably gloss over, but that stood out to me, was a completely unnecessary trashing of traditional religious beliefs. I’m not exactly sure why Cline saw fit to include it, unless he was attempting to endear Wade’s character to a geek culture that more often than not does reject this type of worldview. It does nothing to further the story, and seems only to serve as a soapbox for the author’s personal beliefs. As perhaps a proverbial bone tossed to those of us who think differently, the only character described as “religious” in the book is an elderly neighbor who is depicted favorably, even fondly, if perhaps a bit naive.
Cline’s writing style is straightforward, modern and simple. Contrasting it with the Patrick Rothfuss fantasy book I’m currently reading. it’s almost childlike in it’s simplicity, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure there’s enough meat to the story to prolong it with fancy metaphors and descriptive text. Taken at face value, Ready Player One is a fun ride through a playground of nostalgia. Peering a bit further unearths some larger themes that could be explored, such as the effects (both beneficial and detrimental) of technology on a society that prefers not to face reality, our dependence on natural resources, and of course the ever-present evils of big business that is so eagerly embraced by recent generations. But don’t dig too deeply, as I don’t think this story was intended to make any major statements.
Overall, I enjoyed Ready Player One. I felt like it accomplished it’s mission of entertaining me for a few weeks. I could relate to many of the references used throughout the story, and the characters were believable enough, in a comic-book sort of way. While Ready Player One is not the latest Brave New World or 1984, it was certainly worth spending an Audible credit on. It allows for some imagination stretching, and by the end you’re left with a feeling that everything is going to be ok. Relatively speaking, of course.
“Greetings Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur, and the Ko-Dan Armada.”
As someone who grew up during the age of the original Star Wars trilogy, I’ve always loved that kind of action space fantasy. Before I’d ever heard of Frodo and his suicide mission to Mount Doom, I was soaking in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Alex Rogan, and James T Kirk on the big screen. Our recess playtime was occupied not with team sports, but with imaginary space battles and light sabre duals.
Since the 80’s, many different video games have attempted to satisfy the itch of our generation to step into the shoes of our galactic heroes. In particular, one of my all-time favorites was “Star Wars the Arcade game” which simulated both a tie-fighter/X-Wing dogfight as well as the epic trench sequence from episode IV. The vector graphics combined with a midi-style soundtrack and audio samples from the films (The force is strong with this one!) struck a chord with me as few games have since.
Despite early triumphs, no space game has tried to tackle so many aspects of the genre as Star Citizen, the polarizing, record-setting behemoth. Back in 2014, I watched a slick promotional video showcasing the Origin 300 series space ship, and decided to spring for one. The ship just looked great. It’s a one-person all-purpose jobbie with a modular design that can be modified to fit your play style preferences. I figured I could swing $60 (about the cost of a new game) to take a chance on an immersive space world where I could fly my own ship around. I downloaded the client, shot a couple of YouTube videos doing some of the very limited things you could do in the game at the time, and then mostly forgot about Star Citizen.
Fast forward to June 2017. I signed up for an Audible account. I spent my first credit on “Ready Player One”, since I’ve heard so much about it and wanted to see if it was any good (it’s not bad, BTW). Anyway, listening to Wade enter the Internet world of his time and pilot around the galaxy got me thinking about Star Citizen once again. It had been over a year since I launched it. My old graphics card made tromping around the ‘verse feel like watching an old slide projector on a bedsheet, but my new Nvidia should be better equipped for the job.
My first time logging back in was interesting. You don’t just log into Star Citizen and start playing. You have to choose whether you want to play the Arena Commander (ship dogfighting/racing) module, the FPS module, or the persistent world. I chose to try out the persistent world, since that aspect is what interests me the most. I woke up inside a space station, got out of bed, and looked around. I tapped the clothing locker…hmm, didn’t seem to do anything. I made my way to an impressive looking room with a ring of computer terminals. I found that interacting with a terminal called my ship to one of the landing pads just outside. I made my way to the airlock, entered through the interior door, and pressed the button to open the exterior door into space. Immediately, my view became cloudy and my avatar slumped over like a scarecrow, dead.
It took me a few seconds to realize that when I’d tapped on the locker in my space station bedroom, it automatically changed me from my space suit to street clothes. Being brand new to the game, I didn’t notice that my UI changed slightly when the spaceman helmet was removed. So, I had just waltzed into the vacuum of space in my skivvies. So much for my first flight!
My second try was met with more success. I made it out of the airlock and ran up to my ship. There was another player hanging out on the landing pads but I paid him little mind. I climbed up the ladder into my Origin 300i’s cargo bay. As I turned around to get a better look at my surroundings, I’d noticed that the other player had followed me into my ship! I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what to do. What is the proper etiquette when some random dude squats in your cargo bay? So I took the only logical course of action. I stared at him until he went away. Most likely, if I got into the pilot’s seat, it would have kicked him out. My ship is only a one-person transport so I don’t imagine they’d allow a second player onboard during flight. Still, I’m not sure if he was just taking a look around or if he was genuinely looking for a ride!
My first flight wasn’t exactly pretty. I was able to take off from the platform using the “forward” key but I had an indicator on my HUD telling me that my landing gear was deployed. I dug into the keybinding options but retracting landing gear was nowhere to be found. I soon learned that the keybinding options are not remotely complete, and the only way to figure out how to do things is to Google the answer, ask in local chat, or just push various keys until something happens. In this case, I asked in chat (landing gear is “n”, in case you were wondering) and was happy to see that people supplied me the answer quickly and without being demeaning. My experience with local in-game chat has so far been either pleasant or indifferent (my questions have either been answered or ignored). Maybe I’ve just been lucky on that front. With as many backers as this game has, I assume there are a least a few trolls out there.
Once my landing gear was retracted, my ship flew much faster. I’m not sure why, since there should be no atmospheric resistance in space, but maybe my ship has a built-in safety precaution. Even so, pointing my ship towards the nearest satellite relay and watching the distance slowly tick down made me realize that there must be an even faster way to travel, because otherwise I was going to have to spend hours and hours of sitting around doing nothing just to get to a quest objective. I just started punching keys, and eventually my HUD changed to a display that, if my reticle hovered over a destination, it would highlight as if I could travel to that spot. I pressed enter (the chat window came up). I pressed spacebar. I even tried pressing backspace, but could not get my ship to fast-travel to the highlighted destination. So, to YouTube I went. And there it was – the “F” button (because of course it is). So, I tabbed back over to the game and tapped “F” to engage my quantum engine, and WOW, was that fun! Say what you will about RSI and their development of this game, they’ve got the feel right, and the quantum drive feels *just* like traveling at light speed in Star Wars. I could spend several minutes just jumping between satellites!
Once I had flight movement more or less figured out, I exited my flight chair and opened the hatch to my ship. It was time for my Major Tom moment. I stepped out of the craft….and I was floating in space. I’m not sure if the ship is supposed to have some kind of artificial gravity, but stepping outside the craft certainly feels different than walking around inside of it. Also, traveling by personal thrusters is really, really slow. If you need to do a spacewalk for a mission, make sure you get as close as you can to the objective with your ship first, otherwise you’ll be floating for what seems like days. And maybe that’s ok if you’ve got Space Oddity blaring out of your speakers on repeat, I’m not here to judge. But for me, I’d rather get out, complete the mission, and get back in.
After my first few flights, I decided that I liked the direction the game was headed enough to go take another peek at the available ships on Star Citizen’s website. I’m not going to spend $70 or more on another ship, mind you, but I was curious what the price floor was for the smaller models. To my surprise, Star Citizen now has an “upgrade” option. You can upgrade to a ship of equal or more value by paying only the difference between the price of the ships. With this in mind, I took a peek at the other Origin 300 series ships. I could upgrade to an “explorer” model for $10, or a fighter for $15. I decided that both exploring and $10 were more in my wheelhouse, so I upgraded my boring old 300i to an Origin 315P, with the hope that when the game is fully developed, the advanced long-range scanner equipped on my new ship would help with my space exploration ambitions. For now, the only perceptible difference is that there is now a broad yellow stripe on the front of my ship. Yeah, yeah, I spent more money on a nonexistent feature for a nonexistent game. But I haven’t given them anything since 2014, and seeing the kind of progress they’ve made got me a little excited.
My upgraded Origin 315P (complete with yellow stripe)
Speaking of ships, I noticed that mine, when viewed from the website, has several modular slots (weapons, engine, shields) that can be modified and upgraded as well. Disappointingly, I learned that the only upgrades that can be performed at the moment are in the form of equipment rentals for Arena Commander (PvP) dogfights. I don’t really have any interest in Arena Commander, nor do I want to continue to rent upgrades for all eternity. Supposedly, more permanent upgrades will someday be available in the persistent world. I hope this is the case, because the default mini-cannons on the Origin ships (Ominisky IV Lasers) feel more like pea shooters than a viable defense mechanism.
Technical Specifications for the Origin model 315P
How do I know this, you ask? Well, I got into a little scuffle over a communications array against some space pirates. Once I finally figured out quantum travel, the missions to repair communications arrays started to make much more sense. You know, because I could actually get to them. Unfortunately, sometimes there are mean NPC ships guarding the arrays, and if there are more than, say….one of them, I usually end up dead. I guess those moments are when it would be beneficial to be playing with a fleet or as a member of a crew on a much larger, more powerful ship. And here I’ve been hoping to go it alone for a little bit. I’m not sure how viable of an option that’s going to be, unless my long-range scanners (when they’re put into the game) can detect trouble far enough in advance for me to make a clean getaway.
Due to this game still being in alpha testing, it has many, many things to iron out. I’d say my biggest complaint at the moment is lack of clarity regarding keyboard commands, and little documentation on the subject. I still haven’t figured out how to pull up my quest tracker (the Internet says F9, but that key doesn’t do anything for me), and I had to hunt for such simple things like “how do I retract my landing gear?”, “how do I travel faster?”, and “how do I exit my pilot seat?”. A lot of things are non-intuitive, like the removal of my spaceman suit by tapping a locker. Or the fact that there’s no way to retract your ship’s ladder, other than to just take off. Also, even with my new Nvidia GTX 1060 the movement can be hitchy and blurry. I hope that performance tweaks are somewhere on the radar.
But I’ll give it to them, for what little it seems RSI has done in five years, they’ve done most of it very well. The graphics/atmosphere is somehow both gritty and polished. The sound effects are fantastic. The dogfighting can be fun, but also frustrating. Moving within the world is non-instanced and seamless, whether you’re traveling through an airlock onto the landing pad, or stepping out from your ship into the vastness of space, it feels like one big world. The current build has started to show me what could be possible with this game, and I’m hearing that Alpha 3.0, which includes such notable updates as planet landings, item interaction (fueling, power supplies, radars, quantum drives etc.), cargo, and character customization could boost my hope even more. The question remains though, after five years in alpha testing, has RSI bitten off more than they can hope to deliver? Can the final product hope to match the inflated expectations of the backers/community?
As LOTRO celebrates its 10th anniversary, many have decided to share their personal experiences with the game. It’s funny how difficult it can be to summarize the complex relationship you share with your favorite games. As I tried to wrap words around the three (or thereabouts) years that I actively played LOTRO, It became apparent that I would have to organize it into several different sections to adequately segment the different phases I experienced for the purposes of concise communication.
My experience with LOTRO can probably best be described as a three-act play. When I first created my character, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I knew a grand adventure lay ahead. As I ran around Archet, killing boars and wolves with the two or three skills bestowed upon a baby hunter, I was unwittingly developing a future nostalgia for that area. The music, especially, still puts me in a peaceful state of mind. The snapping sound of a quickshot skill and the groan of a dying boar take me back to those fantastic days, anticipating learning a new skill every couple of levels. When the tutorial lay behind and Combe lied ahead. Crafting? What is that? I can make my own stuff? Kinship? Sure I’ll join, why not? No research needed, I’m sure. Wait, you mean there’s more? What’s this immense city before me? Bree? Wow, look at all of the other players! As with most games, the most exciting part of LOTRO for me was during the first act, when I was still learning the landscape, the systems, and the many different ways to progress. The possibilities seemed endless. The game was so rich with content, much of it still undiscovered to me.
During the “first act”, I managed to talk three of my “real life” friends into playing the game with me. We formed a tiny kindship and enjoyed leveling up into the 30’s or 40’s together. It was great. We’d catch each other online several nights a week, and then talk strategy and share verbal experiences when we’d see each other outside of the game. During this timeframe I talked my wife into creating a minstrel, and we started dou-ing together. I brought her up to speed on many aspects of the game, but she quickly surpassed me in both level and ability. However, as we all approached level 50, it became clear that we were going to need the help of some more experienced players if we wanted to explore some of the more advanced group content. Our tank, Shouse, had randomly grouped with some hunters doing landscape content and decided to join their kinship. The kin was called The Mallahdrim Defenders and boasted a handful of mid to late-range players who were friendly and who occasionally grouped for small instances and skirmishes. Agreeing that we needed to be a part of a larger group, I somewhat reluctantly disbanded our small kin and joined the Mallahdrim Defenders along with my wife and two other members of my “real life” circle.
The second act of my LOTRO experience begins as we joined the Defenders. Members introduced me to small group content, helped me through Moria, and eventually rode over the plains of Rohan with me, downing war bands on our newly earned steeds. Act 2 was my heyday in LOTRO. I now knew how to play the game, had spun up several alts, and had cranked through Hytbold in order to earn, for the first time, the best PVE gear available. Yeah, the dailies were kind of a pain, and sure, killing off war chief Bugud several times a night was repetitive, but we were doing it together. Eventually, I started to look for ways to continue to expand the my enjoyment of LOTRO. Even as members of my real-life crew stopped logging in on a nightly, weekly, or even monthly basis, I became an officer within the kinship. I created a kin site to help us stay connected and organized outside of the game. I joined LOTRO Players, and started blogging and podcasting. I wrote hunter guides and documented travel maps. I connected with other prominent members of the LOTRO community. Although never much of a role player, I showed up at Weatherstock, the Fellowship Walk, the whole bit. I did several YouTube videos with my kids. And it was all incredible. I made some amazing friends during this time, and tried things that I never had the courage to try before. When a new update came out, the more consistent members of the kin would log in every night until we were once again caught up to cap. And then, even when we were caught up, we’d log in to run Iorbar’s peak, or The School, or Library, or just to see how everybody else was doing. I might make some obnoxious pun in kin chat to distract people from a wretched night of crafting. One night, I got a PM from Rolfkrage asking if I could help a PUG he’d joined finish up The Rift. Our kin had attempted to complete the Rift a couple of times, but could never get past the final stage before the nagging urge to sleep overcame us. What transpired that night can only be described as my largest single accomplishment in LOTRO. Not only did we take down the Balrog Thaurlach, but my bow struck the deciding blow! It was a night long remembered by….well, probably just me.
The third act begins as I started to tire of many aspects of the game. The repetitiveness of questing. The constant yammering on the forums. The lack of community involvement by Turbine. Fun turned to obligation. If I didn’t log in for a few days, would others stop logging in as well? As an officer, shouldn’t I be available? Why can’t we recruit any new players that stick with the kin? If we’re not growing, are we slowly dying? Is the whole game slowly dying? Can I continue podcasting if I’m no longer playing the game? What if I miss a piece of news? It all became too much to worry about. In the end, I did slowly fade away, like so many before me had done. There was a feeling of sadness, but also of relief. Act three is when I rode into the sunset, content that my experiences and contributions had come to an end.
I miss acts 1 and 2, but it’s not the game I miss. It’s excitedly explaining a new discovery to my real-life friends. It’s taking down a boss with my kinmates for the first time. It’s bantering with the co-hosts of LOTRO Players, before, during, and after the podcast. It’s catching up with someone in kin chat. The things I miss about the game aren’t really about the game at all. They’re about the people who play the game. The people are what make an MMO great. Not the graphics, nor the size of the landscape, nor the dungeon design. The people.
Thank you, LOTRO, for being the medium through which I could meet and get to know all of these amazing people.
Sometimes a game just clicks. However, this was not the case when I decided to play through my two Mass Effect games (1 and 2) that I picked up during a Steam sale some time ago. Even knowing that the first game would be a little rough due to its age, I decided to go through them in order. You may remember hearing me talk about that plan when I was still contributing to MMORPG.com’s Game On Podcast.
I’d heard a lot about the Mass Effect series. The games seemed to have a huge following, and I loved the idea that events from one game could carry over into the next title. But Mass Effect 1 never really hooked me. I enjoyed the character interaction, but the story seemed slow to get going and I never really figured out how to navigate myself around the galaxy once it opened up. After a few nights’ worth of play sessions, I found myself driving around in a physics-defying moon patrol car wondering if I was even on the right planet for the mission I’d been handed. After that night, I never launched ME1 again. I took a small break from gaming altogether and when I returned, it was Elder Scrolls Online that beckoned and not Mass Effect.
Fast forward a few months. Still enjoying ESO, but starting to remember how annoying MMO’s can sometimes be, I decided to go ahead and install Mass Effect 2, the much heralded sequel to moon patrol madness. ME2 starts with a bang, inserts a bit of mystery, and then sends you off to assemble your team of super soldiers. I was all in from the get-go. I felt like Nick Fury, putting my team together before the ever-nearing final battle.
Some would say that Mass Effect is a squad-based combat game. That’s probably fair, as certain aspects do remind me of the Rainbow Six type of strategic combat. But more than half of the game is probably dialog/cutscenes with NPCs, similar to Life is Strange and with consequences that can affect outcomes within the game and beyond. I found that these interactions are what really brought the game to life for me. Not only was the feel vastly more cinematic/dramatic, but I really grew to care about (or not care for) characters with recurring roles. So much so that after I’d lost some of my squad members in the final mission (thanks to choices I had to make), visiting their empty quarters on the Normandy ship evoked a true feeling of loss. I thought about replaying the final mission from one of my saved files, but somehow that just didn’t feel right. I made the choices, I should have to live with it. And perhaps that loss will serve as a motivation going into Mass Effect 3.
I have only a few gripes about the game. For one, there are some things that you can mess up without realizing it, and the game just lets you do it. For example, I purchased a biotic upgrade for my Shepard, and selected one that I’d already purchased (and forgotten about). The game gave me no warning, just let me waste my resources on it for a 2nd time. It was my dumb mistake, I get it, but a warning box would have been nice. Also, I didn’t realize that starting Legion’s loyalty mission would trigger the events leading up to the end of the game. True, you don’t have to go to the Omega Relay right away, but putting it off in favor of more intergalactic exploration means almost certain death for my abducted crew, so I felt like I was forced into the suicide mission before I was ready. I would have liked to have done a few more side missions, maybe beefed up my squad a little more first. Again, a warning dialog box would have been nice.
As far as my future with the Mass Effect series, I’m looking forward to ME3, and am keeping my eyes open for a sale. Granted, it’s only $20 ($30 for deluxe), but that still seems a little steep for a game that’s now five years old. If I see it for $15, I’ll probably bite. I’m not sure if the deluxe version is worth another $10 or not. If you have an opinion on that, let me know! I’m also interested in the latest installment, ME: Andromeda. But that one’s going to have to come down quite a bit for me to spring for it. I’ve toyed with the idea of giving ME1 another shot, since I understand the game mechanics a bit more, but I think it might be difficult to jump back in time now that I’ve seen the future.
At any rate, I finally see what all the fuss is about. Count me as a Mass Effect fan!
Note: This post was originally written for and published by Contains Moderate Peril in 2014. as it no longer exists on that site, and because I’ve recently started playing ESO again, I thought it would be fun to resurrect the series on my own blog. Enjoy!
This is part 3 of the series comparing my two current MMO’s, LOTRO and ESO. Part 1 of the series compares graphics and questing and can be found here. Part 2 deals with advancement and crafting, and can be found here. This installment will cover Lore, Intellectual Property, community, and my final thoughts.
Lore – Providing Context
For me, there is no stronger lore than that which Tolkien created for his world of Middle-Earth. Most, perhaps all, modern-day fantasy has roots in the Tolkien stories and legends. It is one of the great strengths and weaknesses of LOTRO. It gives amazing context. Even the most casual of Tolkien fans will instantly recognize the characters and locations within the game. This provides a sense of wonder, awe and excitement when “familiar” locations are discovered or characters are interacted with. The feeling that your character actually has some outside impact on the events surrounding the War of the Ring is unparalleled in today’s MMO’s.
For all the benefits, the static world of Middle-Earth also presents some challenges. For example, how to get players to experience all of the iconic moments from the books without breaking lore? Obviously, there is no “Braxwolf” mentioned in the books, so how could he have been at Helm’s Deep and had much of an impact. The answer is, he wasn’t (in the books), and he doesn’t (in the game). Turbine’s answer to the Helm’s Deep quandary was to design an Epic Battle system where your character isn’t epic, and that has caused much angst within the player base. Similar problems loom in the future, such as during the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the destruction of the One Ring. The static lore causes the developers to dance around the core story as it is presented in the books, while trying to allow players to experience the moments they cherish most.
I know much less about Elder Scrolls lore, but from what I can tell it’s a bit more squishy and dynamic than LOTRO’s. It seems that the lore is defined by the ES series of games themselves, and chronicled in books and events that are scattered throughout. The interesting thing that I’ve heard about ES lore is that inconsistencies are explained away through history being recorded via multiple viewpoints and through catastrophic time events such as dragon breaks. These explanations do leave the developers of ES games a lot of leeway to design the story they see fit, but it leaves me wondering how much actual context can exist within the game. How do I know some future ES game isn’t going to go all “JJ” on me and reboot the entire ball of wax under an alternate timeline? That possibility makes me a little wary of becoming too invested in a continually shifting lore.
Intellectual Property – Smart Land
Of course, we can’t talk about lore without mentioning Intellectual Property, and the effects it has on the game. LOTRO benefits from its IP, probably more than it benefits from any other single factor we’ve already discussed. People log into LOTRO, and they instantly know the history (and future) of the space they inhabit. They know where orcs came from, why hobbits live in the Shire, why Rohan has war steeds…why it’s a bad idea to try to retake Moria. Unfortunately, in order to have the rights to bring players this world, a complex multi-year contract involving several parties is required. If any of the links of that contractual chains breaks, Turbine could be forced to shut down the game, regardless of interest or profitability. Not to mention, the contract must be revisited and renegotiated every few years, bringing many rumors and much hand-wringing to the community of fans. At any point, if either Warner Brothers or Middle-Earth Enterprises decides that the partnership is no longer advantageous, the plug could be pulled. if the Tolkien Estate decides one day that something or other was never covered within the license purchased by MEE years and years ago, they could decide to file suit to halt production even though they have no contractual agreements with Turbine OR Warner Brothers. It’s a tangled mess that could ultimately leave LOTRO players blowing in the breeze if something goes awry.
Community – Ties that Bind
I haven’t been playing ESO long enough to really get a feel for the community, so this is going to be a short section. My interactions so far have been fairly pleasant, though they have mostly been with people I already know, so that’s probably not a very good gauge.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to sing the praises of the LOTRO community, though. While it is not immune from griefing, immaturity and poor behavior, the good experiences I’ve had with LOTRO players outnumber the bad by a factor of ten to one. High-profile members within the community set a great example of friendliness and helpfulness. I’m not sure that I would have gotten involved in gaming communities at all if LOTRO had not been my first MMO.
The exercise of comparing these two games has started to feel a little bit like trying to pick my favorite child. While LOTRO (the older child) has more familiarity and complexity, ESO (the new baby) is doing things I haven’t seen before in ways I haven’t experienced, and it’s very intriguing.
The one thing I haven’t touched on to this point is the business models for both titles. Funny enough, this is one thing that will actually influence how much time I spend in both games, though not in the way I expected. LOTRO is a hybrid model, which means you can play for free, pay for specific content, or subscribe. ESO is strictly a subscription title**. I already own most of the content in LOTRO, so my original plan was to sub to ESO and continue to play LOTRO on the side. However, due to recent life circumstances resulting in less free time, I’ve decided that a subscription to ESO would be a waste of money. At some point in the future, I absolutely plan to return to ESO, but in the meantime, I will continue to pop into LOTRO when time allows and place ESO discreetly on the back burner for the time being.
My advice to others? These are both great games. Take a careful look at your individual situation and weigh the above-mentioned pros and cons. Generally speaking, though, subscription-only games benefit those who can spend vast amounts of time in the game. Most everybody else would do better with a hybrid game that allows players to choose the payment method that best fits their play-style.
** Since the authoring of this post, ESO has changed to a hybrid business model that includes buy to play, subscription and cash shop options.
Note: This post was originally written for and published by Contains Moderate Peril in 2014. as it no longer exists on that site, and because I’ve recently started playing ESO again, I thought it would be fun to resurrect the series on my own blog. Enjoy!
This is part 2 of the series comparing my two current MMO’s, LOTRO and ESO. Part 1 of the series compares graphics and questing and can be found here. This post will focus on advancement and crafting.
Advancement – From zero to hero
Until the latest expansion, a comparison between LOTRO’s and ESO’s character advancement would have been fairly straight-forward. However, when Helm’s Deep launched this past fall, it included a complete revamp of how characters acquire skills as they progress through the game. What USED to happen is that characters would gain skills one of two ways. Firstly, they would earn the ability to buy certain skills from their “class trainer” NPC as they leveled. Secondly, they earned skills or enhancements for completing deeds (using a skill a certain number of times, resurrecting another player a certain number of times, etc.).
Since Helm’s Deep, characters are now granted skill points for various things such as leveling and completing certain quests and deeds. Those skill points are put into trees that are used to unlock skills and grant other buffs and abilities. Some skills are still granted per level, though. It’s all a little confusing but the end result is that you’re able to pick a tree to put your points into, and gradually increase your character’s abilities. Many MMO’s use this kind of system and it seems to work fairly well. The one thing that it does very poorly in comparison to the older system is allow for hybridization of builds. For example, if you’re pouring your points into the “red (typically damage)” line of your skill tree, you will never be able to also include any of the more advanced abilities from the “yellow (typically AoE or CC)” or “blue (typically healing)” lines of the tree. You simply will never have enough skill points available to be able to reach the higher tiers of the alternate lines. This was done by design, as prior to launch Turbine warned players that they would need to “make a choice” regarding what they intended their characters to specialize in.
LOTRO’s Skill Trees (Hunter class)
While I’m skeptical of the need for skill trees, I do agree that skills needed an overhaul. The number of available skills was problematic from a development standpoint, as Turbine was hard-pressed to be able to design new, exciting skills that a) didn’t conflict with the abilities of other characters which would have thrown a wrench into the holy trinity grouping system or b) didn’t conflict with your character’s current skills, rendering the new skill fairly useless. The upside of the change – depending on who you ask – is that the number of skills available are more limited, resulting in simpler skill bars and rotations. It also made room for new, more useful skills to be added in the future.
My LOTRO skill bar gives me plenty of options, but can seem unwieldy
ESO, on the other hand, encourages players to mix and match skills to their heart’s content. It is much closer to LOTRO’s old advancement system than to a skill tree system. In ESO, skill points are also granted for leveling and questing, but can be spent on any skills or abilities that the player has leveled enough to unlock. And boy, are there a lot of skills to choose from. There are class skills, weapon-specific skills, racial skills, guild skills (fighter/mage guilds or undaunted) world skills, armor skills/enhancements, and even crafting skills. Customization is key in ESO. They want you to feel unique in the world and be able to match your character to your favorite play-style. I love the variety that’s currently in the game, however I do feel slightly lost when trying to decide which skills to unlock. I naturally gravitate towards DPS skills, and worry that my lack of self-healing may hurt me in the long run.
Skills in ESO are mixed and matched
ESO is tackling the “skill bloat” problem by allowing only a very limited number of skills to be used at one time. The hot bar consists of 5 slots for skills, 1 additional slot for an ultimate ability and 1 slot for consumables. That’s a grand total of seven slots per weapon. At level 15 you are granted a 2nd weapon slot and skill bar, which can be swapped in as necessary.
ESO has an abbreviated skill bar that some might find limiting, while others, liberating
I’m a little wary about ESO potentially running into the same skill bloat issues that LOTRO encountered with their old system. It may not be as much of an issue with fewer hot bar slots, though. Forcing the players to choose their repertoire up-front might be enough to ensure classes and characters don’t overlap one another’s group roles. However, with only 50 levels worth of content, skill bloat may be something that ESO encounters further into the game’s life cycle.
Crafting – making digital things into different digital things
When I first started playing LOTRO, I was introduced to MMO crafting in the Bree-land village of Combe. Gathering wood and creating my own bows seemed to be a cool way to enhance my character both within the game and within my own mind. Of course, a skilled hunter and forester would be able to craft his own equipment out of the materials of the woods! However, as the levels wore on and the grind got worse, it became increasingly apparent that not only was crafting a pain, but it was nearly useless for supplying yourself with weapons/armour. This was due to the placement of the materials. Gathering materials in on-level areas would enable a player to craft some on-level gear, but the *best* (critted) gear would typically not be attainable until your character was nearly too high a level to use it. This, of course, assumes gathering materials as you quest in a given area and not going out of your way to dedicate entire evenings to gathering mats. So, crafting is mostly useful for passing along items to your lower level alts and kinmates. The other problem with LOTRO crafting is that it’s just extremely boring. The mechanic relies on the player having the correct materials in his/her inventory, and then clicking a button and watching a progress bar. By the time I was rolling alts on other servers, I was ignoring crafting completely and hoping that somebody in my kinship who enjoyed it more than I did would be generous and/or have pity on my nekkid toon.
Elder Scrolls Online has taken everything I thought I knew about crafting and thrown it out the window. For one, the crafting actions/options actually make sense. Besides the usual gathering/crafting and leveling that is present in LOTRO, the player is also able to deconstruct old or dropped weapons and armor and re-use the materials within. If an object is found that possesses a certain trait (for example, a pair of sturdy trousers, the “sturdy” being a trait that provides a chance to avoid decay upon defeat), that trait can be “researched” for a period of 12 hours, after which time the player can craft trousers that possess that trait. Another nice aspect of the craft system is the ability to craft different racial appearances into the items, which adds a cosmetic aspect to the system. Different racial appearances can be learned along the way, so if you’re not happy with the way your armor looks, you may be able to craft something more agreeable to your fashion sense.
Both Braxwolf’s hard at work making thingies
Right now I’m able to craft items that are appropriate to my level, and I hope to be able to continue doing so. If it’s possible without an extreme amount of grind, this usefulness in and of itself is enough to vault ESO’s crafting system in front of LOTRO’s, never mind the other interesting aspects of the system mentioned above. It’s difficult to know whether the newness factor has anything to do with my interest in ESO crafting. The real test will be several months down the line, when I’m either continuing to stop to gather materials, or running past them in search of adventure.
Join me next time! We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover.
Note: This post was originally written for and published by Contains Moderate Peril in 2014. as it no longer exists on that site, and because I’ve recently started playing ESO again, I thought it would be fun to resurrect the series on my own blog. Enjoy!
A question was directed to me on Twitter the other day: “How would you compare ESO to LOTRO?”. I muddled through a response as well as I could, but given the Twitter character limitation and complexity of the topic, I decided to also dedicate an entire post series of posts to it. This specific article will explore the graphics and questing aspects of both games.
First off, let me say that a true comparison between the two is fairly impossible given that LOTRO runs off of technology that is nearly a decade old, while ESO has only recently been released. This works both in LOTRO’s favor and against it, as the years of development have provided LOTRO with vast amounts of Middle-Earth to explore and several relatively complex systems and mechanics to master over 95 levels. On the flip side, LOTRO is also hampered by the delicate balance that has been woven between those systems over a seven-year period. ESO, on the other hand, has the advantage of both newer technology and a green-field development approach that allowed the developers to start with a blank canvas and code the game to fit the vision, instead being forced to shoe-horn it into existing entrenched mechanics.
The second reason that a fair comparison (on my part) is impossible is that I’ve spent the last 3 ½ years playing various classes in LOTRO (a few even made it to cap!), and only the last week playing the Elder Scrolls Online, with my only ESO character currently sitting at level 9. That puts my experience level at about a 99% to 1% ratio in favor of LOTRO, I believe. Regardless of that gap, I’ll do my best to provide some observations that may prove useful.
Graphics – Your first impression of a game
One complaint I hear about LOTRO occasionally is that the graphics haven’t aged well. While this is mostly true with regards to the character models, the newest landscape areas (East and West Rohan) are beautiful to behold. Orange sunsets, nighttime lightning storms, stars that stretch out towards the mountains and grass that moves with the wind of your passing feet are all subtle touches that create a feeling of immersion that, in my experience, is unparalleled in MMO’s. Still, the pre-moria (perhaps it could be argued pre-Dunland) cosmetics are hideous, and the character models and animations could use a major overhaul.
LOTRO (left) boasts some beautiful landscapes while ESO (right) hits you in the face with it’s stark realism
Both ESO’s and LOTRO’s art styles favor realism over cartoonish fantasy. While LOTRO at times feels like you’re riding through a book or painting, ESO feels like you’re wandering through an epic war zone, so realistic is the environment. I’ve heard the complaint that there are too many browns and greys used, but I think the earthy-grittiness is what really brings the world to life. The character models are pristine. The difference in LOTRO and ESO character models are akin to the difference between looking at a standard definition television set and a 1080P HD widescreen.
Braxwolf is looks slightly less detailed in LOTRO (left) than he does in ESO (right) Also, not as mean.
I always thought that the graphics in LOTRO were nice, and occasionally they even make me pause and take a screenie or two. However, ESO’s realism gripped me from the beginning and has not let go. It’s what you’d expect from seven years of advancement in visual technology.
Questing – Giving you a reason to carry on
The questing in LOTRO’s “original” game and pre-Rohan areas is fairly dependent on the quest hub model. Players pick up as many quests as possible from quest givers in a certain location, run out and accomplish all quests in the log, then run back to the hub in order to turn the quests back in to the original quest bestower. In the newer areas, the quest hub model is still used but LOTRO has also introduced “auto-bestow” quests in some spots. These quests are bestowed when the player enters the appropriate area. Quests are completed and then “turned in” from the UI, or even auto-completed, wherever the player happens to be at the time. These auto-bestowed quests, along with zones that have been re-vamped, generally improve the quest flow within the game, but certain quest lines (especially within the epic volumes 1 and 2) still require an awful lot of running across the map. Still, the quests are presented in Tolkien-esque text and the writing is typically top notch. I would advise anybody playing through LOTRO for the first time to slow down and read the text boxes, especially if they’re fans of the Lord of the Rings books.
ESO does seem to use quest hubs to some extent, but the extensive use of phasing really enhances the flow of questing through the landscape. NPC’s bestow a quest in one area and show up somewhere else in the landscape for the turn-in/advancement. This works well in guiding the player closer to his/her next objective. It’s all been designed very thoughtfully and the effort pays off. I haven’t noticed anything that resembles an “auto-bestow” quest from LOTRO, but I also haven’t found that it’s needed. Quests are delivered through simultaneous text and voice acting which provides a very engaging experience for the player. The story writing, while possibly not up to LOTRO standards in level of detail, is concise and interesting. So far, it’s been an enjoyable experience that I don’t plan to rush through.
Quest text for LOTRO (left) is more verbose yet detailed. Quest text for ESO (right) seems more succinct and has the advantage of vocal NPC reinforcement
In my book, questing is one of the most important aspects of an MMO. Both of these games have found enjoyable and interesting ways to keep me plugging away on the hamster wheel.
In future installments of this series, I hope to cover advancement, community, complexity, intellectual property, and possibly even lore and overall value. Stay tuned!
I don’t really get excited for films any more. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my life stage that I don’t have hours to spend pouring over trailers or blog post theories or wiki sites. I will typically give a trailer one or two viewings and move on, reasoning that my next taste of the action will be whenever the film hits a convenient medium. That said, last year’s successful resurrection of the Star Wars franchise did have me looking forward to some spinoff stories. Considering what Disney/Marvel has been able to do with the MCU, I was happy to hear that we’d be fleshing-out the world in a way that only the expanded universe had attempted in the past.
As fate would have it, my whole family was off for the holidays recently, and my mother-in-law (surprisingly, since she doesn’t like fantasy) offered to take us out to see Rogue One. My kids, being raised on the prequels and Clone Wars cartoons, and myself, a huge fan of the original trilogy (and proud owner of several Kenner action figures back in the day), jumped at the chance. My friends Void and BJ over at the Geek to Geek podcast did a very nice episode detailing their reactions to the film. It’s a good listen, and it triggered a few of my own thoughts that I’ll attempt to communicate below. They will be spoiler-filled.
First of all, I like the story choice. This film had a distinctly different feel from every other Star Wars film I’ve seen – in a good way. Void and BJ, who seem to have studied film more than I have, categorized it as a war movie. I’ll just say that I liked getting away from the “center of the universe” characters in favor of some unsung heroes. I’m not completely sure how my youngest two kids felt about it. They said they liked it, but I sense that the death of every major character did bother them a little bit. I was eight years old when I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater. I’m not sure how I would have felt if Luke hadn’t escaped the Death Star or if the whole rebel squadron on Endor was wiped out. Sometimes, the things that make a film interesting for adults do so at a cost to the kids to whom the franchise originally belonged, which makes me a little sad. But, the adult in me is happy to see Star Wars grow up a little and do some things that are less predictable. I was a little surprised that the main characters weren’t rescued in some last-minute X-wing fighter miracle, but on further reflection, everybody had to die. I guess that’s what makes these heroes “unsung”.
One of BJ’s major complaints about the film was the lack of character development. To which I would respond: have you never seen a Star Wars movie? Character development within a single film has never been a strength of this franchise. Backstories have only ever been hinted at through vague dialog and brief visual references, with the exception of Luke Skywalker who benefits from Kenobi’s expository dialog in a couple of the films. Heck, we had Padme for three movies and I still don’t feel like I know anything about her. It’s easy to name examples of flat characters in Star Wars films: Boba Fett, Jango Fett, Count Dooku, Qui Gon Jinn, the afore-mentioned Padme, Captain Phasma, and General Grievous. Even the main characters, like Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, don’t get very interesting until they appear in multiple films. So, the character arcs we see within Rogue One seem about par for the course to me. No, I didn’t remember everybody’s name by the end of the film, but that’s typical for me when there are more than three or four people to keep track of. The only name I can recall from watching Doctor Strange earlier this year is…Stephen Strange.
My favorite character in Rogue One was Chirrut, a blind Guardian of the Whills encountered at Jedha. I like the fact that, despite the utter destruction of everything around him (including his purpose in life – to guard the temple that has been seized) at the hands of the empire, he maintains faith in the force. And even though it does not save his life, his ultimate purpose is made possible through that faith for the greater good of the rebellion. I also love that his dedication to that belief is an inspiration for his friend Baze’s redemption. I could ponder all day long about the symbolism of Chirrut’s physical blindness and how it relates to him being the character in the film with the largest amount of faith in the force (“blind faith”, anyone?). Not to mention, he really kicks some stormtrooper butt with that staff. As far as the other characters go, none really stood out. I liked Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO. The last, in particular, proved quite effective as both comic relief and in filling the role of “heroic droid”. I’m going to disagree with Void, who didn’t like the comic relief in Rogue One. I think the humor was vital to this film. There were parts where the tension needed to be broken up.
The action sequences in the film were all very good. Both the space battles and land battles are able to one-up the practical effects that were so groundbreaking in the original trilogy. I very much enjoyed the inclusion of the red and gold squadrons in the final battle, as well as the “red five” reference. That unused footage from A New Hope was integrated into Rogue One with perfection. That was a nice surprise, considering some of the callbacks weren’t so graceful. For example, when Jyn runs into the cantina outlaws in Jedha City. This reference would have been much better had Jyn simply bumped into him and if the line “watch yourself!” was heard in the background. As it is, the camera lingers on the pair for what seems like an eternity as if to say “hey, remember these guys? These guys right here? You know, from episode four…..the cantina…..oh yeah, now you remember…..” It seems pretty heavy-handed. Also less successful is digital Peter Cushing, who plays a fairly large role in the movie but was so obviously digitally enhanced that I couldn’t even pay attention to any of the dialog in his first scene. Again, I think a lighter touch (with more shadows, shots from behind) would have made Cushing’s character less distracting and more believable.
I’m a little split on Darth Vader’s inclusion. I like the idea of him in this film, but I think the execution was about 50/50. In Vader’s first scene with Krennic, he doesn’t move or sound like the Vader from A New Hope, the events of which are supposed to immediately follow Rogue One. The scene itself does very little for the film, other than to show Krennic’s willingness to go behind Tarkin’s back to more quickly advance his career. It appears to exist mostly as a way to get more screen time for Vader. However, in the final scene of the film, we see Vader personally chasing down and slicing through rebel troops in an effort to recover the stolen Death Star plans. This scene shows Darth Vader as we’ve never seen him, terrifying and deserving of the fear and respect that is omnipresent throughout the first three films. The other nice thing about this scene is that it shows exactly how the plans ended up with Leia Organa in the first place.
Overall, I really liked Rogue One. I thought it was a very good movie set inside a universe that now feels much larger than it used to. It felt like a Star Wars film, but one that had “grown up”. It laid the groundwork for some interesting new concepts (for the films, anyway) like kyber crystals, The Whills, stormtroopers who don’t always miss (ha!), and even questionable orders within the rebel alliance. Like Void said in the podcast, this opens Star Wars up to explore the “shades of grey”. As an adult, I’m excited to see what kind of shades they decide to paint, even if the kid in me still kind of pines for the bad guys to wear black hats and the good guys to always win.
The time has come. I’ve been fighting the idea for several months now, but the nagging sensation has become too loud to ignore. It’s time for me to admit that I’m finished creating gaming content. My schedule has gotten to be incredibly crazy with kids in soccer, basketball, band, volleyball and whatever other miscellaneous activity is happening on any given day, but the bottom line is that my heart is not in it any more. If it was, I’d find a way to make it work, but it’s just not. I started this journey back in February of 2011 when I signed up for a plucky little MMO called Lord of the Rings Online. My interest in the game and community, and later the larger gaming community, continued to grow as I deepened my understanding of various aspects of the industry and broadened my network of fellow enthusiasts and friends.
In the few years since, so much has changed. My youngest is now nearly the same age as my oldest was back then. My oldest is now a sophomore in high school, and requires my assistance in accumulating 60 (!!!) hours of driving practice this year prior to earning his driver’s license next year. Keeping up with my kids’ academic responsibilities can be a full-time job in and of itself. The house, as houses do, requires constant upkeep thanks to the abuse a family of six doles on our surroundings.
In reading Izlain’s post about his hiatus from Couch Podtatoes, I was nudged toward the realization that my game/community commitments, as soft as they were, were holding me back from doing something I love: trying and learning new things. I want to get even better at home repair. I want to dabble in video and photography. I’ve recently volunteered to run the video projection/stage lights for my church one Sunday a month. I want to pull all of my old athletic awards out of storage and build a display wall for them. I want to be able to go to my kids’ concerts, sporting events, and plays and not feel like I’m letting an audience or a co-host down by skipping a blog post or recording session. Most of all, I want to enjoy my family for the few short years we have together before the kids start going their own separate ways.
I’ve also got my personal health to think about. The recent diagnosis of adhesive capsulitis in my shoulder has underlined the passivity of my lifestyle. If you’re not familiar with that particular health issue, it’s a very strange ailment where the connective tissue in my shoulder has stiffened up to the point that I cannot move my arm greater than about 30 degrees in any direction without an excruciating amount of pain. It hurts pretty much all the time. Counter intuitively, the only way to combat the issue is to push through the pain and keep stretching the tissue out to limber it up – which hurts, man. I won’t lie, it hurts. I’m on daily pain meds and I have physical therapy twice a week in an attempt to keep pushing it and regain some range of motion. The good news is that I should eventually gain full range of motion back, but there is a long road ahead, possibly up to 1-2 years. I’ve heard it’s good to have a goal, so my goal is to eventually be able to get back into the pool and do a swimming workout again, which is something I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to do when the pain first set in. It’s quite the mind game. One of the records I set in high school was the 100 yard butterfly, the most shoulder-intensive stroke in swimming, so I was very strong. Not being able to raise my arm above my head just doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s confusing, and very humbling. It’s going to take work to get back where I want to be, and work takes time.
Just so I’m not pulling any punches, my relationship with Twitter has also changed a lot in the last 12 months or so. There are several people who I interact with who really seem to “get it”. We banter, we have a good time, and we share relevant news and information. But something has happened to my feed in the last year. Alternatively, something has happened to me in the last year to make me much grumpier. The amount of noise being amplified in the name of ‘raising awareness’ of some social injustice or unthinkable offense against humanity has increased seemingly exponentially, to the point that it almost feels like whining. I’m not completely innocent of contributing to this, I realize, but it’s now reached the tipping point for me. Yes, there is social injustice in the world. The world can be a terrible place. Consider my awareness raised. That kind of bombardment is not why I signed up for Twitter however many years ago. Gamers talk all day long about how our hobby allows us to “escape”, and yet somehow we still find a way to drag all the stuff we’re escaping from right back into the hobby. I think it’s time to escape from the escape.
For now, the blog will stay up as-is, possibly getting an occasional update, but nothing regular (as if my posts were ever regular). I plan to keep the domain name up unless it becomes too much of a hassle or too expensive. Same for Beyond Bossfights. I plan to keep it up if for no other reason than to give me a place to drop an episode out there every now and then if I feel the need. Brodkil has recently started listening to my back catalog and has been dropping hints that he wants to record with me, so I’ll probably have at least one more episode out there in the next few months when we find the time for it. I’ve told Chris Cook of my intentions to step away from MMORPG’s Game On podcast, as well. Chris was very supportive and welcomed me back at any time. As with other members of the community, it’s been great getting to know Chris. He’s a super classy guy with no hidden agendas and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to lend my voice to a major gaming podcast. As far as TGEN, I’ve turned it over to the other podcasters. I can’t speak for all of them, but there is at least a core group who would like to continue to release quarterly round-table shows together. I would like to be among that group as well, but time will tell whether my new hobbies will be of interest to anyone, or whether my schedule will allow it. TGEN was my baby, and it’s tough to walk away, but I don’t feel like I have any leadership left to give to that team. I’ll be shutting my Patreon page down as soon as I can figure out how to do that. For those who have supported me, financially or through feedback and encouragement, I thank you so, so much. The people I’ve met along the way have been the best part of the whole journey. I can’t name names, as there are simply too many. Which leads me to my next thought…
It’s funny, one of the reasons I created a Twitter account with my LOTRO character name was so that I could easily walk away if need be. But walking away from these old passions has been anything but easy. I’ve probably held on far longer than I should have out of a sense of obligation to both audience and friends. While I’m not going to delete my Twitter account, nor the blog nor podcast backlog, I certainly will not be as regular as I once was in any of these cases. Perhaps this is only a hiatus, I don’t know. But, the last few months I’ve been doing some things as me – not as Braxwolf – that have confirmed for me that I’m where I’m supposed to be at this time. The gamer tag is a veil, albeit a thin one, that I’m tired of wearing for the time being. I need to move on, and breathe freely, and continue to grow as a person. Unfortunately, to promote growth, pruning is sometimes necessary.
I thank you all for your friendships, your encouragement, and your good humor. I truly and sincerely appreciate it.
I’ve not been doing much gaming lately, as the family and I are on vacation in the north lakes. We stay with my parents at their summer place, and this year my sister also made the trip with her family. It’s been one big weeklong family get-together! Typically, though, we take one day to go off on our own, just myself, Mrs. Brax and the kids, and do something besides the normal fishing, swimming, and eating that normally comprises our vacation days.
Today we decided to go biking, and on a whim, geocaching. In past years, we’ve biked in Itasca State Park, which is a beautiful area but very busy (people and cars), and also pretty hilly, which can make both the downhill control and the uphill climb a challenge for the smallest among us. This year, we decided to stay a little closer to camp and try out the Heartland State trail. This is a fantastic trail, paved over 50 miles of abandoned railroad routes. The grade was perfect and the scenery (mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees bordering sparkling lakes and bays) was incredible. Plus, the bike rental place is only about a 20 minute drive from camp, as opposed to the hour or more trek to Itasca. We’re certainly going to try to make biking on this trail an annual occurrence.
Something Mrs. Brax has always wanted to try is geocaching. I’m sure most people reading this post are already familiar with geocaching, but in case you’re fuzzy on the details, geocaching is kind of a cross between hide-and-seek and opening a time capsule. You use an app that helps to pinpoint approximately where the “cache” is, and you have to figure out where it’s hidden in the world. Once you find it, you can log your find (either in the app or on a physical sheet of paper in the cache, or both) and perhaps add to the cache if you wish. It’s a really cool concept that’s been around for quite a few years, now.
So, off we went, armed only with our rented bikes, a Samsung Galaxy S6 and enough ignorance to make us dangerous.
The first cache stop was just prior to going through a bridge that went under the highway. The clues were pretty specific, and we learned that the cache would be tough to find in the summer due to the brush growth. At first, Brodkil inspected a conspicuous rock, but to no avail. We also learned that the cache was stashed in an old Peter Pan peanut butter jar. It supposedly contained several clocks representing different timezones, and spare batteries. It was originally placed in 2010. After spreading out and searching for about five minutes, Brodkil uncovered an old, de-lidded peanut butter jar which was empty besides a piece of paper that was too wet to read. We’re assuming that this was the remnant of a six year-old cache, but it’s also possible that it was just highway litter. A little disappointing, but at least it was something
Surprise! A wet, empty jar!
The 2nd cache we hunted for was actually back up the trail a little ways. We accidentally passed it the first time and had to circle back. It was described as a set of “micro caches” that were “winter friendly”. We had to think about it for a bit, but eventually realized that “winter friendly” is code for hanging up in a tree somewhere. Too close to the ground, and the cache would be covered by the several inches of snow that are common during the Minnesota winter months. However, this realization had not yet hit us while we were hunting for cache #2. “What’s micro mean?” asked Tiny Brax. “Small”, I answered. “How small are they?” he quite reasonably followed up. “Smaller than a peanut butter jar”, I supposed, being that this was my only frame of reference to this point. Other hunters had commented in the log that the cache was surrounded by poison ivy, so we were scouring the ground. Eventually, we decided that the micro must be too micro for us, and we continued on.
The hints for this cache were amazing. The last person to find it had logged only a month ago, so the information was fresh. It also said “no longer winter friendly” which we figured out meant that it was on a tree that had fallen and was now on the ground. We found two trees in the area that were on the ground, but they were both completely surrounded by poison ivy so I was deterred from getting too close. I peered at the tree for a very long time from the safety of the paved trail, paying particular attention to the branches, but just couldn’t come up with anything. This was a particularly frustrating one to leave because I’m just sure we were only a few feet from that silly cache, but it was obscured from sight by the cursed weed. Eventually, though, we had to carry on.
This clue had us stopping on a section of the trail that had a ledge going up on the right-hand side. The clue indicated that we had to climb the ledge in order to see the cache. The kids had ridden ahead, so I climbed up while we were waiting for them to come back, and lo and behold as I looked to my left I saw an out-of-place coffee container hanging from a tree. “I see it!” I yelled, and the kids came scampering up. Tiny Brax was the first to reach it, and popped open the lid. Sure enough, the inside of the lid said “Official geocache, please do not remove”. It contained some unsharpened pencils, a beverage cozy from a local business, some silly bands and a notepad log. Unfortunately, we didn’t think to bring a pencil, so we couldn’t physically log our find, but we did indicate that we found the cache in the app. I thought this cache was a fairly obvious one, and was surprised to learn that it was last uncovered back in March, a good four/five months ago. We capped it back up and continued on our way.
Armed with a newfound sense of false confidence, we stopped one last time to try and find another treasure. By this time, though, the complaints about bug bites and thirst were starting to get rather loud, so we only spent a few minutes gazing into the trees before conceding that it was time to turn back for ice cream and water. I’m not sure if we were very close to #5, but whatever voice it was trying to muster to call out to us was drowned out by the sound of a thirsty eleven year old.
There you have it, the inaugural Braxclan geocache hunt summary. I really would like to try again. It sure beats the heck out of imaginary Pokemon!