Mountains, Mountains... Not a Rock to Climb

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A frequent criticism visited on LOTRO, particularly by old school MMO players, is that LOTRO has a lot of mountains that aren't climbable. Furthermore, these mountains create a "fishbowl" type atmosphere where we're always stuck in valleys and we cannot get out of our little "aquarium".

Is this a valid criticism? Partly, but let's look at it. There is no denying that the zones use mountains/impassible terrain as a means of bounding the zones. And often times it does feel like we're in valleys all the time. On the surface, these arguments are perfectly valid because they're true. However, we should look at why there are mountains, mountains everywhere and not one is climbable.

First we have to understand from which direction this game came from. LOTRO is not starting out with an MMO and building a world around it. Rather, it's the opposite. Turbine started with a world - Tolkien's Middle-Earth, and built an MMO around it. The nature of MMO world building is different from that of a normal world - which is how Tolkien tried to build Middle-Earth.

Let's look at a few maps to illustrate my point:
What are some of the commonalities between all these maps? Well, the most obvious one is that the three game maps are pretty much comprised of large islands versus the continent seen in Middle-Earth. The nature of the island-like game worlds is that they don't require as much time create - that is, the can be created all at once and the ocean offers a very normal, natural, and non-confining boundary. Middle-Earth, however, is much larger. It is a world, rather than an island. Each game has zones, but the zones in middle-earth are bounded by land, rather than water and all that land isn't built yet. So, there has to be some way to keep the players within the playable space without breaking immersion with an invisible wall and nondescript landscape beyond. Mountains offer the greatest ability to do so, particularly non-climbable mountains. Climbing the mountains would defeat their purpose.

Basically, we have a necessary evil in our non-scalable mountains. Because the world isn't bounded by oceans - because it was built from an already existing world not designed around MMO principles, we have to compromise.

Another item of note is the linear nature to the zone progression. Not in leveling (although that exists to a degree), but rather in physical placement. Lord of the Rings is a story about a journey across the continent - in one direction. Taking that as the main focus of the MMO story forced a straight-line approach for the most part in the zone creation. As such, there is only one place in the game where we see zones adjacent to each other in more than one direction: Evendim, The Shire, Breeland, Northdowns square. Largely these zones are seamless (less so with Evendim) and that would be the standard should additional adjacent zones be built.

Between these two issues, we have a more closed-in feeling in LOTRO. And for me, understanding this doesn't alleviate my desire to see a more expansive world than our linear travel pattern we have now. But I've got to accept what is now with the hope of more in the future. It's not like the current development is not quality work.

Lastly, I think the Google Maps type map over at Arda-Online offers the best example of what we see in the game.

EDIT: This post was inspired by a topic on the forums which was just today commented on by Scenario.

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