Putting the “play” into “Free-to-play”

Kids play on beach - photo by Idban Secandri (flickr)

Kids play on the beach – photo by Idban Secandri (flickr)

It seems Nintendo’s CEO has been pondering the term “free-to-play” and thinks it would be better to use another phrase to describe the concept, especially as it applies to mobile games…

“I do not like to use the term ‘Free-to-play,'” Iwata said. “I have come to realize that there is a degree of insincerity to consumers with this terminology, since so-called ‘Free-to-play’ should be referred to more accurately as ‘Free-to-start.'”

Fixing free-to-play’s image problem

Well I’m always pleased if a business wants to describe its products more honestly, but I think there are several problems with his particular idea. Firstly we already have a perfectly good term that means “free-to-start”. Such things are called “a trial”, or if you must underline the freeness of it, a “free trial”. Trialability is a good quality for any product to have, and free trials are usually a good idea whether we’re talking about test driving a car, trying a free weekend of an MMO, being able to level to 20 for free, or whatever.

However free trials don’t have the appeal of free-to-play, at least when that is a fair description of what is on offer, and not just a bait-and-switch tactic. Would I use Gmail or WordPress.com if they were truly free-to-start as opposed to genuinely free-to-use? Almost certainly not. Whenever I see anything that has a free trial, a free month or some such, my first question is always: “Well how much would it cost me if I were to really keep using this thing?” Often that simple info is made rather hard to find, and at that point my interest in the thing ends. Even when the info is clearly and fairly presented I’m usually not going to bother to take advantage of a free trial in most cases.

“Free-to-start” might be a more well-meaning and honest description of what a company has in mind than “free-to-play”, but that’s like a baker truthfully describing their offering as “stale bread”. Thanks for not trying to fool us, but we actually wanted a fresh and tasty loaf, not just for you to use the right terminology for what you’re selling.

Of course there is such a thing as bad free-to-play, and there are plenty of examples. However there are good examples also, and what’s good about them turns on it actually being fair to describe them as “free”, and it being fair to describe what you can actually do for free as “play”.

Whether something is free is relatively simple to determine. Lying about something that is not really free and calling it free-to-play is going to be found out pretty quickly. At best you’ll have bitter customers who resent how you conned them to get them hooked on your game. At worst you won’t have any customers anyway because people aren’t stupid and they can figure out the con before they ever download your game.

Whether what people get to do in the free part of your game is even really “play” is a big question however. Defining the essence of play is fascinating and important, but also difficult to do, though many have tried and come up with good ideas. (For example The Definition of Play.)

I’m not going go into any formal definitions, but there are certain qualities that to my mind are fundamental to something being play and it being fun. For example…

  • You should be able to immerse yourself in it, get lost in the flow, lose all track of time while you’re doing it.

  • You should experience a sense of freedom and possibility. There are many different things you could do, many ways to approach what’s in front of you, many ways to explore, many ways to express yourself.

  • You should mostly be enjoying what you’re doing in the moment, doing it for it’s own sake, not doing it solely in order to attain some other goal or fulfill some obligation.

Well, when you consider such things, the problem with some F2P games is that they are sorely lacking in actual play. There are exceptions though, and they are the ones that when reviewers discuss them they use phrases like “a generous free-to-play model”.

Freemium works very well in many tech-based businesses, and it can work very well in games also. But it’s critical to freemium that the free service is satisfying in itself and provides core functionality and an experience that more than adequately meets the needs of most people who give it a try. In a game, that means people can have lots of fun with it, for free. If you’re not going to provide that, don’t bother calling it free at all.

Why I’m not playing LOTRO much

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I’m not playing LOTRO very much at the moment, and a piece on LOTRO Players got me thinking about why that might be. Brax’s post is in the form of fanfic, an in-character letter, and I commented in kind…

It may be the cursed power of Sauron. The closer I get to his realm the wearier I feel and the more it seems my will to fight on is sapped. The loss of many of our brave friends and cheery kinfolk weighs heavily also. But I yet hope to press forward in this quest, little by little perhaps, resting as I must to gather my strength.

I hear rumors that the scattered forces of the Free Peoples will soon be rallied into several great armies. If this be true it may prove a great boon, and will raise my spirits much. With such combined forces we may hope to battle on and perhaps even live to see the downfall of Sauron. Or if that proves finally to be beyond our resources, at least to make an end worthy of song.

On reflection I think the reasons why I’m not playing LOTRO so much these days are more varied and complicated than what is implied by that comment, though what I said there is an important part of the overall picture too.

I’m not playing MMOs, I’m doing other stuff!

One thing to start with is that unlike some people it’s not that I’ve switched to playing some other MMO. I’m spending a lot less time playing MMOs overall, and since LOTRO was my main game, it’s most noticeable there.

Reading books and watching boxsets has been taking up a lot of my leisure time since Christmas. I’ve also played a fair bit of chess, and I’ve dabbled in a MOOC or two as well. I hadn’t seen any of The Walking Dead or Downton Abbey before Christmas, and now I’m totally caught up with both series. That’s probably well over a hundred hours of spare time accounted for right there! And there were a few other shows where I caught up a season, or at least watched a few episodes.

Streaming video is a newish thing for me, and has that extra excitement that comes with finding a whole new toy box to explore. It was about a year ago I got a Chromecast and that made the whole streaming thing much more attractive. Over time I’ve discovered more shows and more streaming services.

The hobby lifecycle

Hobbies and interests tend to have a lifecycle with me. I guess it’s not unlike the lifecycle of a relationship. There might be an initial checking-it-out phase, followed by a falling-madly-in-love phase, which leads to wanting to spend as much time as possible with the totally amazing beloved. And that can last for quite some time, but in due course it goes to a more mellow phase where I retain much love and affection, yet don’t want to devote my whole existence to that one thing.

MMOs – and LOTRO specifically – were that new love for me three and a bit years ago. I still like them now, but not in quite the same way as in the first year or two, where the game was the activity of choice for many hours on most days. Meanwhile the new hotness is The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD and suchlike. But diving into great boxsets will have its lifecycle too I’m sure, and maybe then I’ll return to more intensive MMOing.

It’s not just me, it’s you too…

All of the above are reasons why I probably would have been playing less now regardless of whatever had happened with the game itself. However it’s not all just about me and my hobby lifecycle, a good deal of the change in my playing habits has to do with LOTRO itself.

People are very important of course, and the banter and friendship was a big part of what kept me coming back regularly. But friends and kinnies have their own hobby lifecycles, or they have changes in their real world circumstances etc. So over time there are less and less of the familiar faces around, and they’re around less often. What’s more some of the people that still do play regularly have done their own DIY server merger by re-rolling onto more populated servers. Now I’d join them, but the very fact that I’m not playing so much now makes it difficult to re-roll and level-up all over again. If LOTRO had something like the technology in other MMOs where I could hop to another server easily, it would be a big help to me.

The proliferation of changes to game mechanics also don’t help. I still haven’t properly figured out all the skill changes that came in with Helm’s Deep, and I’m largely clueless about essences. Add in lots of small changes throughout the game, like changes to housing storage, making various crafting materials obsolete etc, and it’s pretty hard to really get back in the game and feel totally at home without devoting masses of time to working out the differences. After Helm’s Deep I rapidly went from feeling proficient with quite a few classes to not knowing what the heck half the skills do exactly on most of them.

Then there’s the grindiness that can be excessive. I’m not sure that LOTRO is really that much worse than other MMOs in this regard, but I guess the more familiar you become with an MMO, the more the repetitiveness of combat may weigh on you. The worst case is when you have to kill many mobs, the kills are time consuming, and yet there is no stimulating challenge in the fights. Too many quests seem to land me in this scenario.

Monetization Catch-22

There are things Turbine could do to get someone like me back and more active in the game. Easy and free server transfer is one thing I already mentioned. Another would be ways to insta-level my alts, or otherwise bypass unwelcome grind.

However to the extent that LOTRO has anything like that, it’s all by spending rather big bucks in the cash shop. $50 for the Gift of the Valar to get half-way to the level cap for instance! Or I could get rest XP by subscribing, and buy various XP and deed boosts to cut the grind some.

The problem is that those things might seem worthwhile to someone who was already heavily playing the game, but at a point where I’m not playing much, spending that kind of money seems ridiculous to me. It’s a Catch-22 situation. You have to spend money to maybe make the game as fun as it used to be again, but if you’re not having that fun already, why would you spend lots more money on the game?

We may yet, Mr Frodo

Let’s not overdo the gloom here! I still have good friends who play plenty of LOTRO, and it wouldn’t be surprising if I got back into it with them sooner or later. I’ve had quite long breaks before, and gone back with relish afterwards. It seems that Turbine are working on plans for server mergers, and the option of a free server transfer could be a real blessing. There’s still plenty of good content that I’d enjoy doing, and if it were easier to get caught up and play with the people I’d like to hang out with, I’d be glad to do just that.

I have plenty of love for Tolkien and LOTRO, and one way or another I’m likely to be around to see the end of all things, whenever and wherever that comes.

MMO Writing: Pros vs Amateurs

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Lately there’s been much discussion of whether sites like Massively are really needed, or whether bloggers do the same job just as well, or perhaps even better.

Many of the points raised reflect the underlying differences that arise between professionals and amateurs in many fields, and also the differences between for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations. (Semi-pros are a very interesting case too!) Much comes down to the key resources of time and money, and how they impact the work done, or left undone.

Time is Money, Money is Time

Professionals can in general devote a lot more time to their work than amateurs can afford to do. At one extreme, a full-time journalist presumably would spend 40 hours a week or more keeping track of events in the field they cover and writing about them. That means that in principle they’re able to be well informed, respond to unfolding events in a timely fashion, and provide a breadth and depth of coverage and analysis that a single amateur would find impossible.

There are other benefits of being well-resourced that accrue to professionals. They can more easily justify expenses that are needed to do their work, whether it’s high-quality audio equipment, travel expenses, or whatever. Another type of expense are the costs in time and money of the various QA processes that generally apply to professional work: editing, internal reviews, signoffs etc.

But the advantages are not all on the side of the pros. Ultimately pros have to “cut their coat according to their cloth” – the amount of effort spent on doing a piece of work has to be in proportion to the revenue likely to be generated by doing it. This is one of the major problems facing many newspapers nowadays, as their advertising and subscription revenue falls, they don’t have the resources to keep up the volume and standard of work they used to do in the past.

An amateur isn’t constrained in the same way. If a talented and passionate amateur has the skills and the inclination they can put far more effort into creating a single post than a professional could justify.

The Power of Crowds?

The question then is whether collectively a bunch of talented and passionate amateurs can be a match for the professionals. Sometimes the answer is clearly a resounding yes. Think of game wikis or Wikipedia itself, or think of open source software like WordPress, which powers this blog.

But that is only sometimes! For each WordPress or Linux there are thousands of open source projects that never got anywhere, or which built something useful only to stop being updated when the key people got bored of them. And even highly successful open source projects are often woefully short of well-written user guides, well-designed user interfaces and the like.

Probably there are certain kinds of amateur work that people find rewarding, and only certain part of the work at that. There aren’t many people whose idea of a fun leisure activity is writing user guides or checking someone else’s spelling and grammar. The crowd leaves gaps in its coverage, and often comes up short on aspects of doing quality work that are not inherently enjoyable to address.

On top of that the enthusiasm and commitment of amateurs waxes and wanes over time, as does the amount of time they can devote to their hobby, and their ability to pay for it. We’ve seen it happen often in the MMO blogosphere as many of the very best blogs and podcasts, which we loved for years, are are no longer with us.

Death from Success

A problem that is pretty unique to hobbies that create internet content is that a person’s work can be too good to live. Unlike almost any other leisure activity I can think of, the costs of the hobby are not fully within the hobbyist’s own control, but depend on the volume of traffic to their sites. While most people actively try to grow their traffic and are proud when it does, ultimately it’s not something that they can ever fully control. Posts can go viral, sites can gain a high-ranking in Google, and leaps in popularity can appear out of the blue.

When a site has no revenue, or has revenue sources that do not scale in proportion to traffic, a sufficiently large increase in popularity can kill it. It sounds paradoxical, but essentially it’s no different than a store that makes a small loss on every item it sells. The more it sells the faster it goes bankrupt.

The problem is most noticeable with hobbyists that use paid platforms, but it can affect professional outlets as well if the structure of their costs and revenues is such that more traffic pushes up cost faster than revenue.

God and Mammon

The Bible famously has it that “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Or to put it in a non-religious way, there are inevitable conflicts between making money and other, more important values, that you might have.

Pros depend on their work for their livelihoods, and the need to make money can sometimes have a dubious effect on their work. In online journalism, they might be faced with either writing misleading click-baity headlines or failing to pull in enough traffic to keep their work funded. Even the most reputable and serious news organizations are now facing this dilemma. Similar things can happen with stirring up heated controversies rather than measured debate, or fueling hype over product launches rather than keeping a sense of perspective. In the worst cases they might be unduly influenced by advertisers, freebies, junkets etc. But even at the best of times there might be some pulling of punches in order to keep cordial working relationships with those they must cover.

The conflicts may be less acute when funding comes directly from readers, whether it’s via subscriptions, donations or whatever. However, as any non-profit knows, what will bring the donations flooding in and what most needs to be done are often very different things. For one thing, people will donate to help the victims of disasters, but it’s much harder to raise money to prevent the disaster from happening in the first place, or even for containing it its early stages. Which is just one example of the phenomenon that hot-button, media-friendly issues tend to win out over things that would make a vastly bigger difference with less money.

I was thrilled to see Massively Overpowered and Blizzard Watch hit their funding goals so quickly. But part of what fueled that I’d guess were the understandable emotional responses in the face of a sudden disaster: “Helps the victims”, “Save our friends”, “Stick it to the heartless corporation” etc. In the future, there might be harder choices for the sites to make, for example if they wanted to take a stance that would anger parts of their donor base.

There’s no easy way to square the need to bring in funds with other goals. This means there are important freedoms for amateurs and semi-professionals, who can afford to be less concerned about the financial consequences of their actions.

Concluding Thoughts

I guess the upshot of all this is that I think it’s very valuable to have a “mixed economy”. It’s good that there should be professionals, amateurs and semi-professionals. They all have strengths which compensate for potential weaknesses of the others, and as with many things a diverse ecosystem is a healthy one.

tolkien

Maybe some of you wondered about the image at the top of this post. Perhaps you never see any significance in the pictures I use anyway. Or perhaps you tried to figure out for a moment what connection this one had with the topic in hand. Maybe you spotted it!

That photo shows Merton College, Oxford, where Tolkien was a professor for a large part of his career. The point is that writing fantasy fiction was not his day job, and that fact in part helped him produced something unique and wonderful. No one who depended on writing for their livelihood could have spent so long building up a deep imaginative world or gestating a single novel. By the measure of words per day, his output was hopeless. And the length of time to complete a novel which he wasn’t sure would even be publishable would no doubt make an editor weep. Work of that type could only have been done by someone who had the luxury of not having to rely on it for their income.

Food for thought perhaps, in the amateurs vs pros debate.

Massively OP: The Bright Gleam of Victory

Last week Massively shutdown. This weekend the reborn Massively Overpowered got fully funded on Kickstarter within 48 hours.

Congratulations to all at MassivelyOP and the the wider MMO community that rallied round them!

I can sum up my feelings on the matter with a couple of quotes from Winston Churchill…

A Remarkable and Definite Victory

Now, however, we have a new experience. We have victory – a remarkable and definite victory. The bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts.

Churchill November 10, 1942

The End of the Beginning

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Churchill, November 10, 1942

Hear the speech delivered in his uniquely powerful and humorous way here…

A Kickstarter for a blog is obviously not in the same category as The Battle of El Alamein. But in its smaller way it is a tremendously heartening and inspiring victory after a time of great adversity, yet as Churchill emphasized, only “perhaps the end of the beginning”.

Live long and prosper Massively OP. May the force be with you, and the hair on your toes never fall out!

Buy to Not Play

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I’m thinking it’s time to consider one of the most popular and successful business models there is for games these days, Buy-to-Not-Play, aka B2NP. The thought’s been brought on because yesterday I finally bought Guild Wars 2, despite knowing that in all likelihood I won’t play it, or at least not to any great extent. That follows not long after I bought a few things in the Steam Winter Sale, also knowing full well that the chances of me getting around to actually playing them were rather slim.

Of course that is the advanced level of B2NP, where you buy something actually recognizing that it’s a B2NP title for you. The basic level, which I indulged in for a couple of years before attaining my present advanced status involves buying things while telling yourself that you most certainly will play the heck of out them, and then not playing them.

The basic level of B2NP leads first to a period of exhilaration and excitement during which you are thrilled with all the great games you bought, followed by a period of feeling harried and anxious as you attempt to make progress with some of them, then a period of regret, disillusionment and upset as you recognize that they were in fact B2NP purchases. Finally perhaps you come to an acceptance of the situation, and move on leaving regret and self-recrimination behind. It’s like the stages of grief I suppose: grief for your departed time and money, and the embarrassing stupidity that caused it.

The advanced level of B2NP is a much mellower affair by comparison. You can congratulate yourself on your wisdom in recognizing the B2NP nature of your purchases from the outset, and for making sure that you only paid the price appropriate to B2NP. (Generally 75% or more off the regular price is a pretty solid B2NP deal in my book.) You can then gaze fondly at your B2NP collection, and think: “Well, who knows maybe I will even play some of them someday! Just look at all the things I have ready against that possible post-apocalyptic future in which it’s impossible to acquire any more games!”

There is maybe a slight drawback in that at the advanced level you may have understandable concerns about the sanity of your behavior. But fear not, it is easy to come up with excellent economic and psychological arguments to explain why you aren’t actually insane, albeit you might just be a teensy bit less rational that you would like to think or than would be financially optimal. But that is ok, because after all you’re not a Vulcan, and so you can wear small departures from rationality as a proud badge of your humanity. Which as Star Trek TOS repeatedly proved is much better than merely being logical.

A Year in Games and Books

As 2014 comes to an end, it seems like a good time to say a few words about what I’ve played and read this year that seems notable. If nothing else, maybe it will give people ideas of what they might want to grab in the sales before they close!

Games I Played in 2014

LOTRO

As ever LOTRO is my most played video game of the year, though I played rather less this year than last. Early in the year many of us were worried about the game’s future after a round of Turbine layoffs followed not long after the news that there would be no expansion this year. I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that Turbine did deliver new content as they’d announced though.

If I played less, probably that has less to do with the game itself and more to do with me. For one thing the first couple of years of any great new thing are more exciting to me, and after that I get somewhat used to it, less absorbed and generally ready to do other things.

Chess

Another reason my LOTRO time dropped is that my interest in chess got revived. That was mostly down to happening to read a book called King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game. Ironically for a book that focuses on the darker sides of chess and chess players, it brought back a lot of fond memories for me.

While I’ve never stopped playing completely, it’s probably getting on for twenty years since I played at all seriously or was a member of a club. But with my revived enthusiasm and starting to sharpen up my rusty skills, I might well do that in 2015 sometime. Meantime I’m having fun playing online, and reading bits and pieces about the game again.

Hero Academy

This is a rather nice turn-based strategy game that I play on iPad. It’s entirely PVP, and has some of the flavor of MMOs (tanks, healers, debuffs, AoE effects etc) and some of the flavor of chess as well, in calculating possible moves and counter-moves.

It’s very enjoyable, and if I don’t play as much as some other games, that’s only a matter of what I have time for.

King of Dragon Pass

Another iPad game, and a unique one, so it’s rather hard to describe. Something of a cross between a full-blown fantasy novel and a turn-based resource-management strategy game. It has one of the best worlds and most interesting cultures that I’ve come across not only in a game but in any form of fiction.

Like Hero Academy I only wish I had more time to play it and explore its depths.

Others

Other games I played and enjoyed but spent even less time on include..

  • The Secret World, lots to love about this, but I haven’t got very far into it yet.

  • Guild Wars 2 (for a trial week, see also), maybe I’ll get into this in the future

  • Skyrim, Enjoyable in lots of ways, though I think I prefer games with more of a social aspect for my RPGs

SF & Fantasy I Read in 2014

I’ve read quite a few books this year. Some of the SF and Fantasy ones that stand out are:

  • The Last Policeman Trilogy – A fascinating an entertaining series set in a world that knows it’s going to be devastated by an asteroid impact in a few months time. (The three books are set IIRC six months from impact, three months from impact, and last week or two before impact.) It’s hard SF in that the asteroid and its effects are well researched and accurately portrayed, it’s also a series of mysteries and criminal investigations. Most of all it explores how people and society cope with knowledge of impending doom. For example, why is it even important to catch murderers now when everyone will be dead soon anyway?

  • The Farseer Trilogy – I wrote a review of this, in short a very fantasy good series, though it could do with some trimming!

  • The Liveship Traders Trilogy – This is a follow up to the Farseer Trilogy, though there is only one character in common, and it deals with events in another part of the world some time after the first series. If you know the Game of Thrones (GoT) series, you will find this rather like that – told from many points of views, lots of characters and story arcs, lots of themes, a good deal of politics etc. Like GoT the author probably bit off more than they could chew, but unlike GoT at least it’s finished and has a proper climax! (Though there are even more trilogies after these, but I’ve not read them, as I was sated with Robin Hobb at this point.)

  • The Game of Thrones Series – Technically the series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. After five huge books we still don’t know much about the Ice and Fire aspects of the world and probably never will! The world and the stories are fascinating, though I’m by no means convinced the series will ever be concluded successfully. Which makes it like a mystery story in which you never do get to find out whodunnit, or an epic quest story in which in which our heroes only got half way to the destination.

  • The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke – I haven’t read all the stories yet, because there are a lot of them! It’s a great book to dip into, and I read it especially in between longer novels. Reading a collection like this you do start to see various themes and patterns that repeatedly show up with the author, more than I did as a kid reading the odd Clarke book as and when I saw one in the library. There’s a nice range with comic stories, tragic stories, thought-provoking stories, very short and snappy stories, novellas etc. A good read if you’re new to Clarke or have not read him for a while.

As ever I could write a lot more, but then it would be 2015 before I got finished. Since an end of year blog post should arrive precisely when it means to, I’ll leave it there.

A Happy New Year to all!

Bloggy Christmas: Unexpected Parties

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Community.

The thought of it fills me with a warm and fuzzy glow, which makes it rather hard to think of what to say about it. It’s something pervasive and intangible, part of the atmosphere of life, but hard to home in on in concrete terms. Maybe it’s a little bit like the music that plays in our MMOs, something that provides a background that shapes and enriches our experience without our always being aware of its presence or importance.

I certainly wasn’t expecting to find any of that when I first started playing MMOs a little over three years ago.

Beginnings

I was a latecomer to MMOs for various reasons. For one thing, I wasn’t all that keen on paying recurring subscriptions; for another I’d heard the stories about people getting hooked on World of Warcraft and I could well imagine that could happen to me. But another reason, and the most relevant to the topic of community, is that I didn’t know anyone who played an MMO. Now that certainly seemed like a barrier to playing and enjoying a genre which as far as I knew required a lot of cooperative play over a period of months or years.

In time I gathered that MMOs were becoming more solo-friendly, and when I discovered that LOTRO had become free-to-play, being a big Tolkien fan I felt the time had come to go take a look.

When I started I wasn’t expecting to group much at all, nor to join a guild, let alone discover a community. I remember researching which classes were the most solo-friendly, and that if anything I avoided the busiest servers. It wasn’t that I had anything against grouping, I just assumed everyone was playing with their friends, and there’d be no particular place for me in their circles.

I did have my first taste of the LOTRO community though, even before I ever grouped. That was via Googling for information and coming across the wonderful, now shuttered, mmorsel for Lord of the Rings Online and Lotro-Wiki, which is thankfully still going strong! I got a sense that there were people out there who loved the game, enjoyed pondering it, and liked sharing their know-how. This was still a “read-only” experience however, I didn’t imagine even the possibility of interacting with these folks any more than I would imagine interacting with someone I saw on TV.

Groups and Kins

I can’t remember how I first found myself in a fellowship. Did someone invite me to group? Did I take the initiative? I don’t know any more, but I wasn’t long in LOTRO before I had a lot of fun playing in ad hoc duos with people who were going through the same areas as me. It probably helped that there were a number of designated group quests included in the Epic storyline, which naturally led people to find others if they could.

And of course, completely contrary to my expectations, I got a lot of random invites to join kinships. Since I was enjoying grouping when I could, it seemed a good idea to give one of these a try. Unfortunately my first kinship experience was not such a good one. The person that recruited me was nice enough, and so were many of the other members. But it was hard to really connect with an in-group who already knew each other so well, and on top of that there were a few members that were pretty childish and at times obnoxious. (Turned out that one actually was a teenager, so perhaps the childishness was understandable.) So after a short while I dropped out of that kin, and went back to my soloing and ad hoc grouping.

Eventually I lucked out. After ignoring lots more invites to kinships, one day I did respond to one. Maybe it was worded in a way I liked, I don’t know why I actually started chatting that time instead of ignoring it like all the other random invites. It was an enormous stroke of luck! I became part of a wonderful small kinship, hit it off with the others, and never looked back.

There’s not a lot more to say about that. Though I met them in-game, this is how I imagined people played MMOs, with a small group of good friends, enjoying the company and the laughs as much as the game itself.

Eventually I did have characters on other servers and in other – larger – kinships as well. Maybe I got better at picking which to join because I only ever had that one not-so-great experience in a kinship, and even that was not really so bad either.

To anyone that is hesitant about guilds and kinships, my advice is go try, and if at first you don’t succeed, don’t worry. Go try a few until you find one you love – it really makes a game.

Out of Game

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For a long time, “community” would have meant mostly my in-game community to me, my friends, my kinnies, the people I ran into in PUGs and so on. I did gradually become aware of a few blogs, especially when I went looking for information about various parts of the game. It was probably Pineleaf’s Skirmish Guides that first led me to Casual Stroll to Mordor (CSTM).

CSTM became the hub of the out-of-game LOTRO community for me. At first I’d visit to get info on the game, later I dropped by every day, and soon it became the place to discuss the game.

It’s hard to pay proper tribute to CSTM in the space I have here. Without it, I wonder if there even would be a true LOTRO community? Certainly any community that arose would have been very different than it was. Merric and Goldenstar were the couple who started the site and hosted the podcast. I’ve referred to them before as the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of the LOTRO world, such is their superstardom! They helped bring the community into being not only through their own posts and podcasts but by providing a welcoming venue for others such as Pineleaf to get started. That created a critical mass so that there was plenty for everyone to talk about, and a lively and friendly place to hang out and discuss the game.

As with all things, time moves on, Merric and Goldenstar’s priorities changed and the CSTM site is no more. However because of the kick start it gave the community, its influence lives on. Many of the contributors to CSTM went on to create LOTRO Players, which now has a similarly important role as CSTM formerly did.

Perhaps this is the key thing about community: It has a life beyond that of any individual. We can all contribute in ways large and small, and our contributions become part of the evolving stream of community life. Some like Merric and Goldenstar make a huge and long-lasting contribution, so even after they’ve moved on we remember and salute them. I daresay it is one of the most satisfying and enduring accomplishments that a person can have.

Which brings us to another esteemed community member who has done much for us all, and is about to reduce his own participation.

Blogging, Podcasting, Twittering

Roger has not only created a thoroughly enjoyable podcast and blog, he has directly helped many of us get started in our own efforts. Without the Newbie Blogger Initiative of 2013, this blog would not exist, and nor would I be participating in Twitter today. Therefore without Roger’s drive and commitment to make the NBI 2013 and 2014 happen I wouldn’t have the delightful community that I have today, which is not only the people that I play with directly, but even more so the people I’m connected with via blogs, podcasts, Twitter, WordPress.com, and other networks, many of whom don’t even play the same games as I do.

This community is, as I said earlier, a little like the music playing in the background of our MMOs. Without it maybe life would go on much as it is, and would be pretty enjoyable regardless. Nonetheless its constant presence adds an extra layer of richness, enjoyment and sheer fun that would otherwise be lacking.

So many many thanks to Roger, to Merric and Goldenstar, and to all those who’ve helped create our community, to make it what it is today, and make it welcoming to all. Thanks also to everyone who participates in the community in ways large and small.

I couldn’t have foreseen any of this when I first decided to give LOTRO a try. My experience in the world of MMOs has truly been of a series of wonderful, delightful, and completely unexpected parties!

Happy Christmas to you all!