The Road to Mordor: Festivals and you -- a love story

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|04.29.11

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The Road to Mordor: Festivals and you -- a love story
It's a shame that Lord of the Rings Online's fourth anniversary will probably be remembered more for being a mismanaged festival event than for the achievement that reaching four years signifies. But things are as they are, and the "Grindaversary" has now gone down in LotRO's history of what not to do for an event.

If you're only tangentially tuning in to the LotRO news these days, last week Turbine launched its first anniversary celebration in the game (previous anniversaries were marked only by gift tokens dropping in the world). The celebration was a lesser type of festival that borrowed elements from previous events, namely, the horse races and the beer brawl. Players were challenged to participate in both to gain tokens to acquire special rewards, such as a new horse mount, housing decorations, and cosmetic outfits.

The problem was twofold: The tokens were gained so slowly that it took a long time to get enough for even one moderately priced reward, and the only endlessly repeatable activity (the beer brawl) could be failed if you were knocked out of the area by another player. As a result, players heavily protested what should've been a fun time and Turbine ended up with egg on its face.

In participating myself, talking with friends, and reading through the many, many responses to the event, I got to thinking about how Turbine's approached festivals over the past year or so and how the studio can learn from this to avoid another stumble.

Lesson #1: Err on the side of fun, always

Whenever we're looking at an event that's supposed to be a celebration, "fun" should be the defining word (as it should for the rest of MMO design, but that's a topic for another day). All of the celebrations we go to in the real world have fun, enjoyment, and fellowship at the forefront, not a list of chores one must do to enter the bouncy castle.

So when I approach a festival in LotRO, I simply do what is fun and ignore the rest. Usually that means I'm participating in a good amount of it, because Turbine's generally good at coming up with cool things to do that are outside of the typical activities. There aren't many other MMOs I can think of that take pride in setting up hedge mazes, shrew stomping grounds, or haunted houses. The fun factor is what always pulls me in.

This means that events shouldn't be done just for the sake of having one, which is the feeling I got from the cobbled-together anniversary celebration, because fun can escape rather quickly from the preparations. Devs should be asking themselves, "Will this be fun?" instead of "Will players find this profitable?" and adjusting their efforts accordingly.

Lesson #2: People will put up with grind for rewards, but they won't love it unless you dress it up right

This isn't to say that festivals have to be devoid of any grind. I'm not as grindphobic as some, and if you play a Turbine title, you're going to have to come to terms with the company's affection for the treadmill. Festivals have some measure of grind built in because otherwise you'll blow through the events and have little reason -- other than, you know, "fun" -- to do them again.

So it's OK to ask us to work toward a reward, as long as the activity is enjoyable. It's like when you play skeeball for tickets to exchange for prizes. The prize should be the icing on the cake, and the skeeball games are the grind. You don't resent it because the grind itself is as much of a reward, and it feels like a win-win situation in the end.

It's here where I think the anniversary celebration came off the wheels. The beer brawl, which is arguably the centerpiece of the festival, isn't really that much fun to do. It's a cool idea, I'll admit, but the mechanics are less about fighting than about using other players for clickies and trying to get to your goal before you lose. I played a couple of rounds and found it stressful, with players getting aggravated at each other as they couldn't finish their goals.

Personally, I was hoping -- as with the Winter-home snowball fight -- that we could actually engage in PvP-lite battles, with scoring and tactics and whatnot. Wouldn't beer brawling be more fun if there were teams out to eliminate each other, or if you had a few special skills to use other than a default "attack?"

If the event itself was a lot of fun, or if there was no chance to "lose," or if there was a participation token, then people would've put up with it a lot more than they did.

Lesson #3: Festivals attract a lot of attention, so don't pull the trigger unless you can deliver

This right here is a double-edged sword. Festivals break up the monotony of the game world by introducing some measure of temporary change, and they're enormously popular because of it. They're good PR, they get the community excited, and if done right, they can be a huge boost to the game's visibility.

Of course, if you make a huge hoopla out of it and fail to deliver, then you've just invited a whole lot of people to your now-public depantsing.

Lesson #4: New fluff is a powerful motivator

I'll admit that the anniversary rewards were a heapload of "meh" for me. Maps, wedding dresses and whatever the heck that horse is supposed to be? A Doily Destrier? No thank you -- but that's just my personal taste.

However, usually these fluff rewards trigger a slavering fear deep within me that I won't get them, which is why I understand the wave of desire that some had to get the goodies from this event. Goodies that we haven't seen before in the game, even if they're statistically useless, are very attractive to a subset of gamers who will do just about anything to get them.

This is why the frustration levels rose so high: A not-fun activity was required to get desperately wanted rewards. As a result, this particular subset of players felt pressured into participating in something they didn't like for an end result they desired.

Lesson #5: Every year should add something new

Here's where I feel Turbine is on track. The team easily could've created the initial festivals and then simply regurgitated them on an annual basis with no changes. But instead, the devs went back to refine and -- more importantly -- add new elements to these events to make them even better than before. This is why 2010 was one of the best years for the festivals ever, because Turbine worked hard to grow them instead of settling for the status quo.

Additions and growth are vital for MMO festivals because the population that partakes in them was most likely around for the last one. Last year I loved the Spring Festival in all its new shrew-stomping glory, but this year I declined to even head over because I'd done it already -- and Turbine didn't add anything new to it.

So bully for Turbine for trying to sprout a festival from the anniversary. I have high hopes that next year we'll see this even morph into something noteworthy indeed.

Lesson #6: Be flexible if it doesn't work out the way you wished

While I understand the frustrations of the players over this celebration, I also found myself wincing at the overwrought dramatics of some of the posters who launched into tirades about how this was the end of the game, how Turbine should fire all of its staffers and replace them with super-intelligent androids from the year 2561, and how they'll never get married now that LotRO's anniversary event failed them. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

Something else that left a bad taste was Turbine's slightly defensive attitude about the event. We were repeatedly told that all of this was "working as intended," to which one of my friends replied, "Oh, I get that it's working as intended, it's just that your intentions are off this time."

Instead of going back-and-forth with angry posters about all this, I think Turbine should've quickly recognized that there was too much grind and not enough fun for this to really work and simply increased the number of tokens awarded or reduced the prices for the fluff on sale. Either would've gone a long way to smoothing over all of this, but instead we got a weekend of terse conversations that helped nothing.

I don't blame Turbine for not hitting it out of the park 100% of the time, because nobody's perfect and at least the company tried to provide us with an in-game celebration. But posturing defensively and taking no action in the face of sound criticism is not the way the devs should've acted, nor should the community have gone off the deep end as parts of it did.

So ultimately, I feel that flexibility is needed on both sides. If we bend toward Turbine and Turbine bends toward us, even the bad days are tolerable; if neither one budges an inch, a small disaster can snowball into a large one in a hurry.

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
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