Carrot on a Stick

Carrot on a Stick
Bow Before the Worm-Slayer

Will Hindmarch | 7 Apr 2009 12:27
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I don't really know what to make of achievements. I salivate when the bell rings and the pop-up tells me I've killed my 1,000th zombie - I'm only human - but my interest in chasing high scores never lasts. For a few minutes I thought I cared about fetching hard-to-reach light seeds in Prince of Persia, but then I remembered: No, I don't. Whether or not someone is out there nodding in approval at my gamer score or mocking me for it, the reward isn't worth the time investment. No matter how high I score in that the achievement aptitude test, I'm not getting into Geek Princeton.

Yet ask me to schlep all the way across Middle-earth to deliver warm beers to lazy drunks and I'll do it twice if there's a special nametag in it for me.

The Deeds and Titles systems in Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) add a myriad of optional objectives for players to pursue, turning otherwise-meaningless errands into feats of skill (or, perhaps more accurately, persistence). Complete certain Deeds and you're awarded a Title to display after your character's name. Defeat 30 brigands in the hills around Bree and you're a Watcher of Roads. Destroy 120 undead warriors in the woods of the Trollshaws and you're The Purifier. Drop some precious coin on 50 Hobbit omelets and you win the title of Breakfast Connoisseur. (Actually, you need to eat nine servings of four different breakfast items to earn that Title, but that's beside the point.) It's exactly as simple, silly and superficial as it sounds, and it's marvelous.

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On one level, titles are all about showing off your zaniness, obsessions or accomplishments to other players. When a visiting LOTRO dev awarded me the rare title Fathomer of Riddles for winning a chat-based riddle contest during a live event, I activated it mostly to gloat. I imagined Elrond would lower his sunglasses, nod his head and say "Looks good on you" as I strutted around Rivendell.

However, in the weeks that I walked around labeled a Fathomer of Riddles, I came to learn the real value of Titles: They get players talking. More importantly, they provide another language through which players can communicate with each other. They enable connections through both familiarity and curiosity.

When I displayed my Fathomer epithet, players sent me tells asking how I got it. When another Sage of Fine Spirits and I met on the road in Hobbiton, we toasted each other with beery emotes. When I see players displaying the title The Undying, awarded for surviving the first 20 levels of play without ever being defeated in battle, I remember how close I came to it with my first character and appreciate what they went through to get it.

Those simple, fleeting moments might be meaningless, but they facilitate the delicate sense of connectedness that helps two anonymous players, miles apart in real life, break the ice and get that much more entwined in the player network. For an MMOG, the network is life. Players may pick up an MMOG for the gameplay, but they stay subscribed for the player network.

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