Last night I spent most of my time in Caras Galadhon, the city center of Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings Online. The city is built on huge flets, which are basically large platforms built above the ground on white trees that put the Redwoods to shame. There are two ways to get up the flets: a spiral staircase following the trunk of the three or ladders that port players up. Once on a flet there are no railings, no invisible walls, no last minute Prince of Persia ledge grabs between you and the ground far below. During my time played last night, I am pretty comfortable in saying that I had never spent a larger percentage of time being wounded from falling injuries.
There are two kinds of social hubs, or rather extremes, for MMOs. There are social hubs for form and social hubs for function. When the Mines of Moria expansion was released Turbine gave us the city that hands-down wins the function-side of the scale: the 21st Hall. This “city” has all the basic needs found in any Lord of the Rings Online city (auction hall, bank, trainers, crafting, etc.) all neatly packed in a small offset crossroads. The auction hall, crafting center, and bank were each mere steps from one another. Everything in the 21st Hall is accessible in less than a minute with no navigation required. Caras Galadhon is nearly opposite.
I say nearly because Turbine was smart enough to place all the city functional elements on one multi-tiered flet. However, the rest of the city is a three-dimensional maze of chutes and ladders. The many available intracity quests in the elven foresthold take full advantage of this puzzle-like design. A few of these quests teach players the location of the important places in the city. Others will have players going on hunts for windblown gossip letters or snuff-stealing shrews in hidden corners of Caras Galadhon. And once players think they have digested the city in to their mental plane, there is a set of quests where players are timed to get from point A to point B. These flet-running quests are unforgiving for those that get lost.
Getting lost is where the hurt come in. It is quite possible to jump from flet to flet, but then players will receive roughly a minute’s worth of falling injuries (-60% run/horse speed). Sometimes I couldn’t find the ladder and I had to decide whether falling down or searching for the ladder was more efficient. Or, I would see a glowy object for a quest one flet over which would require me to go down to the ground find the other flet’s ladder and snake my way up to the glowy object without being disoriented. I usually just jumped. At the end of the night I was finding my way around a little better, and I even accomplished a few flet-running quests for the tasty barter items.
The city is brilliantly designed, and the developers make no attempt to hide the fact that the city is confusing. Quest text and NPC speech make note of this fact all the time. Still, it is sad in a way because in the efficiency driven mindset of many MMO players function handedly beats form, and unless Turbine pulls another city out (unlikely) the 21st Hall is going to be the place to be for Volume 2 of Lord of the Rings Online. (Thankfully, there is a fast travel horse station between the two cities for when you need to see the sky above.)
any road will get you there