Dev Diary – 2021 Retrospective: Gísli's Favourite
Dev Diary – 2021 Retrospective: Gísli's Favourite
By Jeff “MadeOfLions” Libby
A Walk Down Memory Lane
On the warmest day of the year so far, when enough of the snow had melted on the lawns that it seemed impossible for Winter to hold on much longer, Cordovan spoke up at one of our weekly virtual meetings. “The LOTRO anniversary is coming up soon,” he said, “and if anyone on the team would like to write a Dev Diary to commemorate the occasion, feel free to reach out and suggest a topic.”
Challenge accepted! After all, I enjoy writing about LOTRO almost as much as I enjoy writing for it! So I spent some of the unexpectedly nice afternoon musing about suitable subjects for the fourteenth (can you believe it?!) anniversary of my favourite game.
It didn’t take long for me to arrive at a question: what would I make of the very first quest I ever designed for LOTRO? After the passage of so much time I couldn’t remember exactly which one it might have been, so I combed through our file system in search of answers, trying to narrow it down.
Not gonna lie: I felt a little like Gandalf. And then, at last, I found the answer I sought.
In the Year 2005 of the Modern Age
This story begins in a different time: not fourteen years ago, but sixteen. It was November of 2005, and I had just started on my first day at Turbine, a local videogame company that was developing an MMORPG based on The Lord of the Rings. I remember the awestruck feeling as I walked through then-confusing hallways lined with beautiful concept art to dimly-lit cubicles offering tantalizing glimpses into Middle-earth. “Is that the Watcher in the Water?” I asked an artist as my supervisor brought me around for introductions.
“It’s A Watcher,” he responded, and I nodded sagely.
Ah, of course, no biggie. Just A Watcher in the Water! What did you see at work today?
But I was the new kid on the team, and I spent most of that first week trying to pretend that I wasn’t in constant awe of everything I saw. Well, that and trying to learn everything I would need to know for my first professional game development job. There were file structures to learn, tables and tables of information of which to make sense, proprietary tools used nowhere else in the industry to figure out. It was a lot, and I felt pretty overwhelmed. Simply dressing up NPCs seemed to involve ten different files, each of which had to be given particular values in order to display properly.
I loaded up a hobbit NPC. “We use a blond hobbit for our default,” they said, “because hobbits are only rarely supposed to be blond.”
Eventually I earned my blond hobbit.
But in November of 2005, Bingo Boffin was still years away. The senior members of the team (who old-timers will remember as NobOrBob, Keth, and Orion) wanted me to start small, and they suggested I design a simple vector quest. I joined the team just as Ered Luin was beginning to be implemented, so my quest would serve to guide players from the starting zone of Thorin’s Hall to a secondary quest hub.
Let’s talk about Gísli’s Favourite.
Ormr's son Gísli was recently given his first posting at the Way Station in Thrain's Vale, and Ormr is beside himself with worry. He has asked you to collect norbog claws, an essential ingredient in Gísli's favourite dish, so Ormr can prepare the dish for his son.
The first appearance of Gísli’s Favourite occurs on November 18, 2005, at 7:04 PM, when I checked it into the file system with the comment “Unit testing revealed Norbog Claw and Gísli's Favourite Dish acting strangely (double-clicking tries to use them instead of picking them up), and the [n] on the dish doesn't seem to be working. Otherwise these should be good.” Although I can’t remember it precisely, the description does tell me a lot: I can almost see myself becoming more and more frustrated as the items don’t do what I want them to do, with the clock advancing further and further past the 6 PM at which I should have left for home. The [n] metatag I mention in the description signals that the item begins with a Proper Noun; if it wasn’t working, it means the game would display the item as The Gísli's Favourite Dish, which isn’t great. As the newest member of the team, I would have been desperate to impress them and prove that my hiring wasn’t a mistake… maybe that’s why I added the rosy comment at the end of the checkin: “Otherwise these should be good.” (Trust me!)
When you spoke to Ormr, he bestowed the quest:
'Welcome and well met! You are just the sort I have been hoping would come along. You see, it's my son, Gísli. He's a good dwarf, but he is young, and he hasn't had the experience that his elders have. Gísli has just received his first posting, down at the Way Station in Thrain's Vale.
'I want to send Gísli his favourite food so he knows I'm thinking about him, but I don't have the crucial ingredient: norbog claws! If you can bring me four norbog claws, I just know Gísli will be pleased!'
Seeing this again after so long, I’m put in mind of just how much of themselves content designers often put into each of their quests. Did I intentionally make this first quest about a young, self-conscious dwarf eager to prove that he has what it takes to stand proudly at his first posting alongside his elders? I wouldn’t have thought so… but it does seem fairly obvious now, in retrospect!
This quest bestowal is also interesting because it highlights an element of early adaptation in LOTRO. The monster type “norbog” began life as the LOTRO equivalent of the neekerbreekers Sam spoke about in the Midgewater Marshes. Unlike those insects, for MMO monster purposes they were grown to immense size, but it still seemed like a creature that dwarves and Elves would name differently. So Ormr in this quest asks for norbog claws to aid in the creation of The Gísli’s Favourite Dish. (I hope I did something about that [n] metatag…)
The Norbog Claws had a drop rate of 50%, but as anyone who played MMOs at the time could easily tell you, 50% doesn’t always feel like 50%. Just because Ormr wanted four claws doesn’t guarantee that killing eight of the nerbyg would be enough. But when you eventually brought them back, he’d be happy:
'Oh, excellent! I'll just pound these up and add them to the stew... here we go! Gísli is going to love this, and I know he'll be happy to get it.
'Could you take this meal to him? He'll be so pleased. You can find him south of here, at the Way Station in Thrain's Vale. It's his very first post!'
On the other hand, coming back without the four Norbog Claws gave you this:
'I have started preparing the rest of the dish, but I really need those norbog claws, <PLAYER NAME>. They are the most important ingredient, and I am convinced they are the reason Gísli likes it in the first place!'
Consulting your quest journal told you just the most basic information about your destination, despite the Quest Guide feature still being years away:
Bring Gísli's favourite dish to Gísli at the Way Station in Thrain's Vale.
And when you did eventually find Gísli, he greeted you with a bit of quest flavour that would in time become a favourite hallmark of my own quests: the quest giver has made some sort of mistake, leading to amusing results:
Gísli accepts the meal and heaves a sigh. 'Not again! This is the third meal my father has sent me in as many days! When will he realize I'm a grown dwarf, and not a child to be coddled and fretted over?
'Ah, it's not your fault. Thanks for the food. Maybe someday my father will realize I'm not the thin-bearded dwarf of sixty he remembers.'
And that was it! A simple vector quest with an item collection in the beginning, and a little fun dwarf flavour to spice it up. As the quest was perfect, there would be no need to revisit it in the days, months, or years ahead…
Gísli’s Favourite Through the Ages
Three days later I was back at it.
Ormr's son Gísli was recently given his first posting at the Way Station in the Vale of Thrain, and Ormr is beside himself with worry. He has asked you to collect norbog claws, an essential ingredient in Gísli's favourite dish, so Ormr can prepare the dish for his son.
“Thrain’s Vale” has become “the Vale of Thrain,” a change that would have been applied to every one of the new quests being made in the area. This version of the quest does have an inconsistency with the current game:
Bring four norbog claws to Ormr in Thorin's Halls.
At some point, although not yet, a similar decision as the one that changed the name of “Thrain’s Vale” will do the same with “Thorin’s Halls,” making it a singular hall instead.
The next day saw yet another revision to the quest. Whereas the earliest versions didn’t specify where to find the nerbyg, one of my supervisors must have given me some feedback because now there are some directions:
Ormr wants you to collect the norbog claws and return to him. Norbogs can be found between Thorin's Halls and Thrain's Vale, along the west bank of the river.
It’s not perfect (I was supposed to use the plural form “nerbyg” instead of “norbogs”), but the addition of more orienteering information should help players more easily find the claw-bearing quest targets.
The next day saw just a couple minor tweaks, changing the text of the quest instruction to Bring Gísli the meal prepared by his father. Maybe I didn’t like the repetition of Bring Gísli's favourite dish to Gísli?
And there sat Gísli's Favourite for nearly two months. Quests rarely go untouched for that long these days, because the release schedule of a Live game is so much faster than that of an unreleased game. During those two months I started working on other quests, including the starter instance for new hobbit players, ‘A Road Through the Dark’ (encountering my very first Nazgûl!). In February of 2006, Gísli's Favourite was copyedited. In this process, other eyes than mine read through the stack of quests and refine and polish them, enhancing word selection, checking them for Middle-earthiness, and performing a general quality check.
'Welcome and well met! I could use your help. I've a bit of a problem -- nothing terrible, mind you, but difficult for this old dwarf. You see, it's my son, Gísli. He's a good fellow and all, but he is young and doesn't have the experience of his elders. In fact, he has just received his first posting, down at the way-station in Thrain's Vale.
'I want to send Gísli his favourite meal so he knows I'm thinking about him, but I don't have the most important ingredient: norbog claws! If you can bring me some norbog claws, I just know Gísli will be pleased! You can find nerbyg along the far bank of the river just west of here.'
We’re back to Thrain’s Vale, so the change to the Vale of Thrain might need another meeting. But in general we’re advancing towards a better quality-level: norbogs are now nerbyg, and Ormr himself received a bit of additional flavour: he’s an old dwarf, which helps explain why he doesn’t just do this task himself. It’s an issue we haven’t always addressed throughout the course of LOTRO, especially with Rangers, but even this early you can see the designer copy-editing this quest (Berephon in this case) trying to explain why the player needs to be the one to do the delivery.
More months pass before Gísli's Favourite was modified again, this time in response to what must have been a team playday: this quest and a handful of others in the area had their XP reward increased. That’s always nice to see! Then, at the end of June, 2006, the quest changed again.
'Welcome and well met! I could use your help. I've a bit of a problem -- nothing terrible, mind you, but difficult for this old dwarf. You see, it's my son, Gísli. He's a good fellow and all, but he is young and doesn't have the experience of his elders. In fact, he has just received his first posting, down at Noglond in Thrain's Vale.
'I want to send Gísli his favourite meal so he knows I'm thinking about him, but I don't have the most important ingredient: Cave-claw legs! If you can bring me a batch, I just know Gísli will be pleased! You can find cave-claws in the old mine west of Thorin's Hall.'
What, what, what? What happened to the nerbyg? Not only has Gísli’s favourite dish in all the world changed with a single checkin, but now players are being sent to a completely different location to collect the ingredients! They’re also being asked to collect eight of the legs, with a 100% drop rate, rather than four claws at 50%, which strikes me as an improvement. This early in the levelling curve and in starting areas that are sure to have high populations you want consistent item drops.
Not to be overshadowed by the sudden influx of cave-claws and the disappearance of the nerbyg, the way station now has a name: Noglond! As quest designers we tend to use placeholder names for NPCs and locations until one of our experts supplies us with suitably Middle-earth names, and once those are plugged in the quest really begins to come alive. Name day has always been a favourite of mine, ever since I was just a thin-bearded content designer of twenty-seven. Now we just need to figure out if it’s “Thrain’s Vale” or the “Vale of Thrain,” and we’ll be all set…
Ormr's son Gísli was recently assigned to his first post at Noglond, the way-station in the Vale of Thráin. The dwarf wants to prepare his son's favourite meal to show him he is thinking about him.
And on July 19, 2006, we did! The Vale of Thráin was here to stay, and it finally had the special character it had been missing.
The Game Lives!
“The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar” released in April of 2007, and players around the world celebrated the sheer perfection that was Gísli's Favourite. Wait, I’m receiving word that there was a further change to the quest, a year after release?
Cave-claws can be found in the old mine east of Thorin's Hall. Ormr is on the road south from Thorin's Hall to Noglond.
The mine moved from one side of Thorin’s Hall to the other, demonstrating a truth of MMORPG development: no quest is ever really finished, especially once players start exploring and adventuring, poking at the scenery and living in the world. Gísli's Favourite could still be improved, even today.
But there’s something vital, something true about the process by which a quest begins as the germ of an idea, and grows and changes as it develops. The Lord of the Rings didn’t spring forth fully-realized from the mind of Professor Tolkien; rather he molded it and shaped it over years of hard work, and I think it’s appropriate that our adaptation of his world also undergoes a similar process of growth and improvement.
Happy anniversary! Here’s to many more!