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April 29th, 2007

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11:00 am - long MMORPG post: LOTRO and the nature of players, plus we drop some SW:G history (HALLO ACRONYMS)
This started out as a comment to scholargipsy in a post I made on my MMO filter (which you're welcome to join if you're not already on it) but I exceeded the 4300-character comment limit (who knew?) and decided to bring the discussion out here, where you may have some extra insight into things. In the filtered post, I talked about creating a new character in Lord of the Rings Online. He is a captain by the name of Spaulding; a man with bushy black eyebrows and mustache whose bio reads "One morning I killed a warg in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." You know me. I'm an MMO goof. I'll never let a good laff go by.

scholargipsy, however, was disappointed with what he'd seen of LOTRO, as he absolutely loves Tolkien, loves the lore and is an admitted Tolkien purist. The game doesn't live up to his expectations with regards to fully committing itself to the game world and the canon, and neither do the players. And he made some good points when he commented:
MMORPGs are interesting in large part because everyone can play them in their own fashion -- but Tolkien's world is for me a pure one. It has a certain aesthetic texture that is fragile and too easily broken. During the preorder, my hobbit Tolbras had to share space with Spartanguy of the race of men. That, along with the horrific character models and animations, really bugged me.

So I guess for me LOTRO would never work, Spatch, because you're one of the clever, witty ones, but even your playstyle would break "my" Tolkien.
Okay, here's the thing as I see it. You are not alone in holding Tolkien's world sacrosanct and, to an extent, Turbine has tried to do the same. The option to turn off the display of your shoes, for example, so that hobbits may run barefoot, is a small feature, yet it means so much to hobbit fans and there are quite a few of them out there. And Turbine is wise to limit the character class to the third age, keeping Istari out as a playable class. No, you can't be a powerful wizard like Gandalf. There weren't many who were to begin with. And as long as Turbine sticks to that rule, and doesn't give in like Star Wars: Galaxies did (see below) then they'll be good.

And you're entirely correct with regards to the game experience. Each player's experience is what they themselves make of it, and there are so many contrasting archetypes. For every roleplayer with a fully-formed character background and whose out-of-character speech ((is always surrounded by two parentheses, even in private messages)) there's a player who just wants to play while chatting about last night's episode of Lost and whether or not Rosie O'Donnell is a big fat bitch. For every hardcore number-cruncher there's a casual player who doesn't care that her DPS isn't the best it could be or that her talent build isn't totally perfect. For every SERIOUS BUSINESS player, there's one who takes things lightly. For every player who respects the game and other players, there's a griefer who doesn't give a shit. For every player who knows how to play in groups, there's another player who continually charges ahead and won't let the healers recover their mana in between fights (to nobody's surprise this is also usually the player who continually hollers "HEAL PLS" when their hit points drop below 50%.) For every player who wants to hold strictly to canon, there's another who's mad that Turbine won't let him name his character Leeroy Jenkins. (It's true, too; the name and its variants are in the forbidden filter.)

Many of these play styles don't mix and won't mix.

One of the best moments of the closed beta for me, honestly, was farming pipeweed with a bunch of other players, who laughed and joked around as they worked the fields and harvested their crops and sorted the goods out at the table. Someone cooked up some food for snack breaks, someone else started playing their lute (the music system in the game has come a long way) and all of us busy little hobbits had more fun, because we'd turned what is one of the most dreaded MMO grinds of all -- the crafting grind -- into a neat social activity. And truth be told, it is fun to play a hungry hungry hobbit when you've got other hungry hungry hobbits around enjoying the same kind of thing.

But at any time some jackass could've come up and started fucking shit up, dancing in the field, wanting to talk smack or whatnot. That's one of the problems with MMOs.

So how do you make sure the majority of the playerbase gets what they want out of the game? How do you make sure the "serious" players don't have to put up with too many cretins? One of the typical solutions is to implement a role-playing-only server. This would be very popular in LOTRO and indeed it's one of the most asked-for features (there were discussions in beta over which server would be the Unofficial RP Server if one wasn't made official, f'rinstance.)

However, there are two main problems that pop up when running an RP-only server. The first involves which ground rules to set: Will you just forbid people from creating out-of-character names for their characters and kinships? Do you require names to fully follow Tolkien conventions, or is it okay for a dwarf's name to end in -ias? Will you require all public speech to be in character? Require hobbits to go barefoot at all times? Everybody has their own idea of what an RP server should be and how far to take things, and this causes serious conflict.

The second problem, of course, is how to enforce the rules. Should you have a dedicated GM staff in place to monitor goings-on, or should you rely on player enforcement? No matter what you do, of course, you are going to end up with some angry players: some who start crying that their "free speech" has been censored (opening the ol' You Are Not Guaranteed First Amendment Rights In A Privately-Owned Internet Presence And Besides There's More To The Internet Than America can of worms) and others who don't feel the RP aspect is being enforced enough.

Then again, you could go the route of World of Warcraft and only go so far as to say "Oh, hey, this server is RP" and leave it at that. I can personally attest that, unfortunately, playing on a WoW RP server does not guarantee you fewer cretins. Blizzard uses the RP label as merely a suggestion, there to help place players looking for an RP experience in a common server. It is not a requirement, however, and I think the AOL speakers outnumber the hardcore RPers at this point. The more players that join the game, the more diluted the niche players get. I had a bitch of a time Hordeside the other night trying to level a newbie blood elf rogue up. First I was bitched at for not accepting a blind guild invite, then I watched five people carry on one conversation across two separate channels (three people were talking in General, two were talking in LocalDefense but hey, it all goes to the same window anyway) and then I had a kill stolen as I was finishing a quest.

My quest involved turning in an item which would cause three or four mobs to appear and charge me and the quest-giver NPC. It was my job to defend the quest-giver, who had the strength of an anemic newborn and didn't raise a hand in defense besides. One of the mobs who appeared was a named mob, meaning it was unique (instead of being a Generic Undead Demon Thing, it's known as Bob The Undead Demon Thing.) And Bob the Undead Demon Thing has a better chance of dropping delicious magic items ("greens", as denoted by the color of their name.)

So I turned in the item, the four mobs showed up and charged -- and then some smackjob of a player ran up and attacked Bob The Undead Demon Thing first, so that I couldn't get the credit for killing him (and, more importantly, the looting rights.) When I told him to back off, he said "i'm helping u". When I said I hadn't asked for help and he hadn't asked to join in, he replied "o ya like i would ask a noob." And after I had quite politely elaborated on my thoughts and feelings towards him and the whole matter, he provided the following impeccable logic: "if i'm the moron how come i have the green haha"

Yes indeed, he certainly was a World of Warcraft Superstar for stealing a kill from a level 9 player and bragging about it. And this was on what was supposed to be a server for players who generally respect the game more than the kiddies and griefers. Ah well. Stick him in the /ignore list and hope he doesn't follow you around.

So. Yeah. RP servers. Like communism, they're great in theory but not so hot in practice.

There is another option, though it breaks every single EULA out there: run your own server with an illict server emulator. Then you can enforce as many rules as you like. This would help bring in and keep only those you know who would want to play that way. However, this under-the-nose-of-the-devs option is difficult to maintain (your server must stay as up-to-date with the actual game, which means considerable downtime after each patch while your emu server's dev team works to update things), hard to keep a secret (playing on a emulated server usually involves having to hack your game client, making your actions easily detectable), requires a lot of computer power, and will only bring in a limited number of players. Maybe you'll get exactly the kind of players you want, but certainly not enough to fully populate a real game world. Some of the private EverQuest servers such as Winter's Roar did a fair job of gaining a decent bunch of players before Sony lawyered them out of existence. Still, if you don't mind the risk of being banned or cease-and-desisted, you can tailor the game experience completely to your liking.

Right now, as the LOTRO playerbase is in its initial growth stage, the balance is favored more towards the hardcore gamers and lore fans, with casual/fun gamers coming up behind. There's a reasonably peaceful co-existence between the "serious" kinships on Silverlode, such as The Order of the Silver Flame, Strength And Honor and Defenders Of The Nine, and the "fun" or goofy kinships, such as Pipeweed Enforcement Agency, That Ent Right and (my favorite) Sauron Owes Me Money. But then there's Electric Meatloaf...

And there's the Serious Fun players. Hi! Serious Fun players are those who really enjoy playing the game, and do the best they can at it, but who still take things lightly and try not to let the drama llamas get in the way. In MMOs, I often play with the Something Awful goons. The first wave of goons in a game are usually the ones who want to play for serious fun; griefers come in much later and usually sit in their own splinter group after being kicked out of the original group with Much Drama. The group of goons who've stayed with City of Heroes/Villians, for example, are awesome folks, some of whom I've been playing with since EverQuest days into Star Wars: Galaxies and beyond. Given the sheer number of SA forums readers, some of whom are hardcore players, a Goon presence in an MMO can often be formidable. Currently, from what I've read, the Goons are holding serious power in EvE-Online, and in Star Wars: Galaxies, we were one of the first player groups to actually build a player city. Goontown was an amazing work of Sim City-style civic engineering, streets and all, with residential areas surrounding the important buildings such as the cantina, city hall and shuttleport and city decorations such as plazas, tree-lined boulevards and the like in between. It was glorious. Even so, those self-same Serious Fun players, the ones who loved creating an endless circular parade of pets and droids (who could be ordered to follow each other around) were the ones who razzed me the most when I created my souvenir stand by the Sarlaac Pit on Tatooine.

The LOTRO goon players in The Nazgûn ("The û Means Everything") are a bunch of good folks, who enjoy goofing around with each other as much as they do gathering up a Great Barrows group and having an adventure. I wouldn't expect us to fare well on an RP-only server, however, nor would we wish to go there.

I really wish you could have a great LOTRO experience, one you really want, to be able to play the purest vision of the game as Turbine envisioned: the chance to give every player their own epic adventure in Middle-Earth alongside Gandalf, Frodo, Gimli or whoever your favorite character is. While they got the lore and world creation down, as far as I'm concerned (we shall not speak of character models here) you're in the one demographic -- a very key demographic, considering -- that is the hardest to please. Turbine can only go so far before letting the players take over and determine how their epic adventures are run, and that's one factor that you can't treat as a constant.

FOOTNOTE 1: OH, THOSE WACKY JEDI. Star Wars: Galaxies completely lost it when, in the gigantic game revamp, they made the Jedi a selectable player class from level 1 on, instead of retaining the original concept of making sure only a small percentage of players would ever actually get the ability to play as Jedi. Jedi were supposed to be rare and, given that the game was set between the first Death Star explosion and the Empire's attack on Hoth, forced into hiding. When finally implemented, Jedi were extremely vulnerable: the instant you whipped out that lightsaber or used the Force in any way, you were open to attack from all sides.

I say "finally" implemented because the devs could never quite figure out exactly how a player was supposed to be able to "discover" his or her force-sensitive character slot. As it turns out, for the first -- what? six, nine months? -- of the game, SOE's claims that "oh yeah, Jedi are in, you just have to figure out how to get them" were false. Jedi hadn't been implemented. And when they finally were added, the method of gaining your force-sensitive slot was a long, long, long task split up into multiple long, long, long parts. It was like getting your Epic weapon in EverQuest times ten.

First you had to actually find a "Holocron", an extremely rare drop on only a few certain mobs. I remember camping one area of Dathomir for days on end to find the rare mob and then hope for the rare drop. The Holocron would tell you what you had to do next, but only up to a point. And what you had to do... was grind an profession, arbitrarily chosen and possibly not one you care to grind, all the way up to Master status. But wait! You're not done! Now you have to find another Holocron and do this step all over again with another arbitrarily chosen profession.

When I finally had a Holocron drop, it told me I would first have to master the Armorsmith profession -- a long, tedious, time and money sink of a grind. I said "funk dat" and continued on my merry way as Pistoleer, Musician and Chef. Then I quit the game and played something else.

You can guess this was not a satisfactory adventure for most players either and, indeed, one of the things players wanted to do the most was be a Jedi and run around with lightsabers without having to make the fzhwoom-fzhwoom-fzhwoom noises themselves. And once Raph Koster and his merry crew were out of the development department, in came the sweeping game revamp and hey presto now you can be a Jedi JUST LIKE LUKE SKYWALKER!

Which was the better solution? One stayed in keeping with game lore but was poorly implemented, the other catered to the playerbase and... was poorly implemented. Shame, that.

(20 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 03:49 pm (UTC)
Heh, I was going to respond to the previous post with something like 'That's sort of the nature of MMP games; sorry, man.' But, uh, you laid it all out. More power to you.
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
Believe me, I'm well aware that that's the nature of MMPs; I think I acknowledged as much in my original comment. I wasn't complaining from ignorance, nor trying to take Spatch to task -- it's not my thing personally, but I do enjoy reading about the way he plays. I guess as a Tolkien lover I was simply regretting that LOTRO could never be what I longed for in my impractical heart of hearts.

I tend to view MMORPGs the same way I did LARPs when I used to be seriously into that (don't mock...okay, go 'head and mock): it's all about the percentage of Moments. I mean, you almost certainly won't get a fully immersive experience in a LARP of any size: too many variables and too many different sorts of folks playing. But the moments, ah, the perfect in-character moments where everything breaks just right. Those whitewash over all the rest of the silliness. When I used to write and Storytell con LARPs, I always tried to create the potential for those by writing hooky and vivid characters, and the best part of the whole experience was when players would come up to me after and say, "We totally ignored the main plot! We were too busy having fun being gypsies and telling everyone's fortunes." Sometimes, the unpredictability of other players is delightful rather than dickheaded.

Anyway, very interesting post, Herr Spatchel. I enjoyed it as always.
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 01:36 am (UTC)
Hm, yeah, it's an interesting idea to think about an ideal MMP universe wherein everyone being unpredictable contributes to the experience.
(Not easy, though, as you know.)
I didn't mean to insult you or anything; I've probably got a needlessly pragmatic approach to most of these things, being from the game industry m'self.
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 02:56 am (UTC)
'Sall good; I never felt insulted. Years of lurking the rpg.net forums have tuned my senses exquisitely to every last nuance of gamer self-righteousness and dismissiveness; that distinct tang of superciliousness was missing from your post.

I always thought you taught animation exclusively. What do/did you do in the game industry?
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)
I bet it was Warlock that made you think I wasn't being an asshole! At least, I hope so.
(I teach now because I kinda got burnt out on game whatnot; I worked on AC I and II (cont. content of I, beginning of II) and Zoo Tycoon II. Woo.)
Date:April 29th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC)
I'm not quite sure what faction I fit into here.

* I'm not wedded to the concept of roleplaying. For too many people on MMOs, it seems, roleplaying either means being a dick ("I'm roleplaying an evil character! Watch me steal your kills!") or is so over the top as to be painful to watch ("Forsooth, dear sir, mayeth I pleaseth joineth thou on thy great and noble quest to kill ten kobolds? A geas has been placed upon I as well, and I musteth kill thine ten kobolds with you...eth.")
* But then, learn to fucking type. "hey y wont u join my grp" should result in an instant ban from the game. As the client shuts down, it should automatically open the default browser to a page of remedial English.
* I enjoy the relaxed atmosphere. In CoH, I fondly recall some Sunday mornings cruising through a door mission (fuck you, it's not a "mish") and talking football with the other people in my group. I especially like humorous character concepts - not "Heywood Jooblome" but things that get a snicker rather than an eyeroll. CoH was perfect for that in many ways.
* I don't give a rat's ass about min/maxing my character. In SW:G, Jawbone Mandible was a Master Chef. He had franchised McJawbone's across the galaxy. Cruising around in his blonde muttonchops, no shirt, beer belly hanging over the belt of his skirt, flying through the air on his speederbike from camp to camp selling crates of alcohol - that was more fun, to me, than striving to get a Silver Blaster of Foozle which was +0.03 better than the Bronze Blaster of Foozle.

I guess that's why I've tapered off of MMOs. The grind has gotten to me, and the people I run into make me want to chew glass as a distraction.

Just a lament. I still have a habitual reaction to pick up a new MMO, but I know that the same problems will still exist for the reasons you mentioned above.
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
City of Heroes is the only MMO I've tried that has that nice relaxed feel. Just a few things I felt my character *had* to do: costume missions, cape and aura missions, and the respec trials. Badges, story arcs, accolades and all of that are entirely optional, and it's a great game for logging in for a couple hours, running missions, and then going off to do something else.
Date:April 30th, 2007 12:01 am (UTC)
And that's what has kept me coming back to COH, while EQ and SW:G (after the incessant and counterproductive 'upgrades') got left by the wayside. I liked the badges and arcs, I liked making a semi-silly character concept, I liked being able to solo missions or group, depending. Eventually even that got old.

Thinking back, part of what kills a MMO for me is that I generally play it with about 10-15 local friends. Over a period of 3-6 months, we'll all move to a given MMO, and any night I could easily find at least half a dozen people I've known for years. That'll last for about a year, and people will trickle away as they lose interest. Then I'm one of the last three or four people, insufficient to have pickup groups with longtime friends at any time, and I give up on that, too.

No matter how fun a game is solo, it's exponentially more fun for me if I can talk to good friends while I do it. Otherwise I might as well play a single player game and save the $15/mo.
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)
The only goals I ever have for my characters in Co* are to get a cape and then get an aura. Costume slots villainside are easily unlocked, too, and I can't remember if I've gotten one as a veteran's reward or not (just hit Devoted recently) but I never seem to be at a loss for one.

And I have about a zillion free redesigns/respecs available thanks to the veteran's rewards, so as long as I don't mess a build up too much I don't have to worry about going back and fixing it.

(Schadenfreude is in the middle of Hardcase's missions. WAILERS! WAILERS! TOO MANY GODDAMN WAILERS!! Johnny Sonata is pretty damn cool, but WAILERS!)
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
(fuck you, it's not a "mish")

Preach it!

You've got a great point about how MMOs aren't fun once they devolve into The Grind. Once you start logging in going "Okay, I have to get 4 gold today, should I go mine or farm cloth?" and treat it as a job, it gets... well, like a job. I love CoH because money and items really don't count. Straight-up enhancements did, and you stand the same chance of getting what you want as anybody else, except on Hamidon runs when you get a Hami-O that you just can't use.

Course, this all changes with Issue 9, but it's nice to play a game where, if you want, you can just go in and bash bad guys' heads in (or bash do-gooders' heads in) for a while and then leave, slightly better than you were before.

My favorite SW:G character is still Choopy, but I have a fond spot in my heart for Hank Gunderson, the insurance agent from Des Moines who just happened to look like a Mon Calamari and who just happened to be on Naboo, don't ask. Hanging around the shuttleport asking random players how "Fran and the kids are doing", discussing the benefits of term life insurance, all kindsa fun stuff!

When the game luster wears off and you can't even make your own fun anymore, that's when you should take a break.

Oh and World of Warcraft "roleplayers" who do nothing more than type in de accent of dey troll, mon, aren't roleplayers. They're richlittles.
Date:April 30th, 2007 12:05 am (UTC)
Oh, Choopy; you are missed.
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 05:57 pm (UTC)
The problem with making Jedi and Gandalves rare or impossible to play is that the MMO experience isn't nearly as cool as Star Wars: Backyard was in 1980, when lightsabers were made of the finest stick technology. Then, those two specific franchises don't lend themselves to MMORPG's nearly as well as, say, Star Trek or GTA would--it's just a matter of Epic vs. Episodic.

To remain true to the nature of LOTR, ninety percent of the Hobittses would be required to be noble agrarian homebodies. That can still be fun for some folks, but it remains the primary reason I quit playing The Sims after a couple of hours. I realized that I was buying crap for people and telling them to clean up after themselves, which matched exactly the experience I had with the members of my real life household. As such, it held no interest for me.
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 06:03 pm (UTC)
*snerk* I hear you.

I think the main problem with MMORPGs is that, in trying to capture the drama and tension of narrative media (including really good computer RPGs like Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic, which I have come to think of as the real Star Wars prequel), they run up against all the factors of a Massively Multiplayer gaming environment that fly into the face of a narrative model: repetition, repeatability for other players, and impermanent changes. That makes MMORPGs sometimes feel uncomfortably like the messy, familiar drudgery of, well, life.

Or as Lore Sjöberg once put it, in Everquest, "the evil in question reappears in the world after you vanquish it, often within mere minutes. and the world as a whole never changes because of anything you do. So in that way it's less like being a fantasy adventurer and more like being a social worker."
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 06:25 pm (UTC)
the evil in question reappears in the world after you vanquish it, often within mere minutes. and the world as a whole never changes because of anything you do.

Did you ever read the story of Reginald the Orc?
[User Picture]
Date:April 29th, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC)
the MMO experience isn't nearly as cool as Star Wars: Backyard was in 1980, when lightsabers were made of the finest stick technology.

And nerfing really meant nerfing! BOMP!
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 06:07 am (UTC)
I enjoyed the LOTRO open beta quite a bit. I agree with the horrible models and animations; all the female models look terrible. Except the dwarves, because you can't tell. And various changes from the WoW design seemed half-assed; why would you bother keeping the WoW system of separate storage bags if you start out with max storage already?

But I found the beta player community very friendly, pretty much anyone you ran into was happy to team up for whatever quest you were out in the middle of the woods for.

And it's fun to run around in the world. On the last evening of the open beta I took my level 15 Dwarf Minstrel Klarin and ran to Rivendell, past the random level 37 mobs along the road, across the Ford and up the hillside dodging bear aggro, to eventually get there. It didn't seem very fully implemented yet, but I could go poke Frodo standing around at the Last Homely House, and wander into the library where Gandalf and Elrond wouldn't talk to me at all. Perhaps the novelty would wear off after a while, but I liked it.

I kind of doubt I'll actually buy the game, as I'm still imprisoned by FFXI, but I'm glad I got the chance to play the open beta.
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 12:37 pm (UTC)
One of the things I like most about playing in a closed/invite-only beta is its community. It's far more tight-knit and involves players who care enough about the game's development that they actually do, you know, test things while playing. And people are friendlier, I've found, and you're right, there was never a dearth of groups for the instances and Kill 10 Tough Mob quests.

Once a beta goes open and reaches the end of its cycle, you tend to get more players who are in it less for the actual testing and more for the chance to play an online game early for free. These are the people who will complain about scheduled stress tests, unexpected server outages, game-breaking bugs, and the Usual Impending Player Wipe. At least in LOTRO there was no complaining about the latter, as Turbine gave the pre-orders rights to keep their characters. This practice can lead to disaster, as I believe it was Shadowbane who discovered, but Turbine wisely put an extremely tight level cap on things, so the game launched with an influx of level 1s and an influx of level 15s instead of an influx of level 1s and a gang of hardcore grinders already complaining about lack of endgame content.

I liked the LOTRO beta's practice of periodically giving you a survey after you complete a certain quest. I was more than happy to keep submitting my feelings, as they asked the right kinds of questions (risk plus time vs reward, yes, but more importantly "Did you have fun doing this quest?")

I kind of wished the survey form didn't suddenly POP RIGHT UP IN THE MIDDLE OF EVERYTHING and take a long time to load besides. Nothing gives you that "Uh oh, what did I break this time?" feeling like seeing a large browser window pop up in the center of your UI, completely white and not doing anything for a good 10-15 seconds.
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 03:23 pm (UTC)
I do not think I'm on your MMO filter. Could you add me please?
[User Picture]
Date:April 30th, 2007 03:50 pm (UTC)
GoonFleet is HUGE in EVE Online. I think we're the biggest alliance in the game right now, in terms of membership and territory owned.

The weird thing is that it's a mixture of Serious Business and goofing around, not a lot of roleplaying. (Actually, come to think of it, the only RP I've really seen on the server is the corp that decided to roleplay being in a corporation with slides and presentations and IPOs.)

Have you heard anything about the WarHammer 40K MMO?
[User Picture]
Date:May 1st, 2007 02:30 am (UTC)
"if i'm the moron how come i have the green haha"


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