The Fellowship of the Ring drags their feet

I have talked about Lord of the Rings Online before when I was in not such a great mood (and rightfully so). Since then, however, I have held out on the hope that Turbine would turn around development and return to the direction they were first moving when LotRo was first launched. I don’t know why; it must just be the Tolkien fan in me that insists on the hope that a developer with the intellectual property rights for the greatest fantasy novel written by man can pull through by (mostly) respecting the lore and continuing development from that aspect alone.

However I’m not entirely sure if that’s even possible these days. Turbine seems to be hurting more than usual, and the signs seem pretty clear. Dungeon & Dragons Online, Turbine’s other MMO, is now free-to-play. Completely. Instead they’ve added an RMT market much like what Korean MMOs have set up as a norm. I’ve played DDO and I personally did not find anything worth staying for, and apparently this was the case for a number of other people as well when the MMO turned to borrowed time.

It’s clear that Turbine will not find its riches in that direction. Instead it still lies with LotRo, an MMO that continues to garner attention as a “nice MMO” or a “refreshing breath” of other MMOs on today’s market. I can’t really speak on what LotRo is and isn’t, for it is for every person to decide that for their selves, but what LotRo truly is is Turbine’s last hope. I’ve been down this dark road before when a company is on the edge and is betting it all on black. Unfortunately I still don’t think Turbine’s heart is in its endeavor to try and win. In this case, the prize is its customers.

Mines of Moria was not a success. This we can pretty much agree upon. It was released days before WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King, certainly speaking bouts of the professionals in Turbine’s market department. It didn’t even come with what was promised content, which was an area that we would have to wait another three months to see. Things became pretty obvious that the development process had changed.

Of course this mostly had to do with laying off the “start up” team. Well, I suppose they weren’t really “laying them off;” their contracts most likely expired. This happens for every MMO—the company hires extra staff to handle the big influx of looky-loos who hear the word “new” and “game” in the same sentence and descend upon the MMO like wild locusts. Less than 10% of these people will be repeat customers for the MMO, but in that period of a few months there can be over a million players. Such was the case when LotRo first launched. What has remained is, luckily, the better part of the community. However, the crux to every MMO is that it must have customers to continue to be alive.

And how do you keep your customers? Well, I suppose you would first have to focus on what brought them into the game in the first place. Was it perhaps the PvP? Or maybe the raiding? No, of course not. Those are idle ideas that the real creatures of nature enjoy mostly because it involves two things— harming other players and stroking their e-peens. Even the WoW giant has turned away from that path after realizing that the vocal minority that screams at the top of their lungs like little children throwing tantrums are not their target market. Turbine, however, has not realized that. Instead their continual updates have included new raids and group instances that require copious amounts of time and prerequisite grind gear just to participate. I wonder what the statistic is for the number of all subscribers (active and inactive) that have actually participated at least ONCE in a raid. 10% of the population? 5%? I am willing to bet it is even less than that. I can count the number of regular raiders on the Landroval server (third highest populated NA server) on my fingers and toes. I’d need another set to count the regular PvPers.

All the while there are thousands of players on each server that never touch the content. So what are they there for? Probably for the same reason I am—the Lord of the Rings license. The joy and amazement of being in an environment that has existed in the greatest works of fiction. Indeed, I would venture a guess that the majority of LotRo’s population is over the age of thirty, a generation of people who grew up reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, just as we did when the movies brought along another influx in the novels. Roaming around Bree, meeting Tom Bombadil, and facing Nazgul in the deepest retches of Angmar—these are the things we enjoy the most. Being part of the experience that we had only read about, but now living through with our own characters.

Now imagine if fighting a balrog, an undead dragon, and even the Watcher would then further impress those people. It most certainly would. But it can’t, because the content is out of the reach of those who do not conform to the strict gear grind and necessity of needing to be well-equipped just to face challenges. The argument beforehand was that it was rightfully so because the spoils for such fights were the greatest rewards the game could offer. These days it is content left in the dust, doing nothing but taking up space in areas in which are no longer frequented. It is outdated content—content that was beautifully designed and was engaging. I know because I pressed myself to do what was necessary to participate in such fights. The road beforehand was not a happy journey—I was not enjoying that 75% of my time was dedicated to running in groups for a hope that I may win on a role for a barter item just to get one piece of armor (out of a full set of six pieces). That too has changed, but too little too late, and again without any clear announcement to a community searching for more of that Middle-earth charm.

Instead players have looked to the new areas opening up with a set of quests behind lore put in place. It is the environment that keeps the players in the game for an amount of time, and the more environment there is, then you can bet your next paycheck that it is what’s going to keep players roaming around, searching ruins and encampments for that trivia to the books. Indeed, Turbine originally followed a period of releasing four free updates per year, each one bringing a new area to explore, or unlocking further areas in already existing zones. Evendim, Forochel, Eregion, Tal Bruinen—these have all been well-received and praised updates. Why? Because they do more than just give quests and leveling chances to players. It also gives them more room to enjoy the sights and hope and ponder at when they will finally be moving on to Rohan and later to Gondor.

Perhaps yet another piece to LotRo that sees more love than PvP is the concept of fluff. Fluff is an insulting term in itself, denoting that the content itself has no weight in worth and is, therefore, unimportant. This is simply not the case for LotRo. Perhaps the greatest known system to all players is the outfit system. The outfit system opens up to players at LV20, opening up two outfit tabs that allow you to “equip” items to different armor slots. The items are not actually equipped, but the graphic is, which allows players to create their own unique outfits out of pieces of different armors (and cosmetic items their selves) in the game. Most MMOs are plagued by a number of differently designed armor pieces, and in that mid range of progress, your character probably looks like a color-blind clown. With the outfit system that doesn’t happen. In fact, I have yet to see someone in LotRo who does NOT use the outfit system. That is how widely it is used, and that is how you can gauge on whether players find it useful or not. It doesn’t even change any of the game mechanics—all it does is satisfy the player in knowing that their character looks the way they want it and makes the boring experience of leveling up all the more enjoyable because you at least look cool while doing it. But cosmetics are considered a fluff system by Turbine. So is housing and the hobby system. And, as such, these things have remained untouched for nearly three years now simply because Turbine believes players want to be grinding high level content in raids and group instances.

Except the reality to that facetious business plan is that people do not stick around in MMOs that railroad you into one type of content. So you’ve done the raid for the tenth time. Do you honestly think anyone other than a hardcore raider is going to stomach the experience again? No, they’ll want a break. And breaks are the bane of every MMO, because players cancel their subscriptions, leaving on the thought that the game offers nothing else for them to do. What if housing was improved? What if you could fiddle around with it and add so much to it with decorating and even game mechanics? Or how about adding new hobbies to give players something to do to unwind? Those are the elements that keep a player in an MMO. Those are the sort of things that speak to the player as if saying, “Okay, so you’re tired of the grind. Why not relax at your home or go fishing with friends or play a nice tune?” Instead Turbine is adamant in leaving these things out in their updates, explicitly stating that they are not worth the time and effort, insisting that the continual updates through “core game content” is what players want the most.

But these updates have slowed. Last year was a true testament to that. The first update was late and included content that was supposed to originally be in the expansion pack Mines of Moria. The next update didn’t even add any new lands or areas—just a single raid and some game changes. What’s worse is that even the raid itself was lacking in quality—you simply walked in to the boss room and the fight started. An insult to all hardcore raiders, a matter of disinterest for all the other players who would laugh when told the raid boss was a giant turtle. It’s the sort of thing you would think Gandalf himself would probably start to laugh at if he ever saw it. “I’ve fought balrogs!” I can just hear him say, “What exactly is so imposing about a giant reptile?” And with that he’d defeat the turtle with a giant pot of boiling water. Later he would serve turtle soup. What would be next then? A giant boar raid boss? We’re trembling in our boots here at the thought of having a smoked ham dinner.

Turbine remained steadfast however. It made way for another expansion that was released December 2009. Named Siege of Mirkwood, it was success on one front and a failure on the other. For one, Siege of Mirkwood was not an expansion. Perhaps it was billed as one for $20, but it was no expansion. No, Siege of Mirkwood was a Book update that was sold to players to end the earlier expansion, Mines of Moria. How ironic that you’d actually have to buy both just to finish the one Volume series that the first expansion brought. Expansions generally expand—Siege of Mirkwood simply finished the old one. And what did it bring? One single area. Contrast this to the giant playing field of Mines of Moria, which included numerous areas and tons of content from LV50 to LV60. Siege of Mirkwood took players another five levels to LV65.

With it, however, included the new skirmish system. You remember how I posed the question as to what keeps players coming back for more in LotRo? Well, apparently Turbine couldn’t figure it out either, so instead of improving on what they had, they decided to throw in a new mechanic altogether. The skirmish system has your player join a number of different instances that work much like capture the flag with intermittent enemy waves through at you. To help you in this endeavor is a hireling-type soldier that you can outfit from an array of different class roles. The rewards are barter marks, to which you can barter at skirmish camps in the game world for an array of items—crafting recipes, rare items needed to craft, cosmetic items, armor, weapons, jewelery, settings for legendary items, even rare items needed for class quests. The idea sounds solid, for it is an outlet for the number of people decrying the lack of being able to accomplish old content because everyone had out leveled it.

But there is one fatal flaw to the skirmish system, and it is that it defines, in its entirety, the idea of the grind. But don’t waste your breath telling me “all MMOs are a grind.” No, most MMOs have elements of progress masked behind defeating enemies and turning in quests. What makes that different from a grind is the fact that the environment and variables are always changing. A grind is a Korean MMO like Sword of the New World, where you literally stand in one spot facing the exact same enemies and killing them for hours on end all at the false idea of progressing your character. This is exactly what happens in a skirmish system—you are sitting at your computer for forty minutes sitting in one area fighting waves of enemies over and over and over again. And if you want those nice barter items for crafting or for your class quest, be prepared to do it another fifteen or twenty times. Sound like fun? No, I didn’t think so.

And then came the most recent update to LotRo, the start of the third Volume series known as Allies of the King. You see, in the first Volume, you are faced against the “Shadows of Angmar,” or the remnants of evil in Eriador that you must fend off from an invasion. In the second Volume, you enter the “Mines of Moria,” and must thwart ancient evil to ensure the Dwarven expeditionary force remains safe. The third Volume continues on with the Epic storyline when the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien and Galadriel sends word to Elrond that Aragorn calls for aid from his Ranger brethren. And so, in the first Book of the third Volume, you must collect allies so that Grey Company may ride and help Aragorn. Of course this is all uninteresting on the single fact that me and many other players have never experienced the Epic storyline in LotRo simply because the content is old and requires groups of players to complete. Thankfully this update brought a fix to that. Dubbed “Inspired Greatness,” a gigantic buff is applied to your character to solo group content in Epic story lines. Hated by a vocal minority pissing and moaning like children, claiming the game is getting “easier,” it has, instead, allowed me and a bunch of other players finally experience the designed glory of the Epic story line. It can now be completed all by yourself, the player, and experienced in its full glory—at least for the first Volume. No matter, however, for all future Book content ensures that the content will be solo as well.

This is a step in the right direction for Turbine, because it ensures that every player can enjoy the splendor of the meat and potatoes of the game. And, for the first time in three years, I actually know what this game is about now. A sad statement in itself, and even sadder to know that it is probably true for many other players because they too could never find the groups to run the content with. But will not be enough to bring back the people who have left the game. Completing old content we should’ve been able to all experience long ago is not what I would call an advertising plus, considering it’s a fix to a problem of a small MMO population. Again, Turbine loses sight that in order to retain customers they must offer fluff content and dub it pillow content, for when a player would tire of the grind, they would rest upon the comfort of pillow content to keep them relaxed and happy. But this won’t happen if Turbine insists that the grind is what players “really want,” despite the continuous and numerous complaints for the lack of fluff content in LotRo. With the way these update schedules are going, we’re going to be seeing very little content coming out each year, especially if the “four patches a year” modus operandi is now firmly “two patches a year.” You do not top off a lack of content with selling yet another patch either. It is not the quality of success for an MMO and it is not alluring to repeat customers expecting more. Instead give the players something to do while they wait, because if there is anything certain in LotRo, it will be that players will be waiting for quite some time until the next batch of content comes out. And what do you think they will do in that time? Continue their subscription to an MMO that they don’t play? Or will they move on to another MMO that is bringing new experiences to its customers quicker? The dilemma of the situation, time, will only tell in due course. Hopefully LotRo does not expire before players move on to fresher things.

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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