LOTRO Academy

Tonight I am making a brief and temporary return to the fabulous LOTRO Academy. This Lord of the Rings Online podcast has been providing players with info, guides, and discussion points since 2010. I had the pleasure of being a co-host on the show for about 35 episodes, and had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun whilst doing so. In the end, I began to drift away from LOTRO and university took up more and more of my time, meaning it was time to say goodbye to the show.

I will be recording a small part with Branick this evening for their 100th episode! A remarkable feat for any podcast. Congratulations to Pineleaf, Mysteri, Draculetta and everybody else who has been involved with the show over it’s lifespan so far. Once again I’m impressed by the dedication and staying power of the LOTRO community even this deep into the games lifespan. I can only thank Branick for giving me my first role in a podcast, and without that I’d almost certainly never have become involved with the Contains Moderate Peril podcast, where I’m having a wonderful time.

So keep an eye out for the upcoming episode 100, it should be a good one!

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What I Liked About LOTRO

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In my last piece I was pretty critical of free to play, and used LOTRO as an example of what I feel are some of the downsides of that particular business model. This got me thinking about the period in my life in which I was playing LOTRO, and just what it was that drew me into that game in the first place. So to redress the balance with my critical post somewhat, here are the things I liked most about LOTRO. Some of these do not apply to the game so much in its current state, or as I understand it at least, but were my experiences of the game in it’s first 2-3 years or so.

Middle Earth

When I was playing LOTRO I was still fairly enamoured with Tolkien’s world. I’d loved the films, and had read the books several times as a teenager. Turbine’s game felt like an amazing representation of Middle Earth. To my mind this remains the games strongest selling point, and as Roger at Contains Moderate Peril often states, somewhat insulates the game from the wider MMO market, with LOTRO having many players who do not play other MMOs or perhaps any other games at all. But instead, they treat it as an opportunity to enjoy the world of Middle Earth. It’s a shame that Middle Earth has lost its lustre for me in recent years. I’ve grown more attached to George R.R Martin’s Westeros, with all of its complexities and nuance, and yes to some extent, its deconstruction of Tolkien-esque fantasy.

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The Shire

The Shire, for me, represents the zenith of Turbine’s Middle Earth crafting. It is a wonderful translation of one of Middle Earth’s most iconic regions. The music, the rolling hills, and even the pubs, perfectly captured the essence of The Shire. It felt like a gay and joyous place, full of friendly excess and revelry, alongside menial village life and trivial gossip, but captured in a manner that made it immediately warm and inviting. It would have to go down as one of my all time favourite areas in any MMO.

The Skirmish System

I’m not sure this feature is totally unique to LOTRO, but at the time it was the first time I’d ever experienced this kind of scalable instanced content. The ability to run skirmishes alone to rack up that bit of XP to push you over the line and to the next level was greatly appreciated. They did later nerf the rewards somewhat, but I still enjoyed them. I used to particularly like doing the harder modes in a duo, but even had fun running them with very large groups. I never quite got to try them on the raid setting, but I can imagine that would have been a hoot too. Overall I appreciated the flexibility of the experience, and an alternative to questing whilst levelling.

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Class Consumables

Back in those days, LOTRO had a variety of class consumables. These are very much a more old school MMO design choice, and as such were all removed from the game, at least as far as I’m aware. But, I’ve always appreciated the notion of class consumables. In LOTRO in particular, I used to love the different pipe weeds that loremasters used. This added a very lore appropriate take on things like resurrecting fallen comrades. There used to be a great deal more consumables for all of the classes, and I think it’s a bit of a shame these have gone, as I felt that they added another layer of immersion into the game.

I’m sure there are many more things that I loved about LOTRO back in 2011 or so, but these are the ones that stand out the most in my memory. Whilst I don’t believe I’ll ever return to the game, I look back with some fondness on the time when it meant a lot to me. So, what is your favourite thing about LOTRO?

One of Those Articles About Free to Play

Seeing as I’m basically not a proper blogger unless I write a piece about free to play games, it’s about time I got around to giving my views on the model. I know this is a little bit of a cliché these days, so I hope you’ll be patient and bear with me.

The first free to play game I ever played was LOTRO, which I had just gotten into shortly after it transitioned to the free to play model. As it happens, I opted to subscribe, which is something I often do, as I’m totally fine with paying a subscription, as I feel I’m very used to doing so. However, playing LOTRO in particular left me with a lot of impressions of the free to play model, and not a lot of them are very positive.

My main objection, and I believe it’s one that’s clear as day in LOTRO, is that once you become a free to play game, the development course of your game is compromised. When you operate under a subscription model, the incentive for developers is to make a game that’s good enough to keep people subscribed at least, and possibly to attract new players too. With the free to play model, large parts of developer time are spent figuring out new and innovative ways to monetise your game. Even new content cannot be released unless some aspect of monetisation is built into it too.

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I also believe that free to play compromises development in the sense that it removes the incentive to fix problems with your game, when charging people for a temporary fix will do. Take the virtues grind in LOTRO. I find this to be needlessly excessive. Sure, you might hit a couple of virtues in the course of your ordinary questing and leveling process, but I can guarantee that at some point, in order to remain viable in the later game, you’re going to have to go out of your way to kill 100s of mobs. Multiple times too. This just isn’t very fun for me most of the time, but of course, there’s no incentive to reduce this grind when you are selling consumables in the store that make every kill count for double and people are buying them.

Another problem is that there are potentially no depths that MMO developers won’t plummet to in the course of trying to make more money. It’s easy to say when you first change from a subscription model that you’ll never sell gear in the store or some such, but three years down the line when the population begins to dwindle, then you might very well start selling these items. So, any promises or remarks such as these should always be taken with a bucket load of salt. You’ve only got to look at something like ‘hobbit presents’ to see how low devs can go when needs must.

The thing which actually drove me away from LOTRO some years ago now, was the introduction of the barter wallet. Turbine had begun to develop a wallet to store some of the various currencies in the game (of which there were far too many), however they had only developed half of it and most of the currencies didn’t go into the wallet. Turbine stated they planned to add to this later down the road. Yet when they finally did finish the barter wallet, you had to buy it from the store. This really irked me, because I felt as a subscriber I should be entitled to, what is effectively, an update to the functionality of the UI. The notion that I would have to pay extra, not for new content, not for cosmetics, but for an iteration of a half baked design really offended me, and since then I’ve never played the game again.

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You’ll find many people are great exponents of the free to play model, and the most oft sited reason for this is that it allows players a greater degree of freedom. With no barrier to entry, it’s easy to download a game and give it a try, or even to jump between several whenever the mood takes you. Whilst this is very nice for the players, I’d argue that it’s perhaps not the best thing for the MMO genre in general. Transient player bases mean that, at best, you can expect large peaks and troughs in the playerbase of most games, which isn’t the most stable way to run a business, which once again leads to increasing desperation by developers who implement ever cheekier ways to make money.

I also think it’s telling that successful triple A games don’t become free to play. Surely if it’s such a great model for all involved, companies ought to be chomping at the bit to switch? Yet, we see a familiar pattern develop. Games launch with subs, then either switch business models when the population takes a nose dive in the first year or so like Star Wars the Old Republic, or The Secret World. Or, like games like RIFT, devs hold out as long as possible before making the switch in order to save the game from going under. There are some exceptions like Guild Wars 2 and its buy to play model, but this years big releases, Wildstar and The Elder Scrolls Online both opted for the subscription model. And, I’d expect both to switch to free to play when they need a new injection of players. In essence, when the possibility of being a successful subscription game has disappeared

The thing is though, I don’t look at this switch to free to play as inevitable. I just believe we haven’t had enough games that were good enough to keep people subscribed for the long term. Eve manages just fine with the subscription model, there may be many reasons for this but the main one, to my mind, is that it offers an experience which simply cannot be adequately replicated elsewhere in gaming. If more MMOs were willing to go out on a limb and offer more than a different coat of paint and some iterations on pre-existing concepts, then they might actually be able to hold onto players long enough to be successful with a subscription model. I don’t believe any game has ever performed badly solely because of the subscription model, I simply believe that the game wasn’t good enough.

So there we have it, my thoughts on free to play. Do I get my MMO blogger badge now?

We Don’t Need You Anyway

A month or two back Lord of the Rings Online’s former community manger Rick Heaton, also known as Sapience, made the following statement on the games official forums:

“Raiders comprise the smallest, by far, group in our game. PvMP players are far larger and even they are small. in fact together the two groups wouldn’t comprise 10% of the total player base and never have (this is important. it’s not a new thing, it’s a long standing historical fact).

Forum posters comprise a slightly larger group than the combined group of PvMP and Raiders. However, Raiders and PvMP players make up the overwhelming majority of forum posters (More than half. Though raiders are the smaller group of the two (PvMP/Raiders)). So you have a tiny group, inside a small group that is grossly disproportionately represented on the forums.”

He posted this as part of a response to a discussion about the fact that LOTRO would not be including any new group content with their latest update. This caused many people to shrug their shoulders and say “see we always knew raiders were noisy and pointless, we don’t need them anyway”.

Ever since then I’ve been pondering this, and wondering just how much games, especially ones like LOTRO, really need their raiding and PvP oriented players. The presumption on the part of many players seems to be that if only a small percentage of players are engaging with those kinds of content, then persisting with development for them is a waste of time, money, and resources which could be better spent on designing content for their larger playerbase. As The Ancient Gaming Noob points out however, these numbers are potentially a little dodgy, and have perhaps led to some extrapolations about MMO endgame content in general that aren’t supported. He also goes on to capture the mood quite nicely:

“Doesn’t this just confirm something you have long suspected?  (Unless you’re a raider/PvPer.)  Haven’t there been times when you have just prayed for somebody from any given MMO developer to show up and say that?  Raiding and PvP aren’t the most popular activities in the game, so stop bringing them up in every single thread.”

I think a lot of the reaction of players, particularly on this Massively thread about the news, comes from that kind of place.

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However, let us presume Rick Heaton is right about this. Let us assume that, at least in the case of LOTRO, a very insignificant number of players ever get involved in raiding or PvP. It seems a reasonable utilitarian argument to state that continuing to develop for raiders is a waste. Yet I would argue, that in these times of MMO tourism, where playerbases are incredibly transitory, raiders and PvPers are likely two of the types of players who are invested for the long term, and have probably been playing  and paying for a while. That’s got to be worth something right? What sort of community are you left with when a large segment of your long term players are gone, effectively told the game isn’t for them anymore?

LOTRO may be in a slightly unique position as it tends to attract quite a lot of non-gamer/MMO players, and also many players with an interest in role playing, or just plain larking about in Middle Earth, so maybe they are better placed than most MMOs would be without raiders and PvPers. Yet I still feel that any games community is going to be considerably worse off without its most long term and long invested players. Something from the tapestry that makes up a good MMO community could be lost irrevocably, and you’re effectively left with a bunch of people who are into solo questing with some roleplay thrown in. Maybe I’m wrong, but that doesn’t sound like as strong a basis for a community.

So in a roundabout way the point I’m trying to make is this, do raiders and PvPers bring something to a games community that other groups don’t? Something less tangible than raw numbers. A certain dedication, a love for the game that’s been borne out over long periods of time, and a willingness to draw up guides to help new players, and post on the forums, and generally be vocally involved in a community, that can’t otherwise be replaced. In LOTRO’s case I guess we’re about to find out, but I think most games that aren’t LOTRO would certainly struggle to maintain this new development plan of Turbine’s.