Wednesday, October 9, 2013

LOTRO Revisited - 1 to 20

So last week I finally succumbed to the pressure brought about by the excellent new trailer for The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, and my own twangs of nostalgia, and did something I've been thinking about doing for quite some time now.  I reinstalled The Lord of the Rings Online.  I was a beta tester for the game, and a subscriber back when the game launched, and this is the first time I've returned since the game went free to play, so I thought I might talk about the experience of coming back.

The Return
When I first logged in with the last character I played, my character was right where I left her - standing on the side of some hill in the Lone Lands.  And I looked across the rolling dry hills and thought Oof.. the game's graphics aren't holding up too well to the test of time.  But as it turned out, that wasn't strictly true.  I really think it's just more that the Lone Lands themselves that aren't that appealing.  As I've traveled about the land, many of the zones and lands still look incredibly good.  And yes the graphics engine is starting to show it's age a bit, but the art direction - especially in the elven lands, is still incredibly strong and holds up quite well.

At first I was very hesitant to create yet another character.  The Lord of the Rings Online is one of those earlier games of mine where I dipped into many pools when it comes to classes, but didn't go very deep into any of them.  But a few of my G+ friends were also planning on making a brief return, and they were going to create new characters for the experience, so I said All what the hell, and thus Syriandil, A Blade of Renown (as she's currently known among the men of Bree) was created and set about her journey.  And I'm really glad I did, to be honest.  Though the bulk of the game still feels mostly the same, quite a bit has changed - most of it for the better - and the game does an incredibly good job of educating you as you go.  So I left on the tooltips, and thus was reintroduced to the game in a satisfying manner as I went along.

Why are we here?
I think it's important to be honest with yourself about your intentions with these games, in order to properly shape both your expectations and your experience.  And being honest, I knew I have no intentions of making this my permanent home, or to even necessarily stay for any significant length of time.  Guild Wars 2 is still for me the absolute best value of in fun for the money for me, and I'll be returning soon.  But there is one experience in the MMO sphere Guild Wars 2 really doesn't do a great job of delivering upon - and that is straight up questing.  And make no mistake - I love questing. So my plan was to take the game at it's own pace.  Not to try to cram through the content, skipping areas I already know about, rushing to some ill-conceived notion of rapid advancement, but to relax, spend some time enjoying the game for what it is, and see where it takes us.  And in truth - I've been having an absolute blast.

Because if there's one thing that Lord of the Rings Online does especially well - especially in that 1 to 20 level frame - it's questing.  As an elf, I started on the snowy banks outside of Thorin's Hall, and then worked my way into and through the dappled forests of Ered Luin.  And the story and the characters and the environment absolutely pulled me right through the content.  There is of course the epic questline that advances the central story, and then side quest hubs are sensibly placed along the way.  Much of the original running back and forth has been removed, and even then what running about that you do has been alleviated by the early availability of mounts.  Yes it's a pretty linear experience, but for me that is exactly what I wanted.  It was perfect.  Some of the early quests used to require a group to proceed, and several of those were essentially small dungeon instances.  Those have been changed to be solo-able now - including the Great Barrows run. As the game stands now, though you can group, there is no need to group until you get to level 20, at which point the group finder becomes available to you - another addition to the game since I played it last.

And so it was that, after just a few days I found myself at the level where, to be honest, most of my alts had reached, and I had hardly noticed the passing of time and levels at all. Now that skirmishes are available, and the group finder is unlocked, I suspect the experience will shift somewhat, so it will be interesting to see how it does.  But I'll continue to take my time and follow the story and my character's ambitions where they will, and we'll see how it goes.  My plan is to remain in the game at least until December 16th, when The Desolation of Smaug releases - as sort of a tribute to the franchise and the movies, which I'm very much looking forward to.  It will be interesting to see if the game has set it's hooks in me enough to keep me beyond that.

The Community
Lord of the Rings Online is at a really interesting place in terms of its playerbase.  It's very similar to where City of Heroes was in its latter days.  It's a place that is unique to MMOs of a certain age, and it's a great place to be in - if it can be sustained.  And that is, the only people playing Lord of the Rings Online are people that love the game.  The hard core level grinders and achievement alphas have all come through and moved on to the next bright and shiny, and what's left are the folks that truly want to be there.  And yes, to be sure, I'm playing on Landroval, which has always been the roleplaying server, but even as such I was pretty amazed at what I saw walking around the game.  Inside the Prancing Pony Inn, you'll find a bard playing a lute by the fire, with a few people sitting before him, listening.  Throughout the inn, people are sitting, socializing, having quite conversations in the various corners of the inn's hallways.  Outside, in the market square, a group of minstrels in matching outfits have formed, playing an incredibly complicated and well-composed medley of songs, and a crowd has formed in front of them, clapping, laughing and dancing to the music.  Throughout the town, people are coming and going on horseback, moving from one side of the town to the other, going about their business.  In other words - people aren't just playing the game - they're spending time in the game.  They're doing the sort of things you might actually expect to be found in that setting.  And for those that want to immerse themselves in the game's environment a bit more, LOTRO provides them with a rich set of tools - from playable instruments, to a flexible emote system, to a complete vanity clothing closet that allows your character to don any one of a number of outfits beyond the armor they have equipped.  It's a bit of a perilous place to be in, to be honest.  In previous games where I've found the community at this stage, though the community was fiercely loyal, they were not enough to sustain the game, and the doors of those games were not open much longer.  Only Turbine knows if LOTRO is actually making enough money to sustain itself, but I'm hoping that it is, for worlds and communities like this are too few these days.

Let's talk about free-to-play a bit
People that complain about Guild Wars 2's pricing models need to go back and spend some time in a true free-to-play game, and be reminded of what a cash shop driven business model can truly be like.  And that's not to say that LOTRO's free-to-play cash shop is bad - it's not.  In fact as far as these things go, it's actually quite good.  Much of the original game is still there and can be played in it's original form.  But many enhancements have been added, and opportunities to purchase those are worked into just about every bit of the interface.  So you are constantly being reminded that, if you wish to speed up whatever it is you're doing - questing, crafting, riding - for a price, you can.

Having played Guild Wars 2 for some time now, and then returning to LOTRO's business model, my opinion on these business models has been pretty firmly reshaped.  I now truly believe that the segregation of your playerbase into these multiple tiers of business plans is, well, just flat out harmful to the long term health of the game.  First of all, it puts a huge burden on the game's designers.  Every aspect of the game, as it is introduced or modified, must be broken up into multiple versions, and decisions have to be made as to how much do you give the free players, how much to you give the premium players, and how much do you give to the subscribers.  And this decision, and then maintenance of those systems, must be made for every single mechanic.  From bag space, to the auction house to riding mount speeds - all parts of it must be considered.

And from the player standpoint, as a non-subscriber, you're constantly re-evaluating every purchase decision.  You're thinking - do I buy this, or should I just go ahead and get a subscription for a few months, because it'll be cheaper in the long run.  And from there, making the jump to Well maybe I just won't buy it at all is too easy.  In Guild Wars 2, there is exactly one and only one business model.  You buy the game, and after that, there are things you can choose to buy, or not, in the store.  But there are no player tiers in any way.  So I never second guess any buying decision I make for things in the game.  I either decide to buy them, or I don't, but I never have to worry about whether or not I'm making the right purchase decision - if I should have purchased, or subscribed.  Furthermore, I truly believe that when the designers have enough confidence in their game to trust the players to a single business model - it in turn engenders confidence in the players in the game.  And in the long term, they buy more.  In fact, I think that even though Final Fantasy XIV has gone with a subscription model - which I think in today's market is going to be incredibly tough to sustain - the fact that there is exactly one and only one business model for that game, makes it a superior business strategy to the tiered one.  You're either in or your out, but once you are in, you're not having to second guess each and every purchase decision.

An Unexpected Journey
Business model analysis aside, it's been wonderful being back in Middle Earth.  Seeing the Prancing Pony, working through the story and chatting with Aragorn and Gandalf; visiting Weathertop - all have been good for my roleplaying soul.  I don't know how much interaction Turbine and Warner Brothers are able to have with Wingnut Studios, but man if I where them I'd be marketing the hell out of the game right now in conjunction with the Hobbit movies, and trying to create crossovers in any way I could.  I haven't seen much in that aspect though, so I can only guess that there are business reasons why that can't be done.  But if you love Middle Earth as much as I do, then don't rely on marketing to get you back.  Spend a night patching up the game, and then spend a few more nights returning to its lands.  You don't have to stay, but it's worth it just to ride through those forests and to visit the places that are familiar in your imagination.  And who knows, you may find LOTRO's rich game mechanics, robust, well-realized world, and upcoming Helms Deep expansion enough to entice you to stay for awhile.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have an elvish blade to smith, and goblins to smite with it! Until then..

Mae Govannon!