LOTRO Legendarium: The return of the dungeon

While I’ve been playing Lord of the Rings Online as one of my main MMOs for almost a decade now, it’s primarily been for the single-player experience through the majestic and detailed world. I suspect that a disproportionally large percentage of the playerbase approaches the game in a similar fashion compared to other fantasy MMOs.

There’s something about LOTRO’s group content that’s never been able to convince me that it’s worth doing in the same way that I would in other games. I’ve liked it well enough when circumstances conspired to throw me into a group experience, but I’ve never felt that doing dungeons was something I had to do to gear up. Quest rewards have been just fine to get me through the zones and epic story thus far, and I don’t think that will change.

And for a time, it looked as though Turbine had acknowledged that this was the case by taking instance clusters off the table in early 2014 in favor of lesser group content, like epic battles, roving warbands, and a handful of tougher areas. However, now that the game is under new leadership and well into a new year, we’re seeing the return of the dungeon at last. Why the change of direction and how might it benefit the community? That’s been on my mind a lot as of late.

Fresh dungeons and better rewards

I have two maxims that I’d like to share that pertain to today’s topic. The first is that while I don’t appreciate MMOs that force me to group up, I do like games that provide interesting and rewarding group content for when I have the desire to play with others. The second is that trying out new ideas is vital to the growth of MMOs, but it should never come at the expense of neglecting or eliminating established systems that work and are enjoyed by players.

As for the first maxim, LOTRO half-succeeds and half-fails. It’s quite hands-off when it comes to encouraging me to do group content, but perhaps it’s so hands-off to the point that I’m able to be blissfully ignorant that it even exists. Itemization in LOTRO instances has always been haphazard, and it’s not as though the devs have provided sufficient incentive to use the group finder (the daily bonus rewards are… underwhelming, to put it kindly).

As for the second, I think LOTRO has stumbled since Helm’s Deep (and perhaps before) by completely eschewing established and semi-popular group content in favor of completely new systems. The epic battles, while functional, are simply no replacement for raids, skirmishes, and traditional instances, and yet the devs have been pushing these hard at the expense of more instance clusters. That in turn brewed a lot of resentment and frustration among the players, who had to either adapt to epic battles or continue to mine the same old stale dungeons that have been in place for years.

A bold new paradigm isn’t needed for group content in LOTRO; what we already have in place works fine. We merely need fresh challenges and better rewards.

The fellowship of the buffet

Believe it or not, LOTRO has quite the buffet of options for group-minded players. There are your traditional dungeons that come in small- and full-group size as well as multi-fellowship raids. Then you have public dungeons, elite landscape areas, warbands (including the heftier roving variants introduced in recent updates), skirmishes, and multiplayer quests.

I’ll even give props to the dev team for making an effort to revamp a few of the older instances and provide scaling options for some of the dungeons so that a larger level range can enjoy them. There’s also the improved dungeon finder interface that both groups players up with strangers and allows friends to remote queue for a particular instance with ease. And then there’s the new sidekicking tech seen with the epic battles that takes a low-level character and artifically boosts him or her to beĀ around the same level as a friend for that encounter.

All of this is great, of course, but it’s also undercut by a fading relevance for this content. Too many of the old systems haven’t received needed revamps or additional instances to keep associated players happy. When’s the last time we got a new skirmish? 2012? For the record, I adore skirmishes for so many reasons, but when I see Turbine abandon continued development in that area, it takes away any desire I have to play the ones that are around.

And as I said before, I strongly feel that subpar rewards undercut player interest in participating in the instance culture. Am I going to get a First Age LI drop or a cool new tier of armor by doing this instance? Nope? Well, then why should I run it more thanĀ once for curiosity’s sake?

Sure, some will do it on principle because they have a passion for group content, but the decisions made over the past year or two have done more to repel than attract players to such challenges.

The return of the dungeon

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that I’m actually thrilled to see that Turbine has apparently recognized its mistake in neglecting the traditional instance cluster by including one with Update 16. Sure, it doesn’t contain a raid, but I sincerely doubt that there’s a large LOTRO raiding community that needs to be fed at this point. There are always kinships and groups of friends who desire to run stuff together, however, and now those players have a trio of new dungeons to explore.

I also think it’s a great idea that the team took one idea from past skirmishes and epic battles by weaving these instances into the game’s questline. First of all, when you’ve spent a lot of time and resources on making new content, you want as many players as possible to experience that. Second, by providing a “kiddie pool” introductory version, you might convince otherwise reluctant groupers to give the tougher version a try.

Instances can be a terrific storytelling tool that uses a dramatic backdrop to play out both scripted and unscripted tales. If the price (in terms of rewards) is right, then it’s worth it to players to make the effort to get together to share in that story.

At least for me, it’s rallied my interest in queuing up for dungeons in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. I can only think of the possibilities for such content as we plow into Mordor.

I’d love to hear from all of you LOTRO dungeon runners. Is this too little, too late, a great addition, or a promising start? What group content does LOTRO need going forward?

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.
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