LOTRO Legendarium: Breaking down LOTRO’s 2020 producer letter

    
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It may be a month or two overdue, but the producer’s letter for Lord of the Rings Online finally arrived this week. While we had some inkling of what to expect from Standing Stone Game’s PAX East meetup and past comments, the letter itself was, in turns, surprising, pleasing, and bewildering. In my opinion, its one of the more ambitious year plans we’ve seen for this yearly MMO, although it was also instantly controversial.

There’s a lot to chew on and digest with this letter, so in today’s column, we’ll be engaging in some analysis and speculation from weddings to special servers and everything in between!

What we didn’t hear about

Let’s start off with what SSG didn’t say about the game or its future. There was no mention of the studio’s relationship with Daybreak, the financials or overall health of the game, server merges, reactivation of character transfers, a potential level cap increase before 2021’s Gundabad expansion, kinship changes (which were promised in last year’s letter), or any potential changes to the current business model.

I was deeply wishing that the studio would address the popularity of the current content unlock through the end of the month and perhaps extend it, in part or in full, well into the future. LOTRO is a pricey game to fully access, and that should change.

Server performance issues were lightly addressed in a separate post but not given any further explanation as to how the studio is addressing the lag, rubberbanding, and other long-running problems — or what’s exactly causing it. I’m glad SSG is working on it, but considering how long and how extensive these issues have seen, it’s disheartening how little we’ve heard or seen from the studio about this.

As always, whenever I read one of these producer’s letters, I think, “That’s great! That’s exciting. Now I want specifics.” The thing is, SSG does one of these letters per year and then is very inconsistent about following through with dev diaries and detailed explanations of new features and systems (usually we just learn about them when they show up on the test server). I hope that we’ll get more explanation in advance this year.

2020’s content updates

As with the past few years, LOTRO is planning on two major content updates in 2020 — one in the late spring and the other in the fall. With the Black Book of Mordor done, this year will kick off the not-at-all-awkwardly-named “The Legacy of Durin and the Trials of the Dwarves,” which will continue through 2021 into Gundabad. I’m generally cool with more Dwarf content (we’ve certainly had our fill of Man-centered happenings), and I feel that SSG has done a pretty great job forging new story territory without going off the rails of lore limitations.

This spring’s update sounds as though it’ll take us back out of Minas Morgul, so here’s hoping for pretty vistas a la Vales of Anduin. The fall update sounds more ambitious, with a 12-person raid and some sort of scalable content that will put players “on the front lines of the war.” Without SSG elaborating here, we’re left to speculate. Images of skirmishes and epic battles come to mind. I’m sure that whatever this is, the studio is hoping for repeatable endgame content that will keep players busy for a while.

I’m generally OK with the content update news, if not overly enthused. It sounds fine. Solid. Enough to keep us busy for a few months and exploring a different direction in the game’s story. But it’s not quite as far-flung as we might’ve been hoping, nor as splashy as it could’ve been.

PvP server

While the content updates are probably taking up the most effort on SSG’s behalf, it was the announcement of not one, but two new types of servers that really stole the show in this letter. Let’s tackle them separately.

First up are the Challenge League servers, a temporary shard that will feature PvP between player characters. There’s a leaderboard, two factions, and deeds to be done. SSG didn’t mention any rewards, but I’m assuming that there will be transferable goodies in the same vein of how the studio handled Dungeons and Dragons Online’s hardcore league server.

Instantly, this announcement divided everyone into different camps and proved to be quite controversial. There are those who think that this could be pretty interesting and fun, so why not give it a go? There are those who are upset because this takes the focus away from LOTRO’s underpopulated and neglected PvMP zones and it might dilute the population. And there are those scratching their heads and wondering how the heck this is even going to work.

See? We need more specifics, and we’re probably not going to get any for a while. LOTRO wasn’t built for player vs. player combat (it has sparring, but when’s the last time you’ve seen someone do that?), not between the regular races and classes, that is, so I have no idea how any of this could be balanced and handled in a way that wouldn’t make some classes vastly overpowered. Will SSG level lock everyone? Standardize their stats and gear? Start everyone at level 130 and let them go at it? We just don’t have enough information to get a picture of how this will work.

Eye of Sauron server

While the PvP server sounds more like a gimmick, the game’s second legendary server type is clearly aiming at being more of an established home for players seeking a challenge. The Eye of Sauron server (my name for it until SSG gives it one) will occasionally make mobs “more dangerous,” adding dynamic, shifting parameters to the world.

That’s actually a good idea. Several weeks ago, I postulated that a challenge server could be a good thing for players who feel the game is too safe and predictable, and this could be the answer for that. What kind of boggles me is that the studio said that players will do more damage as well during these “Eye-opening” periods, so… does that mean that everyone’s power levels stay within the same ratio of each other? If the mobs are doing more damage but I’m doing more damage, how is that really that different? Everyone on both sides dies faster at the same rate, unless I’m completely misreading this.

We’ll see how this will play out and if this server will feature timed expansion unlocks or will be a copy of the current setup on regular servers. Again, more information is needed. I’m very, very cautiously interested in trying it out, though.

Wedding event

The rest of the letter covered stuff we already knew was coming, but for the sake of being thorough, let’s talk about it here. We’ll get Aragorn and Arwen’s wedding this summer, so I’m expecting heaps and heaps of flower-picking and table-setting and whatever other chores the devs like to make us heroes do at these times.

It is cool to hear that this won’t be a one-shot celebration but that the devs are going to weave a new wedding-themed festival in with this. I hear that the Farmer’s Faire is most likely going to be folded in with another event (summer festival?) to make room for this. Probably the only serious concern about all of the wedding stuff is that it’s going to be set in Minas Tirith, and that place already is punishing on computer performance. If it’s super-instanced, it might work.

Rohan housing

Yup, I am all on board with a new type of housing and two additional neighborhoods. The Rohan housing, like Belfalas, is going to be premium (i.e., you pay with mithril coins), which has some people grumpy, but honestly the studio has to sell something this year. It might as well be housing. (Although I do think that everyone should be given a small house that was awarded to us in one of the Rohan quest lines and then never mentioned again.)

We’ve seen glimpses of the Rohan houses from the previous test builds, and they are downright cool. There’s a mountainy one and a plains one, and both feature tons of space, tons of hooks, and the ability to add your mounts to a stable as a cosmetic. I’m also pretty keen to see lighting options appear for the first time. Could we make this available to all housing types?

While it’ll be cool to deck out a Rohan house (and I will be there on Day One), I have no doubt that these will suffer the same issues of not having nearly enough hooks to fill up the available space. I wish that all houses in this game would have double or triple the hooks that they do now, because you end up with so much empty space that looks unnatural.

Legendary item revamp

Finally, SSG is doing something something with legendary items. It’s been making noise about this for years now, and I will believe it when I see it. The non-specifics of this post don’t offer any concrete solutions, but from the language, it sounds as though there will be a temporary fix sooner to help the grind with bigger changes down the road.

I honestly don’t know why the studio even mentioned this if it wasn’t prepared to explain what it’s actually going to do about it. Saying things like “we are discussing design changes” does not generate a lot of confidence that the team has a clear vision of how it’s going to shore up this messy and, frankly, annoying feature. I’m all for taking LIs out of the game altogether, but SSG has dug itself a hole with this system and is determined to keep on digging.

So that’s about it. Some intriguing stuff, some stuff that could go either way once it’s clarified, and some stuff so vague as to make me wonder why it took this long into the year to release this letter. When I step back and look at this letter as a whole, I’m encouraged to see that LOTRO isn’t a dead game but a game full of development, ideas, and risks. Here’s hoping that 2020 plays out in this MMO in the best of all possible ways.

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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