Boars. Beets. Battlestar Galactica. OK, let’s talk about one of those things, at least in a roundabout way, because there’s no escaping the fact that Standing Stone Games stirred up a hornet’s nest this past week. The announcement that Lord of the Rings Online’s fall content update is being rebranded as a “mini-expansion” cocked quite a few eyebrows, but the way the studio is going about pricing it is even stranger. We have to borrow eyebrows to handle the quizzical impact of such statements.
Let’s start with a little context because it’s key to understanding why this is so strange and controversial. Lord of the Rings Online has had a wild year of extreme highs and lows. The highs include a well-received Great Wedding update and the decision by SSG to give away a whole lot of content, permanently, to players during the COVID crisis. LOTRO endeared itself to many players over the spring and early summer because of this.
But then we also got two rounds of horrible Server Troubles (I have to capitalize those) during late summer that were handled so, so poorly. Even ardent defenders of the studio started to grow weary of trying to defend a company that wasn’t saying much to defend itself or to comfort its playerbase.
What I’m saying is that it wasn’t the best time to slap down this abrupt news that the fall update now cost money and was going to offer very expensive plus-sized editions. To make things even worse, SSG decided that the best mode to broach the subject was its Friday livestream — a stream that most players don’t watch or get their news from. Having your community manager casually make such an important announcement over a stream without any significant post on the website itself created a communications gap. You can tell that this was handled badly by the fact that there needed to be multiple follow-up posts on the forums (and those didn’t even fill in all of the details!).
I know I’m beating a dead horse of a subject here to point out how badly SSG handles its comms, but… c’mon people. This is ridiculous. Streams and forums should be used as follow-ups to a single comprehensive article posted on the website for all to see, not the other way around.
OK, let’s move on to talk about the announcement itself. The War of the Three Peaks is now LOTRO’s first “mini-expansion,” which I consider a marketing term for “content update that we want to people to pay us for.” It’s not clear at all why SSG decided to position it this way without any prior indication that this would be the case, but I can speculate until or unless the studio actually wants to open up and talk about it.
My stance is that it’s all about money. SSG needs a rich influx of money this year, and its next expansion — Gundabad — won’t arrive until 2021. So it’s either this or a whole lot of hobby horse reskins coming to the store. Does this mean SSG is desperate? Did it see an opportunity to make money on content in a year when it hasn’t sold any other new content?
There’s another possibility: that Daybreak is very much calling the shots here. SSG is allergic to talking about how much its publisher and likely owner controls its games and business, but from all evidence that I’ve seen over the past few years, I’m guessing that it’s a lot. The pricing models are exactly the same sort of thing that Daybreak does for its EverQuest games, for example, and so SSG might be in a position where it has to do what its publisher says but is restrained from actually mentioning that any of this is coming from a higher up place.
Here’s the thing: At the end of the day, I don’t really see this as that big a deal. It looks like it’ll be a meaty content update with a new system (missions), and that’s probably worth $20, especially in a year when we’ve gotten so much for free. The more expensive editions, whatever they may contain (and I’m betting that boar mounts will only be found in these), are not worth my consideration unless they include a plane ticket to New Zealand for a Middle-earth tour, but you spend your money the way you like.
I can also tell you that my excitement level for this update is really low. The trailer was bland, and the “Dwarves vs. Orcs” theme isn’t quite a selling point, at least for me. SSG has its work cut out for it to make the case that players should be there on Day One.
The fact that SSG is denying players the ability to buy the update with LOTRO Points at the start is the most aggravating factor for me. This is a punitive measure designed to squeeze dollars out of subscribers and lifetime members, full stop. It’s definitely not needed for this situation, and I would not blame you if you decided to sit this out until SSG grudgingly allowed for its purchase with LP.
Is this move greedy? Yes and no. Its announcement could have been handled in a much better way that wouldn’t make SSG look this shady, but unfortunately, that’s now par for the course with this studio.