LOTRO Legendarium: How the landscape difficulty slider is changing the rules of the game


For a long time now, one of the chief complaints about Lord of the Rings Online has been that… it’s too easy. Players have noted that, for the most part, the landscape content is a breeze to navigate, especially once you’ve started to outpace it in levels. I don’t think this is always the case — there are some terrifically tough parts of Middle-earth out there — but I see the point. When a game doesn’t offer enough challenge, it stops being interesting to many players.

To address this, Standing Stone Games is introducing a rather unique optional system in Update 30: a difficulty slider. This won’t affect dungeons and raids, but rather allow individual players the ability to set the landscape difficulty higher. With 10 levels of difficulty (from “normal” through “deadly +6”), there are more than enough options to crank up the challenge and give your next run through the game some bite. But what does this do, exactly? And how could this benefit the game?

As we’ve come to recognize over the past couple of years, LOTRO’s smaller dev team is ambitious without always being able to fully deliver on its big dreams. And changing the entire difficulty of an MMORPG is a big dream to be sure. In fact, the closest analogue I can think of is how LOTRO’s sister game Dungeons and Dragons Online is able to offer multiple difficulty levels for its instances (and, for that matter, LOTRO’s dungeons as well). But this is landscape, a shared open world. How will that work?

The long and the short of it is that the studio is cheating. It’s not actually making anything on the landscape tougher than it used to be, such as scaling monster abilities, damage, and health up and down based on the player it faces. Rather, this system effectively puts a lasting nerf on your character to make you weaker. The higher the difficulty, the more hobbled your stats become. There are also specific debuffs that enemies can sling your way at higher difficulty tiers.

According to Vastin, “The difficulty mostly works by making you more vulnerable to monster attacks, and reducing your damage — so that it won’t interact too badly when other players who may not be at the same difficulty are present. There are a few enrage buffs that you can trigger on an enemy when you are in higher difficulties that other players would notice, but these shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance for players running around at normal difficulty even if they do encounter them directly.”

This makes sense to me. It’s a bit of a cheat, but I can see why this allows for more flexibility for the system while remaining within the abilities of SSG to actually execute.

As testers are discovering on Bullroarer this week, this game hack works more or less well. There may not be a need for quite so many difficulty levels, especially since the the game doesn’t inform you the difference between, say, Deadly +1 and Deadly +4. I got the feeling that you’re just supposed to experiment with the settings during the tutorial and early levels until you find the right level of difficulty for you, and then you just stick with that for the rest of your run.

LOTRO Players has a great breakdown of this information, by the way, and I want to commend that team for pulling it together.

I want to say that I love this idea. I really do. MMORPGs always need more options to change things up for alts, and special ruleset servers often provided that variety. Here, the player creates his or her own ruleset. I get the impression that this system came out of SSG’s previous desire to create a challenge legendary server (which it has since scrapped).

The obvious follow-up to the reveal of this difficulty system is why players would want to use it. Other than those who enjoy making an MMO run tougher on sheer principle alone, others will need some sort of incentive. After all, if I’m going to be investing more time and effort to overcome this challenge, what will I get out of it?

This is where it’s currently falling short, because as far as I’ve been able to discover, the only special reward that you’ll get for jacking up the difficulty is to gain some special titles for certain difficulty levels at certain character levels. That’s fine — it’s visible bragging rights — but I can’t help but be that guy and say, “That’s it? I’m going to be a punching bag for mobs for 130 levels and all I get is a virtual label that informs people I was said punching bag?”

Who knows if SSG has plans to further iterate on this system or if it’s a side project that works well enough to go into the game, but this is the type of thing that’s begging for a host of rewards. Increased loot drops or better loot levels, or even exclusive cosmetics, mounts, and housing items. All of that takes far more work on the part of the studio, but it’s what’s needed to fulfill the inherent concept of this idea.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how this emerges from testing and into live. It really should get a whole lot more testing than it probably will, especially considering that there are so many variables — including level boosts, powerleveling assists — that need to be addressed. And I can’t help but imagine how frustrating it’d be to run into a difficulty wall in your questing that can’t be overcome, which is inevitable with this sort of thing.

That said, this system certainly opens up a lot of exciting prospects for players who are bored with the status quo. I can see kinships or kinship sub-groups starting up that are comprised of characters attempting the game on specific difficulty tiers. That’s pretty cool.

So in summary, more options is always good — but even more testing is better. Landscape difficulty needs a whole lot of examination and trials before going live, and I do hope that the studio adds more rewards to this before we see it on retail servers.

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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