LOTRO Legendarium: LOTRO’s Minstrel revamp is a master class in studio obstinance

    
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Does anything in this world produce a cold sweat faster than a developer abruptly announcing, “Oh hey, we’re going to retool your class?” Unless your profession is sleeping in the gutter and has nothing left to lose, such a proclamation rightly creates fear and anxiety in MMO populations.

After all, we have history on our side. It’s a history full of developers who arrogantly thought they knew better. Who decided to fix things that weren’t broken. Who took toys away and handed out punishment in return. And as always — as always — it’s done in the name of “balance.”

My initial reaction to SSG informing us that it was overhauling the Minstrel class in Lord of the Rings Online was probably like a lot of yours: First, there was mild confusion because the Minstrel generally was not seen as a broken or subpar class. Then there was a bit of hope that Minnies were about to see some of their problem areas addressed. And finally, there was consternation and anger that a dev was running rampant through the patch notes, swinging a nerf bat left and right while trying to justify the ham-handed changes to a crowd that wasn’t having it.

The topper on the cake was another SSG developer coming on a livestream all but telling everyone to shut up because these changes were, quote, “pretty much set in stone.”

So let’s back up a moment and gain a bit of perspective. I’m no new MMO player who’s experiencing his first class nerf deflowering. I understand that classes — like the rest of these games — are always in flux and subject to fine-tuning, adjustments, and growth. I’m not so much of a die-hard Minstrel player that I’m simply reacting out of fear that “my baby” is being wrecked.

Rather, I’m deeply perturbed how SSG decided that it was going to handle a rather major overhaul of a popular class. The way it’s gone down is appalling and has me genuinely concerned about other class “revamps” (which the studio has already vowed are coming).

So what’s the problem here? The way I see it, there are five serious fails that happened over the past few weeks, ones that I’ve seen other studios perform in the past as well.

First, SSG gave absolutely no indication prior to testing Update 33.2 that it was going to be starting class revamps or giving Minstrels a rework. There was no prior attempt to prep the community or request feedback on the class itself, in spite of plenty of opportunity to do so, which not only makes the community feel as if its voice is unheard but also gives the impression that these are last-minute revisions – or worse, that the team anticipated the negative feedback and decided to keep the overhaul on the down-low until absolutely necessary in order to minimize the blowback.

Second, the studio took fun things that worked — specifically the class’ signature Piercing Cry — and nerfed it hard. It also removed the option to specialize as a Yellow-line buffer, something that a segment of the Minstrel community reveled in playing.

Third, almost all of the changes were to push players into a stance — Melody — that almost nobody played. The idea here, as far as I can see, was to make the attack and healing stances worse so that this middle ground would come out as better.

Fourth, SSG absolutely did not fix parts of the class that definitely needed help, such as (and this is important) clearly defining what the Minstrel’s role is in the game and raid groups. Players have subsequently asked this question over and over, only to see devs dodge and deflect the answer.

Fifth and finally, SSG refused to take feedback from testing into account. As it’s done so many times before, the studio had already decided the course for these changes and wasn’t going to be talked out of it. Hearing a dev outright tell players that the changes were “set in stone” despite the testing process still playing out was disheartening, to say the least.

Now, these Minstrel changes aren’t the end of the world. I’m sure that minnies will adapt and even find new ways to enjoy the class. But overall, this whole effort has been a mess of SSG’s own making that’s left a real sour stench to Update 33.2. And with the studio promising that other classes will receive similar reviews and revamps, it has me genuinely worried that these foolish development and community-management bungles will be repeated.

If something as critical to player satisfaction and engagement as classes is to be revamped this extensively, SSG would be wise to cautiously approach such tasks and involve the community throughout the entire process. Taking the role of the parent who throws down a plate of food while saying, “You’ll eat it and you’ll like it!” doesn’t foster goodwill and patience.

It may be too late for Minstrels, but the battle over Middle-earth’s heroes is just beginning. SSG can surrender with grace and work with players — or else prepare for a long siege of pushback and degrading relationships.

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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