Can LOTRO Modernise Any Further?
A while back Syp wrote a blog post over on his personal website Bio Break, in which he discussed how The Lord of the Rings Online had avoided the “complexity trap” he feels affects other MMORPGs over time. It’s a sentiment I broadly concur with. The 12-year-old game has now reached a point where it has a fixed set of systems. Developers Standing Stone Games continue to produce regular PVE content in the form of quests, instances and raids. But they haven’t added a major new component to the game since the introductions of Epic Battles. Instead they have refined and fine-tuned existing facets of the game. Consider the recent overhaul of the Virtue Trait system. The basic functionality remains but the way a player advances their chosen virtues has been streamlined and now provides more tangible benefits. Overall, LOTRO has settled into a comfortable niche. New content is forthcoming but is very much a case of “same meat, different gravy”.
Now Syp’s post logically raises the question could LOTRO be more complex? Is it possible to add a radical new mechanic to the game at this stage in its lifecycle? Because LOTRO is an old game by industry standards. It may have launched in 2007 but the code is older due to the games longwinded development process. As a developer, SSG has two main problems as a result of this. Can the game technically be altered in a major capacity and is there the expertise in house to undertake such a project. Because that latter is a regular issue for many companies. Staff come and go and that means expertise can be lost. It is a major reason why Cryptic closed The Foundry in Star Trek Online. I believe it is also why no new skirmishes were forthcoming in LOTRO for a long time. Something the developers have now addressed through the hiring of new staff. Furthermore, SSG have surprised their playerbase by successfully managing to produce a 64-bit client for the game. Although it remains a work in progress, considering the technical hurdles, this was quite a coup.
But before we embark upon this thought experiment, let us take a moment to reflect upon what LOTRO does that is quite advanced by the standards of the genre. It is the only MMO that I play that has auto-looting direct to your bags. All the other’s want me to press at least one key to select lootable items. LOTRO just hoovers them up. The game also has vendors that you can add to your house. There is also a tinker that can be summoned to a campfire to fix broken armour. Both of these services set a precedence that could potentially be expanded. LOTRO also offers a thorough personal transportation system. The reputation based “return” skills cover a surprisingly wide percentage of the game’s zones. However, I don’t think the game could accommodate a loss or consolidation of skills to become more of an action combat-based game. I think this would be a far too controversial. Rather than changing class and race attributes, it would be better to focus more on what you can done in the “wider world”.
So exactly what new systems or mechanics would be beneficial to a MMORPG such as LOTRO? My immediate answer is dynamic, public events in relevant zones, that can be justified from a lore perspective. Next it would be good to see some sort of scaling content system. A mechanic that allows a max level player to revisit older zones and adjust to the right level. This is something The Elder Scrolls Online does very well. The levelling of content is seamless and there are plenty of World Bosses, Dungeons and Dolmen to complete. Furthermore, they are all clearly marked on the zone map. LOTRO is halfway there with some similar systems, such as roving threats for example. But they need to be easier to find. Similarly too many instances in LOTRO are tied to discovery or specific quest lines. Accessibility and promotion are lacking. And let us not overlook the state of housing in LOTRO, which remains mainly a glorified storage service. The Cape of Belfalas housing has some pleasant leisurely quests but they are not repeatable. Housing needs to offer players a reason to spend time in the neighbourhood. I would also advocate improving the skirmish soldier system, to make them more versatile companions, rather than the blunt tool that they currently are.
Naturally I have barely scratched the surface, with regard to ideas to improve LOTRO and expand its scope and complexity. But I believe there is a focal point, that if addressed properly, would potentially lead to further improvements. A lot of the game’s existing functionality is hidden or too esoteric. The UI needs to be made “smarter”. To be able to provide more information, make suggestions be more proactive. Again I’d say look to ESO and its zone guides. Something similar in LOTRO would ensure that players got the most out of the content they’ve purchased. An optional list that let’s players know if there are any quests or places of interest that they haven’t completed or discovered. A lore book of some kind may also be useful. The existing skill trees need to do more than just inform a player of what they can earn. I would welcome suggestions regarding specific class builds based upon player preferences. I know that a great deal of useful information exists outside of many MMOs, curated by fans. But I’ve always felt that tabbing out of a game is counterproductive. Can this information not be brought in-game?
Finally, as we’re considering complexity, let us reflect upon social interaction. It is still a regular lament from certain quarters that the MMO genre is losing its social element. So why not address this issue by incentivising kinships with some additional perks. STO has gear and other items that are only accessible by joining a fleet and running fleet projects. Again, the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that this is an aspect of LOTRO that could be expanded and improved. However, if there ever was a concerted move to broaden the complexity and scope of LOTRO it would have to be done within specific parameters. Or else there would come a point where it would be easier to just create a new game. So bearing all of this in mind, is any of this likely to happen? Well if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said “no”. But the pipe dream of the 64-bit client has now become a reality, so who can say? Perhaps, there is hope after all. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to any potential change to LOTRO would be the playerbase itself. Trying to find a consensus would be extremely difficult. So may be SSG have decided on a policy of “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. I wouldn’t blame them.