It just may be the dream of every MMO geek to command the attention of his or her favorite dev team, bombard them with questions, and be shown secrets previously kept behind closed doors. Well, my friends, today that dream came true for this geek, as Turbine graciously sat down with Massively for over two hours to conduct an all-access tour to the fall's hot new LotRO content -- including the details behind the controversial and anticipated F2P switch. Aaron Campbell (Producer), Allan Maki (Senior Designer), Elliot Gilman (Senior Designer), Brian Aloisio (Designer), Joseph Barry (Designer) and Jonathan Rudder (Lore Guru) were on hand to fly me through the new content -- and reveal a few big surprises.

To say that I had questions is an understatement; I fear that I sounded a bit like a six-year-old who peppers parents with unending "Why?" queries. Expecting to hear "no comment" a lot (after all, this content is in beta), I was surprised when the Turbine team enthusiastically answered all of my questions and then some. This is a team who know this F2P move is bringing some apprehension and concern, and they're trying to assuage that with as much information as possible.

So join me as we go through the first part of this tour, looking at an enhanced new-player experience, instance scaling and the addition of Enedwaith to Turbine's Middle-earth.
New-player experience

While I've always thought that Turbine did an excellent job with LotRO's opening tutorial sequence, apparently Turbine thought it could be better. As a result, this fall's update will include a revamped new player experience that begins with the character customization screen (all the info is on one screen now, not spread out between several) and continues through the tutorial proper.

The UI, for example, has been favorably tweaked, including an easier-to-read experience bar at the bottom. Alongside the bag slots will be a new button that accesses the skirmish/instance interface (more on this later) as a way to encourage players to use this feature.

Tutorial pop-ups now include pictures, with sort of a "Frodo's Guide to Middle-earth" vibe. Oddly enough, the pictures go a long way to making these pop-ups more readable and friendly -- you no longer have to feel as though the game is winging paragraphs of new information at you from the start.

The team have also upgraded the beginning story for both hobbits and the race of man to bring it more in line with the storytelling advances they've incorporated over the years.

Instance interface and scaling

Next on the tour was a quick hop through the brand-new instance interface. Apparently, Turbine have come to the conclusion that their dungeons may be a little too inaccessible (and underplayed) by the general population and so have implemented an instant instance interface (say that three times fast!) to combat this. If you're like me and haven't run a lot of dungeons before, that might change come this fall. I was told that the praised skirmish interface was always seen as the first step in bringing this technology to instances. Both skirmishes and instances will be accessed through the same interface, which allows you and a team of friends to jump into the action right away, no matter where everyone is in the world.

Turbine are gradually working through the dungeons to not only make them scalable, but to also add new monsters, monster skills, polish and other general tweaks. Not all of the dungeons have received this treatment yet; as of right now, four hubs' worth of dungeons (Helegrod, Annúminas, Great Barrows and the Eregion group dungeons) are upgraded, with more to follow. There's been a little confusion as to how these instances scale -- Turbine clarified that while the instances and raids do not scale to group size, they will scale up to your level. For example, you can first access Great Barrows at level 20, and from then on scale it up so that you never out-level it.

Another cool change to these dungeons is that they're being chopped up into wings where appropriate so that players won't have to sit through a four-hour instance to finish the whole thing. You can jump into any of the four wings of Helegrod, for example, depending on how much time you have and where your interest lies. The team have also abolished raid locks and lowered the raid size (from 24 to 12) to make this raid more accessible.

When an instance is scaled up in levels, players receive proportionate rewards for the increased difficulty including marks and custom tokens. Similar to skirmish campaign marks, these instance marks are used as unique currency for gear and other items. Turbine are also making sure that these upgraded instances have a challenge mode, similar to what they started in the Mines of Moria expansion, so that players willing to undergo a unique challenge will receive a superior token for their efforts.

You'll also have more to do in these upgraded dungeons. LotRO will automatically hand you a number of quests for whatever dungeon you're running, on an average of five to six new quests, including a mission to slay the end boss. Additionally, there will be new deeds and daily dungeon quests available to prompt players to try a wide range of instances. Turbine's currently working on a dev diary to go into more details for this system.

I asked if Turbine had any plans to hook strangers up through the world join system, à la World of Warcraft's dungeon finder. They said it was certainly something they'd considered, although the sheer difficulty in creating a balanced PUG means that if they did it wrong, it would be worse than if they never did it at all. So while it remains a possibility, it's not on the table for this fall.


Enedwaith

As Lothlórien was to Moria, so too Enedwaith is to Mirkwood -- a return of a cheery, open zone after a long stretch in the gloomy dark. Enedwaith is essentially an extension of Eregion in terms of atmosphere and landscapes, although its dearth of official details gave the developers a longer leash when creating its content. From snowy vistas to red cliffs to pastoral scenery, Enedwaith covers a large spectrum of visuals, not to mention an even larger spectrum of quests. Over 160 quests for the zone are currently in the game, giving players a lot to do when it opens up to the public this fall.

Enedwaith's theme might as well be "Forgotten Country." The zone is a buffer between the more populated lands to the north and the kingdom of Gondor to the south (Gondorian ruins can be spotted here), but its inhabitants lack the civilization of either. Many of the humans are Dunlandings who are deserters from the failed Eregion invasion campaign, and now are squatting on this remote piece of land. The inspiration for these wilds is being drawn from Wales and Welsh folklore, especially when it comes to some of the monsters and culture players will encounter. It is, for sure, a very beautiful zone.

I was surprised to discover that Enedwaith is no stranger to the little folk. In one corner lies the isolated hobbit settlement of Maur Tulhau, where hobbits have developed quite differently than in the Shire. They are a group of Stoors who decided to plant roots here instead of continuing north, and as a result have become a bit more bumpkin than their Shire relatives. (These hobbits are actually mentioned in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring.) Their backwoods nature is reflected in the little details, from the facial hair on the men to rope belts to the modified look of their buildings. Turbine said that they're trying something interesting with Maur Tulhau, in that there's only one quest to pick up as you enter the town -- and that quest (well, quest chain) will change depending on your race. So dwarf characters will experience a different story than elves, and so on.

Seeing as how most Enedwaith-bound characters will be level-capped already, I asked the team what incentive there would be to proceed through this new content. While the team didn't think it was the right time to increase the level cap (chances are that will come with Isengard), they listed quite a few reasons for players to explore this zone. The first was to not only see the sights, but to continue the epic story in Volume III Book 2. At this point in the game, the Fellowship is about to be broken as they head down the Great River Anduin, but the rangers and characters will be doing everything to help Frodo's quest succeed. On top of that, Enedwaith has a host of goodies for high-level characters, including new legendary item upgrades, cosmetic items and faction horses. Plus, all of the post-50 quests in the game are guaranteed to give item XP, so the 160+ additional quests will be a great boon to players leveling up their legendaries.

Next week we'll conclude this tour with a look at the LotRO store, the future of the game, and something so awesome, I'm buying a time machine so that I won't have to wait until the fall to experience it.

Tavern Talk -- A look at what the LotRO community is talking about this week:

This article was originally published on Massively.