The Road to Mordor: Rep pony riots

Last week I received a note from a LotRO player named Shawn who was concerned about one of the controversies revolving around the LotRO store and was wondering if I was going to touch on it. Now, it's no personal surprise that the store was going to have controversial aspects to it -- I can't even imagine a scenario in which it wouldn't -- but I assured him I'd tackle the subject and more after downing a few strong drinks and subjecting myself to 414 straight pages of forum rants.

My reluctance to talk about this is due to a combination of (a) not feeling that strongly to the point of frothing at the mouth about a lot of these items for sale, and (b) the fact that no matter what position I'd take, I'd lose with at least some readers. Hard place, me, rock. So what the hey, why not take the reputation horse by the reigns and see how I can muddle through this and come out with a majority of my skin unflayed!

I'm only going to do this with one provision, however -- that next week I get to talk about what I actually like about the store. There may be hugs and ballads involved. To controversy and beyond, tallyho!
The reputation horses

Let's start with the one category that has a good chunk of the beta community up in arms: the ability to purchase and use reputation mounts. Basically, there are a number of special mounts in game that were previously attainable only by those who worked their way up the reputation ladder for a specific faction, and now Turbine is selling those mounts through the store for anyone to use.

/pauses for the crowd to light the torches

OK, I'm going to take the side of the "con" crowd here. What I imagine happened here is that Turbine either didn't have enough time to create a whole batch of new horse skins exclusive to the store, or the dev team was dismayed that only a very small portion of the playerbase had access to cool mounts that those fancy folks spent a lot of time creating (or, hey, both). By slapping them up on the store, it adds a ton of purchasable fluff and it doesn't hurt game balance in the slightest. If people were to object, Turbine would -- and has already -- use the defense that it's simply giving players a choice between how to obtain the mounts, and everyone likes choice, right?

Yeah... except that in this case, it comes at the cost of diminishing the vast efforts that dedicated players put in to get these mounts in the first place. The rep grind in LotRO is notoriously unfriendly, which has kept the rarity of these mounts pretty high, and tells you a lot about the accomplishments of a player whom you pass on the road riding one. Once these ponies go up on the store with no in-game requirements attached, those accomplishments are rendered null, and the perceived uniqueness of the mount due to its rare status is gone for good.

Now, I don't have problems with the concept of selling mounts on the store, but as many howling players attest, reputation horses really do mean something to a lot of folks because of how they are currently attained. If Turbine goes ahead with the sale of these mounts, then there's even less of an incentive to increase your reputation than before, and a wedge will be driven between some players and the company. I don't think that's worth it, especially when the whole situation could be resolved by simply creating a few new skins.

Mega-pots

I don't think anyone was shocked to see the store offer a lot of temporary buffs and potions; after all, items you can purchase repeatedly are where it's at for Turbine's piggy-bank in the long run. However, players picked up on the fact that the healing potions on sale at the store are currently better than any in-game healing pot. They're also on a separate cooldown timer than regular potions, meaning that a player who has both types of pots can use two at a time. Oh, and did I mention that some of these spiffy new pots were on a super-short cooldown (10 seconds)? Drat, I really should have.

The controversy here is that these pots are seen by some as being so overpowered that they're an advantage rather than a convenience. If you have them in your inventory, you're going to be much better off in raids and other group situations, and if you lack them, then you're going to be more of a drag on your party.

What do I think here? I think that players need to pick their battles, and this shouldn't be one of them. In reading through the thread debating these pots, I noted that most of the objections to the store potions centered around highly situational scenarios, perhaps if you're a part of a raid that discriminates against people who don't have the pots, or in a PvMP battle where these fast-acting pots (ahh, it soothes the burning!) could be the difference between victory or defeat. Plus, it's a potion. It just heals you. It doesn't make you fly or kill an enemy with an "IWIN" glance.

Some players have quite rightly pointed out that the potions cost so much and are so quickly used that it's not financially feasible for people to load up on them to use except for (wait for it) highly situational scenarios. For its part, Turbine has stated that these pots would be coming to the game as a crafted item, and while there's no indication when this will happen, once it does it should defuse the objections to the store presence.

Virtue ranks

In theory, I'm all for the virtue system -- it's an interesting way to increase your character's stats by doing things in the game world instead of merely leveling up. In practice, I'm not a huge fan of the extreme grind it represents, which only gets worse the higher you level. I've been a huge proponent of Turbine reworking this entire system so it's not as insane, but apparently Turbine wants to go a different way by allowing players to buy their way out of the virtue system altogether. Drop a few Turbine points, and you could save yourself from grinding another 300 salamanders; drop a lot of Turbine points, and you'll never have to worry about a virtue deed again on that character.

Here I'm torn. On one hand, it's a great convenience to people -- like myself -- who are tired of bothering with virtues and would rather just not have to deal with them. I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't admit that I'll probably buy one or two ranks to get my virtues to the cap. On the other hand, it feels as though by purchasing these ranks, we're paying Turbine to opt out of a system that is sort of broken. That doesn't give Turbine a lot of reason to fix the virtue system in the future, and it lessens my motivation to actually do virtue deeds.

It reminds me of a quote I like from Player Versus Developer: "This is, of course, the one thing that I really dislike about item shops -- when the developer identifies an aspect of the game that is not fun, their incentive is to create a consumable cash shop item instead of actually fixing the problem."

I also find it somewhat funny that Turbine's selling buffs that allow you to speed up the rate at which you complete slayer deeds. I don't know why, other than price, people would want to buy the buff when you can just get the rank outright, but both of these items on sale in the store seem to reinforce the notion that Turbine recognizes that nobody really likes the virtue system. I think the devs need to fix the root problem instead of making us pay for band-aids here.

Stat tomes

What I think is silly about the one-time stat boosts in the store is that Turbine made a big to-do about not selling store items with stats attached. So they're just going to sell stats by themselves? Then why bother with the charade?

Fifty stat points is nothing to sneeze at, especially across the board on your character, and I've sensed a lot of division from the community about this. It's not really that game-breaking, nor even that noticeable, unless you're a heavy raider who runs calculations between each member's DPS and whatnot. Like virtue ranks, it's an edge that makes your character better overall, but probably not overpowered.

So... generally, the stat tomes are good to have, but not the end of the world if you lack them.

The flip side is that once they're out on the store, it puts pressure on players to get them or else play with a less-than-optimized character. Some people are perfectly fine with that, but others can't stand the thought of not being at their best -- and their best is going to take a credit card.

I'll end this on a wishy-washy note: I'm almost ambivalent to this particular debate. Turbine is even giving players a (very small) chance to get stat tomes in-game, so they're not store-only items. I can see why they ruffle feathers, but mine are unruffled and probably will stay that way for the indefinite future.

Even with these four hotspots, I'm finding a lot to like about the store -- and a few items that have me bouncing in my chair as I wait for the September 8th update to go live. Stay tuned, same warg-time, same warg-channel, and I'll highlight my shopping list in the next column.
This article was originally published on Massively.