The Road to Mordor: Not all who wander are lost

Road to Mordor
These are exciting times for Lord of the Rings Online, for sure. The Fellowship -- and hundreds of thousands of groupies following in its wake -- has moved south, and we are growing ever closer to Mordor and Mt. Doom. In a month, Middle-earth will grow significantly with the addition of Rise of Isengard, and level-capped players will suddenly have a whole new buffet of content to devour.

It's also a good era for exposure for the game, as plenty of people will get to see the expansion at Gamescom and PAX, not to mention those already in the beta proper. While we haven't heard anything about the game's finances or player numbers lately, there's no reason to believe that it's not still going strong.

That said, I want to take a step back today, as I sometimes do, and look at the larger picture. How is LotRO positioned against the current competition and the heavy-hitters yet to come? What does Turbine need to be working on over the next year or two? Are we just wandering aimlessly, or is the path laid out for journey for a long time to come?

Bird and Baby Inn
Staring down The Old Republic

I think every MMO studio out there, barring those catering to an extremely niche crowd or those feeling overconfident, is probably eyeing Star Wars: The Old Republic (and to a lesser extent, Guild Wars 2) with a sinking feeling in the gut. Big games with mass appeal and vast budgets present a clear and present danger for the rest of the field, and LotRO certainly won't be immune to the effects of such launches when they occur. So can our beloved game weather the storm and survive, or will it be knocked into irrelevance?

From where I'm sitting, LotRO is in a position of strength in the MMO industry, and that gives it good odds to keep on plugging no matter what. Its free-to-play hybrid model has been widely praised by players, competitors, and press alike. It's a well-established game with a very involved and mature community. It's releasing an expansion in a year with extremely few major MMO game and expansion launches. And, of course, it has the Tolkien IP bolstering it.

Getting Rise of Isengard out before the launch storm of The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, TERA, et al. is a smart move. The expansion not only gives LotRO a boost of publicity but comes out during a time when many anxiously waiting players are itching for something new to experience. With luck, Isengard will bolster the population so that the inevitable hit won't feel as hard.

LotRO's best asset over the next 12 months is that players don't have to choose between it and another subscription title; they can have both. Even if you cancel your subscription, that doesn't mean you've "quit" the game. It can remain on your desktop indefinitely, still available for play no matter what, and it's perfectly content to share your time with other titles. It's one of the aspects of the F2P switch I've liked because it really does take away the MMO version of Sophie's Choice.

Underground cavern
Where's the treasure hunt?

Way back in March, Kate Paiz announced in her producer's letter that the team was hard at work on a treasure hunt event, which was later confirmed for Update 3. Despite information about some of the special mounts coming out and a camp set up in Ered Luin, this hunt has failed to materialize as we've blown through the summer. I think most people have actually forgotten about it.

It's not a major thing, but considering that Rise of Isengard is mostly concerned with high-level content and activities, I think it would be really great for the team to release something fun for the entire playerbase. Turbine's done an amazing job with the festivals (barring the anniversary one), and I was pretty excited about the notion of going on a treasure hunt.

We reached out to Turbine concerning this, and Paiz responded with the following: "When testing the Treasure Hunt in preparation for the summer release, we ran into some balance issues we really wanted to get sorted out before bringing it live to players. Our improvements of the experience have been going well, and we are hopeful that it will be ready to go for release by the end of the year."

So there we go -- treasure hunting by the end of the year! Now where's our housing revamp and non-combat pets? Heh.

LotRO Balrog
What's next?

It does seem unfair to be asking "what's next?" when Turbine's staff is hard at work wrapping up a full-blown expansion, but fair or not, it's a question that needs to be asked. While few people are going to complain about having an expansion, I've heard some grumblings that cover the worry that we're going to see a drought of new content following this as we did prior to the F2P launch.

So what do I think Turbine should be doing next? I'm no expert, but I have a few suggestions.

The first thing it should do is release another producer's letter prior to Rise of Isengard's launch, detailing what the studio has planned for the upcoming months. That's right, prior. It always makes a company look good when it not only can give us a list of upcoming content but do it right before the launch of something big. It gives players the sense that the company has a plan and is on the ball, and we like that sort of assurance.

It might go without saying, but Turbine also needs to stick to its promise by continuing its steady release of updates. I know, Isengard is a big addition and asking for more right now seems silly, but I also know how players are. Come December or January, there will be many unhappy people if we aren't seeing at least news of the next content patch.

I think it'd also be absolutely stellar if Turbine announced that it's working on the next expansion by February or March of next year. At this point in the game's life, an Isengard-sized expansion coming out every year or year-and-a-half would really help with player retention. Some feel that we're taking so long to get to Mordor we'll never actually arive -- some, but not all.

And not to belabor a point, but if Turbine doesn't or can't make a Hobbit tie-in work sometime in the next two years, it will be missing a massive opportunity to synergize with the movie. This month Age of Conan is doing just that by releasing an adventure pack that features areas from the movie, and that strikes me as an excellent idea.

Finally, more than anything else I'd like to see the studio focus on character development. Whether that involves adding a new class to the game, creating advanced versions of our classes for endgame players, or even implementing a fourth trait line for each class, growing our characters should be more exciting and significant at the upper levels than it is now. I'm all for class passes and skill consolidation, mind you, but 10 levels and a couple of new virtues isn't going to make me feel as though my character is really growing.

Yes, all of this is much, much easier said than done, and whether or not it happens, I hope that Turbine's gearing up for a busy year instead of trusting that Rise of Isengard will be the ultimate content solution. We're all part of this journey, and by trusting our Turbine guides we have hope that we're never lost as we wander.

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
This article was originally published on Massively.