The Road to Mordor: Treasure hunting!

LOTRO
It's not been an insignificant week for Lord of the Rings Online, as Turbine rolled out its big holiday patch: Update 5. With it came all manner of goodies, from an instance finder to another book in our epic quest across Middle-earth. Cooks got coffee (have you had a cup of joe yet?), and I reveled in the ability to expand my sorely taxed wardrobe beyond 100 slots.

But amidst all of the excitement and analysis of the new features slid in something surprising. The night of the update, Turbine opened up its long-promised treasure hunting mini-event for a sneak peek. I joined the throngs of curious lookie-loos who made a beeline for Ered Luin and some mysterious patches of glowing soil that promised riches galore.

Treasure hunting was originally supposed to hit the game much earlier this year, but for reasons unknown, Turbine pushed it back until a later date. Personally, I was psyched that another non-combat event was on its way, so when I saw that there was an actual sneak peek of the event, I cast aside all of the shiny new content of the update to see what this was all about. While I came away with favorable impressions, it was with a slight bitter aftertaste of something not quite palatable. What could it be? Well, you're just going to have to keep reading these here fancy words to find out!

Treasure sites
X marks the spot

Turbine sprang this mini-event on us almost out of the blue, so there was certainly a frantic feeling about it. I quickly logged in, asked where it was, and zipped off to the nearest stable. There I saw that the festival stable master appeared, and sure enough, he took me right to the dig site.

There's a series of introductory quests that you get from the Dwarves in the area, but I can easily sum it up with this: When a treasure-hunting round begins, scurry to the nearest glowy patch of soil and click. Click with all your might. Then cross your fingers and hope you strike gold!

The catch here is that you can't dig without a treasure pick, and for some reason, the picks that the Dwarves give you are flimsier than a pair of disposable chopsticks. One dig and the pick is gone, which means that you can only participate as many times as you have picks. You begin with 10 picks and can get a couple more by turning in repeatable quests that are on a 15-minute timer.

While you are supplied with a cave-claw and dowser to help you determine where the best holes are, they were almost useless due to the quick (a minute or less) rounds and the number of people dashing for dig sites. It was first-come, first-served, so there was no time to analyze, just plunder.

Each dig site plops some various amounts of treasure in your bags, typically tokens. These tokens can then be redeemed for a wide variety of prizes (more on that later). However, if you manage to find a large dig site, you can get a special prize, including a shot at a rare treasure-laden mount (which comes in horse and goat varieties).

That's pretty much the gist of it: Treasure hunting is free loot for the taking, with a chance at scoring big. The prizes are certainly attractive, ranging from the aforementioned mounts to emotes to housing decorations to cosmetic outfit pieces. I wasn't able to save up enough in the brief time I was there to get anything, but at least it's a start toward the next time the event returns.

Treasure pile
Hoarders

According to a lengthy thread responding to players' impressions of the event, the feature went over really well. It (mostly) worked as it should've, and there was a sense of fun and excitement as everyone hurried to see what the next dig site would cough up. It's hard to pass up free stuff, after all!

Most players had a couple of minor complaints about the event. The first is that one of the repeatable quests that has you picking berries from bushes spawned berries too slowly, which meant players were fighting over them. Secondly, the sound the cave-claws made when sniffing out a hole is the same "ding" sound that you get when someone sends you a tell -- and since you can hear others' cave-claws dinging, the event sometimes sounded like you were under auditory assault.

Yet perhaps the most disquieting aspect of the event was in the limitations of the treasure hunting picks. You see, doing the repeatable quests isn't the only way to get more picks: As the game is keen to tell you, they're on sale in the LotRO store as well... and they're not exactly cheap.

This ties into something else that came with the update: lootboxes. These are uncommon world drops that have various amounts of goodies inside yet can be opened only with a special key. The key is found as an extremely rare world drop or -- you guessed it -- sold on the LotRO store.

Now, my attitude toward how Turbine is handling LotRO's free-to-play monetization is somewhat even-keeled. I'm not always totally crazy about it for the same reasons that you probably aren't -- the in-your-face-ads, the immersion-breaking, the unnecessary store items -- but I do understand that the company has to make money from free players somehow, and enticing them into giving up money for goodies is better than having content locks. Turbine's also been good at giving us ways to earn many store items in-game and through lotteries without paying real money, and I appreciate that.

But both of these developments -- the treasure picks and the lootbox keys -- are moves from the playbooks of lesser, shameless free-to-play titles. It's one thing to pay for a known quantity; it's another to pay for a random chance to get something good (if you're interested, Cracked has an interesting article on this subject). It's sort of like gambling for your loot, and if the odds don't go your way, you could find yourself out real money for nothing beneficial to show for it.

I don't mean to single out LotRO, as other bigger MMOs are following suit. Star Trek Online is experimenting with the pay-for-random-loot with "winter packages" this season, which could dish out a rare great prize or a common "meh" prize. It'll only cost you some money to find out which!

I'm just not comfortable with that angle, even though the loot in question is generally fluffy and cosmetic. Random loot in MMOs is a staple, but paying real money to have a crack at it -- even if there are other ways to go about getting it -- puts it on a whole different tier. It might not be the line in the sand that I'll draw between me and the LotRO store, but I find it regrettable that what could've been a purely fun mini-event now is tainted with some not-so-cheap moneygrubbing.

However, I don't want to end on a down note because I'm generally excited to see treasure hunting in the game, even temporarily, and I do hope it returns soon. More than that, one of my greatest wishes is that Turbine will be focusing more on these non-combat activities in the future.

But that's a topic for another week. Namely, next week!

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.