The Road to Mordor: Convenience, not advantage

LotRO
Prior to Lord of the Rings Online's free-to-play implementation, players were raising concerns of potential abuse of the F2P model and the LotRO store in particular. The CM at the time, Patience, posted a now-infamous response stated that Turbine was about selling "convenience, not advantage" in the store. I thought it was a terrific stance to take (and still is, for any F2P MMO dabbling in microtransactions). It wasn't long, however, before the thread was purged from the forums entirely, although the playerbase has held on to those three words to this day.

That phrase has echoed in my head over the past week, ever since we heard that statted armor was coming to the in-game store. I've been among those who have championed Turbine's F2P model as the way to do things right -- to offer fluff, a la carte content and convenience without straying into so-called "pay to win" territory that has plagued cheaper games. But now I wonder if the new motto is "convenience and advantage," especially in light of several other questionable store selections that have been pushed through despite player resistance.

But let's concentrate on one topic today, that being the stat armor that's now available in the store. Is this strictly a "convenience" item that is meant to aid struggling lowbies, or does it represent the sale of a clear advantage for those who are OK with letting their money game for them? Are we making a mountain out of a molehill by discussing this, or is it far past time that something like this needs to be brought into the public discourse?

Throne room
The flip-flop

So for those of you catching up on all this, you may be asking, "What's the deal?" Let me sum it up: In a 2010 interview between Massively and Turbine, Turbine addressed some of the concerns about the LotRO store by saying that the company would not sell any gear with stats attached. This is a factual statement -- I know this, because I was present for that interview -- that was not contested by the company when we printed it, nor in the time after that it's been up on the site.

I won't go into much depth about how the company's been trying to get around that promise, but actions like selling top-tier stat tomes (which aren't available as an in-game drop) or exclusive, high-powered relics have indicated just how much Turbine's flirted with the boundaries in this regard. So when the company put statted armor up for sale, it basically reversed a former stance and flip-flopped on what it said it would and would not do.

Now, I'm not going to say that game studios can never change their minds. When you have a constantly evolving and changing game, you end up saying hundreds if not thousands of things about the game in the public sphere, so sooner or later your past words and current decisions will conflict. But if when this happens, a studio has to acknowledge it, and depending on the severity of the issue, justify it to the playerbase -- otherwise it comes off as seedy and underhanded.

My personal opinion is that the deletion of the "convenience not advantage" post and the subsequent store maneuvers to sell advantage-related items indicate to me that Turbine's wanted to do this all along. I'm not big on conspiracy theories, but the evidence points to an evolution for the LotRO store that is similar to Dungeon and Dragons Online's -- that of trading real money for a boost in gear and stats for veteran players. If DDO had it and survived any player protests, why wouldn't LotRO follow suit?

Turbine's response

I have to say that I've been very disappointed with Turbine's response to this matter. Sapience posted that the reasoning behind the armor is that "many players have given us feedback that there is a sparsity of gear on the AH at these levels and they wanted an alternative. We're trying to accommodate that." More recently, Adam Mersky said, "This is us coming up with solutions to problems players are reporting to us. We're trying to create solutions for players."

The studio didn't, however, address why it had reversed its previous position on not selling stat gear or why this was the best solution for this problem. Couldn't Turbine add better gear rewards to quests? Give a helping hand to crafters to encourage more gear production? Add more gear to the game via barter NPCs? It seems to make no sense.

At worst, this comes off as a shameless cash grab that sacrifices the studio's integrity in the hopes that it can make some more money. At best, it's an honest attempt to fix a problem and meet customer's needs that uses the LotRO store as a crutch instead of dealing with it in the game itself.

What's perhaps most disturbing about Turbine's response was the following quote by Mersky: "We have no intention at this time of selling any raid gear in the store." Sounds great, right? Then read it again and let the words "at this time" sink in. This is not a pledge of a studio drawing a line between what it will and will not ever do; it is the studio saying, "We're just not doing it right now, but we're going to leave our options open." What should inspire confidence instead invites dread.

The gear

So let's take a look at the armor in question since I'm making a fuss about it, shall we? There are three sets of statted armor for each armor type (light, medium, and heavy), ranging in cost from 340 TP for the level 1-9 set to 1040 TP for the level 20+ set. It's important to note that the gear is also bound to account, meaning that you can swap it between your own characters as sort-of permanent starter leveling gear.

Let's put aside all the surrounding issues of putting this armor up for sale in the first place to look at the stats involved. The chart above was created by an enterprising player on the forums who wanted to highlight just how powerful the armor was relative to what could be crafted in-game. You'll note that, for instance, the store-bought tier 2 (level 10) heavy armor is head and shoulders above what can be crafted at level 15; it's even competitive with what's available for crafted gear at level 28.

This is gear that is top of the line for the first 30 levels of gameplay, make no mistake. Crafters aren't happy because this deals them a serious blow to their own efforts and economy. As a player wrote in the forums, "The Turbine store should not be competing against players." I also wonder why anyone with cash would even want to try to obtain in-game gear through normal channels when the "fix" is superior to everything else (except, presumably, for rare dungeon and skirmish gear).

The purpose of the LotRO store

It'd be easy to toss out the baby with the bathwater (which I've done many times, as my kids attest) over all this, so I want to clarify: On the whole, I like the LotRO store more than I dislike it. For a F2P player, there are great a la carte options and ways to earn them for free in-game, and for VIP players there's a lot of fun fluff, cosmetics, and temporary boosts. But there should be a line between what is beneficial to the game and what hurts the game's integrity that shouldn't be influenced by what marketing thinks it can get away with selling.

In a perfect world, Turbine -- and other F2P MMO studios -- would boost credibility by coming right out and issuing a clear-cut statement detailing where this line is and what will never, ever be sold. That will never happen, of course, but it would be such a confidence booster to players to have that assurance. Instead, we have replaced "convenience not advantage" with "at this time."

The LotRO store should be about selling cosmetics, expanding game tools (wardrobe, space), F2P content options, boosts, and buffs. It should not be about trying to sell players items that are easily and cheaply attainable in-game, items that give you power for points (relics, tomes, gear), and gambling (lockboxes, treasure picks). Finally, anything that offers a substantial advantage in-game to paying vs. non-paying customers -- AKA "pay to win" -- should be avoided like the plague, not courted and wooed until the inevitable consummation.

Swan fountain
The community's response

Adam Mersky was also quoted saying that Turbine is "not averse to pulling things off the store if they don't work," which gives us some glimmer of hope that the company will see how poisonous this is to the game as a whole. But while the money to be made trumps the potential loss of players, I doubt it will happen.

Sapience also assured players that the higher-ups are aware of the controversy: "[The execs] knew the issue, they have read all or part of this thread, they were aware of the post counts, total numbers of unique participants, and the tone and tenor of the discussion."

Let us hope that Turbine knows the "tone and tenor" of the community on this because it is not insignificant. I've been monitoring blogs, Massively's comment section, and the official forum this past week, and I have seen nothing but overwhelming opposition to the store stat gear and what it represents. Don't take my word for it, however; check out A Casual Stroll to Mordor's poll on the topic or the store armor forum thread that's pushing 1,000 posts.

If this doesn't give Turbine pause to reconsider, then not only will the gear remain indefinitely, but the door is cracked even wider for future travesties. Listen, I like LotRO and I like the store, which is the only reason I care enough to write all this. Lines must be drawn, and I urge Turbine to not only pull this gear from the store but to recommit its focus to three simple words:

Convenience. Not advantage.

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.