The Road to Mordor: Hobbits, hobby horses, and holidays

The Road to Mordor Hobbits, hobby horses, and holidays
Whether you've finished Lord of the Rings Online: Riders of Rohan, are still trotting your way through it, or haven't yet touched the new high-level content, Turbine's got more goods coming your way. Update 9 should be here relatively soon(tm), as it is currently finishing up frenzied testing on Bullroarer.

I'm definitely excited about the changes coming with the update. Unlike the expansion, this update has something for everyone, whether it be worldwide open tapping, a much-improved stable interface, a new player theater in Bree, lootable players in PvMP, the second half of Moria's revamp, the updated Yule festival, or three new scalable dungeons. On the whole, this update looks as if it will go a good way to shoring up some of the weaker spots of the game.

However, three things have really caught my attention this week, and not all of them are as positive. I want to talk about the tie-in to the Hobbit, the new festival grind, and a certain $50 cash shop item that's been the buzz of the community. Let's get started!

The Road to Mordor Hobbits, hobby horses, and holidays
The Hobbit

If you're reading this column, then chances are you're also going to go see The Hobbit next week. I know I am! It's so weird to think that it's been over a decade since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I'm betting it's going to feel strange to jump back into Peter Jackson's vision for Middle-earth.

I've said before, several times, that Turbine would be remiss if it didn't do something to tie in with the Hobbit. If Age of Conan recognizes the importance of cross-media synergy, then why not LotRO? While there are probably some fine legal issues preventing LotRO from releasing "The Hobbit patch," the devs are doing a little something in this direction.

The trio of new dungeons -- the first part of the promised expansion instance cluster -- was perhaps "inspired" by the Hobbit, according to the devs, but it's not being blatantly promoted as such.

Aaron Campbell explained it in an interview with us this week: "The team here is very excited about the upcoming Hobbit movie; we already have a trip planned to see it next week! The movies are good for anyone working with Tolkien's story, but we don't have specific cross-promotion planned."

Even so, a trip to the Misty Mountains, Goblin-town, and Mirkwood are certainly in lockstep with Bilbo Baggins' own journey through the world 83 years earlier. I certainly hope that the film does benefit the MMO in some way. It's just a shame that the game wasn't allowed to capitalize more fully on this unique event.

The holidays

With Update 9 comes the start of our beloved Yule festival, which was made a lot more special and interesting when Winter-home arrived a couple of years ago. While I'm quite busy with the expansion, I'm sure I'll be taking a break from my adventures in Rohan to see what's being added to the festival and what new prizes are ripe for plucking.

In addition to unifying the festival currency, Turbine's adding a couple of additional reward tiers this year. This means that previous rewards will still be available on the first tier, but there are two new tiers past that with even better swag. Rumor is that the highest tier boasts a Yule-themed war-steed, which totally sounds great.

It sounds great, except that the cost of getting it is in quests. Originally, Turbine required that you do a whopping 200 quests to access the third tier. This was an incredibly ridiculous grind that had no place in a festival whatsoever, and that's not even mentioning the possibility that players could lose their progress if they didn't finish it all in one year.

Fortunately, Turbine scaled back the grind a little bit. Tier 2 now takes 60 quests to access and tier 3 takes 100. It's still going to be a fair bit of work for those who want the best prizes, however. I never think it's a good idea to turn holidays into grindfests because all you're doing is training your most dedicated customers to hate seasonal content. Where's that Christmas generosity, Turbine?

The Road to Mordor Hobbits, hobby horses, and holidays
The hobby horse

File this under "What were they thinking? No, seriously, what were they thinking? Because we have no idea!" As you've probably heard, Turbine was testing out the sale of a functional hobby horse mount in the store to the tune of $50. The studio kept using the words "experimental pricing" and "looking for constructive criticism" while the community dropped all of its internal bickering to band together and bellow, "NO!"

I was flabbergasted on so many levels. Nothing about this makes any sense. Why did Turbine feel the need to experiment with such expensive sales in the first place? Was the hobby horse really deserving of being at the center of this inquiry? Do we need scores of players gallivanting about on these ridiculous mounts? Why was the Turbine rep so condescending while asking for feedback?

More than anything else: What does this mean for the game?

Not unexpectedly, Turbine yanked the sale, said something else about it being an experiment, and left the community frazzled and bewildered. We simply didn't know what to make of all of this. Was Turbine really so out of touch to not know that this would set off a firestorm? No, because the same rep later said that this feedback was completely expected. So why put it out there in the first place? Why stir up the community -- which is largely wary of the cash shop grabs that Turbine's performed in the past -- for no good reason?

I asked all of these questions to Campbell and received the following response: "The LotRO Store is constantly changing, and we will continue to try new things to learn more about what our players will respond to; in fact, with this update we're removing almost 2000 items (many of which you would only see with a specific race, class, level or crafting profession). The store gives us direct feedback about what players want, and this helps us simplify, improve, or eliminate offers. The Hobby Horse gives you the ability to ride a stick with a cloth horse's head across the landscape. That's really all it is -- quirky and fun. Much like the shirtless Dwarf cosmetic, this is a unique item, and as with all items in the store, players can give us feedback by choosing to buy it (or not)."

Does that clarify why this "experiment" had to happen in the first place? No, it does not.

So if Turbine's not going to be more forthright about this, then we're given leave to speculate. A couple of bloggers crafted pretty convincing posts reasoning why this could be a mandate from on high to test the waters of more aggressive revenue influx following disappointing sales of Riders of Rohan. It's a theory that I would like to refute, except that there is a note of believability to it. I'm not saying that the game's in mortal danger, but when it comes to finances, there's often a lot more going on in the background than we ever see.

It could be that the team hates the $50 hobby horse just as much as we did but didn't have a choice about running it. There are always suits who are out of touch with the community of the game and instead see us as dollar signs to be manipulated. I don't want to get ultra-cynical about this, just realistic.

I don't care whether the hobby horse is sold in the game or not at a reasonable price, but I do care that LotRO's gotten a black mark over an experiment that was completely predictable for both the developers and players. I worry about what other "experiments" we might be seeing in the future.

And you know what? I don't like that I have to worry. I love this game. I think that Riders is the best expansion yet. The only reason that I write all this is because I want to see it succeed, not get dragged down by overpriced novelty goods.

Update 9? Bring it on. I'll be waiting.

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.