Last September I argued that classes did need a shakeup. While the whole structure isn't without its redeeming (ahem) virtues, I believed that it wasn't intuitive for new players, that there wasn't really any growth in the abilities or builds of characters post-Moria, and that much of the deed system was simply too grindy.
That's why I'm cautiously optimistic about the "coming class apocalypse" in 2013 -- I'm tired of the status quo. LotRO has an opportunity to cut the dead weight and make leveling interesting all over again. Let's take a look at a few statements by the dev team to deduce what we'll be looking at when it happens.
The first details we got about the class revamp came from Producer Kate Paiz: "We will be making some significant changes to the skills and traits of the Free Peoples classes. We'll be pruning out skills that just feel disappointing in play and increasing the potency of others. The end result will be fewer skills, but a more profound impact on moment-to-moment play."
As we'll see in the rest of this column, this kind of approach isn't out of the blue; it's something that Turbine's been working on for a little while now. The team's been consolidating skills here and there over the past two expansions, usually combining the effects of two skills into one. This has been generally welcome as it's relieved some of the strain on our over-full hotbars, and now it looks as though Turbine's about to push the notion even further.
Fewer skills that pack more potency gets a general thumbs-up from me. My fingers stretch only so far on a keyboard, and so hunting and clicking for that one seldom-used-but-needed-right-now skill can be frustrating.
Last week's dev chat netted us several solid details about the class changes as Lead Systems Designer Matt Zimmitti gave us this terse, packed list: "Three trees per class. Some degree of blending at a higher cost than sticking with a pure build. Bonuses granted based on an early-level specialization choice that grows as points are spent. You can have multiple specs. You can respec."
Let's start with the skill trees. This is something I felt fairly confident that was coming because Riders of Rohan added these trees for war-steeds. At the time, I commented to a few friends that this could be Turbine testing the waters to see how the players reacted to such a system, and now I'm guessing that the water was found to be warm and inviting.
Right now there are three major systems in the game for character customization: traits, legendary items, and war-steed skill trees. It's time to bring them in line, and skill trees make sense (although it looks as though Turbine isn't budging on LIs). Now, I understand if you're beholden to the old ways and don't want to see change. Traits are fine in practice, but they carry the burden of being somewhat obtuse to newcomers and locked in place around level 56. Skill trees, on the other hand, are a tried-and-proven system (if a little vanilla) that are is intuitive to players coming from any MMO, and they allow for constant character growth and choices.
For me it comes down to choices when building my character. We get a lot of them at lower levels and practically none at higher. That robs me of the joy of leveling because there's little to look forward to when I ding. Now we might see choices running from level 2 all the way to the level cap, and I think that's a good thing.
One oft-acknowledged problem with the current state of class traits is that each class seems to have a trait line that is muddled and vastly underused by a majority of the players. If nothing else, all three lines needed to be made equally interesting so that picking between them was a tough call, not a no-brainer.
So now it sounds as if we'll be picking a path from the get-go ("early-level specialization choice"), one that will affect our playstyle and bonuses. I like this because it helps to form a sub-class "identity" that's sadly lacking in LotRO right now until you go five deep in a particular line and get your capstone.
I also like that there's some thought being given to those of us that would rather create more generalist specs instead of dedicated ones. I've often pursued this route because being a little good at a lot of things was more important to me than being awesome at a few things.
Here's something that players have been asking for for years: the ability to create and save multiple build specs. It's another feature that we can thank the war-steed system for testing out (although personally I don't bother with more than one spec with my horsie -- do you?).
The upside of multiple specs is that it adds another element of choice during play. Do I want my tank spec or my DPS spec? Do I want to be a stealth master tonight or stab everything in the face? The downside is that it robs us of a bit of that sub-class identity we talked about. I'm no more a healer Captain than I am a tanking Captain; it just depends on what button I click to radically change my build.
For the longest time -- we're talking 12 years here -- my office was exactly the same as the week I moved into it. However, one day when I walked in, I forced myself to see it as it was: cluttered, a little dirty, and reflective of how I get stuck in a rut. So I spent a week tearing down everything, cleaning, and then rearranging it all, even though a part of me was freaked out that I'd end up with a worse situation. You know what? The final result was sublime: It felt new, it was clean, and visitors said how much more open and friendly it looked.
So I certainly understand the apprehension at the thought of Turbine monkeying with your beloved build. There's certainly room to botch this up or water it down, and even if it's well-done, some people are going to be upset because they've already decided to be. But obviously the devs strongly feel that this is important for the long-term growth and survival of the game, and as much as I dislike change on the whole, I also know that shaking things up can produce huge benefits and revitalize interest.
It's OK to be nervous about change. It's also OK to welcome it. I trust that the devs have taken a long look at the clutter of the game and have the best intentions to clean it up and give us something that feels fresh and exciting all over again.
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 email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.