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Massively's Community Detective, Issue #6: Lord of the Rings Online

Jef Reahard

If you've been playing MMORPGs for any length of time, or you keep up with the latest happenings around the industry, you're probably familiar with Lord of the Rings Online's Landroval server. In addition to being the "unofficial" roleplay server for Turbine's Tolkien-based MMORPG, Landroval is consistently mentioned as one of the finest communities in online gaming. Whether it be in forum discussions on various gaming websites, chats with gaming buddies, or even internal discussions here at Massively, Landroval is almost always referenced when someone asks about a friendly server that offers a dense and mature population.

For this week's issue of Community Detective, we decided to put Landroval to the test. While the community lived up to its billing, we did encounter some curious inconsistencies with regard to Turbine's customer service. Head past the cut for our findings and impressions.

North Downs group
Why are we examining LotRO now, you may be wondering, two weeks prior to the forthcoming free-to-play conversion? Two reasons: number one, we'd like to get a baseline for comparison between Landroval's current community and its community after a few months of free-to-play additions. Secondly, we'd like to evaluate customer service responses, both in terms of time and resolution, under two distinct payment models.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let's do a quick rundown of our methodology for those who might be reading the column for the first time. Unlike Vanguard, which we examined last week, LotRO doesn't feature numerous official global chat channels. Instead, Turbine's game has a number of channels available in each zone, including regional, trade, advice, looking-for-fellowship (LFF), roleplaying (RP), and out-of-character (OOC). There is also the user-created and maintained global-looking-for-fellowship (GLFF) channel, but the community generally frowns on newbish questions here, and said frowning usually takes the form of polite requests to take it to regional advice or even personal tells. There is also a heavy amount of spam conversation in GLFF, and it's not uncommon for veteran players to turn it off entirely.

For these reasons, we stuck to the regional channels as this week's primary information-gathering spaces. We prepared a couple of questions designed to elicit community responses, then asked them in the Bree-land, Esteldin, Thorin's Gate, and Shire regional advice channels at various times throughout the week. Our goal was to get an idea of Landroval's willingness to interact with newbs. In addition to our chat polling, we also sampled pickup groups in most of these zones, as well as engaged in various one-on-one PM conversations with some of the server's more helpful denizens.

Finally, we put Turbine's customer service apparatus to the test by submitting two help petitions, one each on two separate lifetime-subscriber accounts.

Community Case File: LOTRO
We kick-started our community examination with the following question:

Question: How do I get a horse?
LotRO features a huge game world, and it's not readily apparent to newer players where (or when) they can saddle up for some faster travel. Sure there are the stables that zip you from town to town along preset paths, but getting your own mount is usually high on the list of priorities when starting out in an MMORPG. We hopped in the advice channels mentioned above and found relatively few answers at first. The Thorin's Gate channel seemed particularly dead on weekday afternoons, though we did run across a couple of people who answered both in channel and via personal tells. One player opined that the silence was due to the calm before the coming F2P storm after we remarked that the server seemed quieter than we remembered.

We fared better on the weeknights, with all of the regional channels bringing a smattering of advice and one particularly helpful chap in Bree-land who outlined all the different ways to procure a horse, as well as pointing us toward some helpful links. As you might expect, the weekend provided the most answers, with several private /tell conversations as well as quick and helpful chat channel answers to be found in almost all the regions we sampled. Curiously, Thorin's Gate seemed rather lifeless regardless of the time of day or day of the week. We suspect this is due to most players leveling quickly out of the zone and moving on to bigger and better regions.

For our second question, we hoped to generate a bit more discussion:

Question: Which crafter makes the most money?
LotRO has a fairly robust crafting component. While the process itself is fairly simple (and owes much to World of Warcraft), there are many professions to choose from, as well as high-end content such as crafting guilds, quests, and a decent economy that rewards players who take the time to learn the system.

As with our first question, we polled the community in Bree-land, Thorin's Gate, Esteldin, and the Shire at different times of day and different days of the week. Unlike our first question, this one generated many responses, a couple of them even branching off into rather long-winded channel-encompassing conversations. Weekdays were predictably light, while weeknights and weekends saw some varied answers as well as heated debate about the merits of the forthcoming F2P switch. The Shire in particular seemed to be a hotbed for crafters, or at least, friendly crafters willing to wax on about their trades. The zone consistently out-performed all others in terms of number of channel responses, personal responses, and overall friendliness.

Analysis graphic
Landroval's community is basically all that it's been made out to be -- it's large, friendly, and generally quite helpful to newer players. As beta and launch-day veterans with a couple years of play under our belts, we expected this to be the case, but it's nonetheless refreshing returning to LotRO's player community after a prolonged absence due to stints in other games. There always seems to be someone online (as evidenced by the GLFF channel reporting between 200 and 300 players even during the dead weekday periods), and the majority of those folks are ready and willing to answer questions and speed a newb on his way.

There does seem to be some friction between those opposed to the upcoming F2P conversion and those who either don't mind or don't care, as more than one of our polling sessions led to some verbal sparring over the issues at hand. True to form though, Landroval's players were exceedingly polite even in disagreement, with personal attacks and adult language kept to a bare minimum. We've seen a lot of servers and a lot of communities over the years, and Landroval definitely belongs in the top two or three in terms of an inviting atmosphere and a high level of maturity across the board.

Customer Service case file graphic
While LotRO's community, at least on Landroval, was exemplary, Turbine's customer service machine could use a couple quarts of oil. It wasn't disastrous, but it was just inconsistent enough to annoy us, and the presentation leaves much to be desired when compared to the slickly streamlined help ticket interfaces in Warhammer Online and EVE, both of which impressed us in the past.

Our tests involved petitioning for the restoration of a deleted item on two separate paid accounts. Submission is accomplished by selecting "Help" from the game's main menu and then choosing the "New Ticket" button in the resulting window. We filed both support tickets on a Tuesday afternoon, one early and one late, and in both cases the tickets were answered and closed by customer support representatives by 9:30 p.m. the same evening.

The in-game interface lacks much in the way of functionality and style, as it's basically a blue window with a couple text boxes and only offers rudimentary tracking of filed tickets and their resolutions. Also, submission can be a bit finicky if you don't have the exact name of your item. For example, on one of our accounts we tested the deletion of a Finely Stitched Backpack (a cosmetic/appearance item), but because we didn't enter the name into the form exactly as it is named in the game, it wouldn't accept the ticket. We hunted around for a bit to find the name and were finally able to submit without any further hitches.

While both our tickets featured identical deleted items, only one of them was answered satisfactorily. For reasons unknown to us, one GM was able to restore our item while another GM was not.

Analysis graphic
Turbine's customer support reps get top marks for response time. In fact, out of all the games we've covered thus far, they're among the quickest in terms of total ticket turnaround time (how's that for some alliteration). Due to differing resolutions for identical issues, however, we're hard-pressed to give them kudos across the board. According to GM Etymologist, "the in-game support team cannot replace, restore or grant in-game content that is mistakenly destroyed, purchased, sold, or traded with a player, NPC, or through the auction house." Apparently not all the GMs got the same memo, as another one restored our backpack with no problem, though he did tell us to be more careful in the future and that it's not something they normally do.

Also problematic is Turbine's ticketing interface. The ticket-tracking window is better than nothing, but it also relies almost entirely on GM notes. For example, although one GM was nice enough to go the extra mile and restore our item, he neglected to enter any notes into the ticket prior to closing it, so future efforts at tracking the tickets on this particular account will necessitate a very long memory since the resolution pane is completely blank and all that's visible is the ID number and our initial request. Some sort of automation based on the resolution would be a great feature for Turbine to implement in the future, both in service to customers and to alleviate workload from the company's own representatives.

The fact that submission is tied to the in-game item database is also frustrating from a customer perspective. As mentioned above, we had to go back and hunt down the Finely Stitched Backpack name, which, had we been in a raid, a monster-play encounter, or forced AFK for a bit, would have proven difficult to find in the chat logs. LotRO is the first game we've encountered that demands a specific (and correctly spelled) item name prior to ticket submission.

Finally, we didn't get any kind of follow-up from Turbine, either when submitting the tickets or after their respective resolutions. This isn't as big a deal on the front end since the turnaround time was so quick, but it would have been nice to receive at least a form email detailing the process after the fact. Turbine could stand to learn a few tricks from SOE's customer service department here. Communication may seem like a small thing, but it gives the appearance of caring about your customers, just as the lack of it does the opposite.

The PUG Report
LotRO's PUG Report is quite positive, as we could barely go anywhere in the game world without running across someone looking to group. As with our community questions, we sampled various regions including Bree-land, Esteldin, Thorin's Gate, and the Shire, all in an effort to see LotRO's low- to mid-level grouping scene through the eyes of a theoretical newb.

Esteldin and Bree-land fared quite well regardless of the time slot or day of the week and were positively packed with group advertisements on the weekend. Whether it's calls for skirmish partners, runs through the Great Barrow, or folks looking to grind out a few deeds in the North Downs, there is no shortage of PUGs on Landroval. If you're having a hard time grouping in Turbine's Middle-Earth, consider a shower, a personality transplant, or both.

Also noteworthy is the random roleplay on display in Bree's Prancing Pony. It's rare to see so many roleplayers in today's MMORPGs, as the playstyle is definitely a minority and something of an acquired taste. That said, the number of RP emotes (and the number of individuals cranking them out) crowding our chat windows rivaled the looking-for-group spam found in most other games, and Landroval is definitely where it's at for Tolkien-flavored online storytelling.

Sadly, that's all the time we have for Middle-Earth this week. If you're curious about Landroval's community, we're happy to report that all the (good) things you've heard about it are true, and we'd recommend it to almost anyone. Customer service is hit or miss; we had one GM who went above and beyond and another that stuck to the rules, and precious little communication in either case. We'll return to Turbine's LotRO in a few months to check up on how the F2P community has impacted the server.

Join Jef Reahard every other week as he goes behind the scenes to file first-hand community and customer service reports from the front lines of your favorite genre titles. From Aion to Zentia, the Community Detective case files are an essential part of any game-hopper's research library. Suggestions welcome, care of

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