Fri, Oct 29, 2010 | 20:37 BST
Preview – Lord of the Rings Online goes free-to-play in Europe next week
Lord of the Rings Online has been free-to-play since September 10 in the US, but players in Europe have not been as lucky, as the launch of the new model was delayed. Thankfully, the wait is finally over, as Codemasters revealed today the revamp will go live next Tuesday, November 2.
This isn’t the first time a Turbine game has hit a snag in Europe, as the free-to-play model for Dungeon & Dragons Online was also delayed in the region, but finally went free-to-play earlier this year when Turbine took over the servers on the continent.
Thankfully, all issues getting the contractual matters sorted are finalized, and in order to get European players acquainted with some of the changes and additions, we’ve been playing the game and taking a few notes since it launched in the US, and hopefully our summarization will get you excited for some free-to-play goodness.
Not only are there new quests and a lovely new area to explore, but the Harvestmath Festival is also going on at the moment, and while always fun, there’s a new bit of madness to take part in this year: Bilbo’s infamous basement.
In summary, Bilbo was one sick little man.
All that is gold does not glitter
During GDC Online in October, the game’s executive producer, Kat Paiz, revealed that both revenue and the player base has grown considerably since the launch of the free-to-play model. Over one million new accounts were created, 20 percent of former players returned, and there has been a 300 percent increase in concurrent users with a 400 percent increase in active players.
Paid subscriptions also increased, especially for premium accounts.
“When you tell people you no longer have to pay for it, they come in droves,” said Paiz, who is also the executive producer for Turbine’s Dungeon & Dragons Online, which went free-to-play last year and saw a similar increase in the player base, becoming the third most played MMO behind World of Warcraft and Runescape,
With going free-to-play, the influx of new players on the games infrastructure would normally stress the servers, and cause performance issues on the player end. To counter this, Turbine introduced Dynamic layering when the new model went live. This is used as sort of a population control in areas where players tend to congregate, like Bree, and ensures server stability. If you are in a group with other players, you will each be put on the same layer as the others so you will still be able to find one another in the game.
The implementation of Dynamic Layering was sorely needed in areas where players tend to hang out, and the result is less rubber-banding, less “skating”, and fewer issues of locking up for a few seconds, give or take.
As far as graphics are concerned, Turbine has really done players a huge service by implementing DX11 for those running Windows 7. While we haven’t upgrade the OS on our PC as of yet, we were able to see just how much more awesome the game looks when using DX11 during PAX Prime in September. To say that it made an already visually stunning game the equivalent of high-end eye-candy is an understatement.
The water effects in the game alone will make you want to upgrade to Window 7 if you haven’t already.
The wind was on the withered Heath
As far as some of the Tolkien purists are concerned, some get a bit irritated when the developers create a new area that’s not included in the lore from the books, including Unfinished Tales and the Silmarillion. It must be taken into consideration, though, that an MMO is a constant world, so if the developers were to just focus on the areas Tolkien mentioned and not fill in some of the blank spots of the map or add a small area to an already familiar one, the game would have been over ages ago. However, when creating these new areas, Turbine is conscious of staying true to Tolkien’s vision of what is or isn’t included. So, when adding new monsters or an area like the Windfells – which isn’t on any map or tome created by Tolkien – Turbine makes sure it seamless fits with the next area.
The Windfells, specifically is a creation of Turbine’s, as well as some of the other additions in Enedwaith.
“In the books, there is little description of this geographical area, which means we had free rein, to a point, to create areas like the Windfells to not only make the areas visually arresting but to give us interesting stories to tell in them,” live producer Aaron Campbell told us. “So the Windfells as a body of work – its sort sf a windswept hilly area that you would expect to find in a mostly uninhabited wilderness. So the fact that it’s uninhabited, and the main story never really takes you there, just sort of off camera, we know that the company passed through but we don’t know what happened to them when they passed through this undescribed area of the map, so it gives us a lot of room to tell a story within the Windfells as just an example.
“The other thing, is we add new stories to areas of the game that take place within yet outside of the main story, to provide more interesting gameplay. Otherwise, if you just told the story everybody already knew, you’d risk boring those who’ve read the books, or seen the movies. So, if we only followed the Fellowship, doing everything exactly how it happened, while it would be cool to see, you sort of need something to keep your interest. I think some of the feedback we got from beta about epic Book 2 is one of the things players really appreciated was they feel they are on the same footing as the Grey Company in knowing what is going on. The Grey company gets into this area, they’re traveling through with an end goal, and encounter mysterious stuff that they really don’t know what to do about. And it is a threat, it endangers the success if their mission. Since we don’t have any detail in the books itself about what might have happened to the Grey Company as they headed south,what the players are encountering is on the same footing. They don’t know what is going on and its a mystery.”
“There is something in the game for multiple player types,” added executive producer Kate Paiz. “You have some that just like to go around and explore, you have your crafters, and you have those who just want to raid and get that next piece of gear. So it will not only appeases all types, but add to their experience as well.”
While exploring the region of Enedwaith , the scope of content Turbine has provided, whether it be in the original lore or added for thickness is easy to see the moment you step out of Eregion. Not only are there many areas for sightseeing, but there are over 100 new quests as well. It’s also drop-dead gorgeous.
As far as enemies are concerned, there’s some that will be familiar to you, such as: wights, wolves, wargs, half-orcs, and the like – but there is a new enemy as well – evil Hobbits. This should make those wanting to avenge the time they spent in The Shire delivering mail or pies rather happy, as these wild-Hobbits tend to attack on sight. Not all are evil though, the Stoors are Hobbits that are quite like their brethren in Hobbiton and Michael Delving, although they are a bit wilder, live in brick homes instead of the ground, and they also wear shoes. They must be related to the Tooks.
Other NPCs that provide quests are the Dunlendings – which are long lost cousins of the folks over in Angmar and Forochel. You can help out the Dunlendings in various ways, and one quest we had the most fun with was protecting their “normal” goat herd from a form of ancient evil. The black goats. Yes. Goats of ancient evil. Rather fun actually.
There is also one real nasty evil goat over in the area of the Stoors, and also a cute little white rabbit in front of a cave with quite a few bones around him. We’re unsure what part this little creature will play in the game, but we’re guessing he has nasty, big, pointy teeth and a vicious streak a mile wide.
Other than the numerous side-quests, there is the main story of the passing of the Grey Company as the Rangers strive to meet up with Aragorn. The Rangers are the main stars this time around, and the storyline will provide players with a deeper look at the faction’s history and explain Aragorn’s birthright more. Most of this part of the story is told through session play, which puts you in the shoes of a main character from the past or as an invisible bystander. This has been done numerous times in the game, such as with Laerdan in the closing of Volume 1, and as a dwarf in Moria when the Balrog was first discovered and became the bane of Durin’s folk.
Another interesting new feature that came with free-to-play is scaling instances, which will allow you to change the level of certain instances depending on the level of your group. Players need to remember that loot and drops will scale as well, so don’t expect a level 65 legendary sword to drop if you scaled your instance to 50. Spaces that scale also make use of the skirmish barter system and instances and don’t scale will still have unique random drops in chests. Newer dungeons added to the game with Volume 3: Book 2 will start off with random drops and until the level cap has passed, and then scaling will be applied to those as well. The developers plan to eventually convert all instances and raids into scaleable ones.
Regular content and system updates are also planned and are currently in development.
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold
The biggest addition to free-to-play, other than the new pricing structure, is the LOTRO store. Here is where you will spend Turbine points, which we’ll discuss first.
Points can be purchased through cards, credit cards, or PayPal and as easy as pie to buy. The checkout process works seamlessly, and once you spend real cash on your in-game points, you will be taken straight back into the store to start spending at will. Broken down, this is how much points will runs you: 420 points for $6.50, 1550 points for $19.50, 2500 points for $29.50 and 5000 points for $49.99.
You can also earn points by finishing certain quests and by completing deeds. Since most players need to complete deeds to strengthen traits or to get that nifty Bear-wrestler or Pork Chopper title, earning points in this manner will be as easy as getting a slice of Holly Hornblower’s famous pie. However, not all traits are needed by every class but, whether you use certain traits or not is inconsequential. You are going to want to go kill back to Annuminas and kill a gazillion Agmarian whether you need the trait or not. Most deeds will net you anywhere from 5-10 Turbine points, so, go out and start exploring and killing stuff as soon as you can.
When you first visit the store, you will notice all sorts of goodies ripe for the buying. We spent tons on just cosmetic items, but that’s because we are a girl. But no matter your sex, there is something there for everyone, be it a dress, cloak, robe, or new quiver. Some of these cosmetic items are store exclusives, others you may have seen during festivals or in faction deeds.
The store isn’t just for clothes though. You’ll also find standard mounts, a merchant you can summon when you are in t he middle of nowhere and your bags are full, travel destinations, premium items, decorations for your in-game house, destiny items, and something we suggest you purchase before anything else: tomes.
There are six different tomes you can purchase from the stats and buffs section of the store, and each one will net you extra Vitality, Will, Fate, Might, and Agility. Theses are permanent buffs to your stats, but if you wish to by temporary stats to boost your shadow or poison resistance for a really tough fight – you can get those in the store as well.
Items are added to the store all the time, and Turbine also has weekly sales, so hold off a bit before spending your hard-earned points on that lovely dress – it may go on sale in a week or so.
Turbine has also promised that next month, the November patch will go live and Free and Premium players will now be able to access Moria, Lothlórien, Mirkwood, and Enedwaith for free. This means that players can now follow the Epic Story line through Moria, Mirkwood and, Enedwaith with free access to the Legendary Weapons system, and the ability to attain level 65.
Swift travel routes which were previously set for subscribers only will be usable by past subscribers as well. There’s also the long promised update to the Runekeep class coming, and Loremasters are getting some much needed love as well. Now if the developers will give Hunters back some of their gutted DPS, we’ll all be happy.
Other plans for November – just in time for Europe – include: a new Barter Wallet, free repeatable quests called tasks, new reputation mounts are on the way and current ones will receive an upgrade to stats, Ered Luin is getting a revamp, the storage and vault system is getting reworked, you will be able to rename your character if you wish, ingredient packs are on the way, and much more. Full release notes are here.
You are not the hobbit that you were
Those who played around a bit in the beta were given a glimpse of the annual Fall Festival, Harvestmath, which is currently live. This time around, folks will get to go into the Haunted Burrow which is basically the basement of Bag End – Bilbo’s house.
The basement is similar to the Hedge Maze during the spring festival, and there are hidden doors, along with secret and interesting objects Bilbo picked up during his many adventures. There are quite a few new quests that will net you more tokens to trade in for goodies, and if you are lucky – you will find a hidden door leading to a chest containing a very rare mount drop: a black horse painted up like a skeleton. There will only be so many of these drops per world, so good luck to you.
Chests will also drop some of the goodies you can purchase with tokens from vendors, so we suggest you hold off for a bit before purchasing that awesome Warg painting, or a haunted tree or two for your house. The daily chest contains many of those really cool items.
Roads go ever ever on
As far as major changes in the game are concerned, the only major change was the free-to-play model and the new store. However, Aaron Campbell told us that changes are coming to Legendary Items, Hobbies (maybe even Golf!) Monster Play, and Radiance Gear. Those changes, however, won’t come until next year.
Turbine is also looking at where players will be headed next, as far as content, and according to Kate Paiz, this means Isengard, the home Saruman – the fallen Istair and wizard who was the main antagonist in The Two Towers.
“We’re looking at Isengard as a full raid area for next year,” said Kate. “That’s something we’ve actually been talking about along with where else we’ll go: ‘Is it Rohan? Is it back to Mirkwood?’ There’s certainly some of that in our planning as well, but definitely next year we’ll be going to Isengard and looking to tell a little but more of Saruman’s story.”
“Certainly Enedwaith doesn’t bring us that far,” added director of communications Adam Mersky. “I mean, we’re on the road, but we’re not quite there yet.”
The zone featuring Isengard will fit in with the current timeline of the game, according to the developers, as at this point Saruman has already decimated the area around him. This is where the Urukai were created, and players will possibly get access to the lower areas of Saruman’s lair.
A battle is still to be fought
As far as PvP is concerned, Turbine has something in mind for folks who enjoy a bit of Monster Play in their lives – only free-to-play folks cannot get in on the carnage for the moment.
Turbine decided against providing PvP to the free-players for this release, because it wanted to focus instead on the rich story telling of the PvE experience. However, Monster Play is something Turbine plans to talk more about around the beginning of next year, in terms of how they will do the next round of upgrades for that system and how to bring it to the free players.
“There is a sort of a nice side benefit of not converting the monster play now, which there’s been a lot of concern is who we’re going to protect the high quality community that we have and not converting the monster play at launch is the side benefit of attracting some of the folks who are really heavy into PvP in these free games,” said Paiz. “So we are looking to understand that a little better before embarking on any changes to it.”
Turbine is also looking into PvP skirmishes, with some preliminary work going on at the moment, but wouldn’t promise anything or discuss it any further.
Through Rohan over fen and field, where the long grass grows
As far as bringing mounted combat to the game is concerned, Turbine admits there are some challenges to bringing it to an MMO – as far as making it fair, balanced, and compelling. There are also some synchronization and complexity to work through as it emphasized it has heard loud and clear the interest and desire player have for mounted combat.
“It would be a very natural thing for us to do when we get to Rohan,because the Rohirrim were such an interesting and engaging group in the fiction, and so we’re looking at it,” said Paiz. “We’re doing some very preliminary prototyping, as there’s a host of engineering and design challenges there but we certainly don’t have anything to announce or any guarantees to give you. We are trying to find a way to make it acceptable to everybody, or to at least everybody who is in that part of the world.
“We all played Red Dead Redemption, we all totally get it. We really see how fun it could be. But of course, as an MMO it won’t play like RDR, but I do think that LOTRO players can hope for it, and look forward to some future announcements from us on that side. It’s not outside the realms of doable, and something we’re going to working on on the side, and I think as we get a little more into the next round of monster play changes.
“I don’t think something like this would be out of scope. We have some of the same visions as players for battles like Helm’s Deep or something else, and we need to wait and see but we all come from the same inspiration on that”.
Far over wood and mountain tall
That should give you a basic idea of what to expect in the free-to-play version of Lord of the Rings Online. In short, there are many new things to explore, do, and accomplish, and Turbine has loads in store for both new and returning players.
If you have been holding out on trying the game, or have been considering coming back to Middle-earth, now is the perfect time to join or re-join the fight against the encroaching darkness. Saurman looms ahead, and eventually Sauron and the big, black gates of Mordor with Mt. Doom lingering in the distance.
Until that fateful day, when we must all take up arms and battle upon the Pelennor Fields, you should really stop by and have some Moar Boar Beer with us by the fire. We’ll light up our pipes, and regale each other will tales of bravery and adventure, and maybe even get a Fellowship together and set out to rid the land of Wargs and Shadow Wolves.
We really, really, hate those things.