I had the chance to sit with Aaron Campbell, Producer of Lord of the Rings Online, and sample some of the new content in Lord of the Rings Online's upcoming version. In addition to adding a free-to-play experience, Turbine is also introducing scaling instances and Volume 3, Book 2 - complete with the new zone of Enedwaith.
My first welcome to Enedwaith is at the camp of Harndirion, which, like many other camps of the Rangers and Free Peoples, is established upon some ruins, in this case found west of Thrór's Coomb. Here in Enedwaith, players are working with two groups - the Rangers, and a tribe of Dunlendings - as they follow the path of the Grey Company. I took a brief look around, noticing the reappearance of Lothrandir and Braigiar (two Rangers experienced players will be familiar with) before I was whisked around to other areas of the wide zone that hosts the next part of LOTRO's epic story.
In my next stop, the Gloomglens, I take a look around a village of hobbits known as the Stoors, the infamous hobbits who dare wear boots and even grow facial hair. Here players are once again greeted with open meadows and sky, and wildlife like wolves and deer, a bright change from the darkness they have been trudging through in previous epic quests. In the Windfells, players will encounter more unique places including a Gondorian ruin. Here too is Lhanuch, a Dunlending village that feels like a real settlement of these strange people.
The zone is as expansive as any other, with a range of environments from green grasses along the lake, red hills and stone cliffs, to snowy mountain areas where great giants dwell and a forest of twisted trees with dark red leaves harboring trolls. The epic quest will take players straight through these areas, focusing on the history of the Rangers and Aragorn's kin. In fact, Enedwaith is an area designed to build up for a journey south into Dunland and, ultimately, Isengard.
From the new area of Enedwaith, we move backward in time to the Great Barrows. The old instance isn't getting a makeover, per se; instead, it is one of the many instances joining the new scaling instance system. Other instances include Garth Agarwen, Helegrod, and Annuminas. The instance system has now been incorporated into the Skirmish Panel, but make no mistake: scaling instances are not Skirmishes. These instances now scale to the level of the group entering, all the way up to maximum level, but group size is still fixed based on the instance being entered. These are no casual pushovers. There are no skirmish soldiers to be used here, and no randomized encounters, as are found in skirmishes.
There are three reasons why incorporating the instance system into the skirmish panel is a brilliant move. The first: groups will be able to form up and travel to an instance from a travel screen similar to that used in the skirmish system, meaning that groups no longer have to meet up and walk into the entrance of the instance (though they still have that option). The second: many of the larger instances, even the Barrows, have been split into multiple instances in the screen. While players can choose to start at the beginning and plow through, players who simply want to knock out a particular section can do so without having to clear through all the previous encounters in the instance. This also makes revisiting the instances a little less time consuming.
The final gem of the new scaling instance system, aside from the ability to re-experience old content, is it incorporates some of the changes made with Mirkwood concerning skirmishes and challenges. Challenge quests are now incorporated, much like those found at Dol Guldur, so new objectives will appear for players re-entering these instances. These challenges will usually offer a more difficult way to take on the same encounters of the at-level instance. They will also have special rewards by level, and reward Skirmish Marks plus special tokens to purchase these rewards. The goal is to take the best rewards already in these instances, and scale them by level, in addition to offering new cosmetic items for players who enjoy the nostalgic feel of the gear that dropped in these instances at level.
The most important change for Lord of the Rings Online, of course, is the shift to a free-to-play model. There has been a great deal of discussion and confusion about how this model will work, and as I browsed the new LOTRO Store, I questioned the team about how this new model would work and affect current players.
LOTRO's current subscribers, or those who resubscribe to LOTRO after a hiatus, will not feel much different in the game outside of the addition of the new store. Subscribers (VIP) will have access to all of the same game features they do currently, plus receive a token of 500 Turbine Points per month to spend as they will. Like DDO, players (VIP and free) will be able to earn Turbine Points through completing deeds and some quests. The idea, as it was explained to me, is so subscribers don't lose anything - they only gain the option to pick up some additional perks. Turbine indicates that it isn't so much that LOTRO is going free-to-play as it is that they are integrating a hybrid model which adds options for players who want to play LOTRO without a subscription.
Free players, on the other hand, are given the ability to start with quests from Bree, Ered Luin, and the Shire - about 800 quests in total. The world, however, is free for F2P players to roam; so is the epic quest line that drives the main story of LOTRO. In fact, F2P players won't even have a level cap - it's completely possible to get to level 50 by simply exploring the world, killing creatures of level and completing the epic story line, although this will be a very slow way to do it. Though I had no chance to see the free-player experience first hand during the play session, the team indicates there's been a bit that's changed to make the new player experience more interesting.
Quest packs, of course, will also be available in the LOTRO store and can be picked at a player's leisure. Other game systems, like housing and crafting, are also available to free players right from the beginning - the F2P experience is certainly more than an extended free trial. Systems like Monster Play, however, will only be available to VIP members. There is no desire to disrupt the following of this corner of competitive game play, although the team would like to review its incorporation after the new launch, along with Legendary items (another area completely missing from the Store).
Of course, what's really relevant here is the prices of items in the LOTRO Store and what's available. Although prices aren't set yet - the team is closely watching feedback on prices - the store is already populated and offers a good "feel" for how much the game will cost for perks or content. Each quest zone pack, for instance, ranges about 500 to 1,000 Turbine Points (about $5 to $10). Quest zone packs include about 100-200 quests plus the local instances all found within a zone. If we accept a $7 average based on these costs (only a few larger zones were closer to the $10 range), with 9 quest packs, the total cost (pre-expansions) of all quest areas would be about $63 - add in the expansions for about $19 dollars each, through the store, and buying the quests will cost you at least $20-$30 more than the retail costs of the game, but with the assurance you'll have those areas permanently without a subscription.
Besides quest packs in the store, I also noticed that there were options free-to-play players might need to purchase (e.g. extra bag slots and character slots, both around 500 Turbine Points) as well as items VIPs might also be interested in, such as the Riding skill (around 800 points) and faction mounts (1500-2000 points). There are also complete sections dedicated to crafting and to cosmetic items (the latter of which does not currently offer a preview system, but which the team is working on implementing). Also available is a section for Virtues. Here, the team notes players will still be able to earn their deeds the old fashioned way, accelerate them through special items (for instance, slayer deed items that give extra slayer credit), or buy the virtues outright up to their level restrictions.
"It's all about the time the player has available to spend," the team said, mentioning that the removal of a commitment to a monthly subscription fee also allows players to accelerate their play if they would like to. They also don't expect anyone to be able to pay to win or buy their way to victory; it's simply a matter of options. On a cursory glance, however, it's clear that some of these options - the ability to purchase riding, faction or festival items, and virtues come to mind - will change the perspectives of some players toward it, if not the game.