Thursday, January 14, 2021

What is the bare minimum LoTRO needs?

Wilhelm over at Ancient Gaming Noob recently asked What Does LoTRO Need?  It's a great post, you should go a read it if you haven't yet.  After typing up a monster of a response over there, I realized I had 90% of a blog post.  So here we are.

With the acquisition of Daybreak games, EG7 also acquired Lord of the Rings Online, a game near and dear to me (and apparently many other crusty old timey MMO bloggers).  EG7 indicated that they intend to modernize the game to try and bring it to a new audience and capitalize on the attention that the IP will be getting soon with the release of Amazon's upcoming competitor to Game of Thrones, set in Middle Earth's second age.  However as Wilhelm points out, bringing a game that has aged so poorly in some respects to a modern audience is going to be quite a challenge.  

I doubt that  EG7 has the resources they would need to do a top to bottom revamp of the game into something that could be a major success with hundreds of thousands of players.  For example, I will be a bit surprised if they are really able to port it to consoles.  However, if they want to aim for even dozens of thousands of new players when the Amazon show comes out, there are a few common sense changes that I think are absolutely necessary.

1. LoTRO needs to be as reliable on Windows 10 as any other modern game. 

When you download and install the client, either from the SSG website or from STEAM, it needs to just work 99% of the time on a modern PC.  No workarounds, no having to install random background software packages that aren't included in the download.  When players have to get together an "install guide" like this one, it is not a good sign. I personally can't get the game to run reliably on a Windows 10 PC that has never given me the slightest issue with any other game I've tried on it.  The last time I was playing LoTRO on it I had to figure out workarounds for two different issues that came up.  When the third issue hit (in less than two months) I uninstalled.  Life is too short.  

When I log in at all these days, it's on an old Windows 7 PC or a really old Vista PC I never turn on for anything else.  Ironically it runs fine (if with very low frame rates in some areas) on the ten year old Vista PC. Most players don't have those options.  In the modern PC market it's Windows 10 or bust.

2. The UI needs to work well on 4K monitors.  

If you crank the resolution way up on a 4K monitor, the game actually still looks surprisingly good.  The environments, shadows and water effects are holding up better than they have any right to in a 13 year old game.  However, if you do that the UI becomes tiny squares on your screen that are way too small to see clearly or quickly click on.  Even having the option to magnify them and have them look all pixely would be better than the current option of having them almost disappear.  This is the single change that I think is most desperately needed

3. The character models probably need a further revamp.  

Yes I know they just got a revamped a few years ago.  Now they look 8 years out of date instead of 13.  The problem is that even at launch the character models weren't that great.  For example, Age of Conan had far superior models even in 2007.   However I assume that the last revamp was the best they can do without ditching the 32 bit client and/ or redoing many of the armor assets.  Certainly redoing all the equipment would be an insanely large undertaking at this point, so serious further improvements to the character models may be off the table.

4. There are too many quests (and I love quests!).  Even the Epic quests need a polish pass.  

LotRO has an absolutely overwhelming number of quests, and it seems like at least half of them are to hunt bears, boars or wolves for some reason. This really turns new players off. Wilhelm's idea of turning the Epic book quests into a golden path (ala the class quests in SWTOR) is a good one in general.  The game isn't actually very far off from this right now.  I recently did a once-a-week family-time playthrough where we mainly focused on the epic quest lines.  We made it all the way to Moria and rarely had to stop and do side quests.  However this playthrough also highlighted some other problems to me.

With year 2020 eyes I could see that a lot of the epic quests are not all that great by modern standards.  There is a lot of running around.  Some entire evenings were mainly spent riding horses back and forth between distant NPCs.  There are also a handful of quests in Angmar where just figuring out where the heck you are supposed to go seems to be the quest.  You can see where you want to be on the map, but it isn't at all obvious how to get there.  Poor stretches like that will need to be worked on.  

The story itself through to Moria also isn't as good as I remembered it being.  Some quests that were great in 2007 just because they were logical and tried to tell a long and involved story (making them well above average for the day) are not holding up well 13 years later.  That said, some of the early quests are still very engaging, and you can see the quality of the quests improve markedly in later content (especially from Rohan on).  There is a lot of good stuff there to work with.  But overall, the launch era quests running from levels 1 to 50 don't compare well to content in more modern games like ESO, SWTOR, TSW, ect.  If players are going to come in from a TV show for the story, they need to be engaged by it.  

5. Rough edges (clunky legacy systems) will need to be sanded down or removed altogether.

There are several absolute train wrecks that you will encounter as you level through the game.  Systems that are completely different from what you have been doing during the 100+ hours it takes to get to that point, aren't very well explained, and aren't all that fun even once you do understand them.

The worst of these was epic battles/ big battles.  I could have easily gotten a post out of how much I hate that system.  However with a recent patch SSG added the option to play through those chapters of the Epic quest line without needing to set foot in a big battle.  Instead, there are now a series of solo quests that take you through the battle of Helms Deep.  These quests do a good job of conveying the story without making players hit a brick wall of arbitrary difficulty and poorly explained systems.

Something like that definitely needs to happen for quests with mounted combat .  Every time I get to a quest that I need to mount up to finish, my heart sinks.  Apart from Epic quests, where I have no choice but to muddle through if I want to see the whole story, I usually ditch them.  Though mounted combat has a few fans, for the most part I have the impression that other players tend to hate it as much as I do.  Mounted combat employs a completely different set of combat and movement mechanics from the normal game.  It also forces you to spend time leveling up a horse, or at least your horse's equipment. It's a good example of a system where the designers force you to play some other game you probably don't like as much (horse battles) to keep playing the game you do like (adventuring as your character). This system really needs to be entirely optional.

Finally something needs happen with legendary items.  It's a neat system that at some point got too bloated and SSG has never really been able to reign in.  They probably also need to stop breaking the system to try and force players into the item shop (thankfully  SSG did back off of the worst of that intended change).  However legendary items are such a huge issue it would need a full post for me to do it justice.  The short version is that leveling legendary items up needs to take a lot less time and fewer resources than it currently does.

Wrap up

All of these seem like fairly obvious issue to me, that I would hope SSG already has plans to deal with.  For example, a client that fairly frequently doesn't work on Windows 10 PCs when you follow the normal installation procedures seems like a pretty obvious issue you would want to address.  As does having a UI that is functional on 4K monitors.  This lends me optimism that EG7 might be able to deal with them without needing to dump a ton of resources into the game, as fixes are presumably already at least in the planning stages.

However if all of these issue remain unaddressed, trying to bring the game to a new audience will likely be completely pointless.  The game in its current state is not one that is ever going to be able to grow beyond its current audience of highly invested veterans.