An honest look at LotRO’s “mini-expansion”

ThreePeaksEditions

Lord of the Rings Online’s latest update went live yesterday, and all of the players were super excited for it and pleased with the new content. That’s what the headline should have been today… but it’s not. There are a lot of players upset about the way War of Three Peaks, LotRO’s new so-called “mini-expansion,” was handled. Personally, I have a lot of mixed emotions about it, so let’s parse some of my feelings toward this update.

So what is all this fuss about? First off, there isn’t that much story/zone content here. Hence the “mini” label. Second, while true expansions have always had a cost associated with them for everyone, LotRO’s model has always been that subscribers get all of these smaller zones included in the subscriptions, whereas non-subbed could buy them piecemeal. This was the case as recently as last year’s Vales of Anduin release. These smaller, post-expansion updates were previously just called… updates, so this obvious marketing label feels tacky. Three Peaks broke this long-standing pattern, however, and requires everyone who wants to play it to pay at least $20 to unlock it. To make matters worse, players can’t use cash shop currency (aka “money we already gave you”) to unlock the zone as with previous releases; it’s a direct buy on the website only. To add insult to injury, there are two premium packages, labeled “Collector’s Edition” and “Ultimate Fan Bundle” (the latter with a big gold RECOMMENDED banner over it) for $60 and $100, respectively, that add a range of cosmetics (all of which, as far as I’ve seen, are ugly) and a few convenience items you could have bought from the cash shop.

Of course, LotRO got way out ahead of this and made the community aware ahead of time and communicated the reasons for this sudden change, right? Nope. As fellow bloggers Roger over at Contains Moderate Peril and Syp of Bio Break have chronicled, LotRO’s communication to its players has been bad for a long time, and seems to be getting worse. For some unknown reason, the pricing and details of these bundle tiers were kept secret until release day. I say “unknown reason,” but I would speculate that it’s largely because they knew this was going to tick off a lot of fans, and hoped this would get people to convince themselves to buy it ahead of time. Of course, instead this has caused the launch day to be more about angry fans griping about the change in sales tactics than about the actual release.

I do want to say, though, that, in Standing Stone’s defense, the update is a little more than just a single zone quest pack. It also includes the new mission system, which looks like it’s basically skirmishes by another name. Skirmishes have always been one of my favorite things about LotRO, because I can scale them in difficulty with my level and group size. Not enough games have that kind of content, and I’ve always wished they would start making new ones again. To be honest, I’m not really sure how much content is in these missions, because they haven’t been talked up much (again, communication problems). If, to play devil’s advocate, you did think missions justified the mini-expansion label, this isn’t the worst thing, given that the last couple of expansions were also a cash buy-in at first, and it is half the price of those expansions. But even if they’re extensive, is such a feature enough to justify treating this like an expansion? In my opinion, not really.

A lot of players are really upset about this, shouting about corporate greed and such. They feel that SSG has altered the deal they’ve had for years now, with no warning, and they want an explanation. People are threatening to quit because of this. To be fair, none of these kinds of shenanigans happened before the transition to Standing Stone Games and Daybreak’s involvement as publisher/owner/corporate overlord/whatever (everyone has been weirdly cagey about the nature of that relationship). Personally, I’m less upset about it and more worried about SSG’s financials. I don’t know anything about how they’re doing money-wise, but how desperate must they be to do something like this that they know will tick off so many of their fans? And they had to know this would tick off their fans. Nobody can be that incompetent… right?

It’s really sad to me, because I feel like a lot of this could have been avoided. SSG could have communicated better. If it’s a financial issue, they could have just said “Look, we’re not making money like we used to. We need to charge for some of the smaller updates we previously gave to you for free,” and this community would have started throwing money at their screens. The players who bounce out of an MMO because its future looks stormy have left this game a long time ago. The players who are here are here because they’re loyal to this game in particular. If SSG really truly believes this content is meatier than a regular patch, they should have marketed it better. And if it really is gross incompetence, then, well, I hope this is a wakeup call that they need to do better.

It seems like players would have much more easily accepted it if the zone update had been delivered the way previous zones had been (i.e. free for subbers and in the cash shop for non-subbers), and the mission system, which seems to be the tentpole feature SSG is saying makes this mini-expansion bigger than a regular patch, had been sold separately. Sure, you wouldn’t have milked extra money out of people sitting a big pile of premium currency from paying their monthly game tax, but again, that’s money they have already paid you.

At some undetermined date in the future (again, communication from this studio is wonderful), this pack will be going up on the cash shop for purchase with premium currency, and at that point, I may pick it up for the mission system. Or maybe I’ll wait for a sale. At any rate, I’m not too broken up at the idea of not getting to play this (fully skippable, as it has no level cap increase) content on day one. I’m perpetually behind in LotRO. It’s just what I do at this point. I don’t think this is worth breaking out the pitchforks and storming SSG HQ over, but it certainly is a move that is disappointing at best and worrisome at worst.

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