MMO Expansions – What Do They Need to Succeed?
As I’ve been playing LotRO again, I’m naturally interested in the upcoming expansion, Rise of Isengard (RoI), coming next month to a computer near you. But this got me to thinking – on a basic level, what do I expect from an expansion in any MMO? I’d posit that the central points are content, new mechanics, and new life. Let’s look at them one at a time.
OK, this one is blindingly obvious; with any MMO expansion we expect new stuff to do. That comes in the form of new areas to explore, new quests to complete, new foes to defeat, and generally new instances/raids/what have you that we can group up to explore. We get this stuff for free though in many games, as general game updates between expansions; there’s even an expectation that this stuff will be given for free in reasonably large doses, among games like LotRO anyhow.
Consequently, though this is absolutely expected of, and central to, any expansion, it isn’t generally enough in itself to make players happy. The hardcore will tear through most new content in a startlingly fast time, and what took months of developer time might retain a player’s interest for mere days or weeks.
In RoI, we’ve been told to expect three new areas: Dunland, Gap of Rohan, and Isengard. It’s always difficult to have any real sense how much virtual space these will take up, but presumably this will be somewhere between the size of Moria and Mirkwood, in terms of areas added. We don’t yet know how many quests we’ll get, or how many new instances. There’s a new raid, which apparently has both 12- and 24-man versions. We’ll see virtues (one of the ways to customize characters) increase their max cap for the first time since the game launched, and we’ll get a new tier of crafted items.
Is this “enough” content for an expansion? It’s hard to say since there’s still a lot of guesswork involved, but I expect the amount of content will be sufficient to justify the price, once again. My biggest question at this point, in this regard, is “how many new instances and how many new skirmishes will we get in RoI”?
Players are accustomed to seeing changes in the underlying game mechanics with each expansion. This often comes in the form of new races and/or classes, and additional new game mechanics.
With the Moria expansion, we got two new mechanics: legendary items and radiance. The former was a bit of a mess and needed to be heavily revamped – in a free update – to be passable. The latter system was an unqualified disaster and Turbine removed it later – again in a free update. We also got two new classes in the Moria expansion, taking the total from the original seven to the current nine.
With the Mirkwood expansion, we got the skirmish system, which is in fact pretty danged nifty. They’ve expanded that with free updates since then, adding skirmishes as part of the epic story as well as more basic skirmishes. I’m very impressed with this system overall and look forward to seeing it grow yet more.
With the RoI expansion, we’re getting relatively little in this regard. We’re told that RoI will feature more use of phasing, as well as more use of the mobile quest givers we saw in the Evendim revamp. I’ll break these down individually.
Phasing is a technology implemented in WoW, that’s been working its way around other MMOs of late. Basically, it allows players to see different things based on what their character has done in game. If you let a village get burned down in one quest, then when you return, with phasing you might see the burned husk of the village, while another player standing right next to you (but not in your group) might see the village happy and well. The potential here is impressive, as this allows players to effect (some) change in what is otherwise a wholly static world. Any dynamism and any player agency is generally a Good Thing.
Mobile quest givers are a subtle but clever idea. The idea is, you get a journal or some similar item, which leads you to an area in which you have a quest. The instructions appear as normal and you do whatever you do as normal, but then things change; instead of running back to the camp to turn the quest in to a stationary (and lazy!) NPC, the quest updates itself and you get your reward through the journal (or whatever). The potential is impressive indeed. Imagine entering a new area full of monsters. You’re tasked with slaying some, which you do readily enough. After you’ve killed your Xth monster, you’re told that something has caught your eye, and you should inspect a fallen altar partially hidden behind some shrubs. After investigating, you find a clue that leads you to the source of the problem, and you’re told to find and defeat the boss. All of this might take place within a relatively small area overall, perhaps one overflowing with monsters. Previously, this would take three trips and be the source of some frustration; kill 10 x, go back to camp, turn in quest, get new quest: find clue, return to area, find clue, go back to camp, turn in quest, get new quest: kill boss, return to area, find boss, kill boss.
Right now the static quest system has a lot of problems, not least of which is the utter illogic of it all. If I’ve fought my way into some mouldy crypt, don’t make me leave and return again and again. Let me do what I’ve come to do, all in the same trip. Well, now this’ll be possible.
So is this enough, in terms of new mechanics, to satisfy players? I’m unsure. On the one hand, I do like both of these technologies, and feel that both have real potential to strengthen the narrative in LotRO, which is already one of the game’s greatest strengths. On the other hand, we already have these technologies in game to a lesser extent, so they won’t feel as new to me. In the end, my satisfaction is likely to hinge on how well and how often these are implemented. I’d really like to see some new classes, personally, but I fully understand how hampered the devs are by the lore; there just isn’t room for a lot of new classes in Middle-earth.
The other common type of update we see in expansions is the breathing of new life into old things. This most commonly involves updates to races and/or classes, and revising of core game mechanics. The goal here for devs is twofold: on the one hand, it’s a chance to make improvements to things that aren’t working as well as they could be, and on the other hand, it’s a chance to let people experience the same content again, in a different way.
The obvious fear with such changes is that they’ll be so sweeping that they’ll alienate the playerbase, resulting in the dreaded “NGE”. If something isn’t broken, it’s usually best not to mess with it too much. On the flipside, if the changes are too timid, they won’t be meaningful, which defeats the second goal above.
We’re seeing a lot of class updates with RoI. I’m not sure yet how drastically things will change, though it looks like a few classes are getting massive overhauls. Hopefully this will meet both goals above.
The other major changes coming with RoI are a change in the way base stats work, and itemization of skirmishes. Each deserves a little discussion.
Base stats in LotRO are vitality, might, agility, will, and fate. Those stats currently can only go to 650, which is the “hard cap”. People who play in groups with members of the Captain class often use a “soft cap” now; Captains can give everyone in their group a +50 buff to all their stats, so the “soft cap” of 600 plus the 50 point Captain buff brings base stats to their max rating right now.
With RoI, there will be no more stat caps. The actual effects of this change are as yet hard to completely predict, since we don’t know how the new itemization will work. Removing the stat caps really only affects players at max level, since it’s not really feasible to have stats at the cap before then. With this change, e.g. tanks at max level will be free to pour more points into Vitality than they are now, yielding higher amounts of Morale. Practically speaking, this should free people up rather a lot, at the endgame, to use different mixtures of equipment. Right now, if you have 650 vitality, you wouldn’t bother to use a piece of gear that could raise it beyond that. With RoI, this won’t be true any more.
The itemization of skirmishes has a great deal of potential in my view, but it really depends on how fully the devs implement it. In short, a skirmish is a short (usually 20-40 minutes) repeatable battle with a daily quest. You complete the battle, each of which has its own plot and foes and scripted events, and your rewards are skirmish marks, a generic currency used to barter for gear. With RoI, we’ve been told that skirmishes will be itemized, meaning in addition to finding skirmish marks in the chests dropped by bosses… we’ll also find ‘real’ gear. Actual pieces of armour, weapons, jewelry, etc. would be most welcome indeed, on several levels, in addition to the barter currency.
My hope is that the itemization is thorough, and individual by skirmish. That is to say, I’d like to see each skirmish have a small pool of itemized drops that we can see, divided up by level range. It wouldn’t do after all to have a lvl 30 piece of armour drop in a lvl 70 skirmish, or vice versa. Individual itemization seems important though as part of this process; if the skirmishes are collectively itemized, people will find the easiest one and just repeat it endlessly. With individual itemization – especially if the itemization is split up by group size – there would actually be a reason to run skirmishes other than one’s personal favorites.
So is this enough “new life” for LotRO? I expect so, but again it’s hard to say. There haven’t been as many details as I’d like yet, but I remain hopeful.