Turbine’s Vs. Blizzard’s Approach To Older Content

Spinks slipped the following comment in at the end of her excellent post today on roleplaying:

I see that LOTRO, having already eased the levelling curve and reworked some of the more tedious old zones is also making old epic storyline quests soloable — all very smart changes in my opinion. Does it still count as dumbing down if it isn’t WoW? :)

I had originally intended to respond to this in the comments, but my reply started to get a little too lengthy for what essentially has nothing to do with the post’s actual topic of roleplaying. I know Spink’s comment is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I feel the need to address what I consider to be a big difference between Blizzard’s and Turbine’s approach to their older content.

By undertaking what seems to be a fairly considerable revamping endeavour, the LotRO devs are trying to correct one of the biggest criticisms people have had with the game since Day 1, which is that you cannot level a second character without repeating a lot of content.

At the end of the revamp process their aim is to have at least 2 entirely separate levelling tracks at any point in the level range, increasing to 3 or 4 in the 30-50 range before hitting Moria. To facilitate this, they have speeded up the 1-50 levelling slightly (my level 50 Guardian gained just 1 level when his experience was recalculated), but they are also adding new quests to the old areas. Breeland in Book 8, with the Lone-lands and North Downs to follow.

Another key point is that Turbine are actively trying to improve the flow experience for new players from a design perspective – to provide more logical progression through zones, to minimise pointlessly lengthy journeys between quest givers and quest locations, and to ensure that some wonderful off-the-beaten-track content isn’t missed by just about everyone (how many of you have experienced the wonderful Wayward Companion chain in the North Downs?).

The prospective change to the Epic Book quests, which sounds like it will allow players to complete a solo version of the current group-only chapters, was inevitable. Not only does it become increasingly more difficult to complete these quests in PUGs as the game ages, but the unassailable trend in MMORPG design is to further accommodate solo play. This solo-or-group compromise is the best of both worlds, as it allows players to group for these chapters if inclined and where possible, but prevents them from hitting a wall at some of the common sticking points. No one should be forced to out-level or abandon what is arguably some of LotRO’s best content.

This all adds up to a substantial re-investment in older content, and a clear attempt to improve the quality and quantity of the levelling game as a whole, rather than embarrassingly trying to usher new players past it as quickly as possible, as seems to be the case with Blizzard. I think most of us would agree that several of WoW’s original zones would benefit from a similar design revamp.

To be fair to Blizzard, the new starting areas added for The Burning Crusade were excellent, as was the Dustwallow Marsh revamp, but where has the investment been since then? It would be hard to argue against the fact that Blizzard’s preference nowadays is simply to find ways to increase the speed at which new players can reach level 60. A greatly increased levelling rate, even before the insanely huge recruit-a-friend bonus, and now the recent mount changes.

It all makes sense from a business perspective, because Blizzard want you to buy all of their expansions as soon as possible. At least The Burning Crusade had new races and starting areas to entice virgin WoW players to pick it up alongside the original game. What does Wrath of the Lich King offer to new players? Not a lot that I can see. A new player is infinitely more likely to purchase WotLK if they get a character to level 55 (Death Knights), or level 68 (minimum level for Northrend), so Blizzard want to get them to that point as quickly and easily as possible.

Turbine’s business strategy, on the other hand, seems to involve getting people into the game for relatively cheaply, but then enticing as many as possible to make a long-term commitment, either in the form of life-time subscriptions, or hooking them into special offers for sustained monthly subscriptions. To do this they need to make the new player experience as enjoyable as possible, in order to encourage them into a long-term purchasing decision just when they are at their most wide-eyed and appreciative. The success of the life-time subscription program also explains why Turbine made the commitment to release yearly expansions, as it’s pretty much the only way to generate new revenue from that sizeable mass of players.

So, while on a superficial level it appears that Turbine are following a similar strategy to Blizzard with regards to rushing players to the end-game and dumbing down the old content, I think the reality is that Turbine are actively trying to improve their older content to be as good as is reasonably possible, whereas Blizzard are actively trying to rush players through that content as quickly as they can reasonably get away with it.

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10 Responses to “Turbine’s Vs. Blizzard’s Approach To Older Content”

  1. spinks Says:

    Good post, and you got me – it was a bit naughty to slip an unrelated comment in at the end (I just saw the news in my reader while I was editing the other article and didn’t want to write a whole post about it).

    I think you may be right. But I also think that LOTRO and WoW are really quite similar types of games. They’re trying to solve the same issues. So it’s really not surprising if they use similar ways to do it.

    LOTRO redid some starting zones. WoW presented new Blood elf and draenei starting zones in TBC and Death Knight starting zones in Wrath.

    LOTRO redid some mid-range zones. WoW redid Dustwallow Marsh.

    LOTRO eased up its levelling curve. So did WoW.

    LOTRO is making it easier for low levels to solo quests that used to need a group. So did WoW.

    I don’t know if LOTRO has eased up on the mount requirements but one thing is sure … if they haven’t done it yet, they very probably will.

    What’s going to happen in LOTRO when they add another 10 levels before the end of the year and you still have newbies starting who want to play with their friends before their friends get bored of the current endgame content?

    I really think it’s just a structural issue with the DIKU/level based/gear based type of MMO. I just don’t think WoW is exceptional, they’re all trying to deal with the same issues. I’m guessing EQ and EQ2 have similar things going on as well.

    • unwize Says:

      I think the key difference is in how each developer views their old content. Turbine sees the progression through Middle-Earth and its ties with the story of LotR as the substantive game. This is not something that they want their players to miss out on, no matter how many expansions towards Mordor we are.

      On the other hand, the substantive game in WoW is raiding, and it’s seems that Blizzard’s intention is to continually reduce the time and effort it takes for players to get there.

      It should also be noted that the easing of the levelling curve in LotRO speeds up certain level ranges at the expense of others. It will actually take you longer to work through Moria than it did at launch. We are not talking about anything as drastic as the increases that have occurred in WoW’s levelling rate.

      • spinks Says:

        Lets revisit this conversation in a couple of year’s time? I think WoW is about 2 years older than LOTRO is. I understand what you are saying but I think the pressures on the game from the structural point of view will be so strong that they’ll end up with similar solutions.

  2. Green Armadillo Says:

    “the new starting areas added for The Burning Crusade were excellent, as was the Dustwallow Marsh revamp, but where has the investment been since then?”

    My guess, which Blizzard will never confirm or deny publicly, is that their internal metrics show that these investments did not pay off.

    In some ways, the patches of the TBC era were a set of experiments. If we add a new quest hub for max level characters in some obscure corner of a high level zone, how many players will use that? If we add a new quest hub in a corner of some old mid level zone, how many players will use that? If we add a bleeding edge raid that requires a perfectly stacked group with every possible consumable buffs, how many players will use that? Some of these innovations – daily quests, smaller raids, more accessible group content – have been carried forward, presumably because they proved to be successful. Others, like that Sunwell raid, have not.

    Changes like lowered exp curves or earlier access to travel do not take a large amount of development time. As a result, they do not need to pay off in a huge way to be worthwhile. By contrast, tasking the quest team to revamp some level 40 zone means NOT tasking them to add a new set of content for level-capped characters.

    As a result, the bar for this to be a success is not merely “will players use the new content”. Of course they will use it, if it is new, shiny, and the best available in that level bracket. The question is how many players will continue to subscribe specifically because the company patched a one-time hole in their level progression that clearly wasn’t so horrible that players didn’t get past it the first time. The bar for comparison is how many max players who have no alternatives will quit because the new patch does not contain anything new for them to do, who would not have quit if the devs had made a repeatable quest hub instead of revamping old content.

    TBC devoted four of its eleven new outdoor adventuring zones, two of its three new cities, and the outdoor solo content portions of one of its three real content patches to low level content. Those numbers for Wrath are all zero to date. This is extremely unlikely to be an accident. Perhaps LOTRO is different in some way – players might have different motivations, the existing content may be more lacking, or Turbine may be making more of an aggressive push for recruiting new players over retaining old ones. But, for WoW at least, it does not appear that this type of content is a good investment.

    (Incidentally, my complaint about pre-40 LOTRO was not that there was not enough content, but rather that I had to complete every last bit of it and then farm the respawning mobs into the ground in order to complete deeds. They can add as much new stuff as they want to, but I’m still not going to want to repeat every one of those old grinds just to make a new alt.)

    • unwize Says:

      Some great analysis there.

      I do think that the motivation for the lower level zone revamps in LotRO is Turbine looking at their metrics and observing the places where new players and alts tend to run aground. I think almost anyone who has played LotRO will be delighted to see better progression through the Lone-lands and North Downs, for instance. So yes, the motivation on Turbine’s part is definitely player retention, something that was obviously not such a problem for WoW’s launch content.

      With regards to your pre-40 LotRO complaints, I’m not sure when you played it, but since Launch there have a number of new zones and zone extensions added. Still not a overwhelming variety, but certainly a big improvement.

      Also, deed requirements have been relaxed, and while exceptionally grindy ones still exist, you can usually target alternatives in order to reach the virtue cap of 10. My advice would not be to worry about them while levelling, and then target them at a later point if so inclined. The bonuses aren’t significant enough to make them a necessity for anything other than the harder end-game content.

      People talk about LotRO being a grindy game, but outside of K10R quests, the vast majority of the grind is optional. You can happily see and experience about 90% of the content without ever having to worry about grinding a deed.

      Heh, can you tell I’m an explorer first, achiever second? :)

      • Green Armadillo Says:

        Because virtues offer a flat bonus, rather than a percentage, they can be disproportionately effective at low-ish levels. I cleared out basically all the deeds in all three newbie zones in the first few months post-launch, and ended up with some pretty impressive virtue levels by the time I actually hit the Lone Lands. In hindsight, you’re absolutely correct that the things don’t scale so well going forward, precisely because they grant flat numbers of stats instead of percentages.

        Then again, a small bonus is still a bonus given that traits stack with all your gear etc. I think my reasoning at the time was that I would rather do the deeds while they were still worth exp than have to come back after I outleveled all of them. I don’t think any of the traits I was working on had redundant ranks until Moria hit, so there weren’t really any alternatives to doing all the relevant deeds if you wanted maximum virtue ranks.

  3. unwize Says:

    It’s already been a couple of years since Blizzard greatly increased the levelling rate, as far as I recall ;)

    I agree that those pressures you speak of do exist in LotRO, but I don’t think they are anywhere near as pronounced as in WoW. The ‘smell the roses’ mentality amongst the LotRO playerbase seems to be far greater, and although important, raiding is viewed by most as an end-game activity rather than the end-game activity.

    Also, there’s just never been all that much to do in the LotRO end-game, even now with the legendary weapon and radiance grinds, and I don’t expect this to change going forward. It is simply not in Turbine’s interest to rush players through the levelling content. They’ll improve the flow and feeling of progression, sure, but to enable the skipping of vast amounts of it would be to miss the best that LotRO has to offer, and ultimately, would be Turbine shooting themselves in the foot.

  4. spinks Says:

    “They’ll improve the flow and feeling of progression, sure, but to enable the skipping of vast amounts of it would be to miss the best that LotRO has to offer, and ultimately, would be Turbine shooting themselves in the foot.”

    It’s an interesting thought experiment to try to decide which bits should be sacrosanct.

    To me, this is why it’s clearly such a good idea to make the epic book quests soloable. It would feel a bit unfair to newer players to deny them access to those questlines, which are some of the best and most unique parts of LOTRO.

    But how about the regular levelling instances? Would people miss grouping in the great barrow or carn dum? Sure, they’re cool in their own right but you can’t turn back time and suddenly dial up hordes of people looking for PUGs there. Plus the hope is that there will be more cool content later on.

    And would anyone really miss half the North Downs quests? (and I say this kindly because I really did enjoy that zone), how about Evendim or Angmar? They are going to feel different when the focus of the game isn’t really on Angmar any more, I suspect.

    I understand where you are coming from, I think. LOTRO is all about following in the Fellowship’s footsteps with added story of your own. But still, I think players themselves will want to get to wherever the other players are. Even the people who are happy to take time out to smell the roses get lonely or want to be doing the stuff that everyone else is talking about. I do think they’ll have to keep tweaking the pacing as time goes on. After all, some of those zones were put in specifically to give bored max level players something to do. They were never intended to be part of the main levelling track.

  5. unwize Says:

    @Green Armadillo

    I didn’t mind the virtue grind first time around. If a grind has a trivial difficulty, a finite duration, and a relatively predictable end-point, I can tolerate it, even if it means just doing it in small bits every now and then!

  6. yambu Says:

    Your attitude on the virtue grind, I suspect, relies heavily on what class you rolled.

    Low-DPS classes, especially minstrel pre-warspeech, was PAINFUL to kill enemies on. High-DPS classes like hunters or champs are fun and profitable to grind those kill-virtues upon.

    Or take the third route, and push to level cap and worry about them later for end-game raids regardless.

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