Over the past couple of months, I have watched the Turbine crew prepare Lord of the Rings Online for its shift to becoming a free-to-play game. Although there are many new and changed features one could talk about, I’d like to focus attention on the scaled instances and their rewards.
The developers have taken the original instances, both fellowship and raid content, and transformed them into scaleable dungeons. This means that a level 65 can go back and play through the Great Barrows, but at a level suitable to his or her ability. It may sound somewhat similar to the Heroic dungeons system in World of Warcraft, and it is to an extent. As WoW has a currency that drops from heroic dungeons, so does LOTRO. But, as WoW has specific gear available from each heroic boss on top of the currency rewards, LOTRO does not.
This play-for-currency system has been in place since the last expansion Siege of Mirkwood when the skirmish system was released. A player can instantly enter into a scripted instance, typically only about 20 minutes long, with friends or alone, and acquire Skirmish Marks of varying levels depending on difficulty and size. The Marks can then be bartered with a vendor for a myriad of items, both cosmetic and combat.
The play-for-currency design is simple and easy to manage for both developers and players. Bag space is already limited, so instead of making characters loot along the way, one just gives them a currency type and lets them buy what they want. It’s like getting Gift Cards at Christmas instead of big, shiny boxes (full of unwanted crap).
However, with the new Free-to-Play system, Classic instances are going into this play-for-currency scheme as well. I can run a 24-man raid and not see any drops from the boss. As long as I do it enough times, I’ll get to pick what gear I want and be happy.
At first glance, the system seems flawless. No one has to grind for their gear. No one has to design multiple loot tables for different levels (since the instance can be scaled). No one has to do anything hard.
As old school as I may be, I’m not going to champion “hard” meaning endless grind as the best, or as the “good old days”. However, I do want to make case for boss loot tables and random drops.
I remember being a fresh 60 in World of Warcraft, now some 5 years ago. At the time, one ran dungeons to get the first tier of gear. For me, it was the Wildheart set. Even now, I distinctly remember the 17 runs it took to get my shoulder piece. It dropped in Lower Blackrock Spire from Gizrul, one of the wolves. I remember the anticipation of that hallway coming up to the boss room. Would they drop this time? Would my search be over? Would I have to run this yet again? I remember the way Halycon looked running into the room. I remember the feeling I had when they finally dropped. So much happiness and satisfaction. And 17 runs was nothing. Some people ran many, many more. This isn’t to say that huge loot tables with low droprates are the way to go. It’s really just the other extreme of loot acquisition.
And yet, five years later, I remember that piece of gear and I remember its history. Each piece of armor in these games can be a kind of cultural artifact. It has memories and emotions associated with it that relive events and recapture feelings of success and fulfillment. The history wrapped up in each piece makes it unique, despite the fact it has the same graphics and stats as every other one with its name.
Items I buy from the skirmish vendor do not have that. All they remind me of is some anonymous number of random skirmishes, none of which stand out. Same with Frost Badges in World of Warcraft, the current type of gear currency. I bought a piece of gear with them – it means nothing. It’s a piece I wear because it’s the best for that slot but it doesn’t give me any happy thoughts. It doesn’t make me proud. It shows nothing about my character except the fact I ran a bunch of random dungeons like everybody else. It doesn’t provoke questions of, “How many times did it take you?” or “Wow, I really want that piece!” It’s meaningless.
Despite these drastic differences between items that can be bought and items that drop, I recognize the need for a gear currency system. In WoW, it allows new 80s to gear up quickly to be able to participate with everyone else. I also recognize the intent behind the skirmish system – it makes it a hell of a lot easier to manage instance scaling and the many items associated with skirmishes, not to mention skirmish soldiers. But it also makes it a hell of a lot easier to forget. Adding this currency system into the classic instances while completely removing the random loot tables makes the experiences less profound. It is a still a beautiful place and still a challenging fight, but part of the reward is missing.
Part of the way MMOs work is by giving a player a task and then rewarding them. The fun is in the dynamic of anticipation and fulfillment. Yes, sometimes it feels like a grind, but we do it, because at the end it feels worth it. (If it doesn’t, the balance is off.) Players who focus too much on the grind and ignore the rest of the risk/reward mechanic fail to understand the actual fun of the game.
It isn’t too much to ask that quests be inventive and fun, but failing to acknowledge that a substantial portion of the fun comes from achieving levels, skill points, and gear is failing to understand the genre. Without a balance between risk and reward, with risk being calculated often in time and difficulty, the genre becomes boring, a themepark, too easy, dumbed down, etc.
Instances that only reward gear currency feel like a grind without the reward. Instead of having the reward closely associated with the pursuit, such as the Wildheart Spaulders being only available from Gizrul, the reward becomes detached from the effort in the player’s mind. This makes both the reward feel less rewarding and the effort less fulfilling. Further, players become less invested in the instance they are running. It becomes a mindless dungeon crawl they’ve done a thousand times. Nothing different will happen this time – just a few more marks to spend.
I look forward to running old instances again, but I know I won’t do it for long because it will feel like a grind without a reward.