LOTRO, The Turbine Store, and Sporks

Perception is reality.

In the wake of Armour-gate, a Turbine representative posted a long message on the forums regarding the company’s stance on what is and isn’t (and will or won’t be) offered in the Turbine Store. Judging by the response to that post, the fan base is far from satisfied. As someone who’s played since open beta, nearly five years ago, I’m in that boat. I’m not enormously distressed by the armour itself, even though it is far better than any player of a comparable level can earn or craft. Rather, my dissatisfaction is with Turbine’s response, its seeming obliviousness to the core issue, and the company’s head-in-the-sand approach to player outrage.

(First, let me state that I don’t blame Sapience, the community manager, for the message. I’ve been in the same situation, having to post short and long missives on public forums or in press releases, and I can assure you that every single word in that post was carefully scrutinized by, shall we say, people making a lot more money than Sapience. He may have produced an original draft of the post, but it’s been through enough hands since then that no one person can claim responsibility for it.)

Maybe low-level players were clamoring for stat armour; maybe they weren’t. At this point, following the previous statements regarding “no stat armour in the store” and the infamous “convenience, not advantage,” it’s hard to take anything Turbine says at face value and I think most players are erring on the side of mistrust.

This fight would be a lot easier with +70 in all my stats...

The bit about not knowing if someone said that they wouldn’t offer stat armour may be true. If so, it’s a failure on multiple levels. First, as someone who’s done PR for game companies, I know that you should never, ever, ever say “never” (or its counterpart, “definitely”). It will be remembered and it will come back to haunt you. Turbine’s good enough at hedging when it comes to revealing significant details about upcoming content that it’s not planning to reveal at this time (believe me, I know), and they even joke about the definition of “soon” and dates in general, and that same care to not leak info must also be taken with regards to absolute statements. As for the notion that they didn’t know that someone said it… that might be true, but I’ve been “called out” on more than one occasion by a manufacturer who read something incorrect about their products that was printed in Beckett Massive Online Gamer. They do read their press coverage.

The real issue, though, is the definition of “advantage” or “endgame gear,” and this is where Turbine’s perception varies radically from its players’. A few quotes:

  • Patience said convenience, not advantage.

Very true. It’s one of our guiding principles. Some people have time, others have money and when players are willing to trade money for time we usually consider that a convenience. Our goal is to allow players to customize their play experience to deliver as much fun per hour of play as they want without impacting the play of others.

  • What’s not a convenience?

Anything that’s compulsory to be competitive in ranked play or achieves something by degrading another player’s experience. We have not and will not make that part of our F2P offering.

To make it perfectly clear: We will not sell end-game gear. [emphasis Turbine’s]

Except that they already do. Unquestionably.

It depends, I suppose, on how you define “end-game gear.” For the casual observer, that primarily means end-game armour and weapons. But MMOs have long progressed past the point where end-game gear is just those very visible items, and LOTRO is no exception. What follows are examples of what I, and many others consider “end-game gear”, all of which are available only in the Turbine Store*:

  • Stat tomes. They allow you to gain up to +70 in each of your primary attributes.
  • Store-exclusive relics. Slotted in your legendary items and offering different bonuses from anything available in-game.
  • Store-exclusive potions. Which are on a separate cooldown from crafted potions and therefore can be used in addition to those potions.
  • Relic removal scrolls. Which allow you to remove slotted relics.

* Stat tomes are, ostensibly, available in game but drop at such an astronomically low rate (my kinship has seen two drop in raids since Sept. 2010, and none in over a year) to be effectively exclusive to the store. And yes, technically, everything is available through gameplay alone, if you accumulate enough Turbine Points, but the rate at which you acquire TP is low enough as to make acquisition of such items very rare, especially if you have alts. Even for lifetime players, such as myself, the monthly stipend isn’t enough to keep my characters equipped, and I find myself hoarding my TP rather than spending them because I’m afraid that I’ll blow them on fluff and not be able to afford something I really need when it comes out later.

How many hobbits do I have to mangle to get my stat tomes?

So, do the above items qualify as “end-game gear”? One definition – and the one most players would use – is that end-game gear includes items that are useful to a character at end-game. So the level 20 stat armour that started this mess wouldn’t count, but anything useful to a level 75 character, that increases his power, would.

That bolded statement above is, I think, the definition of end-game gear. Visually obvious things, like weapons and armour (which, in all fairness, I think Turbine really never will offer) count, but so do more subtle things. Stat tomes obviously increase your capability. The relics are a little iffier, being about on par, power-wise, with the best crafted relics. The potions and the relic removal scrolls are even more subtle. They don’t give out an outright boost, but they do make your character better. The potions, quite obviously, allow you better chances when fighting bosses, while the scrolls let you recover relics which can be combined into more powerful relics or broken down into shards, which also let you create more powerful relics. They do increase your character’s net ability at max level (and the fact that the feature was once free is another thorn in players’ sides).

The most distressing point, though, it Turbine’s inability to acknowledge these items for what they are: advantage (not convenience). To reiterate their definition, advantage is “Anything that’s compulsory to be competitive in ranked play or achieves something by degrading another player’s experience.”

So what is “compulsory to be competitive”? When Rise of Isengard launched, players could acquire a new set of level 75 armour, the Draigoch set, which was generally better than anything else they might have possessed. The next update introduced a new raid and new sets of armour, the Orthanc sets, which were, for the most part, very slightly better than the Draigoch set, raw-power-wise (though the Draigoch set can still be viable or mixed-and-matched with an Orthanc set). Of course, people took on the new raid wearing their Draigoch gear, as they had yet to acquire the Orthanc set, and the raid needed to be completable by people wearing the Draigoch set.

Therefore, one definition that could be used is:

Compulsory to beat Tower of Orthanc: Draigoch set
Not compulsory to beat Tower of Orthanc: Orthanc set(s)

Ergo, we can sell the Orthanc set in the store. It might even be possible to beat Tower of Orthanc (at least on Tier I) with a full set of crafted gear, thus making the Draigoch set “non-compulsory.”

There's no reason for this picture. I just thought it was funny.

But here’s a fundamental truth about MMOs, and one that seems to have slipped through the cracks: A certain subset of players will do everything in their power and grind away for hours and days and weeks for the smallest advantage. People will lay our spreadsheets, farm elite mob spawn points, and even be world-class a-holes for a 0.1% increase in their stats or other capabilities. To not realize that any advantage, whether it’s as small as a single stat tome or as large as a piece of Orthanc armour, wouldn’t be viewed by the player base as “necessary” is a grave miscalculation on Turbine’s part. On the one hand, they want us to grind out content over and over to gain small advantages, and on the other, they tell us that such advantages don’t matter, that they aren’t “compulsory.” Well, which is it? Why put that sort of thing in the game if you don’t think it’s going to be highly sought after?

Then there is the mention of being “competitive in ranked play.” The closest thing LOTRO has to ranked play is PvMP in the Ettenmoors. Can monster players acquire stat tomes? Can they acquire store-exclusive potions that are on a separate cooldown? (I honestly don’t know the answer to that second question.)

This might bring up the larger point of Turbine being a PvE game, in general, so what does it matter if someone else has shinier armour or better stats? It’s not harming my game any, right? Isn’t complaining about it just a form of e-peen waggling?

That all depends on how gameplay is designed. You see over and over on forums (not just LOTRO‘s, but pretty much any MMO’s) about players complaining about the difficulty level of instances and raids. If these encounters start to become too easy for the fully decked-out player, does Turbine have to start making them harder to satisfy them? In that case, what does that leave for the others? In other words, players who pay for all the end-game bells and whistles and who get on the forums to gripe about how easy content is can definitely influence the game for other players, even in a strict PvE environment.

Finally, there’s the “Turbine has to make money somehow” argument. I agree. I won’t delve heavily into how other games only offer cosmetic enhancements (League of Legends) or true “convenience, not advantage” (World of Tanks, mostly) and still seem financially viable. But the problem is, again, the perception gap. If players think that you’re taking advantage of them and leave the game, that costs you money. Maybe Bank of America was right and should have been charging $5/month to use its debit cards. Maybe Qwixster was what Netflix needed to remain viable. Maybe what CCP did with Eve was the right thing to do for the company (forgive me, I’m just not up on the general details). None were good ideas, and, after many people left those companies and cost them untold revenue, each company reversed course. If this is what Turbine thinks it needs to do to make money, then it needs to find a new plan, because this one isn’t going to work in the long-term.

What it all boils down to is that there’s a clear and gaping communications gap between Turbine and its players. Turbine thinks one thing about the store offerings and its players think another. While I don’t always agree with the mantra of “the customer is always right,” this is one case where I think it applies. If LOTRO players believe that they’re being taken, no amount of PR or carefully (and potentially ambiguously) worded text will mollify them. If you’re a spoon factory that says it’ll never sell forks, and then you introduce a line of sporks and 90% of your customer base says “That’s a fork, you liars,” you can’t win that argument. Perception is reality, and right now the perception that a lot of LOTRO fans have is that Turbine will sell anything it wants in the Turbine Store, including end-game gear and disavow or warp previous statements to the contrary. The only way that perception will diminish is with actions, not words.

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6 Responses to LOTRO, The Turbine Store, and Sporks

  1. Good post! I like the analogies of BoA and Netflix. I also like the random bear picture.

  2. jkliewer says:

    Excellent post! I liked the comparison as well. Customer perception is key to any changes going smoothly. If you don’t convince them WHY the change is good for the majority, the majority might grow to hate it.

    And you missed a perfect chance to use a Lord of the Beans Sporks reference.

  3. Pingback: Checking Out Of Middle-earth | Wintry Mix

  4. Pingback: Checking Out Of Middle-earth | Wintry Mix

  5. Pingback: News Flash To F2P Developers: Monetization Is The Hottest Of Hot-Button Topics – MMOBomb.com

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