Allarond finally wrapped up Volume 2, Book 9, the epic plotline of the Siege of Mirkwood mini-expansion, over the weekend. He still has a series of epilogue quests, including quests to complete the group dungeons of Don Guldur. There are also at least a dozen remaining quests in various subzones of Mirkwood, which, collectively, will probably be enough to max my reputation with the local elves. Even so, I think I've got a pretty good handle on what the expansion contains at this point.
A focus on solo content
Mirkwood is the first time in my MMORPG experience that I have been able to clear out an entire expansion without needing a group. Moria had a healthy focus on solo content, but there was still the occasional group quest or instance that I would have to abandon, and it was not possible to complete key portions of Epic Volume 2 (which sets up the action in Mirkwood) solo. By contrast, it appears that literally all of the group content in Mirkwood has been tacked on to the optional epilogue at the end.
Part of the reason why Mirkwood gets away with this is because the soloable content is designed to tax characters to their limit. Allarond hit his hour-long emergency cooldowns and consumables pretty hard to survive, and many quests would still have been reasonably challenging with a second character. The content also contains great graphics and an impressive storyline, which I'd put head to head with any single player RPG out there.
The other part of the equation is the scaling "skirmish" system, which is used in every situation in which players would normally have to complete a group instance during the epic book. The skirmish can be set for groups of 1, 3, 6, or 12 players (though all of those players will need to do the solo-only instanced quests to unlock the skirmishes before being allowed to participate), and is probably the most time-efficient way of crafting this sort of story content without leaving anyone out.
Has Turbine chosen to concede the achiever demographic?
Though I can't argue with the expansion's efficiency - skirmishes can be used by all, and group-only leveling content tends to become a problem as games age - part of me wonders at the motivation for this dramatic of a shift.
Turbine has always struggled to keep pace with top end achievers. I originally left the game after reaching level 40, of its launch level cap of 50, a "mere" four months after the paid retail launch, only to find the content severely lacking. By a year later, Turbine had devoted its efforts to fleshing out that sparse stretch of content, where most developers would have moved on to the next paid expansion for max level players.
Today's max-level characters face the same challenges. Turbine has had to stick with a highly unpopular "radiance" gear grind because there simply isn't enough content to let players to move on to the next dungeon when the natural progression of their skill and gear would otherwise allow them to do so. This means that the system needs an incentive to keep players coming back even longer, after they have their radiance gear, to gear up newcomers. So the Mirkwood dungeons are also the source of new legendary item scrolls that provide players with yet another option for sinking tons of time into enhancements for replace-able "legendary" gear.
All of this would be a problem, perhaps a fatal one, if endgame players were the game's primary market. I can think of no reason whatsoever why I'd choose to grind LOTRO's three level 65 small-group dungeons over the other games I play when those games offer more choices (19 daily double dungeons in EQ2 and 16 random heroics in WoW), even before WoW effectively removed the unpleasant task of looking from groups with their automatic group finder. One can only conclude, then, that these endgame grinds are not what are keeping LOTRO in business.
Rather, I'm guessing that LOTRO's core market is the crowd that levels solo and, most importantly, slowly.
In perhaps the closest we're going to get for an apology for the disposable "legendary" item system, players have a brief conversation with the dwarf who was involved in the quest that granted players their first legendary item at the start of the Moria expansion. Turbine has the dwarf crack a joke about how weapons are meant to be replaced, as if Middle Earth was not a place where most characters' named weapons stay with them until they die. In an ironic twist to drive that point home, a separate questline in the epilogue has players returning a fallen comrade's named weapons to their home.
My guess is that Turbine will never again require the use of group content to see the game's headline epic story content. While one part of Turbine's team was replacing all of the group instances in Mirkwood with skirmishes, another is in the progress of overhauling the launch game's "Volume 1" quests, adding in temporary buffs to allow players to solo the group content. That's a lot of work to invest in accessibility if the plan is to return to "LFG or forget the plot" in Volume 3.
The big question, then, is what exactly we will see when the new volume launches next month. Adding large amounts of landmass and content at the current level cap, when there's already plenty of content to use en route (you actually cannot complete the Epic book before 65, due to the minimum level requirement on the final skirmish) seems like it would just become redundant next (mini?)expansion. Also, if Turbine was in a position to deliver significantly more landmass than Mirkwood by February, why did they go ahead with a mini-expansion in December instead of a full-sized one now?
Then again, perhaps the revamps of the 40's and 50's suggest that Turbine is not afraid of breaking a few metaphorical content eggs with some redundancy. Either way, the content has been well worth the visit so far (with the caveat that the best stuff starts 50+ levels into the game, a bit removed from newcomers). Time will tell whether this model can ultimately pay off.