Saturday, January 2, 2010
WoW and EQ2 have relatively straightforward plans for 2010 - boxed expansion launches, content patches to support them, and probably more creep of real money transactions into account services and item stores. LOTRO's plans for 2010 are potentially more interesting. What happens next?
Business Model Developments
The guys at LOTRO Reporter have a debate going on whether we're going to see any more traditional boxed retail expansions, or whether the game is going more towards a model of paid mini-expansions. LOTRO took a major step towards a hybrid business model last year, releasing a paid mini-expansion accompanied by a somewhat RMT-like "Adventurer's Pack" containing two character slots and a shared bank feature that really looks like it should have been an upgrade to the base game's bank interface.
Personally, I think LOTRO is done with boxed expansions for the time being. Launching a retail expansion means giving a cut of the revenue to a variety of middlemen necessary to produce, ship, and sell physical game discs. This raises prices, and thus expectations, without necessarily adding to Turbine's bottom line. Meanwhile, higher prices bring higher expectations, and there isn't any indication that the live team has the resources to produce any more content per year than they did in 2009.
Realistically, I'm expecting one paid mini-expansion which, unlike Mirkwood, will actually require ALL players to pay (the first one is always free, at least in the US - sorry EU folks). It will also be interesting to see what additional features get separated off for an additional fee - I don't think that Turbine lost any significant number of subscriptions for the Adventurer's Pack, and they got extra cash from everyone who chose to buy one, so there's no incentive for them not to continue the trend.
The speculation is pretty unanimous that the next expansion will be "Riders of Rohan", which is what we all were certain that THIS expansion was going to be before it turned out to be Mirkwood. Also, Ravious posted a screenshot showing that Dunland and the Gap of Rohan have been added to the map. This throws a wrench into things because Dunland is adjacent to Isengard and there is absolutely no way that the campaign advances to Isengard without exploring the political situation in Rohan proper.
Then again, The Fellowship is still camped in Lothlorien, so I suppose it's possible for players to visit Theoden and be kicked out (perhaps even with Eomer and company) BEFORE Gandalf and the three hunters arrive. For that matter, players could potentially run into Gandalf in Dunland or Fanghorn, as his whereabouts in the story aren't really pinned down until he is reunited with Aragorn.
In one final possibility, there is still that pesky Peter Jackson film adaptation of The Hobbit, due out at the end of 2011. I've predicted that Turbine may want to move the game towards Dale and the Misty Mountain around the time the film arrives, since that will probably be the single best time to take advantage of that portion of their license.
New Features and Gameplay
In the somewhat likely event of a story advance to Rohan, there's going to be a lot of attention on horses. Cosmetic traits for your mount (similar to what skirmish soldiers and monster players get) seem like a no-brainer. People want to see mounted combat and massive large-scale battles. Then there's the question of whether the game is overdue for new classes. Mirkwood arrived relatively soon after Moria added new classes, but the game will have been two years without new character options by the time Dunland/Rohan/whatever arrives.
New classes can be good all around for several reasons. Beyond raising excitement for the expansion in general, they provide an incentive to re-roll rather than crowding the new content on launch day, and they encourage players to take advantage of recent revamps to leveling content.
On the downside, there's the issue of how to fit them in with existing classes. Even if the expansion does get mounted combat, I can't see a new class that never dismounts. If you asked me to brainstorm a sometimes-mounted skirmisher, the first thing that jumps to mind is the already existing Warden class - medium armor, highly agile, with some ranged ability. Where's the niche for one or more new classes?
That said, the game's skirmish system could offer one way to get more exotic combatants into the game. I could certainly imagine new soldier race/class options that allow you to bring a mounted Rohirrim into battle with you, or perhaps even an Ent (after the inevitable rep grind to friendly with the Ents of Fanghorn). Orcs didn't sack the Shire on a daily basis in the books, but the current skirmish system offers precisely that scenario, so I don't see why Ent soldiers would be ruinous to the lore by comparison.
LOTRO's lore can be limiting at times, but it also gives a sense of direction and expectation to the game. Amongst possible WoW and EQ2 expansions, there's nothing as certain as LOTRO's advance on to Rohan. Time will tell whether Turbine can deliver, but there's certainly the potential for some interesting developments in Middle Earth this year.