Thursday, March 18, 2010

LOTRO and the Perils of Mixing Solo and Group Content

If you asked me for a textbook example of how not to mix group and solo content in the same questline, my stock answer is the Tomb of Elendil quest in LOTRO. Back in 2007, I spent half a dozen levels and more uneventful swims across Lake Evendim than I care to recall (today's whipper snappers have an instant boat travel shortcut) to finally get to the end of the epic questline.... only to be stopped dead by the requirement for a full group.

The extremely lengthy prerequisite line severely limits the pool of available/interested players. Players who like group content may not have even bothered with the prerequisites, and, at any rate, had zero incentive to ever repeat the loot-less story instance. Players who prefer to solo are suddenly hit with the requirement for a full group. Even if a solo player WANTED to make the jump to a group - with so much time invested, I actually did - the instance sits by design at the very end of the zone's level range. That makes sense from a narrative perspective, but it's a disaster for logistics - everyone who wants to complete the quest no longer has anything to do in the area while they look for a group.

In the end, I had to give up and delete the quest. Two and a half years later, I'm still waiting to see how the Tomb of Elendil questline ends.

The Epic Book Fail
The latest LOTRO patch revised all of the pre-expansion epic content (excluding the Tomb of Elendil, which technically is not an epic book quest) to allow players to solo it. I've been running through this level 50 content at level 65, and it's immediately obvious that the Tomb was only the tip of the iceberg.

While I was sitting around at high levels back in 2007 with nothing to do, there was solo content in the game that I could not access because I had not completed the prerequisites. Group players get the prestigious content all the time in MMORPG's, but this time they too got the short end of the stick - in between each juicy 10-20 minute small group quest is a Fed Ex assignment to travel halfway around the world and solo something. Many of these story quests can ONLY be completed solo, so even the most tolerant group is required to disband.

It's no wonder that this content was impossible to complete without a pre-made static group until the most recent revision.

Can Developers Really Change Players' Playstyle?
There is a certain subset of the playerbase whose playstyle is "will do whatever it takes to win". As Rohan points out, those players will feel obligated to do all the "optional" content that offers them any benefit, whether that means being dragged into solo, small groups, PVP, or traveling halfway across the world to pick up a buff before a key fight. Those players are a non-zero demographic and can be converted, if you will, to whatever game activity happens to be paying the best at the moment.

Unfortunately for developers in general, and the LOTRO epic quest design in particular, it doesn't work the other way around. The intent of sprinkling in group instances in the middle of solo chains was supposed to encourage solo players to convert into more grind tolerant group players. The reality is that there's no incentive that can suddenly allow a player who spends most of their time in unscheduled, often interrupted play sessions to spend an hour looking for a group to clear a two hour dungeon.

Both LOTRO and WoW have moved away from this particular bit of design in their most recent content. TBC-era dungeon questlines in WoW often had prerequisites, and sometimes followups. By contrast, almost all of Wrath's dungeon quests are located right outside the instance zoneline (or even INSIDE the dungeons in question). Meanwhile, the LOTRO Mirkwood epic storyline very obviously substitutes a scalable randomly generated skirmish for each of the steps in its story that would have called for a group instance under the old quest model.

To paraphrase Yoda, group or do not. Trying to mix the two just leaves everyone unhappy.


  1. Even if you have a balanced, full, level appropriate group Tomb is impossible (or was a year ago anyhow). Some friends of mine cleared it at level 50, but I never could get them to go back in with me.

  2. It does seem pretty rough. I went in solo at 65 and didn't make it halfway to the first boss.

  3. Very good comment on the mixing of group and solo content. The later books also had this problem: There were group quests/instances, some of them even one-time events. Then you had to solo(=group gets torn apart, this can be deadly if people do not remember the names of their groupmates for later) and often go back to Delossad in the Trollshaws from Angmar. Now imagine the fun if the only Hunter in the group ported without the rest of the party...^^ She had to wait for the next instance for us. :>

    Thanks god I managed to find/form a dedicated group of level 60-65 players who did this in a marathon session. We still lost 1-2 people temporarily.

    Tomb of Elendil was, like the Annuminas instances, once endgame content. But the game moved on, to Moria and Mirkwood. At the intended level this instance is a very tough and PUG unfriendly dungeon, I would say harder than Sammath Gul at level 65. And I agree to what W said, I won't go back there anytime soon. If you want to "help" lowbies doing it, rather be prepared to bring some help yourself. I play a Champion, too, and soloing this instance even at 65 hard if not impossible. I guess a Warden might be able to do the stunt.

    The Annuminas war / instances also suffer from the abandoned former endgame area syndrome, which is shame given how often they are used for LOTRO screenshots. ;)

    I think the idea to make books a solo experience where you can optionally play together with as much buddies as you want, thanks to the skirmish mechanics, is very good. The inclusion of TWO people skirmishes instead of 1,3,5, 12/raid also makes me happy. Couples like Goldenstar and Merric probably even happier. ;)

    I wonder if the "Event" system in Guild Wars will be similar: Something for solo players to work together as group - sorry if this sounds awkward, I just found no better words to describe the idea/concept.

    Star Trek Online's Space War Zones, Fleet Actions and Deep Space Encounters are already a bit like that.

    Right now I am waiting for the Spring Festival to resub and do Vol. III Book 1. I still hope for a major expansion in summer. Some think there might be a surprise, other think nothing will happen before 2011. I would not mind another Mirkwood sized zone, though I must say micro expansions / DLC regardless of game tends to be quite some bucks for not that much content, unfortunately.

    But that's another topic. Great summary of the dangers and drawbacks of mixing of solo and group content.

  4. WoW actually did a mix of quest types for dungeon content in Wrath.

    Nexxus, Drak'Theron Keeep, and Halls of Lightning all had significant (albeit optional) solo quest chains that culminated in dungeon runs.

    I actually think they'll continue doing that model in Cataclysm since they'll need some way to get people back out into the world. Otherwise, it'll be more time efficient to just run dungeons via Looking for Dungeon to level up and never see a quest in the open world.

  5. Agree completely. I've ranted about the Tomb of Elendil in particular before. What's worse is that one of the next steps in the quest you are forced to be solo to watch some story bits, so your killer group might not be around again afterwards.

    It's a real shame, because the story is really interesting and a huge part of the lore. The instance is difficult but doable; at least that was my experience. It really is one of the first "real" instances you have, giving you a taste of raids and group instances later.

    But, it's just really frustrating to hit that roadblock. :/ If you were on Firefoot, I'd offer to do the instance with you on my alt who never got a group together. I'd still love to do it, though, just for the story bits.

  6. Yeah, Tomb of Elendil was awful design. Huge quest chain, and when you finish it, you are done with the zone! This is bad because to get a group you have to sit around in the zone, posting in the LFG channel, where you have no quests left. If LotRO had had a better pan-zone way of forming groups, it would have been better.

    The actual instance was absurdly long, too, much like other LotRO instances. This is quite a clash with the generally casual nature of LotRO. A friend of mine managed to do Tomb at the appropriate level, or at least got to the end, but it took hours and hours. I think his group managed to defeat the boss through some kind of cheesy kiting technique, but maybe they failed.

    I remember doing Fornost. I had a quest that required that you kill the end boss, I think. The full clear took about 3 or 4 hours (which is absurd by itself). I go and turn my quest in, then I get ANOTHER quest that requires I go back in and clear it again! Heck no! This wasn't even end game content, it was just leveling content. Pretty odd. I did get a nice dagger that lasted me about 10 levels.

  7. The tomb of Elendil is very hard btw. Bring at least 4 people. ;)

  8. I have to agree, freely mixing solo and group content in the same quest chains is annoying. It screwed me in the Elendil quest chain, and it screwed me in most of the book quest chains. The ones where it's "group"-"mandatory solo"-"group" are a special flavor of insanity.

    I like the new glory system, I'd like to see them expand it to all of the mixed solo/ group quest chains. Areas like Fornost and the Rift should certainly remain cordoned off from soloers. However, any quest chain that starts out as a long series of fetch and travel quests should be soloable, imo.


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