It's been... interesting, to say the least.
LotRO's in for a packed fall, no matter whether you're feeling psyched, depressed, confused, or anything else in the emotional rainbow. I'm right there with the rest of you, sorting and analyzing. All I can say right now is that (a) I'm welcoming of new content for the game and (b) I've given up trying to predict Turbine. I mean, after it broke with its "[something] of [place]" naming convention, all bets were off, folks. Madness must ensue.
This is probably the most shocking of all of the news that we've received over the past few weeks. Few people that I talked to with about this game predicted a fall/winter 2013 release for the expansion, especially considering just how quiet the studio's been about it all summer long. Even with beta starting a little while back, two months' time (less now) seems awfully quick for a product we're only now getting to know.
I can only speculate what's gone on behind the scenes. For the past two expansions, Turbine announced them early in the year, started pre-orders in the spring/early summer, ran the beta all summer long with lots of promotion, and then released it them in September. This year it took a while for Turbine to even come out with a producer's letter and even longer until the studio mentioned the x-pack. Then we heard a lot of nothing until a few weeks ago. My guess is that the big battle system, coupled with the rest of the content, was simply taking longer than anticipated, and so Turbine kept holding off on making a big deal of the expansion until it was reasonably sure it would launch by such-and-such a date.
Surprise or no, November 18th is what we're facing and that's what we've got to deal with. Assuming that it won't launch a shambled mess, I think you'll agree that's a good thing. Turbine will still be sticking to its one-expansion-a-year, and players who have been fidgeting for months without anything new to do will have something to keep them occupied over the long winter months. Or the long summer months if you're an Aussie, I guess.
Second to the date, the details of what the editions and pre-purchase bonuses will hold are probably of most interest to folks. It's nothing too mind-blowing, to tell you the truth. There are two expansion editions, the basic ($40), and the premium ($60). I can't really get myself worked up to analyze the extras you get with the editions and the pre-orders -- there are Turbine Points, titles, cosmetics, steeds, and so on. The new armor is nice-looking but honestly not that different from the Rohirrim armor we got last year. Same with the steed. Basically, it comes down to whether any of this is tempting to you or you're at a point where you'd get a lot of use out of this expansion.
What's really bizarre is the "legendary item pack" that's tucked away at the bottom of the pre-purchase page. It's really just a bundle that doesn't have anything to do with Helm's Deep at all but is getting promoted because... The Hobbit cross-promotion? Or as CSTM put it, "This looked like a really expensive movie ticket to me." I would avoid it, because I can buy my own movie tickets and I'm really averse to dumping money into the LI system.
Anyway, the cost is pretty standard for what Turbine's been doing. I'm glad the studio did bundle up the four previous expansions for a sale, and at least from where I'm sitting, there's not a really compelling reason to pay more than $40 to continue one's journey through Rohan with Helm's Deep.
While players who don't pick up Helm's Deep will still get the class changes, additional crafting tier, and the ability to level to 95, there's a big change this time around: They will not be able to progress through the next few books of the epic story. Shortly after LotRO went free-to-play, Turbine made the entire epic story free content that could be experienced by all and hasn't changed that even as the new expansions and content updates have rolled out. Several players have pointed out that the studio pretty much promised that this would continue to be the case. I guess not.
The explanation why is that the epic story is deeply intertwined with the big battle system, and while Turbine is totally fine making the epic story free, it's not as inclined to do so with big battles -- the selling point of the expansion, really.
OK, so here's where some of you will probably dislike me. I'm not up in arms about this change. I can see Turbine's dilemma here, and while it's certainly not a good shot to the studio's PR, it does make sense. The only way to avoid it would be to skirt the Helm's Deep battle entirely (which would be strange for the "epic" story), give away big battles for free (which would probably undercut sales somewhat), or tie up resources trying to finagle a third way to do it. In any case, I have to wonder how many people this decision will truly impact. I mean, there are always folks who play completely free or are slow to pick up the next expansion, and yes, this will be a bummer. But in my experience, either people haven't gotten to that expansion content and ignore it entirely or they just pick up the expansion.
The forums have been ablaze over this, and I think MadeOfLions gave a frank and informative response to the community that illuminates Turbine's perspective.
I think it certainly was not a good thing for players to have to find out this information by pestering a CM until he spilled the beans; Turbine should've been really up-front about this change from the start. It wasn't even mentioned to me during my dev tour a few weeks back. People don't always react well to change, especially when the change involves charging for something that previously was free.
Now, I have no clue about Turbine's financials with LotRO. I used to think that the game was quite generous with its free offerings, but stacked up against games like Star Trek Online and RIFT, LotRO now seems pretty restrictive. I think it'd be amazing if Turbine could go RIFT's route by opening up all of the zones and quest content for free, hoping that players will make it up in purchasing odds and ends from the store. But Turbine's been pretty dedicated to the expansion cycle, so that's probably not going to ever happen.
No matter where you stand on this, it's just not going to be a happy note in the symphony that is Helm's Deep. We're processing a lot of information right now, and it'd be great if all of the news were positive. But with less than two months to go, a bad bump could send skittish players away with little time to smooth over.
When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.