The Lord of the Rings Online™: Siege of Mirkwood™ launches in a week. I am wondering what happens two months down the line.
Turbine’s Middle-earth has a punctuated equilibrium, with the level cap jumping once a year and the end-game moving a little further from the tutorial. If the future resembles the past, the mid-year additions will be less severe than Blizzard’s tiers of equipment, more of breadth at the cap than another ladder to climb. (More cynical version: many treadmills rather than one long one.) This leads to launching with a slim end-game, building it up over time, then moving to a new, slim end-game.
There is more to do at level 50 than level 60. Mines of Moria™, while a series of great mid-level zones that will be a joy to level through years from now, has been an abject failure as an end-game area. First there are the game mechanics, notably radiance gating and the LI grind, which are so horrible that the 5-level Siege of Mirkwood™ level cap boost might exist solely to reset them, and even then the reset just tones down the absurd awfulness without eliminating it. Second, it was a development debacle. Moria shipped full of exploits. Book 7 shipped buggy and incomplete, broke existing content, and added very few new things to do beyond a reputation grind. I lost interest before Book 8 finished out the planned content from Book 7, and how much did that add for non-raiders? I would say that Mines of Moria finally got “up to par” around the 8.1 patch, in September, which would mean about 10 months of floundering. And how hard are you going to work the end-game just before the next reset?
Now it starts again. We can hope the development cycle goes more smoothly this time. How long will it take to exhaust the content available at launch? Maybe two weeks for the hardcore, two months for the casual, plus some time to enjoy the instances and skirmishes? By all accounts, those skirmishes are gold, like everything Zombie Columbus touches. (I should note that I consider it “exhausted” once you start grinding and farming, not when you get to the end of the treadmill.) The patches added later will be shorter. I don’t see how there can be enough to do, but is there ever?
They also face the development dilemma of building for planned obsolescence. If these will be mid-game zones a year from now, how much effort do you want to spend building them as end-game zones in the meantime? Mines of Moria™ did a better job than Shadows of Angmar™ at anticipating the coming time of mostly solo leveling-through.
Were I at Turbine, I would have the A-team already working on the next expansion. Have your best writers working on the story that will progress through the patches, but the design and programming push is on the new and changed systems. The new kinds of things to do are what will get you coverage, more so than the details of what you are doing there, and the new tools can be adapted to different content if the story timeline shifts. The Lord of the Rings Online™ Volume Two: Mines of Moria™ was pretty clearly supposed to be over already, with Volume Three as the new expansion pack. Development delays pushed the last book of Volume Two to the expansion. This meant using all the new tools on Book 9 so that they can be showcased at the expansion launch, with the intended Volume Three content to follow in the spring.
I wonder if Volume Three has already been pared down to fit within the expansion cycle, with Volume Four next Boxing Day. Perhaps it could be done as a quicker series of updates, say six sets of eight quests using existing tech rather than demanding new tools, instead of having an obviously tiny Volume. Then, come the next expansion release, marketing can crow about how Turbine gave players an entire Volume of the epic story for free, so Join Now!