Monday, 14 November 2016

Picking flowers to gain best in slot equipment: how LOTRO monetizes its endgame gear grind

It's Thursday evening; I'm home after a long day. He had picked me up from the station and now he was finishing dinner. Happy he was taking care so well of an exhausted me, I gave him a big hug - but he just gloomily stared at the wall. "What's up?" I asked. "Did I do something wrong?" "No, it's not you." Conrad replied, adding a dramatic pause. I looked at him inquisitively. "It's Turbine", he continued in a dark voice. "Today is a black day in history. Lord of the Rings Online is introducing the worst cash grabbing endgame gear I've ever seen. I can't believe they are going through with this... That, and Trump is going to be president."

So what was that all about?

It's hard to not get attached to one's first MMO. Lord of the Rings Online was this for me and Conrad both. With the introduction of the free-to-play model we watched with sadness how more and more immersion breaking "buy this in the Store" buttons were added, while increasingly many functions became gated behind Turbine Points, even for subscribing players. But we kept playing, because virtual Middle-earth was beautiful, its inhabitants our friends and the raids challenging. Only when no new group content was released for years there was nothing left for us, and our kinship gradually moved over to Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR).

This year, however, actual group content was added to LOTRO: the Osgiliath cluster (two 3-man and one 6-man instance) and the Pelennor cluster (two 3-man, one 6-man instance and one 12-man raid). Especially the Pelennor raid was a big surprise, as the last full-feature raid was added five years ago. So Conrad and I returned to LOTRO with the intent to ignore its flaws and just smell the roses. What we did not know is that Turbine would be taking that last bit literally.

Ithilien is full of beautiful flowers. Spending days picking them was not on my wishlist, though.

LOTRO's latest update added North Ithilien. With it, a new tier of essences*, jewellery and the option to upgrade raid armour was added to the game that can be acquired by running around in the landscape and picking hundreds of flowers. Yes, you read that right, some of the rewards that can only be acquired by picking flowers are better than rewards earned through group content, including the Throne of the Dread Terror raid.

One of the unwritten rules in MMOs is that harder content should provide with better gear. LOTRO released a new raid earlier this year, their first in four years. It seems logical to encourage people to do this valuable content, especially after so many raiders have left the game. Hence it is mind-boggling that mindless solo grinding rewards you with anything at all that is better that raid rewards. Or is it?

There is a possible explanation for Turbine taking this approach, and it revolves around certain items that can be acquired through either RNG or LOTRO's real money Store. Let's look into this in more detail.

A brief history of best in slot gear in 2016

People that are not familiar with LOTRO's endgame should know that the game has an intricate gear system that is primarily RNG based. It takes a long time to gear up compared to other MMOs. Initially, max level instances and the new tier 2 raid dropped the best in slot gear. However, during the course of 2016 several tiers of new gear have been introduced.
  • Update 19: new jewellery was added to the lootboxes of featured instances. Earlier acquired jewellery was not replaced, so players effectively needed to play the same instances in order to get new rewards.
  • Update 19: Ithilien essences were introduced from North Ithilien quests (and, officially, instances, but with such a minuscule drop chance it is negligible). The Ithilien morale essences are universally better than the non-Ithilien ones that drop from instances, the others are situationally better. Tier 2 raid armour can be upgraded using flowers, but the essences are destroyed if you don't remove them first.
  • Update 19.1: jewellery was added from picking flowers that is better than that of the tier 2 raid.
  • An upcoming update (19.2?) will add new Ithilien essences that are better than those that drop from group content. In order to get them, you need to barter a crafted item that requires one extremely rare ingredient (more on this later).
So far, this sounds like an obvious attempt to keep the player occupied with the game by adding new rewards to existing content, so they don't run off to other games. It's not the most chivalrous attitude towards your playerbase, but it's done before in other games (*cough* SWTOR's Dark vs Light event *cough*). Turbine just takes it to a whole new level. Nothing new here, right? 

However, there is another thing going on here that is hard to see for those who are not deeply involved with the LOTRO's endgame gear system. I mentioned earlier that getting best in slot equipment is a huge grind. It is a grind that you cannot skip if you want to do the hardest available content, because the amount of incoming damage in tier 2 instances is such that you will simply die without the amount of morale and mitigations essence gear allows for. Non essence gear does not offer enough total stats. Some of the more rare items that are imperative to acquiring essence gear are, conveniently, available for purchase in the LOTRO Store.

A crash course to LOTRO's essence gear system

Essence gear is armour or jewellery that has empty slots, called "sockets". These slots can be filled with essences. However, once an essence is put in, it cannot be taken out without using a special consumable item, the essence reclamation scroll. These scrolls can be bartered for at NPCs (for instance for faction items), but they are not cheap. They can also be bought from the LOTRO Store.

My lore-master's gear. Highlighted is the chest set bonus piece with four filled essence slots

Essences come in three tiers: purple, teal and gold. Purple essences can randomly drop from instances and raids. The other tiers need to be crafted. Each crafted essence needs an essence from the previous tier and a universal solvent, among other things. Solvents can be acquired randomly, but they are rare. They are guaranteed to drop from challenge mode in Pelennor instances (1 from 3-mans, 2 from the 6-man); however, this is per group, not per character, so you will still need to roll for it. However, solvents can also be acquired... you guessed it, in the LOTRO Store.

The essence system is so sophisticated that it is difficult to get an understanding of the scale of things. I will try to illustrate this. Some classes can 'get away' with using some non essence armour or jewellery with a good set bonus, but in the worst case scenario a character needs (18 sockets for the jewellery, 24 for the armour, 1 for the cloak, 1 for the class item) a total of 44 essences. Two universal solvents per essence are needed to transform them to the best in slot gold tier, meaning that you need (4 x 44 =) 88 universal solvents.

Believe me when I say these items will take months of intensive grind to acquire, and then we're just talking about one character build - imagine wanting an alternate build, or to gear up an alt. Want to tank on your captain in addition to DPSing? See you in two months. Or you could just buy that 25 universal solvent pack from the Store for 700 Turbine Points. Hmm, tempting.

If you don't want to spend Turbine Points yourself, you'll probably end up buying them for 50-100 gold from someone else who got them from the Store to make some quick in-game gold. Either way, real money is spent on Turbine Points. The rules of supply and demand keep this system operational.

More flower picking incoming

I briefly mentioned flower picking above. At the moment, upcoming changes involving more Ithilien flowers are live on Bullroarer (LOTRO's test server). They introduce the gold tier of Ithilien essences that will be universally better than anything currently available. The keyword seems to be grind. Below is a video from a beta tester that I wholeheartedly recommend watching if you're interested in the amount of RNG involved (initially this content was intended to go live with 19.1, hence the title). It's astonishing.

LOTRO U19.1 Coverage part 1/2 by Thomas Huayra (Beta material) (Source)

I know this is still officially up to change. But I do find it worrying that Thomas, after having picked over five hundred flowers, was starting to wonder if these new rare ingredients were live on the test server at all. And then, when he eventually got one to drop (just before he was going to give up), it was bound to account and meant for a different vocation. So if you don't have an army of crafting alts on the top level crafting tier, you may even end up with a super rare material that you cannot use, nor trade with someone else.

To clarify: by running around and clicking for hours (I would love to know how many), Thomas got the special ingredient that allows him to craft one essence. And you need around 40. Not to mention that you need a teal Ithilien essence for the recipe, for which you also need flowers. Update 19.2? The grind is strong with this one.

Edit: Thomas let me know it took him five hours of non stop flower picking to get the ingredient. He also told me he did not run into any competition for the flowers because he was playing on the test server; he expects it would take longer on the live servers because people would have to fight over flowers (they disappear when picked).

Food for thought

One wonders why this new gear is even being added. The only thing it does is add more power creep, which is the absolute last thing LOTRO needs. You don't need the new gear to beat any in-game challenges, so it only serves to cheapen the experience by allowing characters to be more powerful than the instances were designed for. From a gameplay and balancing perspective, there is no reason for this gear to exist; it is clearly a decision driven entirely by the desire for increased revenue.

This suspicion is only reinforced by the fact that new tiers of gear are added gradually, rather than being released all at once, so that every time players need to buy new essence reclamation scrolls to upgrade or replace their essence gear, rather than only having to do that once.

I have shown above how Turbine is continuously adding gear grind as a substitute for new content and an incentive to buy items in the Store. Now, before the fanboys and -girls leap upon me, this post is not about me hating the game. I love Lord of the Rings Online; its landscape, cute quests, festivals and group content in particular. I have written many posts on this blog that celebrate those aspects. It is possible to love a game, but dislike a specific aspect of it. This post is also not about attacking LOTRO's successful free to play model, or invoking the end of LOTRO. It is about identifying the recent disturbing trend of monetizing endgame gear, that can be - at best - described as borderline pay to win.

Equally worrying is the absence of community feedback on these changes. The raiders that used to be vocal about this kind of thing have either voted with their feet, leaving for other games, or have given up after having written threads full of helpful feedback that was ignored (one such a specimen is sitting right next to me). The blogosphere is silent as well. I only know of a handful of LOTRO blogs, and they write about fashion, roleplay events or their personal adventures. It is up to the playerbase to voice our concerns with the development team; remaining silent is effectively signalling that monetizing gear is okay. Am I the only one who is unhappy about this?

* Essences are comparable to modifications in SWTOR to a certain extent, but they can be upgraded (twice) by crafting (only when not slotted) and cannot be taken out nor replaced once slotted without a specific consumable item. Both crafting ingredients and the consumable to take them out can be purchased from the LOTRO Store.

IntPiPoMo count: 19/50. Not counting unfashionable pictures with UI elements.


  1. If I am understanding that correctly then this is one of the worst grinds I've seen in MMOs. I wonder if they did it like that to make it "special". That is usually the reasoning when the developers of Everquest 2 makes something stupidly hard and/or grindy to get. So I assume when other MMO developers do the same it is with that kind of thinking.

    1. There are some historical cases of Turbine adding 'exclusive' things to LOTRO, but they were more in the spirit of server first titles for raids (of which I managed to acquire the ones for Ost Dunhoth and the Tower of Orthanc, yay).

      This super grind, though? No, I think it's far more likely it's an easy way to keep people occupied, plus keep them buying those essences from the Store. Especially after all these years of claiming "no no, we're not implementing anything that's pay to win", and then moving onwards on this gliding scale of things that deceptively influence the gear model. (There are even stat tomes & health pots with an extra short cooldown from the Store, but I would get depressed if I would write a full disquisition on this topic in my post.) It's the only thing that makes sense.

  2. This makes me so sad. The amazing community of the server I grew up on (Belegaer; LOTRO was also my the first MMO for me that I dedicated a lot of time to) withered away so fast after the F2P transition it was unbearable. Seeing this trend continue is sad. I guess the silver lining is that it isn't cleaning up orc feces like in Lórien?
    (Gosh I miss what this game once was so incredibly much.)

    1. The community definitely suffered from the F2P transition, but for me, bing mostly socially involved with in-game friends and kinnies, it did not mean I couldn't bear to play the game anymore for me. The way some parts of the Store are run, though... I wish they would just keep it to cosmetic and convenience items and stay well clear of anything to do with stats, combat or gear.

  3. It's hard not to see the similarities to SWTOR, such as making the best gear available to everyone as reward for a huge grind and bringing RNG into the mix. :-/ At least Galactic Command won't push you towards the cash shop quite as blatantly. Small mercies I guess?

    1. This article identifies two problematic trends within LOTRO: 1) grind; 2) pay to win factors. SWTOR seems on a path to add more of 1) since halfway 2016: first the DvL event (same content, new rewards), now the RNG loot system (more RNG = more grind). I don't like that either, but SWTOR has been very low on grind so far and the cash shop is absolutely pay to win-free for subscribers (while both factors have been worrisome for years already in LOTRO). So, while I do see some similarities and share your worries, it does not feel like the two are going down the same path to me.

  4. People vote with their wallets and what they are actually doing in game. If no one spent any real-world money / TP on store essence items, and/or if they refused to do the grind in game, the essence system would have disappeared. I refuse to do the grind, and I have not spent TP 1 on anything related to essences. Sadly, there are both people and money out there that don't care, and will continue to fund the system. Once you get on the essence treadmill, you can't get off, so I'll continue to do the other 99% of the content with non-essence gear.

    1. You are totally right about that. I'm not going to make an effort to get Ithilien essences, because, well, all of the reasons above and because it isn't needed to complete the current content. The essence system as a whole, though - there's no way around that for me. I do enjoy that 99% of content without it, but new T2 group content is what brought me back to the game, and there's no way of battling that without essence gear, alas.

  5. First off, thank you for the article. I always enjoy reading lotro articles from different viewpoints. However I will disagree with you on a few points. Just some background, I've been playing lotro for 6 or 7 years. I was subbed for the first year, and since then I've been a 'premium' player. I've paid for the expansions like everyone else, and I think once or maybe twice in all my years I bought a $20 pack of Turbine Points. So to me, I'm pretty far away from the 'pay to win' type of player.
    However, I've managed to to outfit all 9 of my level cap characters in essence armor. I have 5 characters that are my 'solo' characters, and the only grouping they do is the Featured Instance groups, which are very easy for anyone to do. These 5 I have just done 2 slot armor and jewellery, and I've used only the teal versions of essences. So a total of 26 solvents per character.
    My other 4 characters are my 'raid ready' characters, and they are in 4 slot armor, 2 slot jewellery, and usually a couple of 'swap' pieces. They probably average 90 essences per character. So all told, I'm well over 500 solvents used (which includes some essences that I've sold to other players).
    Total Turbine Points spent = 0.
    Total real money spent = $0.
    On Landroval, my server, for a long time you could buy stacks of solvents at 20 gold per solvent. That price has gone up lately, but I still see people selling them recently at 25 gold. I do agree that if your server sells solvents at 100 gold per solvent, that would make outfitting a character extremely difficult. If solvents sell for that much, how much does a supreme essence sell for? On Landroval, supreme essences sell for around 200 gold. So with 40 gold of solvents, you can make 160 gold 'profit', not counting the other items (which you don't have to buy).
    As far as the Essence Removal Scroll, you can get them at the skirmish camp for a very reasonable rate, in my opinion. I'd think only raiders would use a lot of them, and raiders always have a lot of marks and medallions.
    And as you said, nothing in the game requires the Ithilien Essences, so I haven't used any of those yet. They're sitting on an alt waiting for content that needs them, and at that point I'll start working on those.
    Anyway, that's my two coppers. Thanks for the article!

  6. Awesome job Rav! Keep it up.

  7. *Yawn* Another whine that MMO's are grindy.

    >Update 19: new jewellery was added to the lootboxes of featured instances. Earlier acquired jewellery was not replaced, so players effectively needed to play the same instances in order to get new rewards.

    Not true. There is new rotation of featured instances.

    Essence removal scroll is not Store only. Solvents are quite rare drop but it's easy to farm needed amount of TP's. It's hardly a pay2win.

    Hatish trolls are hatish

  8. Actually U19 reduced solvents demand as the best solvents are get from quest not crafting.

    And i've easily get needed gear, it's not grind (do you know what 'grind' actually means? look's like not). Very casual update required not that much effort than many other updates or even MMORPG's

  9. For me lotro feels really grindy, but I guess that perception is different if you have a lot of play time. For me I have about 2-3 hours play time a day, and with this limited time I am not always in the mood for flower picking (especially not after a long work day). And it is not just flower picking (which is really bad), but that for a good set you have to do multiple grinds (like featured instance, 6-man instance, minas tirith dailies, big battles, and not to mention the tokens for the star lit crystal and the delving scrolls). I just got to 105 and for me it seems like an enormous grind, for which I not really into the mood. This makes it very hard for me to do the raid and that sad :(. The problem of lotro is that if you are a casual gamer, then really hard to get geared for the raid. Whereas for swtor, I managed to get good gear (220), within a month, that is much better for a casual gamer (hopefully this doesn't change with the next patch).

    1. Thanks for illustrating the perspective of someone with a full time job, Marinka. I almost feel sorry for introducing you to LOTRO, but at least the leveling and landscape experience is worthwhile, especially for Tolkien fans.

  10. You lost me at SWTOR sorry...mmo are not for all, if you want end game go for it, if you want to farm apples there's that too, pvp be my guest, but to whine about YOUR lotro is funny and sad, as that is what makes up 1/2 of this country entitled special little snowflakes with there hands out waiting on a libtard or dumbocratic to bail em out at a republican taxpayers cost. Take control of your self your life and your attitude for once in your life and have 1 original thought sheeple, and btw if u choose to see crap that's what you will see all your life nothing but crap!

  11. You can get upset all you want about the new gear, but it's happening. Personally, I was sick of elitist players saying, "No, you don't have the gear, you can't join our group..." At least the flower pickers have a shot at filling up with good gear. Yes, it's solo work, and a bit mindless, but at least you can make progress. The other thing is that the instance drop gear is chance based. That means that someone could do hundreds of runs of Silent Street in t1 and never get their chest piece. The flowers make it so that you don't just spin your wheels. As for the 19.2 essences and jewelry, I don't see a problem. So what if you need more essence reclamation scrolls? What else are you buying at the skirm camp? And as for making the players OP for the designed content. That may be true, but as of yet, I've got 2 toons that have been fully geared for a while and STILL haven't ever gotten to even enter a t2 Throne run. Unless it becomes easier, I never will. People don't like to PUG that sort of thing often.

  12. Ravanel, nice blog! Your posts are very well written.

    I came across your site on a search for info on the flower picking thing in LOTRO. I just hit 105 and am dreading this, as all my gold essences are currently Lv100.

    I've been with the game since July 07. Started out on Meneldor, then moved to Landy recently with the consolidation. I, too, think fondly of the early years of this game. SoA was so fun. Moria as well. I still love the landscapes, but that special something seems to have been missing for a good while now.

    This was my first mmo, and I was blown away. Loved Ered Luin so much, and the first time I ran from there to Bree I was floored by the sheer size of the world. The game actually could be difficult back then! The Rift at Lv50, whew! Tough.

    I'll be sure and swing by from now on to check out your content.
    Btw, what server do you play on?
    My character name is Kezi if you ever are on Landy. Cheers!

    1. Hey, thanks for the nice reply. Most don't seem to appreciate my attempt to Occupy Ithilien. ^^

      I hold the same beautiful memories of the early days of LOTRO. As for endgame gear, I'm not bothering with the flower picking myself because it's just too silly. My essences (105) are all from instances and that's sufficient for the current raid on T2. If we get a new raid that might change, but I'll deal with that when the time is there.

      I play on Laurelin (check under Rav's Army > Lord of the Rings Online), so unfortunately not on the same server.

  13. I have played LOTRO since day 1, but had a break for several years, stopping before Rohan was introduced and starting again in April 2016 (I can't believe its been 9 months already).

    I am working, I have two small children. I can only free up some time when they are in bed in the evening, essentially yielding 2-4 hours about 4-6 times a week. I only have one character.

    So I started basically from scratch with regards to end game gear. Yes, it does take time, and yes, it should. Grinding my Legendary weapons did take time, especially all those scrolls of empowerment. And I agree, getting your end-game gear to near perfect will take you a long time, too.

    Still, I find the underlying tone of this blog post too negative. I believe it was written out of an impulsive, negative emotion.

    Yes, it takes time, but only if you want the perfect gear. No, you don't have to spend months to get gear that allows you to do T2 Raid content. No, you don't have to buy items on the LOTRO store to get those solvents. No, you will not be getting where you want to be by simply running daily featured instances and hoping for the solvents to drop. The gate is not the solvents anyway, the gate is currently the North Ithilien essences. SSG will of course introduce another way to get them quicker in the future. It's always been like that. The latest and greatest is always hard to get and time consuming in the beginning, and later on will be made more accessible to the wider public.

    I could go on, but generally want to let people know that hopefully read the comments that it's not as bad as described above. Bottom line. My opinion, and I am a reasonable person, trust me.

  14. Don't fool yourself, the grind is real, and it keeps getting incrementally more grindy. Ive' played since day 1 and the introduction of the RNG increased the grind exponentially over night. The entire essence system adds nothing to the game other than to play to peoples egos of min/maxing stats and make this game a grinding cash cow.


You can insert links, images and videos to your comment using these tricks.