The age of digital vandalism is upon us.
Edit 13. October: SSG has now announced that changes to the Shire are incoming.
Yes, we are indeed looking to address many of your concerns in a patch next week. Some of what is being seen is accidental in that some in-progress work made it into the build for U23, but we are also listening to your feedback and making quite a few changes that will hopefully better meet your approval.
I’ll certainly give my five cents on the changes once they go live.
Update 23 of Lord of the Rings Online was released two days ago. There are new lands to explore, new instruments to play, bug fixes to the warden… lots to like here.
Sadly, any goodwill towards SSG is about to drown in an outcry over landscape changes in old regions. In short, SSG messed up The Shire. One of the more iconic zones in the history of MMOs has been significantly changed. And many players are deeply unhappy.
What changes were made?
Here are some of the things that have been done:
- Some places have changed terrains of adjusted water levels.
- There are a whole lot of reeds, weeds and flowers added around rivers and marshes. Rushock Bog also has an added mist effect.
- Lots of flowers and flower arrangements have been added, especially to the villages.
- Some flags have been added to the villages.
- Smoke comes out of more chimneys
- Not least, a whole lot of shrubs and bushes have been added all over the Shire landscape.
In and of itself, this doesn’t sound so bad. A bit of sprucing up of an old zone isn’t wrong in itself. However, the execution… oh my. This is pretty much a greatest hits combination of lousy design philosophies, ones we have seen far too often in LOTRO:
- Piling on lots of objects and stuff, without caring for subtlety or client performance.
- Uncritical copying and pasting of objects from other zones.
- Not considering whether changes impact the ability to do quests.
- Not considering whether changes fit the game lore.
- Not considering whether changes impact player-run events.
- Spending a lot of time on changes that no-one asked for.
How did it turn out?
It’s not pretty.
Lots of flags and banners were added to the Shire during the U23 beta. The villages drowned in them. They looked very much out of place. On live release, most of the flags have been removed, but there are still empty flag poles in Tuckborough and Bywater (north of the pool), and Frogmorton still have the flags hoisted high. (click on the pictures for larger versions)
More flowers is a nice thought. After all, hobbits are avid gardeners. However, I bet they would object to the following:
- The whole-sale import of flowers from Gondor, stone flower planters and all. The widespread planting of blue Gondorian flower bushes are a particular eyesore.
- That many villages are now apparently only allowed to grow flowers following a specific colour pattern.
- That the same five sunflowers have been copied and pasted everywhere. Stock is an exception, but then again, sunflowers are pretty much the only flower that grows there.
This gives the Shire an odd, uniformed, artificial look that pretty much ruins any sense of immersion or care for the lore. It nukes the organic feel of the old land. The hand of the game designer is too obvious.
Some terrain changes have been done to questing areas. One particular worry is Bywater pool, home to fishing quests during some festivals. The land near the south end of the pool has been raised, removing fishing nets along the shore (one of which is a quest objective) and nuking a rock in the water that was a favourite fishing spot for many players. Lots of added frills, weeds and reeds may also impact on the ability to finish certain quest objectives.
Bushes and shrubs grow everywhere. In the fields. On cobbled roads. In people’s homestead gardens. Inside animal pens. Inside fences. In farmyards. Inside tents. All over the Greenfields. These new bushes look substantially different from the old ones, giving a further disconnect from the old zone design. Favourite picnic areas of hobbit roleplayers are overgrown. Favourite areas for player events are filled with clutter.
There are other changes too. Some ok, some not so. Many chimneys have had smoke added to them. Which is nice, until you notice that all the chimneys nearby are pumping out smoke. There are lilies and reeds added along riverbanks and marshes. Grand stuff, but there is just so much of it, they drown each other out.
Part of me wonders if SSG pulled the trigger too early on this update. Things look unfinished, not least the empty flag poles. Did they shove things out the door and plan on fixing it later? If so, they had better step up soon, because players are pretty much uniformly negative to this change.
How did this happen?
I’d argue this is a result of the excesses to landscape design that has plagued LOTRO in recent years. Among other things, this involves the uncritical piling on of textures, objects and lots of stuff everywhere. Go to Dol Amroth, and you can’t turn without seeing a wing protude from a tower or stepping on a swan motif (or a live swan, for that matter). Visit Minas Tirith, and your game client will lag, sag and eventually crash under the weight of objects planted in the city. Ride through Michel Delving, and your FPS plummets when you get near the stuffed-to-the-gills server memorial park around the bounders statue.
Subtle, it aint. Good for the performance of an already struggling game client, it isn’t.
With U23, SSG has used this approach on the Shire. The effect is startling. The old natural, handcrafted look drowns under the weight of foreign-looking bushes, reeds, flags and flower planters. The bushes are a particular eyesore, because they grow wild everywhere. They undermine the sense of this being the home of a folk that love gardening and living off the land. The massive cluttering of the landscape make things look untended, decaying, falling into disrepair and ruin. This does not gel with the approach hobbits followed ever since they were granted their land from the Arthedain kings: Maintaining the roads through the Shire. Now shrubs grown in the middle of the Great East Road. Stuff the lore.
Drawing board time
For some reason, Turbine in the old days had a habit of working on changes that no-one really asked for. That no-one cared for. That no-one really liked when they were implemented. That led to a whole lot of noise before Turbine had to backtrack and revert the changes.
Remember when Turbine tried to add sim-esque player voices during the Riders of Rohan period?Riders of Rohan – suggestive emotes
Or when they gave the hobbit lasses “smash hulk!” walk emotes?Hobbit lass thumping walk
In both cases, the changes were either nuked before going live or reverted shortly after. One can only hope that SSG does the same now. But why, oh why shoot themselves in the foot yet again? In the last few years, SSG has repeatedly said they are a small team working on both LOTRO and DDO, with limited resources. If that is the case, why on earth waste those resources on efforts that no-one asked for and precious few like?
As things are now, it feels like the Knights who say “Ni!” have invaded the Shire, demanding that hobbits bring them lots of shrubbery. This is not an improvement. This is digital vandalism of an area loved by many. And it is time to go back to the drawing board and scour the Shire of these changes.Bring us another shrubbery!