LotRO Devs Go In-Depth on Helm's Deep Class Changes
When the Lord of the Rings Online's next expansion, Helm's Deep, launches in November, it will introduce some major changes to the game's nine character classes. It is easily the biggest class system revamp since the Mines of Moria expansion five years ago, and possibly even more ambitious than that one. While the Mines of Moria class revamp mostly just changed the way a character organized his traits, the Helm's Deep revamp will potentially alter the way the character is played.
The staff at Turbine gave us a guided tour of the new system, with in-depth looks at the Warden, the Captain, the Hunter and the Guardian. But before they got into the real specifics, they addressed the whole need for a revamp in general.
"That is the big question," said Matt Zimmitti, Lead Systems Designer. "There are several good reasons. First off, so many of our classes over time, with expansions and 'Month of This Class or That Class' and what have you, have gotten so many skills that were adding utility at the cost of potency. We were starting to get crossover abilities between the classes and we didn't actually have really strong archetypes anymore. So philosophically, we wanted to get back to the core."
In other words, skill bloat accrued over the past six years had made many of the classes feel sort of "generic" and not unique. The revamp trims away the fat and strips the classes down to their essentials, making them more focused and therefore better at what they do.
"We wanted the characters to feel like they had really defined roles," Matt explained. "That's not to say that there won't be any mixing-and-matching or hybridization, but we wanted it to feel like, if you chose a DPS build, you really felt like it had a bunch of punch. If you picked a tank build, you really felt like you could step in the pocket like no one else and really soak up a lot of damage."
But it wasn't just a matter of potency. The changes are designed to allow for future development as well.
"Functionally, it's harder and harder to write up new, potent skills when each class has such a variety of different abilities," Matt continued. "We had a lot of skill bloat, a lot of people are running around with four-plus full bars of skills, and we know for a fact they weren't all getting used. We finally got to a point where we wanted to look at all the classes all at once, with the goal of more potent skills even if that means fewer of them."
So not only do these changes allow for more focused combat roles, but they also allow for a more streamlined, less-cluttered game interface. Or, alternately, much more room on the skill bars for consumables, macros, gear swaps and other non-standard clickies. As the game moves forward towards Mordor, streamlining now leaves room for later.
To accomplish this revamp, the team had to build a new user interface, which is organized similar to Mounted Combat trait tree system. At level 6, the character picks a specialization - essentially, picking which trait tree will be the main focus of that build. Level 6 characters have no points to spend yet, but they can pick the blue, red or yellow trait tree.
Picking a specialization determines a couple of things. Firstly, it determines the point-cost of the all traits. The traits within the specialization tree cost one point per pip, and the traits in the other trees cost 2 points. Characters get one trait point every two levels, and additional points for completing the deeds that used to reward traits. At level 95, characters can top out at 60 - 65 points to distribute among their traits (since it's still in beta, this number is not yet final), which allows for a full specialization in one tree, plus a number of pick-up traits in the other two trees. Level 85 characters who have done all their class deeds will start with 55 when the expansion goes live.
Secondly, each specialization bestows a unique set of specialist skills and bonuses, separate from but dependent on the specialization traits. Each specialization comes bundled with a small group of skills that automatically get added to the toolbar, and which are removed when a different specialization is chosen. Additionally, further skills are unlocked by spending points within that trait tree, or improved by spending more points. Spending your points in the specialization traits unlocks more of the passive specialization bonuses. The deeper you go into your specialization, the more bonuses you unlock. Once you hit the cap, you can effectively hybridize by spending points outside the specialization without sacrificing the build. A hybrid build will have far fewer traits overall because of the cost of traits outside of the specialization, and will unlock fewer of the specialization bonuses.
Players will start with two specialization tabs, allowing for two
different setups that can be swapped on-the-fly as long as the character
is not in combat. More slots can be purchased through the LotRO Store.
Like the Mounted Combat trait tree setups, each spec can be renamed and
can focus on a different trait tree, allowing the character to swap combat
roles mid-adventure as easily as switching weapons.
Wardens have long had the benefit of being able to adapt their combat role on-the-fly, generally by using different gambit rotations depending on whether they are tanking or DPSing. With the new setup, they should prove to be more effective and focused in those roles. Determination spec replaces Way of the Shield and focuses on tanking and self-heals, Recklessness replaces Way of the Spear and focuses on damage-dealing, and Assailment replaces Way of the Fist and focuses mainly on ranged skills.
The Captain is in a unique position, already having three fairly distinct combat roles. Much of the Captain's buffing ability has been condensed and consolidated, and is now mostly combat-generated rather than requiring a refresh every 30 minutes or so. The Leader of Men line should prove to be more effective for endgame off-tanking now, while Hands of Healing and Lead the Charge continue to do what they have always done.
Hunters are arguably one of the more "fragile" classes when it comes to this kind of build-tweaking. They are essentially one-trick ponies whose only real combat role is to dish out ranged damage, and anything that affects their damage numbers can have a significant impact on the class. To that end, the three lines have been given more distinction from one another. The Huntsman spec allows for movement while using induction and Focus shots, with no Focus loss from movement, making it a run-and-gun line. Bowmaster remains focused on Strength stance and hitting big damage numbers while standing more or less still at extreme range. Trapper of Foes is the big winner here, giving the Hunter the ability to lay an alarming number of more-powerful traps simultaneously. A lot of players have voiced concern about some survival skills going missing, but these missing skills are offset by increased damage output.
The Guardian is still a "main tank" class, and the Defender of the Free and Keen Blade lines remain largely unchanged as far as how they affect gameplay. However, Helm's Deep comes with another sort of "hidden" revamp to how threat is generated and how aggro is calculated. The simplification of the threat/aggro system made the Fighter of Shadow line, which focused on threat generation, redundant, and it is now designed around tanking with 2-handed weapons and debuffing target-marked enemies. Guardians and Wardens will now rely more on forced-attack taunts and off-tank swapping than on building or leeching threat. But, essentially, anyone running a tank spec, regardless of class, will simply generate more threat.
A question that was asked of the team, and one that has been tossing around on the forums for a while, is: "will this be LotRO's 'New Game Enhancement'?" The NGE was a major game-changer in Star Wars Galaxies that upset a majority of the game's players and lead to a huge drop in subscription numbers, primarily because a) it made fundamental changes to the basic systems that stripped the game of its original uniqueness, b) left a lot of existing characters crippled or obsolete by eliminating most of the professions, and c) was unleashed on the game with almost no warning.
The short answer is, "no, this is not LotRO's NGE."
Let's be frank: this revamp will not appeal to everybody. There will always be a few very outspoken critics whenever a major change comes down the pipe, and especially when said changes affect the way the critics have been playing the game for six years running. Some players will get disgusted, complain very loudly and leave - that always happens when change is introduced. Other players will eagerly embrace the new system because it gives them the opportunity to play exactly how they have always wanted to play. Turbine is banking on the idea that there will be way more embracers than detractors.
A lot of skeptics are won over by the new system after seeing it in action, even veterans who have been around since pre-Moria days. Though they may take some getting used-to, Helm's Deep's class changes are not gimping anyone like the NGE did. Yes, it is a major change to a core system that will make characters feel sometimes very different from how they used to be. But most players will find it to be different in a good way. DPSers will have more punch, tanks will feel tankier, healers will be able to spam green easier. Characters should feel more potent and streamlined.
The developers are well-aware of this comparison to Star Wars Galaxies' much-reviled NGE, having read it on the forums and fansites many times over now. When asked this question directly, Matt Zimmitti admitted, "The answer in terms of fear is yes. I don't get a lot of sleep at night. But we had finally gotten to a point where so many different bits of feedback were funneling towards really needing this fundamental change. This isn't just about paring down the number of skills - if we were going to do that, we would have left the system intact and just taken a bunch of skills away. We really wanted combat to have more impact and have more critical character choices depending on how you build your character, and it really required doing all the classes at once. So, in changing things this dramatically, the actual core skill rotations are very similar, but it's how you choose to build that is very different. You really have to take the whole engine off the block and make a comprehensive change."
"Every step of the way, as our group of players have been giving feedback, there's been a two-week period each time where there has been a flat-out revolt against the concept. And then people play for a bit and they start to get it, and they start realizing that their feedback is getting rolled into these changes. And then after about two weeks, okay, people start to grok it. We've had three or four phases of this, and it's given us a degree of confidence that we are on the right path. It's not a knee-jerk decision, a lot of work has gone into it, and we've gotten a lot of feedback that it does play better. "
The Helm's Deep expansion launches on November 18, and is currently in closed beta.