Episodic Content Developer Diary
By Jeff ‘MadeOfLions’ Libby
One of LOTRO's defining features (and indeed a defining feature of all the MMOs we have developed) has been the steady release of updates and patches that expand the game in every direction. There have been more than thirty major updates to LOTRO over its history, adding new regions, new dungeons, new quests, and new stories to the world of Middle-earth. The release of a new update sees us excitedly checking the chat in-game and reading the forums to see what players think of the new content and to get ideas for the next update. And then we put our heads down and get to work on everything to include in the next one.
The release of a major update is incredibly exciting for us (and I hope for you as well!), but over the past few years we found ourselves wondering if there were ways to maintain that excitement level even between updates.
LOTRO has an incredible amount of content available by now, but since the game has been around for so long there has been enough time for our most loyal and long-standing players to have seen all or most of it, sometimes on multiple characters. When you have been living in Middle-earth for that long (either as a developer or as a player!) something new and unexpected really stands out. So how can we surprise players with something new?
That Between-Updates Feeling
One of the ways we tried to add new content in-between updates was by creating seasonal festival content. This gave us a number of events to activate during the periods between major updates, and the seasonal themes provided some fun avenues for rewards. These have a lot of flavor (the Harvest Festival's Haunted Burrow is my favorite), but again, some of these festivals have been around for years and years.
PvMP is one area where the excitement level remains high between updates, by virtue of its dynamic nature. The Ettenmoors aren't always overflowing, but this is an area where much of the fun is player-created. The battles can be different every night, which has always contributed to the longevity of that Freeps and Creeps battleground.
But what if you aren't into PvMP and you have already experienced each of the seasonal festivals time and time again? What can we do to provide something new and interesting in-between major updates? One possible answer was hiding in plain sight: every Monday morning, groups of developers would gather in the Content Pit to talk about the previous evening's TV. We would discuss the latest developments on Game of Thrones, True Detective, and on Thursday mornings, one of my favorites: Survivor. (Don't judge me! It's a great show!) What if we could recapture some of the essence of these lively post-event conversations?
Like a TV show, it would require something new to happen every week, rather than on our current schedule of three or four times a year. This isn't really how we've operated. Can we even make this happen? As we investigated the feasibility of attempting such an event, the tale, as they say, grew in the telling...
The Ballad of Bingo Boffin
And so was born 'The Ballad of Bingo Boffin,' a very long story involving the various adventures that befall a mostly-ordinary hobbit of the Shire. Unlike the Epic Story, which is told in large chunks that appear every three or four months, Bingo's story will unfold more gradually: a new quest in his story will appear every single Wednesday... for a year. If you decide to befriend Bingo Boffin and help him with his adventure, you'll have fifty-two weeks of new questing ahead of you.
In order to make Bingo's adventure accessible to everyone, there are a few important points to note:
+ 'The Ballad of Bingo Boffin' is intended to be a soloable experience, there won't be any sessionplays, and I'll try to keep the forced-solo sections to a minimum.
+ Bingo's first quest is Level 8, and begins outside his hobbit-hole in Michel Delving. At the end of each week's quest, the recommended level of next week's quest will be displayed (along with its name; it’s a preview of sorts), so if you'd like you can level up in the interim. I plan on making a new character to follow along with Bingo at the appropriate level, but I'll also bring my higher-level guys through to crush it. I think both approaches are fine!
+ If you miss a week of Bingo, don't worry! Once his quest for a particular week becomes available, it'll be available for anyone who has progressed the quest chain to that point. So if you play through Bingo's first three weeks of quests, after the fourth week you'll be able to pick up his fourth quest whenever you want. One year after Bingo's adventure begins, you could theoretically play through all fifty-two weeks of the chain all at once. That's like choosing to binge-watch an entire series on Netflix, and if you want to you can... but I hope you'll play along instead of sitting out for the year.
+ We've been hard at work on Bingo's adventure behind-the-scenes for awhile now, and some eagle-eyed observers have already seen some evidence of it. We won't need to bring the servers down in order to advance Bingo from week to week. Much of the magic for making this happen is already there, waiting for the appropriate moment to set the adventure in motion!
+ Did I mention that 'The Ballad of Bingo Boffin' is free?
I hope you enjoy meeting Bingo and helping him out on his long, strange adventure, and that the experience is a fun one. I hope that you find it a rewarding storyline, but also that you enjoy the many rewards your characters can obtain. And that's where Bert Bartleby comes in.
Bert Bartleby, Bingo Badge Barterer
By completing Bingo's quests, you'll receive a new barter token: Bingo Badges. You can exchange these with a curious individual named Bert Bartleby, who has wandered the wild lands of Middle-earth and accumulated a vast array of interesting and useful curios. You'll find Bert in an increasing number of places as Bingo's adventure progresses, and at each new location he will have a new selection of rewards to exchange for your Bingo Badges.
Bert provides another useful service. If you lose track of where to find Bingo on any given week, you can talk to Bert at any of his locations to learn where to find the adventurous hobbit that week.
We've never tried to make episodic content on such a rapid release schedule before, so this is exciting for us on many levels. But I think Bingo Boffin has an interesting tale to tell, and I hope you enjoy experiencing it for yourself alongside Bingo over the course of the next year!