I’d been thinking about this from the game design perspective recently, and I wrote this response to a recent post in the LOTRO forums where Ronigard asks, “Is LOTRO about gear?”:
The question is perhaps too vague; LOTRO is “about” different things to different people. So let me rephrase the question: Is character differentiation and optimization in LOTRO about gear? The answer there is yes.
Beyond selecting class and race, the player has no control of character development at the skills level. Every rune-keeper by end-game has the same set of skills as does every guardian, champion, hunter, etc. The same is true with base attributes. Every paid subscriber also has the same number of trait slots. There is no character differentiation from leveling up, nor are there any irrevocable decisions like allocating a limited pool of skill points or choosing an advanced class.
By end-game, your character’s base primary attribute will be around 100. The gear elitists say that a primary attribute needs to be over 1000 for raiding–that’s ten times more than the intrinsic value from the character. It requires a combination of gear and traits to do that. Improving skills–their duration, effect, power costs–comes from class traits and is what differentiates my rune-keeper from another; i.e., I can drop a stone at any attunement because I have two healing traits equipped, but my friend can’t because he’s totally fire-traited. To build a competitive, optimized, and (functionally) unique character is an exercise in gear and traits.
And traits really are gear. Everybody can get every trait, and through deeds and the store max them out. You can swap them out at any time using a Bard. That’s gear-like behavior, not class-like behavior.
Why is gear less important for solo content? Solo content in LOTRO is relatively easy by design, and there’s so much of it that very few players are dealing with on-level (white) or higher-level mobs. Having old gear and low traits isn’t a big deal because of that relative ease and the significant effects of the level differential between character and mob.
Why is gear more important for group content? Group content (skirmishes, instances, raids) is designed to be harder, has ways to make it even harder (i.e., tiers), and tends to be run closer to level. The increased difficulty requires better gear overall, but it also requires players to be more effective, so customizing gear to your particular role within the group, tactics, and playstyle becomes more important too.
I would guess that Turbine’s design goal here was to eliminate the need for respeccing characters. Everything that differentiates your character from another of the same class is equippable. Skill-based games I’ve played like Star Trek Online have to provide ways to rebuild an existing character because of mistakes made during level-up or to allow players access to new playstyles without grinding through a whole new character–and potentially choosing to play a new game instead of that grind. MMOs seem very reluctant to lock players into decisions they make beyond initial character generation, 800-pound gorilla excepted.
So I think it’s not only that LOTRO is “about” gear (and traits), but that it’s a very specific design goal by Turbine to make sure players have immediate and flexible choices about what makes their characters functionally unique.