Last week, I attended a small press event at the Turbine offices in Westwood, MA. With Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar gearing up for their "World Tour", which I will talk a little bit more about shortly, it seemed like a pretty good time to get a clear look at what exactly Turbine is up to in this adaptation of a classic story.
To start, I should probably clear up a little bit of lore surrounding the game. When you look at the title of this game, the Lord of the Rings part is fairly self-explanatory, it's the Shadows of Angmar part that, if you're like me and enjoyed the books and the films, but have a shoddy memory, you're probably not quite sure about.
Angmar, as it turns out was one of the kingdoms of Men, led by one of the kings who took possession of the original rings. As even casual fans of this franchise are aware, the original rings corrupted their wearers, and eventually, the King of Angmar became the Witch King (the leaders of the Nasgul, or Ring Wraiths). Angmar, once a goodly kingdom is now a place of evil.
Since the announcement of Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, the same question has been heard time and time again from interested parties, "How can you make an MMO about a story whose outcome we already know?". The answer is simple, while Frodo and the Fellowship are on their quest with the One Ring, players must concern themselves with Angmar and the events taking place there.
Why did I start this article with a brief Tolkein history lesson? Well, to me, the trick to a good game based on an intellectual property, especially one as well-known as LOTR, is to make the players feel as though they are actually a living, breathing, contributing part of the world. By providing a believable, secondary plot beside the main story, Turbine hopes that players should feel as though they are still a part of Middle-Earth. If my personal play experience in the game is any indication, they have succeeded.
From the moment that you log in to Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, you feel as though you are in the wondrous world of Middle-Earth. The game's art department should be particularly proud of themselves for not only creating a beautiful game world, but also for making it fit so nicely with at least my own, vision of what a 3D representation of Middle-Earth would be.
So, what does Lord of the Rings Online have that every other MMORPG out on what is becoming a very crowded market, doesn't have? Well, one answer to that question is cut scenes. Lord of the Rings Online makes use of cinematic cut-scenes to keep you and your character updated as to where they stand within the scope of the larger story.
"We want to make sure that players understand where they fit into the narrative," Says Turbine CEO Jeff Anderson, "and what's happening in the main story". While some MMO purists might have an issue with the use of a well-known single-player game convention, fans of narrative and story in games will be pleased with the end result of this venture. The voice acting and writing for these cut scenes (the few that I saw) was excellent, certainly above par in terms of many games on the market today. In order to trigger these cut scenes, and to get the full effect of the story, players are encouraged to take their time to pass through the progressive quests.
Statistically speaking, the number one factor that keeps people in an MMORPG is the friends that they make while they're there. That shouldn't be surprising, but it is a design element (retention of social networks) that is sometimes overlooked in the development process. Turbine, on the other hand, has given "social" a good deal of thought.
First, players are encouraged to join Fellowships, groups of characters who can not only quest together, but also perform "Fellowship Maneuvers" that rewards players who work together with a special, group attack. While fellowships focus on the combat side of social play, LOTRO also provides players with the ability to make family trees and lineage. After all, one of the core elements of Middle-Earth is its people's strong ties to family history. From there, what MMORPG would be complete without an interesting Guild System. In Lord of the Rings Online, Guilds are known as Kinships. While the number of players in a fellowship is rather limited, a kinship can be much larger, the largest already topping 1,000 players.
YouTube, it turns out, is home to a number of actual recruitment videos created by various kinships in the hopes of luring prospective players. The videos are well thought out and interesting. If you have a few minutes and the inclination, I would suggest giving them a look.
The social and community aspects of this game aren't expected to stop when you log out, as LOTRO promises to "allow players to take the in-game to the out-of-game". Turbine expects that players will be able to export their characters to a website, where they can "show off" what the character has and what they have accomplished. Players will also have access to a game blog (which can be accessed either in or out of game). Similarly, players will have access (both in and out of game) to a specially designated Wiki that they can reference and add to.
"They'll [the players] do whatever they like with it," said Jeff Anderson, "within reason of course."
The Wiki could, for example, be used as an internal game guide. Are you stuck looking for the best place to find a certain spice that you need for cooking? If you are, you could simply type in what you're looking for and hope that someone else has found the solution to your problem and has placed it on the Wiki. If used in this way, the Wiki could easily replace players having to leave the game world to find their favorite online resource in times of need.
Another unique, socially-motivated feature in Lord of the Rings Online is their music system. At level five, characters will gain the ability to play a musical instrument. You can either play your instrument by hand, using your computer keyboard to produce the notes, or you can use what is called an ABC music file that the game will automatically convert and play in-game. A number of different ideas are floating around concerning possible uses for the game's music system (ie: music-based quests), but even now it provides players with a medium for social interaction as well as a way to make the game's characters seem to come to life with their own personalities that extend beyond more commonplace (and practical) ideas of combat and crafting.
While at Turbine, I also had the opportunity to see a Middle-Earth version of Google Maps. The top down view allowing me to see all of Middle-Earth, both the areas covered by the game, and beyond.
Needless to say, Turbine has a lot of great ideas surrounding Lord of the Rings Online. The fact that Turbine, at this stage of development, is putting their resources into these secondary systems, seems to be an indication of Turbine's faith the strength of the product that they have built.
"We did all of the stuff you expect from an MMO," Said Anderson, "and then we went back to polish and added the really cool extras."
It isn't just the extras that set this game apart from others in the MMO crowd. The business of Lord of the Rings Online is being conducted in a way that's just a little bit outside the norm. LOTRO marked the first time that Turbine offered a unique, lifetime membership option in the pricing of their game. In an effort to reward loyalty, and presumably to drive pre-orders, Turbine offered players who pre-ordered LOTRO an interesting pricing choice. They could either pay a monthly fee of $9.99 (as opposed to the $14.99 that everyone else will have to pay), but they also offered a lifetime membership at $199. Interestingly, the $199 lifetime membership, while it may seem like a fair chunk of change, is actually a money saver for anyone who plans to be in-game for any length of time. On top of that, there is a thought that by paying a flat fee, there will be less incentive to rush and grind through the game so that players can enjoy the rich and interesting world that Turbine has tried to create.
Even the game's Open Beta is, in the footsteps of the IP itself, more epic in scope. Beginning on April 6th, Turbine and Midway are kicking off their World Tour of Middle Earth. Billed as "One of the largest North American MMO pre-launch events ever", this open beta event will see over 1,000,000 players invited to take part in the game. This enormous free-for-all will be capped for players at level 15 (you can't give everything away), but will provide potential players with the opportunity to get a flavor for the game, and to explore the different game play elements available.
Since this isn't a review, I will refrain for the moment from talking too much about my own, specific game play experience. Still, I have to admit that the time that I spent in Middle-Earth was both engaging and entertaining. My suggestion to you is this: If you ever looked at this game, and thought it might be interesting, you should take advantage of the World Tour and get in game to see it for yourself.