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Lord of the Rings Online Interviews: From Novel to MMO

By Jon Wood on February 12, 2007

Lord of the Rings: From Novel to MMO.

Managing Editor Jon Wood recently had the chance to sit down with Jeff Anderson, the President and CEO of Turbine Inc. In this, the first part of a two part interview, Jon and Jeff discuss the process of taking an epic work like JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and turning it into a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.

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On Friday, I had a chance to sit down and talk to Jeff Anderson, the President and CEO of Turbine Inc. The occasion for the talk was Lord of the Rings Online, a game that has generated a great deal of hype ever since its announcement.

For anyone who might not be aware, Turbine currently holds the rights to two major Intellectual Property (IP) games, Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach which launched almost a year ago, and now the upcoming Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (LOTRO). Creating a game based on a well known IP isn’t the easy, slam-dunk that you might expect. A great deal of time and care has to be put into the creation of the game, and, as Jeff told me, it creates multiple commitments and priorities for the developers. First, there is the priority of making a good, solid MMORPG. Next, you have to be careful to stay true to whatever the IP happens to be. In the case of my conversation with Jeff, the task that falls to him is more daunting than most. To re-create the world of Middle-Earth, a place that J.R.R. Tolkien brought to the individual imaginations of over 200 million readers making it, according to Jeff, "without a doubt, one of the most widely read books on the entire planet".

The purpose of Friday’s interview was to get to the root of what exactly it takes to move something from the page onto the grand stage of an MMORPG.

I asked Jeff what elements from Lord of the Rings made that particular franchise a good choice for the MMORPG genre. He responded by talking briefly about the sheer number of people who have read the book, but then went on to describe the richness of the Tolkien universe.

"I just find myself," he said, "like most readers, being lost in the world and always wishing, when I was reading the books, that I could be there with Aragorn that I could be there at Helm’s Deep… All of those places that we created so magically in our minds… to be a part of that amazing adventure".

While Jeff spoke rather passionately about his own experiences with Lord of the Rings, it cemented in my mind what a tricky business it can be to take something that evokes so much passion from its fans, and adapt it to a different medium. Still though, Jeff appears to see this not as a liability for LOTRO, but rather as an advantage that they have over other MMOs that "miss the stories and epic grandeur of the Lord of the Rings franchise".

It’s hard to even discuss The Lord of the Rings without bringing up the recent film trilogy from Peter Jackson. That film re-introduced a generation of fans to Tolkein’s world, and was well renowned for having created visuals that were very close to what Tolkien described. This, of course, led me to ask whether LOTRO was based on the books, or the movies and whether or not there was a difference.

"The simple answer," he said, "is that Lord of the Rings Online is based on the Trilogy and on The Hobbit". He went on to tell me that they don’t own the rights to the New Line Cinema films.

"When we looked at building a game, we wanted to make sure that we had the ability not to tell a part of the story, but to tell the whole story and to go beyond the words that were in the book to the spirit of Tolkien and be able to create and epic adventure around the books. To do that, we needed the literary rights so that we can tell about things that he alluded to, make things more clear and explain the [ins and outs] of the world of Middle-Earth."

When asked what benefits and drawbacks the success of the film franchise has had on the development of Turbine’s MMO, Jeff was quick to point out to me that it was the "terrific bedrock of lore" that Tolkien created that allowed the movies to be the success that they were. This very same bedrock is going to allow Turbine to explore an interpretation of Middle Earth that isn’t nearly as limited as the three hour movies.

Development of a Lord of the Rings MMORPG is made more difficult by the films in that, as Jeff tells us, even before the movies, there was a great deal of imagery created around Lord of the Rings.

"Peter Jackson’s films did an excellent job of illustrating [the lore] in cinematography, but we also draw from that same material so there’s an obvious overlap and parallel in the way we look and do and the way they look and do". The example that Jeff used was referring to Hobbit Holes. Whether the story is being told through a video game or through a movie, the door to the Hobbit Holes are going to look the same, round with a doorknob in the middle.

"I think, that way, it was terrific because things that re part of the baseline material that they drew from was the same thing that we are able to echo and re-enforce in our product… In some cases, he made his own unique take, or version and flavor of things that maybe deviated from the Tolkien cannon… I think where we differ from them, it’s harder because we’ve got to create a different representation, but for us overall, those are small issues compared to the value of what the franchise brings."

For clarification, Jeff said that they obviously couldn’t have their Gandalf look just like Sir Ian McKellen, but at the same time, they still had to create the Gandalf that was described in Tolkein’s original works.

It’s every fan’s nightmare to have a favorite IP, especially a novel IP, interpreted in a different medium in a way that deviates too much from the original. So, I had to know how closely Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online followed the story of Tolkein’s novels.

"We’re pretty close," Jeff answered with enthusiasm. "There are still some small details that we were forced to omit, and some area that we feel we needed to expound on…"

This makes sense in terms of the expansion of Tolkein’s originals. By way of example, Jeff references a certain creature that Tolkein described only as making a specific noise in the marshes. Because of the nature of Turbine’s game, they are able to actually create and flesh out that creature.

"When we sat down we wanted to ensure that the main characters," he said, even the secondary characters, the places, all of those touch points that we’re familiar with from the literature, make it in there. This is a huge advantage that we had over the Peter Jackson films. We can tell so much more of the story."

Jeff went on to clarify, saying that Lord of the Rings Online will have over 300 hours of gameplay, and that it is much easier to tell the full and rich story with that much time than it is to do so in the time limitations that films require. Tom Bombadil was used as an example of an element that was necessarily left out of the film versions that makes an important appearance in the game.

"Of course," he said, "the number one priority for us is to make a great game, and the franchise is the backdrop for a great game, but it is not a substitute for a great game".

Jeff goes on to describe times when he has been asked which is more important, the game, or the story, and he explained that he feels as though the two are inseparable on a project like this. That, in order for them to be successful, they have to really pay attention to both aspects.

"We wanted to make sure that when you play the game, it resonates." He continued, "It’s got not just a little bit of content, but a ton of content."

Jeff wasn’t kidding when he said that there was a lot of content in the game. In terms of space alone, Middle Earth is over 50 million square meters of space. The game has: 10,000 unique items, 1,500 different quests to go on, 5,000 NPCs and monsters and more. "This really moves us beyond," he said with confidence, "the average generic MMORPG because we do the full spectrum of features." He was genuinely excited about the game’s many features and listed a number of them off to me: text chat, voice chat, mail, an epic storyline, quests that matter, roleplaying systems that support each other, a combat system with traits that he says allow you to have more personalization of your character beyond the physical."

One of the concerns that I always have when a book, or a movie is made into an MMORPG is that the narrative of the book or film in question already contains an epic narrative that involves a very small number of characters, far too few characters to go around when you’re talking about MMORPGs. This can often leave players feeling as though their characters don’t matter, or that what they are doing isn’t nearly as cool as what their favorite characters are up to. Not everyone, for example, gets to throw the ring into the volcano at the end. That was Frodo’s job. What then, does this leave for the potentially thousands and thousands of new players that will enter Middle Earth through LOTRO? How will the game support its players and make them feel like a part of this epic story?

Jeff explained to me that while Tolkein’s world was fairly well planned out, the Hobbits for example, are not generally the adventuring type. He explained that Tolkien built into his stories the idea of "exceptional" characters within each of the races. These are people who often defy the norm and are all the more special for it. Every player, I am told, will be one of these people and right from the very beginning, they will become involved in a story that gives them their own, interesting destiny beyond that of Sam, Frodo, Gandalf and the others.

In the second part of this two-part series, I go on to talk to Jeff about the Monster Play system in Lord of the Rings Online and how it contributes to the overall "Tolkien feel" of the game.

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