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The Curious Case of Lord of the Rings Online

Christopher Coke Posted:
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I still remember discovering Lord of the Rings Online. It was 2007 and I was deep in love with World of Warcraft. A magazine interview with Jeffrey Steefel made me a convert, or at least a dual believer, with Middle-earth come to life. What fantasy fan isn’t at least intrigued at that idea? After only two months as a subscriber, and still a relative newcomer to this genre, I made the 3 AM purchase of a lifetime subscription. It’s now six years later and the game has undergone a radical business model shift. It’s six years later and find myself worried for its future.

Funnily enough, I immediately regretted that lifetime subscription. The next day I called and cancelled it, which was lucky for me because the price dropped two weeks later. The original $299 fell to $199 and I bought in without any remorse. It’s still one of the best gaming investments I’ve ever made.

If you’ve never played LotRO, you’re missing out. It is in many ways a traditional MMO, what with its tab-targeting, holy trinity dungeon delving. But it’s also home to one of the best realized IPs in gaming history. What Turbine has accomplished in re-creating Middle-earth is nothing short of astounding. The developer has gone to great lengths making sure the game feel true to its source. The Shire feels enough like The Shire so that some players never leave. If you want to visit the Prancing Pony in Bree, stop on by and hear players making music or roleplaying over a mug of ale.

LotRO also features an Epic Story which guides your through the game and weaves your character into the story of the Fellowship. It’s really something incredible and allows your to experience iconic moments of lore. If you’ve read the books, or even watched the movies, you’re in for a treat.

All of this has engendered one of the most passionate, kind, and helpful communities of any MMO out there. The influx of new players from free-to-play created newbie zones flooded by questions and WoW comparisons, but community has stepped up in welcome. It is a community where the Free Peoples of Middle-earth come together and Turbine has gone out of their way to encourage it. Downloading today will get you an uncanny music system, dozens and dozens of emotes, interactable objects, and a housing system for players and guilds alike. LotRO feels like a world.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Concessions have had to be made. There’s not hundreds of miles of space like any real landmass. And Tolkien didn’t consider the vidya games when writing his enemies, so if you’re not interested in killing thousands of orcs, spiders, and wargs, this is not the game for you. That’s worth repeating: you kill SO MANY orcs. Character progression is a bit of a mess and encourages grinding for stat-based traits. Even the iconic legendary weapon system is predicated on extreme grinding. And perhaps because of the IP, the combat still feels sluggish.

In November, the game will receive its fifth expansion taking us alongside The Fellowship to Helm’s Deep. This is one of the milestones LotRO had to hit but it’s also going to be one of the hardest to pull off. The engine is aging (just look at its character models) and this isn’t an action game, so making the Battle of Helm’s Deep feel like, well, the Battle of Helm’s Deep is going to be a challenge.

Can LotRO afford for such a big idea to fail? I’m not so sure. There was a time, say 2007-2009 when they could have gotten away with it. Back when Turbine was releasing updates and taking names, they could absorb a blow. But here’s the thing, we only know what companies tell us, and what is it they’ve been saying? That the stream of Unprecedented subscriber numbers! and Doubled revenue! may be running dry.

They’ll never put it into words, but what else are we to take from the shirtless dwarves, hobby horses, and paid-for game fixes that have permeated the store? The loudest messaging we have received this last year is Trinkets for sale! and the deafening silence surrounding the upcoming expansion. This is the video game industry. When a company refuses to talk about their biggest product until the last possible second, it’s a bad sign. And when they hide their most promising, hardest to develop feature even longer, that’s worse.

The lack of updates on this expansion was enough to make you wonder if this was coming out at all. Turbine seems to specialize in silence these days, so you might be forgiven for not knowing that LotRO license to the Tolkien-verse expires in 2014. When they announced this deal in 2008, they noted that there were “additional options to extend” until 2017 but there has been very little word on what that might mean. What’s more, Middle Earth Enterprises might not be inclined to agree to such an extension following a year of legal battles with parent-company, Warner Brothers.

As the new year approaches, forum thread after forum thread pops up on the official forums. Desperate players are crying out to Turbine for some kind of reassurance but are being given nothing in return. Does that sound like a company who is confident in the future of their game? The community is chafing under the pressure. Poor Scormus, the self-proclaimed MMO Troll made a joke about it and was promptly skewered for it, both in his comments and the official forums. This is what happens when MMO companies leave their players in the dark.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Turbine may be under a gag order and can’t comment. I want to be fair. But look at their messaging, people. It’s not just about the license. It’s not just about the expansion or the cash shop. It’s not even just about the increasing drought of communication about the game. It’s about all four of them, and when combined they create a very curious case for LotRO indeed. Taken in context, it’s hard to come away feeling positive about the state of the game..

I will end with this. If you enjoy LotRO, like I do, consider buying the expansion and showing your confidence. Spend some money on the cash shop. When you’re done, go to their forums and tell them the things that need to change. This is a game that needs public corralling. More now than ever, they need our feedback, and in the face of this license thing, our support.

Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player since the days of MUDs. These days he makes his home where he can find it, regularly trying new games and writing about his experiences. Follow him on Twitter at: @GameByNight

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Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight