Progression servers are a weird thing. They obviously won’t attract the playerbase of an MMO as a whole, but rather a subset that is looking to shake things up or experience their favorite game in a new light. The Lord of the Rings Online launched two progression servers a few years back: Anor and the now closed overflow server Ithil, however late June two new servers were launched by the team.
Creating a new ruleset for each, the two new Legendary progression servers aim to give players a very different leveling experience, especially based on their own personal preference. For those players who want to just beeline the main story and get to endgame quickly, Shadowfax is going to be the server for you. However, with the players who want stop, smell the roses, do every bit of content and explore every nook and cranny, Treebeard is the server to choose.
Naturally, being someone that even in single player RPGs I tend to ignore sidequests by and large and just finish the main story first, I was going Shadowfax. Indeed, I figured the vast majority of LotRO players would choose Shadowfax as their Legendary home. However, as the LotRO community always does, I was surprised to hear from Standing Stone Games’ Executive Producer Rob Ciccolini that Treebeard, at least at the time of our interview last week, held the edge in population.
“I’ll be the first to tell you that LotRO players will often surprise you,” Ciccolini said via a Zoom call last Thursday.
With the two new servers, however, comes the fear of how these servers are balanced. Will players on Shadowfax rapidly outpace the content on server thanks to the increased XP, especially when you factor in things like the normal VIP bonus XP boost subscribers already get. This was factored in, though with Treebeard the team did take a different approach.
“For Treebeard, we actually gave a crafting boost,” Rob says. “There was a number of players that were concerned that what was the point of having a slower server if the XP boosted it. So we swapped that over to a crafting XP boost instead.”
As for outpacing – or being too underleveled for content depending on server, Rob mentions that players on Shadowfax should stick to the main quest otherwise they might start seeing themselves overleveled. Treebeard players should be fine should they do all the side content, so they really are leaning into the different player types for each server.
Naturally though, especially given how soon after Ithil was closed, some players were concerned about how these two new servers would affect population on Anor specifically. Ithil was always an overflow server, having been opened when the Legendary servers first launched a few years back because the demand and population on Anor was overflowing. Anor itself has a stable population now, which Rob predicts won’t change too much following the two new servers being released last week.
“So Ithil was always opened after Anor because with only one server we high population caps and long queues. Ithil was always an overflow server that we had intended once the queues [hit], because everything like this has an initial excitement and people rush in, and then they find out, ‘well, maybe I want to be on the normal server more.’
“So we had always envisioned Ithil being [an overflow]. And that’s why we had transfers from one to the other. Now these [new servers] I don’t think will take away from Anor, because one of the advantages of Anor, and advantage of progression servers as a whole is that it creates a tight-knit community.”
Why that is the case comes down to the community, as Rob mentions. The players who would want to stick on Anor are those who have built up long histories with other players, where, as Ciccolini puts it, those players who might move to Treebeard for instance are those who feel they have been left behind by Anor itself, or in terms of Shadowfax players, the pacing itself was just too slow.
“[T]he people who are totally engaged in Anor, they’re probably not going to want to leave the community they’ve come to love in order to move to another one. I mean, there’ll be some people, but one of the things that will happen is the people who would leave Anor are the people who got left behind, or that the pacing was too slow. So I think the people that were going to go to Treebeard probably are not the people that are essentially grouping at high-end content. They’re kind of floating around and doing their progression, and they would like people to play with, but they feel that the server has sort of left them behind, and the old content they’re not finding groups. And the people who like to run through the game, fast-paced, quick action, move on will probably gravitate towards Shadowfax. I think those people would have already moved to our normal servers from Anor.”
The creation of these new Legendary servers impacts Anor not at all, as well, as the schedule for Anor is planned out “into the next year,” according to Ciccolini. Additionally, population concerns aren’t really a…well…concern for the team with Shadowfax and Treebeard, as the two servers with the two different rulesets were, by design, meant to split the player base and population in half. This way neither server really experienced the massive queues and connection issues Anor faced when it first launched.
And by and large that worked out. Myself, I logged into Shadowfax relatively quickly on the 30th when the servers launched and was met with no queue whatsoever. Rewind a few years to Anor and I remember myself and my Kinmates attempting to get into Anor and eventually giving up because of the queues, ending up on Ithil while we played on the progression servers before going back to Arkenstone.
Classic servers are always something players seemingly want nowadays too, with Aion Classic recently releasing, as well as obviously the big one: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade Classic. While a classic server is really never off the table according to Jerry “Cordovan” Snook in a recent Cord of the Rings stream, Rob told me some of the limitations likely making a classic server something less likely than it would be in other titles.
“Because the game has gone from Turbine to Warner Bros, to us – to Standing Stone, there’s code and technology for the servers that we don’t have and wouldn’t work on current hardware. So even if we wanted to set up a classic server and we thought there was a giant demand, I don’t know that a team of our size could technically do it and replace the code that doesn’t exist.”
As far as what the future holds, Gundabad is on the horizon. The new Legendary servers are seemingly the tip of the iceberg for what the Standing Stone Games team has planned on The Lord of the Rings Online for the remainder of 2021 and beyond.
Update 30, Blood of Azog, recently dropped in LotRO, and it sets up for Gundabad’s storyline to conclude the epic tale of Durin’s folk in the northern reaches of Rhovanion, the North-east region of Middle-earth. The epic storyline, which has been worked on for years now at this point, sees players helping King Durin and his folk as they prepare to take back Gundabad from the goblins and orcs which have overrun the stronghold for decades.
It’s an interesting glimpse into one of the underutilized races in LotR storytelling. Everyone really wants to just explore the Elves and Men, but the Dwarves have such a rich history all their own, and it’s been fantastic to see the LotRO team explore that a bit, especially leading into one of the most interesting areas of Middle-earth outside of the War of the Ring regions.
Working on any one story for a long time is going to be draining on any studio – not to say that the story of Durin’s folk is draining on the SSG team. However, with so much freedom and material to get through ahead of them, Rob does mention that his team is looking forward to branching out after the conclusion of Gundabad and exploring more of what Middle-earth has on offer.
“One of the nice things about the game, and one of the best things about the story team is that they can tell short stories and small, intimate stories. But they are also very good about maintaining and telling sort of the long, long epics, and I think this shows. But they are excited to finish this. And they are excited beyond that, to go to other places in the world that maybe the players haven’t seen before. So that will be exciting, post-Gundabad. So there’s a large amount of story excitement in both what we’re going to do with Gundabad, and like, what’s beyond in terms of that. So I think that having the freedom now to go anywhere where anywhere in the world that we want is something that I think that the team is not only going to be excited, but rise to the occasion.”
Lord of the Rings Online’s storytelling has always been top notch, especially coming from a hardcore book-lore nerd like myself. The way the stories are told feel as though they could fit alongside any story Tolkien himself wrote, from the way the quest dialogue is written to just the nature and feel of a given quest. One of the challenges with LotRO seemingly has always been that the team had to contend with the predefined great story – the War of the Ring. Knowing, from the get-go, that you are not ever going to be the chief hero in Middle-earth during this time period, instead throughout the years of playing LotRO you’re always more of a supporting role can be a bit deflating for some. From a story perspective, creating those opportunities to experience the major story while keeping in mind that there are other places and stories to show the players has, from the outside at least, seemed like a balancing act – one the LotRO team doesn’t have to play anymore.
“We have master storytellers that have been working on the game for more than a decade,” Rob said with a smile. “You can’t work on this game for more than a decade without having a good idea of things you’d like to do. I think that one of the challenges is, for Lord of the Rings is exactly along the lines of what you just said: in that there is an ongoing epic story that is masterfully told, but in doing so we want the players to feel that their characters are heroes and did play an important part of that.
“And now that we’re moving beyond that story, all of a sudden your character’s heroism, your character’s place in the world is actually exaggerated. Because things have not just been solved, right? [T]here’s still a lot of things that dwell in the world. There are a lot of evils that still exist in the hearts of Men and bits where the shadows cling to that need to be explored. And you no longer have the Fellowship and all of those heroes holding your hand on them. Suddenly you’re thrust into the limelight. I think that will be exciting for both the team and the players.”