Lord of the Rings Online can be a bit of a mixed bag. Depending on your point of view, you can easily find much to like or dislike about the game.
On the plus side it brings to the table a lush and beautiful environment that brings alive the the world of Middle-earth in ways impossible in the books or the movies. It is one thing to read about Frodo stumbling across the three trolls that had been turned to stone, or to see it projected up on a screen as Peter Jackson’s vision. It is something else entirely to be wandering through the Trollshaws and to discover them on your own. Being given free reign to wander Middle-earth is like a dream.
The game also has classes that do not all fit the standard RPG mold, a variety of different content options fit with various group sizes and skills, and, of course, many an NPC that looks like Anderson Cooper.
On the flip side, we have LOTRO the game, which suffers from many flaws. It is showing its age, and it frankly was never put together as solid as a lot of other MMOs have been in any case. It is another copy of the WoW quest hub model, and as is common in that model, the quests can be too “same-ish,” too repetitive, and too boring, so that even when the route through the game is wide enough for some choices on what to do next, it often ends up as being six of one and half a dozen of the other. For all the beauty of the environment, the character models leave much to be desired. And then there are the elements of its free to play business model which have become more and more intrusive as time has gone along.
And I am sure we as players could come up with more items for each side of the equation.
But do any of these, good or bad, make LOTRO stand out?
Leaving aside the Tolkien lore, we certainly have our choice of beautiful worlds to explore. If that is your thing, you should probably be playing Guild Wars 2. A non-standard, non-traditional class seems to be a line item requirement for the genre. Even WoW had hunters, which were odd at the time, but have become extremely popular. Scalable content and a variety of content options are likewise becoming pretty common. And, frankly, clean shaven and close cropped, who doesn’t look like Anderson Cooper?
Of course, the complaints can find homes elsewhere as well. A lot of games are showing their age and WoW has set a bar for fit and polish that few have reached. The quest model is an issue because it is so damn common. Character models are a bigger issue in other games for me, like Wizardry Online. And the noxious tendrils of the free to play business model are the default in the industry now.
So LOTRO‘s stand out in the genre is the Tolkien lore, which nobody can take from it. At least not until 2014 at the earliest.
But LOTRO has something else, something that sets it apart, something that makes it a joy, and that is its music system.
That your character can pick up a musical instrument and play notes is great.
That you can have your character play a song from a pre-made file, so you can essentially be a street musician is even better.
And that you can have multiple people in a group play different parts from a song that stays synchronized so that you can essential form your own band is a master stroke.
Back when we were last playing LOTRO, we began working with the music system and ended up spending a good chunk of each night just playing music as a group. We would check The Fat Lute, a web site devoted to LOTRO music, ever week for new tunes. Music was a lot of fun for us.
And we were hardly alone. We would run into people playing music alone or in groups all the time on a Saturday night. Bree was alive with music. And this lead all the way up to events like Weatherstock, where bands in matching outfits perform, even bringing their own compositions to perform.
When I go back and log into LOTRO every month to make sure I get my 500 Turbine point Lifetime Memebership stipend (As Abe Simpson said, “I didn’t earn it, I don’t need it, but if they miss one payment I’ll raise hell!”) During my trip to pick up my check, I often spend a few minutes playing the Popeye theme on a horn at a busy street corner, which is often worth a chuckle.
And, as far as I know, no other MMORPG has copied, recreated, or outright stolen this feature.
Which is, frankly, amazing to me. The easiest way to denigrate an MMO you don’t like is to dismiss it because they copied feature x from game y. This is because, of course, they all copy features from each other incessantly.
Yet here is this music system, which has been around for year now, and still remains pretty much a LOTRO thing.
I have to wonder why.
If I were the Rift team, this would be high on my list.
If I were running EverQuest II, weapon smiths and woodworkers would have a huge piles of instrument recipes and New Halas would be a cacophony of music. (Or, if I were Smed, I would totally have this on the list for EverQuest Next. Perfect sandbox feature.)
Hell, it would even fit into World of Warcraft, where their philosophy won’t let them do player or guild housing because it takes people out of the world. A Music feature like this puts people into the world, into towns and other gathering places, and gives them something to do.
Honestly, I think music is a blind spot for most MMO developers. It is graphics and mechanics and classes and skills and balance and… oh yeah, sound.
Yes, sure, there is always a sound track and incidental music. But how many people turn that off or play without sound. And for all of Syp’s Jukebox Heroes columns, the sound track is static thing, released but rarely revisited.
Even Star Was: The Old Republic and its vaunted sound work ends up being hours of (tedious) talking and relatively little music.
I cannot fathom why a game like Need for Speed World doesn’t have a dashboard radio interface to let you play some of the game music tracks as well as control and play music from your own computer. When I was playing the game a lot a while back, I used to play driving music to go along with it.
Hell, in some games we are moving backwards. One of the lesser known “features” of the Retribution expansion in EVE Online was the removal of their in-game music player. They have gone to the more traditional MMO scheme of “you will listen to the music we want you to, when we want you to.”
So what do you think? Does the industry have a blind spot when it comes to music? Is the genre missing out by ignoring music features? Would they help player retention and make games more “sticky” as it were? Or would music be more of a distraction and take focus away from the core elements of such games?