Missing MMO Music Features – LOTRO Leads, Nobody Follows

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.

Anderson Cooper 360... and counting

Anderson Cooper 360… and counting

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.

Music... and Anderson Cooper

Music… and Anderson Cooper

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.”

Ah well.

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?

12 thoughts on “Missing MMO Music Features – LOTRO Leads, Nobody Follows

  1. bhagpuss

    Couldn’t agree more. Sound in general and music in particular are the single most underutilized and underexploited areas of MMO gameplay.

    EQ2, which as you say is a perfect fit for it, already*has* player-crafted instruments, too. I remember when they were added (or rather the range was expanded); a lot of people, me included, expected it was a lead-in to playable music. It wasn’t.

    LotRO doesn’t have things all its own way though. GW2 has playable music, at least in concept. One of the Wintersday instances had a one-minute session at the end where players could play handbells in a free-form style for sixty seconds. I was in one group where a couple of people were playing an ad-hoc recognizable version of a Christmas carol, so the functionality exists. I just hope they expand upon it.

    And as for your NFS example, the MMO with the very best use of something like this is The Secret World. With its contemporary setting there are radios, jukeboxes, boomboxes and the like all over the place and they all play real music. There’s a record shop in London that I sometimes stand around in just like I was in a real record shop (back when there were such things) because I don’t want to leave before the song finishes.

    Moreover, TSW just announced a competition whereby players can record music outside of the game and send it in and the winner will have their song and performance added to the game. So there is hope. So much more could be done, though.

    I wonder if what’s at root with the lack of progress on this kind of thing is copyright? How does LotRO handle the issue of performance royalties for the massed hobbit bagpipe versions of Stairway to Heaven that so often blighted the yard of The Prancing Pony when I was there?


  2. rimecat

    I haven’t really done much of anything with LotRO since the FTP conversion but isn’t the ABC site The Fat Lute? I’d check myself but the firewall would have kittens.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    Heh, okay, “The Fate Lute” has been changed to “The Fat Lute.”

    My fingers will type whatever they want some days. (They typed “Fate” again when I went to type “Fate” just now. No idea why.)


  4. NoAstronomer

    As I recall it wasn’t as flexible as LOTRO’s system is but Star Wars: Galaxies also had a way to play music. Of course in order to do that you had to roll SWG’s own fairly unique class : the Entertainer.

    And in GW2 I found a keyboard under the water in Caledon Forest. There may well be other keyboards.



  5. Tyler Murphy

    Even when it comes to mixing in the feel of being a musician for their Bard classes’s gameplay, MMOs typically are lacking. It’s a real shame too because the dedicated buffer support is my absolute favorite role.


  6. Shawndra

    One game you probably haven’t heard of that has a way to change the music is Wizard 101. There is a music player furniture item you can purchase and many different music scrolls, looted or purchased, that you can add to it, making it possible to have whatever music you like playing in your house.

    Still, I wish that WoW and other games would take a hint from LOTRO. Player made music sounds like fun!


  7. wizardling

    I may not play WoW any more, but I still have extremely fond memories of the beautiful music in Mulgore and The Barrens. One of the many things Cataclysm did that I hated was to destroy much of my favourite WoW music. This contributed strongly to my not returning to WoW with that xpac (I’d left in late Wrath).

    Music is very important to my emotional attachment to a game, and Cataclysm ruining my favourite tracks is a sterling example of why music is important and why screwing it up is such a bad thing. Sure there are players who played original WoW with music off. If that’s their thing, that’s fine. But for me personally turning off WoW’s occasional music playing was hobbling the game and it’s atmosphere.


  8. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I don’t remember how many times I wished I could play music while moving in LotRO. Being able to play the Benny HIll theme would have been *priceless* in some situations.

    Raph Koster talked about the problems of implementing player-made music for Star Wars Galaxies. I might be slightly misremembering, but this is what I remember.

    The main problem is that their parent company, Sony, has a music arm. Players violating copyrights to song, particularly Sony Music copyrights, would raise no end of headaches for two whole divisions of Sony. In the end, the lawyers said, “Just don’t. Please, for the love of God…”

    How does LotRO get away with it, especially now that they’re owned by Warner who has a music division as well? Not sure. Maybe less brutal lawyers? Or maybe it’s one of those things that if it’s just one game that has the feature, it gets overlooked. If there were more, lawsuits would hit the games like the fist of an angry god.

    As with lots of other stuff, better safe than sorry, I guess.


  9. HarbingerZero

    APB had a fully fledged music studio at your fingertips, at least, in the month or so it was running. Not sure if that holds for the reboot. I even consulted with my neighbor, a professional drummer when I was working on the drum loop. Most fun was that you could essentially give your character a theme song that would play on mission completion or as the “death” music for a PvP enemy that you had just taken out – a sort of musical calling card.

    ^ Brian makes a great point about legal entanglements. At the risk of sounding political – for a series of laws designed to protect creative freedom, we seem to have managed to do the complete opposite.


  10. Mika Hirvonen (@Hirvox)

    MMOs have some of my favourite tracks in their soundtrack, but no matter how good they are, you will not want to hear them for the 500th time in a row. And I’m not sure whether dynamic music (that even WoW has!) helps or actually hurts in that regard. If the music is chosen according to your actions and surroundings, most of the time you will only hear the music of the main capital and your chosen endgame area.


  11. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Mika – That is why I usually end up with the music turned off in most games. Some common action… combat, travel, the main city… will have music associated with it that I don’t like or grow tired of through repetition.


  12. Syl (@Syl_RM)

    I so SO love the music feature in Lotro at the moment – truth be told, I spend more time playing the harp in Bree right now than I spend leveling up! :) this feature is sorely missing in other MMOs. it’s one of the few simpler ways to let a playerbase actually create something truly of their own.

    it’s funny, I only just spotted your post; only few days ago I wrote an article on the amazing sounds in Lotro and how they set it apart from all other MMOs I’ve played. the potential of sound effects in general is heavily overlooked by developers. I actually went back to GW2 this weekend, just to do a fair comparison to Lotro (which I’ve been playing mostly the past few weeks) and it is nowhere close to Lotro’s sound achievement and quality. once you disable the music in GW2, the world ambiance is horribly poor in comparison. there are few sound bites that are more or less zone-wide; even where it doesn’t fit. and some of them are totally out of order: the small river in the Norn starting area for instance has ‘beach sound’…there is a tide rolling in and out the same way it does on actual strands in the game (what the hell?). the starter forest is constantly crackling as if something was on fire….it’s unnatural and incredibly unnerving after a while. it’s even audible when you’re nowhere close to the trees.

    I paid attention to Bree’s sound effects again tonight, and not only do different sounds come from everywhere around you (you can actually ‘locate them in a 360 radius), you can ‘pass’ them or they will pass you. you can stand still and have new sounds like a cartwheel pass you by or a barking dog running from one street to the other. they come and go but the pattern isn’t repeated in any noticeable way.
    this is truly amazing stuff going on in Lotro. why does nobody else do it?


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