Here we are in 2014 and the news coming out of Turbine is… odd.
It was previously announced that there was to be no new expansion for LOTRO in 2014, a change up from their annual ritual of hawking extra pre-order goodies and special cosmetic gear for the Super Special Collector’s Edition of whatever bit of Middle-earth is being targeted. While the effort behind an expansion no doubt eat up a lot staff hours, those are people on staff. Turbine isn’t doing binge and purge staffing for projects that I have heard, so there are people on payroll to do the work. So why not set them to churning out another beautiful cash cow depicting the fields of Pelennor or the Paths of the Dead or the Dead Marshes? Drop in a few nifty cloaks, a special mount, and another experience boosting pocket item for those who buy in big, and Robert is thus reaffirmed as your mother’s brother or some such. Basically, the same expansion plan we have every year.
Not that there are not some issues with business as usual. There is the ever higher pile of levels and Turbine clinging onto the “you must buy every expansion” attitude that I think even EverQuest started to shed this many expansions in by offering “catch-up” bundles of all previous expansions. Even Blizzard is doing that with their WoW Battlechest at this point (you could have had everything through Cataclysm for $5.00 over the holidays), while SOE went to a model of “the latest expansion gets you all previous expansions and the base game” back when they were a subscription only model, and moved to selling only the last two expansions and offering up everything else for free after the F2P conversion.
That whole thing is getting in the way of Turbine selling you an insta-leveled character, as they seem reluctant throw in an expansion or two with the deal, which leaves them stuck at boosting you to level 50 in a game already at level 95. I suspect Turbine will see the light on this at some point, but it does call out how the baggage of so many expansions can restrict their options.
But there will be no expansion this year, so compounding the levels/expansions issue has been deferred. So they must be working on something else then. What could it be?
According to a recent LOTRO event, summed up at Contains Moderate Peril, no new dungeons or raids are planned. Nor will housing see much attention nor kinships nor any such related items. There was a mention of a potential revamp of one of the base game regions, though no region had been picked at this time. There is still some tuning being done on the big skill and specialization revamp that came with the Helm’s Deep expansion. But this event, taken with the producer’s letter from last month, certainly makes it feel as if Turbine doesn’t have much planned for LOTRO in 2014.
All of which makes me wonder if we are hitting a point of decision when it comes to the game. As I noted way back in 2008, Turbine and Tolkien Enterprises signed a deal that gave Turbine rights to the property out through 2014.
And here we are in 2014. How did that happen so fast?
So Turbine has been sitting on those rights for over seven years now. But now we are at a renewal point. Turbine has an option to extend to 2017, but the details around what rights Tolkien Enterprises might have at this juncture are unknown. I suspect they have some ability to deny the extension, for a price, which would certainly leave Turbine in the lurch if that came to pass. For money makers Turbine pretty much has LOTRO and Dungeons & Dragons Online, another licensed IP. Meanwhile, Tolkien Enterprises, with part three of the movie series ostensibly based on the book The Hobbit coming out in December, might very well be wondering if their interests might be better served by selling whatever exclusive rights Turbine has been granted to some other studio.
Not that Tolkien Enterprises isn’t making money off of Turbine. LOTRO has been successful enough when measured against a backdrop where EverQuest is the top dog, peaking at 550K subscriptions. But few care about where EQ peaked in 2003 since World of Warcraft passed the 12 million subscriber mark post-Cataclysm. Even the Turbine team is pretty blunt on that point when asked about subscriber numbers, with Sapience saying,
Unless we can say we have 10 million players and are bigger than WoW, what’s the point?
Life in the shadow.
So, do I think LOTRO is doomed to shut down this year? It doesn’t seem highly likely. Unless Tolkien Enterprises has another paying customer lined up and ready to go, LOTRO is still a revenue stream. But I am going to guess that there are some negotiations going on as to the future of the license. This in turn might mean some uncertainty for Turbine who, quite rightly, might not want to invest time and effort into a game whose future is in doubt. Since the resources for projects are shared across teams, it might be better for them to bet on something with a more secure future.
But what will a quiet year of minor changes mean for LOTRO? What will drive revenue if there is no expansion and few changes?
And do you think we will still be able to play the game in 2015?
Addendum: Contains Moderate Peril has a statement from Turbine about having an agreement that goes out until 2017. “The license was renewed” was the phrase used, but some think there is some wiggle room in that, and it still doesn’t explain Turbine’s seeming mild interest in LOTRO for 2014.