And What of Another Middle-earth?

Turbine hasn’t been much of a standard bearer for the hopes of the future in MMOs over the last few years, or even for the hopes of their own long term success.  Their next game is a MOBA, being launched into a market where there is already a very dominate leader in League of Legends, and which doesn’t even seem likely to beat Blizzard’s MOBA to release.

Can’t even beat Blizzard?  Asheron wept!

In what looked like a sign of something happening, they brought back Asheron’s Call 2 back at the end of 2012, only to have both it and the original Asheron’s Call dropped into the MMO hospice care that is the free zone.  How many other free, can’t pay money even if you wanted to, MMOs are there out in the world?  There is Planet Side.  There WAS EverQuest: Macintosh Edition, but then the plug got pulled on that.  And what else is there?  And how long can we expect that situation to last?

I mean, Asheron’s Call had several competitors from back during its launch, and some of those are still around and making some money.  Ultima Online is being supported by Broadsword (along with Dark Age of Camelot), so it must be a producing asset for EA, since they shut stuff down as soon as the money dries up.  EverQuest is still getting new expansions and being milked by SOE.  And did you see where Lineage was on NCsoft’s revenue chart?

But AC and AC2… they are free and unsupported and, call me a pessimist, I think they will probably go away as soon as something breaks the client or somebody finds a vulnerability in their server code that requires an expensive update.

Which leaves the two money makers, Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeon’s & Dragons Online.

I would have called LOTRO the company flagship product up until the 2015 producer’s letters went out.  The DDO letter was full of exciting, new, and somewhat specific things, while the LOTRO version was much more vague and included bullet points about fixing bugs and closing servers.

Paralyzed with dread

How I felt about the Producer’s Letter at first read

Yes, those are things that need to be done.  But bugs are something they should be working on in any case.  And, while closing servers will doubtless benefit the remaining population of the game, it is a pretty clear reminder that the remaining population is running well below the peak they hit at the free to play conversion, when they put some new servers online.  I will be interested to see if the soon-to-be closed servers are made up mostly of those “new” servers or not.

Then there is Turbine itself, which generally opts to say nothing until it absolutely has to, and then comes out with something vague or ambiguous that only gets people riled up.  I mean, how many clarifications have there been to the LOTRO producer’s letter at this point?  And, in all of that, it took them more than a week to come out and say that transfers off of closed servers would be free.

That seemed like a key bit of information, and its absence from the producer’s letter felt like a huge oversight, while failing to respond to the immediate questions on that front was almost baffling, given how many other things got clarifications before Vyvyanne finally got around to that.  And yet, to judge by the reactions of those close to the game, this is better communication than they are used to.

I could go on.  There are plenty of other missteps I could catalog.  We haven’t even gotten into the game itself!

But I am sure the fans of the game are already starting to steam and consider me a hater.

Take a deep breath.

This is more of a Jeremy Clarkson piece.  If you watch Top Gear regularly, you may have noticed his style when he wants to praise a vehicle.  First he has to tear it down, listing out all the things going against it before getting to the “but,” where he tosses that aside and talks about the good things, the bits that ignite his passion.  Let’s head for that.

With all of those negatives, you might be wondering what the end game, so to speak, for LOTRO really is?  We are two years away from the expiration of the contract with Tolkien Enterprises that was announced back in 2008.  The original was good through 2014 with a pre-set extension to 2017.  Turbine announced in 2014, at the very last minute and only after many questions on the topic, that things were good until 2017.

But as we sit here today, you might reasonably ask if 2017 will be it, the end of the road for the game.  Doubly so as we have seen what happens to MMOs based around licensed IPs in the past.  That additional overhead, along with the plans and pretenses of the license holders, shut down The Matrix Online, Warhammer Online, and Star Wars Galaxies.

However, I think Lord of the Rings Online is going to make it past 2017 and be around for a while longer.  I don’t know if we will ever make it to Mordor, or if the game mechanics will become more of a mess, or if the cash shop will grow to consume all within its shadow, but there are two reason I think it won’t be done in 2017.  Well, three actually.

The first is that Turbine doesn’t have a lot of options, so they pretty much have to stick with LOTRO, which means that they will want to renew the contract.  Not much of an endorsement of the game itself, but that looks like the reality of the situation.  Turbine will be motivated to keep things going.

The second isn’t much of an endorsement either.

We are in something of a “post MMO” age.  MMOs were once a thing that, when you used that term, you knew what somebody meant.  The term has evolved in usage to the point that MMO means any online multiplayer game that can group together a few players.  Look at what gets lumped into the term these days.

SuperData 2014 YTD Numbers

SuperData names some MMOs…

I see World of Warcraft there.  That is what I would call an MMO.  But League of Legends?  World of Tanks?  Counter-Strike?  Freakin’ Hearthstone?

Anyway, in this post MMO age, where even the term has lost meaning, where the market is saturated, where there has been a couple of big winners and a host of followers scrambling for crumbs, the idea that Tolkien Enterprises is going to have a better offer from somebody who wants to make a Middle-earth MMO seems unlikely.

Yahoo Headlines

Back when MMOs were a thing…

Sure, there are people out there who would want to do it, developers and designers who would love to sink their teeth into Tolkien’s world and “do it right” or at least “do it better” than Turbine has managed.  And I am sure you could find a small crowd of fans who would cheer for such a game being announced.

But is anybody going to invest in such a venture?  Who is going to lay down the cash to fund a new MMO version of Middle-earth for 2018 or beyond?  And what would such a game even be like?  Sprawling, open world MMOs are not on an uptick currently.

Somebody will suggest that at least a new version of Middle-earth would “do free to play right.”

The problem is that LOTRO is doing free to play right.  There is no version of free to play that succeeds without a cash shop stocked with things players will actually buy and in your face reminders to buy those things.

It is like Ikea!

It is like Ikea!

So I do not think anybody is going to show up on the doorstep of Tolkien Enterprises with a wheelbarrow of cash and a desire to make the next Middle-earth MMO any time soon.  Certainly not in 2017.  The investment in such a project is too high, the returns too uncertain.  So Turbine, with the WB lawyers at the table, has a pretty strong case in the “Hey, at least we’re giving you some money on a regular basis!”  That is something.

Estimated Top Subscription MMO Revenue 2013

Estimated Top Subscription MMO Revenue 2013… see, money!

Also, Turbine has been pretty good to the lore… though with Tolkien Enterprises licensing LEGO Lord of the Rings, you have to ask where lore ranks in the grand scheme of things… so I do not think there is any strong desire on the part of the heirs of Dr. Tolkien to get the license out of Turbine’s hands.

Basically, LOTRO wins by default.  Not a huge endorsement, but it is something.

And LOTRO does have something else going for it.

For all of its foibles and missteps and questionable game mechanics and awkward character models and cash shop transgressions, Turbine has created a beautiful and unlikely to be duplicated any time soon vision of Middle-earth in the late third age.

This is Turbine’s ace when it comes to the Middle-earth license.  This is the big win, the payoff for playing the game, being able to travel through the places that made the story, being able to see The Shire, climb Weathertop, explore Moria, see Rivendell, cross the Midgewater Marsh, travel across the Lone Lands and the Trollshaws.

In fact, once of my many annoyances with the game is that their insta-level option only boosts you to level 50 and into Moria (2008 content), rather than putting you closer to the latest content and the bulk of the dedicate player base.  If I were going to buy a boost, I’d do it to see parts of the world I haven’t been to yet.  But I’ve already been to, and through, Moria.  It is great, but why would I pay to get yet another character there?

Anybody who comes after Turbine will have to compete with the world that was created for LOTRO.  Who is going to invest in such a landscape with so many off-the-beaten-track locations to explore in the age of the lobby MMO?  That we got such a world was an artifact at the time, when MMOs were seen as never-miss money machines that had to have virtual world aspects to them.  Who is going to want to have that hanging over their heads as they try to launch a new Middle-earth based MMO?

The Annuminas waterfront

The Annuminas waterfront

You cannot launch a new game without a constant stream of comparisons to World of Warcraft, how are people going to react to anything less than the vision of Middle-earth that Turbine has provided?

Then again, somebody tried to remake The Manchurian Candidate, so who knows what goes through people’s minds at times.

But I do not think, the way the industry stands right now, that anybody can get together both financing and a desire to remake (and be compared to) Turbine’s vision of Middle-earth.

Barring Turbine making some colossal blunder that wrecks the game and drives away its loyal following, I think it will find a way past the contract talks around 2017 and into at least a few more years online.  Or such was my view over the weekend.

You adventure in the Middle-earth you have, not the Middle-earth you may want.

15 thoughts on “And What of Another Middle-earth?

  1. C. T. Murphy

    I remember when I was so hopeful for Turbine’s future. They seemed like SOE, in some regards, but with better games or at least more interesting ones. Now I am not so sure. I hated missing out on Asheron’s Call since I was playing everything but it. I wish they’d find a way to make another because I hate that people forget that it was a big part of the MMO conversation once.

    I like to hope for the best, especially for Turbine, but I do hope they come up with a product they will have more control over in the future. I’d prefer a MMO too unless they want to give me the MOBA-in-name-only that would basically be WoW Battlegrounds, but standalone (and with more simple, classic objectives like CTF, King of the Hill, etc.).

    We shall see!

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  2. SynCaine

    I think saying it would be difficult to make a better LotR MMO than LotRO is a stretch IMO. The game isn’t very good, and won’t be getting better with its skeleton crew. The real question is would someone want the LotR IP enough to make an MMO out of it, and I’m not really sure anyone would. The movies have come and gone, and it’s not an IP like SW where you can keep milking it with rehashed stuff every year or two. If someone announced a new LotR MMO for a 2018 release, would that many people really care based on the IP?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – Well, I said “better” for a very specific definition of “better.” I discounted most of the game and the cash shop to point at the environmental aspects of the game. It is a very pretty world that feels well tied together and illustrates the books nicely.

    And I wouldn’t say nobody could do better, just that nobody is likely to get financing to make a game that would bother trying to do that sort of world anytime soon. The only MMO project I think would attract any investment would be a LOTR MOBA, and I cannot see Tolkien Enterprises going for that. (But I can totally see the heroes list for it in my mind!)

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  4. Isey

    No one will, but some diehard fans would love to hear that (as you mention). The movies will have long lost their steam (as Syn mentioned) and unless they do a Simarrillion (sp?) follow up the lore won’t be top of mind to anyone. Even if there is a Simarrillion movie it won’t tie in well to the setting. I wonder how much the movies helped the cashflow to the game.

    Maybe a Hobbit MMO to predate the LOTRO MMO? That will have to come out in 12 months. (tongue in cheek there. Or wishful thinking. Little column A, little column B).

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  5. zaphod6502

    The age of the traditional MMORPG as we know it is over. Of course there are the usual suspects continuing on (limping along?) but as long as they keep making a net profit there is no point shutting them down (unless you are owned by NCsoft).

    In the case of LOTRO I have many warm fuzzy memories of that game. It has/had the best MMO community of any MMO I played. I would be slightly surprised if it was shutdown even though it is in maintenance mode and most of the original dev team were laid off. It is still making money and I doubt any other publisher wants to take over the license unless they are guaranteed a decent return on investment.

    I still think “The Shire” is the best starter zone of any MMO I have played. It’s both a great homage to the original source material in the book and a beautiful zone. The only points I can fault LOTRO are the horrible raid mechanics which to this day still contain boss-fight breaking bugs and the clunky combat system which is really starting to show its age.

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  6. Polynices

    It’s worth noting that Tolkien’s actual heirs would probably love to shut down LotRO but they don’t actually control the licensing of LotR properties because of contracts signed by JRR himself decades ago. Last I heard they’ve been battling it out in court with the current rights holders. Not saying this is going to lead to LotTO losing the license but it is not currently being granted by anyone who cares about the lore or the world, just money from the franchise (cf. the travesty that is Shadow of Morder, which makes a sad mockery of the lore).

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  7. Dahakha

    I think you’re right that someone might well have the ability and desire to make an improved LOTR MMO from a systems PoV, but the main attraction of Turbine’s game is the world – the environment, the ambience, the lore details. I don’t think a new developer would have the drive to even match, let alone improve on that experience. Graphics alone wouldn’t cut it.

    BTW, there is a LOTR MOBA already, it’s called Guardians of Middle Earth. It has not been reviewed well…

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  8. Telwyn

    I’m currently thinking a lot about setting vs. system for my choices of MMOs. I love the setting that Turbine have so richly elaborated (at least up until Rohan). But I’ve never been that big a fan of the game systems, combat in particular. In my opinion it got worse with the big revamp they did for the last expansion. Whenever I’m playing and out experiencing the generally high-quality questing experience I just get this building frustration that the game itself isn’t that fun to play…

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  9. tsuhelm

    HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD! (How about hammering at some TURBINEs next?)

    Great summation of LOTRO’s position (and MMO’s in general!)

    I so wish LOTRO can survive for a long time, if the last thing holding it together is its great community it should last quite a while (although I think this is wavering as well, hopefully the aforementioned server closures will rekindle the fire…)

    To be fair TURBINE’s community communication is better than before, me thinks, but unfortunately that is not saying too much.

    Lets make a massive online LOTR game anew? Well never say never but I think it wont be in any shape or form we recognize… the books will last and last, as a foundation for epic fantasy everywhere…the films and games (yes even LOTRO) will fade into obscurity…but in the future someone will create a LOTR based game we can only dream of… I hope my kids or their kids get to explore a digital Middle Earth!

    Maybe the skies (and lesser extent landscape) of LOTRO will be remembered long after the game itself has been put to rest…sometimes so stunning!

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  10. Anonymous

    The future of Lotro looks better now than it has in the past few years. They lost their way a bit but seem to have found the right path now. No other game gives you Middle Earth in all its beauty as this game does. The community is brilliant and even after 7 yrs of playing I still love this game. For a lot of people its not about combat or end game its a place to go when you want to RP. Im not an rper but I still enjoy fishing in the shire with my hobbits. Raiders have either left or adapted but the game hasn’t lost any of its charm. This is why this game will last.

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  11. Leafblade

    A good article, though I think it may be overly optimistic and simplifying the possibility of a post-2017 LOTRO. LOTRO is a great sightseeing tour, but the quality of performance and content release declined years ago. It is resting on goodwill and past glories at this point. I do look forward to the day when world creation technology simplifies things for game developers. A mix of what Everquest Next is trying to accomplish along with a Neverwinter-esque toolset overseen by a dev crew and skilled company could make an extraordinary middle earth.

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  12. baerion

    Yes, I think it’s a post-MMO era in some sense. But only in the sense that there is not a huge and sustainable market for any new MMO. That doesn’t exist. The only sustainable MMO with large numbers is World of Warcraft. Every single other MMO that has ever been introduced, before or after, has a huge number of players at influx that quickly declines. Maybe the only exception was perhaps EQ but that was when the market was much much smaller.

    The reason is simple. Most players really seem to want one MMO to play. But lots of them are indeed willing to look at any new MMO that comes on. In particular, a very large number of WoW players seem quite interested in seeing if new MMOs can finally ween them off their addiction. So the first 3 months seem to be full of much activity. Then after that the drop off is large, as players have gotten their fill of seeing what the game is like and have figured out if they’re going to stay or not. For a subscription game this is when the subscriptions run out too especially the common three month sub discount. For F2P the growing annoyance as a game gets harder and grinding out pointless activities overcomes the ease of logging in for free, plus a new game may have come out to attract the hordes away.

    After that point the games can survive but they’ll be in perpetual maintenance mode possibly. Never the huge numbers to fund large and expensive expansions or revamps of the clients, etc. Hardcore and casuals want frequent additions (though less if you’re not at max level), but the devs can not keep up the pace. They’ll still make money, but not enough money to ever break out of the formulaic play style or to try something radically different (trying something different inevitably drives away players).

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