Ten years ago today Lord of the Rings Online officially went live.
LOTRO was one of the first MMORPGs to go through beta and launch while I was blogging, and certainly the first one I jumped into at launch during the reign of the blog. (I was watching Vanguard during beta as well, but was dissuaded by my experiences there.) One of my earliest posts was a response to the idea of such a game trying to tell the story of the books.
The path for LOTRO from beta through launch and to today has been somewhat symbolic of the post-World of Warcraft era for MMORPGs. It was driven along initially on the wave of WoW-subscription number induced euphoria, where the sky seemed to be the limit.
Then there was launch and the rush to play and the problem of the game simultaneously being too much and not enough like WoW. There were some fun little quirky features, like titles you could earn for actions… though the fact that those were secret (or at least not documented or traceable anywhere in the UI) meant most players never knew about them. It is hard to sell yourself as different when you hide things I suppose, and a decade later I don’t think I have a single one of those special titles yet.
Meanwhile, for those who rushed ahead, there was bemusement as content fell off a good ten levels before the cap. Subscriptions fell off, complaints mounted, changes and updates went in, and Turbine went forward with plans for an expansion; The Mines of Moria. That was an amazing and ambitious expansion. I pre-ordered that as well back in 2008, though I did not actually get into the content for a few years and it was several years after that before I was out of the far side of those caverns.
LOTRO was also a leader in the conversion to a free to play model citing a huge boost in players and revenue to accompany the change. They were also ahead of the curve when it came to the grim reality of such conversions. Player expectations as to what “free” really means can be harsh, that initial surge of new players never lasts, and once you start down the cash shop path, forever will it dominate your destiny and development time.
More expansions came and again Turbine was in the lead with pre-orders and special editions with cosmetic fluff thrown in to entice more money out of players. But eventually expansions stopped and all revenue focus went into the cash shop and new items and new currencies showed up.
Then they began to fall behind the curve of the industry. They were not too late to the game with insta-level boosts, but they failed to grasp that people want such boost to get to the latest content, the NEW stuff. Turbine thought boosting people to the first expansion and level 50 was enough. That was a worst of all possibilities idea for me. Moria was nowhere near the current content and the first 50 levels that get you there are some of the best, most charming, most memorable content in the game. Skipping The Shire and Bree and the Forsaken Inn and Weathertop and Rivendell and the beautiful scenery of Middle-earth to head down into a cave for ten levels seems like insanity.
Eventually they figured that out and now you get jumped to Rohan with your insta-level boost, but I remain dubious about the idea as a general plan. A seasoned player advancing an alt might take full advantage of the jump, but a new player is likely to be out of their depth.
And then there was the spin-off, where LOTRO and its sister, Dungeons & Dragons Online were folded into their own company by Warner. Spinning of MMORPG divisions has been a thing, from Daybreak Games and its Norrathian legacy to Broadsword Games which keeps Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot going.
It has been a strange trip these last ten years.
But all of that was in the future back in April of 2007. Ten years ago today I was in Middle-earth playing the game, having pre-ordered it. That was back when pre-ordering could be done by buying a pre-order box off the shelf at Fry’s. I still had to follow up and buy a retail box, but the pre-order box got me a head start and kept my account active for a while until I got the real game key.
And then, of course, there was the choice to be made as to which founder’s bonus to take.
I went with the $199 lifetime subscription over the $9.99 reduced monthly subscription price which, looking back over a decade and more of MMORPG time, was probably the most sound investment I have ever made. I have received more value for that money than I ever expected.
At the eight year anniversary I mocked the game a bit, pointing out that even by the longest measure… Frodo is warned by Gandalf to leave the Shire through to Bilbo and Frodo departing from the Grey Havens… the events of end of the Third Age in Middle-earth being reproduced in the game only took three and a half years.
At that point Minis Tirith was on the horizon still. Two years later… again, more time than it took Frodo to get from the Shire to Mount Doom… and Mordor is in sight. Update 20 brings players to the battle of the Black Gate.
I read about that and the tenth anniversary events and such and I feel like I should log in and take a look. But then I read about the mix of joy and frustration with the anniversary events and remember that I am, as always, stuck behind several layers of content and I pass on to something else.
This is ever the problem with MMORPGs that evolve through expansions and updates and levels and rigid layers of content. I think I have patched up a few times since I opted for the Blessing of the Valar level boost, but every time I log in I look in my bags and cannot figure out what half the stuff in there is (the icons haven’t gotten any clearer in ten years while my eyesight has gotten worse) and the legendary weapon that the boost handed me… which isn’t ready to use, you have to find a vendor and go through some gyrations to make it work… and I wonder if I might just be better off rolling up yet another new character and playing through the first 30-40 levels yet again. I think I must be close to 20 characters past level 30 at this point.
But Middle-earth yet abides, waiting for my return. Some day that ring will be tossed into Mount Doom. Of course, then we will have to get back to the Shire. The tale isn’t done until the Shire has been scoured.