News this week included the announcement that Amazon Games, which had previously scrapped a development partnership with a company later purchased by Tencent for a Lord of the Rings title, had returned to the Middle-earth well, this time with the company that purchased Tolkein Enterprises, the uncomfortably names Ebracer Group.
This would have been a bit of a “wake me when it actually means something” sort of story for me… after all, we have heard this tale before from Amazon… except for the fact that it showed up just as I was attempting to launch back into Lord of the Rings Online, the one title in the universe most likely to be threatened by this Amazon venture.
Of course, none of the involved parties are saying that right now. In fact, they are saying the opposite. The LOTRO team declared that the game isn’t going anywhere in the forums and the Amazon Games studio VP Chris Hartmann is allowing that the games can “co-exist.”
That said, he also seemed pretty sure elsewhere that LOTRO players would simply migrate to their new title.
Even the most likely scenario is… for people just to move over, because the other one is an old game.
Part of me feels the hubris that seemed to infect New World, where Amazon seemed to feel that lessons learned in the industry could be disregarded because they were smarter than that. The saving grace for New World was that they did have something fun and a bit different, even if Amazon had to learn a lot of lessons the hard way about things like having a test server.
Among the lessons of the last 30 years or so is that people invested in one title are not likely to move on to another merely because it is new. I think a very direct lesson in this regard was EverQuest II, which SOE seemed to assume people would migrate to from EverQuest.
And EQ players certainly tried it out, but many just went back to the old game after their initial experience, while a good many moved on to World of Warcraft. That left EQII, the newer and, in some mechanical ways, the arguably better title forever in the shadow of its predecessor.
The combination of the world and its setting, its familiarity, the fond memories, and the sense of community conspire to hold people in place even when other newer and possibly better options appear… which is the lesson of pretty much every fantasy MMORPG launched after WoW, including LOTRO.
The general chat of every new MMORPG beta or launch since 2004 has included a litany of comparisons to WoW and how it did x, y, or z better than this new title, something supported by the gaming news, which just loves to brand things as a simple “WoW clone” so they can look insightful and move on.
That isn’t entirely without merit. If you pull back far enough, if you aren’t interested in details, distinctions, or lore, all fantasy MMORPGs look about the same. The same could be said for four door family sedans or mid-sized SUVs… they’re all about the same in the end if you just glance at the general spec.
For those who get deep into the games, for those for whom the details matter, for the connoisseurs of the MMORPG genre, the games are often dissimilar as to make such hand waving comparisons seem bizarre. LOTRO is NOT like WoW, nor was Warhammer Online just like WoW, Richard Bartle comments aside. Fans of WoW run off to try new titles and find that they still really like WoW due to the details of the game and not the general pattern of the primary game play loop of the general art style. This has been repeated enough to be a trope of the genre.
Likewise, if you are invested in the nuances of LOTRO and all that the development team has built up over the last sixteen years, then some new title that is only superficially similar… it is an MMORPG… or maybe it is… and it is set in Middle-earth… has an extremely high likelihood of not being satisfying for all of its shiny newness.
And I strongly suspect that anything Amazon produces will bear only a superficial resemblance to what LOTRO offers today. I opined eight years ago, as we passed through a past LOTRO anniversary, half the game’s lifetime ago now, that the era of making anything as sprawling and chaotic as Turbine’s vision of Middle-earth seemed done and gone.
Who would ever fund such a thing? Sure, LOTRO is a financial success, if a modest one. But it never lived up to its potential or promises or reach that Turbine internally assumed it would. So the question is who would thrown a lot of money into a similar investment?
Nobody. I believed that eight years ago and I think that still stands. Amazon is not going to make something that feels at all like LOTRO. I will be genuinely surprised if they get anywhere close. (I’ll even be modestly surprised if they ship anything at all honestly, but that is another opinion piece to be written)
So good news for LOTRO then, right? Unless Amazon and Embracer gives it the (completely predictable) SWG treatment, declaring that there can only be one Middle-earth MMORPG, things should be fine. And, while everybody is saying LOTRO is safe, the news is still hedging a bit on the long term prospects of the title, with Game Developer throwing this line into the mix:
Standing Stone will continue to keep its Lord of the Rings MMO up and running as Amazon’s separate Lord of the Rings MMO is being developed.
Yeah, and what happens once it has been developed and is ready to launch?
That is tomorrow’s problem though. We’ll set that aside for a few paragraphs and assume that LOTRO will carry on as before and things will be great, even when Amazon launches its new game.
Except, of course, this news comes just as I am returning to LOTRO and… oh boy… the game is a mess. Leaving aside the playability issues at resolutions above 1920×1080 and the muddle that is (and always has been) the UI and the long encroachment of free to play into the game mechanics where nearly every alert has something you can buy with a mithril coin or five, the game needs some serious work.
And we can start with the launcher, move through into client performance… 64-bit did not give the game any help it seems… and then drive straight through into ongoing and very noticeable lag issues in game.
For the latter, I’m not just talking about Bree when there are half a dozen bands lined up on a Saturday night ready to play when you walk out of the Prancing Pony and the world takes a deep breath and says it will get back to you in a few minutes leaving you stuck in place until it can figure everything out. I am seeing some bad moments with annoying frequency while out and pretty much alone in the Midgewater Marshes and the Lone Lands.
It is not a good look. And I know I put the UI in the category of “leaving aside,” but I feel I need to reneg on that and say that the UI, even when scaling isn’t an issue, leaves a lot to be desired.
But, as I said, that does not impact the current, dedicate base of users. If you’re in a band that stands outside the Prancing Pony on a Saturday night waiting for your turn to perform, some new title… which probably won’t support anything like the LOTRO music system… isn’t going to interest you. The problems of the game are already baked into your decision as to where you want to spend your time.
However, when we get to 2028 or whenever this new Amazon Middle-earth title that will completely not like New World at all arrives on the scene (and I don’t know why they insist on saying it won’t be like New World, since a lot of that title seems pretty solid, so clearly Amazon is still smarting from something on that front if they’re disavowing it in their own special way), then the option for any NEW players who want to run around in Middle-earth will be the 20+ year old LOTRO and all of its problems, or something shiny and new where they can get in on the ground floor and it probably plays well on their 20 Core i17 CPU or PS7 or XBlizzBox BS or whatever.
And that is where LOTRO‘s slow walk into oblivion gets accelerated.
Because that cuts off most of the potential new players, and while the old players remain, they eventually tire of move on, and eventually the game will fall below the level of profitability if there isn’t some replacement for those who leave. And the threshold for profitability is higher for LOTRO than a title like EverQuest because Tolkien Enterprises… or Middle-earth Enterprises, as Embracer has renamed it… needs to get paid for the license every month. Probably off the top.
All of which brings me back to something I wrote in Monday’s post, that being crap at higher resolutions and generally being problematic to play is an existential threat in the long term, and that threat only gets larger if there is another Middle-earth out there.
Though, honestly, I think Embracer is going to give LOTRO the SWG treatment when the time comes. I mean, they can do the same math I can. And they might even convince themselves that if they shut down LOTRO and force people to move on, Amazon’s title will benefit to some degree.
And if it is that obvious, then EG7 will be do those same calculations as well, which means that investing in any major upgrades will seem futile, so there will be no wide screen support and new users will taper off and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They will, as a business, opt for maintaining profitability for as long as they can, which will mean only working on things that will directly bring in revenue (expansions and cash shop items) while ignoring ongoing problems and trimming back staff to keep the books balanced.
The future is, as always, grim.
So who is working on a LOTRO pirate server already? It is never too early to start on these things because if sure feels like the writing is on the wall.
- Game Developer – Amazon Games and Embracer team on Lord of the Rings MMO
- WCCFTech – The Lord of the Rings MMO Once Again in Production at Amazon
- WCCFTech – The Lord of the Rings MMO Will Be Very Different from New World
- Massively OP – Amazon has revived its Lord of the Rings MMORPG
- GamesIndustry.biz – Amazon’s second attempt at making one MMO to rule them all
- MMO Bomb – LOTRO Is “Not Going Away” According To Devs
- Game Developer – Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings MMO won’t impact Lord of the Rings Online
- Inventory Full – Insert Joke About “One Ring” Here…