LOTRO Legendarium: A cautious hope for the future

One of the threads that weaves the Lord of the Rings narrative together is that of hope. Holding onto faith in friends, perseverance against all odds, and trust that good will prevail against overwhelming evil is something the Fellowship struggles with, yet in the end, that hope is fulfilled in the salvation of Middle-earth.

“Where there’s life there’s hope, and need of vittles,” Gaffer is known for saying. And the hope that was made good in the books is the hope that the LOTRO community holds on in these waning hours of 2016. After a rocky year full of ups (the Battle of Pelennor Fields, new housing) and downs (the datacenter move, latency issues), this aging MMO and its players faced upheaval as the game was handed off to a new studio, a new publisher, and a new future.

I’ve heard it said from many people that they are “cautiously optimistic” about where Lord of the Rings Online goes from here. It’s a cautious hope, and one which I can identify. As a longtime (and recently returning) player to this fantasy world, I want nothing but the best going forward for LOTRO. But is that hope grounded in truth or mere wishes?

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Turbine exodus

I think it’s safe to say that all of us here at Massively OP were caught off guard by the announcement that Turbine was completely shedding itself of its MMOs. We had known, to be sure, that the former indie MMO studio was now focusing on mobile titles, but games like LOTRO and DDO were its bread and butter. Or so we thought before this month.

It’s hard to speculate on just what went down behind the scenes, but the fact that all of this was measured and laid out suggested that this move was well in the works for a while now — perhaps for most of this year. As soon as it was announced, Standing Stone Games was already handling LOTRO and DDO, and there was a new Daybreak EULA and TOS agreement popping up in front of the games. It’s also good that this wasn’t done sneakily, but put out there very matter-of-factly with as little drama as possible. The handoff felt smooth, at least from where I’m sitting, and the atmosphere seemed to be “business as usual” for LOTRO.

A few factors helped to quell any internal flailing that I might have been otherwise prone to doing. The first is that Standing Stone is made up of former Turbine devs, presumably most (or all?) of the ones that were already handling the MMOs. If the game had been punted over to a completely new team or if most of the LOTRO team had been fired, then we would be sitting in a much more uncertain place right now.

The second factor is that right off the bat, we were hearing more communication from Standing Stone. There still needs to be a big, fat producer’s letter with as much information as possible about what’s coming in the new year, but the announcement letter, the subsequent FAQ, and frequent forum posts by devs and CMs went a long way to reassuring players that their favorite game was not about to end or be ripped to shreds.

Community Manager Cordovan tried to calm the players with the promise that the new studio is working on delivering “significant plans along with successful execution.” That’s kind of exciting to me.

Sure, words are cheap, but I’m of the opinion that Standing Stone isn’t just blowing smoke up our butts for the sake of it. The new studio has to be successful with these games or otherwise fold. The devs have to be ambitious and competent. As we stand on the cusp of Mordor, it’s as good a time as any for LOTRO to get its second wind and show that an older game can still grab headlines and thrill players. Let’s remember that in 2016, we saw big stories revolving around MMOs from 2003 (a certain F2P transition) and 2004 (a certain new expansion). Age isn’t as important as relevance and fun content.

Divorcing the MMOs from Turbine’s other projects might well be a great boon for LOTRO. We can’t know how much of LOTRO’s revenue was drained for Infinite Crisis or Turbine’s mobile titles, but fans probably felt that one dollar was a buck too much. Now? Now Standing Stone can reinvest profits into the studio, hardware, and MMO development. It’s a smaller financial loop and I like that thought much more.

The final factor is that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this. It wasn’t that long ago when EA Mythic shed itself of Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online, which went over to a new indie studio comprised of former developers. Since then Broadsword has kept the lights on and even revved up development somewhat (particularly with UO’s first expansion in just about a decade). That’s encouraging to me in light of Standing Stone. It can be done because it has been done.

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The Daybreak factor

If anything made me do a double-take at this past month’s announcements, it was that Standing Stone would be using Daybreak, of all companies, to handle overseas publishing duties. Daybreak? I mean… seriously?

Don’t get me wrong: I had great respect for SOE as a studio. The devs were passionate about MMOs, had a lot of them under their belt, and handled some of the industry’s biggest titles. But since it transitioned into Daybreak, the studio’s become one weird, hot mess. To be blunt, I don’t trust Daybreak, I don’t think that Daybreak is doing anything significant for MMOs these days, and I don’t have a lot of faith in the company’s future plans.

If Daybreak was the new developer of LOTRO, you bet I’d be worried. But publishing is different, and I’ll grudgingly concede that Daybreak might have a well-established worldwide operation that offers a lot more stability and options for an indie studio that lacks deep pockets. So for now, I’ll be at peace with this decision. Just… don’t mess it up, Daybreak. You’re handling precious cargo.

What’s to come… and what should come

Now that we’ve navigated the storm of this news and the lull of the holiday season, what’s next for Lord of the Rings Online? We know a few things for certain, all good. We know that there’s a Mordor expansion coming in 2017, the first full-fledged expansion since Helm’s Deep. That’s headline-worthy material right there and a great reason to pull back in players.

We also know that Standing Stone seems willing to engage in additional projects, such as the team’s surprising statement that character models might see a revamp next year. It’s a sticking point for many, and if we’re given the option to keep the old ones or switch to the new, I don’t see a problem with it. The world looks gorgeous, let’s just make the characters match, hm?

It’s also a weight off of the minds of many that we got some (grudging) reassurance about the IP license. Turbine and Standing Stone have always seemed peeved at being asked about the license, but you know what? It’s a valid concern, especially when we’ve seen some MMOs go down instantly when a license expires. Stop getting annoyed and just be open about the license renewal process, even if you just consider it to be a standard part of the business.

As I said, we need a big state of the game letter come the new year to help set expectations and give us a better feel for where the game is going under Standing Stone’s guidance. Apparently one should be coming. Good.

I have my usual checklist of what I would like to see in LOTRO, and in my next column (as per an old tradition of mine) I’ll spout my crazy notions about what Standing Stone should tackle in 2017.

In the meanwhile, do you want a second opinion? Check out MJ’s thoughts on LOTRO and DDO’s move into the Daybreak family in her EverQuesting column. And mourn for the loss of Asheron’s Call with Andrew’s scathing soapbox about the end of the long-running MMO.

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.
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