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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24 comments
SallyBowls1
SallyBowls1

I too am some flavor of curiously optimistic about LotRO.


But a lot of this I really disagreed with


Re "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." I would be horrified if people who are writing about MMOs, especially for money, were caught of guard by "Turbine was completely shedding itself of its MMOs." Are western PC MMOs the bread and butter of any significant studio anymore???? Perhaps DBG, Trion and Funcom, but I can't think of another. Not Blizzard, EA, CCP, SE, NCSoft, Kakao, ... I think "Turbine is transitioning into a free-to-play, mobile development studio" seemed both quite clear and with little desire for retaining legacy MMOs. TBH, I am pleasantly surprised that Turbine went with SSG instead of closure or a sale to a closeout firm.


I think that "a big, fat producer’s letter with as much information as possible about what’s coming in the new year," is somewhere between impossible to undesirable.  I don't think SSG or Blizzard or Anet or any significant dev can say what is coming in the next year.  Some features that devs are now planning to deliver won't happen - dropped, replaced or substituted - be they WoW features or GW2 legendary plans or Turbine plans for legacy AO servers.  And when the plans inevitably change as part of the normal course of business, then the unknowledgeable will be trotting out the "lies" and "broken promises" tirades.  The longer out the timeframe that a dev is discussing, the bigger of a red flag it is for me; I question either their honesty, competence or experience with MMOs and their customers.  But especially for SSG, I don't see how they can estimate what they can accomplish in 2017.  They could easily lose some people; if you have a half or full million dollar mortgage on a Cambridge condo, you may wish a less risky income than a startup game studio with declining MMOs.  And transitions are certainly distractions in the short term, which reduces productivity.  And who knows how much being free of Turbine will help/hurt.  


I am certainly of the opposite mind on DBG and SOE.  I don't know details, but from afar, I think DBG has done a preddy good job (doing bad but not badly.)  My question is does any reasonable businessperson think DBG would have been much different if Bree & MJ had bought SOE instead of CN? I certainly don't have great respect for the SOE of this decade. I think it is the SOE of this decade that is the hot, weird mess. If you owned DBG, and didn't want to throw good money after bad, what is there to do but keep reducing the expenses faster than the revenue declines as the games shrink into the sunset? From afar, it appears to me that DBG may be doing a reasonable job of that. DBG is disappointingly far away from what many hoped/assumed. And if they had purchased a profitable and well-run SOE, they could and should have done better. But it is what it is.


Dnote
Dnote

@SallyBowls1 I agree that line in the article doesn't make sense. I fail to see why aging MMOs with declining revenue were expected to survive after WB were clear about the future of Turbine in July. http://massivelyop.com/2016/07/07/rumor-more-layoffs-for-turbine/


It was only a matter of time before the MMOs were put on life support or closed completely and I feel like this move to out source two of them was the only way they were going to survive.

JameZaye
JameZaye

@Dnote @SallyBowls1 This layoff was at the same time the LOTRO/DDO teams decided to jump ship. Many of those layoffs were yet another mix of brain-farts by WB Games and also project changes by LOTRO.


One important note is that both teams have grown since then as they hired extra hands for each games' upcoming expansions.

vinnie_travi
vinnie_travi

I just resubbed after hearing Warner Brothers is no more. I have high hopes SSG can return this game to its former glory.  

zoward
zoward

I feel like LotRO's devs have been given a sudden freedom to take the game in directions that weren't allowed before (for whatever reasons).  I feel pretty good about its future right now.

Oleg Chebeneev
Oleg Chebeneev

LotrO is a game whose developers are long tired and bored of the project but forced to finish what was started a decade ago. Thus dont expect anything fresh and innovative in the future. 

WastelandWanderer
WastelandWanderer

@Oleg Chebeneev I absolutely fail to see how anyone who's even halfway paid attention to the game's development can say that. For one, they wouldn't be going through the hassle of *creating an entirely new company* if they weren't excited about the game. Most of their additions since Helm's Deep have been very positive, not the least of which was how server consolidation was handled or how they've supported the community.


They're definitely in sink or swim mode right now, but they managed to turn out some really positive changes lately even with WB keeping the team's hands tied, so I see no reason to believe any of this is being done just so they can say they went through the motions.

Lord Zorvan
Lord Zorvan

Want a prediction? The money for developing "new character art" and all else will come in the form of loans from their publisher Columbus Nova. Loans that will  be defaulted on as profit continues to plummet and Columbus Nova will do what they intend to do and swallow Standing Stone Games completely, effectively getting the LotR and D&D IP license for peanuts, allowing full milking ala EQ/EQ2 until closure. Investment firms are scavengers, yet everyone seems to forget that fact.

Hirku
Hirku

I'm a newborn player with no Turbine / DBG knowledge, but I'm having fun and that's good enough for me. Might even spend a few bucks tomorrow if that's still the case.

Lord Zorvan
Lord Zorvan

Same old devs it had the whole time it's been circling the drain these last years, "new studio" in name only. 

You are not an "indie" studio if you answer to a publisher. Period. So let's get off the whole "they're indie now" kick.

Daybreak is not a gaming company acting as publisher ( as solidified by the move of putting a CN head honcho as Daybreak CEO ), it is just another branch of Columbus Nova doing what they do: making money.

Denice J Cook
Denice J Cook

@Lord Zorvan


Well clearly that means there's plenty of life still left in LoTRO and DDO then, or a hard-nosed, profit-driven publisher like CN wouldn't have seen the prerequisite dollar signs and bought them.  :)


So...cheers, Standing Stone, and we'll see you in Mordor!  :P

GumpsGang
GumpsGang

It will be OK my fuzzy ❤️ 🐒.

Celestial
Celestial

After over a year of not playing a MMOG (with one brief excursion back to SWTOR around May which I quickly abandoned again), I created a LotRO account yesterday, made a Hunter, bought all of the expansions, purchased a six month subscription, and bought enough points for the mount speed boost 'cause I hate going slow.  I'm on the Landroval server.  As I posted yesterday, I'm a huge Babylon 5 fan and that's largely a science-fiction adaptation of Lord of the Rings, and with all of the hubbub about the game here over the past week or so, I figured it was a good choice.  I look forward to properly trying it.


Of course, I also played The Sims Online, Asheron's Call 2, City of Heroes, Tabula Rasa, Champions Online, and beta tested Stargate Worlds.  So, if something untoward does happen to LotRO, feel free to blame me.

Denice J Cook
Denice J Cook

@Celestial


Did Champions Online close down too then?  I thought I'd seen some of their recent in-game celebrations announcements here on Massively over the holidays.

Celestial
Celestial

@Denice J Cook @Celestial Nah, Champions Online is still around.  But it was pretty much stillborn with the launch day patch, and it's been on life support since then.

ashfyn
ashfyn

Before I stopped playing LOTRO a while back, I did have the impression that the new dev team (new then) had a better handle on the game then those who had dumped Helm's Deep on players.  Many things that were dragging on the game play-wise were being addressed, including the legendary system.

Between Moria and the release of Gondor Aflame, the game lacked inspiration and many of the decisions made were either bland or did nothing to move players forward.  But with Gondor Aflame, the game seemed to finally get its legs again.

I'm saying all this because Turbine did make a lot of bad decisions that negatively impacted the game and created the desperate money issues that may have driven them into the hands of WB.  

So, I am cautiously optimistic that the new studio will not be run by the same folks who made all the bad decisions at Turbine, but that by leaving Turbine they will be leaving behind the dead weight that kept the game from flowering and taking its place as one of the top MMOs ever released. 

WastelandWanderer
WastelandWanderer

@ashfyn I can definitely say that LOTRO has definitely seen some renewed vigor behind its development since Helm's Deep. Focusing on incremental updates instead of massive expansions (with no player input/criticism guiding them) was a great start. Server consolidation, housing updates, cosmetic updates, a new raid, new regions (even simple things like world chat). The community seems really happy these days. Now if they could just revise their F2P model to make it less confusing, that would be amazing.

Morpayne
Morpayne

My last few forays into new MMORPG's have been such trainwrecks I'll probably return to LOTRO or maybe even WoW, thats how much these newer games missed the mark for me. 

Bhagpuss
Bhagpuss

I'd just like to point out that, with all respect, Syp, you don't regularly play any SOE/DBG MMOs. As someone who has been playing them for seventeen years my take is very different. SOE in it's heyday was a great MMO developer but in its latter days, particularly after Home Office control moved to the Playstation Division, that greatness faded badly. Many, many decisions seemed irrational and the games felt neither stable nor safe. SOE went from being the company that never shuttered anything to a place where no MMO could be taken for granted.


At the same time unprofitable products were being summarily dismissed, projects were being hyped that varied from half-baked to hysterical. The biggest of them, EQNext, sounded too good to be true and you know what that means. Far from criticizing DBG for recognizing the impossibility of making such a pipe dream come true, they deserve to be praised for turning off the flow before *all* the money vanished down the drain of wishful thinking. 


Whether Columbus Nova plan on running the MMOs on indefinitely, so long as they turn a profit, or whether the plan is to trim them down, smarten them up and sell them on, either way the future for EQ, EQ2 and DCUO (the ones I play) looks brighter than it did two years ago, when I was beginning to worry whether anyone was steering the ship at all. 


How, or if, LotRO is going to be integrated into the Daybreak fold remains to be seen but I would be optimistic. Who knows, maybe Standing Stone will grow into an MMO specialist capable of buying DBG from Columbus Nova one day.

Paraxamos
Paraxamos

I really, really hope it turns out well for them. I mean just look at Daoc and Ultima Online that seem to get constant fixes and updates (the DaoC website alone mentions 1 Patch and 5 hotfixes just for December) over at Broadsword, so I have hope that the lotro team can now tackle stuff they couldn't under the WB banner, even though I personally am not a player anymore.

Maybe it's time to give it a try again considering that they actually have a buff/supporter class which is my favourite role in any MMO.

MesaSage
MesaSage

I don't doubt that they're sincere about things like licensing, Mordor and even updated character models, but until they pay more than lip service to ongoing performance issues (lag, fps, crashes) I can't take anything they do seriously.  At least not for long term viability.  The holidays and all the publicity has only added load to already under-performing servers.

Lord Zorvan
Lord Zorvan

@MesaSage Performance issues aren't going anywhere. The engine is complete crap, revamping an entire engine for LotRO is just never going to happen.