Back when Lord of the Rings Online
was being developed as Middle-earth Online
in the late 1990s, the original concept was to plop players into the Fourth Age after the fall of Sauron and the destruction of the One Ring. The idea was that this would allow for a lot more flexibility and world manipulation once the game escaped the direct influence of Tolkien’s narrative.
LOTRO, on the other hand, went a different way. The devs obviously felt that more players would want to adventure during the events of the books, especially since the story offered more details, characters, and conflicts. But that left the team with a different problem, which was how to insert player characters into a narrative that was rigidly defined by the trilogy. The solution, as we all well know, was to have the player be “a” hero, just not “the” heroes of the books. And this hero would go off on a story of his or her own that would in many ways parallel the Fellowship’s struggles but not slavishly stick by Frodo’s side as the invisible 13th member.
So how has LOTRO handled this concept of the player as a “second fiddle” over the years? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, particularly as we turn the bend into Mordor.
Whenever I compile lists or run articles on MMOs that never made it out of the gate, it seems as though talking about it puts people in one of two moods. Either they’re keenly interested (as I am) into these fascinating glimpses of what-could-have-been, or they become depressed and a little sore that I reminded them of the toy they’ll never have.
I don’t mean to prod sore spots with these, I hope you understand. It’s just that part of my job as a game archaeologist is to uncover and document all of these older MMOs, even if they come with a lot of emotional baggage (say, from being killed in development). To the sore folks, I apologize in advance, because this week we’re going to take another video tour, this time to look at MMOs that never launched.
I suppose there will always be a special place in my heart for Lord of the Rings Online
. Not only is it one of my most-played MMOs, but covering Turbine’s
title was my first task when I landed a position at Massively-that-was. For years I played, loved, and wrote about
this incredible vision for Middle-earth, and even today I sporadically return to see how the journey to the heart of Mordor is progressing.
So it’s with keen interest this week that I turn my attention to LOTRO’s lesser-known predecessor: Middle-earth Online. Known to some but not to all, Turbine wasn’t the first MMO studio to take a crack at Tolkien’s license — no, for that we have to travel back to 1998 and revisit Sierra On-Line. It was this company that had a brief but memorable run designing Middle-earth Online, also known as “What if LOTRO had permadeath?”
It’s a fascinating glimpse into an entirely different approach to the IP, and even though it died a fairly early death, it’s important to be remembered. Frodo lives!
Up until this point in my life, Puzzle Pirates has always been that “Oh yeah, that actually exists!” game to me. Even when I do lists of pirates in MMOs, this title slips right off of my radar. Maybe it’s because Puzzle Pirates doesn’t make waves (har!) these days, or maybe it’s been around for so very long.
I think that part of Puzzle Pirates’ forgettable nature is that it doesn’t exactly scream “MMO.” I mean, its combat is more cerebral than anything else, it’s all cutesy and stuff, and even its name suggests a casual flash title than anything deep and substantive.
Yet I have friends with a long and abiding love for this game, people who always chide me when I forget it. So to peer pressure I bow: It’s high past time that we gave Puzzle Pirates its due as part of the MMO genre. Avast, ye landlubbers, and swab those peepers: We be goin’ to sea!
As an MMO fan, there are few things as sad as a promising game being killed in development without seeing the light of a full release. Those nagging “what if?” scenarios can drive a fan mad and keep one up through the wee hours of the night.
And while I don’t have the power to resurrect these MMOs through my sheer force of will and present them to you wrapped in a bow, I can perhaps deliver a consolation gift by pointing you in the direction of some of these games’ soundtracks.
Many MMOs that were nearing completion or in development for a long time already had work done on their in-game music. And some of that music has escaped the long, cold fingers of cancellation thanks to composers and fans who wanted to preserve the score. So while it may be bittersweet to listen to the following six games’ scores, it’s also a small triumph that we can do so at all.
Out of all of the MMOs that I’ve played over the years, I must have spent the most time in Lord of the Rings Online’s wonderfully realized vision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world. An early magazine article in 2007 intrigued me with the mention of a “low-fantasy” MMO that skewed more to realism than the cartoony World of Warcraft. By the time the head start period had finished, I was in love with the Shire, Hobbits, and ordering my Lore-master’s raven to peck the eyes out of goblins.
Yet the MMO that I’ve played and enjoyed was a title born in the grave of a previous effort to bring Lord of the Rings to MMOs: Middle-earth Online. Turbine wasn’t the first MMO studio to take a crack at Tolkien’s license. No, for that we have to travel back to 1998 and revisit Sierra On-Line. It was this company that had a brief but memorable run designing Middle-earth Online with features such as permadeath. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an entirely different approach to the IP, and even though it fizzled out due to a number of factors, I think it’s important it be remembered. Frodo lives!
There’s always more to every story than is often told, which is why it’s fascinating to come across accounts like this one by former Turbine Systems QA employee, who contributed to a multi-page thread about the “warts and all” of working on Lord of the Rings Online for 2.5 years.
The ex-employee, Aylwen, posted pictures from the company as well. Among his posts include tales of rivalry with the DDO staff, PvMP development, industry politics, obfuscation over internal failings, Blizzard’s “ferociously competitive nature” toward other studios, how Infinite Crisis was “hemorrhaging money,” and how Turbine took a stab at both a Harry Potter MMO and a console version of LOTRO.