It wasn’t the use of the Lord of the Rings book franchise, which I had respected but wasn’t exactly the most rabid fan in the world. It was a mention of an online fantasy world that hewed to a low magic setting, where dazzling spell effects and typical classes weren’t the order of the day. Instead, the article poured over how much LOTRO was trying to hew to a more realistic and believable setting (albeit one in a fictional fantasy universe), and that made it stand out to me in a sea of upcoming MMORPGs.
Months later, I was in the two-week head start, experiencing Middle-earth in a brand-new way apart from the books or Peter Jackson films. Going through the Shire in those first few days was tranquil and deeply thrilling, as if I knew that this was the start of something special. Ten years later, and I know that my gut feeling was correct. While not a perfect game, LOTRO has nevertheless grown into a wide-ranging and impressive virtual world that still has so much to offer even in this modern age.
Crafting a world by recipe
You know how tacky and overused that poetic trope is to describe something as a recipe? Well, if I was to stoop to using something that hokey to sum up the most important elements of LOTRO’s success as an MMO, it would be something like “Two parts faithful adherence to source material, one part devoted and friendly community, a dollop of expansive and beautiful environments, and a sprinkling of fan service.” But I wouldn’t be that hokey, right?
There’s something about the combination of LOTRO’s parts that elevate this game perhaps above what it should be. The community, which has been one of the strongest and most vibrant I’ve ever experienced in an MMO, serves as the social glue that sticks players together and to the game itself. Oh, there’s been drama and trolls (not just Bilbo’s foes), to be sure, but by and large the fans are the ones that have taken up the trappings and mantle of Middle-earth and done something special with it. To see the lengths that players have gone to perform huge concerts, put on plays, provide a helping hand to newbies, run events, stage games, and populate YouTube and blogs with guides and reviews is truly astounding.
Just the other day I got a laugh because I was riding through Bree and stopped near the Prancing Pony to listen to a group of talented bards playing a few songs to an enthusiastic crowd. Then as I rode down to the south gate, there was yet another street concert in the making. It’s just the sort of thing that happens in this game, particularly in the social hubs.
Lore of the rings
Apart from the friends and experiences that I’ve made through the game, LOTRO has left me with one other important gift in my life, even if I leave it today and never come back. And that’s that this game was directly responsible for increasing my knowledge and appreciation of the story and world that J.R.R. Tolkien created.
As I mentioned previously, I never billed myself as the biggest Tolkien fan. It was all well and good growing up, and like many others, I thought the movies were quite keen. But it wasn’t my geek passion the way that Star Wars and Star Trek had been. I even thought it was a little hokey at times, what with those Elves and all of the songs thrust into the middle of otherwise serviceable chapters. So I was ambivalent at best to the actual story and setting.
Thanks to LOTRO’s slavish devotion to the books, bit by bit this game won me over to understanding and appreciating what I had previously dismissed. It’s a different kind of fantasy, perhaps an older kind and one that’s hard to separate from all of the inspired knock-offs that came after. Through the game’s quests and descriptions, I started to understand the races better, to recognize names and places that were more abstract when I was reading the books, and got more caught up in the overarching tale that was far more than a short guy running up a volcano to deliver jewelry.
The game prompted a re-reading of the books and a delving into wikis and podcasts that centered around Middle-earth. I came back around to appreciating how important it was that LOTRO eschewed the high magic tropes that most MMOs take for granted, seeing this as a “real” world with real people and real struggles.
On the shores of a second decade
Just a year or two ago, there was real worry that Lord of the Rings Online was sliding down into oblivion, what with Turbine’s string of layoffs and game closings, the “end of expansions,” and the marked decrease of community chatter over the game. Yet now we’re seeing a wonderful renaissance, fueled in part by the move to Standing Stone Games, the anniversary itself, and the anticipation of this year’s Mordor expansion.
Above that, LOTRO has proved that it’s the perfect game to return to after being burned out by the rest of the crowd. I and other friends have experienced this reunion, stating in various ways that it felt like “coming home” when we returned to the MMO.
So what’s next? One shining moment of glory and then back to sliding downhill, or the beginning of an exciting new decade with a different direction to come? It’s hard to fathom the future, especially as we near the end of the books and face a future without the novels to hold its hand. That much freedom is both heady and scary, and my greatest wish is that LOTRO stays true to its low magic, high lore roots even as it skirts into the Fourth Age.
Happy birthday, LOTRO!