LOTRO Legendarium: Is Lord of the Rings Online aging well?

    
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By now, to me, Lord of the Rings Online is a comfortable, well-worn friend that always offers a very predictable and enjoyable experience whenever I return to the game. It’s absolutely bizarre to me to consider that we’re now in the Post-Ring era of the MMO’s storyline, yet it is all still going strong in its own way.

One thing I cannot deny is that LOTRO is what most people would consider to be an “older MMO.” It’s been in live operation ever since April 2007, and once the game tipped over the decade mark, it joined other long-running titles that had long since shed their youth for maturity and stability.

As I was exploring Northern Mirkwood and going through the new Christmas quest recently, I found my thoughts had turned to evaluating the game’s status as an aging MMORPG. I mean, all MMOs age (if they’re fortunate enough to launch), and not every title can remain young, hot, and popular forever. But that doesn’t mean that they become irrelevant and unengaging when they’ve entered into the middle age of their lifespan. So, I thought, how is LOTRO aging as an 11-year-old product? What is going for it at this point and what is starting to show signs of wear and tear?

Stacking up to metrics

When many people try to ascertain the health of a live MMO, more often than not the first stop is to concrete metrics and numbers. How many people are playing? How much money is the game making? What have its trends looked like over the past few years?

It’s here that we have to face the fact that a lot of the answers to these will go unknown for anyone outside of Standing Stone Games. The studio doesn’t release numbers and probably has no good reason to anyway. It’s safe to assume that LOTRO makes enough to pay the bills and fund some development but that the MMO isn’t growing or enjoying anywhere near the height of popularity it once had.

Comparing Reddit subscriptions, LOTRO’s respectable-but-not-great 14,700 subs put it firmly alongside mid-range MMOs such as Trove (17K), Star Trek Online (18.8K), Neverwinter (23.9K), and ArcheAge (18K). It’s just one number from a certain source, but it’s something. That’s probably where a lot of people mentally stack LOTRO these days as a proven MMO that has a committed crowd of followers but isn’t blowing up the charts.

There are still some active LOTRO blogs and bloggers out there, and the MMO is spoken about with fondness among some lifelong players, but again, it’s not what it used to be. In terms of popularity and finance, LOTRO is hanging in there but not generating a lot of movement.

Life, uninterrupted

But for me, that all doesn’t really touch upon the question today. Most MMOs have a long tail of popularity and revenue, so I’m kind of just pointing out the obvious. But if we were to remove from the table any issue of player population, money generated, or internet fame, where would LOTRO stand? How is it aging over the years?

One of the best things that speaks in favor of this MMO is that the world of Middle-earth has grown so much since launch and yet it still has a consistency and a realness to it. It’s not a weird mishmash of thematic zones that don’t relate to each other. Instead, its areas flow into each other very naturally, held in place by the well-established lore and canon of the books. From 2007 to 2018, LOTRO has done wonders to expand its borders without sacrificing landscape integrity or making earlier areas irrelevant and archaic.

Graphics are another consideration for the aging question, and here we are on more precarious ground for this game. In many ways, LOTRO is still a really good-looking game. It used to be one of the most frequently screenshotted MMOs among players, although that time seems to be slipping into the past. It’s not quite as gorgeous in comparison to modern games and MMOs, but there is a beauty and an attention to detail that goes a long way to taking this from a “game” world to a virtual one. Even when the areas and locations get ugly, there’s this realness about them that draws me in and makes me feel like it actually has a history and a connection to the people around it.

I’m glad that SSG made some effort to update the character avatars, although in the end, this wasn’t nearly as sweeping or revolutionary an event as I think a lot were hoping. It was a minor cosmetic facelift, welcome but not as transformative as some desired. Without stylized graphics (LOTRO has always skewed more realistic but not photographically so), this MMO is going to need an increasing amount of help to keep its visuals from becoming too long in the tooth. And I’m worried that SSG does not have nearly the resources nor the desire to see that through.

Building on the foundation

Another indicator of aging well or poorly is to look at the content rollout of an MMO. Is the content frequent, useful, and exciting? LOTRO isn’t seeing the fastest content rollout of the industry these days, clocking in three or four really meaty updates a year. It’s enough, I would say. I appreciate that a lot of the updates have built upon the long-established foundation and pattern set for this game to offer “more of the same” to a community that craves it.

So we get more zones, more quests, more epic story, more lore characters, more iconic locations, and more deeds, titles, pets, mounts, and other chasables. As I’ve said before, I strongly feel that Mordor was a major misstep and a missed opportunity for the game, but I will also give credit where it is due and praise SSG for a good start to the recovery with Northern Mirkwood. It’s helped to remind players of how large and diverse this world is and how much more there is to see of it. High level zones shouldn’t all be ugly and hostile — that’s a pretty poor reward for making it up here. Instead, we’re still getting beautiful and striking scenery and places that beg to be explored.

The studio is definitely struggling to figure out how to best monetize the game in the post-Turbine period. Lockboxes were an ugly blemish upon the latest expansion and don’t seem to be going away any time soon. LOTRO’s business model, once praised for its seeming generosity, certainly has aged very poorly with modern players coming in and wondering why so much content is locked while other MMOs give everything but the latest expansion for free these days.

I’m pleased to see that SSG is experimenting with more festival content and roleplaying tools, as a great portion of the community revels in the non-combat aspect of the game. Housing still needs a top-to-bottom overhaul (and probably will never get it), but at least we’re seeing things like new instruments, more flexible housing decor arrangement, cosmetic weapons, and vanity pets. It’s a pretty full-featured game when you step back and look at it all, and my charge to the studio would be to never stop evaluating what features really do need elimination, updating, or streamlining as the game continues (legendary items, anyone?).

“Good not great” is how I’d sum up Lord of the Rings Online’s aging. It’s certainly enough to keep the game going for a good long while, barring any unforeseen issues with the IP or revenue. But the end result of how well it ages is up to the studio’s determination whether to coast on proven aspects or to keep challenging itself to do the best with what resources it currently holds.

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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kaledis

I used to LOVE LOTRO, it was my go-to game from 2009-2011. I have played it off and on since then (didnt buy Mordor) but I have to say its a shadow of its former self. I really cant play it anymore, it just looks to dated.

It will always be my favourite mmo ever, but I just cant re-capture my glory days with it. Plus the crashes every time I entered into Minas Tirith were game breaking for me. Plus I never was a fan of mounted combat and the big battles.

LOTRO you will always have a special place in my heart.

Get a graphics engine overhaul and I wouldn’t think twice about playing it again.

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George Wilson III

LOTRO is my favorite game at the moment. Why? I love the story. The story is compelling and believable. I don’t need to be the most important person in the world. In LOTRO I’m not, but I’m helping those that are.

Great article and I agree with you. The game still looks great and is fun to play.

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Crowe

The title line is a joke, yes? LOTRO looked decent ~8 years ago but hasn’t really changed much since… I’m not talking the avatars but the engine itself. The 32-bit engine should have been retired minimum 5 years back but although they mention work on a 64-bit version a few times a year, I don’t ever hear anything about it. Ability delay is almost as bad as ESO and if I try to play my healer, it’s painful and I worry about attempting to keep a group up in just an instance… no way I’m going to a dungeon with that. We tried to go back a few times but the engine is so creaky we don’t last longer than a month or so.

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NeoWolf

I love LOTRO.. in part because I love games, but mostly because I love all things Tolkien, and always have. Tolkien was my gateway drug to the world of Fantasy and that led to roleplaying and pnp games and tabletop and CRPG’s, MMO’s and on and on..

But… and as much as I love lotro’s i.p, the game despite being a wondrous and much loved one by me is a game that is pretty much unplayable these days, because it hasn’t aged well.

Now much has been done put put a fresh coat of paint on things to hide the cracks but that only buys time it doesn’t fix the problem.
It needs new graphics, and a new engine and if I had the money I’d throw it at the game with gladness.. sadly I do not :(

It will geninuely break my heart the day lotro closes as I have many MANY years, friendships and fond memories attached to it.

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Dug From The Earth

Visually, this game had aged horribly in 2012, 5 years after its release.

Its now 6 years later.

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Oleg Chebeneev

Its one of MMORPGs that had one of the WORST cases of aging imo. There are games that look worse ofc, but they didnt look great during their launch either. LoTRO on the other hand looked pretty good in 2007. Definetly better then WoW at that time. Now if you compare them WoW is miles ahead.

LoTRO’s graphics now looks dated, character models look like crap, its animations are clunky, and its quests are archaic and mostly just grind. Also they reusing old assets all the time which makes it even worse. I have a hard time thinking of just one thing… anything… that they improved since launch. I know they revamped classes and talents, but I much more prefer old burglar instead of its current version.

ps/ dont get me wrong, LoTRO’s graphics isnt terrible, it doesnt make me quit playing just because of it like in case of EQ1 or UO. But its aging is very noticable, much more so than AoC’s that was released at about the same time.

cambruin
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cambruin

I personally feel the game has become absolutely horrible.
* With what little character customization they allow, they still can’t get things balanced.
* They introduced lootboxes inside lootboxes.
* They managed to elevate the dreaded on-rails questing to a whole new level.
* They failed to develop the unique PvMP experience.
* Extremely intrusive store elements and even some pay-to-win

But despite being such horrible game developers, they have without a doubt the best damn world design team. NPCs, items, armour, landscape, quest texts, ingame music, … The immersion, most of it’s community, … so many things to love.

I feel they failed on pretty much everything MMO, but make up for it with everything RPG (if that makes sense). If they could ‘fix’ those 4 first items I personally experience as game-breaking, this would be the only game worthy the MMORPG title.

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Stormwaltz

I appreciate the work Alan Maki did a few years back, redesigning the quest flows from the intro areas up to North Downs and Lone Lands. That, plus Matt Elliot’s recent update to Bree’s landscape design, did quite a bit to refresh the oldest areas of the game — which are, unfortunately, the areas any new player starts in.

One thing I’ve definitely noticed as a casual, returning, starting-over-from-scratch player, is how endgame focused each expansion has been. I’m at least six months from Moria. Rohan is easily a year. Gondor might as well not exist, and I wonder if I’ll ever see Mordor in person.

The game does still look great… but until the recent Bree revamp, you’d only know that if you’ve played for years and could get to the most recent areas. It still something of a shock to run across lumpy, weirdly animated low-level critters dating from 2007.

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Roger Melly

I started playing Lotro about a year after I started WoW . If both titles had kept up their quality and challenge I would be happily playing both 11 years later .

I still play Lotro :)

nuff said

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Joey

What did happen to WoW over the years? I’d love to see a Massively article about the evolution of the game into the state it is in now. Many of my long time MMO friends that played WoW for years have all quit the game the last few years. I myself am pretty close to hanging it up too. Everything is pretty dumb down now and most of the overall game lacks even the remotest form of challenge cept for Mythic+ and Mythic raids.

Don’t get me started on the story and the fact the entire leveling experience is a disjointed mess as far as timelines go.

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Roger Melly

I’ve taken welcome back offers numerous times over the last 9 years since I last subscribed but even though it looks the same after playing for a while you realise just how much Blizzard have sucked any sense of achievement out of the game . It a shadow of what it once was .

I think Vanilla servers will be such a huge success though that they will re-examine the possibility of pristine ( hard mode ) servers .

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have the option to be able to play the game as it is now with the original difficulty and complexity ?

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Crowe

I’d kill for a game with the complexity of the talents that WoW had at launch. It wasn’t even really all that deep! But games seem to be phasing that out now. I enjoyed Rift for a while but Trion has mucked it up pretty bad in the last few years so it’s largely unplayable.

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Vincent Clark

What, exactly, is challenging in LotRO? And I’m sorry, but knock on WoW all you want but in terms of polish it literally blows LotRO to bits–mostly because the studio has spent the resources needed to keep the game optimized over the years. I don’t care how beautiful Middle Earth looks (and, it does), it matters little if I’m constantly hitching or have to continuously lower my graphics settings–often just to do mundane tasks. So, no…I’m not buying your quality and challenge argument.

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Michael18

Haven’t played for a few months but I’d still call Lotro my main MMO. I like a lot that they did not try to reinvent the game with every expansion/update, over the years. I’d just like to see a way to reduce XP gain by a certain percentage to avoid outleveling zones and I’d immediately start leveling a new alt.