If you had asked me last week if we would ever see another Lord of the Rings MMO, well, ever, then I would have answered that the prospects of such a project happening would be quite slim. It’s a massive and popular IP, to be sure, but Lord of the Rings Online did that IP as fully and justly as anyone could have reasonably expected from a (then) indie studio. It’s been done — and done pretty well.
This week, however, the situation has changed. We have confirmation that there is another Lord of the Rings MMO in the works, and that has sent the LOTRO community into a bizarre tizzy as we grapple with the implications and possibilities of a second Middle-earth MMORPG. Let us grapple together as we guzzle Snapple, and see what we might make of this announcement.
What we know — and don’t know
What we know… is not that much at all. We know that there is a “massively multiplayer video game” in the works based on Tolkien’s writings which will be a prequel to the era of the books and will be free-to-play. We know that it’s being made by a division of a Hong Kong company with the blessing of Middle-earth Enterprises. We know that it sounds like it’s being made for PC and console and that it’ll take players to other regions of Middle-earth that haven’t been mined extensively by LOTR video games to date. We know that there is a tenuous connection between developers and publishers to Warframe’s Digital Extremes, which some people seem to have grabbed onto desperately as a hope preserver.
And that’s kind of it. It’s a real thing, it’s in the works, but beyond that we are lacking in so many details. We don’t know a name, we don’t have confirmation that this is an RPG (it could be a massively multiplayer hack-and-slash action game or a massively multiplayer pinball game or what have you), and we don’t know a timeframe, developers, game engine, or any of the other hundred or so details that are crucial to making an educated guess as to whether or not this will be a viable MMO or a cheap cash grab that will further deteriorate the Tolkien brand.
If I’m allowed an initial gut reaction, past the general interest that I have in new MMOs being made, I am not particularly enthused about this project. It smacks of a slap-dash project that’s wrapping the Middle-earth setting around itself as an attempt at legitimacy. And it could be a very, very long way away. The fact that there isn’t a website, screenshots, or any real discussion about the game itself may indicate that this is just the announcement of a deal having been made with actual development and work to come in the future.
What’s of far more interest to me is the fact that this proposed Lord of the Rings MMO is set “long before the events” of the books. That’s interesting because the upcoming Amazon Lord of the Rings series is a prequel as well, which makes me slightly wonder if these two projects are connected (as in, is this a quick attempt to set up an online video game that will tie-in to the TV series when it arrives in a couple of years?).
The prequel setting is preferable to the book era (which has been done to death) and the Fourth Age (which was pretty much the Man Show as the more magical elements and races of Middle-earth faded into the background).
It certainly gives the makers a lot of possibilities with which to work, since there are thousands of years of Middle-earth history. And with some recently published Middle-earth books like The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin that are set long before the famous trilogy, there’s certainly an interest in fleshing out this world’s past and giving fans new eras to enjoy.
How will this impact LOTRO?
I suspect that this is the key question that’s buzzing around in a lot of people’s minds this week. Does this mean the end of Lord of the Rings Online? Will this hurt the game in any way? Will there be a possible mass exodus to a better-looking and possibly flashier MMO if this new one comes out?
Standing Stone Games is putting on a brave face and giving the expected response of, “The news will not have any impact on our development plans or licensing. We always welcome competition, and wish them the best of luck!”
I don’t think anyone is seriously worried at this point, although there’s always the specter of Star Wars Galaxies’ death in part to the then-incoming Star Wars: The Old Republic. Direct competition between IPs gets people antsy, and I understand that. And I acknowledge that even if SSG’s licensing was in jeopardy, the studio could deny that up to the final moments. We’ve certainly seen that before.
But if there’s any company that knows how to keep on trucking with IP competition, it’s this studio. After all, it kept Dungeons and Dragons Online running well after the more successful Neverwinter came on the scene, and with the different settings and game styles, nobody really sees the two MMOs as direct competition. I feel that this could very well be the same type of situation if and when another Lord of the Rings MMO arrives.
This other game could actually end up helping LOTRO in a way, because competition does force studios to up their game and work harder for our attention and dollar. I can imagine that the LOTRO team is a little shaken out of its complacency this week as it realizes that it can’t assume that Tolkien fans will come to its game because that’s the only one in town.
In any case, other than being a really weird, out-of-nowhere story this week, this announcement won’t have any immediate impact on the game we play or the game we imagine we might want to play in the future. I’ll be keeping an eye on it, of course, but I’m not quite ready to abandon my adventures in LOTRO quite yet.