The Soapbox: Hoping for Amazon to succeed where Lord of the Rings Online failed

    
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It’s not often I really get excited about an upcoming MMORPG. Partly this is because of the industry slowing down, and partly this is because I consider myself relatively hype-proof. I keep my expectations realistic. However, I do feel a tickle of excitement for the upcoming Lord of the Rings MMO from Athlon Games and Amazon Game Studios.

You see, the current Lord of the Rings MMO has always been a disappointment to me. I want something better.

When I was six, I got chicken pox. For over a week, my entire body itched so badly it was almost like my skin was on fire. Only one thing was able to take my mind off the misery: I had recently discovered Tolkien through school, and I had my parents read Lord of the Rings to me over and over again.

It ignited a love of reading and the fantasy genre that persists to this day. Whenever I’ve been at my lowest, I’ve reread Lord of the Rings, and the tales of hope and heroism in those pages have always inspired to press on even when my own life felt hopeless. Lord of the Rings is the closest thing I have to a religion.

Meanwhile, I’ve been in love with the idea of virtual worlds — if not always the reality — ever since I first set digital foot in World of Warcraft a little over 10 years ago.

You would think, then, a Lord of the Rings MMO would be absolute paradise for me. But for me, Lord of the Rings Online is nothing but a disappointment.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I do feel genuinely bad for criticizing Lord of the Rings Online so harshly. Whatever problems I may have with it, I can’t fault the obvious passion and dedication of the developers and the players. I know that Standing Stone Games has done a great deal of research into the lore of Tolkien’s work, and while I consider myself a Lord of the Rings super fan, I’m sure there’s plenty of people there who could school me on Middle-earth lore.

It’s also clear that SSG is doing the best it can with what is clearly now a limited budget, and that many of my problems with the finished product are the result of that limited budget, so it’s not necessarily the developers’ fault.

Meanwhile, I haven’t had much direct experience of the game’s community myself, but it is all by reports one of the more pleasant in the MMO space. I’ve never been to Weatherstock, and I probably never will, but I love that it exists. The MMO world needs more community events like this!

So know that I do regret that I can’t enjoy this game more. Picking on LOTRO kind of feels like kicking a puppy. And know also that I am not rooting for LOTRO to fail. I’d hate to see its loyal players lose their home. Ideally I’d like to see a world where both LOTR MMOs can co-exist.

That being said…

I hate to argue with my esteemed colleague Justin Olivetti, but I say that LOTRO has never done the setting justice, and honestly, I think Kotaku absolutely nailed the reason why: It’s not a Lord of the Rings game. It’s just WoW with a Middle-Earth skin.

Let’s put aside the fact that the designs are generic and over-used for the moment. I’d be able to accept a Lord of the Rings game utilizing generic game design if it made for a good representation of the setting, but it doesn’t.

When I play a Lord of the Rings game, I want to dive into epic adventures. I want to feel the scale and the beauty of the setting, and the desperate stakes of a world’s last stand against the darkness.

I don’t want to go around collecting wolf pelts and bear asses the same way I do in every other MMO of the same era. I don’t want combat so easy most mobs drop dead before they even get in a shot against me. I don’t want to read reams of bland quest text when I could be out interacting with the world.

When I think of Lord of the Rings, I think of thrilling adventures, desperate battles, and heartbreaking sacrifices. I think of Gandalf facing the Balrog and the fearless charge of the Rohirrim upon the Pelennor Fields. I don’t think of doing simple, easy chores.

At the risk of appearing shallow, the graphics are also something that holds the game back tremendously. I’ve never understood the love given to LOTRO‘s visuals. To me it’s always been a sea of jagged polygons and muddy textures.

It’s not just that the graphics haven’t aged well; even by the standards of the era, LOTRO is an unpleasant-looking game. Aion is barely any younger and looks infinitely better. A realistic art style works only if you have the graphical fidelity to pull it off, and LOTRO doesn’t.

Yes, the developers went to great pains to research the details of the setting and represent them in-game, but there is a difference between being slavishly devoted to the details of a fictional universe and actually capturing its spirit.

Consider the Peter Jackson films, which are in my mind as close to a perfect adaptation as we could ever see. Jackson changed some things about the story, but he captured the spirit of the story perfectly. The movies are filled with the same noble characters, the same beauty and wonder, the same intensity and peril, the same sense of hope against all odds as the books.

When I watch those movies, I feel like I’ve stepped directly into Middle-earth. When I play Lord of the Rings Online, I feel like I’m playing a low-budget WoW clone from 10 years ago.

Therefore I feel tremendous hope — and more than a little anxiety — over the prospect of a new MMO set in Middle-earth. At least with Amazon’s backing, there’s little concern of money being an issue. Just having a big budget does not a good game make by any stretch of the imagination, but this is definitely not a setting you can do on the cheap.

So how can the new game succeed where LOTRO failed? I wish I could tell you I knew exactly how they could do that, but I don’t.

For all my harping about LOTRO being “WoW with a Middle-earth skin,” my vision for a perfect Lord of the Rings MMO is pretty much “The Secret World with a Middle-earth skin.” But while that would definitely make me happy, it’s not necessarily the ideal path to follow.

I can think of a few things that would steer a new LOTR MMO in the right direction, though.

Firstly, I think some kind of action combat system is a must. Putting aside the fact that’s where the market is trending generally, I think this is a setting where combat needs to feel exciting and dangerous. Standing in one spot and rehearsing your rotation against mobs that barely fight back isn’t that.

Fully voiced story is also non-negotiable. I love reading books, but making players grind the action to a halt to read a bunch of quest text is not making use of the full potential of the medium.

I think it needs to be a PvE-focused themepark, not a sandbox or (Valar forbid) a gankbox. This is a setting about rich lore and epic stories, not life as a farmer or a merchant. PvP can be included, but it shouldn’t be the focus. That would go against the themes of uniting against a greater evil.

It should be open world, not some heavily instanced dungeon grinder like Neverwinter. This is a world people want to explore in all its vast glory.

Finally, it needs state of the art graphics. Not every game needs to look like Black Desert Online to be good, but this is such a rich and beautiful world that it deserves to be brought to life with the best visuals technology can offer.

Will we get any of that? I don’t know. These are untested game studios. It would be foolish to assume that anything they produce will be good or bad at this point.

I do find some hope in the fact the game is already confirmed to be free-to-play at launch. Now, I would prefer buy to play with DLC along the lines of Elder Scrolls Online, as games that launch free to play tend to be a bit more heavy-handed in their monetization, and no barrier to entry tends to harm communities. But at least they’re not trying to launch with a mandatory subscription in this day and age. That shows they at least have some understanding of the current state of the market.

And as I noted above, Amazon has more money than God, so at least we don’t have to worry about it being low-budget.

As it stands now, I feel some cautious optimism, but “cautious” is the operative word. The unfortunate reality is that my expectations for a Lord of the Rings MMO are so high that it would be almost impossible to meet them.

But perhaps they can at least do better than the last attempt.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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zoward

I’m filled with dread that Tolkien & Co will pull the plug on LotRO a la Star Wars Galaxies and we’ll end up having to live with – or walk away from – whatever the untested studios manage to produce. I have no doubt the new game will have better graphics than LotRO. Everything else (RP tools? Music system? Housing?) is up for grabs. But I hope there are good emulator coders out there taking network samples right now to work with if worse comes to worst. Interestingly, LotRO is one of the very few long-lived MMO’s I’ve seen that didn’t attract an emulation community. I suspect it’s because the areas from the base game still thrive, and there’s no real need to chase the endgame if you don’t want to, so no one misses the “old game”. Of course it could also be because Tolkien & Co are infamously litigious about their IP. Or it could be that the emulator community is out there and I just haven’t seen it. Interesting times.

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PrincessQuill

Interesting and mildly disappointing take. There’s certainly action in the Lord of the Rings, but I cherish the legendarium for how it equally celebrates simplicity and revels in small, sweet moments, even as it operates on a grandiose scale much of the time. While I no longer play LOTRO because I found myself plateauing around the 50s, and do agree with many of your points that a lot of it is very repetitive and grindy, I really appreciated its tone and its approach to the lore. It lets you inhabit Middle-Earth in a way that simply focusing on big action sequences wouldn’t do. I love the daily minutiae of the Shire, the ambiance of Rivendell, the clever storyline in Bree that feels so localized and yet connected to the bigger picture. I loved reading all the text; it’s The Lord of the Rings, of course there’s going to be a lot to read! If they gave it a graphics overhaul and made it easier to solo, I’d be back in a heartbeat. The music (praise the Valar, the music), the scenery, and the lore are still very dear to me.

That being said, I’m not opposed to a new perspective on a LOTR MMO. While I’m cautious of anything that comes out of Amazon, I’ll be keeping my eye on it.

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Rottenrotny

LOTRO is a really great game that simply suffers from poor graphics and somewhat dated and convoluted game mechanics.

Personally I would love to see the new Athlon / Amazon version to basically mimic what Turbine did and just update it to 2020 quality.

Wish list:

-Open world.
-No instancing zones.
-No pathed / corridor-y zones with invisible walls and the like.
-No level scaling. Keep many areas of the world very dangerous. Stray off the path leads to all but certain death.
-Mostly PVE, though I always support players being able to flag themselves for PVP while still allowing PVE players to remain unflagged and safe from ganking.
-Lore rich.
-If voice overs keep them short and not the long winded borefests ala FFXIV.
-Keep the music system from LOTRO, or something similar.

I have it on good authority and from several people that New World was easily the prettiest game ever created graphics wise, so here’s hoping that this LOTR game can benefit from that AGS quality.

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Frank White

Considering that Amazon’s game will be set in a pre-LoTR Middle-earth, I’m not sure how much sense it makes to hope it might be substantially a better version of LoTR Online, at least not if you’re hoping for a better version of those particular stories.

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Jack Pipsam

I’m all for being hopeful, but honestly I’d be very shocked if what Amazon is making is anything other than a glorified live-service more focused on action than lore.

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ichi sakari

Very well-written article that describes my feelings about Tolkien, LOTRO, and the upcoming release almost exactly, except for the Secret World thing

spot on Tyler, if/when this drops I hope to find you in the Green Dragon and buy you a drink

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Halla-Zayeron

The linked Kotaku article is the complete reversal of your claim: “it also provides players with the opportunity to explore Middle-Earth like no other game” That doesn’t sound like they’re calling it a WoW clone.

The issue with Lord of the Rings, at least based on this author’s description is that IT IS BASED OFF THE BOOKS. And surprisingly, despite the common consensus have a completely different tone from the movies. Unlike the movies, the books are slow-paced focusing more on the interaction of characters and smaller everyday aspects than the action. Combined with the niche art-style and older setup, it is a more bitter/acquired taste that not everyone is up for.

LOTRO only “failed” thanks to the butchered Infinite Crisis. And with ‘Amazon’s’ title already showing the same problems LOTRO had in its infancy (anyone remember Vivendi?) I wouldn’t expect much better. Especially with EA Sports, Mobile Strategy Cash-farms and the man attributed as responsible for the collapse of Sony Online Entertainment.

Sure, LOTRO has fallen far from grace. However, the causes to said state are already showing within Amazon-Athlon and they are yet to even ship the title.

“I think it needs to be a PvE-focused themepark” This is entirely what LOTRO is. Regardless of its age, LOTRO has always been this exact thing.

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Dean Greenhoe

I like pretty much all of your hopes for a great adventure game. But I would ask for one addition. Due to my disabilities, action based combat highly problematic. So if they would add a special class or in-game option to enable me and others like myself to enjoy the game with a toned down combat mechanics I would be on board.

Specifically, I have to play games with the equivalency of a one finger typer with limited mouse support. So to accommodate this I need easier combat mechanics even if that includes a longer TTK.

Basically just allow all of us to enjoy the game and not restrict it to the young and able bodied. Thanks.

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Chosenxeno .

Dunno why people keep begging for Action Combat when WoW and FFXIV are the only games people seem to be paying 15 bucks a month for. I can do both forms quite fine(I’m a healer) I just don’t see why people constantly beg for Action when Tab games are so dominant and prominent.

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Wakkander

McDonalds is the most dominant and prominent hamburger joint in the world. That doesn’t mean it serves the best hamburgers in the world. Certainly I wouldn’t want to compete with them by trying to out do McDonalds at what McDonalds does best, real estate, oh and fast food burgers I guess.

And just because those burgers that you get at McDonalds and, say, Five Guys are well known doesn’t mean they are the only market in the Fast Food industry.

Chick-fil-A is actually on a steady uptick in market share across the industry, with nary a burger to be found. Sometimes I also really crave a Krystal/White Castle burger to boot, which though similar in theory I would not consider exactly the same as McDonald’s Burgers.

Not everything has to be a burger (Tab Combat) to be successful in fast food, and just because McDonald’s (WoW) is the dominant one in the market doesn’t mean their style of the food is the only way to be successful. In fact I’d say the best way to be successful is not by copying McDonalds at all. (See where burger king is these days in comparison).

If the market for burgers is oversaturated as is, with one major player dominating it, and the chicken market is loudly proclaiming they are underserved, what would you rather be as a new business?

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Bango on Laurelin

As long as it’s a credible rendition of Middle Earth from the books, as good story, engaging combat and pvp and, most importantly not the stupidly greedy F2P system of lotro then I will be happy.

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mpandu.nky

It’d be interesting to see LotRO with some of the best qualities of Asian MMOs – fluid combat & deep character customization. I’ve never gotten into LotRO (and about 7 years ago the in-game Asian community was small too) due to its combat.