LOTRO Legendarium: Evaluating Lord of the Rings Online’s legendary servers, four years later

    
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When Lord of the Rings Online released its first — and, quickly thereafter, its second — legendary server back in 2018, it was one of the most exciting developments to come to the MMORPG in years. While other MMOs had tooled about progression servers for a while at that point, this was the first time that LOTRO would repackage its extensive game world and parcel it out, one chunk at a time, to a crowd advancing together.

Since 2018, legendary servers have gone on quite a trip. There have been extreme bouts of popularity, merges, closures, new rulesets, and even whispers of more to come down the road. But now that we’re four years into these alternate worlds, I thought it might bear fruit to take a look at what legendary shards have done for the game and it’s community — the good, the bad, and the weird.

When Anor originally launched, it was an epic event for LOTRO. Many players, myself included, were incredibly enthused about the idea of a time-gated progression server that would allow an entire community to roll up fresh characters and go through the game at the same pace (more or less).

There were two things I noticed right off the bat: First, that this novelty server drew a whole lot of eyeballs — and publicity — to the game. For the first time in perhaps forever, LOTRO was on the front page of Twitch. Second, Anor became an attractive option to people who were very behind the crowd on the live servers (or hadn’t played at all), offering the opportunity to get in on the ground floor with everyone else.

Initially, Anor was so popular that SSG — perhaps too hastily, hroom, hroom — greenlit a backup server to handle the overflow. Ithil helped relieve a bit of this population pressure, but right from its start everyone could see that it was a mistake. Most every new MMO and server has a drop-off in population after a week or two, and this was true for Anor, meaning that by the end of its first month, Ithil wasn’t needed at all. But now there was a tiny population on that shard marooned from the bigger crowd on Anor.

Many gamers thought that SSG would have merged the servers early on or offered free transfers, but both of those didn’t happen until mid-2021(!) when Ithil’s closure was announced. In my opinion, waiting that long to merge or transfer ended up hurting both servers and rankled some players. During that same time period, SSG started selling paid transfers off of Anor if people wanted to take their characters and hop over to a live world.

In any case, after the first year or so of progression through the base game and first couple of expansions, the routine of unlocks and advancement set in. It’s just how it goes with progression servers: They’re enormously exciting at the start, then people fall away with the novelty fades, leaving a core community that you hope is large enough to justify the server’s continued existence. That’s some pressure to put on the community, to keep up that critical mass or face the end of their server home.

As Anor lost its special status over time, a pair of new servers joined the crew in June 2021. Here we saw SSG continuing to experiment with legendary server setups. In addition to the time-gated progression that was present on Anor and Ithil, these new shards would feature different rates of progression and an optional difficulty mechanic to add extra challenge to the world.

This experimentation is quite familiar to anyone who dithers about in the EverQuest franchise, run by SSG parent company Daybreak. Those MMOs have seen many different ruleset variations on their progression servers, some of which proved to be popular and some duds. And there’s a bit more of that pressure, because if the clever twist proves to not be so clever after all, you end up with a dead server and players who know that it’s only a matter of time before you toss your embarrassing mistake in the trash.

Thus we got the story of Shadowfax and Treebeard, which I guess was SSG’s science fair project to see if players were more attracted to rapid or slowed advancement. Spoiler: It wasn’t the first. Shadowfax was pretty much DOA from the get-go, and I’m genuinely surprised that it’s still running. I would imagine that it’s the fact that the server will catch up to level 140 within a year, after which the studio can shut it down without feeling bad.

Treebeard’s done better, especially as it performs the role of an ambassador welcoming newer players into an easy-to-catch-up environment. It’s not a super-popular server, but it’s got its base well established.

However, the news that Anor is shutting down in August toward the end of its run (but presumably because its population is miniscule) functioned as a bucket of icy water thrown into my face. One thing we’ve been learning about these legendary worlds is that SSG sees them as ultimately disposable. Temporary. They’re not going to exist indefinitely as the live shards to; they offer a run of the game and then, when their mission is accomplished, they close down and free up the server for a new run.

We’ve yet to hear what’s next for legendary worlds, although SSG has said that there are plans in the works for new servers. I’m interested to hear these plans, naturally, and curious if the studio can come up with any other attractive ruleset twists to draw in the crowds. But aside from my main Treebeard character, I’m starting to shy away from progression servers as a concept because of their volatility and fast raise-and-fall-from-glory nature.

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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