LOTRO Legendarium: Middle-earth’s world integrity is an endangered species in MMOs

The curse of 'IP slurry' is hurting the genre


Back in 2018, Steven Spielberg adapted the popular novel Ready Player One into a film. It seemed like a great pairing: The master director of many ’80s film classics handling a story that’s all about ’80s nostalgia. Yet despite a predictably strong box office, Ready Player One didn’t seem to get a lot of love from audiences and critics alike. People lambasted this gross mish-mash of every famous property of the era (and some afterward), saying that it lacked cohesion and an individual identity — a problem that I had with the book as well.

Yet Ready Player One may have been prophetic for the game industry at large. Today I want to look at where video games seem to be headed and how MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online are holding the bulwark against sacrificing a strong identity and vision.

The impetus for this column is a rather provocative and thoughtful new video essay by the Extra Credits crew. Called “How Fortnite Crossovers Corrupted the Industry,” the piece identifies a worrying trend away from original and holistic game worlds and toward titles that run cross-promotions with all sorts of disparate characters, franchises, and even real-life figures with the hopes of selling skins to nostalgia-baited fans.

This results in a “slowly congealing IP slurry” — a game where anything goes, and therefore, nothing of substance is established. The essay doesn’t decry all games that do this but rather argues that it’s creating a trend for studios to follow even when it doesn’t make sense and churn out titles that are nothing but references and costume parties without a central theme.

Right now, this trend is mostly in the competitive PvP space, most notably in battle royales, fighting games, and MOBAs, although you do see it pop up in sandboxes like Roblox. Yet the MMO industry is not immune to this, and that’s been something I’ve been watching with growing concern.

Eastern MMOs and online games in particular seem to love jumping on the “crossover” bandwagon with anything that might make money whether or not the invading IP makes sense in that world. So we end up with Evangelion coming into Tower of Fantasy, Porsche in Overwatch 2, The Witcher in Lost Ark, Resident Evil in The Division 2, and pretty much everything that World of Warships does.

This may make more money for the studio and delight some fans who have interests in both franchises, but it’s not healthy for the cohesiveness of the game world itself. It’s immersion-breaking, for starters, and erodes the foundation of that game’s identity. I for one do not want to see more of this happen to MMOs.

This topic seemed to dovetail nicely with something else I noticed this past week: a forum post by LOTRO’s team explaining how the licensing constrains the game’s story and development. It was a mild manifesto of sorts declaring that both the developers and the license-holders are devoted to see that the integrity of this game world remain intact even when new material is created.

Allow me to quote a pertinent section: “We always conduct research across the entire legendarium beyond our license to remain as true the lore as we can without contradiction. We can and do depict names and events outside of the license in a way that is license friendly, and we work closely with our licensor to ensure that we are not overstepping our license.”

What’s being described here is an effort to keep LOTRO as holistic as possible — a world that is upheld by a firm framework that allows for guided growth. The result is something I think we’ve all noticed and appreciated, which is a world that feels authentic all the way through and true to Tolkien’s writings.

This is not a world where, say, players might adopt a Captain America skin or ride around on a steampunk buggy. We don’t get flight or high fantasy magic spells or floating islands. The landscape flows well and feels more natural than a series of themed zones quilted together no matter how little sense it makes.

I’m not holding up LOTRO as the only MMO with a strong internal identity and devotion to protecting its lore. In fact, I’d argue that most traditional MMOs make at least some attempt to do this. But we don’t appreciate LOTRO’s safeguards enough that keep this world from becoming that IP slurry.

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.
Previous articlePath of Exile has cracked open the doors to its Necropolis expansion
Next articleAshes of Creation’s latest Alpha Two preview video takes a deep-dive of the Fighter class

No posts to display

Subscribe to:
oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments