It goes without saying that Peter Jackson’s Academy Award winning Lord of the Rings movies were a boon to the fantasy genre of fiction and film. Not only did these fantasy films introduce a whole new generation of readers to the meticulously conceived world of Middle-earth designed by Oxford philology professor J.R.R. Tolkien they also put a lot of cash into the coffers Tolkien Enterprises and of course the Tolkien Estate
After the release of the movies, Professor Tolkien who died in 1973 was included on Forbes List of Top Earning Dead Celebrities for a few years. He even made the 2009 list!
Given the fact that Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro are making two new Hobbit movies that are due to be released in 2012, I can guarantee that there will be yet another Tolkien renaissance.
So given this almost certainly bright future for all things Tolkien, what plans does Turbine who makes the Lord of the Rings Online MMO have in store to capitalize on this anticipated event?
The Challenge of Making a Lord of the Rings MMO
From the outset, the challenge of making a MMO based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has been how to integrate the player into the world and storyline of the trilogy. The strength of Lord of the Rings has always been the compelling story but paradoxically it’s also been its biggest weakness due to its sense of predictability and inevitability. We all know how this story ends: the ring is destroyed in Mount Doom and Sauron is finally vanquished.
Another big problem with basing a MMO on a book is that it is finite in nature. In this case, eventually the plot runs out and the LOTRO MMO reaches a dead end in Mount Doom in the land of Mordor.
Since MMOs require a steady release of new content via expansions and given the fact that Turbine is running out of official material, it’s in their best interest to delay players getting to Mordor as long as possible. So they wisely decided to have the player who plays either a dwarf, elf or man following in the wake of heroes Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf (otherwise known as the Fellowship of the Ring). It is this tactic that has enabled Turbine to extend the content from the trilogy and allow players to have their own adventures and indulge in various detours along the way.
For example, Angmar the fortress of the Witch King does not play a central role in the Lord of the Rings yet Turbine wisely included it as playable content in their MMO. In the latest LOTRO expansion entitled appropriately the Siege of Mirkwood, Dol Guldur the former stronghold of Sauron is featured prominently.
Given these two plot deviations, Turbine has set a precedent that the actual Lord of the Rings storyline need not be followed to the letter in their MMO. Therefore it is entirely conceivable that Turbine could halt the Fellowship indefinitely while players make their way to experience the locations described in the Hobbit.
It makes perfect sense that Turbine would want to capitalize on the probability that legions of theater goers who just saw the Hobbit movie and are hungry for more, would want to experience the events of the Hobbit themselves and possibly subscribe to LOTRO.
So how could Turbine achieve this?
The main problem with integrating content from the Hobbit book/movie is that the time-line is out of whack as it takes place many years before the events of the Lord of the Rings. By the time Frodo and Sam have left their beloved Shire, the main events and some characters from the Hobbit are long past. For example, Smaug the dragon has long been dead and the Battle of the Five Armies is just a bed time story for young hobbits.
Solution 1: A Stroll Down Memory Lane
Turbine could have players make a detour to the north east region of Middle-earth and have players experience the lands of the Hobbit as they are now instead of as they were. While this would be more respectful of the actual chronology of Middle-earth it would end up being dull unless some *new* evil has arisen there (the oldest fantasy plot trick in the book).
The problem is players fresh from the movie theater might feel betrayed if there is no Smaug to fight or Battle of the Five Armies at the Lonely Mountain.
Solution 2: Using the Ghost Device
Another favorite trick is resurrecting villains by using the ghost trick. Have Smaug and the orcs as well as the various armies come back as ghosts haunting the areas they used to inhabit. Tolkien himself used this contrivance with the undead “oath-breakers” in the Lord of the Rings chapter where Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas braved the Paths of the Dead.
While this could be done it would lack the immediacy and authenticity of experiencing the actual events as per Solution One.
Solution 3: The Time Machine
Turbine’s MMO competitor Blizzard has used a clever mechanic to let players experience content that transpired before the start of the events of World of Warcraft by devising a place called the Caverns of Time where various portals exist that let players travel back in time to relive important events. This is basically a MMO version of a time machine.
Turbine could do the same thing and let players experience all of the major events from both Hobbit movies by creating some form of cleverly disguised time machine. This would open up a lot of possibilities for the inclusion of some of Tolkien’s best content from the Silmarillion which is the precursor to the events in both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings — the only two books that Tolkien allowed to be licensed.
One potential problem would be to get this mechanic approved by Tolkien Enterprises. But given some of the things I’ve seen in LOTRO I think it wouldn’t be a problem.
One perplexing problem for fans of Middle-earth has been the fact that the Tolkien Estate run by Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien’s son) has thus far refused to license any of Tolkien’s works outside of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. By doing this they are preventing gamers and potential new readers from being exposed to the brilliant and sumptuous pre-history of Middle-earth. Another by product of this stubbornness is that they are depriving the various charities that the Tolkien Estate supports of the proceeds from the revenues from licensing these books.
Solution 4: Do Nothing
It’s quite possible that Turbine might consider both above options and decide to play it safe and do nothing. Given that Turbine is a business that is out to turn a profit I think this is highly unlikely.
Turbine released the Lord of the Rings Online back in April of 2007. By that time the initial buzz and euphoria that surrounded the release of the Peter Jackson movies released earlier in the decade had faded somewhat.
However, this time things are different and everything seems to be in perfect alignment for a major Tolkien resurgence in 2012. Turbine has the right MMO in place that can take advantage of this. They also have ample time to get their aging MMO shipshape with a new expansion and a state of the art face lift — if they are smart.
If Turbine decides to capitalize on the two upcoming Hobbit movies, it will doubtless prove to be a challenge to do this beloved story justice and present it to the gamer with the respect that it deserves.