Back in December 2020, the news that international video game conglomerate Enad Global 7 had purchased Daybreak Games sent shockwaves throughout the MMORPG community. Daybreak Games owned the EverQuest franchise and other games as well. After years of neglect by Daybreak and Sony Online Entertainment combined with the failed leadership of John Smedley, many MMO enthusiasts rightly thought that things were looking up.
Within the official slide presentation, there was another nugget of hope: it mentioned that The Lord of the Rings Online MMORPG (also owned by Daybreak) would be getting many improvements to capitalize on the upcoming release of Amazon’s Studios The Rings of Power TV series. From a business standpoint, it made a lot of sense for Enad Global 7 to reinvest back into LOTRO.
Back in 2020, Massively Overpowered reported the following:
Lord of the Rings Online might be coming to console. One investor slide specifically references “planning visual and technical updates for LOTRO for PC and nextgen consoles to capitalize on Amazon’s highly publicized large investment (~$500m) in LOTR TV series.” Even if this doesn’t happen, it’s a really good sign that LOTRO is in it for the long haul and won’t be letting the TV show go to waste.
This was exciting news that LOTRO (as it’s known to many fans) would be getting a visual overhaul. For 15 torturous years since its release in 2007, this MMORPG has suffered from subpar character graphics, clunky combat animations, a poor combat experience, an abysmal user interface, primitive ability icons, and dreadful item/inventory icons.
Not only that, the LOTRO user experience is absolutely terrible for people who experience visual impairment due to aging. In the past few years, I have tried many times to play LOTRO but every time I quit in disgust because I cannot see the icons clearly enough to know what they mean. This has been mentioned on the official LOTRO forums for years now but nothing has been done.
I can play most other MMORPGS like World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online and others without any eyestrain, why not The Lord of the Rings Online?
IF PLAYERS CAN’T SEE AND UNDERSTAND YOUR INTERFACE, HOW DO YOU EXPECT THEM TO PLAY?!?
Many boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials who grew up on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are a natural audience for LOTRO so it is inconceivable that those in charge of the LOTRO franchise have done nothing over 15 years to address this glaring problem.
This week I decided to see for myself if Enad Global 7 and CEO Ji Ham had kept their promises to update The Lord of the Rings Online. Here’s what happened:
The Uncanny Valley of the Dolls
I tried to log on, but it didn’t recognize my password. So, I had to get my password reset. I went to the account website and was greeted with the same outdated website. Nothing has changed at all, nor any effort been made to improve the onboarding experience.
To get an idea of the laughable graphics that still exist, here’s a loading screen with a misshapen female elf as a crafting station:
Why on earth did the art director at Standing Stones approve of such an amateurish abomination such as this?
When I finally got into the game’s character creation screen, I was greeted by same awful character avatars that looked like Data from Star Trek the Next Generation or porcelain dolls. The anatomy and bone structure of the avatars looked stiff and fake.
The so-called “new” avatars were not appreciably different or even better than the old ones. Here you can see for yourself:
Despite there being no appreciable changes to avatars, I skipped the tutorial and when right into the world of Middle-earth with a sense of anticipation. I was excited to see all the changes that Enad Global 7 had promised. I immediately noticed nothing had been updated at all, except perhaps a few enhancements to their cash shop interface. The interface was as ugly and outdated as ever.
The icons were still low resolution. The inventory icons were still tiny, not scalable and were still almost impossible to decipher without a magnifying glass.
LOTRO’s Embarrassing Ability Bloat
While not part of the new user experience, I wanted to mention this problem. LOTRO Class abilities are still incredibly bloated with scores of additional icons all over the place. It is an epic fail all the way.
Here’s a custom user interface I screenshotted from a Twitch user that shows the insane amount of abilities that a veteran player has access to:
Anyone up for a game of Mahjong?
PRO TIP: If your players have to create this kind of interface just to play your MMO effectively, you are an abject failure as a game designer and should immediately resign and find another career. I suggest panhandling or some form of janitorial work, possibly a caretaker at a publicly funded school.
No Community Interaction for Low Level Players?!? Are you Serious?
The camera still has an annoying inertia that continues to rotate in 3rd person mode after you stop moving with the A and D keys. There is no way to disable this.
To see if there was a fix for this, I tried to ask for help from the community but because I was level 1, I was not allowed to use any public chat channels. When I — a new player — needed help the most I was unable to get it. As a result, I felt alone and marginalized.
Why bother to show community chat channels if new players are not given the ability to participate and request help by asking questions?
Then I went to the Official LOTRO forums and was not allowed to post or reply:
Only a few minutes into LOTRO, I was twice prohibited from getting assistance from my fellow players. As is the case with other MMO properties like EverQuest, it is very clear that the people in charge of this MMO have not bothered to play the game themselves from the perspective of a new player.
The sense of community is a vital part of what constitutes a MMORPG and a fantasy virtual world. Right off the bat by imposing this baffling restriction on new players, they are demonstrating that they have no conception of this important and unique selling point of the virtual world experience.
Frustrated, I gave up and logged off. I wondered how many new players will feel the same way in the coming months coming from Amazon’s Rings of Power looking to be a part of Middle-earth?
What I experienced last night, might be very similar to how a new player that is excited about being a part of Middle-earth after watching Amazon Studios Rings of Power TV series will experience.
Graphical Update for Lord of the Rings Online: A Big Nothing Burger
I am saddened to report that after 21 months after Enad Global 7’s announcement, little has changed about Standing Stones Studios’ The Lord of the Rings Online. Despite a new avatar checkbox which made little difference in the art quality and a full gear preview new character preview like World of Warcraft, not one ounce of effort has been put into updating the animations, the user interface, the ability icons, the inventory icons, and the account website to get it ready to onboard many new players that might want to play in The Lord of the Rings Online.
EG7 is not prepared. Daybreak Games is not prepared. Standing Stone Games is not prepared. The developers are not prepared.
Instead, all we are getting to coincide with Amazon Studio’s Rings of Power release, is a new mini-expansion called Before the Shadow:
As of the publishing of this article, there is no release date for this mini-expansion. This is yet another avoidable self-inflicted wound from EG7.
To the various developers in positions of authority that have been working on LOTRO all this time, you had 15 years to address these issues. But you did not, and you failed. You are either lazy, incompetent, lack the passion or have any permutation of the three.
One Bright Spot: The Promotional Graphics
One area that LOTRO excels in is their promotional graphics. They have managed to hire artists that convey the feeling of Middle-earth ones gets from reading the books and watching Peter Jackson’s excellent films.
The only drawback is that when players get into the game, the avatars and creatures do not live up to the hype created by the promotional artwork.
This article is not about LOTRO in general, rather it is about the new player experience in 2022 on the cusp of the debut of Amazon Studio’s $1 billion series: The Rings of Power. Full disclosure: when LOTRO was released in 2007 when I was younger and had better eyesight, I managed to make it to level 20 and then lost interest.
While there are many good and even great things about Lord of the Rings Online, none of them matter if you can’t hook the new player in the first 15 minutes. When I was in the AAA video game industry, most competent designers understood that you have only 15 minutes to impress a player. Today, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet which has given the average person a shorter attention span, that number is almost assuredly lower.
The designers of World of Warcraft knew this and polished the hell out of all the newbie zones before releasing it in 2004 and the rest is history. Of course, LOTRO is not WoW, but the principles of putting your best foot forward and delivering the most polished experience possible is the same.
Today’s player is going to expect a smooth and frictionless onboarding experience. Everything must be perfect. That is the baseline expectation for today’s gamers. In contrast, the LOTRO play experience for me is dated and betrayed by an ugly, cumbersome, and unfriendly user interface.
No matter what product or service you provide to consumers, you absolutely must reinvest a significant percentage of your profits back into your company and into your brand. Typical targets of reinvestment are talent acquisition, bricks & mortar, server infrastructure, marketing & promotion, research & development just to name a few. Failure to do this adequately will result in your brand losing its competitive edge and your long-term profits will dwindle.
While I strongly disagree with much of what Blizzard does today, at least they had good business sense to constantly reinvest in their flagship game World of Warcraft. Instead of skimming off the top and running away with the profits, they refined their engine, their tools, and their graphics with small incremental changes.
Enad Global 7 is a prime example of a company that does not believe in the time-tested business principle of reinvesting profits back into a business. Instead, it takes advantage of loyal players, milks its intellectual properties dry, and then moves on to acquire more properties. Rinse and repeat.
Given the current state of this MMORPG, it is my opinion that Enad Global 7 misled the LOTRO community about updating their 15-year-old MMO. They did not follow through on their promises and betrayed both the players and their shareholders. Whether you like Rings of Power or not, it makes sense to have the very best version of LOTRO possible to capitalize on Amazon’s new TV series.
There is simply no excuse for this. Ultimately, the buck stops with Enad Global 7’s CEO Ji Ham who obviously hasn’t a clue about video games or running a video game studio. His failure to reinvest, actualize, and promote the EverQuest franchise is ample proof of this. The jig is up as Ham’s lack of experience in creating video games is finally catching up to him. Just as owning a Rembrandt painting does not mean you know anything about art or are a talented artist, simply owning a video game studio is not an achievement nor does it constitute legitimate video game experience. My grandparents owned IBM stock and had no real clue what IBM did nor were they capable of running IBM.
Conversely, creating and growing a franchise from nothing to international prominence is a spectacular achievement. That kind of accomplishment is something that EG7 knows nothing about.
When the next Enad Global 7 quarterly shows that LOTRO has no appreciable increase in revenues, Ham will have a lot of explaining to do to the board of directors and the shareholders.
Right now, EG7 is the only company in the world that offers players a chance to inhabit a virtual Middle-earth to experience the magic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy world which is beloved by countless millions of people all over the world. Sadly, because of their incompetence and indifference, they have squandered this very rare opportunity.
I hope that Embracer — the new owners of the Lord of the Rings IP — will recognize that Enad Global 7 is unfit to be involved in any way, shape, or form with the Lord of the Rings universe and immediately terminate their rights and award them to a serious MMORPG studio that will do the franchise justice.
Ii might not do anything, but nobody did before either. Standing Stones create excellent new areas, character models were already a decade ago the weak point, as well as interface and combat flow.
The game still has an even very active community, but indeed top heavy and starting LOTRO anew nowadays, well, one must overcome quite some limitations. With a 4k monitor upscaling the UI is mandatory and the result quite crude.
There is still a lot of content, but Standing Stones don’t have the resources and neither did Daybreak or any other company that bought the game.
What was the name of the guy again, Robin something. He started the engine overhaul rumor just to raise stock.
There is no LOTR/Tolkien game on the horizon. Amazon cancelled theirs and the Tolkien estate prevents others from doing so.
Enad makes the most cash by running LOTRO with minimal investment. There seems to be no way to revamp the game without major investment. Their model isn’t to make old games great again or to risk money. They might already be trying to sell it high to people who think they can do.