For a change of pace from my usual obsessive critiquing of Blizzard’s WoW, I’ve decided to jot down my some of my opinions on another relatively popular MMO: Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online. This is one virtual world that I have been following for years and I always hoped that a worthy company would come along and do justice to Tolkien’s world. So much of what we see today in popular fantasy literature and in many video games — especially MMO’s — is derived from Tolkien’s colossal and ground breaking books. He literally invented the first paper virtual world complete with unique races, languages, stories, cosmology and lore. So it goes without saying that many have been awaiting a MMO version of Middle-earth.
I participated in the LOTRO beta and played for a month or so after the game went live. At the time I was very busy with work so I didn’t have the time to devote to the game that I wanted. I’ve never properly reviewed LOTRO because I felt it would not be fair as I had not put enough time into the game and seen any of the content above level 20. Well my highest character again is still only level 20 and I have put my LOTRO career on hiatus while I wait for my new computer to arrive. Yes, I realize I have only seen a fraction of what the game offers so consequently my observations are of the newbie experience from levels 1 to 20.
Here are a few general impressions of LOTRO that I’ve broken down into a few themes:
A Job Well Done!
Doing justice to Tolkien’s Middle-earth is no easy task. Turbine has lovingly crafted a respectful version of Tolkien’s world with Lord of the Rings Online. Despite having an older computer, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. The Shire alone is so well done and masterfully recreated that it should have received a special award from a video game society. There are also other areas that I’ve seen which have a very convincing spooky ambiance complete with threatening clouds as evidenced by the goblin camps of Midgewater Marshes. I am getting a new computer next week with a top of the line video card, so I can’t wait to see what the lands look like with the graphic settings turned up.
The art direction seems to be trying to emulate the realism of the quaint English countryside which is appropriate given the fact that Tolkien established that parts of Middle-earth used for LOTRO were inspired directly from England. The outdoors sense of space is non-compressed which is a contrast from the caricatured art and zone design of other MMO’s like EverQuest and WoW — this takes a while to get used to. Inside player accessible structures, the art direction and execution is top notch. The interior of homes and cottages are very warm and welcoming; beams of light come from the outside during the day. At night the homes and buildings of most structures emit a very warm and pleasing glow that is very conducive to generating that Tolkien feel one gets from the reading the books.
I found that the elvish lands (the starting area) to be a little flat and clinical — they just lacked the magical feeling for me. They reminded me more of a monastery then a living breathing town of elves. The structures of the dwarven lands too seem a bit austere and angular. Bree seems rather plain and grey. I think what’s missing is that there is not enough fantasy and warmth in the art. Another issue I have is the ruins that seem to dot the landscape: they keep using the same assets over and over again which can get a bit tedious. Turbine could do another pass at some of the outside structures and add some much needed polish.
A Steady Diet of Boars and Bears
One of the things that contributed to me leaving the game about a year ago was the impression that all I had to look forward to would be killing was boars and bears. Out curiosity I decided to make a trek to Rivendell in order to retrace Frodo’s steps. I also really wanted to see what Rivendell was like. Outside of a few trolls, I noticed that most of the creatures that I could see from the road were essentially boars and bears — just bigger versions with variances on the skins. That left me feeling very flat and uninspired. I said to myself: “is this all there is?” Killing the same creatures over and over again is a recipe for boredom.
Why was Turbine so conservative as to the small variety of creatures? In my mind this showed that Turbine was leery of straying from the established Tolkien Enterprises approved bestiary. I guess they didn’t want to anger the Tolkien purists. In LOTRO you really have a limited number of creature types to hunt: goblins, orcs, trolls, humanoids, undead and of course the animal kingdom. Other fantasy MMO’s like the EverQuest series and WoW seem to have a substantially greater number of creature types that one comes to expect from a fantasy MMO.
A Scarcity of Magic
The fact that there is very little magic practiced by the peoples of Middle-earth in Turbine’s LOTRO stands out like a sore thumb and is one my my biggest problems with this MMO. The absence of magic is the two ton elephant in the room. It’s swords without the sorcery; might without the magic. It’s like replacing Harry Potter’s spells and wands with sticks and stones. Even the melee and non-melee classes have a very restrained feel to them with regard to their lack of magic. I think this is a critical mistake in a fantasy based MMO to err on the side of less magic.
I’ve always regarded Tolkien’s Middle-earth to be a magical world. I remember when I first started listening to Led Zeppelin. Their song Ramble On which is certainly one of the best homages to LotR in popular music really made me want to read the books. The haunting lyrics of that song seemed to evoke the sense of wanderlust and destiny that was to be Frodo’s fate:
Mine’s a tale that cant be told,
My freedom I hold dear;
How years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air
That last line: “when magic filled the air” seemed to define the feeling I got when I read Lord of the Rings. I think it would be fair to say that most people including Zeppelin’s Robert Plant believed Tolkien’s Middle-earth to be magical. So it’s a bit perplexing as to why Turbine has chosen a rather timid and non-magical path for their MMO that from the perspective of a MMO enthusiast used to Ultima Online, EverQuest and WoW feels very spartan and limiting.
Turbine could have created classes with more magical abilities and still have been in concert with Tolkien’s lore. Here’s a line from the wizard Gandalf that reveals that there was plenty of magic in Middle-earth:
‘I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs, that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind.’
Gandalf from The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, page 400
The lore certainly justifies the use of magic as Gandalf himself claims to know at least 200 spells off the top of his head without resorting to looking them up in a spell book. This suggests that there are probably thousands of spells — both good and bad that are possible and could have been used to create a robust magical system in Middle-earth. Just because Tolkien didn’t include a fully fleshed out spell book in the appendices doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have existed.
The issue I have with Turbine is their lack of consistency with the use of magic. For example they have given the hunter class access to single and group teleportation spells. I don’t recall ever seeing any basis for this in the Tolkien books. Also instant teleportation to and from some epic quests is also provided to the player which is also not supported by the lore. It seems that Turbine likes magic when it’s convenient to them.
To their credit, Turbine is introducing a new magic based class in their first expansion Mines of Moria. Hopefully this will inject a bit more variety in a primarily melee based combat system that is the bread and butter of this MMO.
The Challenges of Dealing with a Popular IP
Deciding how much to involve the player in the story arc was probably a very daunting task for Turbine. Of course most people who are drawn to a virtual Middle-earth naturally expect to interact with some of the major figures like Bilbo, Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo. Too much interaction and participation would cause problems with hardcore Tolkien fans and Tolkien Enterprises — the stewards of the lore. Not enough interaction with the major players weakens one of the biggest draws of playing in Tolkien’s universe. The result is Turbine is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Any IP based MMO will face this kind of problem to be sure.
I enjoyed the epic quest line that punctuates LOTRO but I felt like more of a spectator then someone directly involved. Of course I have only reached level 20 and I’m not sure how the quest lines play out after that. I believe the challenge for Turbine is to give players the feeling that they can create their own stories in Middle-earth yet feel linked to the grand story of the trilogy. It seems to me that there is a lack of cohesion between the big story arc and the average “kill more boars” play experience of the average player. More needs to be done to put the lands of Middle-earth into the chaos and uncertainty of the prewar conditions that existed as Frodo and the hobbits made their way to Bree and Rivendell.
A Lack of Fear In the Air
One of the things that I felt about the books was that there was a foreboding shadow creeping over Middle-earth. You really don’t get this feeling at all when playing LOTRO. The idea that traveling on roads was very dangerous was a big part of the books and characterized the mindset of the Frodo and his companions. The roads in the MMO just feel too safe and you rarely meet any NPC’s at all and if you are lucky you’ll see a player racing on to the next quest.
Black Riders and other servants of Sauron should be showing up on random roads in LOTRO at least at night; it would keep players on their toes and create a sense of eerie foreboding that should be plaguing the lands in Ered Luin, The Shire and Bree. Of course they couldn’t be killed in the traditional sense but they could be temporarily defeated like they were by Glorfindel as he summoned the spirits of the Loudwater River to swallow them up in book one.
The night time world of LOTRO seems safe and unimposing when it should be full of terror and fear. During the chill of the night Boars and other mundane creatures should be replaced by undead creatures under the influence of the “Shadow to the east”. Even in a major town like Bree, the night life seems to be a letdown. Nothing seems to change with NPC’s at night — they still go about their daily tasks seemingly unware that they should be snug in their beds sleeping. My suggestion would be to make it full of pickpockets, brawling drunks, cutthroats, thieves and courtesans. After all Bree was supposed to be a rundown, seedy, untrustworthy city full of mystery, duplicity and intrigue. Is it too much to ask from a major MMO developer to have cities that transform at night?
A World That Feels Rather Empty
Not once in my travels have I seen a party of elves traveling the roads on their way to the Grey Havens. There is a party of elves surrounding a campfire on the road from Bree to Buckland but sadly you can’t interact with them. The exodus of the elves to the ships at the Grey Havens was often mentioned in the books. There’s a scene in the extended version of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring that shows a group of male and female elves walking through the forest — some on horses, some on foot, some with lanterns. Why haven’t these kinds of NPC patrols been implemented in LOTRO?
Players should also be encountering groups of dwarves on their way to mining operations and out scouting the roads. There just aren’t enough guards patrolling the roads around the towns and cities of Middle-earth which is a shame. Also there should be a steady stream of refugees from the south entering into the northern lands whispering tales of war.
Part of what makes the world feel empty is that most creatures out in the wild aren’t as animated as in other MMO’s. They move very little and appear to be little more then fixtures. This gives one the feeling that there is not much going on. I recall NPC’s in Asheron’s Call 1 and 2 were like this.
Another issue that contributes to the feeling of emptiness is the fact that you never hear any NPC’s doing any zone wide shouting or yelling. One nice thing about WoW and EQ before it was that often you’d go into towns and outside zones and hear NPC’s shouting about important events such as historical battles or special achievements made by players. In order to hear NPC’s talk you have to be very close. And yes to their credit there’s some really interesting conversation and comments coming from many of the NPC’s. But the feeling for me is one of timidity and understatement instead of excitement and engagement.
LOTRO has many things going for it that would take volumes to praise: the best fantasy IP in history, rich lore, faithful re-creation of Middle-earth, a deep crafting system, many outlets and activities for role-players, a deed and trait system. For the first time we have the ability for players to play music in an MMO which is very refreshing! Turbine really has been amazing with all of their free updates called “books” I (called “patches” by Blizzard). Despite being live for only a year player housing has already been introduced as a free update (hello Blizzard?). Also each player feels like they are part of the epic storyline of Frodo, Gandalf and Aragon with the epic quest line. Even the normal quests despite their mechanics copied from Blizzard’s WoW are quite thoughtful and original at times. Most importantly LOTRO has been a welcoming magnet for some really nice people — many who are refugees from WoW seeking a more mature, kinder MMO community.
If I were to make one general final observation on what could be done to improve LOTRO I would urge Turbine to focus a bit more on polishing their newbie areas and core game mechanics. Some of the classes could use a refinement makeover with less complexity and more exciting skills. Animations of players and combat could be improved as well.
Turbine has made many great achievements with LOTRO. It’s certainly a fun and worthwhile counterpoint to what Blizzard is offering with WoW. I heartily recommend this offering to anyone who wants a breath of fresh MMO air.
Good comments, and I especially took note of the “magic in the air” concept. For some reason, it made me think of the Dragon Knight novels. The way magic is described in those books would make for some fascinating gameplay in a world based on them.
The idea of a living world is a good one, too. I do have to wonder, though… do designers just not think of these things, or are there technical hurdles and/or dev time vs. payoff balance concerns keeping them from happening? Having worked in the industry, I suspect it’s a bit of both, and even as I dislike ignorance or laziness in design, I can understand the very real production and technical limitations that come up.
…I think that the reason I’ve not played LOTRO is because I don’t want the “magic” to be ruined in my happy little mind. (Beside my pervasive anti-subscription bias, that is.) I have very high hopes indeed for the game, and I’m not yet ready to have those dashed. It’s not fair to the devs, no, but as noted, that’s the danger of using an existing and beloved IP.
I think that part of the problem is that features and content that adds flavor to MMO’s are at the bottom of their list of priorities. WoW was the first MMO to include small critters that exist only to provide flavour but that’s the magic of WoW. You see an attention to detail that suggests if they care about including the small things then the big things will be that much better.
For example in Westfall in WoW there’s a farmer with some chickens running around. Every so often a wolf will come in and kill the chickens. That’s the kind of polish and attention to detail that I really appreciate.
Another good thing about WoW is that you see children everywhere. They are laughing, joking and teasing each other with various emotes and speech. It really makes for a living breathing world. For some reason in most MMO’s there are no children — it’s like the pied piper of Hamlin has stolen them all. You will notice too that there are no children in LOTRO.
The typical person working in the industry is in his 20’s so I’m not sure if most of them are into the small detail elements that I immediately notice. I do believe that it is the sum of those small things that lend a certain sense of magic and personality to a good MMO. They are intangible on their own but they are very critical in getting players to buy into the setting and backstory.
Good MMO design is creating things that are not noticed by the average player. Andrew Rollings in his design books calls it “harmony”.
I agree with you about not wanting to spoil your mind’s idea of Middle-earth. I felt exactly the same way. I like you was apprehensive about entering Turbine’s world because I felt that it could never really live up the the version I had in my head after reading the books. I also felt some trepidation about going to see Peter Jackson’s movies too. Thankfully he did a great job with the movies notwithstanding some of the small changes to the plot.
Tangentially, the concept of “holistic” or “living world” design is why I recommend that anyone interested in the game industry get at least a full Bachelor’s degree at a “traditional” college. The resulting exposure to a wider base of knowledge (than that of a trade school like Full Sail) makes for better game design, precisely because people are better equipped to think things out, rather than merely be good little worker cogs (who get replaced with the next year’s model). The abilities to think through ramifications, combine disparate elements in new ways, and build things logically are vital to creating any truly compelling world.
It’s also better for the individual if they diversify their talents; they are not only more valuable to a game company, but they can shift to a new industry if needed.
I agree with you Tesh. Most of the artists and designers that fill the entry positions from the video game industry are from schools like Digipen. Of course programmers come in with a typical university degree in computer science. Both artists and programmers are usually given task oriented jobs when working on a project. It’s the designer that puts all of the art and programming assets into play. Both art and coding serve the aims and goals of the designer — not the other way around.
However, to be a good or even great game designer you need to be a Renaissance Man. Game design requires a lot of time spend thinking and analyzing about how the player will react to the things they will encounter in your game. You also need a lot of life experience and have a keen sense of aesthetics. You need to really believe in what you are doing to the point of being an evangelist and a philosopher.
Therefore it’s very rare to see kids just fresh out of game college with this kind of maturity. Many of the kids who graduate are great video game players and enthusiasts. Yet most of them have very little experience with life and don’t have a fully developed mind that one would have in their 30’s and 40’s.
Much of the polish that made WoW so popular was that they focused on many of those seemingly insignificant details. I believe those things were the result of mature designers rather then kids fresh out of school. Actually there’s a new interview at PC Gamer with Rob Pardo where he talks about interns and Blizzard’s affiliation with a college.
Part of Blizzard’s success is that they spend inordinate amounts of time and resources on “getting it right”. This is why I enjoy reading interviews with Rob Pardo. He really puts a lot of thought into the projects he is working on. Blizzard really is a remarkable anomaly in the video game business.
Boars and Bears. Many a player has gotten stumped and quit over this one. Yet, how many zones in WoW use bigger, re-skinned wolves, boars, murlocs, etc.?
Anyone coming from another MMO and expecting identical design is going to be a little put-off. WoW, for instance, gave us all of Azeroth and said “plop! Here it is!” Alliance vs. Horde, blah blah, it was all there. Turbine, on the other hand, has only given us Eriador. More to the point, they’re developing Middle Earth chronologically, following the journey of the Fellowship. In the current timeline, very few people knew Sauron was on the march and war was coming. So most of Eriador is more happy-go-lucky right now, especially evidenced in the Shire, which fits the overall attitude of Hobbits. The price for that decision is that the majority of our adventuring in this timeline is playing the role of “pest control” thinning the wildlife, with only occasional encounters with brigands, dourhands, or Sauron’s minions.
Magic? I dunno, Tolkien’s world was always quite low-fantasy. It does have elves and dwarves, etc. so Conan is even lower-fantasy, but LOTR was never the high-fantasy, spells blazing in the sky setting that something like Forgotten Realms, or even Norrath and Azeroth would be. Many Tolkien fan(atics) were upset at how much magic Turbine did include. I’m no Tolkien lore-nerd, but just from re-watching the movies, Gandalf and Galadriel seemed to be the only two using any magic whatsoever, and that was extremely rarely. Gandalf mostly jumped into melee with his sword and staff, something you’d never see a WoW mage do. I’m perfectly fine with the level in the game right now, and even the expanations for some “spells” not even being magic at all, such as the Lore-master skill “Burning Embers” which serves the game function of being a DoT fireball, but is explained as being a chemical mixture set afire, and the animations also show that, rather than casting a spell. However, in the expansion, Turbine is releasing the first fully magic-using class, the Rune-keeper, so we’ll see how that pans out both class- and grouping-wise and with the lore-nerds.
Lack of Fear in the air. Again, I’ll first point to the whole timeline design philosophy Turbine is using. However, what I do notice is that as I gradually travel closer and closer to the Misty Mountains and nearer to Sauron, the ambient mood of each zone begins to decrease. Not only graphically, but audibly; the soundtrack accompanies the overall look of the zone and gradually becomes more somber. Discovering Rivendell is almost a shock when the music switches to a gorgeous and uplifting mood reflecting the beauty and serenity of the elves who call Rivendell their home.
I hear many complaints about animations too. I must not be seeing them; I find the animations quite smooth, but Turbine keeps sneaking new (or changed, they’ve changed the female elf jump animation twice now and I prefer the original) animations with each update. What I will complain about is that the engine doesn’t load the animation sequence (and it’s accompanying effects) until you actually use it, so the first time enter combat and the first time you use each special skill you’ll have major hitching as the data is loaded. The same occurs when a player appears on-screen who’s wearing armor, etc. you haven’t seen that session, so it has to be loaded. New world textures, models, etc. also cause hitching. I’ll often login and just fine a stupid lowbie mob and fire off my skills on it just so the animations are loaded so I don’t hitch when I get into “real” combat later. Once the animations are loaded, however, I find them to be quite smooth.
More exciting skills. Hmm. I could first mention again “low-fantasy” so I really don’t think my Lore-master would be appropriate if she was flipping through the air in bullet-time with purple beams of eldritch magic devastating Sauron’s army. Sounds cool, but just doesn’t fit the world. I just think of it in terms of solo vs. grouping. Soloing is “okay” in every MMO. It’s not quite all the way up the scale to “fun” and soloing is nowhere near “exciting” but it’s “entertaining” enough. The same with skills. Soloing you only use a handful of skills over and over; they’re “entertaining.” Get in a group and suddenly more is happening and you get to use more skills and the overall experience elevates to “fun” and often “exciting.” This is where I think Turbine really hit the nail on the head: more so than any other MMO I’ve played, LOTRO’s classes have such an incredibly synergy.
I just began playing LOTRO again after participating in the beta. I ultimately went back to WoW, but now am near the end and saying goodbye to WoW. I have so far enjoyed the game experience in LOTRO, the graphics especially are much better than anything Blizzard has shown me so far. I really like the beginning sequence for humans/hobbits, the mini instance with the town burning is a nice touch. In WoW, you start by getting quests to kill…..wolves, bear, and boars.
I am enjoying it so far, and it will probably be my new mmo in the next few weeks or so.