Middle-Earth Online: A Proposal

Massively’s Justin Olivetti asked what a hypothetical Lord of the Rings Online 2 would look like.  Such a scenario has little to no possibility of happening, what with Turbine having the license for a few more years and no catalyst for a new game existing (unless Hollywood makes The Silmarillion or The New Shadow)…but we’ll still engage in this “what-if” exercise.  I’m in the camp of “wanting a new approach to the franchise entirely” and while my answers will not please everyone, they will be explained in such a way to justify them (hopefully).

What business model would it have that would be the most attractive to the community and most profitable?

In addition to a subscription model, we’ll consider payment models listed here.  Each choice (free-to-play, freemium, buy-to-play, hybrid, subscription) has its advantages and disadvantages…but the buy-to-play box model would be the most attractive and, if there’s a steady release of expansions, it could be the most profitable as well.  The Guild Wars 1 model is what we’re striving for here.  Paying $60 up front for a box and not having to worry about anything else would be the most alluring feature here.  In an ideal scenario, we’d stay away from cash shops but reality might force our hands.

Free-to-play and freemium would have the lowest entry barriers (i.e. easiest access to lots of players) but I don’t see them being profitable in the long run.  I’d also like to avoid the allegedly free game trope.  As someone who played Old Republic and felt like getting to level 30 was like getting teeth pulled, that’s exactly the sort of situation I’d want to avoid.  With a freemium game, we’d have to worry about dividing players into “premium” and “free” camps.  Those camps would eternally be at war with each other.  We want to keep our players on the same page as much as possible.

Would it be a sandbox, a themepark, or a sandpark MMO?

Sandpark, if only because I like elements from both themeparks and sandboxes while also disliking some of their components.

The sandbox’s biggest appeal can also be its biggest turnoff:  All that freedom available to the player can end up paralyzing them as they struggle to figure out what they want to do.  While sandboxes can have a lot of staying power in the MMO market (EVE Online is over 10 years old and Ultima Online’s been around since 1997), they lack the mainstream access a theme park variant will get.  Think of it this way:  A theme park will attract a lot of attention with its attractions but ultimately fall into disrepair or get supplanted by other theme parks, whereas a sandbox will last a lot longer but require a bit more upkeep (make your own fun vs. indulge in the fun the theme park supplies).

The main negative of a sandbox MMO is the kind of player-base it inevitably attracts.  I’d rather not see Middle-earth devolve into a mass griefing session.  Admittedly, such a scenario would have been appropriate giving the age the game I envision was going to be set in (see below).  One of the themes of The New Shadow (and, indeed, in all of Tolkien’s works) is that the race of Men have a quick satiety for good.  While a sandbox could be justified, people should be encouraged to play the game to have fun and not to get their time wasted by a griefer.

As for a theme park MMO, the very word “theme park” brings to mind a lot of negative associations.  For instance, to say this game would be the theme park version of Tolkien’s Legendarium would be akin to saying it’s been dumbed down.  The depth and complexity of the Middle-earth setting shouldn’t be simplified, it should be the main attraction.

While we’ll try to avoid the word “theme park”, there are several design elements I like from that brand of MMO.  The focus of combat against NPCs as opposed to other players should give the game a more friendly atmosphere.  I don’t mind the class-based system they provide nor the linearity of the quests.  A level-based landscape can serve as a handy guideline as to where players should (or shouldn’t) be and provide a nice sense of accomplishment when they return later and kick the shit out of whatever terrorized them at lower levels.

I’m not terribly attached to one model or the other, so we’ll combine them and hope this Frankstein’s monster MMO combination attracts enough people to play it.  If we really want to play up The New Shadow, a sandbox-style game could work.  Otherwise, we want a hybrid-model.

In which age or era would the game take place?

Fourth Age.  Specifically, the year 173.  172 is the last official date given in the books, the year when Findegil completes a copy of the Red Book of Westmarch.  I like to think of Tolkien’s Legendarium as a history of the world that’s been lost to time and using this site to date when the ages began/ended.  If we use that site’s date for the Great Flood, we have about 730+ years to play around with.

How faithful to the IP would it be? Would you sacrifice integrity to the source material for the sake of coolness, more options, or a different style?

As faithful as possible would be the stock answer anyone gives to this question.  We’ll see how faithful when addressing the next question…

How would you get around lore issues (such as the declining population of Elves, the subtlety of magic, and the rarity of Hobbits going past the boundaries of the Shire) that Turbine’s already addressed?

Let’s tackle these one by one.  The problem of the Elves can be solved by only making Silvan (W0od) Elves playable.  The Noldor eventually grow weary of Middle-earth and depart to Valinor via the Grey Havens.  The Sindar feel a similar inclination upon seeing the sea for the first time but not as strong (Legolas sees the sea for the first time in Return of the King and feels a desire to sail west to Valinor…but holds such a desire in for 120+ years).  The Silvan have no such baggage and they even have a colony in Ithilien.  While their starting areas would be limited, I see no issue with allowing Wood Elves to be playable.

Magic in Middle-earth may be subtle but that doesn’t mean it’s non-existent.  I’d use the E6 variant of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition as a guideline for flashy magic.  This would eliminate the flashy, not-so-subtle magic (i.e. no teleports, polymorphing into dragons, conjuring permanent walls of stone or force).  Under this variant, a fireball would still be possible but not so available that it could be spammed repeatedly.

The rarity of Hobbits can be addressed via the colonization of the Tower Hills and the popularity of Bilbo’s book.  The former expands the borders of The Shire and seeing the white towers could have awakened the adventuring lust Hobbits with Took blood have.  Bilbo’s book would have also exposed many Hobbits to Smeagol, who was once a halfling from east of the Misty Mountains before the Ring corrupted him into Gollum.  There’s enough justification here to allow players to be a Hobbit, if they really want to.

Would everyone be a member of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, or will the Enemy’s faction be represented as well?

Lord of the Rings Online already handles this pretty well.  Everyone’s on the same side in a PvE environment.  For PvP, everyone goes into a consensual PvP arena and either plays as their good character or as a monster.  One of the main themes throughout Tolkien’s work is that evil doesn’t create things, it just perverts them (Trolls are basically evil’s failed attempt to mimic Ents, etc.).  Allowing players to create their own orc seems a little counter-intuitive to that theme.  Ideally, players would be kept on the same side but if we’re in a sandbox, the opportunity should be allowed for people to create evil men.

How would this game offer enough of a new experience or better perspective than already exists in LotRO?

This game would offer a new experience and better perspective by not being limited to the War of the Ring!  Making a Lord of the Rings game based around the War of the Ring is the equivalent of making a World War II shooter.  Both are examples of games set in significant events that have been thoroughly explored and played with.  Let’s go somewhere where the player can be free of the shackles of canon and perhaps leave their own stamp on Middle-earth.

Would you want the game to hew more to the books or the movies?

Books.  The movies aren’t a terrible idea but they made Middle-earth look more like medieval Europe than it should have.

How would the game address the passage of time?

Time would be addressed over the course of expansions that would center around world-changing events.  I’d borrow Old Republic’s legacy system and expand it a bit.  Like, have the legacy actually be a genetic legacy.  If the expansion is set, say, 20 years after the base game…every player character would have the option of keeping the same guy but aging him a bit.  If they opt to remain young, he could keep the same look but be the son of the character generated from the first game.  Then, the middle-aged father could appear in the housing instance.

Is there an existing studio that you’d trust with this game, or would it need to be a completely new team?

I’d like to see what a new team could do with the IP.  If an existing team handles it, chances are we know what they’re capable of.

How could this game be successfully marketed to MMO players and the mainstream in such a way as to gather a healthy population?

The original Guild Wars is the blueprint we’d want to follow.  At its core, Guild Wars 1 was less of an MMO and more single-player game that you could play with friends.  It went on to sell 6.5 million copies and since no one really plagiarized it the way so many others followed World of Warcraft’s examples, there’s still quite a bit of material to draw from that creative well.  This is not to say we make Guild Wars:  Middle-earth but look at what made the original work and fix what didn’t.

What art style would be best? Realistic, stylized, or something else entirely?

Stylized.  Shooting for photo-realism will tax graphic cards and end up damaging the game later on as people cry for visual updates.  A stylized look similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us is what we want.  We’d want an art style that allows designers to play around with animations without falling into uncanny valley territory…but not manga-style art where the eyes are crazy huge (like Zelda:  Wind Waker).

Dwarf women?

LotRO’s current way of handling this is my favorite.  Every race has a male/female option at character creation…except the dwarf.


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