The Lord of the Rings Online 2.0
“I’d love to see LOTRO reimagined in a new engine with a certain modernization of gameplay". So said Koshelkin, in a recent comment made over at the Massively Overpowered website. It’s a common sentiment that often expressed by the LOTRO community and I must admit, I have a similar curiosity. But the more I ponder this idea, the more I find myself thinking “be careful what you wish for”. Because LOTRO as it currently exists, embodies the MMO ethos of the time that spawned it. Long-term players love it because of its foibles. As I’ve mentioned before in previous blog posts many LOTRO players are not gamers per se and therefore have no exposure to modern MMOs along with contemporary game mechanics. Thus, if Standing Stone Games were to radically redesign their virtual Middle-earth to include action combat and a truly open world, they may find themselves alienating a great many current LOTRO players, who would be all at sea in a modern iteration of the game.
I recently revisited LOTRO to check out the new seasonal instance The Perfect Picnic. Penny the Pony trotted off in true LOTRO NPC fashion and made no effort to avoid the various mobs that plague The Shire during a summer heatwave. However, a decade of playing LOTRO has prepared me for such situations. As a seasoned Lore-master, I sent my pet ahead to occupy the oncoming threat, while I languidly went through my skills rotation. I tend to move in parallel with whoever or whatever I have to escort and seldom shift position while in combat. LOTRO being an older MMO does not support action combat and moving will stop your skill induction. Movement is thus limited to simply removing yourself from AoE effects and such like. It’s a tried and tested method and SSG have ensured that it doesn’t limit your combat experience. Just because fighting is static, it doesn’t mean it is devoid of nuance and tactic. However, many LOTRO players are totally conditioned to deal with this style. The fluid combat of The Elder Scrolls Online may not suit everyone or fit with their abilities as a player.
LOTRO is also very linear in its story structure and quest hubs. Since the game reached the regions of Dunland and Rohan, zones tend to funnel players from A to B very efficiently. It’s convenient but it is not very flexible if you want to do things “your way”. Stray too far ahead and you’ll either find yourself in a zone to high for your level or you’ll miss the start of the “breadcrumb” trail. Because there is no auto levelling beyond the Epic Battle system, it is not always safe to explore too far and no incentive to revisit lower level regions with friends. Again, bringing the narrative and regional freedom that we find in The Elder Scrolls Online, may well completely wrong foot traditional LOTRO players. I remember reading a thread on the Guild Wars 2 forums when the game first launched in 2012, by a player who felt completely lost as to what to do and where to go within the game. The open regional quests and timed events were also a stumbling block for some, who felt they lack direct instruction.
Another aspect of LOTRO that dates it, is its lack of voice acting. Yes, there is some but far less compared to other MMOs. Text boxes filled with written exposition that requires little user interaction are somewhat dull. Although the definition of an MMO has changed and continues to do so, we should not forget that they’re also a variant of the RPG genre. Hence it would be nice to see far more detailed voice acting, branching dialogue options and a greater variety of narrative outcomes. However, providing “choice” can cut both ways. Some players do not like too many options and can find such a mechanic a cause of stress. What happens if you make the “wrong” decision? This however, has been a dilemma of the MMO genre for a long time. It can apply to how you spend your skills points and what faction you join. Plus, voice acting also raises the additional spectre of lore and canon. Middle-earth is blessed with an especially hard lexicon. Most languages have a complex structure and there is plenty of scope for additional spoken dialogue to incur the wrath of the “pronunciation police”.
I think completely rebuilding LOTRO to embrace the best elements of the modern MMO genre would be a big and risky undertaking. I think that the finished product would not necessarily appeal to all current players and many would not make the transition to LOTRO 2.0 successfully. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and its sequel Shadow of War feature beautifully realised environments which hint at the visual potential of a new version of LOTRO. I would certainly like to see a new vision of Middle-earth more akin to the structure of The Elder Scrolls Online, as that game serves the needs of the solo player and the group well. But the cost and risk in developing such a project make it highly unlikely that such a game will come to pass. I think after a decade, the most we can honestly expect rom SSG is a revamp of the game engine, similar to that seen in STO a few years ago. It would also be nice to see a 64-bit client and an elimination of the lag and stuttering that plagues the game. Beyond that I think LOTRO 2.0 in the true sense, will just remain a talking point.