The Road to Mordor: The Codemasters conundrum

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." In light of recent events, we might turn that phrase to become, "Do not meddle in the affairs of players, for they are outspoken and very, very quick to anger."

I'm referring, of course, to the outright debacle that's been happening on the Lord of the Rings Online European front. While Turbine released LotRO's F2P version along with the latest patch a month ago in North America, Codemasters has yet to follow suit, citing numerous problems on its end.

When we first heard of the delay, I assumed it would be shortly resolved -- perhaps no more than a week or two at the most -- which is why I've mostly kept from discussing it in this column before now. Tech problems happen, there's always legal traps waiting, code can be glitchy, and regionalization is an ever-present obstacle. But at this point it feels as though the EU "Have-Nots" community has been under siege from lack of information and a frustrating view of the "Haves" across the pond.

When will it be their turn? Why didn't Codemasters see this coming? How is the EU team trying to mollify the community as the devs scramble to get this puppy to live? Let's take a journey, you and I, through the past month and into the near future. Don't mind the hobbits picketing the Shire -- I'm sure it'll all work out.
Storm clouds are gathering...

Last month when I was at PAX Prime, I sat down with the Turbine devs to talk about the (then) upcoming patch. I clearly recall asking them if it was a go on the European end as well, and they had no comment.

That raised a small red flag in my head.

To put my bias front and center, I've never been a huge fan of Codemasters. I feel that it's developed a reputation of being a subpar operator in the region, a kind of discount service center that fans have to turn to because they're nowhere near the real deal, particularly when it comes to LotRO. Time and again, we've seen the company lag behind Turbine in rolling out updates and delivering the type of customer support that players expected, which all seemed to reinforce the much-cited notion that EU players are second-class citizens in some MMO communities. The DDO community generally disliked Codemasters, especially when the NA side got the spiffy F2P changes while the EU was told to sit on it (that story has a happy ending, as Turbine took back control of DDO in Europe a short while ago).

Bias aside, what seems unforgivable in this situation isn't that Codemasters couldn't get the new patch ready to launch -- it was, after all, a humongous undertaking, and problems were always a possibility -- but that the company waited until a mere two days before F2P was going to drop worldwide to let fans know that, yeah, it wasn't going to happen. At least not for a while. Perhaps a long while.

This put a damper on everyone's parade. Obviously, the EU players had good reason to be upset (just check out this epic thread for a few choice phrases), but I know that many NA players felt bad enjoying a virtual feast knowing that their comrades-in-bytes weren't allowed access to what just became an exclusive club.

"Good heavens. It's a month ago since we heard the whole shebang was delayed. And we still haven't a clue about what the heck is going on." ~ LotRO EU player Harry H

So it's been a weird month, all things considered. After being given vague promises that Codemasters was working hard on the problem and the update would be coming "soonish," EU players were left in a bizarre limbo. And not the fun kind of limbo, where there's Caribbean music and someone throws his back out and everyone has shots of tequila, but the limbo of uncertainty, of waiting, of looking at the other side enjoying all the new goodies while the EU side had to feast on more of the same.

While some fans urged patience -- the LotRO community is oddly long on patience at times -- others raged inconsolably, and still others staged in-game protests. No matter how you look at this, Codemasters bungled both the responsibility to get the update running and the public relations after it failed to do so.

I've always said that when a company makes a big mistake, its top four priorities are:

  1. To take full responsibility and apologize.
  2. To work full-time to resolve the mistake.
  3. To communicate openly and honestly with customers as to what is being done.
  4. To compensate customers for the faulty product or service.
In this situation, Codemasters has done #1, presumably is doing #2, is half-heartedly picking at #3, and is going full-steam with #4. We've gotten an update from the company on a bi-weekly basis since the crisis started, which I find to be too infrequent for a situation of this magnitude.

What's worse is that from all I've read, these updates are the most frustrating type of non-specific PR-speak -- the type that says a lot without saying anything. I found Satine's post ironic when the CM says, "Many of you have asked for a detailed explanation as to why this has come to be and why there wasn't very much notice of the delay," and then fails to follow this statement up with a detailed explanation of any kind.

The truth is that we really don't know why this came about, why the delay was posted at the 11th hour, and what's really being fixed at the moment. One blogger even surmised that only legal entanglements could make the company this tightlipped. I guess Codemasters thought that if it threw out the words "complexities" and "challenges" to the crowd, then that would be enough. It seems obvious to me that the company's playbook is to throw as many free trinkets and distractions at the players so it will have to communicate the bare minimum during this period.

And it might be working.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Short of giving every EU player a free flying giant eagle mount (oh no, I haven't given up on my dream of that, don't you worry), Codemasters has pulled out the stops in compensation. Well, as long as that compensation didn't actually cost the company money, of course.

There have been welcome back weekends, live event encores, and even a contest in which players were asked to openly insult the company. Really, after that, what can you say? It's like Codemasters put a pre-emptive hit out on itself.

This is, of course, better than stony silence or a passive-aggressive arrogance on the part of the company, but it doesn't put the patch on the server, either. Some players may find that these efforts take some of the sting out of the delay, but others aren't going to be satisfied until it rolls out for real.

An end to this siege is inevitable -- Codemasters promised on September 24th that the update would go live within a "few weeks," although no date was specified. But still, does this wash over one of the greater missteps by any MMO company this year? I am a forgiving person, but that doesn't mean I'd be willing to extend my trust to Codemasters again if I were in Europe. Perhaps it is time for Turbine to take over EU operations from the company and put Europeans back on equal footing with North American gamers.

In the meanwhile, we wait as the situation grows ever more precarious.


When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.