The Road to Mordor: Four more years, four more years!

While four years is not a nice round number -- or even a halfway number like five -- it's a substantial milestone for any MMORPG. Debuting in early 2007, Lord of the Rings Online introduced something we'd never seen before: a fully realized 3-D virtual Middle-earth where we could not only enjoy a deep MMO but explore the lands and meet the people we'd only read about before.

It might not be a universal truth that all LotRO players are big Tolkien fans, but I'm sure enough that it's a sizable chunk of the playerbase. There's something special about the IP that gives a weight and richness to the game, especially when a long-time reader of the books is given leave to actually go on adventures through Eriador, Moria and Mirkwood. It's a giant sight-seeing tour of lore, a thrill with every brush one has with the source material.

It's heady to consider that four years ago we were but starting on this journey, feeling out the mechanics of combat, crafting and pie-running. Four years later, LotRO has emerged to be one of the most significant MMOs of the past decade, growing strong with no signs of slowing down.

Hit the jump as we reminisce about the ups, the downs, and the off-the-beaten-path hikes of our beloved game as it celebrates its fourth anniversary.

Four years ago...

Back in 2007, when Massively was but a gleam in the eyes of ambitious bloggers, Turbine cut the ribbon to the doors of Middle-earth and ushered in a whole new generation of adventurers. At the time, World of Warcraft was already in a position of supreme dominance over the industry, and many voices wondered whether this apparent challenger could even hold its own as other titles struggled under the force of Blizzard's juggernaut.

It turned out that yes, LotRO could and did thrive. Even though it was labeled as a WoW-clone -- and I won't argue that Turbine didn't borrow many design elements from World of Warcraft -- the game had enough of its own unique flavor and focus to sail itself out of WoW's wake and into open waters.

LotRO's focus on a detailed, interconnected world caught the attention of many reviewers and players, as did its quirky twist on classes and storytelling. The epic storyline was hailed as a tremendous improvement in how MMOs delivered tales and remains a benchmark that many games today are striving to meet with their own upcoming story-focused gameplay.

Reviewers were overwhelmingly positive, and today the Metacritic score for LotRO is a respectable 86. Eurogamer raved that "it's absolutely no exaggeration to say that this is far and away the best game for anyone who hasn't played an MMOG before to cut their teeth on." Game Chronicles prognosticated a bright future that's come to be: "Like the book it was based on, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar is poised to become an enduring classic in its own right."

The combination of Turbine players -- many of whom emigrated from Dungeons and Dragons Online and Asheron's Call -- and Lord of the Rings fans created one of the most mature and welcoming communities.

While we take many of LotRO's features for granted today, back in 2007 they were startlingly fresh and original. Players loved the deed system, and the ability to create and perform in-game music with a variety of instruments is one of those systems that you can't understand other games not copying.

Four years later...

After four years, all MMOs begin to show their age. The question is whether they age well. For example, is the dev team merely maintaining the game and pumping out more of the same, or are the devs challenging themselves to try new things, push the limits of what the technology can do, and to keep the game competitive in an increasingly busy field?

I'd like to think that Turbine's done this just fine. Sure, the studio isn't without its controversy and stumbling points. We all wish that content would come faster. Radiance and legendary item lottos left a sour taste in plenty of mouths. The Warner Bros. acquisition and free-to-play switch unsettled more than a few fans.

But all in all, the game has grown in size, scope and vision. We've experienced two full-fledged expansions, witnessed the development of many non-combat events such as the festivals, seen Turbine go back and refine lower-level zones, enjoyed two additional classes, and reveled in plenty of quality-of-life improvements such as the solofication of the epic storyline.

I've always loved how there's a little of something for everyone here. If you're a roleplayer, Turbine's given you many tools to tell your own story and feel more connected with the world. If you love fluffy activities like fishing and housing, nothing's getting in the way of experiencing an alternative to questing. And even though the game didn't lend itself well to PvP, Turbine worked hard to include a unique system that at least gave the option for head-to-head clashes. Soloers and groupers are equally catered to, with skirmishes and raids and scalable instances galore.

Sometimes it's hard not to gush. I think an anniversary is a good excuse to gush, don't you?

From the devs' mouths...

During my talk with Aaron Campbell and Adam Mersky the other day, I spent some time reminiscing about LotRO's four years with them. Both of them are celebrating five years with the company, which meant that they were right there with LotRO from its launch day onward. They were both proud that the game made it to this four-year point.

So in their opinion, what was their greatest accomplishment over the years? Quite frankly, they said that they were happiest with the fact that LotRO is still growing and evolving. They pointed out just how far the game's come during this period and how hard the team has worked to improve systems that were rough or even missing at launch.

As a company, Turbine's certainly dramatically different than it was four years ago. It's gone from being the largest independant MMO studio to being a part of the Warner Bros. empire, it's expanded its vision to work on other titles, and the team's nearly doubled in size to over 350 people today. Campbell and Mersky still tout Turbine's approach to a hybrid free-to-play/subscription model as one of the biggest revolutions to hit MMO business models in the past few years, although they freely admit that "ours isn't the only way to provide choice to players."

I asked them what their favorite Lord of the Rings geek moment was from their time working on the game. Campbell said that he'll never forget counting each individual step leading up into Moria, because it had to be the exact same number of stairs that was in the book.

As for Mersky, he regaled me with a time when he and Jeffrey Steefel went to Seoul, South Korea to demonstrate the game for the press. While talking with one reporter through an interpreter, the reporter pulled out a dog-eared copy of The Atlas of Middle-earth -- the "bible" for LotRO's world builders -- and started talking enthusiastically about the world. This surprised Mersky, because he didn't expect such love for Tolkien's works in the country. The interpreter struggled to find translations for all of these obscure Tolkien terms, but a connection was forged between the two fans.

So how is the LotRO team going to celebrate the fourth anniversary? "Bent over our desks building Isengard," Mersky laughed. "Maybe we'll break out a bottle during a break."

When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, 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.