The Road to Mordor: When storm clouds gather...

LOTRO
When I think about the news swirling around Lord of the Rings Online lately, I feel a bit like Sam and Frodo getting their first glimpse of Mordor and Mount Doom. It's hard to think of cheer and happiniess when the view is full of heavy clouds and ash.

I have several positive articles that I'd rather be penning this week, but I think it would be a mistake to avoid the questions and feelings that all LotRO players are experiencing right now, including me. It may not be the journey that I'd like to be taking, but it's the one that's needed right now.

So let's sit down together, fill our tankards, and mull over just what's going on with our Middle-earth. Maybe in the talking and in the company we will find the solace and comfort that we need.

The quiet tragedies

One of the things that I hate the very most about layoffs at game studios is just how little information we're given as to what really happened. Apart from dry corporate statements, everyone else is usually hushed up due to either wanting to keep the job they have or the severance they were promised. So let's start here: While we do know that Turbine had layoffs, that they weren't trivial, that it was Warner Bros' call, and that a few of those let go have at least let us know about it, those are the only facts we have.

What we're left with are a lot of questions, and what makes me feel the worst is that I can't help wondering, "How will this impact me and the game I like?" Considering that people just lost their jobs after perhaps years of working very hard to make LotRO, I am ashamed to be so self-centered. So of course my heart goes out to those who now have to fish around for employment after being dumped unceremoniously from the team.

So if you're one of those who were affected by the layoffs and are, for whatever reason, reading this, then thank you. Thanks for helping to make a great game, and know that we appreciate your work in it. I hope that the knowledge that we'll go on appreciating that work will make them smile.

But it's not unreasonable to ask those questions after being appropriately empathetic to those hardest hit because we all have a vested interest in this game. We love this world, have spent countless hours journeying through it with our characters, and want to see those adventures continue for a long while yet. MMO players crave stability and assurance of future development, which is why we get very, very skittish when stuff like this happens. We start seeing portents of doom everywhere, and just at the time when the faithful are quiet in contemplation, then the haters show up to crow victory (over what, fun?).

Shifting gears

The layoffs come on top of the producer's letter from a month ago that informed us that we would be seeing not an expansion in 2014, but a more measured release of quarterly content. While I saw a lot of folks react just fine to the latter, with the layoffs now there are plenty who are quick to make connections between the two. Did Turbine know that the layoffs were coming? Was the last expansion so financially unprofitable that a paradigm change was needed? Is it just coincidence?

As a friend tweeted me this past week, "I think LotRO is officially shifting into maintenance mode."

And there it is, the big fear. It's pretty foolish to assume that LotRO is just days away from being canned, so the next worst thing would be for the growth of the world and its storyline to shrink or stop entirely. That the glory days of hefty expansion releases and a huge population are forever behind us, and all we have to look forward to is what we've seen in older MMOs where development just peters out and the loyal slowly drift away.

I don't agree that this is the case because as I responded, when we get bad news, we are very quick to jump to conclusions and predict the worst. But I'll be fair and say that it's a genuine fear that many of us have. LotRO isn't just another MMO; there's something special here that requires constant growth and progress. Yes, I'd rather have a frozen-in-time version of the game than no game at all, but it wouldn't be what we've grown accustomed to experiencing.

What I really would like to see, more than anything, is the leadership at Turbine to come out and, well, lead. Lead by reassuring its community (or at the very least, its customers) that there's a future here, explaining how they're going to proceed, and sharing in collective mourning. Even a few words of praise for those who worked on the game and have now departed would be welcome. I don't have high hopes for that, however.

Choosing hope

So here's where I am: I choose to hope, and I'll tell you why. Firstly, if and when LotRO ever closes up shop, I'll be sad, but I'll also move on. There are more worlds than these, and I will have accumulated great memories from this one. I'm not going to spend whatever days I have in this game worried about its future. I'm just going to enjoy it.

Secondly, while we can't see the future, we do know that Turbine has weathered layoffs before and kept on ticking. Most studios have, in fact. It's sad, but it's also part of how the industry rolls.

Thirdly, I'm going to trust that the remaining team will make good on the promise to deliver the promised content this year, including Update 13's revamped zones and the return to Isengard.

Fourthly, we shouldn't be quick to forget that LotRO's IP license was renewed through 2017. That's got to count for something, I reckon.

And finally, I choose to hope because that's what this game world and its community is all about. We're not the doom-and-gloom sort. We look to the best possible future, strive for the best possible virtues (in all senses of that term), and we root for the win because that's what you do when you love something.

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.