This month Lord of the Rings Online will be hitting its seventh anniversary. That's right: Seven years ago, LotRO opened the doors to Middle-earth in a way that we never had before. Some took cheap shots by calling it a World of Warcraft clone, but the less inflammatory and more intelligent in the crowd realized that there was something more to this MMO than a Hobbit-infested Azeroth.

We've had ups and downs in LotRO since 2007, but one continuing testimony that I see mentioned on a regular basis is how welcoming and wonderful it is to return to this game. There's something special -- almost magical -- about Turbine's version of Middle-earth that has entranced many players and continues to do so. Heck, in my very first Road to Mordor back in 2010 I tried to articulate why I felt that this game was set apart from the pack in significant ways.

Today we have much to discuss about the future of the game, but I want to start with one overriding factor that so much of the game connects to: its sense of cohesiveness. This is not a scattered playground full of discordant toys but a unified world with intricate bonds that we are still exploring.

Limitations and limitlessness

A discussion that we get into quite often in the Massively chat room is whether creativity flourishes better with unrestrained possibilities or within a set of limitations. I don't think it's a case of one or the other but of the person. Some people are very self-starting with creativity and don't want any borders hemming them in. Some people would freeze if you handed them blank paper and told them to get creative with it. I've observed again and again how a set of restrictions and limitations will actually serve to switch on a person's imagination and ingenuity, resulting in a wildly creative end product.

Even authors who have gotten past the need for such restricted creative exercises will still conjure up their own rules and guidelines for their fictional worlds -- and then proceed to operate within them. Limitations produce obstacles that demand inventive solutions. Rules provide consistency and cohesiveness.

J.R.R. Tolkein certainly approached Middle-earth this way, extensively creating his fictional world (derived from real-world inspiration) far before setting his famous stories in it. He was not a man who would just wing what happened; he went to great lengths to detail a long history of this world and its people.

That's why I've long said that the greatest assets that Turbine had when creating this game were the limitations that its IP demanded. As the game of the books, LotRO has only the flexibility to fill in the gaps and perhaps bend some of the lore slightly, but it may not contradict or rewrite it. In creating an MMO that slavishly strived to present a faithful interpretation of the books in a digital multiplayer format, it was wildly successful.

What was even better is that instead of creating a patchwork quilt of zany zones that looked ludicrous when seen together, LotRO ended up with a world that flowed naturally between areas, cultures, and sagas. I've witnessed and felt how this appeals to players on an almost subliminal level, as if the deeper parts of our mind can appreciate authenticity even while we're running around killing 10 shrews.

Happy birthday, LotRO!

Beornings in, housing out

I'd be remiss if I didn't spend some time talking about the recent producer's letter from Aaron Campbell.

Let's start with the big thorn in my otherwise excited paw, which is Turbine's decision to -- yet again -- renege on its promise of a housing revamp. I'm beyond tired of the studio yanking us around on this subject. It's completely understandable if reduced resources and a larger-than-expected revamp would make the devs think twice about this, but Turbine needs to stop giving us hope and then yanking it away as if we're Charlie Brown on the football field. Housing isn't the be-all, end-all of the game's features, but it is a sore spot among us who like living in this world. I am disappoint, devs. And I think I'm officially done ever hoping that we'll see any improvements to housing.

That aside, what about the new class? To virtually no one's surprise, it's Beorning. We didn't get a lot of information about it other than it's a shape-shifting light-armor caster with an emphasis on control. I'm not quite sure if I'm that thrilled about it or not; the class as a whole will need to be absolutely interesting in order to tempt me into doing the whole leveling game once again. I don't have a problem with the lore of it, and really, it's not as if there were a lot of IP-acceptable choices from which to choose.

Of more interest to me was the outline of the next five updates, and with that the path of our journey. Turbine's definitely speeding up the pace of our progression through the novels. We'll be exploring the Paths of the Dead, Dol Amroth, Dead Marshes, Pelargir, Osgiliath, Pelennor Fields, and Minas Tirath in 2014 and 2015. That feels like an expansion of content spread out, which looks to be Turbine's approach going forward. Maybe Mordor in 2016? It doesn't seem that far-fetched.

There are several other mentions of note, including a 10-level cap increase over the next couple of updates (which is fine, I guess, as long as we get cool new skills), some sort of kinship crafting system, tougher combat, chicken hockey, and more epic battles. Yes, Turbine is doubling-down on this feature even though the populace doesn't seem to be that thrilled with it. Campbell gives the reasoning that the team needs to finish projects that it starts and that the epic battle system is key to telling future stories, but my instinct is to groan at having to do more of these. Can't we just have more skirmishes instead?

I did like one comment that Campbell made in response to a concern that we were fast approaching the end of the books and, presumably, the game. "Coming to the 'end' of the story only gives us freedom to venture to other parts of the world. I don't see it as an end at all," he said. I agree with this; there are plenty of other parts of Middle-earth that I want to see before LotRO ever closes up shop.

While this letter is lacking in specifics, the overall view here is the promise of a busy year where we will be journeying far beyond anywhere our characters have gone before. That's awesome.

Next time on Road to Mordor, I'll be giving my report on Update 13. This will happen after I dig out my character buried under a metric ton of marks that showered on her the first minute she logged in after the patch.

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.