LOTRO
It's safe to say that I've been around the block a time or two in this column, and as such I've grown quite familiar with a few of the war chants that some players like to spout in every single comment section. Yes, the character visuals are off-putting and a travesty that should be investigated by the United Nations. Yes, Turbine is a sinister money-grubbing organization with no love for the game, only for your wallet. Oh, it's not enough to say it once; there's a comment quota to be had!

But the one that both makes me roll my eyes the most and makes me think a bit is the comment that states that the franchise should be given to some other studio to make, I dunno, Lord of the Rings Online II: Shire Reckoning.

It's an interesting thought exercise that I feel has very little possibility of ever happening. Turbine has the license for at least a few more years, and anything past that would require Warner Bros. and the Tolkien estate to be convinced that a Lord of the Rings MMO could be done better and made more profitable elsewhere. Wishful thinking is one thing, but practical reality is another. However, let's say for the sake of argument that the commenters got their way and Brandybuck Studios was commissioned to make a new MMO for Middle-earth. What would it look like?

The two camps

I think that if we really look at what people who say they want a new Lord of the Rings MMO, we're going to find opinions scattered all over the spectrum regarding what the game's focus, look, mechanics, and approach to lore. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I'd wager there are probably two primary camps here: people who would merely want a more updated LotRO (with better graphics, combat, and additional features) and people who would want a whole new approach to the franchise. These are two very different topics, so it's important to recognize that from the onset.

The "overhaul LotRO" camp is something I certainly understand. Any surviving MMO ages over time and loses that new car smell, the honeymoon period of forgiveness, the critical mass of favorable opinion, the high-water mark of population, and the developer dollars to expand it. With pretty much any MMO that's five years or older, you're going to see people call out for a visual update and for the devs to take ideas that are working in newer games and implement them here.

But a new veneer of wax and paint won't fundamentally change the game, nor would it really bring in (or back) the crowds that some people assume. The core game and world would be the same, so if you love it or hate it now, I can't see that really changing with more polygons and an action combat system. Plus, we hit the ugly wall of reality quickly here: If making the game look better were easy or cost-effective, Turbine would have done it. No studio wants its MMO to look long in the tooth. From what I've gathered, Turbine's been pushing the boundaries of what the game's code and art can do for a couple of expansions now. And for my money, it still looks really pretty.

The big questions

So let me ask you a series of questions that would need to be answered if this hypothetical Lord of the Rings Online 2 were to be made:
  • What business model would it have that would be the most attractive to the community and most profitable?
  • Would it be a sandbox, a themepark, or a sandpark MMO?
  • In which age or era would the game take place?
  • How faithful to the IP would it be? Would you sacrifice integrity to the source material for the sake of coolness, more options, or a different style?
  • How would you get around lore issues (such as the declining population of Elves, the subtlety of magic, and the rarity of Hobbits going past the boundaries of the Shire) that Turbine's already addressed?
  • Would everyone be a member of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, or will the Enemy's faction be represented as well?
  • How would this game offer enough of a new experience or better perspective than already exists in LotRO?
  • Would you want the game to hew more to the books or the movies?
  • How would the game address the passage of time?
  • Is there an existing studio that you'd trust with this game, or would it need to be a completely new team?
  • How could this game be successfully marketed to MMO players and the mainstream in such a way as to gather a healthy population?
  • What art style would be best? Realistic, stylized, or something else entirely?
  • Dwarf women?
What I want you to think about with these questions is not just the fun mental exercise of crafting your personal favorite Lord of the Rings MMO but how divided we all would be on the answers. LotRO is at the crux of two very opinionated, very fanatical communities that are not short on strong opinions. Whatever you choose for those questions, you'll be upsetting plenty of folks.

My idea

If it were up to me and a LotRO 2 had to be done, here's what I would do. The Fourth Age has plenty of drawbacks as a setting, and the movie/book era is really well-plundered, so I would choose to go back in time. The Second Age, with its original conflict with Sauron, is a good candidate, especially as it's largely undocumented. That way most of the races are still in play, there's a good threat over the world, and there's leeway for design decisions.

The game that I envision would definitely be a sandpark. The sandbox structure of the original Middle-Earth Online had a lot of problems and limited appeal, but sandboxy elements could go very far to making a more immersive world. The difficult journeys of the book and the tools and know-how used to survive them would be great aspects to adapt for an MMO.

For those of us who are more homebodies, a far more robust "life simulator" would be appreciated. If a studio could not only give us the opportunity to journey through Middle-earth but to actually live there, that could be a big selling point.

I'd want an emphasis on races and factions, not for traditional MMO reasons but to emphasize the relationships (good and bad) between these. Dwarves don't always trust Elves, so why put them on the same team? And yes, I'd allow players to be bad guys too. The one idea I really liked from the original Middle-Earth Online was letting players be the monsters that inhabited the world (instead of just a PvP zone).

Since we're at the limits of the classes that LotRO can envision, going to a skill-based system would make more sense to me. Let players build the adventurer or townie that they envision. Another departure from LotRO would be a much wider world. There's so much of Middle-earth (and the larger world) that we've yet to see, and if we were free of the "path of the Fellowship," we could expand out without worry.

I'd really be interested to hear what you LotRO 2 proponents imagine would make for an engrossing MMO! Write out your ideas in the comments below.

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.
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