I sat on the pebbly ground of Amon Sul, occasionally panning my camera around to drink in the sight of hundreds of players gathered in an impossibly small area. While the game chugged to support all of the bodies, we passed the time with chatter until the event began. It was, of course, Weatherstock IV, and I had a front-row seat for the show.
Weatherstock is probably the most famous of Lord of the Rings Online's many, many player events. The four-year-running concert gathers together some of the game's best bands for hours of music as they compete for top prizes. In between the sets, the concert's sponsors occasionally blast the theme song (Weatherstock Forever) and encourage folks to vote for their favorites.
For an event that had me doing little more than sitting still and turning up the speakers, it was incredibly involving. A thought kept bouncing around in my head: Why don't more games let players do this?
The richness of LotRO's music system belays any claim that it's just frills and fluffery. Player music is part of what gives this game life instead of just actions. When we make music together, we take ownership of the virtual world we inhabit.
Lord of the Rings and music: A special bond
One of the many aspects that makes LotRO unique is the relationship its IP has with seemingly mundane activities. Tolkien's world felt real because he was focused not just on dragon-slaying but on the believable aspects of daily life in a pretend universe. Whether you're smoking a good pipe to tilling the earth to detailing family history, Middle-earth isn't a series of quest hubs. It's a place where life is lived and is under attack.
Tolkien had a special fondness for music in his writings. His books frequently work in song both as an exposition device and to set the mood. While we can't hear the tunes of these songs, it's entirely possible to pick up on the same emotional wave that this music was intended to evoke. His characters transmitted history through song, sang to cheer each other up, and even used songs as intimidation (like the Goblins in the Hobbit).
Lord of the Rings Online could've been made, easily, without any in-game music system. I doubt that few players other than the hardcore Tolkien fans would've protested its absence. Yet the fact that Turbine felt it was important enough to both the setting and gameplay to work it in says a lot about how this MMO goes the extra mile to draw you into its world.
Fallen Kings love their music too
LotRO isn't the first game in which Turbine has instituted a player music system. The late Asheron's Call 2 had its own system, which was quite beloved by its players. Instead of LotRO's freeform system, AC2's was a system of pre-recorded tracks. Players could pick from up to 10 instruments, each of which played its own version of the dozen or so pre-made pieces. The cool thing is that this player music was designed to be layered together, so the more players tooted their horns together, the more complex and interesting the music became.
When it came time to work on LotRO, Turbine decided to take this system to the next level (and octave -- ba-dum). Instead of pre-recorded music, players were given tools to make their own melodies. With a combination of several instruments (including lutes and bagpipes), the ability to play music with a computer keyboard, and the option to save and load premade tracks, the sky was the limit for Middle-earth's music scene. Even better, the system was designed so that multiple players could sync up music to play complex songs together.
It was a unique type of player-created content. There's no leveling up and no tangible product that's constructed. It can be accessed from a preset file or done on the fly. And it quickly became one of LotRO's most talked-about features from its inception through now.
By putting in-game music into the hands of players, Turbine ensured that Middle-earth's dance scene came alive. No longer was an MMO restricted to the handful of professionally done tracks; now you could turn a corner to hear a Hobbit blasting out a merry tune that you'd never heard before (then again, you could also hear Lady Gaga). Having the option to play music anywhere and everywhere opened up possibilities for concerts, roleplaying moments in taverns, and impromptu dance parties amongst friends.
Making music together
So why don't more MMOs allow players to engage in this type of content creation? It might not be the easiest thing to implement, but it can't be as tough as player housing or player dungeons. Plus there's a huge upside for developers: It's much harder to abuse a player music system than it is for other types of player-created content systems. It's just wordless music. Other than playing an annoying song or crashing an RP event, there's little you can do with it to ruin the days of other people (particularly since everyone has the option to turn player music volume off).
And if there are few downsides, there are loads of upsides for this system. Players crave outlets to express themselves creatively in these worlds, and this gives them just that. The ability to load songs from files gives even the most musically challenged of us ways to participate. It creates a welcome environment for roleplayers and musicians as well as enriches the atmosphere of the game as a whole.
But the best part? It allows us to make music together. It's one of the rare player-created content systems I've seen in MMOs that encourages players to band together to make something greater than what one person could do. It's a system with a natural audience of players who don't have to do anything to participate other than stop... and listen.
If you were at Weatherstock or any other concerts, you can probably attest to the sense of community and spirit that flows through these events. Bands and audiences bond through song, and that makes LotRO that much more of a special place to live.