Yesterday our minds were blown with the news that LotRO and DDO, along with their development staff, were spinning off into a newly formed independent studio called Standing Stone Games. Daybreak Games will be partnering with SSG to handle the distribution and publishing of LotRO and DDO as part of this change. For a MMO studio that’s been around as long as Turbine has, and whose identity has been tied so closely to LotRO and DDO for years, this was a shock and surprise. In some ways for folks that have been around since the beginning, it feels like the end of an era. Pardon me while I put on my grey-hair wig and get my walker out. Back in my day…
Back in 2007 or so when LotRO first came out, there was so much hype regarding LotRO and Turbine. Turbine at the time stood behind their “Powered by our Fans” motto. Their community managers were the best around (who here remembers Meghan “Patience” Jenks?) and the community was diverse and overwhelmingly polite, no matter if you were hardcore, casual, or somewhere in between. News was posted fast and frequently. LotRO had a MySpace page, and the old LotRO Lorebook was a cutting-edge feature that allowed players to update a knowledgebase for the game. Every player also had a MyLotRO page – sort of an online social hub profile where they could friend other players, create blog posts, list their characters, and enter lotteries. LotRO did a really nice job of supporting multiple styles of play – hardcore raiders, casual social members, hardcore admirers of Tolkien, and even had a small but dedicated PvMP crowd. There were players EVERYWHERE: some brand new to MMOs and playing because it was Lord of the Rings, some whose first MMO was World of Warcraft and who were checking out the competition, some who were old-school EverQuest/Ultima/DAoC/AC players checking out the latest non-Blizzard title.
LotRO’s fortune over the years has been death by a thousand cuts. The Mines of Moria expansion in 2008, from what I remember, was very well received, although it was going head-to-head with World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion, which didn’t do it any favors. Most might point to the Warner Brothers’ acquisition of Turbine in 2010 and the conversion to being a F2P game as the turning point, and while the buy-out made sense on paper due to licensing and movie tie-ins, it also felt like the old “Powered by our Fans” mantra started to fall by the wayside, especially with the introduction of microtransactions. I felt a bit of an odd wind when I found out that Patience left the Community Management team in 2011. After Mines of Moria, it felt like subsequent expansions were getting smaller and smaller, leading some players to speculate that money made from LotRO was helping subsidize Infinite Crisis and other Turbine games. Features like the Lorebook and MyLotRO were cut, destroying a large amount of community-created LotRO-related content. They stopped developing raids and traditional instanced content in favor of big battles, which didn’t go over as well as hoped. During the Helms Deep expansion beta, there was overwhelmingly negative player feedback regarding changes to classes, builds, and features – yet the changes all made it to live anyway.
All I can say is that it’s a darn shame. Turbine circa 2007-2008 was so hopeful, a shining beacon of a game company that knew how to make great games and how to manage their community. Unfortunately, they were going right up against World of Warcraft when it was at it’s peak – trying to grow a smaller MMO during the Wrath of the Lich King period was probably more than they (or anyone) could chew. The developers tried taking risks to set themselves apart with new features (big battles anyone?), and sometimes those features fell flat in the worst ways. The introduction of F2P helped rejuvenate the playerbase in some ways, but it also turned a good portion of the existing fanbase off with the prominence of the LotRO Store and the microtransaction buttons all over the UI. Server mergers & closures probably didn’t help the perception of the game, although I would argue that at this point it was necessary and that they handled it well.
So where does LotRO go from here? I choose to stay cautiously optimistic about the spin-off. If this means that the remaining LotRO developers can get back to the old-school Turbine mindset and to what made LotRO truly great back in the day, then I am all for it. LotRO, at it’s core, is an excellent game. It’s showing it’s age now and definitely is part of the older style of MMO gaming, but for many long-time players (myself included) that’s a good thing. Create more raids and instances, good challenging ones that keep players chasing that carrot. Stay true to the LotR source and lore, and write amazing storylines and engaging quests. Keep developing beautiful landscapes. For the love of all that is holy, please update the character models and hairstyles. Be more transparent with your players and listen to the community (everyone, even including some of the more vehement naysayers, who in many cases DO want what is best for the game). As you make these changes, go out and try to bring former players back with incentives and nostalgia feels and show them what you can do now.
Will Standing Stone ever be able to bring LotRO back to the old glory days? It’s very doubtful at this point. But they certainly have an opportunity to correct mistakes, blast development wide open, play to their known strengths, and try to re-build their playerbase to a stable volume and steady income. This is best case scenario and what I really and truly hope happens. Middle-Earth deserves no less.