The first thing you notice when you log into Brandywine server is that there’s a fight taking place in chat.
This is not an exaggeration. The game that the server is a part of, Lord of the Rings Online (or LOTRO), somewhat recently added a global chat channel which serves as the default means of communication in the game. So, take however many people are online, reckon that circa 70% of them will keep the chat channel open, and that’s how many people are listening/talking at one time.
An acrid stench of stagnation hangs over the chat topics. People argue over arcane grudges stretching over nearly a decade of the game’s existence. They know each other’s alts, so when one side of an argument switches characters in an attempt to back out, he or she is called on it as soon as the alt’s name shows up. I’ve seen players come back from bannings, be greeted warmly, only to immediately launch into a public tirade clearly aimed at getting banned again. PvP arguments spiral out of control at the drop of the hat.
Perhaps shockingly, the channel is not actually that crowded, just loud. The fact is that not that many people play LOTRO anymore. Enough to keep the doors open and intermittent new content coming, but not so much as to make a default global chat channel an absurd endeavor. So it’s noisy, yes, and does just enough to make the server still feel as though it has a teeming population, but it’s by no means the ceaseless cacophony of white noise a comparable channel in World of Warcraft might be.
Which is the point, I suspect. The advent of the free for all channel is a tacit admission that the server populations aren’t what they once were. If they were, such a channel would be impossible to implement. With the set up now, there’s a pleasing rhythm to the inane arguments and trade spam which lets you suspend your disbelief that the game is packed to the gills. The loudness masks the stagnation.
LOTRO is teetering on the edge of maintenance mode, the point in an MMO’s life where the patches and new content slow to a trickle or stop completely. The game is alive; there are players on the servers, obviously, and Turbine seems committed to putting out content as often as their stripped down team is able. But all of it feels like spinning tires going nowhere, held together by the inertia of what’s come before, not what’s on the horizon.
The nature of the game’s content is a perfect example. There hasn’t been an endgame in LOTRO in years now. A new zone or expansion pack is released, you level through it, and then you do the same content you were doing in 2010. This isn’t the WoW version of doing the same thing, where everyone grumbles about raids and daily quests. No, this is doing the exact same dungeons and raids you were doing, just with more hit points on the bosses and new tokens to grind for.
LOTRO now recycles. It recycles mechanics, in the form of simply upping the level limits to old content when they raise the level cap. It recycles art, sprinkling lovely new vistas with seven year old building textures. The community recycles itself, in the form of the decadent arguments and discussions, repeated over and over until any meaning other than the repetition is lost.
A lot of this can be traced back to Turbine’s fateful decision to go subscription optional. They were, until that point, the second or third (depending on who you ask) most popular MMO in the United States. Once they went in for a prominent cash shop, selling everything from individual zones to stat boosts, the entire tone of the game began to change. It was less about keeping subscribers, even as their revenues increased, and more about finding ways to eke out a few bucks from the players.
This led to game design decisions which, if you traced them to their logical conclusions, ended up leading to an optional but recommended for your sanity purchase from the shop. For instance, items once meant for selling to a vendor ended up turning into trade-in items for experience. So, to level up quickly, you now hang onto the items. This causes a lack of inventory space. Which can be alleviated (where else?) in the cash shop by purchasing more room. You can still sell those items; you really shouldn’t.
All sorts of optional systems of this sort exist in the game and all lead to the same conclusion: pull out your wallet. Want to shorten a grind? Cash shop. Need more slots for Legendary Weapons (a system that could generate an article all its own)? Cash shop. Feeling pressed for time and want to teleport to a quest object? Cash shop.
As the game more clearly enters a holding pattern, something which is clearly not healthy but doesn’t put it in danger of actually dying, the attempts to get you into the shop get more and more brazen. Which just makes the community double down on their jaded, weary anger. They’re angry at each other and they’re angry at Turbine, all overlain with a constant nostalgia for the good days, the old days, when the level cap was 50, group content existed, and there was no cash shop.
I run the risk of making the game sound like a complete cesspool of toxic shouting matches and crass monetization. It’s not. All of these crisscrossing behaviors are better described as exhaustion on the part of all involved. Everyone just seems so tired of the game, yet Turbine still works on it as they can (Beornings coming as a class soon!) and players keep logging in. It’s a strange sight, the inexorable erosion of good will and vitality from the game, one grain of emotional sand at a time.
And I’m still there with them, through all of the bugs and recycled content. Not constantly, like I said, but I come back, always. Why?
The wonderful secret, known to fewer and fewer with each passing month, is that, despite the creaking community and periodic neglect from Turbine, LOTRO is the most faithful attempt at realizing Middle-earth put into videogame form. It is a marvel of MMO engineering, one which demands the utmost respect for the architects of the game, lingering bugs be damned.
From the days of the closed beta, Turbine’s love for the source material was evident everywhere. Not Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, but Tolkien’s. That’s a big difference; even though I enjoy the films on their own terms, they’re essentially action movies, with the games based on them grounded in flashy, jumpy action film tropes.
In LOTRO, the pace is more relaxed. You soak in the atmosphere; playing the game with an eye toward getting to max level as fast as you can, as you would in just about any other MMO you care to name, misses the point entirely. The story is actually, a few small quibbles aside, good, casting you as a hero in your own right as your story intersects with that of the Fellowship. You’re meant to read the quests, rather than accept or decline them without a second thought. The quests, themselves, might stink, consisting of the standard “fetch five bear livers” that have created such a stultifying atmosphere around MMOs, but the setups are the best in the business.
The visuals are where LOTRO shines. It’s remarkable to recall that LOTRO’s engine is largely the same as the one which ran the defunct (and recently revived) Asheron’s Call 2, a game which came out in 2002. I’m not sure that anyone has done more with less when it comes to video game art. To do it with a team which has been much diminished in size over the years is impressive. LOTRO simply is not supposed to look as good as it does, character models aside, much less do some of the mechanical things it does under the hood.
The game leans on its clever use of horizontal and vertical scale. You can see a tower from a zone and a half away from the walls of Edoras or look far off into the distance from Weathertop. Moria projects a sense of scale via its high ceilings and zigzagging steps, which no depiction of a fantasy underground world has ever matched. It’s impressive even to the non-Tolkien fans, but for those of us who adore Middle-earth the game’s environments often cross into the breathtaking.
And so I return. Helm’s Deep, subject of the last paid expansion, is largely a retread of older systems, just like everything else Turbine now releases, but I wanted to see it and experience it with my now six year old hobbit Warden. Then it was Western Gondor and the Bay of Belfalas. Sometime next year, presumably, we’ll start wandering closer to Mordor, eventually closing the story out. I’ll always be back but never stay. And then?
Dark rumors were swirling earlier this year that the Lord of the Rings license was up for renewal and that it would not be renewed. This would have meant that the game would transition from maintenance to shutdown; the plug on the servers would be pulled and the game cast into oblivion. This ended up not being the case, but the prospect still looms over the game. It will happen someday. A cynic looking at Turbine’s announcement that new content will come at a more rapid clip and be free to subscribers, rather than forming part of a traditional expansion model, might say that the LOTRO team is picking up the pace as best as they can in order to get to Mordor before the inevitable happens.
My brother, a fellow wargamer like me, used to play LOTRO with us. He doesn’t now, but he’s recently been spending time painting miniatures of our characters. Mathenwy, his Loremaster. Brocktoon, my Warden. Halrolrandir, the elven Hunter of our friend, Harold. Prosecco, my wife’s Champion. They sit on his mantle, left as a mute testament to the fun we had, gathering dust until he inevitably thrusts one into my hands with a grin when I visit.
That feels like an apt metaphor for what an MMO slipping into stagnation feels like. It’s made up of memories of content and people long since gone or irrelevant. It suddenly sparks back to life, with a patch or a call from someone asking to get the band back together, only to fade back into the tedious rhythm of the always there. Grind grind grind, fight fight fight, unsub and return, until one day you don’t.
MMOs rarely die. An extremely scant few break into global success. Most of them simply linger. The fact is, most MMOs are profitable; assuming costs are kept within reason, even what a lot of folks might consider a failure is actually a success, at least once the layoffs and server consolidations are done. LOTRO. Rift. Age of Conan. Everquest 2. All still going, none of them liable to shut down soon, definitely never to climb back to the heights they once achieved. Twilight realms made of virtual memories and aging code, flitting in and out of the mind’s eye forever.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.