The Quiet, Enduring Success of The Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online recently launched its seventh expansion to a complete lack of fanfare outside of its fanbase and a few hardcore MMO sites. As a franchise, The Lord of the Rings is as strong as ever, with a TV series coming to Amazon Prime in 2021 and a vague new MMO also on the horizon. But LOTRO has long since dropped from the headlines even as WoW Classic briefly dominated them and rekindled an interest in yesteryear’s MMOs. So what’s kept a game that launched in 2007 popular enough to still receive regular updates even as so many of its contemporaries have died off? For many players, it’s not the battles or the game’s mechanics — it’s the simple joys of living in the world of Middle-earth.

LOTRO has always dealt with WoW comparisons, an inevitability given its era and core gameplay loop. But the game is very different from its more popular cousin. In keeping with the gravitas and lore limitations of its source material, LOTRO is a restrained experience — there are no cartoon pandas riding giant scorpions, but there are reams of quest text that provide historical and socioeconomic context for even simple missions like killing eight boars. There are also many quests that exist solely to inform you about the world rather than challenge you, like an early chain that sees you playing messenger between two elven brothers debating whether the time has come for them to leave Middle-earth.  

You’re given a role that feels supplemental to, but crucial to the success of, the Fellowship’s odyssey, and so you’re encouraged to pay attention to why you’re doing what you’re doing beyond the fact that you’ll get a new tunic for doing it. PvP is limited and optional, and the focus on a united PvE against the minions of Sauron has helped fuel the community’s reputation for helpfulness while WoW has long dealt with complaints of toxicity. It’s not an entirely austere experience — this is still a game where you can join a drinking league or be tasked with delivering freshly baked pies while dodging hungry hobbits — but it’s about as grounded as an MMO set in a fantasy world can be. 

Lord of the Rings Online

A Tolkien Theme Park

LOTRO launched to strong reviews but, after two solid expansions, was bogged down by weaker updates, the instability of moving to a free to play model, and the uncertainty of a corporate ownership transition. As part of efforts to attract new and returning players, a pair of progression servers, dubbed “Legendary servers,” were launched in November 2018. Unlike WoW Classic, these included all of the quality of life revisions and balance tweaks that had been added over the years, just initially confined to the game’s launch landscape and with a slowed experience gain that encourages players to take their time and absorb the world around them.   

Those changes included scaled down monster damage and piles of easy ways to buff characters, which eliminated the kind of clunky old mechanics that split players on the question of whether WoW Classic was fun or frustrating, but also trivialised the difficulty of a game world that had once been demanding of its occupants. Areas that used to require careful approaches and awareness of the attention you were drawing can now be strolled through while you pummel hordes of hapless enemies into submission. Elite monsters that once required a team effort can be ground down in boring solo fights.

While the game’s regular servers offer a smattering of challenge in some late game content, they too have eased off to the point where making the 2017 Mordor expansion difficult based on the logic that, well, it’s Mordor, prompted forum debates, the general consensus that it was too tedious, and eventual revisions. Modern LOTRO therefore feels less like a game and more like a sprawling, interactive Tolkien storybook. But does an older MMO even need a challenge to appeal to its players?

Reddit user outbound_flight, an active community member who assembled a comprehensive FAQ for new players, doesn’t think so. 

“I got the need to be a min-maxer out of my system in EverQuest and WoW, so I’ve really gravitated towards LOTRO’s robust social elements,” he says. “I love that I can decorate my player housing with items from the main storyline and for the holidays. There’s a ton of cosmetic options, so I’m rarely unable to get my character to look how I want. I usually go off and play a game of Rainbow Six: Siege if I want to introduce some tension into my gaming session, while in LOTRO I’m there almost explicitly for the story and the social angle. I don’t mind breezing through combat if it means I get to the next story beat quicker.”

Lord of the Rings Online

More Housing Than Horrors

As outbound_flight notes, seasonal festivals, extensive housing and cosmetic equipment options, and community created events are among LOTRO’s strengths. Players may reminisce in chat about the hardcore elements the game used to have, but those same players spend their time tracking down just the right cloak for their latest dwarven ensemble.

Evodius, another active player who wrote a guide to the cost of getting into LOTRO, highlights the game’s housing system as a key part of the experience. 

LOTRO constantly impresses me on the variety of items I can have in my house and how those items truly make me feel like I am a part of Middle-earth,” he notes. “While housing is basically a glorified storage option, I always find myself going out of the way for the latest festival housing items. There’s a ton of stuff to collect. Having your little Hobbit-hole or a stylish Elven-house is just a perfect addition to the already immersive atmosphere.”

That appeal of being in Middle-earth is both obvious and understated. LOTRO has run long enough to have covered the entire War of the Ring and begun carefully mining the lesser explored appendices and supplements for material. It has grown geographically large enough to make a scenic horse ride from one end of the map to the other take about three hours. Tolkien’s world is famous, but it’s easy to forget how much that scope means to some people given the modern glut of entertainment options. WoW has its social and cosmetic side, but Middle-earth is Middle-earth. 

“It’s always funny how people say games like LOTRO and WoW have old graphics because I am still lost in the beauty of these worlds,” Evolius adds. “While LOTRO offers nothing particularly exciting or different from other MMOs, it does one thing exceeding well: storytelling. [It] just keeps drawing me and many others back. That first time you saw Rivendell, your interactions with Gandalf… the level of atmospheric detail is riveting. Expansion after expansion live up to that.”

The countless screenshots shared by fans still marveling over the design of famous locations like the Shire testify to how well the visual design has held up. LOTRO has a sense of being lived in rather than just existing to spit out stimuli; the elf asking you to kill those boars may not have moved an inch in 12 years, but there’s enough going on around her to provide the sense that she has a role in this world. And it’s a world that’s increasingly supported by the game it contains — rather than a world that exists only to support the game that takes place within it. 

An Embarrassment of Fiddles

While there wasn’t exactly a shortage of online titles back in 2007, 2019 is utterly awash in games individually capable of devouring all your free time. For a long haul game like LOTRO, it’s not enough to entertain players; they have to feel catered to. As outbound_flight explains, “At some point, [former developer] Turbine started to make the game a lot more casual-friendly. It was part of a general trend they were following to explicitly taper off support for the ‘hardcore’ min-maxer crowd, which didn’t make people happy. [Current developer] Standing Stone Games have been steadily walking that philosophy back but I think they’re still wary of difficulty. A lot of companies seem to be, actually. I think they’re afraid that high difficulty messes with retention.”

In returning to LOTRO after so many years away, that shift is evident. Wandering off into the wilderness — even into areas that are ominously described as accursed dens of ancient evils — is now a triviality rather than an expedition that requires planning, the acquisition of helpful items and, crucially, time. You instead cannot get through a session without being handed free perks and reminders of the game’s real-money store, which offers easy ways to power up and save time, as well as a variety of pets, decorations, and other cosmetics right up to different styles of fiddles to play in lieu of always hustling to survive. 

There might have been something lost in this shifting experience, as LOTRO in its original, more hostile form captured both the relentless dangers lurking in Tolkien’s world and the comforting relief of returning to hearth and home after surviving another chilling encounter with evil. But there’s a fine line between nostalgia and clinging to the past and, regardless, catering to the dedicated players is the reality of keeping a digital Middle-earth alive for over a decade. So many dabblers have moved on, those who’ve stayed have acquired more real-life responsibilities and more appreciation for the ability to easily accomplish tasks over shorter gaming sessions, and most players seem happy with the focus on new clothes rather than new perils. And LOTRO is hardly alone in looking for ways to stay afloat.

“MMOs are dying from the minute they’re born,” Evodius notes. “It’s easier to monetize and keep people interested in short spurts. SSG and its team are amazing people to keep content coming at a consistent rate. I applaud them for being such a small team and pumping out what they do. However, the cash shop is very bloated. Their payment model is also quite expensive compared to other MMOs and it is rather breathtaking to new players. They might even really enjoy playing the game, but find the slew of expansions you have to buy is a bit off-putting.”

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Lord of the Rings Online

The Future Looks Easy, But Bright

LOTRO’s community has seen no shortage of spirited debates on what direction the game should go in, how SSG should head there, and what role a pragmatic cash store should have in funding the journey. But its future looks as sound as any MMO’s of its age can be. The game’s executive producer Rob Ciccolini recently gave an optimistic interview to Destructoid about where the game is heading and, while you can go back through years of forum posts to find endless declarations that the game is dead, you can also find hundreds of posts from both MMO veterans and Tolkien-loving grandmas asking for tips on their new adventure. 

The Lord of the Rings Online

So many modern gaming communities have a reputation for entitlement and quick tempers, and LOTRO’s players seem keen to cultivate another way. “LOTRO’s community has been wonderful to interact with,” outbound_flight says. “More than half the players are 35 or older. A lot of people have been playing for years. Folks who don’t really find themselves jiving with the game are not likely to start investing in a subscription or the expansions. [And] the community is cognizant of the fact that LOTRO doesn’t have WoW numbers and survives by the grace of new and long-term players. So the community has taken on the role of welcoming committee and player support. They absolutely don’t want to be responsible for chasing people away, and are totally willing to take time out of their day if it means making another player happy.”

Perhaps most tellingly, LOTRO’s official newsletter focuses on community events and sales on items to ease and accelerate your journey through Middle-earth. There isn’t a complete rush to endgame content — Evodius notes that it’s easier to get help at lower levels than it is in other MMOs — but there is a push to make the experience as cozy as possible. The dated gameplay is passable, but it’s just an excuse to hang out in a world that people have wanted to hang out in since The Hobbit was published in 1937. For some MMOs, a strong environment and community isn’t enough to guarantee survival after the gameplay becomes rote. But for LOTRO, that looks to be more than enough for now.