My favourite genre of games, and where some of my fondest gaming memories come from, is Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). I am going to take you down my memory lane as I explore my origins playing MMORPGs from the late 90’s through to today in a multi-part series. In Part 15, I will be telling you about Lord of the Rings Online, how it started out as Middle-Earth Online 9 years prior and how it’s still going strong today.
Catch up on previous entries in this series:
Part 1 – Ultima Online 1997
Part 2 – EverQuest 1999
Part 3 – Asheron’s Call 1999
Part 4 – Anarchy Online 2001
Part 5 – Dark Age of Camelot 2001
Part 6 – Star Wars Galaxies 2003
Part 7 – EverQuest II 2004
Part 8.1 – World of Warcraft 2004-05
Part 8.2 – World of Warcraft 2005-06
Part 8.3 – World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade 2007
Part 9 – Wildstar 2014
Part 10 – Guild Wars 2005
Part 11 – Dungeons & Dragons Online 2006
Part 12 – City of Heroes 2004
Part 13 – Matrix Online 2005
Part 14 – Vanguard: Saga of Heroes 2007
Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (LOTRO) is an immersive MMORPG based on the works of JRR Tolkien and released officially on April 24, 2007. LOTRO was developed by Turbine Entertainment and published by Warner Bros Interactive. It was the third MMORPG released to date that was based on previously established lore found in books and had recent movie releases. The first being Star Wars Galaxies in 2003 followed by Matrix Online in 2005 and now Lord of the Rings Online in 2007.
Prior to Lord of the Rings Online and even before the release of the Lord of the Rings movies – Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Two Towers (2002) and Return of the King (2003) – there was an initial game in development based on LOTR which was called Middle-Earth Online (MEO). Development commenced by Sierra On-Line around 1998 with a planned release in the year 2000. Sierra are best known for the Quest series of games (Police Quest, Space Quest, King’s Quest and Quest for Glory) and Leisure Suit Larry. Around this time though, Sierra were reportedly in rough waters, with staff layoffs amid a move interstate causing rifts within the organisation. Those that have read my previous entry in this series regarding Sigil and the troubled development of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, will see a similar story. You can read an insider’s recount of these events from their perspective here.
The original design concepts for Middle-Earth online took inspiration from another Sierra game, The Realm (1996), which was one of the first online Multi-User Dungeon games (MUDs). However, design concepts went from their initial 2D plans to 3D, upon seeing the success of Ultima Online (1997) and EverQuest (1999). Sierra was sold to Vivendi Universal in 2001 who also took over the LOTR licensing for the game’s development. By 2003, Vivendi had enlisted Turbine Entertainment to continue developing the game, with some juicy screenshots being released on their website at the time in the form of a constantly evolving development blog.
Middle-Earth Online promised to be the most immersive Lord of the Rings game experience of it’s time. World of Warcraft had not released yet and the MMORPG genre was still in its infancy. It would be set in the Fourth Age, so after the events of the LOTR movies. The following is an extract from the archived website describing the game.
“Players will be adventurers, fighting against or with the forces of evil, all across the lands featured in the books; explorers, charting new domains and unexplored depths, or master craftsmen, serving the towns or cities of Middle-earth. They will be able to own homes in signature locations like Bree, The Shire, or the deep woods near Elrond’s realm of Rivendell. MEO will also provide an opportunity for fans to experience the story of the Fellowship from a powerful new perspective — that of the peoples of Middle-earth. They will witness and participate in the tumultuous impact of the War of the Ring on the lands and feel the chaos stirred by the passage of the Fellowship. As citizens of Middle-earth, they will be called upon to choose a side, and in so doing, forge their own destiny.”
It all sounded pretty bloody amazing, especially for my mate John and I. We loved the LOTR movies and went on a trip to New Zealand in August 2004. We went on a Lord of the Rings location tour, visiting places where they filmed scenes from the movie. We were loving playing Star Wars Galaxies and couldn’t stop talking about how cool a LOTR MMO would be. I remember us lining up to get onto the ski lift to go up the ski slopes of Coronet Peak near Queenstown. We were so engrossed in our LOTR conversation that we didn’t realise it was our turn to get onto the ski lift. We hurriedly shuffled forward to get our bums on the seat in time.
In the process, I managed to get my left ski tangled with John’s as our feet left the ground. It snapped off and I was left with just the one ski. This being the first time we’d been on ski slopes; I spent the whole ski lift ride sh*tting myself as I was wondering how the hell I was going to get off with only one ski. John was laughing the whole time. As predicted, my exit off the lift was a wailing mess. Back to our LOTR discussions, one of our hot topics was how MEO was going to feature perma-death. We couldn’t see the logic in possibly losing the time spent on your character, only to die to lag or something simple and then losing your character. Having to pay $15+ per month for an MMO subscription, and then to possibly lose all your effort with perma-death? It didn’t sit well with us, nor many passionate MEO fans. Still, there was a lot to look forward to when you look at this trailer for the game.
In March 2005, Turbine announced that it had bought the rights to make an MMORPG based on Tolkien’s literature and that Turbine would publish Lord of the Rings Online. The game eventually released in April 2007, and boy was it awesome. I remember at the time of pre-ordering the game; we had the option to get a special founder’s offer of a lifetime subscription for US$199 or reduced cost of US$9.99 per month. I thought this was too huge an amount to fork out for an MMO, considering we usually pay $90 for the game and then $15/month to play on it, and I settled on the Special Edition of the game which came with some in-game items as well as a “Making of” dvd, soundtrack and map.
John however jumped straight into the lifetime subscription. I thought he was mad, but they removed the lifetime options after a couple of years, and looking back I wish I had bought it. We always return to the game each year, especially when anything related to the Lord of the Rings movies is played or shown somewhere. He just needed to patch up the game and he was straight in, whereas I would have to fork out another monthly subscription and then download the patches.
So, it’s April 2007. John and I were disappointed with the recent release of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. We gave it a fair crack, but it was still too buggy for us to properly enjoy it. WoW: Burning Crusade had some great content, but we were ready to throw ourselves into the Tolkien world of Lord of the Rings. There were four races to choose from – Man, Hobbit, Elf and Dwarf. Each have racial bonuses as well as negative attributes. For example, a Dwarf can fight hard with +15 Might and Vitality but short they are not so nimble and suffer -8 Agility and -8 Fate. Hobbits are smaller than Dwarves and therefore have -8 Might but make up for this with +15 Vitality.
There were seven different classes to choose from, each with their roles in a group – Burglar (scout), Champion and Guardian (tanks), Captain and Minstrel (healer), Hunter (utility dps) and Lore-Master (crowd control). I chose a Dwarf Hunter (and made a Human Guardian, because I had to make the closest character to a Human Paladin, my usual MMO class). John went for a Human Captain class that has a companion which carries a banner into battle that can bolster and assist members of the group. We made many different characters until we settled on our favourites. My first level 50 character was a Dwarf Hunter and this momentous occasion was captured on 13 November 2007 – it took me 7 months from release to reach this feat and it was not an easy journey.
In LOTRO, health was called Morale and mana was called Power. Your morale is replenished with rest, songs, food and battlecries, and if you die you respawn at the nearest rally point which was a circle of white stones at a nearby town. You could also bind to a town’s bindstone and could return to a bindstone once every hour. The level cap was level 50 and gain levels you will gain trait benefits in four different categories – Exploration, Lore, Quest and Slayer. Exploration involved finding a certain number of locations in a region. Lore required you to uncover ancient items of power. Quest deeds were special tasks that rewarded you with trait bonuses. Slayer deeds involve defeating a set number of one type of creature. Completing the first tier of slayer deeds gives you a new title, such as “Wolf-Slayer”. These deeds enabled you to specialise your character the way you wanted, which was often different to someone else of the same race/class combination.
Groups in Lord of the Rings Online were called Fellowships, in fitting with LOTR lore, and the holy trinity of classes was generally required for harder content. The holy trinity means you need a tank, a healer and a dps class at a minimum, and usually supplemented with additional dps classes. You could have four players in a fellowship, and if you were a Burglar class you could initiate a Fellowship Maneuver. This was a new thing to MMO’s and was a coordinated group attack. Combat momentarily pauses for the group and then each group member must hit a corresponding colour – Yellow, Red, Green or Blue. If all teammates choose a colour before the timer runs out, the monster will be hit with a strong damage over time (yellow), one-shot damage attack (red), morale recovery for the group (green) or power recovery (blue). It was important that each class hit the correct colour combination otherwise the maneuver would fail. This was usually reserved for boss fights but could be triggered at random.
In terms of PvP, there was no regular PvP like in Ultima Online or World of Warcraft, because this went against the lore of LOTR. However the developers knew that PvP was an integral part of most MMO’s to date and so created a separate game mode called Player versus Monsters (PvM). When playing your regular character and get them close to level 50, a new area opens called The Ettenmoors. This is the gateway to the PvP area. Alternatively, you can create a new character in PvM mode as either an orc, spider or warg to fight against the Free Peoples. This initially was pretty cool and felt a lot like battles in Emain from Dark Age of Camelot. However you really needed a large group to succeed which I didn’t have, and as time went on there were a lot less numbers in our Aussie peak time, so I didn’t play much of this mode. This was a little disappointing considering my love of PvP in previous MMO’s, however the main game was getting quite addictive.
Lord of the Rings Online is set during the events of the movies and there are story quests within the game that make LOTRO one of the most immersive MMO’s, even today. Regardless of which race/class combination you create, there are Epic Quest Lines in the form of a series of “Books”, which consist of series of quests called “Chapters” and these follow the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring. You get to meet Samwise and Frodo, as well as Strider, Gandalf, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin and Elrond. You also get to travel to places like Bag End where Frodo and Sam live, Bree, Weathertop (where Frodo is stabbed by a Nazgul – you get to play this mission!), Rivendell and many places from the movies. Rivendell is particularly beautiful to see in person. It was so cool the first time I saw Frodo in the game, and even cooler seeing the robed Strider in the Prancing Pony Inn. It really felt like we were part of the story, and even today I get enjoyment out of playing these story book quests.
There were initially eight Books when the game was released, with new books added with each free content update. Volume I of these story book quests was titled Shadows of Angmar, hence the name of the game. Volume II was released in November 2008 called Mines of Moria which was the first major expansion for the game. This enabled us to explore the Mines of Moria location from the movies, increased the level cap to 60 and added legendary items. Other expansions added over time were Siege of Mirkwood (2009), Rise of Isengard (2011), Riders of Rohan (2012), Helm’s Deep (2013), Mordor (2017) and the seventh expansion releases last month on November 5, 2019, called Minas Morgul.
Turbine Entertainment were also running Dungeons and Dragons Online which I’ve covered earlier in this series. In 2009, that game went free-to-play as it was hovering around 100,000 subscribers at a time when World of Warcraft was boasting 10 million subscribers. It was a bit taboo when a game went free-to-play, as we questioned the future of the title. However, DDO proved that after just one month, VIP subscriptions to the game had increased by 40%. So, when LOTRO announced in 2010 that it was also going free-to-play, I had my reservations but it meant the barrier for new players entering the game was dropped and this was only a good thing for the game. In late 2016 it was announced that the publishing of the game would transfer from Warner Bros to Daybreak Game Company with development being taken over by Standing Stone Games, made up of former Turbine staff.
2017’s Mordor expansion saw the end of the ‘War of the Ring’, 10 years after the release of the game which concludes the story of Sam and Frodo throwing the ring into the fires of Mount Doom, and Gandalf swoops in to save them on a giant eagle. A new story arc was created called ‘The Black Book of Mordor: Where the Shadows Lie.’ It shows the players what happened after the fall of Sauron in the Dark Land and beyond. It is divided in chapters: the first four were released with the Mordor expansion in 2017; two chapters each were released in March 2018 with Update 22: ‘Legacy of the Necromancer’, in October 2018 with Update 23: ‘Where Dragons Dwell’ and in June 2019 with Update 24: ‘Vales of Anduin’.
Now in 2019, it’s still an amazing game to play with a huge following and I find it just a great game to chill and unwind as the gameplay is easygoing. The Minas Morgul expansion increased the level cap to 130, adds a new Stout-axe Dwarf race, face Shelob in a new 3-person and 6-person instance and 12-person raid and continuation of the ‘Black Book of Mordor’ epic story quests. It’s really a great time to get into the game if you haven’t already, and for veterans like John and I, it’s a great excuse to get back into the game.