I want to start this LOTRO Legendarium column today by talking about, well, by talking about World of Warcraft. Like probably many of you, I play several different MMOs, and alongside of LOTRO, WoW has been one of my most consistently visited titles. And as we all well know from general chat, there’s no resisting compare-and-contrast exercises with Blizzard’s MMO.
There are a lot of things I like very much about World of Warcraft and continue to enjoy, but probably my greatest source of frustration is how Blizzard’s design philosophy changes from month to month and year to year. Ideas introduced in one expansion are soon abandoned shortly thereafter, characters are retconned to hell and back, and classes have been redesigned so many times that they’re all but unrecognizable from where they started in vanilla.
If WoW were a themepark ride, it would be a wildly popular rollercoaster that put its riders through a whole lot of whiplash. You love it… but you hate the unending shifts, too. Sometimes that experience is so jarring and unreliable that you need something else to be a better gaming bedrock.
In contrast to WoW, if Lord of the Rings Online was also a themepark ride, I think it would be a log flume: Comfortable, calm, plenty of great scenery, and a few truly exciting moments here and there. Maybe not everyone in the world would be clamoring to ride it, but those that did would appreciate how it delivered a consistent experience all the way through.
“Quiet consistency” is a description that I’ve applied internally to LOTRO. It doesn’t sound like the type of quote that a studio would want to slap on the back of a box, but I honestly do mean it as a great compliment.
Consider this: For a 13-year-old MMORPG, LOTRO has known itself rather well and remained very true to its vision from its launch day until today. It sets the player out on a more intimate scenic tour of Middle-earth with the occasional exciting moments, and from the Shire to Minas Morgul, that’s kind of what we’ve got ever since.
The world of LOTRO fits well together. There is a range of landscapes, but it doesn’t look like some bizarre patchwork quilt that WoW’s does if you look at the actual topography. Rather, Middle-earth very naturally flows from one zone to another in a way that areas aren’t thematic gimmicks, but rather actual regions. There’s overlap. There are very natural-looking landscape features that you’d find in our world, like river deltas, dense forests, and towns that take advantage of the landscape for their defense and prosperity.
While the developers certainly have tried to inject new systems here and there — skirmishes, epic battles, mounted combat — these don’t usually hijack expansions and are completely abandoned afterward. We may not be getting new skirmishes these days, but you can still play and enjoy them and get useful rewards from them. And while I wish that the legendary item system would get yanked out entirely, at least I can give the studio credit for not completely giving up on trying to make it work.
Character development hasn’t seen a huge amount of upheaval and reworks over the game’s lifespan. There have been dev passes on each class, the exchange of trait trees from the trait panel, LIs, and the rework of the virtue system, but that’s pretty much it. We’re still building our characters the way we did years ago, and by giving us more talent points in successive content, the devs have a way to continue to allow us to grow our characters.
But I think that the real consistency in LOTRO lies in its content rollout. Middle-earth has been slowly expanded over the years with new zones and thousands of additional quest and deeds, and we players gobble it up. We love the new areas, the new stories, and the continuing adventures of our now-seasoned adventurers. Even as the game has moved into an era beyond the books’ strict lore guidelines, I’m not worried that the devs are going to take us in wacky and incongruous directions. There’s always been a lot of care taken to stay within the boundaries of the IP and to have the game as a whole make sense, and that delivers a lot of comfort to players who want to stick around for the long haul.
In short, it’s just not the sort of MMO that I play looking in despair at the current state of the game and feeling desperately nostalgic for “the good old days” when everything was so much better and the devs hadn’t screwed it up so much. I can depend on LOTRO to not be a whiplash experience, and that’s a big factor why I’ve been coming back to it year after year.