Sunday, June 21, 2015

Last of the Rings Online?

Consider the way Tolkien arranged The Lord of the Rings. We start in a quaintly familiar environment (the Shire) which nonetheless whets our appetite for Middle-earth's divergence from our own reality. We are introduced to our highly empathetic hero and his companions. From here we catch a glimpse of elves, dive into the timeless Old Forest to pay homage to children's storytelling, meet the undead, give a nod to trolls, listen to Lord Elrond Halfelven exposit on matters of rings, orcs, gollums and such, then dive into Moria for a slice of goblined dwarfhood with a Balrog on top. Then we're off to more elves and some talking greenery for good measure.

Throughout all this, the only human presence has been the comic relief provided by the "town of Brie*" plus the heroes Boromir and Strider, one a disposable redshirt, the other a larger-than-life ubermensch bad-ass. Though seeing humanity's necessity as a mundane backdrop, Tolkien focused sharply on the wonders of his mythology for the first half of the story, on the faerytale elements which have allowed Middle-earth to define high fantasy.

For the second half, the tale of Middle-earth subsides in favor of character-centered war stories, becoming less about wonder or discovery and more about pathos and heroism. We reach the lands of men: relatable yet largely forgettable figurines supporting the main cast without requiring much of the reader's attention in themselves. This fit the writer's purposes wonderfully for a finite story, ramping up the excitement toward the grand finale. Any literature professor will gladly supply you with the requisite (decidedly unscientific) graphs of rising action.

But wait, I'm supposed to be talking specifically about LotRO here, not LotR itself, about a persistent world and not a finite story. It's been a topic of some discussion whether Warner will bother keep the project going. My own server is a ghost town and though it only takes a few reckless fanboys to bankroll an MMO out of the red (especially when you can make them buy imaginary shirts for fifty cents a piece in the cash shop) megacorporations demand pretty high profit margins. For now, LotRO is serving its purpose as cross-promotion with the Hobbit movie fiasco and other games, but that will only pay off for... what, another year or so? So it's getting very tempting to start betting pools on when exactly LotRo will get the axe, or at least will lose its funding for new content and be allowed to die the living death of all MMOs, kept running for as long as subscription fees outstrip server maintenance.

Now, the game's expansions have moved from the first half of the story to the second, from the captivating landscapes of elves and dwarves:

 To the humdrum Podunk routine of Rohan and Gondor:

Though the game's landscaping, writing, music and artwork (after the drop in caliber in the first three expansions) has returned to the quality of the original release, it's obvious that there is now much less to work with. Those Gondor houses certainly look authentic and Edoras is looking appropriately majestic, but let's face it: it's hopelessly mundane compared to Ered Luin or the Shire.

Moreover, the development pattern has changed, showing that the development team is well aware of the shift in priorities. They know damn well they've run out of the more interesting material. The "shadows" in Shadows of Angmar held a double meaning. Yes, it was about the return of evil to the yadda-yadda but it was also about playing in the shadow of the central plot, enjoying Middle-earth without mangling Tolkien's writing. For a long time, the game was about exploring the nooks and crannies of Midddle-earth: Annuminas, Fornost, Angmar, Eregion, Dol Guldur, expanding on all the places mentioned only in passing in the books, allowing you as a player to live Middle-earth. Since the Warner takeover, however, expansions have been more and more focused on railroading customers through the books' plot without further digression, banking on rapid-firing expansions to keep players spinning their wheels on the leveling/loot treadmill.

No more Mirkwood zones. No Iron Hills. No Lonely Mountain zone. No adventuring by the side of Ghan-Buri-Ghan. No forays into Harad or Umbar. No more trying to revive the old instances. Just an ever-accelerating race to the Black Gate, not attempting to flesh out LotRO as a holiday in Middle-earth for Tolkien fans but only desperately wringing as much money as possible out of disinterested but addicted players while the movies' popularity lasts. Face it, despite the fact that they're still paying a few artists and voice actors, LotRO's being dangled over the oubliette.

Know how else I can tell? Half-trolls have replaced Jorthkyn, no longer building but conflating, no longer logically expanding but repetitively contracting. Much like the other DnD-ish backsliding in Moria like flaming horned orcs, half-trolls reek of rushed desperation.
So how long do you give it?

* And yes, I know a bree is a brew, but it's funnier the other way.

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