High-profile licensing is no guarantee of widespread success for MMOs, as Star Wars Galaxies proved. Being faithful to the source can restrict the evolutionary freedom a virtual world needs; on the other hand, a fully-developed franchise can provide a well of detail that's invaluable in quenching these games' ceaseless thirst for content.
In this respect, LOTR Online producer Jeffrey Steefel is confident he's sitting on a goldmine. "I could spend all the money in the world to find the best writers, the best designers, the best artists, and they could never devise a world as rich and deep and consistent as Tolkien did."
Having the luxury of dealing directly with the "incredibly flexible" Tolkien estate since Vivendi surrendered the license, Turbine is well-placed to find solutions to thorny contextual problems such as magic use, death and player versus player combat.
It has even been allowed to resurrect the Witch King's realm of Angmar at the time of the War of the Ring to present a parallel threat to that faced by the Fellowship.
The initial release will be consistent with the first book in time and place, the world later adding the likes of the Riders of Rohan (and thus mounted combat).
It will be one continuous space, with stable networks providing instantaneous transport; 45 levels of adventuring will culminate in a strong endgame.