Monday 14 August 2006
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 direct with the "incredibly flexible" Tolkien estate since Vivendi surrendered the licence, 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 anachronistically 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 expanding to include the likes of the Rohanim (and with them, mounted combat).
It will be one continuous space, with stable networks providing instantaneous transport; 45 levels of adventuring will culminate in a strong endgame.
Aware that the licence is likely to provide a draw to many new and casual players, Turbine is playing it safe. "We want people who are playing popular MMOs today to feel comfortable," says Steefel.
But, despite the plural, LOTR Online's design bears the strongest resemblance to World Of WarCraft's refined conservatism. There are, however, encouraging signs that Turbine's pursuit of accessibility extends into a few small innovations.