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Monday, 8 May 2017

Ten years of LOTRO:
a history of virtual Middle-earth


Lord of the Rings Online is celebrating its ten year anniversary. Time to go back to 2007 and look at everything that has happened since then, I thought. Well, that kind of backfired: it took me two weeks of writing to finish this article. Turns out a lot happened in ten years; more than fits in a blog post! This means I had to be selective. I also had to find a middle ground between my personal experiences and universal developments in virtual Middle-earth. History is always subjective, and by no means did I want this article to be a dry summary of facts. That said, if you experienced an in-game era very differently, I would love to read about it in the comment section.

This article is meant to reminisce about good and bad times in LOTRO, or to look up what happened in a period you were absent: few people will have been around for the full ten years. I realize that some people may read this that have never played LOTRO, so I have tried to make it comprehensible for everyone. You can drop me a note below if anything isn't clear.

I hope you'll enjoy this 'longread' of ten years of LOTRO. We start by traveling back in time, to the spring of 2007...


How I got into LOTRO (2007)

I first heard of LOTRO when I was visiting the Elf Fantasy Fair in Haren, the Netherlands, back in 2007. It was an open air fair near a castle with cosplayers and the likes. In one of the stands, people were playing the elf intro in Ered Luin in the soon-to-be-released Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. When the servers were going live, I was told, you could play together with others in a virtual Middle-earth. This sounded extremely exciting to me as a frantic Tolkien fan. After half an hour of waiting in a stand mostly filled with teenage boys, I was allowed to play for twenty minutes. I honestly wasn't that impressed by the intro: I had no idea where my character was, what was happening and why, but I made it through somehow. But in that moment, my interest in LOTRO was piqued.

There was just one problem: I didn't have a computer that could run the game. Because of this, I didn't buy it right away. When my father bought a new computer and I could have his old one (a Mac), I partitioned it so I could install the game on the "virtual PC" (this was before there was a Mac client). For the first time in my life, I entered the local video game store - back then predominantly male territory - and proudly bought my LOTRO starter box with installation CD-ROM (cute!).

I don't have a picture of the original character screen, but this is my current

Then I was ready to start playing. At launch, LOTRO featured four races (human, elf, hobbit and dwarf) and 7 classes (guardian, minstrel, hunter, champion, burglar, lore-master and captain). After contemplating for a couple of hours whether I should start playing a minstrel, hunter or lore-master, I decided to go with the latter. It was a good choice. For three years, I exclusively played my elf lore-master, Ravanel, determined to become really good at the class. And, boy, was there a lot to learn. It was my first MMO and I knew nobody else who played. When I was level 17 I died for the first time. I was so annoyed when I found out I had almost achieved the title the Undying if I just had been a bit less reckless in the Old Forest!

The LOTRO of 2007 was a different LOTRO than it is now: it was more 'hardcore' in several ways. Classes that had a support role in group content (guardian, captain, lore-master and minstrel) had no DPS mode (trait lines didn't exist yet), so leveling them took a long time. When you died, there was no option to revive at the spot: you had to retreat to a stone circle (or be lucky and be found by a friendly captain, lore-master or minstrel). Traveling took much longer than it does today, with fewer stables and swift travel routes gated behind reputation (and no option unlock them with mithril coins). There was no group finder, so if you wanted to do an instance, everyone had to travel to the physical entrance by themselves. Because of this, hunters and captains were sought after for their porting and summoning capabilities. It was common for players of these classes to kindly lend their quick travel skills to both friends and strangers to help them move around the world.

Other aspects of virtual Middle-earth have been more consistent since release. The beautiful landscapes, the weather system, the lore and the cute nature of quests have been there from the beginning. Niches like the unique music system, role-playing and the Ettenmoors (player versus monster player, aka PVMP) attracted players that formed communities with their own unwritten rules and sub culture. Out of game, LOTRO fashion blogs form a niche that is still going strong as of today.

My oldest LOTRO screenshot: Ravanel runs through the Misty Mountains (Nov 15, 2008)

LOTRO vs WoW

One thing people usually mention when they're talking about LOTRO is how friendly the community is. In reality, the LOTRO community has constantly changed over the years, but I would say that there's always been a strong base of players that is friendly and helpful towards newcomers, more so than in other MMOs I've played. That said, people make it out to be more perfect than it was; general chat never was completely devoid of trolls.

These first years a recurring theme in general chat was "LOTRO vs WoW". People were constantly comparing the two MMOs. I never really saw the point: why were the "LOTRO is just a WoW clone" people even in LOTRO chat if they'd rather play World of Warcraft? My boyfriend at the time played WoW with his friends and had tried to get me into it, but I didn't like the cartoony graphics and the look of my character. LOTRO's landscapes looked gorgeous compared to those in WoW and made my favourite fantasy world come to life - to me, there never was any contest.


The Rift

Another topic of discussion was the Rift raid, but because I was playing on my own and honestly didn't even know at first that there was such a thing as 'endgame' and 'raiding', I didn't get to experience it firsthand until I was level 60. An interesting characteristic of the typical LOTRO player is that they have extreme nostalgic feelings for this raid. If you'll ask one for their favourite raid, it'll be "the Rift, hands down". When I eventually did get to see the Rift, I thought it was pretty average in terms of fight mechanics and difficulty levels; later raids featured more depth and more demanding and challenging gameplay. I think the fact that it was their first exposure to raiding for many people coloured those memories. (I fully expect to be crucified by loyal LOTRO players now that I've written this down!)

Lifetime subscription

I leveled very slowly, determined to do all the quests out there. Naturally, I quickly outleveled the regions I was in, so it took me very long to get to level 50, the original level cap. The screenshot below, taken at February the 3rd, 2009, shows that I must have reached it after about one and a half year of playing. At this time, I was still very much in love with LOTRO, and I decided to buy the lifetime subscription. As a founder, I could buy it for the discounted price of about 200 euros, and from that moment on, I never had to pay a subscription fee anymore. Back in the day it felt like a gamble, because nobody knew how long LOTRO would stick around. It was a lot of money for me, a poor student, but I knew I would keep playing long enough to earn it back. And even if the servers would shut down earlier, it felt like a good way to support the studio. Seeing as LOTRO is still around nine years later, I'm so happy I took the plunge!

Ravanel in her early level 50's, resting in the Great Delving, Moria

The Mines of Moria (2008)

At November 18, 2008, LOTRO's first expansion launched: the Mines of Moria. Players ventured into Moria to help the dwarves reclaim it from the goblins and worse, and could level up to 60. It was an awesome expansion. The Moria quests felt more engaging than ever before, and it was exciting to see whether the dwarves would succeed. There were lots of well designed group instances and two lair raids: the Watcher and the Turtle. Fighting the Watcher in the Water was a really cool experience: lore wise but also mechanically. It was my first raid and I was rapidly learning to support my group as a lore-master. I had found friends around level 40, joined their kinship and enthusiastically ventured out with them to best those group instances. I had found my place in Middle-earth.

Moria is also when legendary items were added to the game, allowing players to customize their weapons. Every class received three different trait lines, of which at least one was DPS oriented. This made soloing much less cumbersome for support classes such as captains, minstrels and lore-masters. It also meant that player characters became a lot more powerful; the first major instances of power creep. Two new classes were added with Mines of Moria: the rune-keeper and the warden.

This was also a time in which a different attitude towards endgame was maintained. During Shadows of Angmar, endgame gear mostly meant hunting specific items that were best in slot for certain classes. With Mines of Moria, players also needed to collect radiance gear. Radiance was a stat that was needed to counteract the huge amount of dread bestowed on the player when fighting the Watcher (and later bosses in Dar Narbugud and Barad Guldur). If you didn't have enough radiance, you'd constantly cower, have decreased health and would miss your attacks because your effective level was lower. To put it simply, you couldn't contribute to the encounter. This meant that all other sources of armour (including crafted armour) were rendered obsolete, because radiance was required. To obtain radiance armour, you needed to run those Moria group instances. The Twenty-first hall was where you would find most level capped players, hanging out with friends or just randomly standing around.

In the spring of 2009, Lothlórien was added, allowing players to escape the darkness of Moria for a bit. The inner parts of Lórien were only accessible to players with enough reputation with the Galadhrim; the Elves would mercilessly shoot down (one-shot) any players that ventured within the boundaries without permission. This feature was later removed.

The depressing darkness of Mirkwood

Siege of Mirkwood (2009)

The next expansion, Siege of Mirkwood (September 4, 2009), raised the level cap from 60 to 65. It added new, well designed group instances, but there was substantially less initial content: fewer group instances and the map was considerably smaller than Moria. Barad Guldur was a well designed raid that I thoroughly enjoyed. Instead of large group instances, development time went to skirmishes: scaleable instances with randomly selected mobs that were meant to keep the experience fresh. Alas, it didn't turn out that way. Skirmishes were reasonably fun and a useful tool to tell the story of the siege of Mirkwood by the Elves, but they felt more shallow. Difficulty could only be increased artificially through the tier system, and many players (myself included) preferred traditional group content. Nowadays, skirmishes are primarily approached as an alternative way to level.

I don't know whether it was due to Mirkwood being yet another depressing environment after the dark mines of Moria, or if it was due to the skirmishes and low amount of initial content. Either way, more players started leaving LOTRO during the Siege of Mirkwood than ever before in the history of the game. Especially on my small server, Gilrain, you could really tell that the world was getting quiet. The first silent player exodus had started.

Free-to-play

It was around this time that LOTRO went free to play with an optional subscription option: a model it retains to this day. Lifetime memberships were no longer sold. Some players think of the introduction of the F2P model as the beginning of the end for LOTRO, because it had a huge effect on the community atmosphere. Indeed, general chat went downhill. Personally, I strongly disliked the free-to-play change, but I figured it was something the game needed to survive. As I could ignore general chat and hang out with my friends, I was more worried about the Store breaking my immersion and constantly testing the boundaries of pay to win.

After Siege of Mirkwood, LOTRO experienced its first content drought. With every prior expansion, the game received an update including group content after about four months. But this time, it was only one landscape region (Enedwaith) and an epic book story. New group content came one year and a half after Siege of Mirkwood, and it took two years for a new expansion to arrive.


Echoes of the Dead (2011)

After having besieged Barad Guldur in Mirkwood, players joined up with the Rangers to help them move south, following in their chieftain Aragorn's footsteps. This is where the whole Grey Company storyline started, a storyline that would turn out to continue deep into Gondor (2017). With the influential game update Echoes of the Dead (March 18, 2011), the Ost Dunhoth raid and the In Their Absence instance cluster was added. This is when the game grew up in a sense; the quests felt more fluent and the landscape was more detailed than ever before. Ost Dunhoth and its related group instances showed a break in style: they felt different from older group content. The raid in particular featured new and creative game design. The last boss, Gortheron, was very challenging on tier 2, and I was proud to be part of the first group to down it on our humble server.

Echoes of the Dead was also when radiance was removed from the game, lowering the barrier of entry for group content. Furthermore, first age legendary items were once more available after having been absent during the Siege of Mirkwood. The map home was changed into a skill, so that players didn't have to carry around a map in their inventory. Finally, the tier system was added for group instances, allowing for the Ost Dunhoth raid to be very challenging on tier 2 without making the experience out of reach for more casual players, that could do it on tier 1.

In June 2011, Turbine decided to no longer outsource the publishing of LOTRO in Europe to Codemasters and moved all EU servers to Turbine's own data centre in Boston.


Rise of Isengard (2011)

LOTRO's third expansion, Rise of Isengard, launched on September 27, 2011. The level cap was raised to 75 and three new regions were added: Dunland, Gap of Rohan and Isengard. Dunland was the largest of the three and explored the allegiance of Dunlending tribes to Saruman. I was very impressed with the way the game developers portrayed the Dunlending people: much less black and white, with more nuance between "good" and "evil", than Tolkien did. This gave questing a great sense of realism, which was strengthened by the use of 'dynamic layers': the open world environment would appear differently to you depending on where you were in the story. The main hub during this era was Galtrev, or "Lagtrev", as it was mockingly called by LOTRO players.

The expansion featured two raids: the Tower of Orthanc and the lair boss Draigoch. Both struggled with bugs. The Tower of Orthanc had well designed bosses, but felt unfinished upon release. The Fire and Frost tier 2 challenge was literally unbeatable for months because some numbers were messed up in the coding. The last encounter of the raid, Saruman, took very long (half an hour) and if you were unlucky with RNG at the very end, you could start all over again. It was a well designed raid, but balancing issues took some of the fun away. Luckily, the armour sets looked gorgeous.

I wrote earlier how Siege of Mirkwood had less group content than the Mines of Moria. This turned out to be a trend: Rise of Isengard had even less group content, while the price for the expansion stayed more or less the same.

In the spring of 2012, the Great River region was added, featuring players' first encounter with the Rohirrim in the town Stangard. A new feature was that you could actually go inside all the houses of this town, purely for immersive reasons. The daily area the Limlight Gorge was intended to be visited with a small fellowship: I had a lot of fun duoing it with my boyfriend. One new 6-man was added (Roots of Fangorn).


Riders of Rohan (2012)

LOTRO's fourth expansion, Riders of Rohan (October 2012), was a defining moment in the game's history, as it was the first expansion that released without any group content at all. The burnt down village Hytbold was the 'endgame': players could do a maximum of five dailies across Rohan per day in order to rebuild it. I could enjoy the town from a lore perspective, but it took awfully long to completely rebuild it: 40 days if you did the maximum amount of dailies each day. By now, the in-game cash shop was flirting more enthusiastically with pay-to-win: if you paid real money (on top of already having paid up to $70,- for the expansion itself), you could get the grind down to 15 days. Riders of Rohan also showcases the first example of useless power creep: the final goal of rebuilding was to acquire the Hytbold armour sets, but there was no content in the game that required its better stats. The level cap was raised by ten levels, to 85.

It is obvious that Riders of Rohan was not a great expansion for endgame players; however, there were also more positive aspects. In virtual square meters, Eastern Rohan was the largest region added in one go thus far, and it looked gorgeous. The quests in Rohan were well done and felt true to the spirit of Tolkien. The game also moved with its time: minorities like children and women played important parts in the expansion's storylines, making the stories 'hit home' more than ever before. LOTRO storytelling had grown up.

In order to navigate the large areas in Rohan, the war-steed was added. These allowed players to ride much faster than on traditional steeds. Unfortunately, mounted combat was a fiasco. War-steed movement was clunky and laggy, and for many classes the combat didn't feel engaging and fun. Warbands were enemies designed to be defeated by multiple mounted players, but didn't feel like proper group content as not much strategy or team play was required. A nice thing about the war-steed is that it looked great and was customizable. But because customizations (coat colours in particular) were almost exclusively available in the Store and unlocked per character rather than per account when purchased, dressing up horses never became as popular as player character fashion in the game.


The Erebor cluster

Eventually, group content did get added: the Erebor cluster. The instances weren't very beloved and definitely sub par in terms of quality compared to existing ones. Totally disillusioned, I wrote a review of the 6-man with the not so subtle title The failure that is Dale (March 2013). Three new raid boss fights were released. To many these felt unfinished and badly designed, and top end raiding kinships became inactive. The ultimate low was the encounter Fires of Smaug, in which more than half of the raid group spent the entire 'fight' running around clicking valves rather than engaging in combat.

Several months later, a small update called Shadows of the Past introduced the skirmish Storm on Methedras and scaled Fornost to level cap. Just like in the Dale instance, the difficulty seemed off.


Helm's Deep (2013)

November 2013, LOTRO's last expansion as of today was released: update 13, Helm's Deep. The stakes were high. Many players had left after the disappointing endgame content of the Erebor cluster, and small servers were getting awfully quiet with many players transferring to higher populated servers. The out-of-game world also became quiet, with many fan sites disappearing, among which the popular A Casual Stroll to Mordor.

With Helm's Deep the level cap increased to 95 and the world was extended to Western Rohan. Skill trees were introduced and a huge class overhaul was implemented, causing uproar in the community. Generally, the total amount of skills per class were reduced, and several classes got 'dumbed down' to appeal to new players. As a result, many classes played very differently than before, and felt clunky and awkward to play (eventually, the latter was addressed).

No raids were released with Helm's Deep. This was explained with - I paraphrase - "'well noboby raids anyway, so it isn't a priority... we're just reacting to player trends". (In 2015, a former Turbine employee revealed that the true reason was insufficient funds.) Instead, epic battles were introduced. These allowed players to join instances of famous Middle-earth events, where they could watch NPCs kill each other while waiting around and occasionally clicking things. Epic battles were almost universally disliked, but players had to play them (and still do up until this day) to grind promotion points (200!) to get points for the skill trees and get first age symbols.

In April 2014, a few months after the expansion, update 13 brought Fangorn and Flooded Isengard to the game, and added the ability to use cosmetic (non combat) pets on all classes. Previously, pets were exclusive to lore-masters.

Whether it was because of dislike for the class changes, the absense of raid content or the epic battles (or a combination of those), many people stopped playing with Helm's Deep, making it the second player exodus.


Gondor updates (2014-ongoing)

By now, LOTRO had unmistakingly outworn its stature as triple-A MMO. From 2014 onwards, the game focused on rolling out smaller updates that focused entirely on world building, storylines and landscapes. The first of these was update 14, which added Western Gondor to virtual Middle-earth. Although warbands were still around, Gondor leaned less on mounted combat than Rohan and provided with a more traditional questing experience (but with better looking landscapes and NPCs). Life time subscribers and VIPs automatically gained access to all updates that gradually introduced all regions of Gondor.

In the footsteps of legendary items, more customization - but also more grind - was added to jewellery and armour with the introduction of the essence system. The level cap was raised to 100 and 'endgame' revolved around doing quests for reputation in Dol Amroth to acquire socketed armour that could be filled with essences.


With update 15: Gondor Aflame (November 2014), the Beorning class and race was introduced to LOTRO. It was the first class that was exclusive to one race, and it could fill all three primary roles (healer, damage dealer and tank). Unique to the class is that it can transform into bear form when having built up sufficient 'wrath'. Like the rune-keeper, the Beorning was initially met with mixed feelings because of lore reasons. Unfortunately, the class is not very strong in endgame content, as every role is done significantly better by another class.

In May 2015, update 16 brought the Osgiliath cluster, unexpectedly bringing new group content to LOTRO after all. Luckily, these instances did not suffer from difficulty tuning problems and were of decent quality. Lorewise, it was pretty cool to explore Osgiliath around the time of its fall. The city was also released as a new PVMP map. In October of that year, Minas Tirith was added (update 17). The city was huge, had an incredible amount of detail and held true to the lore. Players explored it while doing a gigantic number of quests, stumbling upon many lore nuggets. The Battle for Minas Tirith was experienced in two epic battles.

Up until this point, all 29 original game servers were still around. Historically, much resistance existed against potential server merges. Many servers knew tight communities that felt a sense of shared identity and server pride. After eight and a half years, however, many servers had become ghost towns, and players were positive about merges. In August 2015, the number of servers was reduced to 10. The event brought some new life into LOTRO, with old time players checking out their accounts and making a fresh start on a new server.


In April 2016, the much anticipated update 18 brought the Pelennor cluster to the game, including the first new raid in three years: the Throne of the Dread Terror. After Minas Tirith, virtual Middle-earth expanded eastward, adding the beautiful and lush North Ithilien. More needless power creep was added by introducing essence equipment with better stats than raid rewards for flower picking, first in Ithilien, later in Dagorlad. I was upset by the huge grind and dumb nature of clicking things in the landscape, but the type of players that are left in the game are fine with it (judging by the comments, most are upset by me being upset).

During the course of 2016, Turbine transitioned into a mobile game studio. Following this change of direction, the LOTRO developers banded together with their collegues working on DDO to found a new independent game studio: Standing Stone Games (December 2016). Daybreak Games became the new publisher.

LOTRO as of today (2017)

As it stands today, players can explore virtual Middle-earth from the Shire and the Blue Mountains in the west to the Black Gate in the east, helping the fellowship from behind the scenes on their errand. But LOTRO will not be over once Frodo fulfills his task: in interviews earlier this year, its developers have revealed that they are already working on what direction players will take after that event. Mordor will not be the end, but rather a new beginning.

I've always hoped that LOTRO would reach Mordor, but I never imagined it would take ten years! It wasn't an easy decade: the MMO is no longer the popular, potential "WoW killer" it was at launch. Combat struggles with several issues caused by irregular power creep and it isn't easy to get into the game for gamers that are used to modern MMOs. But despite its flaws, LOTRO is still the go to game for Tolkien fans that want to immerse themselves in virtual Middle-earth: a beautiful world full of lore nuggets.

Happy anniversary, Lord of the Rings Online!

34 comments :

  1. I still fantasize about picking up LOTRO again (I last stopped, level 18, at launch) and playing it more as a solo-player RPG. Would be nice to do that tour before the game is "done" (literally and/or figuratively!)

    Did you notice population influxes with the original movie releases? How about the Hobbit movies?

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    1. Oh you must come back definitely. At fall Mordor will come with a lot of changes. And taking a toon up to 105 would take you, in a regular leveling time, a month or two. So at the end of it, you could enjoy the last and hot content of Mordor :)

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    2. I think playing LOTRO as a solo-player RPG is the way to go: that way you fully experience the good parts, while avoiding its flaws. Playing LOTRO is a bit like time travel: the pace and experience is very "2007". I can appreciate that, as that's when I started out playing MMOs, but it's an acquired taste.

      When LOTRO launched (2007), the LOTR movies were already there a couple of years (2001-2003). Tolkien fandom experienced a revival because of those movies, so I wouldn't be surprised if that was a factor in LOTRO's initial popularity. The game was a big deal back in 2007.

      At the time of release of the Hobbit movies (2012-14), many players were hoping Turbine would take advantage of it in some way or another to bring new players to the game. This didn't really happen: in the year of the first Hobbit movie, the game went on as usual. In 2013, the Erebor cluster was released with (obviously) the Hobbit in mind, but it received little to no marketing. This, combined with the questionable quality of the cluster (in my opinion the lowest in the game's history), makes it feel like a missed opportunity. My guess is that the devs would've liked there to have been more, but there was simply not enough funding available at the time.

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    3. @Matias: a Month or two from level 1? Or from level 100 to 105? =) I pretty much missed the whole game so very interested in a full exploration.

      @Ravanel: Good to know, and nudges me closer to that decision! Thanks!

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  2. Happy 10th Birthday to LOTRO indeed, and what a great post!

    When LOTRO came out, I was still early into my relationship with World of Warcraft: I had been playing for less than a year and was only just about to take my first steps into raiding. Everything seemed to be going well for the guild I had joined too, but when LOTRO came out, a bunch of old-timers suddenly decided that WoW wasn't what it used to be and that they were going to move on to LOTRO because they expected it to be much better. So from my point of view, LOTRO simply became the first of many MMOs for which people abandoned WoW while ultimately having little effect on WoW itself or on my experience playing it. (Until SWTOR managed to lure me away too obviously.)

    I do also remember that LOTRO was hailed for making some genuine improvements in the UI department that WoW copied, I think quest givers showing up on the mini map was one of them? I also vaguely recall the radiance gear thing being enough of a big deal that I saw it getting discussed on general MMO sites.

    Posts like these always make me think that I should give LOTRO a try some time despite of its age, but MMOs are such huge time sinks and I already have enough of those! Not to mention that unlike apparently a lot of people, I've never had the urge to be a hobbit. :P

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    1. I never wanted to be a Hobbit either; I preferred Elves and Dunedain.

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    2. Thanks for showing what things were like "from the other side", Shintar! That's pretty cool. It's funny to think back at that time when LOTRO was thought by people to be a 'WoW killer'. That was a thing back in the day. Now the MMO scape has changed into a more diverse landscape with many smaller titles. But of course we couldn't have foreseen this a decade ago.

      Quest givers (and even enemies) showing up on the mini map was indeed something that LOTRO came up with, several years after release. One of the things that has made it to several other MMOs. Of course both MMOs have copied a lot from each other. Just last year I gave WoW another try and was amazed how much it felt like LOTRO - obviously that's actually the other way around. ;)

      Like both you and Redbeard, hobbits never really attracted me either. After ten years of playing, my highest hobbit is level 35; that should say enough. I like my hobbit characters for dressing up and role-playing, but never really identified with them. Pretty boring, but Elves and (wo)men it is, for me.

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  3. Pretty interesting read!

    I gave LoTRO several tries over the years, for different reasons, unfortunately I was never able to stick with it.

    The first one was during its open beta. I don't remember which other MMO I was feeling burnt out of at the time that I decided to give the open beta a try. The game looked very beautiful, the most beautiful one at the time for me, but the gameplay however felt much the same old, same old so I decided it wasn't a game I wanted to stick with and moved on.

    Later attempts didn't fare much better, with me never being able to get much farther than the newbie areas. But they were still interesting experiences. Like when the Rune-keeper was released I decided to give it a try since the class seemed to have interesting features. I quite liked it and to this day it is a class that I still think fondly of. Wardens unfortunately I was never able to get as much of a grasp but maybe that is one of those classes that takes time for things to finally click together or maybe it was just me.

    I also tried to play purefly as a Free-to-Play player for a while as a sort of experiment but that was very short lived.

    Of all the MMOs I've tried it is still one of the few, if not only, where I feel like I was playing in another world rather than a giant setpiece. Hm. I guess Final Fantasy XIV comes close but FFXIV might be more because of the writing, the NPCs dialogue and embracing the high-fantasy of its world than anything else. With LoTRO it always felt it was more due to the attention to the details and having not every building feel like it was build for a race of a giants.

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    1. Cool to read about your adventures in LOTRO. I knew you did dip your toe into it, but never quite knew how much.

      I love the rune-keeper, too! (But I thought you didn't like ranged casters?) Mine was my 'second main' for a long time, and soon will be, again.

      The warden is a pretty unique class. You'd have to play it for a while to get those gambits stored in your muscle memory. I never really got around to playing mine that much; she's still level 23.

      I totally agree that there's something that LOTRO does that makes the world realistic and highly immersive. I've never been able to pinpoint what it is exactly, but you might be onto something with the attention to detail. It's definitely impressive that this still rings true after ten years, for you'd expect the graphics to be the first thing to become outdated. It may have helped that they were really ahead of their time for an MMO back in 2007.

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    2. It certainly one of those games that I tried more times even I can remember. Even today when people speak so fondly of it I still get a bit of temptation to try again.

      Yes, I don't like ranged casters. But like everything in life there are exceptions. I liked the rune-caster except because it didn't feel like your usual caster. The idea of attuning to either healing or nuking appealed to me. Even if my plans were to play it purely nuke-y. I dunno I think I just like the idea of hybrid classes.

      Tolkien himself was pretty obsessive about the locations in his stories and the details of them. I always had the impression that the developers of LotRO were a bit like that too so the towns, even if they are on a much smaller scale than a real world town would be, feels like the towns of each respective race. I think that is something that a lot of developers forget. They can come up with some pretty interesting architecture and make it very easy to navigate but at the same time forget that towns/cities are meant for people to live in. That they should show signs of how the people in those places live their day to day lives.

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    3. Excellent point about the towns. You should login just to check out Bree at some point; the devs have revamped it a few years ago, and it looks so gorgeous! I love all the small alleys that have been added and NPCs (including children) and material details everywhere. The town looks very lively, it captures the atmosphere of a late medieval town (with a touch of fantasy) quite well for an MMO.

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  4. The funny thing about that timeline is that I made my first character in (roughly) 2010, right at the time the first player exodus was underway. But the thing is, WoW was also in its own exodus in the long wait from the end of Wrath of the Lich King to Cataclysm, so it only felt natural to check out other MMOs such as LOTRO or Rift.

    But after introducing LOTRO to the mini-Reds, they were happy to play at their own pace and were definitely NOT end game content people. LOTRO was a perfect place for them to explore an MMO in a genre and story they loved.

    One thing about LOTRO, however, is that the game is still a AAA MMO to me. Other MMOs have had that initial flash of excitement and faded into obscurity; Age of Conan and Wildstar are two of the best examples. And really, if we base the term AAA MMO as the MMO that regularly releases new expacs that end with true endgame raid content, that pretty much reduces that list down to WoW. Nobody else releases traditional expacs + end game content like WoW does anymore.

    LOTRO, however, has the benefit of one thing that most other MMOs don't have: two huge fan bases, one from the movies and one from the novels. What drives the average MMO player doesn't necessarily drive the LOTRO player. For a long time lover of Tolkien's works and a long time player of the old Middle-earth Role Playing Game (MERP), this was about as good as it gets without joining a LARP group.

    Star Wars may get the hype these days, but Lord of the Rings is still a favorite. And LOTRO encapsulates that experience better than I could hope for.

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    1. You misunderstand me, I wouldn't define an AAA MMO by the model of regularly releasing new expacs; I agree that's an outdated model by now. The expansions and what's in them is something I describe because it's part of LOTRO's history and something that people cared about at that point in time.

      If you would, however, want to define triple A in terms of quality, you should look at various factors and compare them with other MMOs out there. Obviously LOTRO shows its age in the graphics and character creation & design department, but I feel it does well, considering. But in other departments, such as combat design, class balance and instance difficulty scaling, the game struggles with serious problems. And as combat is such a core aspect of MMOs, that's really not something you can ignore. And then there's things such as huge endgame grind to compensate for lack of content and borderline pay-to-win strategies.

      Sure, the majority of people that are left in LOTRO don't care about or are unaware of these aspects, but if you judge an MMO by aspects that are important to its hardcore fans only, *every* MMO will come out as triple A. That sort of defeats the point of the term.

      By usual definition, though, "An AAA game (usually pronounced "triple A game") is an informal classification used for video games with the highest development budgets and levels of promotion." (Source: Wikipedia, "AAA (video game industry".) I think there is no doubt that LOTRO does not fit that category.

      Regardless, LOTRO is a game that will always occupy a special place in my heart. I'm glad I was around in its hayday and experienced it to the fullest. Without LOTRO, I wouldn't consider myself a 'gamer', nor would I have started this blog. I owe much to virtual Middle-earth.

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  5. I've been with LOTRO since Beta testing and dropped out before Moria, then jumped back in, been in and out a few times... leveling is just so darn hard if you've got nobody to play with! I am thinking of picking it up again after reading your blog though... how many hours have you spent in the game?

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    1. Leveling is definitely more fun together: LOTRO really captivated me when I found friends in my first active kinship, and ever since I haven't been alone. Perhaps joining a kinship or playing together with RL friends would help you? As for how many hours... haha, that's quite the personal question! I just logged in my main character, the lore-master, and it says: "You have been playing for: 6 months 1 week 3 days 16 hours 10 minutes 20 seconds". Whoops. Let's not log my other 11 characters to add their time played to that! ;)

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  6. I really enjoyed this post! Good job, thanks for bringing me back in the day!

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  7. LOTRO was the first MMO that made me feel okay about paying a subscription. I fist jumped in during Moria. I loved playing the game and still try to go back sometimes, but the "in your face" store always turns me off. It sucks because I have some really good memories from there.

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    1. The 'in your face Store' is something I can really relate to. I think it's something that especially players that were around before F2P and that enjoy an immersive playstyle experience, as players around me nowadays don't seem to mind it. Back in 2007 I wasn't a gamer (yet), and being able to walk around, escape, if you like, in a virtual Middle-earth was the main reason I started playing LOTRO. The implementation of Store buttons everywhere (and not just the buttons, but also how they brought thoughts of payment decisions from the 'real world' into the game) really broke that spell.

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  8. Despite being a late starter in both MMOs and LOTRO, as a Tolkien fan for nearly fifty years I will always appreciate being able to explore Middle Earth. I realise that I played the old beginning but didn't continue, and only returned when Rise of Isengard came back. The merging of the servers led to my former colleagues going to a different server - through a misleading statement about destination on Facebook. Now I am without friends and only wander the Shire on odd occasions. I seem to have missed so much while you have lived Middle Earth to the full. Many thanks for your memories.

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    1. Aww, it sucks that you guys are separated between servers. I know one could change servers multiple times in the transition period exactly to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but I'm sure that period is now over. Have you tried to send a ticket explaining what happened? I don't know if that would give any results, but this is just too sad! Can you at least play with your wife? Duoing the quest regions has always been a great experience for me (apart from when things disappear if you don't count down before clicking! :P). :)

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    2. We considered that but now my wife and I just play together, although her highest level is in Lothlorien while I've still got to find a character I enjoy playing - my warden perhaps.

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  9. Great post! I started playing in Summer 2013 and I'm so grateful for the F2P option because I couldn't afford it as a paid subscription game.

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    1. F2P brought a new influx of players to LOTRO and I'm convinced it saved the game from a premature demise. I'm happy to read it allowed you to start playing.

      LOTRO's F2P system is one the most beloved out there in the MMO scape. In hindsight, I should probably written a bit more about it in the article (more than just its initial implementation). But then again, I've lost track of the amount of times I've thought "oh, I should've mentioned this... and that...". There are just really so many things that have happened and aspects that can be reflected upon when it comes to LOTRO.

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  10. Really a great "review" of LotRO!!

    As a big Tolkien-fan i read nearly all literature of middle earth including those about Tolkien and his work - some of them more than once. Unfortunately i missed the release of LotRO and therefore i started playing in early 2009. In later 2009 i bought MoM. But it took me a whole year to get through SoM (i tried nearly all classe and races). I loved SoM and a bit more MoM. And i wasn´t very pleased about all following releases of the game. That feeling is still the same until today.

    With your description of the development of LotRO you met nearly point of my own mind. Especially the f2p-decision and much more the ridicoulus "mounted combat" made me leave the game after RoR for a longer time.

    What for a pity for this game with its great atmosphere that it came down to a casual everything. As i read some posts of that insider (Aylwen), i now have a better understanding. But that doesn´t make things better. Maybe the times may change, but i´m still doubtful.

    Thankyou for this great article
    Grts toni

    PS: excuse my rstricted english - i´m german.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words and sharing your experience! It is a great shame, indeed. I try not to linger in the past (apart from when I'm writing a post like this, haha) and experience the beautiful things that are still in there.

      PS Your English is great! I wouldn't have noticed that you're not a native speaker if you wouldn't have said so. I suppose you didn't notice that I'm not a native speaker myself, either - I'm Dutch. :)

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  11. Thanks so much for your retrospective! This was very interesting, as I've been in LOTRO since the beginning as well, but couldn't possibly remember all the development history, what came on (and off) and especially how the changes affected the player community (for good and bad).

    What I love most about LOTRO, why I have kept playing it all this time (and kicking myself for not making the leap you did to Founder ... but hey, I happy to keep the developers paid along the way, for if the game doesn't make them some money in the end, it goes down, but I digress...) is how immersive it is, how it continues to mine the Tolkien Lore, and how you don't have to be out at the end of the game to enjoy it.

    For me, I was rarely at the edge of the game, because I decided I wanted to play all the classes .... so my first character, a dwarf guardian, is still just in his 90s! ... with a string of toons trailing along behind. Each character experiences different aspects of the world .... that guardian is pushing mostly into the new areas, the elf is engaged in Mirkwood, the captain following the rangers along the western slopes of the Misties. My minstrel is a member of the Bounders of the Shire, dedicated to role-playing and helping others along in their journey, etc., etc. It may have also helped that I started out and stayed with Landroval server ... seems to have always had an engaged and friendly player community with lots of interesting kinships available.

    In the last few years, I started playing weekly with my two daughters and a son-in-law, who all live overseas. We started fresh, with me taking on a Beorning character, and are only playing the epic story-lines (along with occassional festivals). This is a special time for me to share with them our love for Tolkien, chat as we play to catch-up on what's happening in our lives, joke around with each other for our foolish game-play. I love experiencing this with them, and hope it lasts forever.

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    1. Don't worry, I didn't write this all out by heart! I had to look up old blog posts and the release dates on the LOTRO-wiki - part of why it took two weeks of writing. Time gets recorded in our brains in a really warped way: I had way more memories of certain time periods than others.

      I agree with all the things you love, and it's great to read that you're playing together with your family. LOTRO is such a good fit for that: it's paced in a relaxed way and okay for all ages. Nice to read people are still out there making fond memories. :)

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  12. This is just great history of LOTRO, how it has changed and been perceived over the years.

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    1. That was what I was going for. Thank you!

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  13. I remember quite a few of those releases and how excited I was for Rohan. I am looking forward to getting back there again. :)

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    1. Rohan is such an iconic place, and for a horse lover such as you it's perfect! I just wish the war-steeds weren't so drunk (aka laggy). But even then I love it. :)

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  14. Suilad,

    I was playing LOTRO from 2011 till 2013. It was a fantastic, memorable experience which helped me to endure the sad time of my unemployment. It was only then when I started to read "Silmarillion" and other Tolkien's books. I've never met such a friendly community in any MMO game, perhaps it was because I picked by mistake a civilized US server Arkenstone instead of an European one (e.g. no Russians meaning no Cyrillic alphabet in general chat, which seems to trigger and enrage many players, causing flame wars), perhaps not. Sadly, I felt the endgame content was boring at that time and I quit.
    I'm dreaming of a decent single player Tolkien-based PC game of any genre. I reject "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor" and upcoming "Middle-earth" Shadow of War" because of lore reasons. Sauron wasn't able to curse Celebrimbor to become a "wrath" (what an abominable idea!), Celebrimbor didn't forge the One Ring and Talion was no Beren Erchamion, so he could have been resurrected (by Eru Ilúvatar?). Luckily I found one game that, at least partially, met my expectations: "The Lord of the Rings: War in the North" (2011). If you turn a blind to certain aspects of the interface, it's very enjoyable. I completed it thrice as a Dwarf, twice as an Elf and once as a Dúnadan (120 hours in total according to Steam). I hope to see another Tolkien-based game somewhere in the future.

    Namárie,
    Knephas

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    1. Hi Knephas!

      LOTRO holds a special place in my hearth as well. FYI, originally there was a Russian server; I never encountered any Cyrillic flame wars on my European server, Gilrain. I don't think there's much difference in 'measure of civilization' between US and EU. If anything, hefty political 'discussions' on US servers tended to put me off (while this isn't much of a thing on EU servers because so many people from different countries play together). Generally speaking, I feel the world chat on low population servers is more friendly than on high population ones.

      I share your hope for a new compelling Tolkien based game in the future. Multiplayer would be perfect! I doubt if I'll ever find anything that would match my original LOTRO experience, though. Part of that is also because I was new to MMOs back then.

      Rav

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