Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Insert Joke About "One Ring" Here...

This week's big mmorpg news has to be the out-of-the-blue announcement that Amazon's supposedly-abandoned plan to launch a new game based on the Lord of the Rings IP is back on. You could have picked this up anywhere. It was all over the media, from Variety to the Lord of the Rings Online forums, although I think I first spotted it at, where there was an interview with Amazon Games vice president Christoph Hartmann about it.

Hartmann kind of skates over the reasons why the earlier deal with Tencent fell apart but he has some interesting things to say about the potential clash between the juggernaut he's driving and the horse-drawn haycart that is Standing Stone's LotRO:

"First of all, I have a lot of respect for them to keep it going that long. They have a, not huge, but a very dedicated fanbase. But looking just at the technology, where we're at now, and where we will be in a couple of years, it's just worlds apart. It's a little exaggeration if I say it's going to be like black and white movies to colour, but that's the approach I want to take. It's just a completely different world."

That seems not just fair but, if anything, a polite understatement. Let's assume Amazon's game will take at least three years to launch, although five would probably be more reasonable estimate. In three years, LotRO will be almost twenty years old and to be charitable it was hardly cutting-edge in 2007. As Wilhelm pointed out in a post only yesterday, LotRO is all but unplayable on a 3440×1440 monitor and the official launcher, as I can readily confirm, is one of the worst in the genre.

Aesthetically, LotRO may be a magnificent rendering of Tolkein's vision, holding true to both the spirit and the fact of the lore, but it's also a clunky, awkward video game that's showing its age a good deal more obviously than many of its contemporaries. While I think it's likely that Hartmann will be proved wrong in his belief that "the most likely scenario is… for people just to move over, because the other one is an old game", that's going to have more to do with the stubborn, set-in-their-ways attitude of the current playerbase than the intrinsic merits of the game. Well, that and the inevitable drag factor of sunk cost, fallacious as it may be.

Of course, the preferences of a few thousand LotRO players is most likely going to be neither here nor there. As Hartmann observes, their numbers are "not huge". Then again, are they all that much smaller than those for Amazon's one and only home-grown mmorpg to date, New World? That game sold more than a million copies in a matter of days but now, after all the very well-publicized problems it's had over its first year or so of operation, Steam shows it with an average concurrency of just 15k. 

Of course, when you have fifteen thousand people playing your game at the same time, that probably means at least fifty thousand playing in total. Maybe more, although a multiplier of more than five would seem over-optimistic. Let's say 75k, tops. 

Is that more than LotRO? I'd have thought so but apparently others disagree., posing the question "Is LotRO Worth Playing in 2023?", reckon "The LOTRO population has seen a resurgence over the last year or so and is currently quite healthy with around 100K active players." Other equally unreliable sources talk about daily concurrencies of 30-50k, which sounds, frankly, insane to me.

How they come by any of those figures is anyone's guess but we can at least say for certain that LotRO does still have the potential to attract new or returning players after a decade and a half. As Brightlife reported about a year ago in a YouTube video entitled "LotRO is ALIVE in 2022!", GameSpot recorded the game's highest player count in ten years back in April of last year.

Sounds amazing until you realize that was still only 3,700 peak concurrent players on Steam. Now, given, Steam is very definitely not how most LotRO players access the game - most of them are still using that terrible launcher - but the Steam Charts do at least provide some comparative data. A year later, that average concurrent player count on Steam has fallen back by more than 75% to linger somewhere in the eight-hundreds.

All of which doesn't prove much. It does, however, demonstrate the hardiness of the game Turbine made and that Standing Stone (Or Daybreak, if you prefer the masks-off version.) continue to curate and develop. It's not unlikely that over the course of its lifetime LotRO has seen more players in total than New World or that it currently retains a greater percentage of those players after sixteen years than New World does after a year and a half.

If Amazon's Lord of the Rings MMORPG does put an end to LotRO, I very much doubt it will because of a bleed-over of population. I'd lay odds the huge majority of current players won't move across, just like the huge majority of EverQuest players didn't abandon that game in favor of EverQuest II. Just because two games share the same IP doesn't make them interchangeable.

What would seem to be the  greater threat would be some combination of legal or commercial circumstances outside of the games themselves, limiting or ending Standing Stones' ability to carry on with their version. By some accounts (The ones I believe.) it was something like that which led to the eventual closure of Star Wars Galaxies, when Star Wars: the Old Republic appeared over the event horizon.

I suspect, however, that some kind of "One Country, Two Systems" compromise will be the eventual outcome. Put another way, if Amazon's game is successful, LotRO will be too insignificant to matter and if it's not, no-one will care, anyway. Either way, benign neglect should see the older game through.

From a personal perspective, I'd love to see Amazon's game succeed. The press release makes it sound very appealing: "an open-world MMO adventure in a persistent world set in Middle-earth". I'd play that.

The proposed game will be developed by "Amazon Games Orange County, the studio behind Amazon Games’ open-world MMO game “New World.” That's good. I really like New World. The main reason I don't play any more is because my machine is too old to run it well and I got fed up with the restrictions that come with playing it on GeForce Now.

New World has certainly had its problems but the core game has always been fun to play, the world has always felt convincing and the team behind it has shown dedication, persistence and imagination. It's only reasonable to assume the studio has learned a lot from the experience of building and operating their first, major MMORPG and that that experience will serve them well in developing another.

My main concern is that if it takes five years, as it probably will, I'll be seventy when it arrives. I'm getting to the stage where it doesn't make a lot of sense for me to get too excited about projects that could take years to complete. I mean, imagine if it ended up taking as long as Camelot Unchained or Star Citizen...

On the bright side, if I am in a position to play Amazon's Lord of the Rings when it comes out, at least I should have a PC able to run the game by then. The one I've got isn't going to last another five years, that's for sure.

At my age, you have to take your wins where you can find them.


  1. Thank you for not referencing the Steam numbers for LOTRO, which cover only the numbers that launch from Steam. I, my kids, and almost everybody I know who plays LOTRO doesn't use Steam for the game at all, so going by Steam's numbers would be a huge mistake.

    Amazon Games will also have to deal with the blowback from The Rings of Power, which tainted more than a few Tolkien fans on Amazon's ability to create anything in Middle-earth. For the record, I never saw The Rings of Power and had no desire to do so, but due to my encountering of both sides to the love it/hate it crowd I realize that Amazon Games has a huge credibility gap among people who would be potential players of the game. Maybe the Shadows of Mordor crowd would be the target audience for the new game, because the devs for that game took liberties with the IP that LOTRO never would.

    Right now, Amazon Games really has to step it up and deliver an extremely quality product if they want to maintain any credibility at all in gamer space, and I'm not exactly sure they are up to the challenge. Sure, the suits and bean counters can point to the number of units sold for New World and call it a success, but given expectations New World was an incredible failure. Amazon thought it was getting a cash cow and it got... uh... a dumpster fire, I suppose. So while Hartmann may be paid to hype up his own studio, that's all purely smoke and mirrors at this point. Having seen the other side of the management / grunt divide, it's quite easy to fool yourself using spreadsheet metrics that everybody is doing a good job and things are all going well. Right up until the division implodes, I guess.

    Amazon Games' expectation of the LOTRO playerbase moving over to the new game is a complete misreading of the tea leaves about LOTRO itself. A good chunk of the playerbase plays LOTRO because of the things you can't do anywhere else, such as play in a band or put on a musical on a stage. A good chunk of the playerbase are people who were highly critical of The Rings of Power, and that strike against Amazon is something the Games' division would have to work hard to overcome.

    1. Yeah, Steam numbers don't mean much for any older mmorpg, all of which wil have been retrofitted to the platform years after their prime. New World, on the other hand, is only playable through Steam, as far as I know, so it's one of the rare games we have exact population numbers for.

      I completely refute the narrative that New World was - or is - a failure. It's one of the best mmorpgs I've ever played in terms of content, setting, lore and very definitely combat. Other than Black Desert and Dragon Nest, I can't think of another game I've played where fighting is just so satisfying, physically, that I often pick fights with mobs when I don't have to rather than trying to avoid them. The housing and crafting are excellent, too.

      Other than the huge issues the development team had in getting to grips with the technical problems, I see New World's big problem in holding on to the players it originally attracted as much the same as those that plagued GW2 in the first year or so. MMORPG players talk a good game about wanting freedom of action and making their own way in the virtual world but in reality what most of them want is more like Summer Camp. They want lots of activities laid on and someone to give them a timetable to follow. The New World team made the mistake of assuming people would pace themselves and act in their own best interests, which shows how naive they were. I think they probably have a better understanding of what players really want, now.

      I'll get to answering the points about what LotRO offers and what LotRO players want in my reply to Wilhelm below, but suffice to say I think these two games are going to serve very different markets. I wouldn't expect there to me much crossover between their audiences at all. As for the Rings of Power series, I think that flopped to an extent because it was reaching for a general audience that may not actually exist for the IP. I think Tolkein fans tend to overestimate the interest in his work outside of its niche. I mean, Gandalf may be popular but he's no Obi Wan, let alone Harry Potter.

  2. I turn 63 next month. It's really nice to read someone who is facing that same kind of "Where will I be when it's done" uncertainty. Jeez that sounds dark! I do wonder how long I'll continue gaming, though. Assuming I stop gaming before I stop breathing. I have arthritis in my hands but so far it isn't too bad, but I figure that'll probably be what stops me, if anything does. When it just hurts too much to play. So far that seems like a ways off, though.

    1. On the one hand, I don't want to be too pessimistic. I don't have any age-related difficulties playing games yet. I could have another couple of decades in me! On the other hand, it gets less and less reasonable to just assume I'll be around for whatever the next big thing might be. At some point I won't be, for sure. It's just musical chairs at this point.

  3. That interview article has some potential quote of the day material in it. There certainly seems to be a red flag in the "lessons learned" column when Hartmann speaks of mistakes made during the launch of New World.

    Certainly the lesson of MMORPGs is that some set of users will never leave. LOTRO is pretty clanky when compared to WoW, and has been since the day it launched. But LOTRO scatches needs for people that they cannot get elsewhere. Being on Landroval at the moment, hanging around outside the Prancing Pony will demonstrate just how many people want to be, for example, in a Middle-earth band. On Saturday evening I saw five fully dressed up groups waiting their turn to perform. And even on a weekday night there is usually a couple of bands out there.

    And, of course, there are the social bonds, which we all know keeps people in their game and on their server long after they are "done" with a game. I go back to TorilMUD every so often and see the same people... and they see me and say "hi"... even after 30 years. The game isn't great... it is a MUD from 1993... but people still hang out.

    Finally, as you say, it will be years before anything Amazon does comes to fruition. My ability to care about new MMORPGs or to devote as much time to playing has diminished over the last decade and a half. I don't expect that trajectory to change.

    1. Even though I just hung a post on it, I think the whole "Will it kill LotRO?" thing is a red herring. Of course it won't. Players of all the older mmorpgs are stuck there for good by this stage. Either they're too committed or too curmudgeonly to move.

      Of course, even there I'm falling into the trap of assuming it's an either/or question. As someone who's been juggling multiple mmorpgs since the turn of the milennium, I oughtn't to get suckered into that dead end. No-one's going to need to cancel their LotRO sub to go play Amazon's game, which will almost certainly be either B2P or F2P anyway. If people are interested in both they'll play both.

      I strongly suspect, though, that very few LotRO players will be interested in playing it at all. I imagine the gameplay won't appeal and neither will the way Amazon handles the lore. Contrarily, the players who do respond well to one or other or both of those things are very unlikely to be interested in an ancient game with weird graphics and archaic gameplay - even if they can get it to run on thier machines, which as Yeebo below points out, is very much not a given these days.

      I was very taken with the part of the interview where Hartmann emphasized that his version would be a game first and foremost and a faithful iteration of Tolkein's vision second, if at all. The plain fact is that, if Amazon get the gameplay right, the game will be a success because it will attract an audience that enjoys playing video games but only knows the Lord of the Rings name as a brand. So long as it has Elves and Hobbits iand Orcs n it they'll be more than satisfied. And that audience has to be a lot bigger than the genuine Tolkein buffs.

  4. I have two different modern PCs that I cannot get LoTRO to run on at all here, at least not from a default installation from the SSG website. I have completely missed this year's anniversary celebrations because of it. There are threads listing roughly a half dozen things I could try to get the game up and running. Last week I did a fresh install (something like a 35GB download) and then dutifully started working my way through a checklist of increasingly arcane things I could try to get the game running. After I went through two of them, I thought to myself "What the hell am I doing?" and just stopped. Life is too short. If they can't bother to make their game as easy to install and get running on a modern PC as an average download from Good Old Games, I can't be bothered to play.

    I hope that SSG gets their act together at some point, because from that article I don't think whatever Amazon is working on will be as much to my tastes as LoTRO. The talk of instant gratification and "modern expectations" has me more than a bit skeptical. However I will certainly keep an eye on it, and I'd be delighted to be mistaken.

    1. To add two things to my comment:

      1. I agree with Redbeard that there is very little chance most LoTRO players would be willing to move. Also, if Steam numbers are peaking at 800, you can figure that real concurrency is probably closer to 8000, whihc is not far off from 15K.** (more below)

      2. That Amazon show as absolutely terrible. It was a generic fantasy show with a slap of Tolkien paint. It wasn't just that the show directly contradicts plot points from the source material, it was that the motivations of the elves and dwarves were completely inconsistent with what is portrayed in the books. One of the very few elves that felt like an actual elf from Tolkien was a character they made up for the show (the elf that get's captured by orcs and helps defend a town). Galadriel and Elrond were only elves in that they had pointy ears. They did not in any way act like elves. The idea that dwarves would find a giant mithril deposit and decide to just leave it there is also absolutely laughable.

      **Player numbers on DDO, SSG's other much less popular MMO, also back up that number as being in the right ballpark:

      This website somehow tracks traffic directly from the DDO game client, and includes counts of both public and anonymous characters. It shows a peak concurrency of about 3000 just in the last week. LoTRO probably has at least twice as many players.

      The point of that long rambling follow up is that LoTRO's numbers likely aren't that far off from what New World is currently doing (15K peak). LoTRO probably at least 30-40% of the current players that New World does. On the other hand, I would be really skeptical of estimates that put concurrencies in the 40K range (?!)

    2. *** Blogger is playing up right now so I'm not 100% sure where this comment is going to appear in the thread. It's meant to be a reply to Yeebo***

      New World's player numbers are shockingly small now. Just the fact that it puts them in the same general pot as games as old as LotRO or DDO is ridiculous. I believe the game was an artistic success but clearly it has to be judged a major commercial failure at this point and it seems very unlikely they can turn that around.

      On the other hand, it could be argued that both those games - and SW:tOR, which probably has similar player numbers - have the benefit of globally famous IPs. It's almost as though having a brand everyone recognizes isn't enough to hold on to players if you don't have the gameplay to back it up!

      I only ever watched the first episode of Rings of Power. It was really dull. I don't have much (Or really any.) interest in how faithful the adaptations are to the source material because I'm not a fan of the originals but I do expect to be entertained. My feeling on the game, when and if it appears, is that if it has gameplay people enjoy, "generic fantasy with a slap of Tolkein paint" will be more than enough for most players. If you look at the kind of names people give their Elves in most MMORPGs, I don't think many care about more than the pointy ears anyway. And all dwarves need is to be short and have beards. And, usually, bad Scots accents...

    3. For sure, it would have been a lot easier to enjoy as a generic fantasy show if it wasn't dull as dirt, or had a plot that made remote sense. Even outside of lore grognard considerations, it was not a good show.


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