Middle-earth Online: An Overview - Details on VU Games upcoming Middle-earth MMORPG

A few years back Sierra was working on a Middle-earth online RPG. Now while the idea of a Middle-earth MMORPG excited me, I was still very skeptical. I've seen too many online games fail to live up to their potential, and just become another Everquest clone.

However as I followed it I became more and more excited. It seemed that the people making the game really understood the Middle-earth world, and were trying to make a game true to the Tolkien vision. It even included things that were daring to propose, like the idea of permanent death. Once you died, that's it. There was no ressurecting your character, once you died it was time to start over. The people making this game I thought were bold and daring, and I had great hope for it. Sadly Sierra cancelled it and I was crushed. I saw this cancelling as a symbol of what is wrong with the computer industry as a whole, and became very jaded. I became convinced that there would never be a Middle-earth game that remained true to his vision, and so for a while I stopped paying any attention to anything gaming related to lord of the rings.

And so it was with great trepidation and skepticism that I began to research the latest incarnation of the Middle-earth online RPG. However in researching, my fears have eased somewhat, though I still have many concerns. However I do feel the developers are trying to stay true to the Middle-earth lore, while balancing that with fun gameplay. This preview I hope will shed some light as to what shape the Middle-earth RPG is becoming. A lot of details have still not been released, and so I have tried to paint a picture using various statements found on the web. Many of which are by the producer, Chris Taylor, who, just to clarify, is not Dungeon Siege's Chris Taylor, but the Chris Taylor who worked on Interplay's RPG masterpiece Fallout and also wrote the fantastic manual for the game. My hope is that this preview will give the reader some understanding behind the reasoning behind the various aspects of the game, and from this reasoning can infer what type of shape the game will become.

Timeline:

What will the timeline be for the game? While the developers have shown a desire to have a world that takes place during the Silmarillion, they do not have the rights to it and can't do it. They also discussed the fourth age, but as Chris says "Tolkien's publisher suggested that he write a sequel to LOTR. Tolkien thought about it for a while and then decided that the 4th Age wasn't epic and there wasn't anything really interesting to write about it that makes a successful tale following the events at the end of the 3rd age. Good enough for me": Instead the Middle-earth online game will take place during the third age, when the events that happen during the Lord of the Rings take place. Now obviously the idea of actually experiencing the events that happen during Lord of the Rings is cool, but because most of the story is shaped by what the Fellowship does, it will be tricky to make the players feel that they are actually participants in the story, not just spectators. To make them feel that they are controlling what happens in the world, and not just reacting.

So what are the developers doing to make the game feel like Middle-earth and not just some Everquest clone? One way they are doing it is by dealing with Tolkien's themes of temptation and corruption. The player will have a scale determining how virtuous or corrupt they are. And this will affect players' interactions in the world, and what cities they will be allowed into. There will be many ways that a player is tempted and corrupted. Quests will be able to solved through different means, some more or less virtuous then others. Rare magic items may be found, yet will tempt the player with their power. This also raises the question of how will magic be dealt with. Chris has stated that magic will exist in the game, but it will be very subtle, and once again very tempting.

A Question of Race

What type of races will you be able to play?  So far the details remain a bit fuzzy... The official FAQ so far lists 4 races, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and man. However statements by Chris imply that they are possibly contemplating letting the player play the other "evil" races, though allowing this creates complications. "We have put a lot of thought into the role of "evil" and corrupt races in Tolkien. There are very serious issues about having virtuous and corrupted characters living and playing side by side without some serious restrictions. (Some restrictions we are obligated by contract to adhere to.)" Also the official FAQ mentions being able to fight for against Sauron. Whether that means as an evil race like an orc or just a corrupt human remains to be seen.

The Problem with Elves

Which leads us to the problem of elves: As those who have read the books or seen the movies know, Elves are less plentiful in the third age and are leaving Middle-earth. Therefore a huge population of elves wouldn't really be consistent with Tolkien's vision. However there will be a desire for many people to play an elf. So the question is how do you balance the two? While several ideas have been proposed, so far Chris seems dissatisfied with them. He states, "I agree that the racial selections should match the source material, but I don't like the idea of blocking off content to players and not giving them any chance of being able to see it...I don't like the idea of forcing people to spend large amounts of time playing one character before they can be "promoted" to another character. Besides losing the connection with the original character, and their casual social bonds when they switch characters, I'm not too keen on forcing people to spend large amounts of time doing something they don't really want to do. That seems Unfun...So, I dunno, I don't see very good ways of handling limited races in a fair manner. Highly open to discussion as long as we can avoid specifics for now."

I'm a Level 65 Cleric, what are you?

In the game you will be able to engage in various professions, not just combat-orientated ones. However there probably will not be specific classes for the various professions. Chris has talked about instead having broad classes. This leads us to how they are going to deal with advancement. There are various ways that characters advance in RPG's, all of which have pros and cons. The most common system is seen in games like Everquest. Various things like killing monsters gives you experience points and those experience points are then allocated to increasing your class level. The problem is this hinders role playing because you can raise your class by doing things that really aren't suited for your class. A thief can become a better thief by going around and killing monsters, without really using more "thief" like actions. On the other hand you've got the skill based system which games like Ultima Online use. This is more beneficial in some ways because as you use your specific skill you become more proficient in it, without it affecting skills not relevant to that particular skill. Thus our thief can only become a better thief by using his thieving skills. Chris has stated that what will probably exist is some type of hybrid between the two. However the details of that are still vague. He has stated though that he thinks there should be some sort of limitation about what skills and abilities one has, because this diversifies the playing field and gets rid of uber-templates. Also by not allowing a character to max out on all their skills it make the player have to make choices and helps enhance role-playing. Also one of the innovative ways they are going to deal with skill advancement though is to have your skills advance while you are offline. This will be a huge benefit for those who don't have the time to play hours a day and will help balance out the playing field between hardcore and casual gamers.

The issue about advancement also relates to how to deal with solo and group playing. Some games let you be able to advance in the beginning by going solo, but force you to join a group if you want to advance to the higher levels.. Others have the player suffer no penalties if he goes solo. Chris explains his thoughts. "With that in mind, I think there is room for solo play in an MMP. We realize that not everyone will play the game the same way (which is one of the really neat things about MMPs that tend to cause all sorts of design and balance problems). There are times when soloing is the only option available. And I don't think that it's unreasonable to have some types of characters solo better than other characters, as long as that information is available during character creation or if characters can be changed over time to better fit the player's play style. This is a MMP, however, and that means we should be emphasizing reasons for people to play together. The group should have some sort of advantage over a solo player, and multiple groups (ie. raids) should have some sort of advantage over the group and solo players. I think it's a little unreasonable and far more difficult to balance a game if you assume that a solo player can access the exact same content as a larger group of players. I don't like game designs that allow you to solo until a certain level and then require grouping. I like game designs that have options for soloing, but make grouping and raiding more desirable over time. That seems to strike the best balance between the different types of play styles, players and game content."

Around the World in 80 Days?

Another challenge the developers have is how big to make the world? According to Chris Taylor, you have 2 main issues. On the one hand you have to have it big enough to convey the epic sense of the story. And also to make it big enough to fit the amount of people playing it so it isn't too crowded. On the other hand, travel in Middle-earth in the books is pretty much limited to walking, horse riding, and boats. So it wouldn't be fitting with Tolkien lore if you could "teleport" to various sections, which is how many online games deal with the issue of a large world. Now while they haven't yet specified on how big the world will be, they have given hints about how they are going to deal with this problem. One idea is that after you have first traveled to a location, the next time you want to travel to that location it will be faster. This way it encourages people to travel and explore the world, yet they don't have to deal with the tedium of traversing the same terrain over and over again. Another thing they have suggested is for the world to start small (small being in comparison to the whole size of Middle-earth), and fill that world with content, and then as the game progresses to expand the size of the world. This also brings up what types of travel we can expect. So far there haven't been any specific details whether we can expect horses and boats, however he has said."...I can't imagine doing the Riders of Rohan without horses". The world will eventually be populated with player owned housing related to the type of race one is However housing will be limited in such a way as to remain true to the Tolkien spirit.

I want to kill me some Hobbits!

Another issue they have to deal with is whether to have player vs. player combat. At first if one reads the official FAQ one comes away with the idea that there will not be any PvP. Player versus Player, as it is normally categorized, doesn't fit with the world Tolkien created. A great conflict between good and evil is taking place. An Elf and Hobbit fragfest over the hills of the Shire doesn't honor the grandeur of this epic story. However statements by Chris Taylor have led me to believe differently. He has stated "We have some ideas and plans that we unfortunately cannot share at this time, about how we can implement PvP in a Tolkien world that is both unique and proper in regards to the license." It seems to me that key words in the FAQ are "as is normally categorized". I have a feeling PvP will exist, just not in the traditional manner we have become accustomed to. For example, you can't really allow for massive battles between dwarves and elves, because in the third age while they definitely didn't get along there really wasn't any blood spilled between the races.  So there must be limitations placed on PvP combat. However this doesn't mean one has to eliminate it altogether. As stated in the FAQ, you will be able to fight for or against Sauron. Which leads me to believe that there will be PvP, but only related to the battle between the free races of Middle-earth and the forces of Sauron. Chris has also stated that he wants there to be no non-consensual PvP. This means that you will only participate in it if you have chosen to. Those that don't want to participate don't have to.

The Journey to the Grey Havens and Beyond

Finally we come to the issue of dealing with death.  While details remain sketchy we can infer from Chris's comments that there will be no permanent death. Many of the reasons he gives are understandable. It is incredibly disheartening to play a character for years and then see all of your work disappear because of one mistake. However one of the things I liked about the previous Middle-earth game was that while permanent death existed, as long as you played smart and didn't do anything stupid you probably weren't going to get killed. Therefore it encouraged smart playing, made you carefully consider your actions, and discouraged immature playing. I remain very curious as to how they are going to handle this issue.

Questions, Questions that need Answering

There are many other questions still to answer. Will there be some sort of guild system? The FAQ does mention belonging to "fellowships" which might be their version of a guild system. How will the combat work? The developers say that it will be much more tactical and strategic then we are used to seeing. How they are proposing to do this remains to be seen. There are many more besides these which hopefully we'll able to answer in the near future.

My biggest concern when I heard that a new Middle-earth online game was being made is that there would not be care taken to remain true to Tolkien's vision. I feared that one of the reasons the original game was cancelled is because trying stay true to that vision involves doing things that might be controversial and risky, and doesn't fit in with the typical cookie-cutter pattern of many online games. In reading info on the new game though, I do believe the developers are trying to stay true to that vision. Whether or not they succeed remains to be seen. However I feel that if they fail, won't be for lack of trying. And personally that's more then I was expecting.

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