Massive Formulas: Spin that Turbine ’til it’s clean.

Author’s Note: After the failure of Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, and Hellgate: London I decided to take a look at some of the successful MMOs we are playing today and see what went right. I’ll also take a look at some of the failures and see what went wrong. This actually takes a lot more research than you’d think, so it will be a regular monthly blog article rather than something I can type in a matter of minutes. I am starting with LOTRO, not because I think it is the best or most successful MMO, but because it is the one I am most familiar with at the present. Looking back into the development process at the features and direction of the games we play can tell us a lot about what we can expect for the future, so this should be educational for all of us. Feel free to leave your feedback and tell me how to improve this feature in the comments.  Remember, the customer is always right. So without further ado, here is Article Number 1 of Massive Formulas.


The idea for a Middle Earth MMO was originally birthed in the late 90′s when Sierra Online purchased the rights to the LOTR license from the Tolkien estate. The project was titled Middle Earth Online (MEO). After some financial and managerial (yes, that’s a word) problems, Sierra trashed the project. Sierra’s new parent company, Vivendi, teamed up with Turbine to keep developing the MMO in 2003. At this point, Turbine was simply piggybacking off of what Sierra had started. It was essentially going to be a MMO that did not give a crap about the lore and merely put in some of the “attractive” gameplay that worked so well in Age of Conan (example: Moria was already complete at the time, but it looked like any other dungeon/cave). At any rate, it seems Turbine had some kind of falling out over the quality of the project, so in March 2005 Turbine left Vivendi to create and publish the MMO on its own with the full support of the Tolkien Estate. The new direction for the game was not to overwhelm players with “innovative” content at first, but use successful MMO traditions and ground them into the world and lore of Middle Earth.

Launch of LOTRO:

Alpha for the Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar began in the late summer of 2006. It was here that Turbine also began releasing almost weekly updates on game locations, classes, and characters. If you followed the hype up to the release, you’ll know it was a lot less about innovation in the genre and a whole lot about lore. The forums were filled with lorebies debating how Bag End should look like in game or whether or not Elves should be playable as certain classes. I signed up for closed beta and got in in late September. This was when it became clear to me how the launch product was going to be designed. LOTRO used a lot of the proven systems of past MMOs and polished them further. The Deed Log, story instances, and the overall bugless-ness of it all was impressive. After almost 10 months of Beta, LOTRO was released on April 24th, 2007. It launched with good reviews and was noted as being one of the smoothest MMO launches ever. Server stability was also commended (Turbine is, first and foremost, a tech company) as the few servers could handle a huge amount of players without any significant issues, and no server crashes. It was polished. Nothing drastically new, but Turbine was banking on the smooth experience lasting long enough to keep players interested for their big whoppers: Content Updates.

Innovation: Better Late than Never

Turbine has always put pride in constantly adding free content updates to its MMOs and LOTRO was no exception. Rather than simply adding a few extra dungeons or quests, these are literally massive, world-changing updates. The first update was nothing innovative either, but it expanded upon the world by adding a new zone. The next five updates on the other hand, would be the start of Turbine’s immense push forward into the future. They added player housing, reputation, Session Play, the barter system, a new monster play class, and an incredibly refined and engaging story that was more about your character and less about the Gandalfs of Middle Earth. As a whole, these aren’t the most innovative of features, but they lay the ground work for what was to come… Moria.

At a cost of thirty dollars, you were getting a lot of bang for your buck in Moria. The combat system was reworked to be slightly more twitchy. Players could now avoid induction attacks performed by NPCs when alerted by the correct visual cues and there was a greater emphasis placed on managing the buffs and debuffs NPCs used. For example, some orcs use a heal skill when they’re about to die which absorbs all damage you do to them and converts it into health. If you turn away and stop attacking, they won’t regenerate any health at all, but if you keep wailing on them, they could recover almost to full health. Fights with even normal mobs were suddenly becoming more engaging and fun. The Legendary Items system was great. There’s nothing I can say you probably haven’t heard so I won’t get into it, but it wowed me. The new hard modes in instances and multiple paths you could take to get different gear rewards also deserve a mention.

Now that Moria is out, Turbine is again focusing on its free updates. The Book 7 update is being released in late March and it keeps LOTRO marching in the forward direction. Reputation gated content which is built in a way that feels like you’re progressing rather than grinding is definitely a step in the right direction, as your character really feels like he’s earning more than silver coins on quest completion. Getting new reactions from NPCs and new content based on reputation sounds great. Turbine are also planting an experiment in this update. Morality. Unlike the torture quest in WoW, this gives you something many MMOs are missing: choice. You talk to a dwarf who wants you to betray the trust of the Elves and hunt their animals. Once you accept the quest from him, an Elf woman asks about what he just told you to do. This opens a quest chain. Do you lose reputation with the elves, but gain the rewards from the dwarf, or do you tattle tale on him and get a huge increase in reputation? Depending on player reaction to this quest Turbine may add more content like this. The update also adds a Quest Guide like what you find in WoW mods or in WAR. Not really an innovation in my book, but I guess lots of people like this. The greatest change in my opinion is the pass over old content. And by old, I mean way old. Rather than simply increasing level-up speed for new players, the Turbine developers have gone back and brought the old content from the newbie areas up to the standard they hold their content to now.  In my mind, this shows dedication to the content they’ve created in the past, and rather than dismissing it by speeding you through it, the team is trying to enhance the experience. You can read more on the Book 7 update here.

Concluding Thoughts:

After a tumultuous beginning, the Lord of the Rings-based MMO founds its course and became a great game. Its Massive Formula? Create a polished game based firmly in the world of Middle Earth, and once that was done, begin adding innovation. With Turbine it seems every update just gets bigger and bigger, and I think this is what they were aiming for. The formula worked and LOTRO has become far more than a mere niche game. Rather than doing a Conan and throwing a bunch of cool content at the media without really caring for the lore like Sierra had planned for MEO, Turbine placed the focus on high quality launch content and moved forward from there.

Massive Formula #1:

Solid launch+Steady Innovation= MMO Success Story. Gold sticker for Turbine.

Come back next month for an analysis of Blizzard and their work on what is perhaps the greatest MMO Success Story of all time: World of Warcraft.

****Want to know more about the original Middle Earth Online? Here are two articles I dug up that can tell you a bit more about it:      Article 1 ; Article 2 ****

11 Comments to Massive Formulas: Spin that Turbine ’til it’s clean.

  1. March 5, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Very nice post Julien.

    Even though I’m not a huge fan of LOTRO, Turbine is one of the best when it comes to free content updates.

  2. March 5, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I hate to argue semantics, but when you mention failures, and then throw up two games that have closed their doors, I think putting Age of Conan there looks stupid.
    It has not closed at this time, and actually has had a resurgence of late due to massive fixes and content updates, and a total revamp of the gear and stats system coming sometime in the following months.
    I would not count it out until the fat lady sings.
    And if you feel you must include it, don’t forget WAR and Darkfall also.

    (And it does not help that you use LOTRO..which STILL SUCKS…ugh)

  3. March 5, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    The other amazing part is it feels like you are lauding Turbine for their success, when it took them two “fails” themselves to get it right (AC2 and DDO).
    Basically they made a cookie cutter MMO, used a popular IP to sell it, and called it good.
    As you said, Funcom focused on “innovation”, which seems to be missing in this genre, and especially in LOTRO.
    As to “closing servers”, Mythic did the same thing in half the amount of time for WAR, does this not also equal a fail?

    Like I said…semantics really.

    But, as a final point, “Second most popular MMO” does not mean it is a good game or worthy of the praise.

    But, we can all agree, that variety equals more gaming for everyone!

  4. March 6, 2009 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Both of your games suck. Conan was a bug-ridden suck fest from hell and Lord of the Rings Online is just a sucky WoW clone that tries to act like it’s one of the big boys in town.

    I can’t believe that either of you suckers play those sucky games.

  5. March 6, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    You are right. What was I thinking? I give up. I will go back to WoW, and suck it up. I mean, no other MMO is WoW, thus I should just stay in WoW.
    I have also changed my diet to BK Whoppers every day, I will eat Corn Flakes for breakfast every day, and I will do the same thing over every day at work.

    Who needs variety!

    I have seen the light thanks to the Resident Drunk!

  6. March 6, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    That’s resident drunken idiot to you…sucka!

    WoW is full of suck too. WAR sucks donkey balls and all of those suckity suck f2p games may as well not even exist.

    I’m going back to playing REAL video games like E.T. The Extraterrestrial on my Atari.

  7. March 8, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    @Jason: Lol, your negativity could power a city or two. If only we could harness it and perhaps keep you dosed with pissed on Cheerios!

  8. March 10, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    I’m glad too that Turbine is reworking the newbie areas, that’s the whole reason I couldn’t get into the game.

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