Right now, I have absolutely no data points for explaining why I am back to playing Lord of the Rings Online. Actually, just one: I started watching the Fellowship of the Ring last week, and that kind of put the bug in my ear, I suppose, although I had sworn that my relationship with MMOs was pretty much down and out.
LotRO is one of those games which, for me, is perfectly serviceable. I don’t dislike it, but I also don’t really love it. I like the Lord of the Rings mythos just fine — how can I not; it’s basically the jumping-off point for all high fantasy in the 20th century and beyond so I can’t exactly get away from it. When I originally played at launch, the world was still riding high on the conclusion of the cinematic trilogy and the game served to return those folks to Middle Earth who had never wanted to leave after The Return of the King (and maybe for whom the original source was a bit too hefty to hold). The idea of “new stories” parallel to the Fellowship where players were the focus was too good to pass up both for Turbine (now Standing Stone) to develop and for players to experience.
As with all MMOs after Ultima Online, I was flying solo for the most part. I eventually took my elven ranger Jeliel through to the Lone Lands, and it was there that I started to stall. LotRO, for better or worse, can be as dense in content as the source materials. I felt bogged down in this zone, as there were dozens upon dozens of quests that seemed to multiply with every turn-in of a previous step. The game had been developed during the heyday of the MMO when the preferred mission setup was to bounce players around a zone like a pinball, offering quests that sent them far afield, then snapping them back to the original quest giver before sending them back to the same locations over and over until that one quest was received that had our characters delivering something — a letter, an object, a pie — to an NPC in the next level-appropriate zone. These quests aren’t anything to write home about either, which doubled down on the drudgery. “Get me X number of [Insert objects here]” or “go talk to this person” who invariably would offer you three more quests to “kill Y number of creatures” or “collect Z objects” again. But this was Middle Earth, the grandest, deepest, now most-recognized high-fantasy world on Earth (until Game of Thrones hit the mass market, I suppose). Busywork was the price people were willing to pay in order to “live” in this seminal work of literature. Eventually for me, though, as someone who liked LotR well enough but didn’t love it, the mechanics turned out to be too threadbare to make a difference, and my poor ranger was abandoned at Ost Guruth.
I returned a few times over the years, especially when the game went free to play in 2010. I am not one to get bothered over the free to play model; I always make due with what’s in front of me rather than take to the forums to bitch about what I want, so the inevitable inclusion of a cash shop to the game didn’t phase me. In fact, the opposite: when at the very first PAXEast, Turbine was there with a full team. I have two collectors editions of the game signed by the developers, and my friends and I all got handfuls of LotRO Point cards which I am still enjoying to this day. But I always knew my subsequent returns to the game would be short; The Lone Lands were still as annoying as ever.
Why not roll an alt, then? I had, of course, because one thing I really like about LotRO (and World of Warcraft, honestly) is that there are many different starting areas. When my ranger was combating ennui, I tried making a hobbit. Then a human. I have started in all zones on offer until the threads intertwined to put my characters on same trajectory that my ranger had endured. Eventually, I couldn’t bring myself to make another alt because I was sick of each of the starting zones. If I had to kill spiders outside of Archet one more time, I swore I’d march that damn Ring up to Sauron’s door myself, just to be done with it all.
So why am I back again? A few things seem different this time. First, my gaming habits have changed. I have been moving away from tent-pole genres like MMOs at speed for quite some time, making this particular foray a novelty. Second, as mentioned, I was in the Lord of the Rings spirit which continues because I have yet to finish re-watching the entire cycle and that is on my mind quite frequently as of late. Third, the game has gotten…easier. This is not something that a lot of players would like to hear, and while I have no hard data to back it up, it feels true. My ranger was in the very low 30’s around Ost Guruth, and I remember her having a hard time just getting around solo Back in the Day. This time, I have completed many, many quests and have only died once (I accidentally pulled an entire zone, or so it felt) but have since not even come close to breaking a sweat in combat. I read something about the game recently that reinforced this belief and which quoted some players as saying that they were OK to steamroll mobs if it meant they could immerse themselves in the environment that is Lord of the Rings. To that, I would say that they are not wrong.
Basically, LotRO has become a calm, relaxing game for me this time around. I can plow through quests with relative ease, which means they get done faster. I can devote as much or as little attention as I like (assuming I don’t pull another zone) and this has allowed me to come to grips with the loneliness of the Lone Lands — yes, my ranger is still there, but she’s making progress! I’m only half-attending to the stories, enough to know what’s going on but not enough to really care because I know that if I attempted to invest myself in what’s really going on, then I’ll lose that lassez faire connection I am enjoying, and the game will turn into a must-see, must-do situation that helped kill the vibe for me the first few times around. I even finally bought a house, which is something I hadn’t been able to do in the past because I could never have afforded it. Several of the Wombats have also returned to the game, as Wombats do, and yesterday we pooled our money to purchase a kinhouse.
I am probably courting fate by writing this post, as usually happens when I make my thoughts on a subject known. My immediate goal is to put the Lone Lands behind me, though, and I want to play at least until that is done. Ideally everything after that point will be a new experience for me, although I don’t expect the quest structure to change much. I will add this postscript to say that I am playing this through Shadow, the remote game streaming platform (since talk of these things is in vogue right now). All things being equal, I never think of the fact that the game is actually installed on a server somewhere along the Eastern seaboard and not under my desk, which is a compliment to the Shadow crew. It also means that I can install the client on a laptop and play it elsewhere in the house, which may help extend the longevity of my visit to Middle Earth this time around.