Just a week ago, Lord of the Rings Online launched. Every wannabe game writer on the planet had their shot at a preview and a review and a perspective and an opinion. There seems to be a near-universal consensus on a few points.
-- It's World of Warcraft in Tolkien clothing.
-- It launched cleanly.
-- For a dedicated MMO player, LOTRO will just be an intermezzo -- something to tide them over until they either regain their passion for the One True Game, or move on to Warhammer or Age of Conan.
I believe all of this is true. I also think it misses the point.
My experience with MMOs has been similar to my experience in most games -- short term bursts of fashion, a modicum of skill, followed by a decline in interest, ending in a sense of guilt that I have moved on and somehow betrayed something which I loved, and loved me in return.
Lord of the Rings Online has only been part of my canon for a few months. I'm not naive enough to utter the four most expensive words in the English language (this time it's different) but I am willing to say that to dismiss LOTRO as just another MMO is a mistake.
What sets LOTRO apart on the surface is the story. Not the world, the story. Yes, LOTRO benefits from having a rich backdrop of shared experience. Everyone knows what a hobbit looks like, how elves talk, and where the Old Forest is. But this background is nothing more than a shortcut. World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Neocron -- they each have deep, well developed stories, and given the maturity of those worlds, the stories are for fans as convoluted, interesting, and compelling as Tolkien stories are to Tolkien fans. And while the shared knowledge creates accessibility, successful MMOs have long since learned how to bring new players into the stories, the world, and the characters in it in a believable and comfortable way.
The reason that Story sets LOTRO apart is because you know how it ends. This is a luxury World of Warcraft simply can never have. There is no logical end to WoW, where the evil WoW faction of the Horde is victorious, and every member of the good-aligned Alliance dies. The viciously PvP nature of EVE Online means that the story can only sit on the sidelines and inform, not take center stage. But in LOTRO, the game is the story. In this, the game has far more in common with Oblivion than it does with WoW.
When dedicated WoW players join LOTRO, they are hit with what's so similar. The skill system, the crafting system, targeting, combat, even much of the interface can be seen as derivative. Of course, that's the point. WoW built on what worked in the games before its rise to dominance, just as Ultima Online drew on what worked in the 3/4 view RPGs that predated it. This isn't unoriginal, it's common sense. Turbine has simply chosen to use conventions players already know. While there are unique tweaks here and there, and while those could form the basis of an endless discussion of pros and cons, they simply don't matter. These players will simply not survive long in the game. The lack of a real PvP system, and the "just different enough" aspect of the game will likely drive them back to WoW, or on to new games that offer genuine gameplay innovation.
What will keep LOTRO alive is the players who want to be part of a story. Yes, this will mean legions of scary Tolkein freaks who will sit in OOC chat and argue about what kind of tobacco should grow in the shire. But it also means that for those gamers able to admit their love for the story lines in games like Planescape: Torment and Oblivion, there's a new animal here. It's the Co-Op Destiny-locked RPG.
This new beast compels different motivations than WoW. In WoW, the ultimate goal is power. Capping your character is about accessing end game content, and end game content is about new shiny, more powerful PvP, and killing yet bigger bad guys. Don't get me wrong, I love pretty shiny things. And I love power-gathering and PvP and big bad guys. But LOTRO is simply designed to scratch a different itch.
When I log on to play for an evening, sure, I'm stoked if I level up. But I'm stoked not because becoming a bigger bad ass in its own right is fun. No, it's because I know that with more power, I will gain access to more plot. The story -- the real story -- of LOTRO starts at point A, and will, someday, lead to Point B with the destruction of the One Ring. Becoming more powerful means I can read one chapter further into that story, and play my small part in it. And by chapter I mean chapter -- the main story quests are divided into Chapters and Books, apparently following the loose timelines of the six books in the Lord of the Rings. (For the under-geeked, the Lord of the Rings is actually divided into 6 logical books, two packaged into each physical book.) If I'm grouped (umm... fellowed) with like minded souls, the denouement of a given chapter can be breathtaking not because we killed the baddie (woot!) but because we got to experience the story from a first person perspective.
In short, it makes me feel important to the life of the game. Just like Oblivion. Just like Planescape: Torment. And while in those games I know that generally speaking, "the good guys win," in the case of LOTRO, I know how the good guys win. The story I participate in sidecars along known events with known outcomes. Already Turbine has dropped the first carrot out there for new players. In June they're releasing the first content expansion, letting players tag along as Strider goes on a scavenger hunt for all the bits he needs to remake the "sword that was broken." We know what happens -- the sword gets remade. We know when it happens -- sometime between when Frodo shows up at Rivendell unconscious and the lazy buggers get their act together and start heading south. But we've never really known much about how it happened. We get to be part of that story. And while this could devolve into a plodding life of Calvinist pre-determination, so far, it hasn't. Turbine has managed to make the game feel fluid and open, while riding the story on rails.
And while all MMOs can be seen as co-op (after all, that's what grouping is all about), in the case of LOTRO the co-op is the whole point. While much of the content and all of the power of the game could be had solo, the story threads -- the chapters and books -- can't be pursued very far without help. I suppose theoretically a dedicated solo player could wait until they were level 40 to tackle the level 20 chapters solo, but along the way they would have missed most of the game. The game is designed so that everyone is on the same side, pursuing the same goals, together.
It's not a perfect game. As with any game, there are plenty of bugs, or just things that could be done better. It's not a "Killer" or "better than" any other MMO. But it is different in ways that won't show up on any tally sheet of features or rating system.
And different is good.