From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Transforming Tolkien’s world to a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar was launched by Turbine in April 2007, bringing the world of Tokien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to the world of animated pixels residing online on servers powering a persistent online world. Having brought the worlds of Asheron’s Call and Dungeons and Dragons to online life previously, Turbine banked on that experience to deliver the world of Lord of the Rings to gamers around the world. As a game, it was awarded the PC MMO Game of the Year 2007 by the editorial staff of GameSpy and won PC Game of the Year 2007 at the 25th Annual Golden Joystick awards.

But how did Turbine manage to balance game play needs with the myth and story of Tolkien’s monumental works? I spoke with both Craig Alexander, Turbine’s Sr. Vice President of Product Development as well as Meghan Rodberg, Sr. Manager of Online Community Relations.

Carolyn Koh: How difficult was it to adapt Tolkien’s work to a role playing game?

Craig Alexander: You must remember that Tolkien’s work is founded on myth and fantasy, and Lord of the Rings is the foundation of Fantasy. Game play is paramount, but it is an honor for us to make our world consistent with Tolkien’s vision. To tell the truth, it’s easier in a way, to work with established intellectual property. The entire story is already laid out for you.

Meghan Rodberg: The game designers have really done a marvelous job, I think. We may have the rights to Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, but the licensor still has to approve everything that we do. When you read a book, you imagine the landscape and the characters. We were lucky that Tolkien had such in-depth and detailed descriptions of his world, that no one could dispute our interpretation. Then also, some things, such as “the Nameless ones” and some areas were never described, and that allowed us free reign to do what we wanted, within the context of Tolkien’s world.

CK: Did you draw inspiration from the movies by Peter Jackson?

CA: We acquired the rights for the game prior to the movies being released and we actually have to be careful not to infringe on Warner’s rights.

MR: It’s actually hard not to make things like the movies because Tolkien describes some things and some characters in such exquisite detail. There will always be some similarities because of Tolkien’s descriptions. Gandalf will always… look like Gandalf!

CK: So, do you have wings on Balrog?

CA (laughs): We have many Balrogs in the Mines of Moria. Big ones, little ones…

MR: Tolkien does say “wing-like” and you’d have to read the forums to believe the amount of discussion that this very topic elicited.

CK: Tell me, how tough was it for the hard-cord Tolkien Fans to accept Lord of the Rings Online?

CA: The truth of it is that our harshest critics are also our most loyal and passionate fans. They are vocal because they truly love the world of Lord of the Rings and feel that any deviation from canon is sacrilege, but yet some give and take has to happen for a game to be commercially viable.

CK: So tell me about the more difficult challenges. How were the magic using classes accepted by the players?

MR: They were controversial, certainly, but magic did exist in Tolkien’s world. There were only five wizards, but we don’t actually have a wizard class. Our magic users, the Rune keeper and Lore Master use magic to an extent, but their magic relies on ancient lore.

CA: I think we’ve done a good job of integrating our classes into the fiction and story. Telling a story in a book really does translate into a game. For example, we have fast travel and character summoning systems to get players from one part of the world to another. Authors don’t necessarily describe the journey every single step of the way either, but use something like “and three days later, they arrived.”

CK: What about other game systems? Classes for one. Hobbit warriors? Magic using Dwarves? Gaining experience and leveling?

MR: Samwise tanked for Frodo! And Merry and Pippin? They were warriors!

CA: Tolkien invented leveling! Gandalf the Grey defeated the Balrog and became Galdalf the White!

CK: Well, I certainly never thought about it like that! I was assuming… Commoner, Apprentice, Journeyman and Master in the medieval European Guild system.

CA: Well, that too! So you see, history, lore and myth all set the precedence for what we do in game systems.

CK: So tell me about the squirrels.

MR: Oh my God! The Squirrels! This was back in the early stages of the game. You do remember that Lord of the Rings Online started life as Middle Earth Online with Sierra in the mid 90s. The community was mainly composed of hardcore Tolkien fans. They lived for the discussion of esoteric Tolkien minutiae and were excited and yet wary about what was to come, and there was very little information that we could release. We had taken over the license and were only just converting the website from Middle Earth Online to Lord of the Rings Online. We released a screenshot. It was a peaceful scene. A lovely lily pond in a forest glade with two grey squirrels. What did we know? We look out our window and we see grey squirrels, right? We were more concerned with the big picture of making sure we were doing the right things to make this truly the world of Lord of the Rings.

CK: The hullabaloo was because…

MR: Grey squirrels were not introduced into Europe until the age of industrialization in the 1900s and they began to eradicate the native European Red Squirrels. Tolkien was known to have hated machines and the community saw the grey squirrels as a sign of industrialization. Tolkien was rolling in his grave! We were the devil and were ruining the IP. Didn’t we know that Lord of the Rings was set in a medieval fantasy European world?

CK: So you removed the grey squirrels.

MR: It was the number one priority! All grey squirrels were eradicated from the game with extreme prejudice! But we have black ones. Squirrels in Mirkwood are black and evil.

CK: Tolkien equated black with evil didn’t he?

MR: Oh yes, all his characters are white, but for the game, players are allowed to make dark skinned characters as they wish.

CK: What else did you do to make the game resonate with today’s multicultural gamers?

CA: We have a lot of humor in our game. In the recent expansion, Mines of Moria, the Orcs call out Fellowship Maneuvers, a game system which gives power boosts to the players, but they screw it all up.

MR: We have music and dance animations in game, and we have bagpipes and cowbells, including the Moore cowbell complete with animation from the Saturday Night Life skit. There’s also what we like to call “Tolkien Moments” in game. For example, we have an inn in the Shire that’s called the Bird and Baby.

CK: And the significance of that is?

MR (smiles): Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to frequent a pub in Oxford by name of the Eagle and Child.

CA: And when players arrive at the Mines of Moria, they find a dwarf throwing stones into the pool.

CK (laughing): And disturbs the Watcher?

MR: Totally! They have to defeat the Watcher first before they can enter the mines.

CK: So why are there goats as mounts in Moria?

CA: Players by then mostly have in-game mounts which are horses and as we know, no ponies in Moria. So we decided on goats.

CK: Will you have flying mounts then? There’s precedence for that!

MR: No. The eagles only came to aid Gandalf.

CA: Not unless you’re a Nazghul!

CK: Well, that segues nicely into the Creep play. Why did you decide to allow players to play monsters?

CA: Player vs. Player game play is something you aren’t going to get away from. The best challenge and competition a player can face is against another player. Our game’s strength is its lore and story. Its weakness is the PvP system.

MR: We couldn’t have the Free people fighting and killing each other so we invented Monster Play or what the community has dubbed Creep play. At level ten, players can enter the Ettenmoors and play Wargs, Orcs and Spiders against other players playing their regular, Human, Dwarven, Elven or Hobbit characters. Some players enjoy that alternative form of play so much that they’ve abandoned their regular character in favor of their Monster character.

CK: So, why chickens? You have Creeps, Freeps and Peeps in your world. Why do players get to play as chickens?

CA (laughs): Chicken play is fun! Have you ever seen a flock of chickens chase down a bear in game? Besides Tolkien did have animals talk to each other and comment on the state of affairs of the world. If you go gathering wood in the forest, you may hear the wolves talking about the Orcs and wonder what they are up to. All part and parcel of Tolkien’s works and Tolkien’s world.

The first expansion to Lord of the Rings Online, the Mines of Moria was released in November of 2008. This expansion and all the content updates – known as Books – will close out the events of The Fellowship of the Ring. Turbine begins to build out the land East of the Misty Mountains and then begin the events of The Twin Towers.

The great thing about an MMORPG is that the game world evolves and changes. As the story moves forward with each Expansion and Book, Turbine makes changes to the characters and landscape as well. With the launch of the Mines of Moria, Turbine revamped the player starting experience. The players of each race still goes through the same experience as the original players, for example, the Dwarves see Gandalf speaking to Thorin, but the canon characters have been moved from the public landscape into instanced space. That is to say, only players going through that particular chronology in the game will see them there.

This is the game that the New York Times was impressed enough with to proclaim it “a major achievement of interactive storytelling, the first game truly worthy of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ franchise and a must-play for just about anyone with an interest in Tolkien or the future of online entertainment.”

MR: We take our responsibility to the lore very seriously. Our content writers are our very own Lore Keepers.

CK: So what is there to come?

CA: There are few surprises in the development of Lord of the Rings Online. All players have to do is to read the books. Although we do have free reign to develop areas that Tolkien only touches on as well, most of the development will center on the main story line.

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