One License To Rule Them All

“There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will. And he does not share power.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Among the intellectual properties in the world, there is perhaps none so broad, so significant, so sought after as The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). More than simply a “work of fiction,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary epic forged not just a setting but schools of study, languages, even an entire genre: “high fantasy.”

The elements gamers and fantasy aficionados take for granted in modern times owe a great deal to Tolkien: elves, orcs, dwarves, magic swords and – especially – magic rings. While these weren’t new concepts in the fantasy world, Tolkien brought them a new significance.

The license for most of LOTR‘s intellectual property is owned by Tolkien Enterprises, a trading name for the Saul Zaentz Company (SZC). Saul Zaentz himself is a film producer holding Oscars for his work in adapting novels to the silver screen. Zaentz acquired the rights to the franchise in 1976.

So when the time came to create Middle-earth as a playable environment for a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), it wasn’t simply a matter of slapping some hobbits into the Unreal engine and letting them loose. LOTR isn’t simply an intellectual property, it’s a vision near and dear to millions of people around the world.

One Does Not Simply Texture Mordor
“I think this is something that happens with a lot of license properties,” says Jeffrey Steefel, Executive Producer at Turbine, creators of The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar (LOTRO), “thinking that [once you have a license,] somehow the majority of the important job is done. You just have to wrap the game around it and you’ll be there.”

LOTRO is anything but a wrap job. When Turbine took over the sole rights to what was then Middle-earth Online from Vivendi, it wasn’t a simple matter of acquiring a popular license. The LOTR intellectual property represented a deep, well defined, popular world the creative team at Turbine held near to their heart. They worked hard to demonstrate to SZC that they weren’t just interested in the license, but in the content the license represented. They wanted to make Middle-earth live and breathe. Turbine had to convince SZC that not only were they serious about doing the license justice, they were intent upon demonstrating the sort of attention to detail for which Tolkien was famous.

When they began designing the world, the developers would start by running their concepts past SZC, getting approval of their ideas before they started with any serious design work. “We over-submitted to them in the beginning.” Steefel says of their initial partnership with SZC. “We actually submitted for approval probably 10 times more stuff than we were required to do – intentionally. They didn’t even ask for it; we really wanted them to get a sense of what we were doing.”

There were two types of creation, each with its own challenges: detailing existing and well-documented areas, and creating new areas that either weren’t mentioned or were only mentioned in passing.

While the better-known areas were more detailed in existing lore, they still provided a serious challenge: The area had to live up to not just the incredibly detailed descriptions in the books, they had to compete with people’s expectations from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation. And while your general fans might get upset with something not looking as they’d expect it to, they were introduced to Middle-earth on a whole new level when it became populated with their fellow players. What’s more, the MMOG angle made things even more daunting: Although many videogames were created since 1982’s The Hobbit, this was the first time fans would be able to complain about Bree being too laggy.

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“SZC knows about [videogames], but we still took time to point out how online gamers can be different.” Steefel confesses. “We still had to say, ‘Hey, we just introduced Angmar, Angmar didn’t really show up as we’re portraying it [in the books] in the Third Age – you guys should be prepared, you might even get letters from angry fans telling you that Turbine is destroying the license.’ And you know what? They did.”

Consult the Book of Armaments!
In many ways, working within Middle-earth is extremely structured, even when you’re creating new areas. Tolkien was so structured in his fiction, so careful in his creations, the world has a very unique, strict style.

Steefel is quick to agree. “The thing that’s great about Tolkien is that he’s so consistent about what he does. … If you study [Middle-earth] a lot and you spend a lot of time with it, and you really pay attention, you start to learn what kind of things would exist in this world – even if they didn’t – and what kind of things wouldn’t. That means that even new things that we created out of the blue aren’t entirely out of the blue, they’re created inside that mythology and that rule set, and they’re things that make absolute sense being there.”

Things like weapons and armor follow similar sorts of guidelines. Dwarven-crafted armor has a very distinct style – solid, enduring and practical – that separates it from elven-crafted armor, which tends to look much more intricate.

Most gamers, however, don’t spend their time closely examining weapons. Instead, they’re off in search of the Fellowship.

These Are Not The Hobbits You’re Looking For
Everyone wants to be Aragorn or Legolas or Gimli – possibly even Frodo. So, when it came time to adapt the LOTR license into an MMOG, the individual player’s role was called into question. A player wants to feel he’s significant in the story, and if he can’t be one of the main actors or meet the Fellowship, he at least wants to be able to get involved somehow.

“The story isn’t just about the Ringbearer,” says Steefel. “The story is about the War of the Ring and the war between the free people of … Middle-earth and Sauron that’s been going on for thousands of years.” To that end, Turbine took cues from what was going on in the background. Although LOTR focuses primarily on the Fellowship and their part in the War of the Ring, there are numerous smaller stories going on. The trick lies making these smaller stories feel important.

And in the License Bind Them
Introducing a faithful reproduction of a license in a new format creates more interest in the license and can reach people that weren’t previously interested. The Peter Jackson movies have grossed almost $3 billion dollars worldwide; while LOTRO probably won’t come close to that figure, Jackson’s success goes to show what great work and a great license can combine to achieve.

Working with a major license can be a frightening experience, but the rewards can be hugely satisfying. Beyond simple financial success, it’s a chance to connect with a new audience and show them what you can do with a world they love.

And to do it without a single reference to “dwarf-tossing” is superb.

Shawn “Kwip” Williams is the founder of N3 (NeenerNeener.Net), where he toils away documenting his adventures as the worst MMOG and pen-and-paper RPG player in recorded history.

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