Rob Ciccolini is not afraid of the new Amazon Lord of the Rings game
As I walked through the halls of Standing Stone Games, The Lord of the Rings Online had celebrated its 111st 12th birthday just several months prior.
It was one of the few MMOs at the time to take on World of Warcraft and live. It was also one of the first-ever MMOs to go free-to-play and survive the shift. LOTRO, as it’s colloquially known, has even survived a studio change! This game has been here for a long time, and if executive producer Rob Ciccolini has anything to say about it, it’ll never end.
I had the chance to visit Standing Stone Games’ offices this week to check in on the team to see what they’ve been cooking up, and what’s next for the game. In case you haven’t been following along, they just wrapped up the War of the Ring saga: Sauron has been defeated, and now it’s clean-up time. There’s still plenty of despair in the realm of Middle-earth, and that darkness continued with the recently released Minas Morgul update, which includes 250+ new quests, seven instances, a Shelob raid, and a continuation of a storyline that’s 12 years running.
What a lot of people don’t know is that LOTRO helped revolutionize storytelling in MMOs; far before the grandeur of Final Fantasy XIV‘s 2.0 run. Current executive producer Rob Ciccolini is proud of that legacy, and hopes to continue it for…well..forever. When asked about the biggest impact LOTRO had in the MMO space, Ciccolini replied “the world itself, most definitely. The thing about LOTRO is that it has this huge world, and that world has a special meaning for players. Now with that world comes expectations that we’ll do right by the lore of Tolkien, but I think we’ve succeeded on that front so far and will continue to do that.”
I pressed Ciccolini on what the key ingredient was that allowed LOTRO to survive this long, and he immediately responded with “our players.” He continued, “you see at the time, we were breaking new ground with the free-to-play model, and we really didn’t have anything to go off of. We ran the risk of going too far with it, but we have to constantly balance between being risk-averse and going all out. Our players help guide us in that respect and I think it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
One of the big successes in recent years has been the implementation of legacy servers (called “Legendary Servers” in LOTRO), similar to WoW Classic before Classic was a thing. Ciccolini says that these have been doing great for the company, taking in lessons that they’ve learned from their other property, Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO). Ciccolini points out that the permadeath “hardcore league” has been wildly successful: allowing players to risk their character dying forever, with the concession to port them to regular servers should they fall. Seasons run in 90-day increments, with all the expectations upfront. Ciccolini cites Path of Exile as a similar, positive model for keeping the playerbase engaged beyond standard live servers.
But what about that impending Amazon LOTR game project that’s supposed to run tandem with, or potentially rival LOTRO? “What about it?” Ciccolini said confidently. “Right now we’re kind of doing our own thing and don’t expect anything to change. Like everyone else we really don’t known anything about this new project, and everything is going great for us, and we intend on supporting the game for as long as possible, hopefully forever!”
Actually forever? Yes, Ciccolini confirms: “I’d love to see the game prosper long after I die. If I have to haunt the server rooms and tweak the game to increase player drops, so be it!” On that note, I spoke to several members of the design team (Elise Valla, Tim Dwyer, Ryan Penk), who were all bursting with ideas on what to do next. I pointed out that no one had really tackled the Fourth Age (after Aragorn became King Elessar at the end of the film trilogy, basically), and the trio pointed to it as a possibility.
“We’d love to go to Harad (the desert region in the southern part of Middle-earth), Umbar, Núrn, Rhûn, you name it,” Penk told me, as the Tolkien fan inside me lit up (most of you are probably looking at those runic letters, eyes glazed over). “We’re not afraid of a content wall at all,” Valla said, “and really, as creatives it’s exciting to keep going.” “We have a good 20 years here,” Dwyer chimed in. These are extremely under-explored regions in Middle-earth, and if there was one team I trusted to do it right, it’s the LOTRO folks. But what about the Second Age (the period that ended after Sauron was initially defeated, which is seen in the intro for the first Peter Jackson LOTR film)? Well, no one really knows yet.
Although Second Age material is off the table for Standing Stone Games right now (who are mostly beholden to the books and Middle-earth Enterprises, under The Saul Zaentz Company – man are Tolkien rights complicated!), that could change with the possibility of Amazon touching Second Age material. Depending on how it’s handled, it could be the first real time that the era was depicted in popular media ever, outside of the loopholes that most companies are able to get through references in the Lord of the Rings proper or the almighty appendices.
“It’s a pipe dream sort of thing, but we’d love to do it,” said Ciccolini. “We’ll see.” We’ll see indeed! Lord of the Rings is about to get a huge boost from the upcoming Amazon television series, and it sounds like LOTRO is going to come along for the wild ride. I hope it really does live forever.
[Travel was provided by Standing Stone Games.]