The LotR Online short-living bubble

I’m biased against Turbine, so read keep that in mind.

Months ago I was guessing possible subscribers numbers for the next Turbine’s game based on the Middle Earth and I said that I was expecting around 200k. More recently I noticed that the interest in the community was rising, in particular not in a specific niche, but in a more transversal way, so I thought that they could be more successful than I expected. 300-400k maybe.

I posted a quote from EQ2’s Scott Hartsman that is interesting to see in the context of this upcoming game. He says that the constant rise in subscriptions is a privilege of “the king of the hill”, while all other “players” live with the same rules upside-down: retention demands revolution, while for the king of the hill growth demands stability. This is not only true, but also particular enlightening, even if apparently so simple, because it explains so much.

I was finding something in common between these two points above. I said that I’m noticing an unexpected enthusiasm toward LotRO, but the real point is that when you dig in the enthusiasm you find out that is not just unexpected, but also unexcused. The enthusiasm isn’t backed up by actual solid points that justify the interest. You can call it classic beta hype.

WoW created expectations in the market, in the last few years since its release the market wasn’t really providing interesting alternatives, so the demand for “new” grew. People like to anticipate stuff and a big mammoth like WoW, while still top-quality, failed to renew that part of interest that is only awaken when you offer new perspectives. The Burning Crusade expansion is overall very well executed, but it delivers more in a kind of horizontal growth. Surely it doesn’t go to explore new frontiers, the game is enclosed in its boundaries and rules. It’s still an excellent experience, but you know what to expect.

LotRO falls in this particular “momentum” and it becomes a double-edged blade. From a side the game is “familiar”, and this is positive. People appreciate familiarity. I remember a post from Vanguard’s UI designer ,who joined late in development, who justified WoW’s UI ripoff because she said it is important that you carry over and respect some expectations, some standards. When the mass market is reached (through WoW) it’s convenient that you don’t impose a whole new language but instead integrate it. Instead of re-training players, you continue on the same path. You try to deliver on the specific genre, following its rules. Players come with expectations, directly compare features between games even when the comparison makes little sense, they impose their own needs and habits. If you want to be considered by an already formed audience you need to talk them in their language.

From the other side that approach becomes negative: the “sameness”. The feeling of “already seen”. This isn’t a problem of the first approach, I wrote not long ago how the first ten minutes are the very best experience in every game. During those ten minutes everything is a discovery, the brand new look. Even if it’s a familiar game it still appears very shiny. Things change with the time. The “familiar but shiny” loses its glint, the drug tends to fade and you look at things more consciously, you ask yourself what is deserving your attention and dedication.

I said that the enthusiasm I’m noticing about this game is both unexpected and unexcused. Unexcused because when you scratch below the surface you don’t find worthwhile concrete points. The most interesting feature I’ve read about is the “title-driven carrot”, depending on some actions and triggers you may unblock special titles, and there are a whole lot of them. Well, it’s nice, but this is what I call a “gimmick”. It’s not really part of the game fabric, it doesn’t affect the game rules and the final point is that, while nice, you surely won’t decide to play this game because “it has titles”. It is actually the perfect example of feature that gets your interest right away, part of the exploration and first impact. But three/six months into the game, do you think you’ll still be excited about these titles? It’s all presentation. Good presentation puts you in a good mood and it is very important, but you won’t stay because of it.

Is that where all the enthusiasm is coming from? There’s the “same girlfriend with a new dress” that I explained, and then there’s Tolkien. From what I’m reading Tolkien is really the whole point, what gives that particular flavor that people are liking. So it doesn’t matter if the actual art direction is just “passable”, it’s still Tolkien and (it seems) feels enough like Tolkien to trigger that special flavor.

And we arrive at the last point. For perspective I remind that Codemaster (euro publisher) is expecting 1M subs JUST for the european market. Then read again the quote from Scott Hartsman, is LotRO going to be enough King of the Hill to see a progressive growth in subscribers along the months? Let’s say it will be successful, do you think that WoW is going to lose from 500 to 1M subs because of LotRO (beacause for sure it won’t tap a new market with just a license)? My idea is that there’s a period when players keep their former account and also go try another game. LotRO may pulg there. I expect a good numbers of WoW players to try this new game and even like it. Either they are bored of WoW and so canceled their accounts, or they are still subscribed. In the first case I seriously doubt that LotRO will be interesting for them in the longer-term. In the second case I expect players to keep accounts active on both games and this usually lasts for a while but sooner or later they’ll decide one or the other.

I expect LotRO to be a short-lived bubble even on the forums. I don’t see the game having some serious draw that is not that special glint derived from the “newness” and “being Tolkien”. MEO will draw a lot of attention, it could initiate an interesting process of “mass-market”, but I also believe that it will be a comet. Big burst and then very quick fade.

My prediction is that the game, while starting quite well, will enter “subscription retention mode” very soon. Like two months after release.

It’s known that gamers have ADD. Especially those who go after the “shiny”.

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