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Stop us if you've heard this one before: Amazon is making an MMO based on The Lord of the Rings.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the company already announced this in 2019, working in partnership with China-based developer Leyou Technologies. Two years later, it was announced the project had been cancelled – largely due to Leyou being purchased by Tencent in 2020.
"It was not 100% clear if [the rights] went over to Tencent or not," Amazon Games vice president Christoph Hartmann explains to GamesIndustry.biz. "Tencent and us talked. We know people there, I have a lot of respect for them, but it's probably better we don't work together because we're two large companies. I mean, that's a ten-year project. Who knows what's going to happen? It was better to stay friends."
He added that Tencent was not overly enthused about the project either, in part due to the restrictions of the licence.
"It was not like 'Do whatever you want, just stick to the books and the rest is just a great game'," Hartmann says. "I don't want to go into details but there were certain limitations so it would not have been straightforward."
Middle-earth Enterprises, the company that controls the rights to JRR Tolkien's works, then told Amazon that the licence had reverted to its care. New discussions began but the two firms "just couldn't find an agreement" – again, partly around the "fairly restricted licence."
Last summer, Middle-Earth Enterprises was acquired by Embracer Group, a company with which Amazon already has a strong relationship having announced last year that the two were working together on the next Tomb Raider.
"There are tons of people there [I knew], like Randy [Pitchford] from Gearbox, who I worked with [in the past]. I didn't think it was going to work, but I thought I might as well give them a call and ask. It doesn't hurt. And they actually were interested.
"I think we got a bit lucky that the person who is now in charge of Middle-earth Enterprises is an old colleague of mine, literally from the early days of Take-Two and Rockstar in the '90s from the UK, so that obviously helps with the trust thing."
While Embracer has just shy of 100 internal studios, Hartmann convinced the group and Middle-earth Enterprise that the Irvine-based Amazon Games Orange County had the best experience in creating large-scale MMOs, thanks to its recent success with New World. Discussions progressed, an agreement was reached and the partnership was announced yesterday.
As we reported, Hartmann's ambition is to make this "the largest MMO out there" – a feat made somewhat more challenging by the fact there's already a long-running Lord of the Rings MMO out there.
The Lord of the Rings Online, now operated by Standing Stone, has been operating since 2007 and still receives hefty expansions, such as last year's Before The Shadow. Given that game has a headstart of more than a decade, does this affect the potential for Amazon Games' own Tolkien title?
"Not at all," says Hartmann. "First of all, I have a lot of respect for them to keep it going that long. They have a, not huge, but a very dedicated fanbase. But looking just at the technology, where we're at now, and where we will be in a couple of years, it's just worlds apart. It's a little exaggeration if I say it's going to be like black and white movies to colour, but that's the approach I want to take. It's just a completely different world.
"I think they actually can co-exist. Even the most likely scenario is… for people just to move over, because the other one is an old game. It's not a bad game, but the industry moves on at some point, and it's a long time from their release to ours."
Hartmann speaks of expanding the genre's customer base, of making an MMO for non-MMO players. If Amazon can accomplish this, it may well give its game the advantage over LOTRO, which is very much structured in a similar fashion to World of Warcraft.
"I think [our game and Lord of the Rings Online] actually can co-exist"
It's worth noting that Amazon has not referred to its project as an MMORPG, which both LOTRO and WoW undoubtedly are. The concept of a massively multiplayer game has evolved dramatically since 2007, with titles like Destiny creating an MMO experience for first-person shooter players. It's unclear what genre Amazon's Lord of the Rings will be built around – the team is only now prototyping ideas – but it is clear that audience expectations have changed too.
"Everything is about instant reward, and since social media and internet and so on, that instant reward thing is so important," says Hartmann. "It has to be faster and faster.
"If you just rely on people figuring out the mechanics very fast because it's very similar to what they had before, that's great, but it's all about accessibility and very early having rewards so they feel progress. And then slowly letting them get better and better, and basically give them an option they can start at a different pace, and not getting frustrated. That's what's important.
"It's also a big problem for many PvP games to ever get new people. You take something as brilliant as League of Legends, as it is, but how many new people get into it, because you just get yelled at?"
Fortunately, Amazon Games Orange Country can draw on lessons from their debut title, New World. Perhaps the most obvious are the technical learnings; New World, as so many online games do, suffered server issues at launch but Hartmann observes that these were fixed and helped the team better understand its own technology. The biggest lesson, however, is regarding the demand for content.
"People just literally burn through content at an incredible speed," he says. "We could not keep up with developing new content. At the beginning we said, 'We obviously need post-launch content,' we looked at the timeframe in our world where we have a lot of experienced people saying two or three months, but people burned through what we expected to take them two or three months in just one month.
"We've just got to prepare for the next round, and just assume there are some people who actually stop sleeping and just go through the content at triple speed."
"MMOs are actually pretty cool as well, but not getting that attention they had maybe ten years ago. That's why we strategically went in there"
Amazon has confirmed the game will centre around stories and characters from both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and this in itself raises another challenge. While the books are approaching a century in print (The Hobbit was first published in 1937), players are just as likely to be familiar with the Peter Jackson-directed films of the past 20 years. How do you create a new Middle-Earth that is both your own creative vision and familiar to those who enjoy previous adaptations?
"I see already that debate going on in the studio," Hartmann says. "We have some die-hard Lord of the Rings fans, and already [they're saying], 'We can't do that' or Middle-earth [Enterprises] is not going to allow it, and we're not going to be able to alter the story, and introduce new characters, or rewrite the books.
"But for me, it's still very important that it's first a game, and then a reflection of the books second. So while I need to stay true, I always, and I'm reminding the team already, 'I get it, but it's not about every person going and pointing out if that detail is 100% perfect.' Let's say the way [Tolkien] describes the world, maybe the landscape looks a little bit different because either we can't get it going or the art people feel it might look a little bit different than what people assume it is in the book.
"I definitely want to put the game first to make sure it's a great game, because as I said, we want people to play for ten years, and it's not going to help me if someone is saying, 'That's a perfect representation of the book in a game.' If you're really into that, read the book. Read it another five times. Otherwise, if it's a game, a game has to do with playing, and they have to be playful, so there needs to be a little bit of being able to bend the rules to make it a great game."
He adds that this balancing act is also the key to success for any licenced MMO. We discuss past examples, ranging from the two Star Wars MMOs, the ongoing Star Trek Online, the aforementioned Lord of the Rings Online, to defunct examples like Pirates of the Caribbean Online and The Matrix Online. Hartmann says the amount of source material available from Tolkien's work at least gives Amazon the advantage over the latter, which was based on just three movies.
Despite the endurance of titles like LOTRO and WoW, Hartmann believes the MMO genre is actually underserved, which is why Amazon has invested in it so heavily over recent years with New World and now this title.
"It's very important that it's first a game, and then a reflection of the books second"
"Battle royale, Fortnite and PUBG, were really the talk of the town for a long time, and as usual, everyone jumped on that," he says. "They were the hot thing. But I'm like, 'MMO was actually pretty cool as well, but it's not getting that attention it had maybe ten years ago.' That's why we strategically went in there."
That's not to say Amazon is focused solely on this space, as the Tomb Raider signing demonstrates. Hartmann adds: "The games industry is also opportunistic. If you have a great opportunity coming, you grab it. I'm not dogmatic and stubborn, saying, 'I'm going to do just that one.' If there's something as big as Tomb Raider coming, and you feel you're the right partners for each other, you take it. How many IPs are out there at that level of quality?"
There's no word on a release date for Amazon's The Lord of the Rings game, but with the team now in prototyping mode and Hartmann determined to create an MMO that lasts for over a decade, he's in no rush to bring something to market.
"It's done when it's done and when it's ready," he says. "That's it. I want that thing to be alive for ten years plus. We're not going to ship something which is not ready. Obviously, we'd all like it to come as soon as possible out of personal interest, but we're only going to get it out when it's really ready to go."
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