Lord Of The Rings Online: MMORPG Meets Web 2.0

Can web 2.0 principles revive the old school, hack-and-slash MMO? That’s the question that occurred to me when Henrik Bennetsen of the Stanford Humanities Lab showed me some YouTube machinima uploaded by players of Lord of the Rings Online, a fantasy MMO released earlier this year.

These weren’t just videos of players going on the quests designed by Turbine Inc., LOTRO’s developer. Instead, these were gamers playing live music in-game. While other MMOs have music instruments, they’re usually just automated audio clips; by contrast, Turbine created their instruments with a dynamic, three-octave system, so that players could actually perform on them.

The result? An explosion of user-created music in Turbine’s Middle Earth — and a stream of YouTube videos that players can now watch. (Pictured: an Elf Minstrel performing a cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”.) “[I]t has been great to watch players jamming together at the Prancing Pony and other legendary locations within Middle Earth,” Turbine’s Jeff Anderson told me.

But that’s just one web 2.0-flavored element Turbine has added to LOTRO, which must struggle to compete against World of Warcraft, the MMORPG so successful (nine million players worldwide and counting) that the game industry has almost entirely ceded the genre to Blizzard Studios.

It’s a challenge even for Turbine, for while Lord of the Rings is the most well-known fantasy IP out there, the studio only owns the rights to Tolkien’s novels, not the New Line Cinema adaptation of them. Many gamers are bound to be disappointed that the MMO doesn’t resemble Peter Jackson’s movies.

Turbine introduced the live music system, and a host of other web 2.0 tools that turn players into collaborators, to help foster and strengthen their community. For example, “The Lorebook” is an in-game reference both to Tolkien mythology and LOTRO game features — and it’s also a wiki. “Players can use their forum account to log into the Lorebook to make additions or view entries,” Anderson explained.

Turbine went even further, merging the Lorebook to a Google (GOOG) Maps’ API of Tolkien’s universe. “Through the Lorebook,” said Anderson, “players can add detailed maps, plot quest paths, and mark locations in their Lorebook entries, or just explore the game from a bird’s-eye perspective.” The feature won the company a Mashup Award.

Of course, user-created content inspires old-world concerns over copyright infringement. Subscribers to Sony (SNE) Online’s Star Wars Galaxies once had a robust community of people role playing as live entertainers, and clamored for the ability to actually play music in-game — but the developers feared record label lawsuits, and refused. Not inconsequentially, Sony’s game plateaued at just a few hundred thousand subscribers, with hardcore players leading an exile to worlds where their creativity was better appreciated. (As I later found out, one popular Galaxies guild leader immigrated to Second Life and created her own game inside of it: City of Lost Angels, a tremendously impressive goth-cyberpunk mini-MMORPG that boasts over 13,000 registered players.)

As a company, Turbine has to acknowledge those copyright concerns. They do so with their less-than-typical preemptive Terms of Service: “[W]e do not permit players’ unauthorized use of content that infringes any copyrights or other rights held by third parties,” Anderson told me. “If we receive notice of a claimed infringement, we will take steps to remove or block access to that content.” (Hopefully AC/DC’s record label will have a sense of humor about the Elvish Angus Young fan on YouTube.)

Since its release last April, Lord of the Rings Online has shown impressive growth against the WoW behemoth. Turbine steadfastly refused to give me subscriber numbers, but a recent BusinessWeek profile cites experts’ ballpark estimate of 800,000 to one million worldwide — very impressive growth after only five months. “Not only are those headline numbers,” renowned game expert Michael Pachter tells BusinessWeek, “but Turbine has reached critical mass.”

To keep that momentum going, the content-creating community of LOTRO players will need to grow, and flourish. At launch, Turbine updated the music system, adding new percussion and bass instruments. They also added a notation system that lets players compose songs offline and then upload them in-game so their characters can perform them. Other user-created features will soon follow, Anderson promised me. If all this keeps up, World of Warcraft might begin feeling the competitive demands of the web 2.0 era, too.