It's one of the "cons" of IP-based MMOs. Because there is licensing and contracts and other legal mumbo-jumbo involved, an online game that is completely wedded to an intellectual property has the added danger of being shut down completely if the IP is denied to the studio. SWG is a sobering lesson as to how this can happen to an otherwise healthy game.
If you haven't noticed already, Lord of the Rings Online is somewhat inspired by a certain IP. This IP can survive without the game, but the opposite is not true. So the scary question that we'd rather not ask is this: What if Turbine loses the rights have its game set in the Lord of the Rings universe?
It's not an unreasonable question. And what makes it even scarier is that it could conceivably happen as early as next year.
When Turbine launched Lord of the Rings Online, it had to obtain a license from Middle-earth Enterprises for the Lord of the Rings IP. From what I understand, this license covered (and still does) the Lord of the Rings trilogy and appendixes but not The Hobbit or other Tolkien works. This is why the devs haven't been able to be as brazen with making a Hobbit tie-in to cash in on the new film trilogy and instead needed to figure out loopholes to reference the Hobbit's locales without being explicit about it.
About a year after LotRO's launch, Turbine announced that it had inked a deal with Middle-earth Enterprises to extend the license for Lord of the Rings through 2014 with options to extend it through 2017. Aha, you say, that's where the slightly alarmist title for this column comes in!
You're a smart cookie.
2014 probably seemed a long time away for 2008's players, but for us, it's next year. Even 2017 isn't that distant.
Past this quite-old statement, we've had no further information from Turbine, Warner Bros., or Middle-earth Enterprises on the subject. Massively asked Turbine to comment on the issue of license renewal, but the studio declined to respond.
I'm really not one to dwell in doom and gloom (especially since that seems to go against the optimistic attitudes of the Free Peoples!), but I'm not going to ignore a possible doomsday scenario that could conceivably play out over the next year or three. I'm guessing that Turbine's not looking to ditch LotRO after investing so much time and resources into the project, but Warner Bros. could decide that it's no longer interested in running an MMO when the deadline is up.
While I don't think the former probable, Middle-earth Enterprises is a bigger wild card with this deal. In business deals, it all comes down to money, not to mention the notorious protective nature of the Tolkien estate and the firms that protact it. Could Middle-earth Enterprises deny a renewal or extension for its own purposes, such as to give the license to another company? I have no idea, but the knowledge that the fate of our game is in the hands of people who aren't directly invested in it the way we are or even Turbine is troubles me.
So let's say that 2014 hits and the worst-case scenario happens: LotRO was not able to secure a longer shelf-life. When its license ends in the final hours of 2014, so will the game no matter how many players it has or income it's making. What would we do?
Well, we'd probably froth and rage and mourn, of course. We'd be facing the prospect of ending our time in LotRO before ever having set foot in Mordor. And we wouldn't have much time to prepare ourselves for the end. Personally, it would be kind of devastating. I want to finish this journey, not have it cut short prematurely.
Of course, the worst-case scenario is just that, but I wouldn't pin it as the likely scenario. After all, there is the extension option, and four more years could be more than enough time to give us that full journey. What it comes down to, I think, is how profitable LotRO is for Turbine and Warner Bros., and subsequently, how strong Warner Bros. would fight to keep LotRO and other Lord of the Rings properties in its domain.
This is another unknown area, for Turbine hasn't said jack squat about sales and numbers after the Warner Bros. acquisition unless it was to crow about free-to-play. I'd like to think it's doing well, but there are no indicators either way. Expansions come, servers truck on, and the store continues to expand at a steady pace. Some folks, wishing destruction on the game, undoubtedly think they have definite proof that the game is failing hard. Others, wishing a long life and victory over all other MMOs, undoubtedly think there are strong indicators that LotRO is still on the rise. What we all lack, of course, is the insider information, such as metrics and sales, that would paint a clear picture.
So we're left with a ticking clock and an uncertain future. Lord of the Rings Online will end one day, but most of us playing would rather that day be far, far in the future. We'll probably be hearing more about licensing, one way or the other, come 2014. Worrying about it won't accomplish anything, so I'll be enjoying the game no matter what. I just would sleep a little better at night if we knew for sure.
When not enjoying second breakfast and a pint of ale, Justin "Syp" Olivetti jaws about hobbits in his Lord of the Rings Online column, The Road to Mordor. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.