[LOTRO] Putting a Finger on the Magic

Have you ever felt like a complete fraud while playing an MMO? As if you were the world’s biggest newb, way behind and knew nothing about this longtime interest of yours? That’s a bit how I’ve felt ever since playing Lord of the Rings Online. What on earth was I thinking not playing this sooner? What’s wrong with me?? Sigh.

I can’t turn the clock back and maybe it isn’t always the worst thing to let an MMO mature before jumping in. Still, I find myself baffled at how great a game LOTRO has become while so many of us were busy playing WoW, Rift and other titles, probably thinking this Tolkien-inspired soon-free-to-play game couldn’t quite cut it. How wrong I was.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the magic that makes LOTRO. By now I can say it’s possibly the most atmospheric and immersive MMO world I’ve ever traveled. This isn’t hyperbole; I wish I could say WoW had been as good at selling the experience – or Final Fantasy, Age of Conan, Rift or Guild Wars 2. But even that last one cannot quite compete and it’s not about the graphics. Tyria is the most visually stunning world there is. But Turbine’s Middle-Earth does something to the senses none of the others do – so well, you are willing to ignore other undeniable shortcomings. What’s going on here?

The Sound of Magic

Simply put, it’s the sound. It’s the fabulous sound effects in LOTRO that make it that much more immersive compared to other MMOs. It actually took me playing this game to realize something fundamental about us as human beings: just how much of our processing and understanding of the world around us relies on sounds. You will raise an eyebrow now, thinking “well of course, duh” – but think about it! We’re one of the few species that value their eyesight before all else. We’ve shaped our entire world, our society and culture around the function of our “first sense”. We live in a very visual world where we constantly judge how pretty things and people are. We are untrained and crippled when it comes to our hearing capacity. The experiences and sensitivity of blind people fascinate us.

And yet our brain registers, records and categorizes sounds nonstop without us realizing. Hearing requires no conscious effort; it happens in spite of us, there’s no closing our ears. Because of that, sounds are closely linked to everything we experience in our lives, even if we don’t know it. They are a constant undercurrent, the way smells and odours can be. And like those they can trigger emotional responses and memories.

“Half of the world building in MMOs relies on us completing the picture with our own mental imagery. It’s when the real magic happens – the alchemy.”

We know how a river sounds or wind howling around a corner. We know the tune of morning birds compared to evening birds. Most importantly, we know how places sound; it is not enough to add a soundclip or two to create a virtual environment. It takes an entire orchestra to create that real sense and association with “world”.

We know how a forest sounds. A beach. A farm. There’s cracklings and rustlings, whistling and jingling, huffing and puffing, japping and blabbering all simultaneously coming from different directions and sources. Plus, that sound canvas changes constantly as we move around. Our world does not consist of static, isolated sound bites. LOTRO captures that.

The Sound of Bree

The first time I rode my horse through the town of Bree, I was delighted at the “sound” of it; the low muttering, combined with jingling harness and the merry clap-clap of hooves on cobblestone. Around us, the town added its very own tune to the melody: carts being pushed around, NPC chatter, hammering, bells, fountains, birds in the blue sky above. Different sounds and noises around every corner. It was overwhelming authenticity. And oddly soothing.

That’s when it struck me: this immense, untapped potential that is sound in most MMOs. Not ambient and background music, as much as I love those too – but intentional, planned out and distinctive sound effects and “maps”. Whenever I approach a swamp or forest in LOTRO, I am already looking forward to the multi-dimensional (or -sensual) experience. Amazingly it carries even further: thanks to the quality of sounds, I can actually smell the forest in LOTRO. That third sense, forever out of a videogame’s reach, becomes tangible. The audio and visuals create such an impact together that my mental memory of forests triggers an idea, a hint of typical forest smells. This is truly powerful stuff.

The scent of sweet bark mixed with turf. Just a hint of rotten leaves and murky water.

Landscaping Sounds

Middle-Earth is the most authentic and plausible MMO world imaginable. You could attribute that to Tolkien’s legacy, the detailed lore, yet bringing that to life in an MMO is no given. It’s just as hard as world building is for all games. And yet the answer seems simple: making use of your player base’s mental triggers and associations. Taking lessons from how we process real world and translating that into game design.

No matter if an MMO simulates real world environments or more fictional, fantastic places, developers should take LOTRO’s example to heart; game worlds are as much about distinctive sound/noise compositions as they are about landscaping, zone design or sophisticated weather effects. Make your trip as multi-dimensional as you possibly can for biggest impact.

I would never want to miss this focus again in any MMO. Already I dread future comparisons. And yeah, LOTRO could do with better character models, a UI revamp and a complete questing and combat overhaul. But oh the sceneries, the travel and the sound effects of LOTRO are a one-of-a-kind package most other MMOs can only dream of! For those who have eyes to see. And especially ears to hear.

21 comments

  1. LotRO at launch, even with the problems, was the best MMO experience I’ve had. I stuck with the game through the idiocy of the Rune Keeper and the poor design of legendaries and Moria mostly for the atmosphere. For a non-raider that was what the experience of the game should be like. Then they decided to go free to play. I wonder how many of whatever currency they are using my lifetime account has accumulated?

    1. Heh, I hear ya. it’s one of the things that make me happy I started so late though; I understand Turbine’s cash shop policy is a big turnoff to many LOTRO longtimers. for me, well it’s all new and I’m not that focused on the shop (yet). I’m also fairly liberal in my money spending on pixels. but for now I just like to explore the world.

  2. Good to hear you’re enjoying it so much. Can’t say I did.

    I don’t remember the sound being especially good. I do recall Bree seeming moderately convincing, but nothing amazing. Sound in most MMOs is pretty good, I think, especially over headphones, but only in small doses. If you stay in one place for long, as I frequently do when I stay at the bank sorting my bags for a couple of hours, the repetitive cycles become very hard to miss. I seem to recall that being particularly bad in the crafting hall in Bree.

    Of course, I don’t have much affection for the source material. I’ve read Lord of the Rings three times and failed to read it twice more. Bits of it are very good, other bits aren’t and I’m not even always sure which are which. Tolkein is vastly important for his influence but he’s a very, very long way from being one of my favorites and I certainly wouldn’t make any claims for him as a writer outside of the genre he partly caused to come into existence.

    I found LotRO visually quite impressive. I think it’s under-rated in that respect. It’s an atmospheric world in some ways. On the other hand, the character models are so clunky they actually detract from the surrounding environment – I’m not usually one to notice character models but it was impossible to ignore the fact that my Dwarf looked like a dustbin on legs and moved like one too.

    The UI is execrable. Possibly the worst I’ve ever used in an “AAA” MMO. Inventory management is staggeringly bad, to the point that it literally puts me off playing. When I log in nowadays, which is increasingly infrequently, it’s the sight of the plethora of tiny, ugly icons in my tiny, ugly bags that makes me despair and log out again.

    I wonder if there’ll be a separate MMO based on The Hobbit? I’d be more interested in playing that. The setting seems better-suited to MMO gameplay, what with the focus on adventure and the more light-hearted tone.

    1. I remember you mentioning stopping because of the grind in your mid-40ies. it is a very grindy game, but somehow it hasn’t caught up to me yet. I am lvl 40 now and that went swiftly. I think it’s the 50-60 area though that’s supposedly very bad.

      It’s an impressive world; and I honestly can’t think of any MMO where sounds are on par. quality sure – but not the ‘intelligence’ and authenticity with which they are positioned, virtually. I could ride a full circle in Ironforge and it would sound the same almost anywhere. it also never sounded like a populated, buzzing city full of dwarves to me – most of the cities don’t sound alive the way real cities do.

      then, there’s also what Redbeard mentioned: I know many games have the 360° sound these days where you can actually ‘follow’ sound (crucial in FPS for example), but for MMOs it was mostly GW2 where that struck me before. and LOTRO takes it even further in the way how just turning your head for 45° drastically changes what you can hear. the other night I was convinced there was a bird on the tree just behind me….the thing was ON that tree! the sound was, but there was no physical bird. I could localize it exactly.

      The UI is horrible, especially on a big screen. I can hardly read some of the menus. as for the characters, well….I also got used to chars in Elder Scrolls, hehe. somehow it’s refreshing after all the GW2 fashion show. They could be nicer, but the clothing and cosmetics in LOTRO are so great that I’m appeased for now and happy to potter. :)

  3. I personally like walking into the Prancing Pony from the outside and hearing the music. But it’s not just there, it’s actually directional and you have to follow it around to find the source of the music.

    1. The sensitivity between sounds and your relative positioning is amazing in Lotro. I actually mentioned this to my partner when I started. GW2 is the only other MMO where I remember being able to ‘follow’ sounds to their source from a distance.

  4. Tom Bombadil’s house. Walking into that was like walking into Erana’s Peace in Quest For Glory 1. The music comes on and simply enthralls. Utterly magical. Never wanting to leave again.

    I hear ya about the fantastic immersiveness of LOTRO. The landscapes and the power of Tolkien’s world is a heady combination. I still enjoy the feeling of just mounting up and riding along the roads, with the countryside going by.

    Just a little sad that game-wise, it’s not quite up to comparison with other MMOs on the market.

    – Jeromai

    1. I keep thinking “give me GW2’s questing, graphics engine and more active combat – combine with Lotro’s vast spaces, travel and sounds = perfect MMO for moi!!!” :) I also SO love my little house at the moment.

      And the old forest is one of my favorites so far. I didn’t mention it in the article, but I’ve virtually shit my pants a few times already thanks to Lotro’s sound effects. zones get that much scarier with proper ambience!
      also, Lotro is the first MMO that actually does forests right…it’s crazy. it took me so many years of playing online games to finally find one that knows how a forest feels – how it engulfs you and swallows you. most MMO forests have these open spaces everywhere, huge gaps, high trees and no sense of claustrophobia. the proportions are completely off, especially in GW2.

  5. I had the same feelings as you about LotRO every time I try to play it. Despite that I still can’t stick to it. It is a good game but I always end up finding some reason to play another game every time I try.

    Anyway, I completely agree about the sound. Although what made it really immersive for me was actually something visual. The hobbits and human settlements feel organic in their layouts. More like a town that actually started as a small settlement, grew and changed over the years. The dwarves and elven settlements however didn’t feel like that (at least the ones I visited every time I played tourist there). Those two felt a lot more sterile, like everything was made for pure practical purpose or eye-candy. And it that is one my quibbles with a lot of towns in MMOs too.

    As for your wishes in the end of the article. Perhaps they might start to be addressed this year. Turbine is planning a council of players to serve as a direct communication channel between players and developers.

    1. I am really looking forward to improvements in Lotro. the game would benefit so much from that and there’s a very faithful player base worth caring for.

      I made an elf first in Lotro and almost stopped playing because the settlements and starting area was so offputting! so, completely agree on what you say about the human and hobbit towns (the Shire in general is omg pretty!). some of the elven design is plain lazy in my eyes. just because it’s a more sophisticated and delicate aesthetic doesn’t mean it can’t be cozy and lean towards natural shapes. I like the concept of elvish settlements embracing nature around them rather than being ivory towers.

  6. Some of Lotro’s sounds are very nice. Some areas have great ambient noise. One of the best tips a friend gave me was to put ambient noise at max. Creaking wood in a forest, birds chirping.. it can really set the mood. Then, there are other places (such as Angmar, Orthanc spring automatically to mind) and some instances where the sound is just horrid. It’s quite jarring when you encounter them.

    Lately I’ve been enjoying some of the nuanced sounds in GW2. Your armour makes different sounds based on what you’re wearing. Love that attention to detail. :)

    1. Details are where it’s all at. :) I think now that I’m more sensitive to this, I gotta revisit some other MMOs again to compare. I don’t remember the armor sound in GW2 – but I think one reason for sounds to blend in the background in GW2 is that the world is always so eventful and busy around you. in Lotro traveling through empty lands can take forever – so, naturally you concentrate more on what you can hear.

      also a nice GW2 armor detail: the way dye colors behave depending on fabric/material. the same red should look different on leather or cloth and it does.

  7. It’s a mixed bag for me. I love a lot of the music and ambient sounds, these certainly are part of the ‘magic’ that makes the first arrival in Rivendell such an experience and they are part of what makes the Shire so very atmospheric.

    But then you have the character sounds, the incessant and rather grating shouts from some classes in combat. Maybe I’m just jealous as Champions just have the shing-shing ;-)

    LoTRO doesn’t really have underwater sound. One small thing that I found amazing in EQ2 was the underwater effects on sight and hearing. Your vision blurs and the sound becomes muffled. If you cast the right spell or use the right magic item though you can see and hear underwater normally. It’s a small detail to most players I’m sure but I was enchanted by little details like that so I fully understand the OP’s point.

    1. Now wait…but there’s no “underwater” in LOTRO anyway, no? I mean, you can’t dive in the water. after playing GW2 I really miss that a lot.

  8. I levelled a character to the late 20s a couple of years ago, and while LoTRO isn’t the game for me it’s certainly an impressive title. As you say, the graphics are very impressive and the attention to detail was great.

    They’re also VERY faithful with the original subject material, which is great if you’re a Tolkien fan. Unfortunately I am not so much, and so I found the world too limiting to stick with in the long term. Too much “realism”, for me, seemed to equal killing a lot of bears. I want rocket mounts and crazy magic spells and and and .. clearly I’m not meant for a peaceful Shire life. :)

    That being said, I’m super glad you’re enjoying yourself so much and it is a very good game.

    1. Hehe, I think you will really like Wildstar when it comes out – assuming that you will play it.

      I’m not actually such a huge Tolkien fan myself which is partly why I hesitated so long to try LOTRO. I’ve read his books and respect the immensity of the work of course, but there’s other series and fantasy worlds I always preferred. Middle-Earth online certainly feels familiar in many ways – that’s probably one advantage towards immersion.

  9. Have you ever played in a beta when the sound wasn’t right, yet? NPCs appearing much closer than they are, because they are to loud, or there are no relativistic effects applied. (You are close enough to Einstein’s birthplace, you should know about those effects).

    In any case, it is very very irritating if the sound is just wrong, instead of not present. You are constantly turning around, trying to locate the trouble that’s coming toward you, but all you see is some shadow in the distance.

    1. Jep, we’re really more sound-dependent than we think we are. once it’s gone or wrong, we realize that. even in a fantasy world sound ‘realism’ and plausibility is vastly important to sell the illusion.

  10. I must get back to middle-earth. I tried it out a few years ago, but the dwarven starting zone put me off. So many bloggers are now applauding it that I feel I should go back now. Especially as the IP might be in jeopardy.

    What would you advice a neophyte to roll?

    1. Based on my very own experiences, I would definitely recommend starting in the Bree or Shire area which are just so awesome. So, human or Hobbit I guess (although personally I wouldn’t have want to play a shortie, hehe).

  11. I have been playing LoTRO of and on since launch. I played it from launch through Moria and then slowly backed off of it to play other MMOs. The last two expansions (Mirkwood and Isenguard) only got me to come back long enough to play through them. However Rohan has hooked me in again in a big way, it’s been (once again) my primary MMO for the last few months.

    I have been taking a character through the revamped Moria (the 50-60 area where some players used to hit a wall), and it is a much smoother experience now then it was when Moria launched. You may still be put off by spending ten levels underground, but I personally find many areas of Moria to be utterly majestic. If nothing else, it’s one of the largest and most incredibly detailed “dungeons” ever put into a MMO.

    Rohan, which you won’t hit for a good long while, takes the basic design elements that LoTRO does well and turns them up to 11. The outdoor areas are somehow even more convincing than most of the earlier zones, and the villages and keeps feel much more “alive” than is common in most MMOs. In some in particular you see children playing and NPCs going about their normal chores. All those background NPCs you can’t interact with really sell those areas as real places. It’s my favorite area since the Shire.

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