Friday, April 06, 2007

Meditations on Lord of the Rings Online

As a Community Manager, watching a new community form from the ether surrounding a new game announcement is thrilling, but watching that game ship is like seeing a live birth. There's a tense emotional quality for those involved, and alot of hope usually mixed with alot of pain. As an outsider, watching the LOTRO community come into existence, I can't help but think of it in these terms. For one paying attention, there are some really interesting things we can learn from these early stages of LOTRO.

Frequent, casual, consistent communication from an approachable CM lends a huge sense of stability and a feeling that "the devs are listening."
Patience, the LOTRO CM, is very personable and frequently posts in topics that a jaded veteran normally wouldn't expect to find an immediate response from a developer in. Topics that would usually fall under the "Why the heck do they CARE about this?!" category are being answered by her, and that's impressive.

Extensive, multi-staged beta test with Marketing involvement
This was an incredibly intriguing formula and I'm honestly surprised how effective it appears to have been. What they did was they had one or two closed beta tests, invite-only to a steadily growing number of folks. But that wasn't the unique part. The unique part was that pre-orders got to join in a special "Pre-Order Only" beta period, where the characters they built would be transferred over to the live servers once the game was released. Not only this, but Pre-Orders were given access to special "Founder" pricing and given an option to purchase a lifetime account. Additionally, two unique items are given in-game.

At first glance, this doesn't that sound genius. But look at it closer. What this has done is effectively provided THREE incentives that appeal to multiple parts of a player's consideration where adopting a game is concerned.

It says, if you join as a pre-order, you get a head-start. You can only get to level 15, but there's no limit on the number of characters you can get to level 15...imagine how many people you'll be ahead of when the game releases.

It says, if in the future, you realize that you want to play this game, you'll have missed out on a great chance to get special pricing for it. You know how quickly those subscription fees can add up... so if I buy the pre-order now, I won't have to worry about that in the future. They'll probably be in high demand, too. And if I really fall in love with the game, I can always plunk down the price for lifetime and be done with it.

It says, not only do I get that, but I also get two little baubles to help me through the first 10 or so levels of the game. Even MORE of a headstart.

Couple this with an Open Beta (which industry folks should by now be reading as a "time-limited free demo") and you have a really great combo.

Adherence to Consistency
From the get-go in character creation, you are -very- encouraged to participate in the lore of the world. A multitude of naming conventions are presented for you based on your racial selection, with polite offerings of what you might augment your name with. It may sound like a small thing, but perception of stability and consistency begins right after the first impression. Perceived consistency breeds immersion, and immersion is one of the key factors connected to community that keeps players playing.

The world itself is interesting and inviting, albeit a bit of a linear-style train ride as far as questing goes. The differences between the Peter Jackson movies and EA Games and LOTRO is stark, but the classes, the rich quest dialogue and scenery make it feel like LOTRO is a more faithful representation of the books. Not that I'm a purist by any stretch!

A fun game so far, and certainly a great case study to observe for enlightened CMery.