BOSTON: J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth just became a little less mythical.
Turbine, of Massachusetts, a leading maker of Internet fantasy games including Dungeons & Dragons Online and Asheron's Call, has taken on the daunting task of recreating the most popular and influential of modern fantasy novels, "The Lord of the Rings," as a multiplayer online game, flinging open the Shire and other realms to thousands of fantasy buffs around the world.
Every game player knows the books, loves the books, Jeffrey Anderson, chief executive of Turbine, said. "Lord of the Rings Online marks the first time they can walk around in an authentic recreation of Tolkien's Middle Earth."
If the game, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, meets expectations, it could be the biggest thing to hit the online game industry since the spectacular success of Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, which was released in 2004. World of Warcraft has more than 8 million subscribers paying about $15 a month to team up with other players in bloody digital battles and heroic virtual quests.
An early trial run of Lord of the Rings Online attracted nearly 700,000 players.
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Turbine hopes to attract many more players between now and the game's official sale date through its "World Tour" promotion, which allows anybody to download the game software and pay a visit to Middle Earth. Those who decide to stay must pay $50 for game software once the promotion ends. They will be eligible for a bargain rate on the monthly subscription - $9.99 a month, compared to the standard rate of $14.99. Or they can purchase a lifetime membership for $199.
Some analysts, while predicting that Lord of the Rings Online will do well, are skeptical that it will reach World of Warcraft proportions.
"There clearly is an untapped pool" of potential players, said Michael Pachter, a game industry analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles. "But I don't think the untapped pool is millions and millions of people. I think it's one or two million."
Games like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online require a major time investment, with many skilled players spending several hours a day online. Pachter said that few gamers want to make such a commitment, and most of them have already subscribed to World of Warcraft. So to attract a large audience, Pachter said that Turbine and its distribution partner, Midway Games of Chicago, must win over a large number of World of Warcraft subscribers.
But he questioned whether Midway, a company that has lost money the past six years, has the marketing muscle to compete with Blizzard and its parent company, Vivendi Games, of France.
Anderson is betting that the vast popularity of the Tolkien books, which have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, ensures a huge audience for the game, and the strong showing of Turbine's test period indicates intense interest.
There are no scenes from the popular "Lord of the Rings" movies here. Electronic Arts makes a series of games based on the films, but none of them is set in an online world. Turbine licensed the novels, and is using them to create story lines in the game that flesh out the events in the books. In its early stages, the online game will focus on events in the first part of Tolkien's story, "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Few books have a more avid group of fans, and they will likely expect the game world to be accurate in every detail. So Turbine's developers were ordered to read each of part of the trilogy three times, and to master their most arcane aspects, including the languages that Tolkien invented.
"We've got people who speak Elvish," Adam Mersky, a Turbine spokesman, said.
But since the game is designed for thousands of players, not everyone can be a main character like Frodo or Gandalf. Instead, players create original characters who play supporting roles in the story. A team of writers has created about 1,600 possible adventures, in which players can fight the evil of Sauron or join forces with him. The game's events occur alongside the plot of the novels, and focus on the struggle to keep Sauron's henchmen, the Nazgul, from conquering the lands of Eriador.
Lord of the Rings Online contains the equivalent of more than 19,000 square miles, or 49,000 square kilometers, of terrain to explore. It includes ultra-detailed aerial maps of Middle Earth, created using Google Earth's satellite mapping software.
Characters in the game never die, no matter how badly beaten. Instead, those who are defeated in battle automatically flee to a safe haven where their morale is gradually restored.>