Via Massively, the video game rights to the Lord of the Rings owned by the Paul Zaentz Company are going up for auction. This is the company that licensed Lord of the Rings to Standing Stone Games. Unfortunately, I doubt that bodes well for Lord of the Rings Online. A MMO is simply too obvious of a game to make with the license. I find it hard to believe that any company would acquire the rights and not at least contemplate creating a new one of their own, and there is a good chance that LoTRO would be seen as unwanted competition.
That isn't to say LoTRO would be in real competition with any new MMO. A new MMO, Tolkien themed metaverse, online survival RPG or whatever would likely have little in common with Lord of The Rings Online save the names of characters and places. LoTRO is a sprawling old school MMO with a lot of design elements that are clunky and quant by modern standards. It's a deep game that focuses on accurately reproducing Middle Earth from the books as a core design goal, and executes on it amazingly well. In many ways, the development priority of the game is seemingly (1) accurately portray the setting (2) anything else, including compelling gameplay loops. However, for a certain bent of player that is delightful.
Walking around in such a well realized depiction of the books is so inherently fun to me that I honestly don't care that the gameplay set there is sometimes a bit crusty. In some ways, that even adds to the charm. I like harvesting wood for hours, and then sitting in a crafting hall processing logs into boards. I like all the quests in the Shire where you are asked do do some of the most inane quests imaginable (deliver pies!). I think it's awesome when I arrive at some new village where, despite having saved Middle Earth more than once, no-one has never heard of me and a farmer asks me if I can help him round up farming equipment. The admixture of big story arcs where you are an important hero and more mundane sets of concerns makes the setting feel more grounded and real to me. The very things that turn off a lot of new players in LoTRO are some of the exact gameplay elements I find charming. Hell, my first post here that anyone actually read was basically about that.
Whatever new game gets cooked up by Amazon, EA, Microsoft or whoever ends up buying the Lord of the Rings license will almost certainly invert those priorities. The priorities won't be "get the setting right first, everything else second." The studio assigned to create a new Lord of the Rings RPG or MMO will likely start by thinking about gameplay and systems, and then shoehorn the game they want to create into the setting of Middle Earth. Because of that the game won't actually resemble LoTRO all that much, and the two games will not really be competing for the same audience in a significant way. LoTRO and whatever new MMOish product gets released in the next few years could quite happily coexists.
However, much like EA, SWTOR and Star Wars Galaxies, I don't expect that will matter much. Back in 2011 SWG was shuttered right before EA's new Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: the Old Republic, came online, despite the games having very little potential audience overlap. That is not to say that the shut down was caused directly by EA. The game had already shot itself in the foot long before EA bought Bioware. You can find a lot of post mortems about how the "New Game Experience" doomed SWG by chasing off the existing audience in the hopes of attracting a different audience that never materialized. I don't debate that, the NGE was the first step on the road to doom for sure.* However back in 2011 I also heard rumors that the final nail in the coffin of SWG was that SOE was not willing to pay for the license any more, and didn't even try to negotiate to keep the game going once EA and Bioware started working on SWTOR. SOE would have had trouble even breaking even if they had needed to keep paying for the license, the price of which presumably went up once EA acquired the video game rights to Star Wars.
I fully expect the exact same thing to happen with SSG and LoTRO. LoTRO will be safe for at least a few more years while the agreement that Standing Stone Games has right now with Zaentz still holds. However, I will be moderately surprised if SSG (or Endad Global 7) is able to afford to keep the license whenever it come up for renewal. Whatever company ends up paying north of 2 billion for the Lord of the Rings License is going to be pretty jealous of it. Even if that company is willing to let LoTRO keep going in principle, which seems somewhat unlikely to begin with, they will almost certainly want to charge a lot more for the Lord of the Rings license than SSG can afford. LoTRO is solidly successful niche title, reportedly bringing in about 10 million a year. However, a company that pays 2 billion for the license to Lord of the Rings is not going to happy with less than pretty much all of that in licensing fees.
That said, the example of SWG also offers a ray of hope. Pretty much from the NGE on, attempts to emulate Star Wars Galaxies began. Once SOE shuttered the game a flood of projects got underway and existing teams redoubled their efforts. The end result was in subsequent years a number of EMUs came online, some of which are thriving. For fans of the original Star Wars Galaxies we have arguably entered a golden era with numerous successful variants of the game available to play 100% for free. Some shards of the game are now arguably better supported than the commercial game was the last few years SOE was running it, with EMUs even developing and releasing new content.
So will LotRO be able to follow the EMU route if SSG/ EG7 loses the license? It's hard to say. I'm frankly astounded that Disney has let all the unauthorized SWG servers keep going as long as it has. I am also skeptical that Amazon, EA or Microsoft would be as benevolent towards unauthorized LotRO shards. However, I could also easily be wrong. So far I can't think of a single major fan server that has been shut down by anyone besides Blizzard. Servers for COH, WAR, and SWG are some of the more visible examples of shuttered MMOs you can play for free now, and at least one (the EQ server Project 1999) is actually officially sanctioned by Daybreak. So perhaps it's not too farfetched to think that if SSG loses the rights it needs to keep LotRO going, a series of semi-legal free shards will be able to launch. In that ecosystem I can think of a lot of cool variants of the game that could spring up. Another strong possibility is that SSG has a lot more clever agreement with the Zaentz Company than anyone outside SSG knows, and they have the option to renew once or twice at their current price.
Regardless, we'll see how it works out the in next few years. Commentators including myself have been saying for a while now that LoTRO needs to shake things up. One way or another, that seems likely to happen soon.
*Or maybe not, see the discussion in the comments :-)