BOSTON – Reading a novel, with some rare exceptions, is a solitary experience. Reading “The Lord of the Rings” has been bringing fans together almost since the work was published by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1954 but the group experience was shared after the initial journey through Middle-earth.

“The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar” game hopes to bring Tolkien enthusiasts together in real time to experience an immersive version of Tolkien’s fictional world as a social experience. The spread of the internet has turned Tolkienite fandom from isolated groups or individuals that held dialog in fanzines publications or at conferences into one of chat rooms and message boards and instant messages.

Turbine Entertainment is doing everything in its power to create a social network inside its game to foster the same social opportunities for those who share a love for Middle-earth have been creating for decades. Like any game, especially ones with an ‘adventuring’ backbone, conflict (fighting) is a key motivator and way to improve a character. But most readers of Tolkien’s books aren’t skipping right to the Pelennor fields section and Middle-earth isn’t one big battle ground.

So inside the 50 million square meters of Middle-earth available to be explored, (with likely expansions on the horizon) the game is arranged to make things social. When visited Turbine CEO Jeff Anderson said the game is stocked with “social innovation.” According to designers and Anderson, a solitary player will find plenty to do and there is not a need to join even the smallest official social unit called, naturally, a fellowship. But there is little doubt that such connections will create an enriched in-game experience.

Players (such as users of who find each other in the game can hook into fellowships with up to six players. (Why not nine? Don’t worry, we asked and Turbine explained that in this instance game play was more important than using a symbolic ‘fellowship’ number from the game that would create quests for nine and might be too difficult for smaller groups.) Fellowships (not to be confused with the Fellowship) have the ability for real time voice communication and will enjoy accomplishing “feats” as a group that require co-operation. Get your plug-in headphones ready. The idea here is to feel like family.

Advanced gamers (higher levels) will have the chance to go on raids as part of the game quests, often against groups or creatures that just couldn’t be defeated one-to-one. Raids can use up to 24 players but unlike some games there is no player vs. player feature.

The biggest groups in the game are “kinships” which are loosely affiliated groups that can be of unlimited – yes absolutely unlimited – size. With many servers providing the game experience players will need to play on the same servers in order to be in, for example, the TORn kinship. Let it be known now, far and wide, that will form a kinship on the “Meneldor” server. Kinships serve to provide a ‘friendly face’ to new players so they can be comfortable in Middle-earth and makes forming kinships for adventures much easier. Groups bond as they not only adventure together but enjoy many of the same experiences that message boards and chat rooms provide. Players can find an inn, such as The Prancing Pony, and sit down for a pint with kinship members and enjoy a fireside chat or a bit of pipeweed as well as a bit of music which will be explained in a paragraph or three.

In-game communication
While in the virtual Middle-earth, several communication functions will be available. Those with headphones can talk as if over the phone. So yes, if your long distance bill is giant and your Mother enjoys a MMO game from time-to-time, why not visit her Hobbity self in the Shire as a gruff but heart-of-gold dwarf? It might add legitimacy to her claim that you are never going to get married, but the nagging might be more palatable coming from a Proudfoot.

The easiest form of communication is just typing to a character that you share game space with but you will also have in-game instant messaging. So, even if Uncle Frogrow (Steve from work) is off in the Barrow Downs you can remind him 30-minute lunch is getting stretched a bit and he better get back to work. The “ignore” feature is always a click away so if there are trouble makers on the server you can pretend they aren’t even there.

In Middle-earth players have skills and those skills often aren’t enough to provide everything one might wish for. A miner for example, often can’t turn his buckskin into a vest while a tailor can’t grow a vegetable and needs to buy fortifying food from a cook. As a result there are action houses and trading banks that encourage friendly interaction.

And now for something completely different
All the previously mentioned functions aren’t new to multiplayer online games; in fact they are mostly standard. But Turbine decided early on in development that it wanted to keep players ‘home’ to do many of the things gamers already do away from gaming servers. As a result Middle-earth has some very modern features available to players. Instead of leaving to a community database elsewhere, players can create blogs and web pages for characters full of tips and tricks and guides to Middle-earth. It also allows a “Google Earth” map feature where players contribute information to key map points that for others to use in questing. Later when house and guildhouse building become a feature in later expansions (powerfully suspected after my visit to Turbine) the map feature will make it easy to find such places as (hypothetically) “Xoanon’s News Service” building or “TORn’s Rock Scrawling Message Board Kinship.” A wiki-like feature will also serve players and once again, all of it will be available in-game. And yea, that will keep the company’s page impressions even more robust.

Wight boys can wrap
One of the fun and innovative projects in LOTRO is the player’s ability to compose and play music in the game. The keyboard can be converted into a music keyboard and ta-da! A few versions of recorded songs have been appearing on YouTube. Such as LOTRO Dust In The Wind .

If that doesn’t make the minstrel class cool, I just don’t know what does. The class (selected at the beginning of the game) is useful in groups to rally the troops and increase morale while causing the enemy to lose heart. How much better can role playing get then to actually play tunes in the heat of battle. This next clip has nothing to do with that but it does have great footage of the game and an all-time classic song.
The closest thing to a Hobbit movie we have right now.

In conclusion
So yes, you can play LOTRO alone, no problem. But perhaps the greatest attraction for me is to try to use the social aspects of the game. Tolkien, for many has always been about community. There are many MMO games on the market and by their very nature they share strong similarities but here “Lord of the Rings Online: Shadow of Angmar” really stands out.