After conquering Internet retailing, Amazon is now preparing to invade Middle Earth. And only a little-known Needham video game company stands in its way.
Standing Stone Games is the maker of the fantasy video game “Lord of the Rings Online,” inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tale of mythical adventure and designed to be played by thousands of people at a time. Such a game is known in the business as an MMO, or massive multiplayer online game.
Standing Stone is facing its own battle for survival as Amazon.com spends as much as $1 billion on a TV series based on Tolkien’s work, and is developing its own “Lord of the Rings” MMO game. Amazon began working on the new game last summer, in cooperation with the Hong Kong game developer Leyou Technologies Holdings, though it hasn’t revealed when it will be released.
Though nervous about Amazon’s looming competition, Standing Stone executives are a long way from panicking.
“Are we worried and wary about having a competing game? Of course,” said executive producer Robert Ciccolini. “They are an excellent company that has a lot of marketing power.”
Ciccolini even sees a way his company could benefit from Amazon’s investment, by generating enough new interest in Tolkien’s work to steer customers to his company’s product.
“The Lord of the Rings series will reinvigorate everything Lord of the Rings,” he said. “Having this exposure to Tolkien is usually good for us.”
In fact, Amazon may not be the fearsome giant in this fight, given the company’s spotty track record in game development.
“I’m skeptical that Amazon is going to do anything right,” said Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.
Amazon Game Studios, founded in 2014, has yet to generate a major success. Indeed, just last June, the gaming unit announced substantial layoffs, as well as the cancellation of several games then under development.
Amazon declined to comment on its plans for the game.
Wanda Meloni, chief executive of the research firm M2 Insights, figures it’s not Standing Stone that needs to prove itself. “The pressure is squarely on Amazon to succeed,” she said.
Still, it’s Amazon, a global giant with more money than Sauron, against Standing Stone, a low-profile independent game developer that can’t call for help from a rich corporate parent.
The Lord of the Rings game, known to its players as LOTRO, and Standing Stone’s other online game, “Dungeons & Dragons Online,” were originally developed by Turbine, a game company founded in the mid-1990s. Turbine launched Lord of the Rings in 2006. As with other online games, such as the better-known “World of Warcraft,” players paid a monthly subscription fee. But in 2010, Rings switched to a “freemium” approach. Basic play is free but special tools and weapons that make the game more exciting can be purchased.
In the same year, Turbine was acquired by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, part of the giant Time Warner media company. The new owners poured millions into a game called “Infinite Crisis,” a massive online fighting game based on characters from another Time Warner media property, DC Comics, such as Superman and Batman.
But that game, released in 2015, was a massive flop. The following year, Time Warner spun off Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online into a new independent company, Standing Stone. Time Warner has since been acquired by AT&T and is now named WarnerMedia.
Like most other MMO operators, Standing Stone won’t reveal how many people have signed up to play its game, but Ciccolini said that on a typical day they see about 10,000 players logged in at the same time.
Not everybody comes to fight battles or attempt perilous quests. For some, Rings Online is a social hangout. Ciccolini said one player, a Tolkien expert, conducts seminars on the writer and his work. The software includes a feature to let gamers perform music for the entertainment of other players; sometimes several get together and hold in-game concerts.
That social aspect may make it difficult for some faithful players to leave their friends behind and switch from LOTRO to the Amazon game.
“I’d need to know more about it before I decide to try it,” said one player, Joris Benzidane, who works as a translator in La Rochelle, France. “However if I play it, it will be on top of LOTRO and certainly not instead of LOTRO.”
For Josh Riggins, an operations manager in Tacoma, Wash., LOTRO has become a family affair. “My parents (in their 60s) and my kids (8 & 9) all play,” Riggins wrote in an e-mail.
“The casual player (who plays for free anyway) might move to Amazon’s game, but that won’t bother the hard-core LOTRO players. Also, Tolkien fandom is such that many players will play both.”