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Westwood game maker to tap Middle-Earth's riches

Turbine gets license for online product set in Tolkien's world

A Westwood computer game producer, Turbine Inc., has seized control of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

For two years, Turbine had been working for Vivendi Universal Games to produce a massive multiplayer game that's set in the world of Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings" novels. Now, Vivendi has transferred ownership of the license to Turbine, with the blessing of Tolkien Enterprises, a California company that controls licensing rights to the books. This means that Turbine, a small company best known for its moderately successful online game Asheron's Call, will control one of the most valuable franchises in the gaming industry.

''Turbine's been able to continue to demonstrate that we are one of the premier providers of online content," said chief executive Jeffrey Anderson. ''We had the inside track because we had done two years of development on the project with Vivendi."

The Turbine game, titled ''The Lord of the Rings: Middle-Earth Online," will feature characters and settings from the Tolkien books that never made it into the popular movies. Players will be able to visit Angmar, the home of the vile Nazgul warriors who pursued Frodo and the One Ring. Or they'll be able to meet Tom Bombadil, a beloved character from the books, whose absence from the movies outraged many fans.

The game was scheduled for release this year. But Anderson said the company will push back the game's publication into 2006, to add a variety of new features. ''This is the biggest franchise in the world right now that can be applied to an online game," Anderson said. ''We want to make sure that the scope of the work, the quality of the work . . . is really going to sing through."

Turbine paid Vivendi Universal Games an undisclosed amount for the gaming rights, which cover big multiplayer online games only. Tolkien Enterprises has licensed Electronic Arts Inc. to produce smaller-scale ''Lord of the Rings" games for desktop computers and videogame consoles.

But the Tolkien novels, with their complex plots and historical detail, are well suited to massive multiplayer games, where players ''live" in a simulated world. Players pay a monthly fee that entitles them to create a character and build up his level of skill, experience, and wealth. Characters team up to go on dangerous adventures; sometimes they simply log onto the game to chat.

Sony Computer Entertainment's Everquest was the first multiplayer game to become a major hit in the United States. More recently, Vivendi Universal Games's subsidiary Blizzard scored a hit with World of Warcraft. Released in November, the game boasts 1.5 million subscribers worldwide.

Turbine specializes in such games. The company worked with Microsoft Corp. to develop its Asheron's Call games, and later bought back total ownership from Microsoft. Anderson declined to reveal the number of subscribers to the two Asheron's Call games, but said they didn't attract the number of players enjoyed by World of Warcraft.

But given the vast popularity of the Tolkien novels and movies, Anita Frazier, entertainment industry analyst at NPD Group, said Turbine may have a major hit this time. ''If the game is good it can succeed," she said. ''In general, the games based on 'Lord of the Rings' have done well . . . it's a very popular franchise."

And if the Tolkien franchise isn't enough, Turbine has another high-profile title in development, a multiplayer game based on the popular fantasy board game Dungeons & Dragons. It's scheduled for release later this year.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

A Turbine artist created a concept drawing of a Rogmul, a cousin of the Balrog, for the upcoming 'The Lord of the Rings: Middle Earth Online.'
A Turbine artist created a concept drawing of a Rogmul, a cousin of the Balrog, for the upcoming "The Lord of the Rings: Middle Earth Online." (Turbine, Inc. Photo)
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