Embracer's talk about The Lord of the Rings says one thing: 'Fly, you fools!'

This dude likes rings.
(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

In 2022 Embracer acquired the rights to most media relating to The Lord of the Rings, a complex deal that nevertheless gives it control over pretty much everything to do with the series outside of the original books (which among other things remain controlled by the Tolkien estate). This operation is managed by a subsidiary set up for the purpose, Middle-earth Enterprises, and so far their main output has been a bit of a hangover from before it acquired the rights: a Gollum game so dodgy that it more-or-less killed Daedelic as a developer.

Lee Guinchard is the CEO of Embracer Freemode (the parent company of Middle-earth Enterprises) and is basically now in charge of the franchise. Videogames, movies, board games, and merch based on the series will all involve this company from hereon out, and Guinchard is the man with the final say.

And it goes without saying that he's got the Tolkien-praising down to an art. In a new interview with VentureBeat Guinchard says a lot of words, but you'll struggle to find much purchase therein. "The fans who experience this see it as the greatest world ever made outside of our own," is one such meaningless paean. "We have the characters and stories people love and yearn for everywhere in the world," runs another.

In days gone Tolkien fans were often critical of the author's son, Christopher, for both his fiercely protective attitude towards the books, as well as his own many contributions to the LotR 'canon'. Those projects that did happen were mostly down to Saul Zaentz, who managed to negotiate a licence and get things like Jackson's films made. Zaentz died in 2014, and Christopher Tolkien in 2020, which opened up the door to this more comprehensive deal, as well as a nice payout for the Tolkien grandchildren.

Fans may come to look back on that as the golden era, because Embracer and Guinchard are out for big money. The main beats of the CEO's background are lengthy stints at Take-Two and Activision Blizzard, and so a lot of what he says in the VentureBeat interview is just trained verbiage: "support creators first" and "respect the works" and we're gonna do "something amazing and big over time." The CEO says more LotR games are coming which he can't talk about, and they're a crucial part of where the franchise is going more generally, to which one can only say "duh".

There is enough here, though, to get LotR fans concerned. "Not everything is going to hit it out of the park," Guinchard said. "We know that. But we’re really creating an ecosystem and an agile company that invites creators to create things in this world. That’s the plan." Hm. This sounds slightly like a quantity over quality approach, and let's face it: with a few honorable exceptions, we've had a lot of mediocre LotR stuff since the Jackson movies.

A window into nothing

Now let's get real gnarly. VentureBeat asks a question about Tolkien's work in relation to Roblox and other user-generated content. "[The opportunity is] a lot bigger than people might realize," says Guinchard. "Embracing your communities and building with them. The world is naturally going there, building things with them."

Brilliantly, this comes a week after the announcement of Peter Jackson's new Gollum movie saw Warner Bros. issue a copyright strike and nuke an old fan movie on YouTube. The studio soon enough reversed course after a backlash, and very convincingly called it a mistake.

Think it can't get worse? Guinchard likes AI. In fact, he has some sort of internal software called "Ask Gandalf". "There’s a limitation to what can and should be done" with AI, says an oblivious Guinchard.

"If you treat everything just like a bunch of rights all the time, and a bunch of transactions, you get average,” said Guinchard. "This part of the group is going to be focused on building long-term intellectual property, with its creators, and with other creators, as well. We use the words Middle-earth & Friends because it is really about the IP. It’s all about the IP.

"That’s the one thing that we’ve got a lot of opportunities for building out in a very Middle-earth way. What does the next chapter mean? This is like the torchlight in the middle of the journey."

It's not though, is it. This is the era where The Lord of the Rings, which had been carefully managed ever since the author's death in 1973, starts to repeat and grind itself down with over-saturation. During the interview constant references are made to Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as if they were still in their age of triumph rather than becoming cautionary tales.

Guinchard says, "I’d like to think that what we build here is that central hub” from which other LotR media branches out, before yet another magnificently empty phrase: "What we have to strive to be here in this next evolution of being is the connective tissue with everything doing the right things by people who matter. All of this becomes useful to the universe."

First of all: what. Second, that choice of the verb "useful" strikes me as a very odd one. But the message does come through: get ready for a deluge. Embracer's LotR games so far have fallen flat (as well as Gollum there was The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria which was just utterly middling), albeit they were in-development before Embracer got involved, and the next in line is Tales of the Shire, a naked attempt to hop on the cozy games bandwagon ("there are a lot of these cozy games now, but this one really is quite cozy," says Guinchard). Longer term, Amazon Games is working on an MMO, and you just know that Embracer's going to end up doing rubbish like an Aragorn prequel. Oh well.

Outside of games, The Rings of Power gets a new season in September, there's an animated movie due later this year, and then the biggie is probably the Peter Jackson produced Gollum movie due in 2026. Which I'm not sure anyone asked for, or will be excited by, but at least in that case the talent involved is unquestioned.

When delving into the rights for The Lord of the Rings, there's a lot of talk about how they're split between the time periods of the world: First Age, Second Age, and so on. As Tolkien spins in his grave we lucky humans get a new age. The one where we get to watch The Lord of the Rings milked dry with sub-par products and diminishing returns before, eventually, that won't be enough: and the very marrow is nibbled out of the bones in some doomed frenzy.

I dearly wish I could slam down a staff and bellow "you shall not pass", but the Balrog are in charge now. Those who love The Lord of the Rings will have to bear it, glimmering in the gloom, and can only console themselves with good counsel: "Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not."

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."