LOTRO: The Shpiel Of Mirkwood

By Alec Meer on November 12th, 2009 at 11:38 pm.

A little while back, I attempted an interview with Turbine’s producer Jefferey Steefel about their reliably successful MMO Lord Of The Rings Online. It was intended for a preview of the upcoming expansion Siege Of Mirkwood, and for another publication. I wasn’t, ah, entirely illuminated by the answers I got, so I sent some follow-up questions intended to further solicit his thoughts on the extent to which the players have shaped the game, and why it’s proven to be such a survivor in what are broadly dark times for the MMO industry. Alas, the responses didn’t arrive in time for that piece – but now I have them, and it seems a shame to waste them. PC gaming website to the rescue! If I’m honest, I suspect speaking to some of LOTRO’s more dedicated players (is that you? Please, share your thoughts below) would have given a significantly more useful sense of why it’s a diamond in the MMO rough, but here’s sir Steefel’s thoughts on the matter….

Have you ever wandered into the game and seen a player doing something that made you think “wow, I didn’t realise the game could do that?”

Well, in terms of being surprised in terms of the way the game is played/used, it really happens every time we do a new set of instances and the amazing effort and ingenuity players show in finding new ways to exploit the content.

In terms of things that surprise or fascinate me, there’s lots of examples – a few:

1. I often see what seem like NPC’s hanging out at social centers, only to realise they are actually players just hanging out. My initial assumption was that these were botted avatars or someone AFK, but when I approach them, I find they are right there, ready and willing to chat and even show me around a bit. Very cool, and it seems there are a lot of players that do this.

2. Some of the player generated videos on YouTube and elsewhere demonstrate a degree of player organization on a massive scale that astounds me – huge groups of players on synchronized horseback, amazing use of the avatar camera in 3rdp to create cinematic shots, painstakingly captured and spliced gentures for machinima, etc…

3. Some of the things our players do in the states on MyLotro is also amazing to me. Blogs have become serial stories, and even high-quality comic strip episodic content.

Tabula Rasa, Hellgate, Matrix Online, Auto Assault…. So many MMOs have died, while others, like WAR and Conan, are suffering badly declining audiences – even Turbine’s own Asheron’s Call II closed, and DDO wasn’t in the rudest of health until the free-to-play relaunch. So exactly why has LOTRO bucked the trend? I appreciate you might want to say it’s simply a case of making a great game and supporting it, but, y’know, all those other games probably thought they were doing that too. Something *is* different here – have you been able to specifically identify it?

Some of it has to do with the experience gained in making these kinds of games for over a decade. Some of it has to do with how we evolve and service the game and players.

So while having customer service is important, or community management, or marketing surveys, or data gathering….it’s the way we leverage these things together that makes the difference. We meet every morning with representatives of each department, to understand what has been happening in the game in the last 24-hours and learning from it. We amass and analyse a mountain of behaviour data from players, and use it in combination with survey results, forum feedback, customer service calls and other touchpoints to try and really get at what are the fundamental things we can do to make the game better. We also constantly work to better understand who our players are, recognising that this is constantly changing and diversifying.

The game itself also benefits from being based on such an incredibly rich world and story that we have laboured hard to maintain in the game. We try and make changes gradually, and have never strayed from the fundamental PvE game that we created.

We also have a fantastic community environment, one of the healthiest and more supportive (to us and each other) around. This fosters a great environment to keep players and to find new ones. We work hard at this and value the community of players highly, in fact see them as 50% of the value of the game experience players enjoy.

Can you share a lesser-known feature/element of the Mirkwood expansion, something that would intrigue jaded readers who are thinking “oh, it’s just a bunch of new dungeons and a raised level cap for an old MMO” and preparing to turn the page become more interested?

Well, there are so many new things we’ve added to the game and improved for Mirkwood, besides all the incredible new content we’ve added:

• The skirmish system is much more than new content – it’s an entirely new way to play the game. You can play anytime, from anywhere, with friends – and you can start having fun in an exciting new instance almost instantly. You can bring a party and soldiers into battle like never before. And all of this supports essentially a new way to advance your character(s) in LOTRO

• We have made mounts way more useful – emotes, NPC/Vendor interaction, teleportation – all supported from your mount

• Combat has been improved and is much more responsive than before

• The addition of “Shared” account level storage

• A much more friendly and usable Legendary item system

The Siege Of Mirkwood digital-only expansion launches in early December. You can pre-order it or download the LOTRO trial right here.

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31 Comments »

  1. JB says:

    I think the “incredibly rich world and story that we have laboured hard to maintain in the game” is a big part of the reason it’s successful, plus I have found the player base to be generally very friendly and helpful. Which doesn’t hurt.

    • CCCP says:

      I would agree that the community is very friendly, although there has been an enforced split at end-game due to the gating of access to raids. Radiance armour (and plenty of it) is needed for the top raids and those unfortunate enough to be part of a large kin and / or willing to spend a lot of time grinding for the tokens needed for the armour tend to miss out.

      I suspect that the setting is a huge draw for many players; Lotro is my first MMO (and I’m nearly 40) and nothing else in the MMO arena had any appeal to me except, perhaps, for EVE.

      With regard to the expansion there are plenty of grumbles on the fora in the US and Europe; amongst some there is a suspicion that it won’t offer much in the way of new skills and will effectively restart everyone at 0 in terms of the Legendary Item grind.

      My own view on the expansion is more positive; the skirmish concept holds promise and there will be a new region to explore. Plenty enough to do particularly given the extra 2 character slots which I will feel compelled to fill with yet another alt…

    • Sweedums says:

      i also think its largely due to the world and story within the game, you dont only develop your character as your own hero, but you get to see the story (or parts of it, at least) of how the fellowship is changing the world, and also segments of history that shaped middle earth for the time that the game is set.

      this was certainly what kept me playing, but its also why i keep cancelling my subscription until new content comes out as im only interested in the story and the PvE, doing endless PvP and raids didnt interest me so i found myself getting bored fairly quickly, and then coming back when a new book/expansion comes out.

      then theres the fact that it is a generally well made game and the community is usually pretty helpful and mature compared to some other MMO’s…

  2. BrokenSymmetry says:

    I really enjoyed my time in LOTRO, but what made me stop playing was the inability to find groups for the “epic” (story) quests, which form the heart of LOTRO, and set it apart from all other MMOs (except Guild Wars, which has a similar central quest/story line). Is anything known if they wil address this, as many players now simply skip a lot of the epic quests?

    • Konky Dong says:

      They’re addressing this soon (in the mini-xpac I think) by retooling the epic quests and, for the instanced portions, giving solo players temporary buffs that make them strong enough to handle groups of elite mobs.

    • Hermit says:

      If they make the story content soloable I’d reinstall in a heart beat. Own a lifetime sub for this and I tend to drop in and out every few months. I tend to get stuck round level 30 – 35, simply because it’s hard to find groups for the story content and I don’t like moving on without finishing it.

    • Konky Dong says:

      If you’re interested, here is the link to the developer blog talking about making the epic book quests soloable:

      http://my.lotro.com/orion/2009/11/04/problems-and-solutions-1/

  3. devlocke says:

    I feel like any answer to the second question is incomplete without at least mentioning the license. It’s Tolkien. The game could be complete and utter shit (I don’t think it is; it’s the only MMO I’ve ever subscribed to, and I enjoyed it for the few months I was playing it despite not really liking Tolkien), and it would still have a certain number of players who would play just because it was as close as they could get to having fun in a Middle Earth MMO. There’s a ready-made audience of people who will at least check it out, if not play it, on the strength of that also. With the single most famous (not best!) fantasy license in the history of fantasy, people who would not otherwise play any MMO at all will at least check it out. That’s got to help with the number of players.

    Most of the MMOs you mentioned as having failed recently were original IPs. You have to convince someone that they want to play a computer game, then convince someone that they want to play an MMO, then convince them that your MMO is the one they want to play, and THEN retain them as players after you get them to try it, in order to maintain a decent player base. With the Lord of the Rings license, LOTRO had a lot easier time doing all of that, I would think. God knows, I only played the game because my Tolkien-loving best friend got an account, and he’d never played an MMO before, still has not played another one, and had to buy a new computer in order to play the thing. He never would have bothered had it not been for the license, and he kept playing for years because he liked seeing new and different areas from the books, not because of the grand mechanics or the great customer support.

    • devlocke says:

      Oops, he did mention that, only I didn’t see it because I’m blind. My bad. He didn’t talk about it MUCH. :)

  4. MadMatty says:

    The game plays like an expanded version of World of Warcraft, with no world PvP. People are generally friendlier tho´ and there a great RPG vibe, with people acting and playing music- so you can do that a for a bit. You can also play musical instruments together on the numbers 1-9 with alt and ctrl. We always used to jam after beating a boss and getting the reward :) The interface is quite snazzy aswell

  5. Joey says:

    Only MMO I’ve every paid a subscription for. I bought Guild Wars and tried trials of WOW and Dark Age, but this is the only one I’ve felt any real love for. I’m not much for PVP so that alone appeals to me. I will agree that it can be hard to get a group for the epic quests (My highest lvl character is 54 and is still not done w/ non-Moria epic quests). Still feels like a bit of a grind fest/time sink at times which is my biggest gripe w/ MMOs in general, but the world helps make up for it. First fantasy series I ever read, so it definitely has a soft spot in me. They are going to have to work hard though if they want me to stick around when KOR or the World of Darkness MMO come around

  6. Dave says:

    I think it’s longevity is due to a steady influx of players who are burnt out on WoW and want a different, more mature game. The Moria expansion really delivered the goods, with a return to actual characters/events in the books (I wasn’t a fan of the last epic quests of volume 1) and added the expected new classes/skills/etc including the awesome legendary weapons. The down sides are a lack of low-level players (except for alts) and questionable end-game raids, which require much more team work and better gear than most players can be bothered with.

  7. ulix says:

    I’ve played the game twice for a few months (never got higher then 35 or so).
    Have also played WOW, Age of Conan, Star Wars Galaxies, EVE and WAR, but this has probably been my favorite MMO.
    The playerbase is very friendly, there are a lot of people rpging even on non-rpg-servers, the graphics and designs are beatiful (even if the characters are a bit bland), I like the integrated voice-chat very much, the epic-quests (or however they are called) were very nice and I generally had a good time.

    If KOR doesn’t grip me I might return to Middleearth one day.

  8. Arathain says:

    My wife and I played for a few months. It’s a very good game. What struck me was how good the class design is. Each class I tried felt distinct, not just from each other, but also from the classes of other MMOs, with a host of abilities that are useful and enjoyable.

    I think the understated nature of the game plays into this. The limitation on magic and overt pyrotechnics has a quiet cool to it, rather than the brash loudness of other games. Your character feels powerful and skillful in a more believable way.

    The coherent story provided by the book quests provides excellent structure, and means it’s easier to find groups to do content, although it’s by no means guaranteed that you’ll find enough people, which can be its own frustration.

  9. Brent says:

    I played LOTRO for about six months. I’m a “fan” of Tolkien, having read the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit eight or nine times, and the Silmarillion twice. So I was very eager to see how well they could capture the spirit of the books.

    They did a passable job. The environments are well realized, at least in terms of geography. The NPCs are pretty flat, and it makes the world feel lifeless, but it’s the same or worse in WoW (played a main to 53 in that before getting bored, even though I was in a pretty fun, if too-serious, clan). Some regions are better than others. the Shire is great. But it’s still very much like WoW in terms of the way MOBs behave. Which is, boring, predictable, too uniformly spread around the landscape, lounging as they wait for players.

    I didn’t like the high-level areas very much. it was a grind just to go from place to place.

    I often found that the world felt small, even though people whined about how long it took to get around. General MMO problem. Too small to feel real, too big to be fun if you have to travel a lot.

    I barely made it to level 50 (the original cap) with my main, but I had two alts in their 30′s. I got pretty fixated on the crafting, which was fun, but eventually got routine and stale. I made good (in-game) money from it, my characters being a little crafting factory turning raw materials into armour and weapons that sold reliably. I found the quests pretty dull. But I really enjoyed just wandering around various parts of the world, mining ore and collecting wood for crafting and watching other players come and go.

    I was in a kin, but it self-destructed. I didn’t have any luck finding a new one. Once the first expansion came out, I just lost interest. Gave all my money to my girlfriend, but she only lasted a month after I left.

  10. Konky Dong says:

    I’ve played on and off since launch but really started getting into it right after Moria launched and WoW went down the drain. At this point I’ve put hundreds of hours into the game, have two lvl 60 characters and have experienced pretty much all the content in the game.

    I would chalk up part of LotRO’s success to the way it has handled the endgame. With Mines of Moria it became the antithesis to Wrath of the Lich King, favoring the more hardcore, tough content as opposed to making everything accessible to everyone. After experiencing the direction WoW went, playing through the endgame content in LotRO was a breath of fresh air. For the first time in ages I actually needed to control my threat, use and be mindful of crowd control mechanics, and just generally be aware of what was going on. If I screwed up in even a minor way (break CC, pull aggro, etc.) there was a very real chance it would wipe the group. The difficulty and excellent design of their endgame content is the key reason I and several of my friends jumped over to LotRO. I know there are certain people who hate this and feel they should get to experience the content and be rewarded for simply paying a monthly fee, but in the process of making it accessible to everyone they make the game not worth paying for.

    Another big part of why LotRO works in my opinion are the social elements. Player housing, the music system, the roleplaying support; these kinds of things plus the fact that the zones feel like an actual world instead of a series of quest hubs make people enjoy just being in the game. I could stand around and chat in the Shire forever, that zone just has a sense of place like no other. When I get bored, I’ll run around random housing neighborhoods and check out players homes. These kinds of things are what separate MMOs from most other games and LotRO does them very well.

    I’d also like to make a note of just how good Turbine’s recent content is. Forochel, Eregion, and everything in Moria is superb. Easily some of the best questing and dungeons I’ve ever played. Unfortunately the early content pales a bit, but they’ve been retooling and updating the old zones to be more in line with their new contents quality.

  11. Heinz2001 says:

    I played WoW for about 2years and enjoyed it. Personally i think the level- and itemgrinding was a reason for that. I never played a Blizzard Title before. Maybe thats the reason.
    But after 2years there was no reason to play, just grinding is a loss of time. No fun at all.

    I started with LOTRO and played it 2 week and the gameplay was nearly the same as WoW. Then i started to play Age of Conan and after a week it was boring too.

    Then I thought about it and realised why :-D.

    Just because i can’t influence the World i’m living in. I can’t change something
    -Monsters respawn
    -the World is static
    -can’t drop Items into the World (no real Items)
    -can’t build somthing (wall by wall, not prebuild Hauses and i only choose the style!)
    -aso.

    I realised that the only Game i ever played where i can do these things was: Ultima Online.

    • Jeremy says:

      All of these are the reasons why I had to hang up my MMO hat. I want to be able to impact the world in a real way. Imagine an mmo where the things you did actually mattered!

    • Brent says:

      I agree. In this, in WoW and in other games I’ve seen, the line between the world, a cold and static – dare I say lifeless – environment, and that of characters, which themselves only change superficially, was ultimately the most discouraging aspect. It shouldn’t have had to be that way.

      Granted, there is only so much that you could allow players to change when working with a very well-established and detailed world like Middle Earth, but even small things would have been nice.

      It feels like a theme park. Each quest is a ride. You can even go back on some rides (the epic quests, using the reflecting pools). Everything gets perfectly restored to how it was previously, shortly after you leave. I’m not specifically critiquing LoTRO for this.

      They tried, with player housing, but it didn’t work. The need to walk through portals to find your stamped-out neighbourhood, which never had anyone else in it, leeched any sense of multiplayer out of it.

      Beyond that, there was crafting and the general economy, which comes down to spreadsheets. I think the auction system is a horrible immersion killer. Though the gold spammers don’t help.

  12. Binni says:

    Nearly everyone I know who has tried it, liked it, but dropped out at the exact same spot…the first time you have to find 5 other people to go on an epic quest and not enough noobs around to go with you. As someone who works for a living on analysing in game data for an MMO to help game design, the fact that Turbine hasn’t fixed this glaring error in game design is unfathomable to me. Wherever you go on the internet people have the same problem with it.

    • Matthew says:

      They are looking at it to an extent – upon recently starting a new character I discovered that the earliest epic group quest I can remember, the Great Barrow of Othrongroth, was now a purely solo quest instead of requiring a full party. That was very handy!

    • Tei says:

      And you friends like MMO’s?, becase on a mmo, you are suppose to make new friends, people that will help you, and who you will help. I know making new friends on a game is not for everyone, so maybe MMO’s are not for everyone.

      Also, I am not expert. But I bet that If you open ways to play content in singleplayer-ish mode, making a group will be harder, not easier, since most people will avoid grouping.

      You can get a game like counter-strike, and remove the 3D interface, put a 2D interface where killing the enemy is clicking on a icon with the mouse. Removing what force people to make new friends, could be much like this change in the CS interface.

    • Konky Dong says:

      The quest in question is now a solo quest, and the epic quests after that (which are about 8 or 9 levels after that one) are getting completely revamped in the expansion. A lot of the early game group quests have been reworked into solo quests, I just leveled a burglar to lvl 22 without ever being in a group and I did every quest I could find.

    • cjlr says:

      Now, if all of them hit the same walls there…
      … couldn’t they just all team up?

  13. megaman says:

    I guess I could be happy playing this, just like most other MMOs, but I refrain from it because I know that basically it’s all about the grinding after a certain stage. When the first MMO comes out that is NOT about grinding, where you can just advance by doing things that are fun and fit into the character/world backstory, I will no longer have any reason to do this thing they call real life.

  14. Tide of the Wind says:

    I’m interested in the ‘more responsive combat’ line. While LOTRO has a gorgeous world, great story, quest text that’s interesting and amusing book quests I’ve always found the combat incredibly stiff.

    If they made it better I may be interested in picking up both Moria and Mirkwood.

    • Konky Dong says:

      The combat upgrade is one of the main things I’m looking forward too in the expansion. The biggest problem with the combat right now (especially for melee classes) is that your skills wait until your character completes an auto-attack animation before they go off. In the combat upgrade, all skills will interrupt auto-attack and will cast or start casting instantly.

  15. ThElderGod says:

    I played this MMO last summer, and I decided to download the free trial over the weekend. I waited at leas 10 hours for the download but it was well worth it. Lots of things had changed since I last played. First and foremost upon entering, the graphics were great, and it ran smoothly on my machine. Now, myself being a multiplayer guy went out and made a couple of friends who started around the same time as me. All it takes is the will to go out and find people your level, and where you are story wise or even just interested in doing the same things in game. I had no problem finding a fellowship to the Epic Quests at all. The interface is perfect too. There are plenty of things to do in the game, and I’ve already wasted hours playing music and crafting.

  16. Matin says:

    I played Turbine designed Ascheron’s Call (AC) many years ago. I actually played AC for 2.5 years. Since then I’ve played WWIIOL, WoW, SWG, PotBS, EVE, AoC, and Warhammer OL, but at most for a year or so. I’ve now played LOTRO for 11 months and I’ve went ahead and bought the lifetime subscription. I would not have bought the lifetime subscription if I was not confident that I will play this game for many years.

    You can play the game solo from 1-60 without any issues. Some classes are better at being solo, but you can make do with practically any character. I know that some people think that playing a MMORPG solo doesn’t make sense. However, I’ve always found that I like a game that supports me playing by myself and getting something done. AC was great since solo was widely supported. AC2 and DDO sucked because solo play was not supported.

    At the same time, LOTRO provides a group experience that is actually different than the solo experience. When leveling solo, I normally skip the epic story line. My static group of 6 characters (ie. full fellowship) meets every Sunday and Wednesday night. My group night characters does every epic quest and every instance in the game. I’m also in a large kin that does big raid instances. Each experience, solo, group, and raid is a bit different. You can follow this theme through to the new Mirkwood Skirmish system. Solo and group adventures are both supported.

    An important feature is the lore available from the Tolkien books and writings. I read Lord of the Rings back in the 70s and re-read the series when I started playing LOTRO. Actually, all of Tolkein’s writings are fair game. Although the Fellowship of the Ring went right, Mirkwood is taking us left towards the territory of the Hobbit. As you play through, you stumble on bits you recognize from the books. The Trolls turned to stone in the Hobbit, Elrond and the Last Homely House, etc… Instead of spending time and energy working on the lore, the developers get to mine the lore for game design. I think this makes the game design task somewhat easier.

    I don’t want to paint too rosey a picture. The crafting system is tedious. You spend way too much time farming. Doing the end game instances without a big kin or a dedicated group of players is way too tough. However, all in all I think Turbine hit a home run with LOTRO. I’m looking forward to what the future holds.