Apropos of nowt, thought I’d lob up this spare interview with Turbine’s Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel about Lord of the Rings Online, conducted late last year. ‘T’ain’t nothing fancy, and is only a partial transcript (can’t find the original recording, annoyingly), originally intended for an ‘Introduction to LOTRO’ kinda feature in a publication that didn’t eventually happen. Games journalism is a fool’s errand, kids.
Nonetheless, there’s some hopefully interesting comments about the thinking behind the game, its apparent blatant WoWiness and the casual/hardcore split.
Plus, LOTRO certainly seems to be an MMO to watch these days – I know a few folk who’re playing it, and they reckon it’s developed something of an edge over WoW. Meanwhile the musician stuff is increasingly becoming incredible. Well, almost. Is anyone here tottering around digi-Hobbiton, incidentally?
RPS: Has LOTRO gained the audience you’d hoped and expected?
Jeffrey Steefel: In terms of popularity, we’re pretty certain we’re the number two MMO out there at the moment. You couldn’t ask for a better outcome than that. That was always our goal, among other things. We have a great community, and it continues to grow. In terms of the types of player, it’s fascinating. We’re validating to some degree what we hoped would happen, which is all different types of players in the game. It makes it a little harder for us developers, as it means we have at least three or four audiences to try and satisfy. It’s good that it gives a little depth to the game. We’ve got hardcore roleplayers in there, we’ve got more casual players who are spending less time in the game but are very interested anyway. We’re very happy with the way things are going right now, and the fact that we’ve been able to update the game the way we said we would. We’ve added 20+ % to the game in the last six months – in land, in content, in functionality.
RPS: How do you balance the game for both hardcore and casual players?
JS: It’s a combination of just how you design it in the first place. We talked a lot about chess – easy to play, hard to master. So, crafting, for example – there’s a path for the less hardcore crafters that lets you get into in the crafting immediately, advance and get a sense of what it’s like fairly easily. At the same time, there’s Master Crafting, which allows you to master a certain profession and really get up to making the cool stuff. You start being able to add special ingredients and create more rare items. That’s something that’s going to improve over time, with some of the plans for crafting we have going forwards. It’s the same with combat. You get into combat fairly simply with auto-attack, skills, fairly straightforward stuff. As you progress through the advancement path you start learning how to use combos and Fellowship manoeuvres [powers activated by working with other players]. There’s an increasing level of complexity and power you can apply to combat /if you want to./ But you don’t have to.
And then it comes down to how we’re listening to the players on different channels. We’re not just listening to the hardcore guys who are saying “man, we need a lot more high level content.” But we’re answering that – we just added a 12-man raid dungeon, which is /huge./ But we’re also hearing from others players “hey, there’s lot of really cool storytelling content that’s kind of high level and I need a group to see it. Boy, it’d be great if that was more solo-able”, so we’re addressing that too. We look at things like playing music, which is appealing to a more casual audience, and make sure we put time and energy into making that better. We’re on our third revision of music at this point.
RPS:What was the intention behind adding player housing in the most recent update?
JS: For the core players, it’s more storage, another place in the world they can teleport to whenever they want, and for the casual guys, it’s /housing/. So they can live in Middle Earth and make their mark on the world. It also adds for the crafters a whole new piece of the economy – they can make housing items, so the auction houses will start filling with all these cool new things. As much as is possible, we give something for everybody in each update, and any time there’s a chance for those two things to overlap…. Housing’s a good example. I’m satisfying two groups at once by adding that.
RPS: Are you confident the game will stay accessible to causal players as you move the in-game timeline forward and eventually into the War of the Ring?
JS: I think we have to. It’s challenging, absolutely, but we’ve been able to do it far. What you don’t want to do is create a disposable experience that you move past and never go back. For instance, all the housing entrances are near to the newbie areas, so we get lots of more advanced players coming back to the early areas. Some of the epic quests we’re making them more soloable, so people can enjoy them at a lower level.
The challenge as you start building really, really high level content, as we move into the war, is how do we make sure that new players are still going to have access to that if they don’t ever want to get to level 50? We have ways of doing that, and it’s a big focus for us. Especially for something like Lord of the Rings, where’s it’s like “I want to go to Mordor, I want to go to Helm’s Deep”, but I may not want to be a level 60 in a party of 12 to have to do it.
RPS: How much has the game been shaped by the Lord of the Rings branding?
JS: From the moment that we took over the license and began rethinking the game, the discussion around here was “this needs to be a great game.” That sounds obvious, but it is very tempting and seductive to say the most important thing is the IP, as long as we get that right everything will be fine. In some respects, in the beginning we almost tried to pretend that there wasn’t any IP. How can we make sure this game is really, really cool, period? And then, how can we leverage the IP that supports that?
RPS: It’s got a very traditional MMO mechanic at heart. Did you feel you had to go with that, so you could experiment later?
JS: I think we did a bit of both at launch. Predominantly though, you’re right. The analogy I used at launch was you’re making a car. You want to get a whole bunch of people to come drive your car, so you don’t put the sterring wheel on the back seat. There are certain things that people know how to do instinctively, and so made it a familiar experience – people can literally just hop into the chair and feel like they can play.
That said, there’s lots of places where we evolved the functionality to be different from other games. Specifically the advancement path – with the traits and deeds. The idea that there’s an entirely different factor on top of the normal gameplay, this very diverse way of growing your character, and from this you’re getting a reward that affects your game. That’s something that people really responded to, this idea that by exploring the world – not just by grinding combat, but crafting, playing music, finding the really cool tower at the top of the mountain – gives you rewards that actually enhance your gameplay. It’s a fairly large departure from the standard kill things, get more xp, get a new level, get more skills, kill bigger things, and on and on and on formula.