Interview: Jeffrey Steefel on LOTRO: Mines of Moria

Orcs, eh? I hate those guys.

We’ve spoke to Turbine Producer Jeffrey Steefel before, but with the forthcoming Mines of Moria expansion, we grasped the chance to do so again. Coming fresh from hands-on with the Beta code in the game, we sat down to talk about how far LOTR:Online has come, the importance of Moria to the RPG, the really novel Legendary Weapons system (which will be the feature which everyone steals, I strongly suspect) and the current state of the Fantasy MMO. The transcript hides beneath the cut. Speak Friend, and enter.

RPS: Just to start generally, it’s nearly two years since the game launched. How’s things going? Where do you see the game?

Jeffrey Steefel: It’s been going great. It’s arguably one of the top MMOs in the industry right now – we’ll see what happens with the new games that are coming out, but probably the second most prominent MMO game right now. It continues to grow in quality and size and the players that we have are great, worldwide. Really interesting community worldwide, even more committed in some respects than some other communities in other games. I think people really think we’ve built Tolkien’s world. I couldn’t be happier – well, I could always be happier. I could always take more players and more stuff.

RPS: It’s an interesting period, certainly. In terms of relatively-straight fantasy MMOs, there’s now actually credible choices to choose between, depending on what you want. Previously, WoW was…

Steefel: The Choice?

RPS: Yes, The Choice. And anything else was more niche, and if you played one you were deliberately stepping away from the mainstream. And if you’re going to play a game today, there’s at least three really good games out there. Would you agree with that?

Steefel: Its’ a very interesting state. There’s something which remains true – that this is really hard. Blizzard got it right first time with their MMO, but they’ve been building quality games longer than anyone. We have been building these kind of games for fourteen years – this is our fourth one. We got it right – as in, totally right – on our fourth try. You can see a lot of other companies trying to do it, and some of them are getting it right, and some aren’t. More not, not because they’re not great game makers – but because this is incredibly difficult to do. So I still think there’s a huge barrier. I don’t think you’re going to see hundreds and hundreds, or even dozens of MMOs out there, just because they’re so expensive and difficult and hard to pull off. But it is great to see a market where there’s choices, because I think that opens it up to a much broader group of people. The other thing I think we’re seeing is that people migrate back and forth. It used to be you’d decide to play a game, and that’s what you did. For years. And then you stopped doing that, and went and did something else. Now, people move around, try things, play for a while, and match their gaming cycles to the cycles of the game itself when content comes out.

RPS: I’m absolutely that demographic. I play widely but shallowly.

Steefel: I think a lot of people do that.
Sexy Galadriel. There's probably a ring gag to go for, but that'll be crass.

RPS: How does that effect the way you think? I mean, MMOs have been traditionally seen as long term relationships. People moving from one to the other as content appears is something else.

Steefel: I think there’s a couple of levels to it. Firstly, you just have to know it and accept it so when you see people leaving, you know they’re going to come back. And you make sure you give them good reasons to come back – Moria is a great reason for someone to come back who’s played LOTR, gone done something else for a while and now wants something else to do. Because there’s things you can do in Moria which you simply can’t do in any other game. The other thing you do is try and figure out how you can give people play sessions that are not as deep commitment wise – hence the focus on solo play.

Hence our major system in Moria – a very elder play system – is completely soloable. So if you want to play for an hour, or two hours, or you want to play by yourself or play now and not play again for two weeks… you can do that, as opposed to feeling that your commitment has to be 100%, or you just can’t play at all. Which I think is prohibitive. I think that’s problematic for the market. Which is why we have our focus on solo play, on session play, on instances that people can do which are smaller commitments which still mean a lot to the overall pattern of what’s going on for them in the game.

RPS: In some way Moria is the first big icon you’ve brought into play. As in really big. The phrase I pretentiously scribbled down when playing is that it’s the Ur-Dungeon. It’s what originated every dungeon in the modern world.

Steefel: These phrase I had at the beginning, which marketing made me get rid of because I’m not a good marketing guy, is something like “The Dungeon Crawl that Started it all”, right? Because we didn’t want it to feel like a dungeon, because it isn’t a dungeon – it’s a big huge space. But you’re right – everything evolved this. The whole idea of going down into a deep place and going on adventures and finding things and D&D and everything which came from that, really came from Moria.

Hi Mum! I'm in Lothlorien!

RPS: How do you deal with the licence. I mean, WoW has it easy – they just make it all up. Warhammer has a wide, but highly detailed world with lots of specific things to take from. You… well, you’re extrapolating off small sections of the text, like the things in the deep in Moria. Is that tricky to get right?

Steefel: It’s actually more of an opportunity than a problem. It’s rarely a problem. I’ve been a sort of creative person for a long time – in this business and then before that as a performer. And you always need some kind of boundary. Start with a blank canvas and say that you’re going to make stuff up in this big empty vac cum… it’s actually really hard to do. It’s good to have boundaries. The beauty of Tolkein is that he’s created these exquisitely detailed boundaries that have so much depth and richness inside them, and yet still have all kinds of things which are open for interpretation. I mean, we built Angmar basically from scratch, to our liking, based on very few clues… and yet it still feels as if it belongs in Middle Earth. There’s certain things – I can’t have flying cars or motorcycles or things like that. But I can have other things which are very exciting and it means, by definition, the world has a consistency, where it feels right. It all fits together. There’s not things which just don’t make sense.

That's the Warden's combo-bar on the middle-right, which is actually quite fancy.

RPS: There’s lots of fun stuff in the expansion, but one thing that stood out was the Legendary weapon system, which struck me as inspired [Players can gain legendary weapons which gain experience points along with the player – Ed]. If you examine fantasy fiction, that’s how it works. Heroes have an iconic sword. They don’t just pick up every sword they find..

Steefel: Absolutely. That’s what’s so great about it. As a game mechanic it’s fantastic, as it gives you a sense of elder play that’s endless. Everything’s upgradable. I never need to throw away anything ever again. Seriously! If have a legendary weapon that’s no longer powerful enough – maybe I got it at level 32, and now I’m level 60 – that’s great. I don’t have to throw it away. I can deconstruct it and take all the relics that were part of it, and build a more powerful weapon. Everything has a upgrade path. Nothing gets thrown away. But from a lore point of view, absolutely. You get the sense when you read the books that a celebrity in Middle Earth was Gandalf – but another celebrity in Middle Earth was Glamdring [Gandalf’s Sword – Noldor Elf Ed]. You’re building these legacies in the world. Absolutely. It’s very very cool. It’s a thing which is with you, which is well worn, which has this history… it’s not “I traded in the small size for the medium size and the medium size for the large size and the large size for the large size with the shiny thing on it”.

RPS: Can you name your weapon, by the way?

Steefel: Yes. Absolutely. Probably won’t be able to name it sting or Glamdring, or anything else like that – but absolutely. You have to. It’s a unique weapon. It’s yours. Imagine showing up at the raiding part with your weapon. No longer is it a case of “Dude – did you get the blahblahblah sword? Because we need that for this raid”. “I brought my own sword – it’s tailor made for this thing. I’ve been working on it for two months, and its DPS is maxxed out here, and it’s got this and it’s got this and that. Put that together with my class and how I’m using my traits, and I was born for this raid”.

That Dwarf is the lovely Ex-PC Gamer Disc Editor Trevor Wit, by the way. Bless Trevor.

RPS: I have to ask – what do you make of the new games?

Steefel: I think it’s great. I think it’s great for the business.

RPS: Is there anything particularly in them you admire?

Steefel: I’m not going to talk specifically about each game, but I think it’s really best for the players and the community to determine what’s working and what isn’t working. I think there’s great things in all of those new games. All the things that are being experimented with – from the fast action in Conan, the RvR in WAR – I think the Tome of Knowledge is really, really cool. There’s a lot of really cool things out there. We’re all borrowing from each other, right? There’s certainly some things which are turning up in other games which seem familiar to us. And I’m sure we’ll do the same. The industry is teaching itself to make these games more and more fun. We don’t want there to be only one or two games out there – then it’s not an industry, it’s a fluke.

RPS: Other genresof games are so much quicker to turn around – you could have a new example of the genre every year. That means the evolution and the exchange of ideas of is quicker. With MMOs taking so long, that’s another reason I think the genre’s evolution occasionally seems slower.

Steefel: I think what you have to look at is the evolution inside games. It’s not going to become a completely different game. LoTR is the game it is. WAR’s the game that it is. WoW is the game that it is. Those games are going to continue to grow and evolve. That’s why we’re so excited about the Item Enhancement system – because it really takes things in a new direction, without fundamentally changing the game.

Lord of the Rings: The Mines of Moria will be out later this year.


  1. Fede says:

    Even if the idea of leveling weapons is nothing new (think of roguelikes) it seems they are experiencing with it in a kind of different way. I’m interested to see how it turns out.

  2. gaijin says:

    “I’d slip a finger in her ring”. I think that was the caption you were looking for.

  3. Zeitgeist says:

    LotR is a top MMO? It seemed like a complete WOW clone when i tried the beta, but i am glad it is doing good since i love the material it is based on.

  4. phuzz says:

    crass, but it made me laugh :)

    I do like the idea of not having to get rid of weapons because they’re staying powerful along with you. One of the things I disliked about Stalker was having to dump the SA-80 (I can’t remember what they were called in game, but I know an SA-80 when I see one) that had got me through loads of fights because it was old and busted and there was better guns.

  5. Venkman says:

    LotR is a top MMO? It seemed like a complete WOW clone when i tried the beta, but i am glad it is doing good since i love the material it is based on.

    And why you assume its still the same I have no idea. MMOs are not like traditional games that are released and seldom change. MMOc constantly change, new things are being introduced. Granted this is not true of all MMOs and some change more than others, but to simply say you played it back in beta and that now its still the same, is simply false.

  6. andy says:

    anyone know if LOTRO is more solo friendly than it was in beta/release? that’s the one thing i was hoping beyond all hope for when i preordered. then after a few days in beta i cancelled. been looking back ever since, hoping things have changed.

    AoC was very solo friendly, i loved that about that game.

  7. malkav11 says:

    Legendary swords is an *awesome* idea. I’m still not likely to go back, alas.

  8. Tony says:

    Even back in beta I’d hestitate to call it simply a “WoW clone”. No more than WoW was a clone of Turbine’s own Asheron’s Call when it launched, honestly. Obviously both LotRO and WoW have improved significantly since then. They have their differences and if you care enough about those differences, that can be a big deal. Some might see that as a reason to play WoW which is great for them. I see it as a reason to stick with LotRO personally, so I’m happy too lol.

    andy: The game has gotten a LOT more solo friendly. I have gotten up to 50 with my champ doing, I would say, 99% of it by myself. Grouping with people was more out of fun than necessity.

    There’s a lot of solo friendly quests. If you’re out of some in one zone, it’s guaranteed another has new ones for you to do since you were last there (or you can move on to the next level zone). I never felt like I didn’t have at least several options while leveling in that sense. It’s gotten a lot better over time.

    Certainly you’re going to miss some cool quests taking it that route… and some of the harder dungeons will be essentially impossible unless you manage to get 10 to 20 levels ahead of what they’re expecting. But you can get a good experience and level all the way up well anyway.

    The main thing to keep in mind is that if you care about the epic questline, you’re going to have to eventually group up. A lot of it (a good half) is focused on levels 40 to 50 and each book has at least a chapter or two that require a group.

    There’s a lot of nice people in this game and a lot of great kinships/guilds. I’d just say join one that sounds good on the forums and go from there. I do almost everything on my own, but it’s nice to know that if I need help I can count on some nice people to join me… and vice versa, as I’ll help out others too.

  9. Erlam says:

    How long have (gamers) been asking for weapons they keep with them for a whole game, and that level with them?

    Why is it taking people so long to realise that’d be a good idea?

  10. Weylund says:

    When do you get these legendary weapons? I pre-ordered and loved the game for months; I left when I got incredibly, incredibly bored.

    Holy crow, I would re-up just for legendary weapons.

  11. araczynski says:

    thanks for the info tony, sounds like i should’ve bought that lifetime membership after all :) either of the two times they offered :) maybe they’ll offer again…

  12. Huppla says:

    DAoC did have weapons and other items that you could level. Not as fancy as this system, though.

  13. Megamaj says:

    Did anyone else notice that it’s not spelled ‘Tolkein’ but Tolkien?

  14. MMORPGPlayer says:

    I think MMORPG developers have to be very careful of trying to be innovative within a current successful MMORPG. You can go back to that great single player game that was on the top 10 charts, it is still the great game it was back then.

    MMORPGs just implode and always become garbage. World of Warcraft was a good game but now it is garbage. They made too many changes to the game. Everquest was agood game but now it is garbage.

    There is a reason why people play these games in the beginning it is because they find the design fun to play. Why drive these people away?

  15. lotro says:

    is anybody know when will next part of this game?