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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.