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.