Only time will tell whether Jeff Steefel has the best job in the world - or the worst. It could go either way for the man who oversees the production of Lord of the Rings Online for Turbine. On one side of the argument, his job is to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth to life in a more ambitious and far-reaching manner than anyone (even Peter Jackson) has attempted before. As a life-long fan of the Lord of the Rings literature, that's undoubtedly a dream come true for him.
On the other side, though, lies the simple fact that Lord of the Rings fans are not the most... Well, not the most placid bunch, shall we say. Nor, for that matter, are MMOG fans. Both groups are known to be notoriously fickle, unforgiving, difficult to please and just downright bloody minded. Jeff Steefel's job is to make a game that will be loved in both camps. If he succeeds, we hear there might be a few job openings in the Middle East for someone of his talents.
Despite the weight of expectation which rests on his shoulders, Jeff was in fine spirits when we met him in London recently - and with the launch of Lord of the Rings Online looming, there was plenty to talk about...
Eurogamer: How did you end up in this position - working on the biggest fantasy franchise in the world?
Jeff Steefel: I'm the luckiest man in showbiz! I've been working in this industry for about 15 years; I came to work for Turbine pretty much specifically to work on this game. Before that I ran a studio for Sony Online, and I worked for a number of companies building, designing and producing games for quite some time.
I found myself attracted to this particular title at Turbine, since obviously like many people I've been reading the books since I was young - and I probably have an older copy than most people! That's what led me to it, and honestly, I can't think of anything I'd rather work on than this. This is the thrill of a lifetime.
Eurogamer: And how did it come about for Turbine, in the first place? There are a lot of companies developing MMOGs out there; why choose Turbine to do this project?
Jeff Steefel: Well, our CEO Jeff Anderson, about four or five years ago, went out to Vivendi - who at the time was looking for a developer. They were the publisher for Lord of the Rings at the time, and they looked at lots of different companies. We had finished making Asheron's Call and had a fair amount of experience in these types of games - particularly with the story background. They decided that Turbine was the right company to do this.
Over time, Vivendi was busy doing other things, and we worked out a situation where we could have the license directly from Tolkien Enterprises. That started around January of 2005, and the rest has been just a little bit of work to get us to this point.
Eurogamer: When Vivendi was involved with this game, they had the license to the book, but not to the films. Now that you're licensing directly from Tolkien, are you able to use the films as reference material as well?
Jeff Steefel: Our license is directly for the books - the Hobbit and the trilogy. The truth is that nobody really has the rights for the movies, because making an MMO out of the movies by themselves would be very difficult - almost prohibitive. The movie rights are basically for single-player games.
Eurogamer: So you aren't in a position where you could, say, look to the movies for visual reference, things like that?
Jeff Steefel: No - and in some respects that's better, because that would be a tempting trap for us, right? This forces us to really go back to the source material, understand it in great detail - really understand what kind of world we're building and devise our design from that.
Eurogamer: It's a fascinating and well-loved world, obviously, so it's a great license from that point of view - but do you ever get the feeling that it's a bit of a poisoned chalice? What you do here is going to be judged in ways that other MMOs are never judged...
Jeff Steefel: Well, pluses and minuses in all things, right? It's definitely a double edged sword. I think the expectation is very high - on the other hand, judging by the response that we've had in beta so far, I think we've passed that threshold where people feel like we've treated this gem in the way that it should be treated. People are happy with what we've created.
But it's always a challenge, when people have pre-conceived notions of the way it looks, and a very high expectation of what the world should feel like. That's why we've spent so much time and energy both being clear that we understand what the world was intended to be, and at the same time creating the highest level of quality in terms of look and feel, and really feeling like a place you'll want to spend a lot of time in.
Eurogamer: It's a really mass-market license - is that where you've aimed the gameplay as well? MMOGs tend to be distributed along an axis between really easy to get into, and absolutely rock-hard, pissing-in-a-bottle required stuff. Where do you sit on that axis?
Jeff Steefel: That's fair, and I think we're... Well, I won't quote you, because then you'll quote me quoting you! I think we're closer to the casual side.
One thing that we've tried very hard to do, which is not an easy task, is to recognise the fact that there are going to be a lot of fairly hardcore MMO players who will want to play this game, because it allows them to do all the things that they love to do, and more, but in Lord of the Rings, in Middle Earth. At the same time, as you say, it's going to reach out to a broader audience because of the IP - so in some respects we've tried to design a game that helps, within a certain narrow band, us to have our cake and eat it too.
Many of the game's systems provide for different levels of complexity, for example. The game is very accessible in the beginning, so for a casual, mass-market person, it's very easy to get into. There's no tremendous learning curve; if you've never played an RPG before, it's probably going to be difficult, but we don't imagine that we're going to get people who have never played games before.
But if you've never played an MMO before, there's a lot in the game that helps guide you through the early parts, so you get an understanding of how to play. Then you get to a certain point very quickly where you're playing the game, you're doing most of the meaningful things in the game, and enjoying it, consuming content... But you don't have to reach to the more complex levels of the game.
At the same time, if you're a hardcore player, you can breeze past some of the early introductory stuff very quickly, and there's levels upon levels upon levels of sophistication that you can get yourself involved with. So I can be a crafter, spend not that much time, and learn how to work through different professions just having fun in a casual way... Or I can make it my life's work to be a master crafter in Lord of the Rings, and create some really rare items and sell them at auction, mail them to people, do all kinds of stuff like that.
Eurogamer: What's your view on soloing in the game? Are you going to be enforcing grouping beyond a certain point, or is there a solo path that people can take through the game if they're really just dipping in and out?
Jeff Steefel: We're trying to stay away from ever actually enforcing grouping. We feel like... You know, I can't remember who it was, someone wrote an article quite a while back about being "alone together" in MMOs, and the truth is that that's something we've all learned. People like to group, but they also like doing things alone, with other people around, feeling like they're in a place that's populated.
The game is designed to allow solo play pretty much throughout. Now that said, there are going to be some high-level instances where you must have a group. There are very few of those - but there are a lot of high level instances or difficult challenges which you could solo, but you'd have to really over-level yourself, practice... But you can do it.
The goal, the curve that we've created for the game in the design is that in the beginning, you can solo anything. Over time, you get to a point where the majority of it is still solo-able, there are just a few things which require the considered effort of a group. The feel of the game should be that as an individual player, I can pretty much experience the game by myself if I want to.
Eurogamer: Talking briefly about the graphics engine - this is obviously a fantastic looking game, but how does that translate into performance on real-world PCs? Is it going to require a high-spec PC, or does the game scale well?
Jeff Steefel: It scales really well. Some of that is that I'm the beneficiary of this being the fourth game that Turbine has built - so we've been working on this engine for quite some time. It scales pretty well, down from the craziest high-end machine that you can imagine - in which case we try to give you some extra things that you can take advantage of - down to a much lower end machine. The graphics there still look really really good, but the way in which the engine can manage what we're rendering, what we're not rendering, how we're managing things... It's very effective at doing that.
We've also spent a lot of time over the last six months specifically on this game, for the very reason you're describing, eking every bit of performance we can out of the game - to basically drive those requirements lower and lower and lower, because we recognise that that's important.
Eurogamer: Even in the current beta, there are some frame-rate problems - is that something that's still being worked on?
Jeff Steefel: Oh yeah. In fact, the version we're showing today is a couple of versions behind what we have in development - which has significant performance improvements. Optimisation and performance tends to be, unfortunately, the last thing you do. If you start to do it too early, then you change systems and you end up optimising something that isn't actually the system that you're going to have.
It'll never be everything that we want it to be - I would love everybody to be able to play it at the level of graphics we saw today, on, you know, a 1982 machine - but that's not going to happen!
Eurogamer: You've dropped some pretty broad hints about additional content - in the presentation today, you said that the number of quests would grow within a matter of months. Do you have a specific schedule for how you're planning to add content, either in free updates or expansion packs?
Jeff Steefel: We have a fairly good idea of what our plan is, and we're certainly building to that plan right now. We're not talking about what that release schedule is, obviously, until we get much closer to the first release - but the basic philosophy behind it is that we want people to get new content in the game very frequently. That's something Turbine has done in the past, and we're talking in the order of months. Not quarters, not years.
Some of that will be free content, and then from time to time, some of it will be retail content. The goal is for you always to have something new to look forward to - and you're not going to have to wait very long for something new to come along. How that actually takes shape over the next year is really going to depend on what we're able to validate about the way people consume the content that we've built. We've made some assumptions, based on our experience, that what we've built for launch is going to last people a certain amount of time - but we won't know until we get there.
Eurogamer: One of the interesting things about the design of the game is that Orcs and so on aren't a playable race; you've kept the ability to play as those races off to one side, almost as a separate game which runs alongside the main MMOG experience. Is that something you could change down the line, or do you feel strongly that it wouldn't fit the lore to allow people to play Orcs and their ilk?
Jeff Steefel: It's a pretty strong feeling, in terms that we want to add things to the gameplay that don't ruin the integrity of the things which make the game important - like the fact that it's a believable Tolkien world.
So, yes, it feels isolated right now, in that there's one region of the world where you can actually go in as a monster and play - although you are interacting with player characters as well, who are coming in there from the rest of the world. When there are many of these regions, and there are just some places that do have it, and some places that don't, it's going to feel a lot more like there is PvP throughout the world; there are just some places where there aren't PvP, because it just doesn't feel right.
Of course, there are places in Middle Earth where you can imagine there being PvP all the time, right? You can imagine Helm's Deep, or Mordor, places like that which are going to be constantly in battle - that's the place where large groups of players and large groups of monsters are going to be meeting.
What we did was take a look at what's really important to a PvP player. Is it that it's a race? Or is it that there's persistence, that there's permanence, that there's ownership? Those are the three things that we decided are the most important things to PvP - so we're making sure that you have that. Your monster is your monster; people know who it is; you can create some sort of infamy for that monster, and that monster can grow more powerful over time, through virtue of what you do.
Eurogamer: Won't this create very strange social situations in the game, where you have players in "monster" mode fighting against people who are normally their companions or guild-mates?
Jeff Steefel: Yeah, that could happen, by choice! But what you're more likely to do is to choose, as a guild, to play on one side because of the benefits that are available to you - or you'll choose to be a monster guild, taking your whole guild and creating a monster guild, and fighting on that side.
The benefits and rewards to groups over time, just like anything, are going to be more attractive. For example, taking over a keep is not something you can do by yourself - you're going to want to do it with your raid group, or you're going to want to do it with your monster group. We think that will encourage that.
Eurogamer: Given that PvP is being made into quite a separate system from the rest of the game, does that mean there's only going to be one type of server, or is there some kind of PvP / PvE divide still in place?
Jeff Steefel: Currently, that's the plan. Again, we reserve the right to decide that having a completely PvP server is a possibility - so we might do that, but the question then is, do we just open up PvP to everywhere in the world? Technically, we can do that. The game is built to handle that, so there's nothing technically we have to do - it's just a question of, what does it do to the overall feel and quality and balance of the game?
Now, we may find that there's a group of people in our audience who don't care. They feel like, "we love being in this world, and we love beating the crap out of each other - that's all we need, just give us a server to do it on." In which case, that's certainly something we would entertain - but right now, that's not part of the plan.
Eurogamer: An inevitable question, perhaps - especially for a game which was initially going to be published by Vivendi - is whether you've looked to World of Warcraft for inspiration when designing this game, given WoW's enormous size and the perception that it's really taken MMO titles a step beyond where they were previously.
Jeff Steefel: Well, what WoW did for everybody, really, is that - like you said - it took the genre to a new level. It expanded the audience in a tremendously huge way, and it also established a new bar, which says that MMOs need to be polished, and stable, and work, and be easy to understand, and be functional, and compelling.
That set a new baseline for us. The other thing it did is it helped us to learn a little bit about player habits, and what players are used to doing. So for example, if you look at our interface, there are certain things about our interface that are very familiar. That's by intent - not so that it looks like another game, but so that someone's not trying to re-learn something that really, is just the interface. When I get into a car, I know where the steering wheel is - okay, that analogy doesn't work quite so well for me in the UK, but still, I know approximately where it is! Left or right is different, sure, but I wouldn't put it in the trunk just because that's my design. I want someone to be able to sit down and drive away.
If players are used to pressing the M key to get the map, why would I make it something different? Why not make it M, to make it easy and accessible to them? On the other hand, if there's something that I feel could be better, or needs to be different - for example, our combat controls for groups need to be different, because we have group combat that we offer in a way that isn't available in WoW or other games - then we'll enhance it, or make a new type of interface, or do it in a different way.
The goal really is for someone that already plays those types of games, in places where it doesn't make the game any better to change it, make it as seamless as possible - so that their focus is on experiencing the game, enjoying the world, exploring, and not on figuring out how to play.
I think one of the things that WoW, and the whole change to the market, has shown, is that the days where figuring out how to play the game was a big part of gameplay, and where making it work was a part of gameplay... I was one of these guys, and I think we all were to some degree. I was at Sony when we launched EverQuest, and just making the game function was a part of gameplay, in the very beginning. That's not acceptable any more. This is mainstream entertainment now, so the gameplay needs to be about the experience, the entertainment. Let's let the interface fade away, become invisible.
Eurogamer: Wrapping up on the same topic; a lot of your players are going to come from WoW. Why? What's the reason for somebody who's playing WoW, who has invested a lot of time in it, to turn around and say "hey, this game looks interesting, I should play this instead"?
Jeff Steefel: Well, I think in some cases it answers some questions that people have had with the experience that they currently have. You know, in terms of, what are some things I can do as a group? How can I have an advancement path that has a little more complexity to it, a little more durability and flexibility to it?
They'll be attracted to some things that are just different, right? You know, with the PvP, some people will feel like that's not what they want - but some people will feel like, oh, that's an interesting approach, I've never done that before. We're also finding, just in market studies that we've done, that a lot of people who currently play WoW and other MMOs, who don't really like PvP or haven't really tried it in the past, are much more likely to try it in this game, because it's more accessible to them.
On top of that, they can do everything that they love to do... In Middle Earth. With the context of Middle Earth, with the wrapping of Middle Earth all around and through it. I'm not just talking to An NPC, I'm talking to Elrond. I'm going to A Place to get The Thing, I'm going to Rivendell to get the Vial of Galadriel. It just has so much more resonance to people that have grown up with those books.
Then there's the fact that it really is the next generation, in a lot of ways. The look of it, the graphics of it, the audio, and in some cases the interface and gameplay itself, they're all taken to the next level.
Eurogamer: Thanks for your time, Jeff.
Jeff Steefel: Thank you!