"I think so," says Steefel. "Well, let me rephrase that, and I say this with tremendous respect. We can never satisfy those people. Blizzard can never satisfy those people. They're not satisfiable. Again, all power to them: they're so ferocious at consuming. We have a number of people on the team who have five, six, seven level 60 characters who've announced they won't play with anyone who has any less than three, four, five characters at level 60 or above. But in terms of the challenge level, in terms of being able to work in groups, being able to do raids, you know, high level content, there's just no way you could get through it unless you're in there with a bunch of real badass guys."
After Weathertop, Steefel goes to the Great Barrow for some dungeoneering. Again, the environments and the enemies are beautiful. The first sighting of the Witch King of Angmar is made here, although you don't get to take him on until you're reaching the top levels ("There's a 45-50 level cap," according to Jeff). The instance ends in combat with a particularly nasty wraith, after which Bombadil saves the day. He even skips. We're kind of loving the game at this point, to be honest.
Three times a LOTR MMORPG HaXX0r
Speaking to us in private after the showing, Steefel tells us he was contractually obliged to read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings at least three times. He doesn't seem to mind. From the sound of it, that level of research was essential to the job.
"It's a huge place," he says, smiling. "For my designers and artists it's very cool for them to work on one of the most well-known properties on the planet. You know, it's like, 'What did you do today?' 'Oh I've been modelling Rivendell.' That's pretty cool. On the other hand, artists are really creative people, and that means that the amount of things they can create totally from scratch is unlimited. So when Angmar comes along and we said, 'Look, here's a whole part of Middle Earth that Tolkien only talked about. Here's everything we know about it, here's where it is geographically and we know what the rest of the world is like in terms of biology and topography: make Angmar.' And then we come up with a basic idea and we talk it over with Tolkien [Tolkien Estate, the owner of the book rights - Ed], come to a place where we're comfortable and that becomes Angmar. So you'll be exploring the realm of the Witch King. And there'll be many other places like that throughout Middle Earth that we get to do."
The Fellowship never goes to Angmar in the books. This is uncharted territory. To a Tolkien geek, it's wet dream material. And it's not going to stop any time soon. Turbine has very big plans for LOTRO. Get sucked in and you're going to be playing it for a long time yet.
"I think of this as a franchise that starts at launch and goes on for years and years and years," he adds. "It's such an evergreen piece of material there's no reason why it shouldn't. We're going to do an expansion roughly every nine to 12 months, and the expansions are likely to have significant functionality changes as opposed to just content. We're going to do quarterly content updates. Will other types of functionality come online in some of those? Sure. But it all depends on the technology involved. I'm going to have a content team, an art team and also a fairly substantial technology team to improve our game and add functionality.
"I think this is the beginning of an evolution. I've been preaching this to my team a lot. I think the MMO market is at a more mature place now. I think of it like the Betamax era. We ship the machine at launch and then just keep feeding it with tape? That doesn't work any more. The fundamental way that the experience exists is going to change and evolve. It's going to have to. The community's going to change and mature."
Some of the features to be included are obvious. PvP doesn't make it into the original release - currently scheduled for Q4 in Europe - although Steefel tells us to watch for an announcement on being able to play "darkside" soon.
Others are less so. The initial game includes 250 hours of play, but he tells us that all the content from The Two Towers and The Return of the King will be added in content updates. As an example of how this will affect the core game, the Rohirim make an appearance in the second book, so horse-riding and horse combat will have to be included. Add the unknown quantity of Angmar onto the three original books and you have an epic prospect. Turbine's in it for the long haul and it has massive plans. You should get into publishing, we joke.
"It's all part of the possibility space," says Steefel seriously. "It really depends on how many things we want to take on all at once. We're pretty clear that sales and distribution isn't a business that we'll ever want to get into."
"Unless we become the next EA."