The Lord of the Rings Online turns two years old tomorrow. That may sound unremarkable, but Turbine's recreation of Tolkien's world prospers despite launch-attacks by Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and of course World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. Turbine, then, must be doing something right.
Recently, that was first expansion Mines of Moria, which took home 9/10 on Eurogamer - the same score Lord of the Rings Online was awarded for a remarkably solid launch. And even more recently there was the Book 7 update that began the long task of revitalising Middle-Earth for newcomers and returning players alike.
To celebrate the second anniversary of The Lord of the Rings Online, we're not only giving away an enormous 2000 free copies of the game, but also chatting to executive producer Jeffrey Steefel, key designer Alan Maki and head Turbine spokesperson Adam Mersky, who will stop everything getting out of hand - perhaps we'll lock him in a cupboard. Part one of our chat follows, covering LOTRO's its inception and its first two years. Look out for part two, which looks ahead to LOTRO's future, tomorrow.
Eurogamer: How many Elves it takes to change a lightbulb? Ellie Gibson would like to know.
Alan Maki: The first thing is to go through a round of approvals. That can take anywhere up to a week or two.
Jeffrey Steefel: Is this a lore-appropriate lightbulb or not? Because that changes things a bit.
Adam Mersky: Elves do it faster because they're taller. The hobbits have to rally and stand on each other's shoulders.
Eurogamer: The Lord of the Rings Online launched two years ago, very nearly. How are your player numbers doing?
Jeffrey Steefel: Not only are we getting new people and re-acquiring a lot of people that left us, we're seeing people spend longer in-game. We're very encouraged by that; it's very exciting on the eve' of our second anniversary to be actually moving forward and growing. We couldn't ask for anything more than that. Well, we could; we always ask for more.
Eurogamer: How many people are coming back?
Jeffrey Steefel: A meaningful percentage. We don't talk about numbers for a number of reasons. Mainly because... we don't have to! Also because we want to focus on the things that really, really matter. People tend to move in and out and come back when there's new and exciting things to do. The way we support the game and release content has been very effective in always giving a reason to come back.
Eurogamer: Have there been any particularly big dips?
Jeffrey Steefel: There's a natural cycle, you know? Certain periods of time where content may have come to the end of its lifespan.
Alan Maki: Some of this happens when people go on vacation or enjoy the summer, and then pick-up again in the winter. That we're seeing numbers heading up as we head into the nice weather is really exciting.
Eurogamer: How much bigger are you now than you were at launch?
Jeffrey Steefel: Bigger and growing. We're not trying to be difficult, but you have to understand that Adam [PR man - Ed] has a very sharp object held close to my throat.
Adam Mersky: Haha! What's interesting is that if you look back over two years there's been quite a few high-profile MMOs that have launched. I'll let you guys determine how well [LOTRO] has done or not, but the fact is we're still here two years later and we're continuing to grow. We've been doing this for a long time now and we've been able to sustain and grow despite some pretty heavy competition out there.
Eurogamer: Let's go right back to the beginning. When did work actually begin on Lord of the Rings Online?
Jeffrey Steefel: That's a complicated question and we'll give you the least-complicated answer possible. The game that people are playing today began work approximately the end of 2004. Certainly there had been work - I believe a year-and-a-half's work - on Middle-Earth Online, which was a game envisioned slightly differently by the publisher at the time, so we had assembled the team and done some work and learned some things about what would and wouldn't work.
Alan Maki: We certainly did!
Jeffrey Steefel: Really the game we ended up launching started life in the beginning of 2005. Essentially we built the game in about two and a half years.