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.
Eurogamer: What sort of things didn't work? Can you give us an example?
Alan Maki: Sure!
Jeffrey Steefel: Hahaha.
Alan Maki: One of the first combat games we had was based around a card game. As your character advanced he acquired more and more cards and he placed these into your deck. As you progressed through combat you would be given random cards from your deck to build trumps and other ways to finish off your attacks and skills. That didn't test so well internally at first, so we looked at it as a table-top version and we looked at it in the actual game and realised very quickly that it was far too random and ended up not being very fun.
Jeffrey Steefel: One of the other big changes was there started to be a lot more focus on the game itself. That sounds obvious, but it really was a big part of the transition that LOTRO became less about a sandbox Middle-Earth and more about an MMORPG with a significant game that propelled you forward through a compelling world. A lot of the early work was redesigning the game. But we also spent a lot of time focusing on how combat should work, because you spend so much of your time doing it in-game.
It was interesting as we were going through some of the same thought processes that Blizzard was about the MMO genre having the potential of becoming something larger than a small, narrowly-focused market.
Eurogamer: Would you have captured the same size audience as Blizzard had you launched before WOW?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh, you know, we'll never know. Don't think it hasn't crossed our minds once or twice! And we drive ourselves even more crazy by saying what if we launched before WOW and while the [Lord of the Rings] movies were coming out. Alan and I could have driven to work in our Porsches!
Eurogamer: What was it like approaching a licence like Lord of the Rings? We remember plenty of controversy over the exclusion of a wizard class, meaning no one could emulate Gandalf with their character. Who got to decide all that and did you make the right decisions?
Alan Maki: We made a lot of those decisions early on, saying that we weren't going to focus on wizards and weren't going to focus on other things. I wouldn't say it was damaging, but a lot of people may have passed us up because we didn't have high magic. But then again the Tolkien world isn't based on high magic, it's based on a very gritty and realistic style of world. We made a lot of these decisions and I don't think any have been bad at all.
Jeffrey Steefel: Another big transformation that happened when we started working on the "new game" was a transformation of the community. That was a very difficult thing for us. There was a community that were very, very interested in just being, living and playing in Middle-Earth. They didn't want us to do anything that was anachronistic to the books. A game developer is either a god or a devil - there doesn't seem to be any in-between. And we were definitely a devil in the early days.
But as we started getting into beta, one of the most gratifying things for us was to see even that group of people start to say, "You know what? They didn't screw it up."
Eurogamer: Looking back from 2009 - and all the advancements made in the genre over recent years - is there anything you would really liked to have included in Lord of the Rings Online back at the beginning, at launch?
Jeffrey Steefel: There's a million things that we wanted to include, but there's always a finite amount of time - at some point you need to actually bring the game to the audience. I'm pretty satisfied with the choices we made.
It's also about how do we evolve as the audience evolves, because we intend to be around for a very long time. Asheron's Call 1 is coming up on its 10th anniversary and 100th update. How do we evolve? Alan's very involved in that right now.
Alan Maki: What I enjoy most about MMO design is that you're never done. Anything that you want in the game you can eventually get in the game. You can be as agile as you need to be to help your playerbase get the things they want. As a developer who has been making these games for as long as we have been, it gives us a bit of insight and ability to adjust and expand as needed.
Eurogamer: How long can an MMO go on for, then? When does an MMO become redundant?
Jeffrey Steefel: It remains to be seen. Forever? We have a very loyal fanbase on AC1 that love playing the game and we don't see that waning.
Eurogamer: Let's assume Lord of the Rings Online can run for 10 years. Is that enough time to fit in all the content you want from the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books? Can that be done in one game? One MMO to rule them all, if you like.
Jeffrey Steefel: That's the plan.
Alan Maki: That is the plan. We've really only scratched the surface of what the books offer. We're at Moria right now and we've caught up with The Fellowship for the second time at Lorien. Can we fit it in ten years? I'd really like to fit it in using more time. We can continue to expand on the world as long as the material is there, and I'm sure everyone knows there is a wealth of material inside of Tolkien's work. We could go for 20 years, as long as the playerbase remains as avid as they are right now.
Jeffrey Steefel: And not to forget our licence also includes The Hobbit, which we have only scratched the surface of. And the licence itself is going to be getting quite a shot in the arm publicly over the next few years as The Hobbit movie comes out and an unknown, unnamed, unclear second Hobbit-ish maybe title.
You start talking about a decade; I'm curious about where can we really go. There's another approach that says we work through our very recognisable content in five years or so and then let the community evolve and see what the world becomes; that's when it becomes interesting, seeing a living, breathing world that takes on a life of its own. We still have to do it within a licence, but the world itself is so complete you can imagine all kind of interesting things happening. How do players, someday, participate more in what that world actually is?
We have a million things that we would love to expand on that - given the laws of gravity and only having 24 hours in a day - we haven't yet. But everything from how housing can become neighbourhoods that can become something even more vast... We have all kinds of plans for things we want to do. It's just a matter of when.
Eurogamer: Do you guys have the licence to The Silmarillion?
Jeffrey Steefel: Jeffrey: Ha! No one on the face of the planet has the licence to The Silmarillion. Don't look at it. Turn away.
Look out for part two of our Lord of the Rings Online interview, in which we talk about Book 8 and beyond, tomorrow.