Earlier today, Eurogamer and Codemasters Online Gaming celebrated the second birthday of The Lord of the Rings Online by giving away 2000 free copies of the game in digital form. These were not trials but full products, complete with 30 days' free game time. They have all gone. It only took around 20 minutes, with five codes claimed every three seconds, you greedy lot.
Those lucky enough to get a code will be keen on what follows: the second part of our chat with LOTRO executive producer Jeffrey Steefel, key designer Alan Maki and head Turbine PR Adam Mersky (part one was published yesterday). Because, you see, Turbine is revisiting the world and streamlining the experience for newcomers. This has begun already, and Alan Maki, the man in charge, goes on to tell us what we can expect next. There's plenty more chatter besides, including which large areas Turbine wants to tackle next - perhaps for a second expansion.
Eurogamer: Of the licenses you do have, are there bits special to you within them that you're particularly looking forward to doing?
Jeffrey Steefel: So many!
Alan Maki: Um, all of it! Ha ha. For me, the Battle of Helm's Deep or the Battle of Pelennor Fields and seeing the majesty of Gondor for the first time. But there's so much for me. I read these books when I was eight years-old for the first time, and I've probably read them every five years ever since.
Jeffrey Steefel: If you'd asked me that question years ago it would probably have been Moria. It's going to be those kind of things. Helm's Deep is definitely one of them, and Pelennor Fields, yep. Gondor and Rohan are less about the individual place and more about the whole experience and the people that live there and the history that they have. It's endless.
Eurogamer: Has your audience changed much since launch? Jeffrey used to think they were more casual than hardcore.
Alan Maki: We still look at our playerbase as being primarily casual-based, but I think a lot of those casual players have become either more hardcore Tolkien types or more hardcore LOTRO players.
Jeffrey Steefel: The whole meaning of the words "casual" and "hardcore" is what your emotional connection to the game you're playing is. People, once they become engaged, become hardcore. They're not hardcore gamers, they're hardcore LOTRO fans or hardcore Tolkien fans. That's why our biggest focus right now is in the early part of the game, because once someone gets to a certain part they become very involved; they become that hardcore, dedicated player.
Eurogamer: I have a level 19 dwarf. Will he benefit from the changes in Book 7? He's bald.
Alan Maki: Right now the changes don't quite get to you. They will in the next Book update.
The first round of changes focused on what we're now calling Tier 1: our first-play experience, levels 1 to 15. We restructured the way quests are given out and the way you are moved around the world; moving you to a quest hub and allowing you to complete that area before sending you off someone else. We took away a lot of the extraneous running that was time consuming and not necessarily fun and tried to get you more into the action of the game so you can learn your character faster. We've done a lot to make the early levelling curve steeper so you can feel the changes in your character faster.
Your character is level 19. In our next book you'll see some changes to that area of the world. It's a massive undertaking but I'm pleased to be working on it, and the reaction so far has been that it's a positive change to the game.
Eurogamer: Are there plans to address every level bracket up to the top end? And if you're making levelling faster at the bottom does that mean you'll raise the level cap again?
Jeffrey Steefel: Yes we are going to raise the level cap at some point, but we're not talking specifically about when.
Alan Maki: We just raised it to 60 for Mines of Moria, so I don't think there's really a pressing need for that.
I'm going to be focusing my next year, or however long it takes, making sure the game from 1 to 50 feels better and flows better overall. Let's say you're questing early on and you start out as a crafter, then you're going to find all your Tier 1 components in reachable places. That carries on into Tier 2. Basically, we're trying to make the world make as much sense to the player as possible, so you're not having to go back to areas you feel you're completely done with.
Jeffrey Steefel: It's a natural evolution. We talked before about how, way back in the beginning before Alan and I were even working on the project, it was a different game - focused on being a virtual world for exploration and experience. We gave players lots of opportunities to do that, which created some unnecessary exposure to the world. And this feels like tightening the experience. It feels like the next evolutionary step; not only is it about the experience being more concentrated, but it's also about being more moment-to-moment and not needing to be in the game for 10 hours to have the next thing that makes me feel like I want to be there.
Eurogamer: Is that the next evolutionary step for Lord of the Rings Online, then?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh god no.
Alan Maki: No no. The next step is right now a trade secret.
Eurogamer: Oh don't play secrets.
Alan Maki: Unfortunately it has to stay a secret, because some of the things we have planned for the future are going to be evolutionary probably even in the way that MMOs are handled. We're really looking forward to it, but that's all I can say at this point.
Eurogamer: In a more broad sense, what other areas of Lord of the Rings Online still need work?
Jeffrey Steefel: There's parts of all of it that we can help. Through the course of the work that Alan's doing now there's going to be a significant amount of attention paid to Low Lands and the North Downs - areas we've always been interested in getting our hands on again. The intent is really just to move you through the game and the story and the experience in a way that feels always compelling.
Alan Maki: The important thing to also mention is that we're not trying to railroad you through the game; there's still a lot of exploration, there are still many areas for you to go and experience. It's just that if you choose a track to follow and you want to stay on that track, you can, and you should have a complete experience from 1 to 50. And that's really what the overall goal with what I'm doing is. The areas that will eventually see significant changes are Trollshaws and, as Jeffrey mentioned, Low Lands and North Downs. I will be focusing on them after the next Book is put out.
Another area we're going to be focusing on is our epic story, as there are some parts with massive gaps in them. The first one, very clearly, is between stories one and two, where you have a 10- to 12-level gap. We're going to be tightening that up and make that story flow better for you, so if you want to just follow the epic story, you can.
Jeffrey Steefel: Another big direction you've already seen us take - and one that's happening in the genre itself - is changing the game from being about the biggest group of people achieving the most complex things. For some people that's absolutely still the truth and we're still providing that kind of content. But for a large amount of people it's starting to be about, "You know what? I like being with other people, but only when I want to and when I can find them. And a small group is a pretty cool thing, because I can relate to a small group, it's a lot easier in the venue." So you've been seeing us do a lot more three-man and six-man instances, and that will continue, that kind of more encapsulated content.
Alan Maki: I definitely should say that we are still focused on our endgame. One of our experiments in Mines of Moria was our three-man content, and that has proven to be some of our most successful content, and it seems like it's a good track to continue on.
Jeffrey Steefel: It's also - and this is something we'll probably talk about more in the next month or so - shown us back to the whole technology thing and shown us some things we need to work on. This kind of [three-man/smaller-scale] content, which is clearly something players want (and we like playing it ourselves), attacks the technology in ways we hadn't before. That's been a bit of learning for us and we're doing a lot of work with the content development teams and the core engineers on it.
Eurogamer: How far away is the next Book update?
Adam Mersky: Soon! Ha ha. We've got a pretty good rhythm so you can expect something "early summer".
Eurogamer: Is Monster Play ever going to become more than a distraction?
Alan Maki: I learned a long time ago that you never say never. You say things like, "The likelihood of that is very slim." Having been one of the people that started off of Monster Play, I can say it wasn't necessarily meant to be a distraction, it was meant to be something that you could also do. So, er, I guess you could call that a distraction!
Jeffrey Steefel: Tomayto; Tomarto.
Alan Maki: It turned out to be something that was a lot more popular than we expected initially, and it's something we've obviously continued to dedicate resources to even now, because there are a large amount of people that really, really enjoy it.
Eurogamer: You touched on Rohan earlier. We've noticed that ridersofrohan.com redirects to lordoftheringsonline.com. Is Riders of Rohan the next Lord of the Rings Online expansion?
Adam Mersky: I wouldn't say it's the next Lord of the Rings Online expansion. There are lots of properties our licensors secure so that they have the option to use them if they decide to go there. But at this stage it's nothing more than that. We're not going to comment on exactly when or where our next expansion is going to be or take us.
Eurogamer: Is Turbine working on a console MMO?
Adam Mersky: Yeah, we're actually deep in development with what we're working on and we're making lots of progress. Before the year is out we'll probably be talking about it and hopefully showing people something.
Eurogamer: Is it a Lord of the Rings MMO or a different IP?
Adam Mersky: We're not really saying what we're going to be releasing, but we are working on one - it's more than just talk. We've taken the 15 years of heritage we have on our technology and we've been able to get it working on the next-gen platforms. What will sit on top of that in terms of IP? We'll talk about when the time is right.
Eurogamer: And thinking far in the future, do you see a finish line for Lord of the Rings? If so, is there another licence you fancy a crack at?
Jeffrey Steefel: The end of the line for Lord of the Rings is not even in our consciousness. We don't even think that way. The other question is are we interested in bringing other IP to the genre and online? Absolutely. Are we constantly looking to see what other opportunities are out there? Absolutely. We've built the kind of capability here at Turbine that doesn't really exist anywhere else, so we want to employ that for other things. It's just a matter of: what's the right thing? When is the right time? And how do we do that without damaging anything that we're currently doing? And we value that tremendously.
Are we going to tell you which ones we're most interested in? No! Haha.