With Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine may not have delivered the World of Warcraft rival some were expecting - but it did deliver a superior MMORPG, and then serve it with so much new content that we thought it was worth 9/10 not once but twice. Now it's winding up to the release of LOTRO's first expansion, and after getting the lowdown on Mines of Moria, we spoke to executive producer Jeffrey Steefel about where he sees the game's present, and future.
Eurogamer: After its first year and a half, has LOTRO done anything to move MMOs forward?
Jeffrey Steefel: Definitely, in a couple of areas. We certainly see, I like to call them, er... complimentary hommages to some of our features. I mean, it's interesting to see Achievements showing up in WOW. It's interesting to see some of the smaller instances, definitely there's an increased focus on instanced storytelling in general, and I think that's one of the things that we brought to bear. I think we've pushed the industry to continually focus on content updates.
It's also helped just to have another game since WOW that's come out and really succeeded, and that's helped add credibility to the MMO space. These games are so hard to create and to launch that there's been a fair amount of difficulty over the last two years, and so every time another game comes out that demonstrates that the genre works, that contributes to the industry too.
Eurogamer: How do you define success, though, when you don't have ten million players to brag about?
Jeffrey Steefel: The first threshold is, can you make a viable game, 90 per cent of people don't get past that. In some respects success is just getting past that. The next is, do you have an ongoing, viable, profitable business that is growing? Definitely hit that mark.
Are you considered one of the leaders in the space? No question we've hit that mark, in fact most articles that you guys and other write, if they're referencing a couple of MMOs it tends to be WOW and Lord of the Rings
And then, there's another level of success, which is reaching a certain mass-market critical mass, which to be totally fair, only Blizzard has achieved completely so far. We think that we are the game that has the most likelihood of being the second to do that, but we're not there yet.
That's a combination of expanding worldwide like we're doing - that's something that'll help expand the critical mass of LOTRO, it's definitely something that helped WOW tremendously, obviously. It's a challenge, but we're confident that we can get there, especially with something of this broad appeal and high quality.
Eurogamer: Do you think that potential stays open for ever? Doesn't there come a point where your game reaches a natural size and it's not going to grow much more?
Jeffrey Steefel: I think one of the things that's changed in the last four or five years in the MMO industry is that there's been some demonstration that that isn't true any more. It did certainly use to be true, we used to talk about the fact that there was one and a half million people in the world that wanted to play MMOs, period. Back in EverQuest and Asheron's Call days, if you had 500,000 subscribers that was it, you'd reached the natural climax.
We also used to say that whatever you established at launch is pretty much the ceiling. And now there's games out there, like EVE, that have demonstrated that you can grow something slowly, incrementally over time.
I think a lot of those things have changed, and it's really a matter of awareness. There's a lot of people that still don't know this game exists, which to us is astounding. But that's absolutely true. So it's a matter of... some of it is just patience, some of it is being more aggressive about reaching out to other markets.
Eurogamer: Given that you have such an enormously popular and recognisable licence - and that you launched a game that worked well and had learned a lot of what WOW did right - are you surprised you didn't reach a bigger audience straight off?
Jeffrey Steefel: Well, we would love to - but I think it's not entirely surprising, we were targeting the MMO audience at launch, the existing audience, because that's the audience most likely to adopt.
I think there's going to be a huge opportunity over the next two years for this franchise, because in the market itself, the awareness of Tolkien is about to increase quite a bit. As Peter Jackson and New Line and Guillermo del Toro start working on new movies, with the Hobbit coming out in 2011 and another movie coming out probably the year after, that's going to help us a lot because it's going to move everything back into thee forefront. If we'd been launching our game, you know, five years ago - oh my goodness.
Eurogamer: Do you think there's room for other business models in LOTRO's future?
Jeffrey Steefel: I think so... There are some things about the way that we built the game that would allow us to try some different business models. For people that want to have a more casual relationship with the game, and just have fun a couple of hours, a couple of times a week, right now I think we have a difficult value proposition. They're paying a premium price to get a whole bunch more than they actually want. So, maybe there's room to satisfy those people in a slightly different way.
This is a franchise that's going to continue for years and years and years, and there's no way that the singular, monolithic, USD 14.95 a month subscription model is going to last for years and years and years all by itself. I think the answer is, it has to change.
Eurogamer: LOTRO is known for its regular and substantial content updates. Even Blizzard, with a team several times the size of yours, is struggling to keep pace with you in terms of new content. How do you manage that?
Jeffrey Steefel: Pain and suffering [laughs]. We work very hard, we work very efficiently. One of the advantages and disadvantages of being the big monkey and having as much money to spend on people as you want is that I think you don't drive as much efficiency, I don't think you need to.
And also, we're very hungry. We're the David to the Goliath, and we need to distinguish ourselves in certain ways that perhaps Blizzard doesn't. So we need to do better than everyone else, we need to try harder than everyone else and I think that's served us really well.
Eurogamer: Will there come a point where you have you have to take pretty big creative freedoms in with the licence in order to proceed? If you keep up the pace, you're going to get through the trilogy fairly quickly.
Jeffrey Steefel: It'll take us years, honestly, because of the way that we do things, and that we go into so much depth. We're spending so much time in Moria, which is really just one quick stop along the way in the books. We don't really worry about running out of content.
In terms of being able to push things more the further in we get, I think the fiction allows that in some respects. Things get crazier, more warlike, more out of control the further you get into Middle Earth and the War of the Ring, so that opens up a lot of prospects for us.
We're slowly trying new things; the addition of the Rune-Keeper in Moria, a straightforward magic using class, is a pretty big step in that respect. It's not something that a pure Tolkien lore person would accept, it just couldn't exist in Middle-Earth. On the other hand, this is an RPG, it must exist.
So, our Middle-Earth needs to diverge slightly from the literary Middle-Earth, and Tolkien enterprises has been okay with that, I think that they're comfortable with us allows us to push those things a little further.
Eurogamer: Is Monster Play the limit of what you're going to do with PVP, and playing the dark side?
Jeffrey Steefel: What you see in Monster Play is the tip of the iceberg. Now that we're moving across the Misty Mountains into the place where war is really happening in Middle-Earth, it opens up a lot of possibilities. One can imagine that by the time you get to Minas Tirith, you want battles to be happening there, and you don't want it to be an army of NPCs against a bunch of players, you want players to be able to battle against each other.
But, it's really important that players know that at the end of the day we believe that this is a world game, a PVE game, the best of its kind. We're not going to do anything to destroy that in any way. The story is always going to be predominant. But I think there's a way to weave the two together when we get to the more martial parts of middle earth. Also, the launch in Asia exposes us to a lot of players who really, really, really love Monster Play and want more of it.
Eurogamer: Turbine's working on a console MMO at the moment - what are the challenges you're facing?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh, it's a snap, we talk a lot about the console button, you just push it and then the game is there. I'm kidding.
It's a huge challenge on a lot of different levels, but it's also a gigantic opportunity. The size of the console market is huge compared to PC and it always will be. It sits in the living room, which is a really interesting place for these kinds of social environments and social interactions. And there's an immediacy to console that you just can't get on the PC, not really.
The challenges break down to a couple of things. The first is UI. One of the great things about the PC is that it's a productivity tool, it's designed to manage lots of moving buttons and resources and stuff like that. But consoles only have a certain number of buttons, so how do you help someone use a console controller to manage inventory and skills and traits and deeds and crafting items and all that stuff in a way that's not just painful?
Then you add on top of it the challenge that this is a persistent world. The solution that most games do when they go from PC to console is that you simply stop the game while you go to a full screen UI to do some of this inventory management or configuration - that's what happens in for example Oblivion. We can't do that, you can't pause a persistent world. So how do I allow players to do that kind of thing without getting killed?
And then there's the challenge of the platform itself. PCs are fairly limited in processing power, and fairly unlimited in memory. Consoles, on the other hand, have more specialised and more diverse processing power, but are extremely limited in RAM. So there's challenge there - how do you create these lush, immersive, very compelling worlds at high fidelity in a different way.
Eurogamer: You mentioned bringing MMOs into the living room - do you think there are there benefits to be had from a change of environment?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh yeah, it's a more comfortable environment, it's a way you can be more co-operative - I mean literally co-operative, where you can play co-op on the console in a persistent environment. You can imagine how cool that would be. Very challenging to do, but again, possible.
We're talking right now about taking games and putting them on console, or building games specifically for console. Long term, for me, the real exciting vision is... thinking about a game, a franchise, as this centralised content. There's this thing called Lord of the Rings that sits on a bunch of servers... and whether you're on your PC, your console, your mobile device, those are all just access points, and they're all good at different things.
That's the part we haven't been able to get to yet, and I think now that they're all connected, the technology's pretty much there, the consumer behaviour's almost there. The PC is great at what you're talking about, sitting down by yourself and working on stuff.
The console is great for fast action, immediate activities. Combat, raids, things like that could be a lot of fun sitting on your couch. And some things that are necessary but slightly rote and boring, like managing your inventory or setting up for a raid, or some elements of crafting - those are things that you can do instead of playing Bejeweled when you're sitting on the train or on a break or whatever it happens to be.