Since its release on 24th April, Lord of the Rings Online has enjoyed number one spots in both the North American and European charts, suggesting that a fantasy MMORPG can not only survive in World of Warcraft's shadow, but flourish.
No doubt a large part of its initial success had to do with its being the official home of Middle-Earth. One licence to rule them all, you might say. But it also enjoyed a bug-free and polished launch, earning wide critical acclaim and a hearty pat on the back from yours truly. However, its work has only just begun, and a glance across the horizon shows that few MMOs, if any, resemble what they launched as all those years ago.
Developer Turbine has just revealed that the first of many content updates for Lord of the Rings Online will be Book 9: Evendim. It will give you a new area to explore, more quests to embark on, fancy armour sets to collect, and a big raid encounter for players over 30 to participate in. It also gave us a chance to talk to Turbine's executive producer Jeffrey Steefel about the game, how the launch went, and where he sees it going in the future.
Eurogamer: Well done on Lord of the Rings Online reaching the top spot in both the European and American charts. How important has having a strong brand been towards achieving that?
Jeffrey Steefel: Well, obviously really important. We felt that if you were going to go out into the fantasy online market space then this was really the only game to do it with. It's great for getting people's interest to expand the audience, and I think we're already seeing that it's reaching people outside the traditional MMO audience. And that's great; it's definitely what we wanted.
Eurogamer: Is it more important for you to keep the Tolkien fans happy, or to please gamers?
Jeffrey Steefel: Well, at the end of the day it's a game first; that's the way we always approached it. It has to be a great game or nothing else matters. We also worked painstakingly with Tolkien Enterprises to make sure they understood it was a game, and so we could draw the line properly.
But the real answer to your question is both, and in fact they're related to each other. Part of the reason the game works so well is because of the content, as Tolkien gave us a world that has so much depth, and the way it's drawn is so real that it allowed us to create a context for a fantasy MMO I don't think you could create from scratch even if you tried. Tolkien fans thought they really were in Middle-Earth; it really was the place that they had come to expect - to some extent. All of us read the books and had different images in our head.
Eurogamer: How many subscribers does Lord of the Rings have now? Do you feel as though you're over your initial teething period; that you can now focus on keeping players instead of attracting them?
Jeffrey Steefel: I can't tell you the exact figures, but it's on or above our expectations. So far so great.
In terms of acquiring players: we're not done yet. So I think the answer is both - we don't have the luxury. The answer to everything is both! [laughs]
We've been working on what comes next since well before launch, so the update that's probably coming in June is already deep into testing, is already built, and it's huge. And that shows this isn't just a game that we shipped and put on the shelf; it's a world that's going to keep on growing constantly, which is something Turbine's been doing for a long time.
Eurogamer: The update you mentioned is Book 9: Evendim. Will this be the start of a familiar formula for Turbine; a fresh area to explore and new quests every couple of months? Or do you have bigger plans, such as paid-for expansion packs and larger changes to implement?
Jeffrey Steefel: Yes, yes, and yes.
You can expect to see the frequency and depth of the updates follow on from Evendim. But it probably won't be new regions every single update. And that follows our initial approach to the game, which is depth and width and breadth - instead of just lots and lots of content.
You're going to be doing lots of cool things in Evendim, and more of it will be opened further down the line. But it's about the story and what important parts need to happen next, rather than just region, region, region. And that's always going to be part of our updates.
We also look at functionality and what sort of things our players want to do. Music's a big thing at the moment and everybody's been having a great time with it, so we might extend that to make more of it.
Eurogamer: One of the most eye-catching new features in Evendim is the addition of the first real raid for players over level 30. How is raiding going to fit into Lord of The Rings Online, will it complement it or define it?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh, I think complement.
The wonderful and challenging thing about this licence is that we have different audiences in our game already. We've got people that are very, very hardcore and are going to get to the "elder-game" very, very quickly. And for those people we know there has to be new challenges, as they've acquired a lot of skills and expertise with their groups. But on the other hand we've got people who are just exploring Middle-Earth, and we've got to provide for them. So, I'd say raiding is definitely a part of the game.
Most of our high-level instances are raids in one form or another anyway, it's really just a matter of how large they are. We have those that are really quite complex; six people, or 10, or 12. It's really just the first time we've given players the full-on raid mechanic: in terms of giving you tools in the user interface to actually manage multiple Fellowships of up-to 24 people.
Eurogamer: What about raiding as a mechanic? Do you think it's inevitable these days for an MMO to include it as a way of prolonging its player versus environment content? Is it the only way to keep people playing?
Jeffrey Steefel: I think there's lots of ways. You always have to have challenges, and we talk about the concept of "elder-game" all the time in the MMO business, and what it's going to be. All it means is that I really want to keep having fun. Whatever level I'm at and no matter how much stuff I've acquired, I want to go in and I want to have fun. So our focus is on making sure we're thinking about every person in the game and giving them cool stuff to do, and raids are always going to be a part of that.
But we're also evolving our monster-play areas over time, so that people will have more challenging things to do with the skills they've acquired. And while there will be more raids going forward in the not too distant future, Evendim has a number of high-level instances that are actually quite complex and could be called raids in their own right - but they can be accomplished with less than 24 people.
Eurogamer: You mentioned your monster-play feature there, which is the player versus player part of Lord of The Rings Online. This lets you create a monster once your main character progresses past level 10. You can then use your monster to fight other players in designated areas. Why did you decide to make the monsters automatically at the level limit, which is 50?
Jeffrey Steefel: It is a little confusing, and it helps to throw out the concept of levels when you're in the monster-play area. The monster is at level 50, but that just means there's a relative balance between them and the player characters in the end wars - so that you're not going to have a bunch of newbies with no powers going in like lambs to the slaughter. And it also gives new players the opportunity to participate in PvP, which is kind of unusual.
On the other side, when you reach level 40, you can bring any of your mains into that same [monster-play] area and be the opposing side.
Eurogamer: Can you grow and customise your monster like your main character? How will this work if you're already at level 50?
Jeffrey Steefel: When you create your monster you select which one you want to be from several, and you can grow it over time using a special advancement path.
That's what I mean when I say it's easier to forget about experience level. You're starting at a base level that puts you on par with players that are going to be coming in there, but the advancement is really in ranks. At launch there's 15 ranks that a monster can advance through, and you come in as rank one.
As you progress and accomplish things in the monster-play area you acquire Destiny Points, which are kind of like experience points. So, as you collect more your ranking will go up. But that's from all kind of things, like questing and killing. Destiny Points are also currency. You can buy skills with them, you can by traits with them, you can even buy equipment if you're the right kind of monster: there's not much for spiders, I'm afraid [laughs]. You can also buy things like war paint, or eventually actually upgrade to a cooler version of your monster.
At the same time you accrue Infamy for killing other players. It's like your rating, in a similar way to chess; the more people you kill, the higher your rating goes up. We use Infamy for our leaderboards.
But it's also a relevant rating. It determines how much I would receive if I killed you, for instance. If you were a very highly rated player and I wasn't, but I killed you, then I would get lots and lots of Infamy. On the other hand, if I whack someone that's rated way below me, then I'm not going to get much for it.
Eurogamer: If you use your main character for player versus player combat once they get over level 40, will they also go up in ranks?
Jeffrey Steefel: Yes. There's a tab from from your in-game menu labelled "The War" that tracks a bunch of statistics like your player versus player rank, Infamy rating, how many Destiny Points you have, that sort of thing.
Destiny Points are also cool because I can spend them on my main character, so I can grind out a whole load of them in monster-play to use on perks and buffs.
Eurogamer: How do you see the monster-play system developing? Do you plan to let people take permanent control of their monsters somewhere down the line and open the good versus bad battle up in other areas?
Jeffrey Steefel: The Ettenmoors is a complete region and everything in it is player versus player orientated. We've already got some castles that you can siege and take control of, as well as some resources like a lumber yard and a mine. You take control of a castle by killing the commander. So you have to go in and fight through all the player-characters as well as the non-player characters in there. If you're able to kill the commander the whole keep slips. The appearance changes, banners change, and all the guards change to your side.
What's interesting is you never know who's going to own these keeps, and players have already come up with names for both sides. They decided to call the good guys "The Freeps" - the free people - and the monsters "The Creeps". So we have shouts of: "The Creeps hold the castle!"
In a way you do already have permanent control of your monster character, but I think it's unlikely we'd integrate them into the rest of the world as we don't want people player-killed in The Shire, for instance, it just doesn't fit.
But we do want a lot more of these monster-play areas so that it feels more like certain parts of the world are more dangerous than others. The Misty Mountains and Helm's Deep might be wonderful areas for it.
We also have the Kinship ideas we're working on. When these actually happen they'll take the shape of very large campaigns where lots of you will take on a mob of monsters and get significant rewards.
Eurogamer: Another interesting area of the game is Fellowships and the Conjunction System. This gives a group of players a chance of setting off combinations when fighting enemies. These can then be chained together to produce special attacks. However, there's criticism at the moment that the most powerful bonuses are restricted to a certain type of group make-up, normally one with a healer and a tank (a fighter with high armour who can soak up lots of damage). Will this change in the future? Will groups with a less cookie-cutter set up be able to make the most of the system?
Jeffrey Steefel: It's designed so everybody can have fun and get a benefit from doing it. So it doesn't matter who's in the party, as long as you all press the buttons at the right time you'll get something cool. But if you start figuring out how to work with people and understand the order to do things, then that's the biggest benefit. There's a pretty good set of combinations for most groups of classes, although there's some exceptions.
The Burglar's really the only one who can set off Conjunctions at will - or Fellowship Manoeuvres as we're now calling them. Everyone else has a chance of setting them off at different times depending on state, as we wanted to have some group roles that were defined. That said, we can always add new traits to augment a particular classes capabilities. In the future, for example, you can imagine being able to set off Fellowship Manoeuvres even though you're not a Burglar because you have a certain trait. There's a lot of flexibility there.
For now we're letting it play for a while to see how it goes, but we have the ability there. And for me, personally, that's one of the best things about the trait system. We created the classes to be what they are, but they're not locked in stone.
Eurogamer: You obviously have enormous growing space for the Fellowship Manoeuvre system. How do you see it fitting in with raiding, will we be able to trigger combinations across groups?
Jeffrey Steefel: There's a lot of places we can go with it, I think, but we want to watch it and see where the strengths and weaknesses are. We spent a lot of time over the development period playing around with different sized groups and levels of Fellowship Manoeuvre complexity. We eventually settled on what we have now because it was the maximum amount that was fun to manage. When you start trying to do these coordinated attacks across 20 or 30 people it becomes impossible to manage.
But we'll see what players do. If they start going into raids and self-coordinate Fellowship Manoeuvres across four groups at the same time, which theoretically you could do, then you could easily see us putting some energy into enabling people to communicate with each other in that area.
Everything we've got in the game right now is a start. After four-and-a-half years of development it's day one [laughs].
Eurogamer: Lots of other MMOs that have been around for a few years barely resemble what they launched as. How will Lord of the Rings Online evolve: do you think the players will dictate the changes, or will you simply add new content for people to play?
Jeffrey Steefel: I think it's both. We spent a lot of time in alpha getting ready to listen to player's suggestions in beta. Listen means a lot of things, like looking at the data and watching people behave then comparing that to what they say. This game is for the people playing it, and we need to know what's going to make them most likely to stay in the world. We're absolutely interested in what the players want to do.
We want it to progress, but we don't want to make it a totally different game. I think in the past we've seen the perils of both. In the olden days you launched a game and kept adding stuff to it, and that worked. Now it needs to grow, evolve, and change - but retain its identity. You need to strike a balance.
Eurogamer: It's interesting that you mentioned the difference in approach between those older games and ones that are around now. Do you feel as though you're making new progress in the genre, are you pushing it into a new phase?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh absolutely, I think the industry in general has been. We've now permanently moved away from the concept that learning how to play is the gameplay itself. As a player you want to be challenged, but on a level that makes sense to you and feels fun. The whole point of Fellowship Manouevres, Traits, Monster Play, the way we handle advancement - and all that stuff is to say: where is the genre going? What are the things that can be more fun, can be better, and can support the kind of behaviour we're seeing?
Three, four, or five years ago, we would have said the larger the raid the better, period. There's certainly debate about this, but what we've learned says this isn't true, as you can only manage so many people. So it's responding to what we've learned, and the great thing about this business is that you've got a live focus-group there all the time.
Eurogamer: Other games have run into problems from the "secondary market", where real money changes hands for in-game currency, items, and even characters. Is that something you're worried about in Lord of the Rings Online? And will it be something you'll stamp down hard on as soon as it appears, or will you attempt to control it by integrating it into the game?
Jeffrey Steefel: The "secondary market" is a huge topic of conversation across the industry, and we're watching it really closely. Our position is pretty straightforward right now. Our responsibility is to the subscribers of the game, to deliver to them the experience they expect. So we certainly do not support people farming or taking advantage of the system in that way. It's against our Terms of Service and we do try and enforce that.
But, we all know that something will happen in the next two to five years to business models in general, so we're paying attention to what's going on; watching what's going on with Sony Station whose servers support and manage this.
Eurogamer: Do you think there's value in allowing some people to take short-cuts if they perhaps haven't got the time to pour into the game, but do have the money?
Jeffrey Steefel: That's the endless philosophical discussion. If I can find a way for every type of person in my game to play the way they want to without adversely affecting anyone else, then that's win, win, win. And that's what we'll try to figure out.
Eurogamer: What was the one thing that got left on the cutting-room floor that you would have liked to seen included in the game?
Jeffrey Steefel: Now you're trying to get me in trouble! [laughs]
There's always things, and we have a long list of them that we're excited about doing. But we really did launch the game with what we felt really needed to be in it, what we were excited about. There were things that we would have loved to put in, but I'd like to have those to add over time: there's only so many new things you can learn all at once, right?
But it's never enough for us. I never feel like we launched everything we wanted to launch. It's never good enough. [laughs]
Eurogamer: How many sales do you feel you'll need to pass before you reach your potential?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh, that's hard to answer, because we don't really know what our potential is. Blizzard demonstrated this is a much bigger market than anybody ever thought it was, and we basically want to cement that, to show it's absolutely true. We want to show there are multiple products that can service a broader market, and that it wasn't just a strange accident that happened. And we're on the path to doing that.