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.