As executive producer Jeffrey Steefel points out, it's been about 11 months since The Lord of the Rings Online MMO had a proper expansion, which is why Turbine is about to release mini-expansion Siege of Mirkwood. This raises the level cap, adds a new adventuring zone (Mirkwood) and introduces the Skirmish system. With Skirmish, players can set up and join dungeon instances from anywhere on the map; take an AI-controlled and fully customisable Soldier with them; and re-run the dungeons with randomised objectives on tougher difficulties to earn Skirmish points for special prizes.
This mini-expansion costs 15 quid, or £20 if you want the special edition and the Adventurer's Pack. The latter enables more character slots per account and shared bank storage between all characters. Siege of Mirkwood gives us a lot to think about, particularly considering the future implications of the exciting Skirmishes and paying real-world money for in-game extras. That's why we sought out Jeffrey Steefel (as well as communications director Adam Mersky) and bombarded him with questions.
Eurogamer: Hello! Take us to Mirkwood - what will Tolkien fans get giddy about?
Jeffrey Steefel: We're in southern Mirkwood. We're intentionally staying in the south so we can go north at a time in the future, when we understand there's going to be some movies coming out that may have something to do with The Hobbit.
The area starts in Anduin and goes all the way up to Dol Guldur. The focus of this is a dark, corrupt, scary forest - definitely not one we've seen in our Middle-Earth yet.
Eurogamer: Isn't Mirkwood the place where Bilbo fights some spiders and gets trapped in a barrel and floats into some city? Can we go there?
Jeffrey Steefel: Again, we're really intentionally trying to keep the lore specific to the Hobbit in Mirkwood, and save it until later. So, no. This is really focused on the story of the Galadhrim, coming over the Anduin and it being like D-Day, landing on the southern shores of Mirkwood and encroaching into the now corrupted forests that used to belong to the Silvan Elves, making your way up to lay siege to Dol Guldur, which is in the process of mounting an attack against Lothlorien.
Eurogamer: Dol Guldur: that's the castle where the Nazgul live?
Jeffrey Steefel: Where the Necromancer was, who we now know as Sauron. You'll see when you come to the gates of Dol Guldur and you look up at the tower that there's a bunch of Fell Beasts - one of whom you'll meet, face-to-face, when you get to the top of the tower.
Eurogamer: Is that the big bad boss of Siege of Mirkwood?
Jeffrey Steefel: Yep; Nazgul on top of Fell Beast: that's the big boss at the end of the 12-man raid.
Eurogamer: Let's talk about Skirmishes. These are instances you can set up and join from anywhere on the map, inviting friends as you please? That's crackers.
Jeffrey Steefel: Yep! The genesis of that came from players loving the three- and six-man instances and raids that we build. We know that story instances are one of the things that make our game special, and we know that players only go through them once or maybe twice until they get it down, get all the rewards they can and then abandon this cool content. We thought that was a shame. We also realised you couldn't do any raiding until you were a pretty high level, yet there are people who would like to get together but not have to be level 50 to do it.
You can start accessing the Skirmishes at level 30 from anywhere in the world. If I want to have fun for an hour, then in five minutes I can be there. I can replay instances and they're going to be quite different for me, depending on the size of the group or what Challenge Level I decide to set the instance at, giving me different Lieutenants to fight. I'm going to get Skirmish Points to spend on all kinds of rewards, which are pooled across all Skirmishes. So instead of having one or two things that I can get at the end of that particular instance I can save them up and buy big.
That's really what drove us in this direction.
Eurogamer: Are these Skirmishes new instances, or has this been applied to existing dungeons?
Jeffrey Steefel: These are all new instances. What they do do is send you back to some areas of Middle-Earth that you've been to before, and that's intentional. I go back to Bree, I go back to Weathertop, but it's very different to when I was there before, showing that time has passed and that you're in the middle of The War of the Ring now. This is not just a game where you progress from the nice early parts and never go back. No, the whole world has been affected: we're now at a time where war is really bad and getting out of hand, and is going to get worse.
Eurogamer: You mentioned the random element - what kind of variation will there be to Skirmishes?
Jeffrey Steefel: Think of it as a meaningful branch off of the critical path. For example, if the critical path is the town of Bree being under siege and you need to stop the bad guys from burning down the Prancing Pony because it's got women and children in it, that's still going to be the critical objective - that's not going to be replaced. But now there's going to be a side-objective, such as there are some very valuable weapons or equipment [to collect], or a person in another part of the town needs rescuing or protecting. If you do that you're going to get more Skirmish Points awarded. It makes it more complex, because you have to manage that while managing some of the mobs [monsters] from the critical path.
Eurogamer: Roughly how many times will I need to farm a dungeon to get enough points for something decent?
Jeffrey Steefel: It's meant to feel equivalent to a cool loot drop that I would get at the end of a raid or something like that. I don't want Skirmish Points to become an easier way of getting powerful items, and nor to we want it to be prohibitively difficult.
You also spend Skirmish Points on your Soldier.
Eurogamer: Ah, your AI robot fighter companion?
Jeffrey Steefel: Yep! You're allowed to bring one soldier to a Skirmish with you. Imagine if there's a 12-person Skirmish and each of us has our own Soldier, then there's 24 of us on one side.
I can spend Skirmish Points on cosmetic changes like different gear or hair; on different roles, essentially class roles; and levelling up their skills. Once I have those there's an interface that's very similar to our Trait slots and I can slot the skills or appearances in. I can start building a very large library for my soldier that allows me to respec and respec and respec him for each Skirmish if I want to.
Eurogamer: These AI Soldiers, can they only be used in Skirmishes?
Jeffrey Steefel: Yes.
Eurogamer: Are they exact mirrors of the standard LOTRO classes?
Jeffrey Steefel: Pretty much. They have different names, but you have your basic ranged, tank, healer, mage roles.
Eurogamer: Can Soldiers ever be as powerful as a player character?
Jeffrey Steefel: No. No. The intention is for this to be complimentary, not overpowering. A complimentary-specced Soldier can be very, very valuable.
Soldiers are also intentionally not pets you can control in real-time, they just behave like that class would behave. Trying to co-ordinate multiple objectives while controlling Soldiers seemed like too much. We want Skirmishes to be very accessible and very fun.
Eurogamer: Another feature of Siege of Mirkwood is a raised level cap - is this going to continue rising?
Jeffrey Steefel: We're providing a raised level-cap because we know players want it: they want those new challenges; they want to encounter content that is more challenging than before, therefore they need more powerful skills. We really are trying hard with this game to keep it from being a hamster-wheel game.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us about the changes to Legendary items and to combat, please?
Jeffrey Steefel: Sure. There's two major things we did with Legendary items. The first is changing the way identification works. When you first identify an item you get a lot more information than you used to about the Legacies that are going to be available. And as you grow that item there are more opportunities for more information. We also give you alternate items to re-slot or re-forge the new items that you're getting.
The whole purpose is to say, "You're going to know a heck of a lot more about a [Legendary] item as you're progressing it." If it's heading in a direction that's not going to give you what you're looking for you can stop spending time on it. Originally you had to grind all the way to the end, get it constructed and then find out. We got a tremendous amount of feedback from players about Legendary items - favourites, how balanced they are - and that influenced a lot of the re-balancing.
Combat is interesting, because it's the things that are the most subtle that are the things that take the most amount of effort. We spent a whole year working on making combat feel more snappy, particularly in melee, making fundamental changes to auto-attack.
Auto-attack is always on, even when you're triggering other skills. It's just that now those skills can interrupt auto-attack rather than wait for that combat cycle to finish first. It makes a big difference: when you execute a skill, it happens - no pausing.
We made some adjustments to the cool-downs of skills, but they're still there for all the reasons they were before, because we don't want you to 'spam'.
Eurogamer: Are melee classes a little more powerful now as a result?
Jeffrey Steefel: It's very very hard to avoid that, because there's all kinds of re-balancing. There are some things we wanted to do that we actually have not enabled, specifically for that reason.
Eurogamer: What kind of things?
Jeffrey Steefel: Oh, ah... I don't want to talk about them yet because we're still working through them. Ha. But it's mostly small, tweaky stuff. We tried to focus on the things that were going to make it speedier and snappier for everyone.
Eurogamer: OK, but are they still on the cards?
Jeffrey Steefel: Yep.
Eurogamer: Right. Onto business, then. Mirkwood is a mini-expansion at a sort of mini price. Is this the start of a new direction?
Jeffrey Steefel: We're adding tools to our tool-bag. The goal isn't about having one way of delivering content and replacing it with a new way. We want to have some flexibility. This doesn't mean we'll never do a retail expansion again, and it doesn't mean we won't do this kind of smaller expansion again. We are experimenting with different frequencies, sizes and methods of distribution. We want customers to have as much choice and flexibility as possible for getting our new content. Also it's a timing thing; we're here, 10 months after the launch of Mines of Moria, launching our next expansion. If we wanted to launch something significantly larger then players would have to wait.
Eurogamer: By creating mini-expansions are you forfeiting regular, free content patches, as the ideas and resources for them are gobbled up?
Jeffrey Steefel: Not at all. Our plan to keep developing and releasing updates is the same as it has been. In fact, we are already in development on Volume 3: Book 1, which is out early next year.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us what's in it?
Jeffrey Steefel: Er, I can't! Ha.
Eurogamer: While we're on the business topic, can we read anything into [Turbine's other game] Dungeons & Dragons Online's successful swap to a free-to-play model in the US?
Adam Mersky: We will consistently be trying to find ways to make our worlds more accessible. Whether that boils down to how we distribute the product, either at retail or via digital distribution? And if we pick digital, do we stream the download and what platform will we pick - because we'll be talking about consoles next year? Then there's paying for the product.
I wouldn't say that you're going to see DDO's unique model applied to all our other games because we're having success with it. But if there's a way for us to improve the experience for players and make it easier for them to get into these types of games then that's what we're going to focus on. And that may come in several forms.
Eurogamer: When's the DDO free-to-play model heading to Europe?
Adam Mersky: No comment. We clearly are excited about the growth we've had in the game in about six weeks, and we have every intention of rolling it out if it continues to be this successful. But no specific time-frame right now.
Eurogamer: I like Monsters, being the baddie. I'd like to fight with Sauron and his goons. What have I got to look forward to as a Monster-lover?
Jeffrey Steefel: In this expansion we're raising the level for Monsters and doing some small things - nothing as substantial as we did in Moria with the Artefact system. For Monsters in the future, one of the things we're looking at is what Skirmishes turns into; it's something that's filled with opportunity. No announcements about anything yet, we're still working out what makes sense and what doesn't, but we definitely have some hopes for the future to leverage Skirmishes. This is just the beginning of Skirmishes.
Everything from, "Wow, wouldn't it be interesting to have skirmishes for Monsters?" Still PvE, but Skirmishes for monsters. And then even to the natural extension: how can we turn a Skirmish into a battle zone, where you've got people coming in from both sides of the equation - Monster players coming in as well as Free players and giving them the mechanics to fight PvP against each other. That is definitely somewhere on the horizon, but again, no idea where, because it all depends on how it is competing with other features.
Eurogamer: If Skirmishes turn PvP, does that mean our Soldiers will fight alongside us?
Jeffrey Steefel: When you talk about turning them into full PvP battle areas and also bringing in Soldiers - I don't know. Would that be cool? Absolutely. It depends on how manageable that is in terms of technology - how much stuff can you have going on and still perform well? - and in terms of balance, player-focus.
At some point we'll give you so many things to fool around with that it's not fun any more.
Eurogamer: LOTRO and DDO have been around for a while now - when is it time to start looking at a new MMO IP?
Adam Mersky: It's always time and we're always looking. We're fortunate that the success we've had with our titles means a lot of people that hold big IP approach us, so we've got lots of discussions going on. Certainly nothing that we're announcing yet.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood launches in Europe on 3rd December (1st in the US).