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.