Gaming Today Q&A with Jeffrey Steefel, Executive Producer of The Lord of the Rings Online (Part 1)
Recently Gaming Today had an opportunity to interview Jeffery Steefel, Turbine Entertainment’s Executive Producer on the recently released The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. Jeffery is an industry veteran whose past roles include Vice President of Programming & Member Services for There Inc. and Vice President of Programming & Production for Sony Online Entertainment where he guided the growth of Sony’s The Station web site
Jeffery is fresh off the development of the first free content expansion for The Lord of the Rings Online titled Book 9 Ã¢$” Shores of Evendim. This is the first in our two-part interview and we spoke with him about Turbine’s dedication to supporting its games after purchase and what makes this game different from other MMO’s on the market today.
Gaming Today: Thanks for spending some time with us today Jeffery, first I want to jump right to the meat of the matter and ask: Why expand LotRO so soon after launch? The game just hit the street in April?
Jeffery Steefel: We’re crazy… but honestly the real point is that in our experience this is something that Turbine has been doing for a long time, you know you look at Asheron’s Call and the fact we’ve been out for 7 and a half years and we’ve got 88 updates already out there because they’ve been doing it on a very regular basis.
Our opinion is that this is serial content, this is a subscription business, this is an entertainment product that people expect to grow and evolve. To do that meaningfully, with high quality and consistently. We know this is a space that is getting more crowded and we know that people are getting more sophisticated and demanding in their choices and we want to make sure that we’re the first choice so we’re very, very focused on making sure we’re delivering freshness, expansion, new ideas, and responding to what we’re seeing the players do and ask for in the game. – and doing it frequently.
GT: Is it Turbine’s plan to keep up this level of expansion?
JS: The mantra now for everybody is really deliver consistent, frequent, high-quality, stable fresh content and not just the old Betamax model, which was Ã¢$” and I was at Sony online when we were working with Veraent and we all created that model which was we build the tape player, we put it out there at launch we’re just going to keep filling it with more and more stuff Ã¢$” sort of more of the same and we don’t want to do that. We were intent from a long time ago that when we launched we would start demonstrating that right away.
This first update Book 9, is our first example of that and we’ll be following that with book 10, book 11, and on and on Ã¢$” very frequently. I don’t want to comment on specific time periods, because one way or another I’d get myself into trouble but this is a pretty decent indication of our intention. We want them to come out frequently and we want there to be many releases in a year that add this kind of content
I’ve had this type of questions before, for example “Was Book 9 something you guys worked on in parallel for launch for the last year and you basically just finished it up in time to get it out for this six weeks after launch window?” And the answer is no. We basically did this, with a few very small exceptions, exactly the way we will be doing our updates. The team worked on this for a very short period of time, relatively speaking, and beginning to end designed, built and polished this content just for this update. We are already halfway in development on the next update. We’re building it, we’re playing it, we’re putting it into testing and we’re going to continue to do this.
That doesn’t mean that every single time there will be a whole other region like in this case, expansions like this are likely to be an infrequent occurrence but there will be lots of content, lots of new things, and definitely changes to functionality.
A good example in Book 9 is well, Book 9 is a new region but also over 100 new quests, 9 new monsters including some monsters that have completely new AI behaviors. We’ve got new systems, like the music system, which we noticed people were really psyched about so we took some time to bring that to the next level. That is the kind of thing we want to keep doing. We worked hard during Alpha and Beta, not just for launch, but to figure out ‘Hey what do people like? What do people not like?’ and ‘What does people mean?’ because we have all different types of people in our game. How do we figure that out, look at what they are doing in the game and the data, listen to what is happening in the forums and what are the best things to do during beta to make it really really really good for launch. That also helped up put together all the processes for doing that and we’re using them now so the updates are not just ‘Hey this is what we thought you’d want. We think this is cool.’ We’re really paying attention and are trying to address the things the larger groups in the game want addressed.
GT: So with Micro-Transactions becoming a real big thing in the industry and entering the MMO space with games like Dungeon Runners what made you decide to stay with the free content model rather than maybe finding a way to make a little extra money on the side?
JS: Well I guess it’s really the way we think about the business. Our players are paying us a fair amount of money every month to subscribe so our first job is to make sure we’re consistently delivering the value that they expect for that. That we’re really delivering something that feels like its worth the amount of money they are paying every month. That is the most important thing for us to do rather than looking at ‘How can I make a little more money here, a little more money there. Which isn’t to say we won’t have premium services, every MMO company does for the various things you’ll be able to do with your account or with the service. We’re definitely exploring different business models like everyone in the industry is doing because over the next few years we know there are going to be changes to what consumers want to do and how they want to interact with our products.
I’m not going to say we will never have content that you pay for, because of course we will. Having a presence at retail is still important to us, it’s still a big part of our business, but we feel like people are paying a subscription because they expect this to be an ongoing, serial entertainment. To charge them every time would be like if I’m paying my money every month for HBO and I love watching Rome and expect a new episode every week Ã¢$” and every week they hit me up for another $1.99 pay per view for this thing I’m already paying for. We think that that probably is not very attractive to our consumers so that’s why [we're doing free content].
GT: Book 9: Shores of Evendim is not set in an area one would necessarily directly associate with the books, what made it attractive to you as a content expansion?
JS: There are a bunch of reasons. First of all, forgetting about how it fits into the books, and it really does fit into the books quite a bit Ã¢$” though I’ll come back to that, we have to make sure as we’re expanding content that it is not just more of the same. We really wanted to make sure that this was an area that felt new, different, fresh, you know, not like the other areas we’d already rolled out in the launch product. We’ve got Angmar and we’ve got The Shire, and we’ve got The Lone Lands, and we’ve got Rivendell, they all have their own specific kind of feel.
The goal with Evendim was, let’s make sure we’re making a place that feels different. So you have this big, giant lake, there is a lot of different kind of foliage and biomes around that, so the whole place you’re walking through feels quite significantly different. There are different monsters in it. We wanted to give you a different atmospheric experience that you hadn’t had somewhere else in the game. We wanted you to feel like “Wow! This is like no place I’ve ever been before!”
On the lore side [Evendim] is actually a really important place. We are not trying just to recreate the path of the Ringbearer, which is really what the movie needed to do Ã¢$” because 9 hours (or 12 in the case of the extended versions) is about as much as you’re going to want to watch and they did a brilliant job at that. Creating an immersive world, our obligation and one of the huge opportunities for us is that we can try and build the WHOLE world and try to make this a real place with the real history that it has.
Evendim is a place where [in the mythology of Middle Earth] the Kings of Armor used to be during the second-age. It’s where Aragorn goes to rebuild his kingdom at the end of Return of the King. He goes there to AnnÃƒºminas, which is in Evendim, to make this happen.
It’s also a great opportunity for us as a part of our Epic story arc that we go into in [Book 9], which is about Narsil, the reforging of Narsil. There is in the books a very specific forge, a ring forge in the Tombs of Elendil that is where some of the rings were forged. We thought this was a good place for Narsil to be reforged, its something that is not explained explicitly in the book. We know that [Narsil] is in shards, we know that it’s reforged in some special way and that is what Aragorn then brings forward with him with the Fellowship. We don’t know exactly how it happened so it was a perfect opportunity to let the players participate in that really important event.
We’re always looking at the much greater story than just the path of the Ringbearer although obviously that is a very important part of the War of the Ring. [The Ringbearer's journey] is one of the things that helps end this chapter of the War but there is so much else going on and we want to make sure we focus on all of it.
GT: Lord of the Rings Online is built on the bones of one of the most iconic fantasy stories of all times, a story that is built on a cornerstone of groups and friends. How does LotRO promote that fellowship feeling and what have you introduced in this expansion to crystallize that question of how easy is it to find an elf, a man and a dwarf in the Riddermark? Borrowing an iconic line from the film and novels.
JS: [Laugh] That’s Eomer’s line right?
JS: There’s lots of stuff that we do. We did a lot at launch just to make sure that you could actually easily find people to group, using the group tools that you have, making sure you could join a kinship that could either be a dedicated race based kinship or a mixed kinship. We’re going to be expanding on all that functionality as we roll things out.
We’re not doing a tremendous amount of work on that right now, for this particular expansion, since the focus of this expansion was on expanding the world and in some respects expanding the solo experience between levels 25 and 40. That was based on feedback from players and our own ideas of where we’d be. There are a lot of players who are ending up in the 20′s now, after launch, who are still very, very hungry for solo experiences so we did a fair amount of focus on that.
That said we have a number of new instances that are really Fellowship based, or are meant to be, included in this particular expansion. In terms of experiences that you’ll be compelled to want to do with a group of people we’ll continue to deliver those in every expansion. Over the course of time this year we’re definitely going to be expanding the functionality of kinships. We want the whole concept of being in a kinship with other people to feel more special and different from other kinships. We’ll be talking more about that in the future.
The combat mechanics we have Ã¢$” conjunctions… sorry, Fellowship maneuvers, old habit. [Laugh] Is something that we’re still watching to see how players use the existing functionality. Its something I see us expanding in the future but the driving force is to make you feel like you really want to have a group that had some experience playing together, understood their roles and could learn to rely on each other to be 5 times more powerful than they could alone by contributing their individual skills. Fellowship maneuvers are the biggest way to do that.
GT: Let’s talk a little bit about the music system. You mentioned it in passing a little earlier. Is it possible yet to play “Stairway to Heaven” in the game with a full band?
JS: Well what was the impediment before? [Laugh]
GT: I’m still trying to figure out how to do it myself, maybe that’s my inability to hit the right notes speaking.
JS: Oh, it’s hard. I think there is a huge change now. What we’ve added is ABC Text Notation. That is a standard ASCII text file format on the Internet called ABC. Brilliant right? ABC’s for music. Apparently it’s been around for a number of years Ã¢$” to the point where there is a lot of free shareware and freeware products that let you convert MIDI files or a regular music notation file to this ASCII text format though you can just write a text file on your own. What we’ve done is added to the game the ability to play those files. You create these files and place them in the right directory and you can play them using your character and the instrument that you have. So you can imagine, for example, Stairway to Heaven as long as you write [the notes] out or any song you write you can play it in the game.
We’ve also added drums and a bass to the game, our rhythm section if you will. You can have one person playing a notation file that includes the drum portion while another plays the lead, or other parts that play along to that. It’s a lot more capability Ã¢$” like a piano roll type of thing that you can do from the client side and it’s really cool.
GT: I guess I need to brush up on my notation skills.
JS: I’ve seen all sorts of YouTube video of people who’ve captured videos of their characters playing popular music in game. All different kinds of songs from Dust in the Wind to The Rolling Stones. I’ve heard just about every type of music you can imagine in there. [Laugh] Some of them are awesome, some of them are you know Ã¢$” works in progress. [Laugh] But they are all very cool.
Tomorrow the interview concludes with information on the game’s new Raid, connections between the book and the game and a quick postmortem on the game since release Ã¢$” what he was most proud of and what he intends to change.