Gamertell Interview: Lord of the Rings Online team reflects on four years in Middle-earth

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This weekend (April 23-24, 2011) marks the four-year anniversary of developer Turbine’s The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO). Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels, this MMORPG allows players to follow a few steps behind the journeys of Frodo, Gandalf, and the rest of the Fellowship. I had the opportunity to speak in a conference call with Communications Director Adam Mersky and Producer Aaron Campbell on what it’s like to have lived and breathed the world of Middle-earth for the last four years and what may be in store for the next four.

Also, we get a sneak peak at what to expect from Rise of Isengard, the upcoming and highly anticipated next expansion. The expected release date for Rise of Isengard is fall 2011.

LOTRO launched in North America on April 24, 2007 and April 26, 2007 in Europe. To celebrate this four-year anniversary, Turbine kicked off an in-game festival on April 19, 2011. Players can participate in trivia contests and horse races, win little prizes, have beer fights in taverns (yes, you read that right), and other fun activities. Also, from April 21-24, players can earn double XP, as a little thank-you from Turbine. The anniversary festival will run until May 2, 2011.

By the way, stay tuned over the next few days for information on how you can win codes redeemable for 500 Turbine Points.

Mersky kicked off the interview by saying, “We’re very proud to have reached this important milestone. Not a lot of MMOs get to be four years old. And while LOTRO’s sort of a baby here, compared to all our games it’s the youngest, it doesn’t take away from the accomplishment and we’re really happy especially in light of the fact that the game continues to grow and is doing well, something that’s also not easy to do in this market.”

LOTRO screenie 1

GAMERTELL: LOTRO is celebrating its fourth year this month, which is an important mark. As Adam mentioned, not many MMOs have made it that far. What can you attribute LOTRO’s success –or successes– to?

Campbell: First of all, we have a beautiful and authentic and massive world of Middle-earth to draw on, that players can journey through. We also have a really great game design, a really tight team that knows how to tell a story and knows how to be authentic to that story and bring players in. We have a lot of innovation. We’ve been changing the game since the day we launched it, right? So we’ve added things like…we’re among the first to bring you cosmetic outfits to change the appearance of your character. Scaling instances – you can choose the size and difficulty and scale of the spaces you want to play through. All along continuing to grow the world and give you new features like legendary items. I think that capacity to grow, that capacity to evolve as an MMO is absolutely key to succeeding in any market, especially this market. And then last year of course we took a giant leap and transformed our business model as well with free-to-play, added that on top of our existing subscription service.

GAMERTELL: Like many MMOs, LOTRO has had its ups and downs over the years. Are there things you wish you could have done differently? And what do you think worked best of all?

Mersky: The easy, snarky answer is that with hindsight being 20/20 is that I wish we did free-to-play from the get-go.

Campbell: But the market was so different back then.

Mersky: It is. You can’t compare. It wouldn’t have worked in 2007 the way it did in 2010. But clearly that’s – that’s something that if you could turn back time and circumstance but…you know. That’s been a big thing for us.

Campbell: Also, sometimes it’s the little things right? One thing that we’re very committed to is adhering to the lore. But looking back I have to say Moria is very dark in places (laughs) and that is absolutely a benefit, and every time I fall off a cliff it’s not so great. But one thing that’s worked well, I think is that continuing to develop new landscape and new instances and places has absolutely been key to our success. And in making that fit in the flavor of the world, building authenticity early on.

lotro screenie 2

GAMERTELL: Keeping the playerbase happy for four years has got to be a challenging task since people want the game to go in so many different directions. What have you learned over the years in terms of appeasing your customers?

Campbell: I’d rather think of pleasing my customers. They’re hungry, they definitely have a lot of things. It’s about choosing the right directions to go, the right investments to make, the right things to focus on and build for the players. I think one of the key things we learned is to make sure that we build options for different play styles. So if you want to be a solo player, now you can play the entire epic story as a solo player and not feel caught out of any critical story moments. If you want to play in large groups we have raids across the game. In fact, one of the things we’re gonna talk about is that for Isengard coming up, we’re taking this giant dragon raid we’re building and making it a 24-person raid, which is back to being one of the largest sizes of raids we’ve had in the game. So, giving that flexibility, giving you large group content, small group content, opportunities to socialize and roleplay, whatever it is you’re in to – we wanna build those opportunities for you.

GAMERTELL: And just to be clear, you said that for Rise of Isengard you guys are planning on bringing back the 24-man raid?

Campbell: With Rise of Isengard, we have two really key things right now that have come out just from the development process. One is the that our dragon raid is going to be scaled to 24 players, which we’re really excited about. It’s a huge, very complex piece so it’s taking us some time and it’s gonna be awesome. The other thing I want to say is that as we’ve been building out the landscape — ya know, the regions of Dunland and the Gap of Rohan and Isengard itself, looking at that space we said, ‘This really doesn’t quite fit for five levels. This is for ten levels’. So we’re actually boosting the level cap, so instead of 70 we’re going from 65-75. And that’s with crafting and all the other associated things you would expect.

GAMERTELL: Four years have passed. Where do you see LOTRO four years from now?

Campbell: Oh goodness uhhhh, somewhere past Gondor? (laughs). Okay, so one thing I say about Turbine and about LOTRO in specific is that we’re always working on those core systems. We have our own game engine, we have our own team in-house that builds our engine. So we’re constantly looking to upgrade and improve that performance. This is a modern game. I challenge it to stand up to any game on PC right now, when you get it out there on modern hardware, on DX11 and get the shadows going, the trees bending in the wind and such. So we’re going to continue to focus on those things, continue to make combat great, continue to develop brand new parts of the world and expand that story and push further on and listen to our players’ feedback. As I said, we evolve. I can guess where we’re going to be in two years or three years but if it’s anything like the last four years, it’s gonna surprise me.

Site [Lord of the Rings Online]

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