Lord of the Rings Online Forward Focused Developer Interview

Questions by Cody "Micajah" Bye
Answers by Jeffrey Steefel, Lord of the Rings Online Executive Producer, and Adam Mersky, Turbine Public Relations Director

Few online massively multiplayer games draw as much attention as Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online. Whenever a news story breaks on this game, millions of people rush to see what new perks LOTRO is offering its players. Now that Book 11 has been released to the general public, Turbine has gone relatively quiet in comparison with some of the other gaming companies that are releasing new games or expansions. To keep up to date with the company, Cody "Micajah" Bye caught up with Jeffrey Steefel and Adam Mersky to discuss the response to Book 11, upcoming changes in Book 12, and expanding to the Asian market.

Ten Ton Hammer: We heard word that you had all gone over to the G-Star Expo over in Korea a few weeks ago. How was that? Any major announcements coming out of that show?

Adam Mersky: We haven't made the official announcement yet, but our partner in Korea, NHN, made the announcement that they would be bringing Lord of the Rings Online to the Korean marketplace. Jim Crowley, Jeffrey, and some of our other execs were out there doing some formal contract signing and presenting for the fans of the show.

Lord of the Rings Online is expanding into Korea.

Jeffrey Steefel: We already had a deal in place for China, and we just got this deal made for Korea, so 2008 is going to be a big year for the title and its global expansion. MMOs in Asia are absolutely enormous, and we've got a great partner with huge reach. In terms of people registered on their games network, they've got half the population of Korea. They're the number one PC Bong owner; they own just over 50% of the PC Bongs. On top of all that, they're just a really well capitalized company over there.

Adam: They've got the largest search engine and the largest gaming portal site in all of Asia, not just Korea. Just to give you a taste, Google and Yahoo both operate in Korea, and NHN is bigger than both of them. They are the Google of Korea.

Jeffrey: Their audience is over 20 million people. They've been doing this for awhile, so it's great to be working with someone like that. The audience is really excited by the game, so it's just cool to take the game one more step towards "global dominance."

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you guys have to work with them to localize it for the Korean audience?

Jeffrey: We really work together. They do all the translation, and we work together to make sure that the people doing the translation are keeping the IP in tact. We do all the integration and make sure it all comes back into the game world properly. In terms of the game itself and how it evolves over time, that's something where we're going to be talking about with them going forward. Obviously some parts of the world can benefit from different things in addition to what the game already has to offer.

We're working with them, but it's their responsibility to distribute, market, and operate the game in that particular region.

Ten Ton Hammer: Anything else about South Korea and the G-Star Expo?

Adam: They have really good barbeque.

Jeffrey: If you ever want to spend twenty hours on a plane, that's where you should go. It's mind numbingly amazing to see how large the gaming industry is over there. Half the country plays games on a regular basis. It's huge. Instead of going home and watching TV or playing on consoles, they'll head over to their PC Bongs and spend hours and hours a day there. If they're no doing that they're playing mobile games or text messaging each other. They are connected.

Ten Ton Hammer: Moving on, Book 12 is certainly the hot new topic now that Book 11 has been released to the general public...

Adam: *laughs* Book 11 is still a pretty hot topic, I mean it WAS just released. I know everyone wants to talk about "what's next" and "upcoming content," but these guys put a ton of work into Book 11. It was probably our biggest book yet as far as content and impact is concerned, but we can definitely comment on things you've heard about Book 12 if you want to go that route, but we can't reveal to much stuff too soon.

Jeffrey: We're definitely deep in development on Book 12, but we just can't talk about the nitty-gritty details just yet. However, we can talk about the general idea type stuff. Our significant focus is going to be customization in this Book. We want to give the players more variability in terms of appearance. That's definitely our high-level focus, but there are certainly other things going on in the next Book.

Ten Ton Hammer: Let's talk about Book 11 first before we move on to Book 12. How has the response been to Book 11? Are the players really getting involved with the housing system? How many people have successfully navigated the Balrog raid? That sort of thing.

Jeffrey: It's just been great. The feedback we've gotten on the housing has been terrific. Some players are just jumping in and buying a house while others wait until they can buy out a whole neighborhood with their kinship.

According to the developers, the response to Book 11 has been very positive.

Adam: The good news is is that everyone likes it. The bad news is that the PR director had to spend four days in the game before he found a house that he liked, because the housing is SO popular. The developers don't realize that when they show me all the cool houses in our own private little world, that I then want to go log into my in-game character and find that exact house on the market. It's hard to share. It's always a good problem when I have to wait in line to get what I want in the game.

Jeffrey: It was also great to see it function to scale. You never know, especially with a big feature like this one, if the game will perform when thousands of people jump into the game at the same time to buy up their houses. We definitely spent a good amount of time load testing this function before the patch went live, but it's still a worry. The fact that we can launch something like this and it works up to scale is HUGE for us. It was definitely a nail biter, but the end result was great. We've got some other plans on where to take it next, but those are details for another time.

The raid we put into the game has been getting a huge response. People are really, really enjoying that raid. They're also dying a lot, because the Balrog hasn't been killed too many times. However, he has been killed, so that was pretty big news. It's a pretty substantial raid, but we're getting a lot of positive feedback on that particular portion of Book 11.

In general, one of the comments I heard from the players was that they thought we'd provided a lot of stuff for a variety of different player groups, which was great because that was definitely a goal for us. We know we have a variety of different player groups, so we wanted to make sure we touched on all of them if we could. Book 11 was definitely the biggest effort in that particular goal to date. It's been really positive so far.

Ten Ton Hammer: Your DirectX 10 functionality just went live last week, which was a big step in continuing to insure that the game remains cutting edge. What sort of improvements were made to the graphics? Is it worth it for players to go and upgrade their computers? How does the Dx10 conversion make the game look better?

Jeffrey: In LOTRO, we always tend to do our updates in phases or steps. Phase 1 is almost always fairly transparent; we look at the game and make sure that LOTRO doesn't blow up when we introduce Dx10, which is a fairly large architectural change. Really, that's about half of the effort when you're implementing something like this.

The second phase, which we've already done, is figure out what sort of systemic things we can do to the game. Instead of creating whole new content to take advantage of Dx10, how can we change the engine so that across the world certain things just look better? For example, shadows are now dynamic; when you run in Dx9, the shadows that are cast from trees are only cast on the ground. They won't cast shadows on rocks or logs; it's just sort of baked into the terrain and is a sort of trick that was just necessary to do in Dx9. In Dx10, the trees are casting shadows on anything in their path along with animating. The trees are casting shadows on rocks and trees and brush and people that are walking under it. It just creates an immediately different look. We can also do cell shadowing, so that building with things like gutters, awnings, and overhangs will now shadow themselves. It just adds an overall deeper feel to the game.

While the game was already very deep in the graphical department, the new changes just begin to add up when you switch over to Dx10. Little things - like where water meets the terrain - are now incredibly realistic. It doesn't look like a computer game anymore; it looks like water lapping up onto the shore.

With the DirectX 10 update, the graphics in LOTRO will receive a major cosmetic improvement.

The next phase, which occurs over the next six to twelve months, is looking at how we can render the shaders in Dx10 to make actual content. It would be like making a stone wall where you can see every single individual stone using shaders and displacement maps instead of having to model every individual stone. It requires us to build a bunch of new content - and we'll do it - but we want to take baby steps.

That said, there's definitely an advantage to having a Dx10 card now, and that will become and even greater advantage over time.

Adam: On top of that, the Dx10 video cards are finally dropping down into the mainstream price range. As that happens, I think you'll begin to see more people switching over to Dx10 and seeing those improvements to the game. And that's also one of the reasons we didn't implement Dx10 at launch; we wanted to make sure we did things in a certain order and we did them well. With the drop in the price of the graphics cards and the general conversion over to Vista and the graphic cards integrated into those systems, we'll probably have a large portion of the LOTRO community running on Dx10 systems post-holiday.

Ten Ton Hammer: How hard is it to make new content for the game? Is making Dx10 content part of your entire update plan?

Jeffrey: It's incremental work on top of the work we're already doing. It's going to be part of the general content updates and is part of the laundry list of things that my team continues to add to our updates. The list just keeps getting longer and longer: crafting, traits, deeds, and more. Every time we add a new system, there's a whole list of content that needs to be added to support that system. We continue to grow the team to support that, and Dx10 will be included in the next round of updates.

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