Lord of the Rings Online Vooncast Interview with Jeffrey Steefel - Book 8 and Dol Guldur

When it comes to Lord of the Rings Online, no one is more knowledgeable than Turbine’s Executive Producer for the title, Jeffrey Steefel. We recently sat down with Jeffrey in our weekly Vooncast to discuss the upcoming content in Volume 2 Book 8 and what players should be expecting when they finally get to cross the Misty Mountains, delve into Mirkwood, and explore the depths of Dol Guldur. The War of the Ring comes to life in this upcoming Book, so make sure you check out the interview! Ten Ton Hammer: You’re definitely conjuring up visions of Helm’s Deep and leading your troops into battle. You also have been alluding to something “big” coming later in the year. Will we see a level cap raise later this year? Steefel: That is absolutely our intention. We can’t release details or anything like that, but we know that it’s an important step in the advancement path of players, so that’s being slated for later this year. To read the rest of our LOTRO Vooncast interview, click here!
When it comes to Lord of the Rings Online, no one is more knowledgeable than Turbine’s Executive Producer for the title, Jeffrey Steefel. We recently sat down with Jeffrey in our weekly Vooncast to discuss the upcoming content in Volume 2 Book 8 and what players should be expecting when they finally get to cross the Misty Mountains, delve into Mirkwood, and explore the depths of Dol Guldur. The War of the Ring comes to life in this upcoming Book, so make sure you check out the interview!

Ten Ton Hammer: Let’s talk about Book 8. You’ve stated that we’re not leaving Moria behind, and that the job isn’t done. What kinds of things are in Book 8 that take us back to Moria?

Jeffrey Steefel: The most important thing to know is that we’ve passed out of Moria, and we’ve done the first set of tasks to get the Dwarves resettled back into Moria. But there’s a lot of craziness still going on. Players have made it into Lothlorien and they’ll be spending lots of time there, but there are some pretty cool instances that we’ve created back inside Moria and you’ll need to come in and quell some of the new unrest that’s occurring inside the mines.

Basically, Moria is a giant part of our world now, and like many places in Middle-earth we want to make sure that players have awesome opportunities to go back there. The work has really just begun in Moria, and players will have lots of opportunities to go back into Moria and enjoy it in ways they haven’t yet. There’s a number of new instances of varying sizes that allow players to go back.

Ten Ton Hammer: You’ve said all along, ever since we’ve been talking to you about LOTRO, that once we’re past the Misty Mountains we’d become a larger part of the war and start to see it going on. We’ve had our rest in Lothlorien, but what’s our next step? What’s the next big stop on the way to Mordor.

Steefel: After Book 8, as we move forward in the later part of the year, we’re going to be moving into southern Mirkwood and Dol Guldur.

Dol Guldur is a giant fortress where Sauron basically took shelter after he’d been defeated and the Ring had been taken. This is where he rebuilt his power. This is a very significant part of Middle-earth and a very significant part of the history of Middle-earth. So you’ve got a very scary and significant enemy that’s rising in southern Mirkwood and a place that’s launching attacks at Lothlorien and other parts of Middle-earth.

This is another front in the War of the Ring that the players are going to be faced with, and a pretty significant one at that. In fact, it’s the most direct one – with respect to Sauron – that the players have faced to date.

It’s definitely exciting and a really, really cool place that we’ve started doing a tremendous amount of work on. Southern Mirkwood is going to be a very unique place in Middle-earth. It’s a forest, but it has a dark and ominous personality that you really haven’t seen in Middle-earth.

Then there’s Dol Guldur itself, which is an incredibly huge, majestic, and very, very evil fortress that was Sauron’s fortress, so obviously you’re going to be up against a lot of interesting old and new foes. There’s a great connection between the Ringwraiths and Dol Guldur in the IP, so the fellbeasts that you see flying around in Middle-earth tend to roost in Dol Guldur.

This also gives us an opportunity to show off some of the things we’ve learned about depicting things of great, epic scale. This is a very large, high mountaintop retreat that kind of surveys all of southern Mirkwood. So it should be a cool, interesting place to go.

Ten Ton Hammer: We’re going into southern Mirkwood. Can you give us insight into your inspiration for this? Can you set the stage a little bit for us?

Steefel: Mirkwood is obviously a large part of the Hobbit story, and while there’s certainly a lot more activity to the north part of Mirkwood, this is an opportunity to start bringing those players into that of Mirkwood and weaving players into the fabric of Middle-earth.

But Dol Guldur itself is a significant part of the story of the Ring. By bringing players there, we can begin exposing them to the actual War of the Ring and the battles that are raging in this part of Middle-earth that have really just begun as the Fellowship passes through.

Another thing that I’m really excited about, and in many respects goes hand-in-hand with what we’re doing with Dol Guldur, is that once we move past the Mistys and players are feeling like they’re getting more and more involved in the war itself. We want the battles between good and evil to become a significant part of players’ experiences in the game. We’re working on a new feature to the game that we’re calling “Skirmishes.” In these Skirmishes, you have the opportunity to participate in battles with all sorts of different bad guys from all over Middle-earth that are causing trouble.

Even though the story moves in this linear fashion through Middle-earth and you have pockets of battle that seem to happen in a string-of-pearls from one end of the world to the other, the truth is that there are battles raging everywhere and that Sauron and his minions are causing trouble everywhere. Saruman is causing trouble out to the south. There are just fights going on everywhere; even as far back as Bree or the Trollshaws.

What these Skirmishes are going to do is allow players to go back to some of these areas at particular points in time; either in the past, the future, or are going on simultaneously with the war. These will then take you into instances that we’ve built based on a lot of our experiences over the past year, especially the three- and six-man instances that people are really, really enjoying.

We’ll be taking those instances and then adding a dynamic component; depending on the size of the party that actually goes into this instance, the content will be dynamic and respond to that by providing content that is tailored to the size of the party in a dynamic fashion.

There’s also going to be multiple objectives in these instances so that you’ll be able to play through them over and over again with different groups of people. So this way, you’ll be able to enjoy these Skirmishes in a variety of ways, and of course this all ties in with the War of the Ring that’s happening all over Middle-earth.

We’re also going to give you the opportunity to create your own customizable soldiers. If you’re going into battle and really want to feel like you’re leading a group into this encounter – besides your fellow groupmates of course – so we’re going to give you the ability to create customizable soldiers. This way you’ll always feel like, even if you’re alone or in a small group, that you’ll feel like you have a large group with you.

All of this ties back to the idea that we want the players to feel involved with the War of the Ring. This is going to bring another substantial layer of gameplay to the world along with providing some additional instances that we think players enjoy.

We’re psyched about it.

Ten Ton Hammer: You’re definitely conjuring up visions of Helm’s Deep and leading your troops into battle. You also have been alluding to something “big” coming later in the year. Will we see a level cap raise later this year?

Steefel: That is absolutely our intention. We can’t release details or anything like that, but we know that it’s an important step in the advancement path of players, so that’s definitely being slated for later this year.

Ten Ton Hammer: What are you including in the level cap increase? Are there any mistakes you’ve made in the past with level cap raises that you want to avoid this time around?

Steefel: It’s a very complicated thing. Adding advancement levels is very complex in how it affects all the various existing classes: how they’re impacted, how various groupsets work, how individual advancement abilities are affected. On top of that, we added a fair amount of complexity when we added legendary items to the game.

It’s been a good learning experience and we’ve made some adjustments since our last cap raise. We make all kinds of mistakes, but I think it’s all a matter of degree. It’s a process, and we hope that players think we’re paying attention to how a level cap increase and legendary item adjustments impact the players. And that we’re responding to the mistakes we make and the feedback we get. It’s a process and as much as we try to use our experience, test on our servers, test on the public test servers, it’s really not until it gets out to the community that we find out the real things we need to make changes to.

Ten Ton Hammer: You’ve made some user interface changes to help newer players get attuned to LOTRO. Could you comment on that?

Steefel: The changes that we made with Book 7 are actually even more wider reaching than that. What you’re referring to is the quest guide, which basically tells you where to go next and lets you know where your next objective is. A lot of people have been really excited about that, and a lot of people were asking for that sort of functionality.

For those folks that like to explore things organically and in a more haphazard way, you can turn it off. With everything like that, we want to make sure players have the choice to play the game in the way they’d like to enjoy.

That is actually just one tool in the totality of the new player experience that we worked on prior to the Book 7 launch that is designed to help players learn. We’re leveraging some of the technology that we’ve built since launch and adjusting the experience based on player feedback and how we know that players are coming into these games. And – in general – just polishing up our game and going back to the early part of the game and making sure that players who are starting out now are having an even better experience than the players that originally purchased LOTRO. Even those players that are making a new alt, we want to make sure they see a difference in how the new areas play.

We wanted to make sure that each adventure leads to the next in a more seamless, connected fashion rather than feeling like your wandering around in the first 5-10 levels of the game. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback about this, and we’re not done. We actually spend a lot of time going backwards in our game, making sure that the entire game continues to improve and gets better and better.

This obviously gets more difficult as the game continues to grow, but it’s part of the responsibility we have and part of the fun as new types of players come to the game and we try to address their concerns and desires.

For example, one of the Books that was released pretty quickly after launch had some major changes for Angmar and some of the other parts of the game. We continue to look at old content while still pushing ahead and building things like Skirmishes for the more experienced players looking for new challenges.

Ten Ton Hammer: In addition to the MyLOTRO site that you’ve discussed, might we see a rewards program to go along with that? Can you give us an update on MyLOTRO as well?

Steefel: What players are currently seeing with MyLOTRO is really an early start on something that’s going to be a major part of what we want to do in terms of building a community and providing people with a out-of-game environment. Essentially, to us, it’s an extension of the game.

It will continue to grow and develop over time, and its intended to give players, the community, and people that are just visiting a place to share their experiences, explore their characters, explore their stories and really effortlessly allow them to talk about their experiences in the game.

It’s really exciting to see the online, social environment, sort of Web networking blended with what we’ve been doing for over a decade now, which is blending these immersive 3D social environments. They’re really meant to go together.

It also gives us an opportunity to surface a lot of interesting things about what we’re doing with the game. Some of the things you’re talking about in terms of rewards programs and loyalty programs are things that we’re discussing all the time, and we’re looking at MyLOTRO and asking how we can use it to surface types of…achievements (for lack of a better word) that players are achieving in the social web space and also in the game. These are all things that we’re talking about working on an it’s an active part of what we hope MyLOTRO is going to become.

Right now it’s really in beta, but it’s a pretty cool beta from what we have so far, and I think you’ll start to see it grow and evolve at a much faster pace.

Audience Questions

Ten Ton Hammer: Will the soldiers in the Skirmishes be limited to the Skirmish quests, or are they going to be persistent? Will this cut down on actual humans grouping together?

Steefel: We like humans grouping together too!

The goal of providing these soldiers is really just to enhance the particular Skirmish experience that you’re in. I don’t rule anything out because the developers behind LOTRO are very clever people, but I don’t think there are any plans to take these Skirmish soldiers out into the open world landscape.

This is really just to bring that particular functionality to the Skirmish environment.

Ten Ton Hammer: With your expansion into extra overseas markets, does that extra income allow you to put out patches faster? Or maybe have additional members on your content team so you can make bigger patches? To some players, the patches seem to have grown farther apart in their release schedules.

Steefel: Ultimately the goal is to grow the franchise in every way that we can, and globally is part of the goal as well. There’s lots of way that we’re doing that, and we’re working through a lot of partners around the world right now.

But absolutely, the more successful the game is worldwide, the more we have to reinvest back into our game. What’s interested is that as we get into the next year of our service, the game is maturing and the audience is maturing. So the way we invest money back into the game is also diversifying. Some things that you’ve seen previously may appear as they did before. We’re trying to have the same cadence in our content updates as we have in the past, but we’re spending some of our resources and time on things like “how are we going to make sure our infrastructure and gameplay we’re providing are solidly positioned for the future?” We want the game to continue to grow and evolve for years and years to come, and that takes a lot of time and energy.

We also spend time on other things, like making sure our graphics engine continues to evolve while the industry evolves around us. We want to stay current. We want to make sure the that we can focus our attention on the things that players are really enjoying – like the smaller instanced encounters that I’ve talked so much about – while still doing a good amount of the content we’ve done in the past. We have to constantly evolve and change to bring that to the players.

It may seem like we’re doing more or less work depending on the type of content updates that we’re putting out there, but it really has to do with a more holistic approach to make sure the game continues to grow and can support a larger audience.

Not to mention that servicing our overseas partners takes its own time. Localization is a long process not to mention how those gamers can be serviced. People consume the content differently in different parts of the world, so our goal is to continue to feed the franchise and continue to provide you with more interesting and exciting things to you, the player.

I feel that Moria was something special and was a big benefactor from this. We spent a lot of time and energy and investment on that project, regardless on how it was or wasn’t going to sell because we thought it was important to bring that value to all of the gamers.

It’s something that we’re going to keep focusing on.

Ten Ton Hammer: One of the ways LOTRO sets itself apart is through the legendary item system. Some players believe that the development on that system has gotten stale and has veered away from the original vision for that system. Could you talk a little bit about the future of item advancement?

Steefel: What we’re doing now is feeding the system, and in upcoming books we’re going to be making changes to how the legendary item system works and fleshing it out some more. We want to provide different types of inventory and provide a more robust playing field for the types of things that you can find. We want to also find more ways to get these items through experience and encounters.

These are all things that we’re working on to iterate on the system and grow it slowly. Again, it is a powerful system in the way it is intrinsically tied to the advancement of players, so we have to be very careful and proceed cautiously so we don’t do anything that will fundamentally change the advancement path for any particular player build.

It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s something that we’re focused on. We’re going to continue to work on expanding and extending it, and we have a number of people spending a lot of time looking at player feedback and monitoring player behaviors.

Again, I think it’d be very interesting to see some specifics on what the players are disappointed in not seeing from the item advancement system and which features they would have liked to see put in.

Ten Ton Hammer: One of our audience members states that they’ve taken Chicken Play to the extreme! They want to know if they can cross the Misty Mountains… as a chicken…

Steefel: Now you’re talking about the War of the Ring!

Ten Ton Hammer: Exactly.

Steefel: A Chicken Skirmish facing off with Sauron himself.

Ten Ton Hammer: Sauron cannot withstand the Chicken Zerg!

Steefel: We have a major fondness in our heart for what we called – before launch – Critter Play. I’d love to have more time to experiment with it over time, but it is kind of an experiment, because as fun as it is there are other things that are very time consuming that we’d like to continue to focus on in the game.

I’d love to see chickens venture forth into the battle torn areas. I’d love to see a chicken standing atop the Great Crest during the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Ten Ton Hammer: I think that’s a challenge…

Steefel: The month of April *does* come every year, so you never know what might happen.

Ten Ton Hammer: What’s being done to address server stability? Some players are getting some crashes and server resets. Can you speak to that?

Steefel: Sure, and I think this is something that we’ve addressed in the forums to some degree. As we talked about earlier, as these games grow and evolve and we move into the deeper content, we continue to grow. We’re pushing the edges of our content systems in ways that we haven’t done before as a company. Moria was doing all sorts of things that we’d never explored before – lighting, underground spaces, etc. – and we’re just branching out and experimenting a lot more.

At the same time, the audience is growing and we’re now in the part of development in this game where we’re asking ourselves “how are we going to grow and evolve and get bigger over the next ten years?”

It really strains our system. We are in the process of making some pretty big changes, both in the technology and our infrastructure so we can expand our capabilities quite a bit. There’s definitely been some bumps along the way, and I think everyone here at Turbine will be the first to admit that. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy taking the steps that we need to so that we can ensure that the stuff we’ve been seeing doesn’t happen anymore.

We want to return to the quality and stability that we’re not only known for but extremely zealous about and want to have. That’s what we’re focused on, and we’re spending a lot of time and energy in making sure that things get markedly better.

And I think players will be seeing that. We just need to catch up with ourselves a little bit, but I think players will be seeing improvements soon.

Ten Ton Hammer: Some players contend that PvMP gets unbalanced with each book that’s released; either for the Freeps or the Creeps. What are you doing to alleviate that?

Steefel: Our developers working on PvMP spend a lot of time culling over the forums and trying to understand what is working and what isn’t working. Trying to balance any PvP environment is challenging.

For Moria, we did a number of things specifically trying to address this. One was systemic, in that the system itself, in the Ettenmoors, tries to take an assessment of how many people there are on either side of the conflict and, if they’re unbalanced, try to balance them out by granting session play characters to either side. That has certainly helped us out with some of the terrible imbalances that we’ve had in the past, but we’ve done some other things as well in terms of reorganizing some of the content and making it easier for people to find each other.

There’s no question that it is a challenge and we’ll continue to work on it. We’re definitely aware of it and we’re trying to make it better as often as we can and to the best of our ability.

Ten Ton Hammer: Final question, what’s your plan for Dol Guldur? Is it going to be more solo-based or group-based?

Steefel: What we’re going to try to do is apply of our experience that we’ve had to date. There are people that really like to get together in groups and take on challenges, and Dol Guldur will definitely have those sorts of opportunities.

On the other hand, there are a lot of people that like to do whatever they want to do in the game on their own or with a small group of people. There will definitely be things that you can solo and things that you can do with a very small group of people.

This is a constant balance for us, and it’s one of the things that drives us to do things like Skirmishes, where the instance is dynamic. We’re well aware of the needs for solo versus group content, and solo and small groups are something that people are zealously attracted to.

Ten Ton Hammer: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us Jeffrey, and we look forward to our next conversation!

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