Last week we asked you for questions to pass on to Turbine CEO Jeff Anderson, about their recently released Lord of the Rings Online Massively Multiplayer Online Game. There were a ton of great queries, and unfortunately Mr. Anderson had only a limited time to spare for us. Over the phone we still managed to discuss a wide variety of topics, including: their use of the license, lessons learned from the Asheron games, World of Warcraft impact on the genre, what Tolkien would have thought, and whether or not they're working on a Linux/Mac client. Make sure to give them a look, and many thanks again to Mr. Anderson for taking the time to speak with us.Slashdot: How do you think the launch has gone, for Lord of the Rings Online?
Jeff Anderson: It couldn't really be much better. We've had just terrific response from the community, the sales have been great, we've managed the number one position off and on; the response from the editors, the reviewers, it's racking up the rewards, game of the month, editor's choice awards ... it's really gratifying. You know a bunch of people poured their heart and soul into making this product, and so I'm enthusiastic for them that they can finally see the true value of the hard work that they've put in. We're probably now the second-largest MMORPG operating that was built in the US right now, you know, built in North America/Europe.
Slashdot: If you don't mind my asking, are you folks willing to let out some subscriber numbers at all yet?
Mr. Anderson: Well, besides what I just said probably not. I'd love to, I'd love to, because I think people would be excited about where we are already, barely a month out of the gate. We really don't, though ... it's kind of our policy not to talk about it? People always gave us a hard time; they always said we did it because our number were bad. Now that we have even great numbers we still don't do it. (laughs) So at least maybe we're consistent. When we break ten million, I'll give you a call, how about that?
Slashdot: The rest of the questions for you today, just to give you an idea behind the process, came directly from the Slashdot readers. Some of these folks had very specific things they were interested in, and I hope that there's something you can offer to make those folks happy.
Mr. Anderson: I don't know if I can make them happy, but I hope I can answer their questions.
Slashdot: Great. (Question from Mac_Daddy (21452) ) So to start from a broad perspective, there were several folks who commented in the thread who had played Asheron's Call and Asheron's Call 2. They wanted to know what were the lessons you took from those titles, moving forward into Lord of the Rings Online?
Mr. Anderson: Oh, I like that one. Hmm ... there was quite a few. I'll stick with one lesson each. The first lesson from AC. What I think AC did really well, was it inspired a core group of community. We saw that core group really consistently drive new players, more growth, more enthusiasm for the product. So we wanted to use that as a mechanic. The Allegiance system was in AC1, and we looked seriously at it, we utilized some of the community-based building tools that we thought about when we built in the family systems, and the fellowship systems that we have coming out. That was an inspiration for all of us. Likewise, with AC now having upwards of 80 updates since the product launched, we saw the power of continually adding new content to the game, to reward the players and to thank them. And also at the same time, it's part of the relationship we've got with them for paying us a monthly subscription, to provide episodic content. That's a huge differentiator, also in D&D frankly, and has really proven to make that community so sticky over so many years.
On the AC2 side, honestly I think that sometimes you can learn as much from the things you do poorly as the things you do right. I don't mind admitting that there were things and mistakes that we've made over the years, that we've continually learned from and grown from. On AC2 there were so many things that went well in the product, but that was a situation where we felt that we needed more time to iron out the problems that we just didn't have the flexibility (as a developer) to do. When we look at the projects we've had going forward, we really wanted to make sure that quality was a new focus for us. Quality of the launches; I think now between D&D and Lord of the Rings, we have set a new standard for expectations about what these launches should be.
You just can't get away with pretending that these games aren't competitive with single-player games. People expect them to have no bugs, expect them to have smooth launches. They don't expect you to have delayed downtimes and migration problems and all that you see oftentimes. So we set ourselves of having a much higher standard and bar for what we've seen anywhere else in the business. I hope that elevates the overall expectation in player's minds. It's not okay anymore to have crappy launches, and just say "Oh, it's an MMO."
I look at AC2, and I think that we could have spent more time, and certainly with Lord of the Rings we made decisions a couple times and moved the [launch] date. Really it was because we thought we were close, and a lot of companies would have shipped the game. We wanted to spend a little extra time, and close some more bugs. My favorite quote in a review about our game was that 'The only thing that's missing is the bugs.' I feel very proud that we have such a quality experience to offer players. It makes me thrilled to hear people say that.
Slashdot: Just to follow up a little bit, could you point to something you might not have had time to get right with Asheron's Call 2, that you got to improve on and 'get right' in Lord of the Rings Online?
Mr. Anderson: I think we've made a lot of improvements over a lot of systems. I think some of the class balance issues got significantly better; I think we're much better at that these days. I think crafting got much better as we kind of lived with the game, so those are two pretty big systems.
If I had to target one overall thing, I'd say we're continually getting better at marrying the player's pace with appropriate level content. I was doing a demo for a reviewer a couple of weeks ago, and they hadn't played the product before. At the end of the day, after like four hours of play, he takes me aside and said, "So I'm going through this region, and I'm fighting all the monsters that are level 1. And I go through this region and I'm fighting all the monsters that are level 2, when I'm level 2. Same for level 3. Are you programmatically changing the monster levels to be the same as my levels behind the scenes?" I loved that. I said "It's just game design", but I really meant that. The team has nailed trying to present content at the right points when you should be getting it. That it wasn't too high, and it wasn't too low. That balance was something the team did a great job of striking.
Slashdot: Before we get into the nitty gritty, again in the broader perspective, you talked about how your games affected LOTRO. A question you might like a bit less: There were several users who drew some comparisons between Lord of the Rings Online and Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Could you talk about how WoW's success may have impacted your decision-making process in making Lord of the Rings Online?
Mr. Anderson: All credit to the Blizzard guys, but I really have seen their product as just taking the tried and true mechanics that those of us who had been at UO, or other products the marketplace had proven out, and they refined them and made them better. We just try to do the same thing. The vast majority of this industry is now consolidated around the gameplay mechanic, and we wanted to be sure we delivered on that. In fact, if you'd asked me what we learned from DDO that we applied to Lord of the Rings Online, one of the chief things I would say is that some of the changes we made were really appealing to players who otherwise liked WoW. Some of the instance-based content, the real-time combat, players find that very attractive who are coming from a more traditional adventure game.
That goes all the way back to Ultima Online, those are the kind of mechanics that we've all laid down and grown up with now, and I think it's become a bit of the expectation. If you're playing a first-person shooter or an RTS you expect them to play a certain way. Now the MMORPG category, having been defined over the last fifteen years, players do have an expectation around that. Blizzard did the same things that everyone else has been doing, and we kind of followed that same path of all the great MMORPGs that have come along even before Blizzard. So in that sense I think we're trying to pay homage to a lot of products, picking out the best features from all of them to make something special.
And, in some very important ways, finding ways to advance the overall body of work further. I think the deeds and accomplishment system really does that, I think the monster play system does that, I think our emphasis on story and pacing really does that. I think people have responded to that, and said "Wow, this is a special game, because it feels like a lot of MMORPGs, but it takes a really unique point of view on some elements, it innovates in some special ways."
I didn't mind that question at all, I have to say. We take a great deal of pride of being part of an overall industry that is trying to perfect the art of online games. I think we all collectively take a step forward every time a product is released. We look at things that happened in a product and we say, "Wow, that's a great idea." or "Didn't like that idea so much." That's part of advancing the art of games. Before Hitchcock came out with a film, people weren't just looking at shots and cinematography in the same way, and now I think people look at it very differently. People look at and emulate the style of directors like Spielberg, because they have points of view that they're able to express. I'm excited to see that evolve here in the games space.
Slashdot: (Question from Chief Crazy Chicken (36416) ) The license you folks are working with; Lord of the Rings is obviously a very big license, and we had a reader who was interested in what the constraints you folks are working under. Specifically he was asking if any of the content from the Children of Hurin book, or any new content in that license, would show up in the game?
Mr. Anderson: Yeah, no, that's not going to be showing up. We're really focused on the source material from Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit specifically.
Slashdot: Okay. No plans ever to tap into the license from the movies at all?
Mr. Anderson: Oh, you know, never say never. Who knows? There's currently nothing about them in the game. In terms of constraints, I think that was a key thing for us. We wanted to make a great game, and a great Tolkien game at the same time. We had to recognize the limitations of the franchise; whether it's the fact that there are only so may wizards in the game, or magic had to be more nature-based than fantastical, that there had to be a physical property associated with it? The fact that we couldn't have 'health', that would couldn't have people popping back to life all over the place ... there are certainly some limitations that the franchise provides, but it really helped to create the boundaries inside of which we could have a lot of creative freedom.
Slashdot: Was there a challenge there in creating something novel, within the license, that was still true to what you folks were working with?
Mr. Anderson: I think the challenges were that there were certain MMORPG mechanics which run contrary to what you want to have if you're making a Lord of the Rings game. So, for example everyone wants to have fireballs, but you can't really have (under Tolkien's world) everyone running around casting big giant fireballs from your fingertips. So, how can you integrate a design solution that gives people what they want without violating the world that Tolkien presented. So we go back and we look at things like physical representations of magic. For example, you throw a flask of oil across the room at a monster and it explodes in flames. That's the perfect example of a magical manifestation, but it's really just a physical representation of a spell.
Those kinds of challenges made it harder from doing things from scratch, but it's wonderful to use the charm of the product.
Slashdot: (Question by Himring (646324) ) Given that a lot of fans of Tolkien's work know that he was a stickler about the ways his ideas were used, do you think that Lord of the Rings Online would meet with his approval?
Mr. Anderson: I hope so. It's so hard to speak on a topic like that one. But he was very passionate about Middle Earth being a place. It was less of a series of books in some ways than it was a chronology of histories. Making that place alive and real for people must have been a very exciting concept in his mind. From a focus standpoint, we didn't want it to be a pointless grind just sitting in the landscape killing repeatedly with no purpose. We wanted to focus on creating a story, a purpose, a meaning; really bring some of the literary elements into this game. I think he would have appreciated that.
Slashdot: (Question by Last_Available_Usern (756093) ) Okay ... we're running low on time, so here are some questions that get more into the nitty gritty of the game, quickly. What was the biggest leap of faith mechanic you put into the game?
Mr. Anderson: Monster Play, without a doubt. That was because we know people love PvP, we knew it was going to be a blast playing as a monster. The challenge there was that we wanted it to be more accessible, more fun, more action-oriented PvP. We didn't want you to feel like you have to grind up to the end to get there. We saw more people enjoying that as a vision in our heads.
Slashdot: (Question by EvilRyry (1025309) ) Do you have any plans, at all, for a Linux or Mac OS X client in the game?
Mr. Anderson: At the moment, no. You never know, though. The door's not closed, but at the moment we have no plans along those lines.
Slashdot: (Question by Soukyan (613538) ) Are there any future plans for improvement of the music system?
Mr. Anderson: Absolutely. In fact, this month June we're having our big update; the Shores of Evendim. A whole new region, six million square meters of space, nine brand-new creatures, over a hundred new quests, targeted at the level 35-45 players. As part of that we're doing changes to the Champion class, we're doing epic armor sets, and we're also doing a big update to the music system. We're adding an element many musicians are familiar with; it's an ascii format called ABC notation? That will allow players to create their own songs, write it down in a more simple and readable way, and then share/integrate/import it into the game.
Slashdot: Last question. (Question by Vicegrip (82853) ) Moving forward with the new content here, you're adding elements for the higher level players. How do you see the game's story moving forward with the One Ring's journey towards Mount Doom?
Mr. Anderson: Well, with the update we're doing right now, we're focusing on sort of the epic stories. Right now the Fellowship is in Rivendell, and is just going to finish the council of Eldrond. Aragorn realizes that he needs to reforge the shards of Narsil, as his first step on the path to being king of Gondor. So you're asked, by Gandalf, to go back to his family's home in the Evendim area, back in the castle area of the Numina, to search for some artifacts that are required to reforge missing parts of the blade. You're intimately involved with what the Fellowship is doing in this area of the epic, so we're continuing to move the story forward with all of our updates in the future. That will happen not only with this update, but as we move forward into the future as well. We'll have the big summer solstice party, and then in August we'll be coming out with a big Monster Play update, and then kind of landing with player housing this October.
Slashdot: That's all the time we have. Thank you for giving us the opportunity, sir.