Interview: Jeffrey Steefel on LOTRO Mines of Moria, Part One

What won't you find in Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online MMO? Lines like "No one tosses a dwarf!" But while Turbine trades cheap laughs for careful adherence to canon, their online rendition of Middle-earth is also radically different from the books because of all the world-building author J.R.R. Tolkien didn't do.

Mines of Moria, the new expansion to LotRO that's out today, adds even more content, inviting players to delve into what Turbine calls "the greatest dungeon adventure you have ever seen and played." I spoke with Turbine's executive producer Jeffrey Steefel yesterday to get the lowdown.

(This is Part One -- Part Two.)

Game On: I gather you're sleeping little and working lots this week?

Jeffrey Steefel: Getting ready to not sleep most of the week, probably. We've been through this a few times, so we've got all hands on deck, and we're going to be here 24/7. You know, it's just watching things, and hopefully we'll just get to enjoy watching players drill into the new content, but we're mostly here in case anything tricky happens. You just never know with these things.

GO: A little icebreaker for my readers who may be wondering who you are. You're actually an actor, it seems.

JS: Well I was an actor. I guess once an actor, always an actor, right? Yeah, that was one of my many careers. Engineer, then actor in New York, and now whatever it is that I do.

GO: You were actually in Godspell with Harold Perrineau, who people probably best know as Michael on ABC's Lost.

JS: Yep. We were all young then, and that was before Harold was Harold. But yeah, it was a great group of people. In fact I had a reunion with them about a month ago. We all got together in New York for our 20th anniversary, and everybody showed up.

GO: Any of them Lord of the Rings Online players?

JS: Sadly no. I'm the only geek in the crowd.

GO: So how do you pitch LotRO to someone who hasn't heard of it, or MMO players who haven't yet tried it?

JS: Well first of all, if they haven't ever tried an MMO before, I say to them we built this game with a more casual audience in mind, and that this does not have to be the all-consuming change your life, live in your house and be in front of your computer 50 hours a week game. In fact increasingly, we spend more and more time making sure the game is something you can play for an hour at a time if you want to. You can jump in and play by yourself any time if you want to, you don't have to get with a large group of people, though that's of course always an option too.

The first thing I'd say is that LotRO is intended for people to participate in different ways. You don't have to be that lifer to play the game, although we certainly have lots of those folks playing as well.

The second thing is that the folks who'd probably be attracted to the game have probably seen the movies and perhaps even read the books. This is just a natural extension of that. If they enjoyed reading about this place and all these characters and they enjoyed seeing Peter Jackson's vision of it, then it's really fun just to be in that world. We've created the opportunity for them to do that, even if they're just walking around and talking to people and enjoying seeing the places they saw in the movies or read about in the fiction.

There's that, and then there's also a lot of really interesting story in the game, and it's an extension to the stories they already know. Also, our audience is more casual and slightly older than the average MMO player.

GO: I've played it a bit, you know, I haven't played up to a level 50 character yet, but as I've worked through the books, I notice a lot of attention to...I'm not a canonical expert, but...

JS: You're not a lorkie.

GO: Definitely not a lorkie. But as I'm going through, some of it seems extremely...the fidelity to the books is higher than I'd expected. Given the amount of content you're juggling, obviously a lot of it has to be manufactured to fit the game since it's got to be a game first and foremost. What's the vetting process you use to put all that in and yet maintain a distinctive Tolkien flavor?

JS: It's a couple layers of things. First of all, we make sure that anything we're literally doing, whether it's from the books, whether it's a character, whether it's Gandalf, whether it's the Shire, or anything that's specifically described in the books, if we're going to represent it in the game, we make really sure that we've read everything we possibly can that Tolkien wrote to understand what his intent was. In some cases it's very explicit, so that's why Gandalf tends to look like Gandalf in every game, movie, and play, whereas some other characters are a little less well described.

For things that were explicitly described, we make sure that we satisfy that description to the best of our capabilities. We also make sure that if it's anything iconic, Tolkien Enterprises takes a look at it and makes sure it feels right to them.

The second thing is, there's so many things Tolkien did describe that it kind of creates a ruleset. If you read everything he's written and you see the world he created, even if he didn't describe the way Angmar specifically looks, you know the kind of world that Angmar exists inside of. You have some clues about Angmar from the Second Age, you know what the Witch-king is like, so you create these guidelines. As long as everything you create from your own imagination fits within those rules, then you tend to be fine, because you're building a world that still feels internally consistent.

The third piece that you alluded to is that this is a game, and if we were strictly literal, there's certain things we would never do regardless. But this is a game and it needs to be fun and people need to feel like they're playing an RPG, so.

It's interesting. People always say there's no such thing even slightly related to magic in Middle-earth with the exception of the wizards. And usually what I say is, that's true, except let's look at Elrond and Galadriel and some of the other characters who have the ability to draw on some of the energies in Middle-earth and do things that are magical. So we've created a character for this expansion that's able to do that. Without being trite, you can say Tolkien doesn't describe floaty, fiery, spinning gold rings hovering over people's heads either, but we do that because that's part of the game. In that example, it's how you're able to quickly locate quest-givers.

GO: You promoted Mines of Moria with a few web based mini-games. How did that go?

JS: It went well. We got a tremendous amount of attention and traffic. A lot of people came to the site, which was really the whole point. We wanted players to have fun, but we also just wanted to get lots and lots of people to come to the Mines of Moria site, so they'd be exposed to the fact that we have this game coming out, and they could learn about the game.

The mini-games themselves were pretty much unrelated, other than that you were either a slightly drunken dwarf throwing axes, or playing a Risk-like strategy game. But they were really just meant to attract people to a location so we could talk to them about Mines of Moria. We had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of hours of gameplay logged, so that was really cool.

I think it was like a baby step. Not really related, but a baby step in our overall mentality, which you're going to see a lot of in the next year. The web is really another platform, and it's an extension of the game environment. The mini-games were just that, but it was an attempt to start to understand how the web platform and our in-game immersive platform relate to each other.

Since that time, we've built an entire technical layer between our game databases and the web. So you're going to be seeing some really interesting stuff, social networking kinds of things coming out, surrounding our games, starting with LotRO, where you'll be able to do a lot of the things that people have gotten used to doing. Especially more mainstream people with MySpace and places like that. Around the game, around your character, around your actual player account, and tying those things together so it's seamless. That was a first little toe in the water for us with those mini-games, but now we view it as a part of the entire game environment we're building.

Next...

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