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

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 Two -- Part One.)

Game On: Lord of the Rings Online is essentially divided into "books," where each book consists off a certain amount of content broken into chapters, and you've been adding these since the game launched back in April 2007. Prior to Mines of Moria, the game stands at 14 books total, is that right?

Jeffrey Steefel: Yep.

GO: And Mines of Moria extends that by adding another six books. About how much story is packed into each book, and about how long does each one take to complete?

JS: So this is kind of what happens. At launch, everyone who's in the game whether they bought the expansion or not will have access to Book 15, which will take place in the region of Eregion, a new region we've added. Everyone will have access to that. There's I believe 10 areas in the region, and lots and lots of new content, high level stuff for players to explore.

When you get to the edge of Eregion, which is near the path that leads to the Hollin Gate, that's where you need to have the expansion. So Book 15, which everyone will participate in starting today, finished Volume 1 of our epic story. The minute you move into the real expansion material, which is to say, into the Hollin Gate and eventually into Moria, that's when you're starting Book 1 of Volume 2. Moria will be Books 1 through 6 of Volume 2, and then our first live update early next year will be Book 7.

We're probably adding...it's always hard to tell because it depends on who's playing, but well over 100 hours of gameplay to the game. This is a significant expansion. Our live updates are big enough, and generally speaking, we've had at least 100 news quests in each live update. We have many, many hundreds of new quests in Moria, all kinds of new content, and six entirely new books of an epic story. Our game launched with Books 1 through 8. That was our launch product. And we're launching six books for Moria, so it's pretty big.

GO: One of the things LotRO seems to have a solid handle on, though I suppose you could argue the seeds of it were there in D&D Online, is this idea of an enhanced and personalized narrative element to counterbalance the running around and grinding out quests. You work through an area, then suddenly the game world cracks open and pulls you into an interactive narrative sequence that makes the world feel slightly less static. Have you expanded on that in Moria?

JS: Even more so. We've definitely noticed, to your point, that as much as there'are people out that really like playing these gigantic 24 person raids, and everything that entails, there's a lot of people, specifically in LotRO, who gravitate toward these smaller encounter instances of three people or six people that are very story based, that tend to be around the epic story or something that supports the epic story.

So for Moria, we've added a lot of that. I think we have, I believe it's 10 new complete adventure instances for three and six persons. Very complicated, very in-depth, but for a small group of people, and not something that's going to last for more than an hour or two. Not this kind of nine hour ordeal.

GO: Thank you. I get the whole nine hour thing, but I just can't do it.

JS: I know. You know, it's interesting, lots of people play that all the time in our game and in other games, but it's not what the majority of people do.

GO: I read something a while back about a fight with some creature in Final Fantasy XI that lasted over 18 hours before the group trying to beat it finally gave up.

JS: Yeah, well in fact the whole point of the new system we have in Moria, the Legendary Item system, the whole point of that really is to provide you with that kind of high level game that you get from raids in terms of being able to obtain powerful items. You know, if I can't go find 23 of my best friends, coordinate, organize together, and stand around a boss waiting for the right thing to drop 10 times in a row, I'm not going to get that thing that I need. Here you have a whole system designed to help you create your own items and upgrade them over time.

GO: In the expansion you can now rise beyond level 50 to 60. I think a lot of people hear that, but if they've never come anywhere near 50 in one of these games, it's not clear what it means. What happens in that level space in LotRO?

JS: Some of it is what people expect. More quests, more abilities for you to push your character up from in that level space. Our game has a lot of experience points that come from questing, so a lot more of that kind of experience, and these adventure instances I just talked about. But it's also a matter of how do we take most of the major systems in the game and grow them.

So everything from a whole new tier in crafting, to an entirely different level of mastery for crafting. You can be a master crafter, and now you can actually specialize in a particular type of item, you can specialize in making weaponry. And then gaining access, it's almost like reputation, gaining access to a crafting guild, and in fact a special place that you can go and get special content specifically for people like you. Or because of the item advancement system, now there's all different types of items out there that have characteristics you might be looking for. We've made significant changes to the way auctions work, so you can actually search for those types of characteristics.

We've added new skills for all the existing classes, and two new classes with a host of new skills from levels one to 60. We've extended the trait system. We now have trait sets. In addition to collecting traits and equipping them on your character in your own special customized way, which you can of course still do if you want, we also now have trait sets. There are three for each class, where you basically collect them and it's a predetermined path. There's eight traits, and if you collect them all you get a significant bonus and a legendary trait. As you collect them along the way, you get bigger and bigger bonuses. This gives people who love the flexibility of traits something a little more predictable if they're trying to figure out how to get their characters from one point to another.

So, you know, just every system, looking at it and saying, depending on how you're playing the game and what kind of activities you participate in, there's new stuff for you to aspire to. That's really what raising a level cap's all about.

GO: You mentioned the two new classes, the Runekeeper and Warden.

JS: What the new classes have in common is that they're both very good for solo play, in addition to complementing a group. But they're intentionally very good for solo. They both have a kind of new mechanic, even a new interface to use, so the way that you play them is different than the way you play any other class. They're going to be really fun for experienced players that maybe want to experience the game in a notably different way.

They're also different just to look at. When you're standing back and walking through the world and you see a Runekeeper, you're going to know it's a Runekeeper because of the way they're using effects and the way they're animation works. If it's a Warden, you're going to know it because they're going to be throwing spears and crouching down with a javelin and doing lots of things that other classes don't. So we wanted to make sure that we distinguished them as well.

On the Runekeeper side, I mean this is the most talked about character class that's coming out because of it's magic-like quality. Again, we have archetypes for all of these classes, and for the Runekeeper it's the Galadriel or Elrond archetype. This is someone who utilizes runes and gemstones to summon up the power of Middle-earth. You know, the ancient power that's hidden there. So it's not quite as direct as a wizard would use, where they just basically summon it from wherever it is a wizard summon's magic from. These are more calling on the elements, calling on the energies of Middle-earth.

The Runekeeper has a really interesting mechanic where they're tuning their capabilities during battle. It's called attunement. And so they have a little meter that can go all the way to the left or all the way to the right. As you start using skills, depending on the types of skills you're using, you can actually push that meter one direction or another. All the way to the left makes you a more and more powerful DPS [damage per second] nuker [a character who can deal massive amounts of damage at a distance]. All the way to the right makes you a more and more powerful healer. You can't be both at the same time. So you start out with some basic, limited skills on either side, and you start using them, and the more you use them, the more they start to attune you in the direction you're trying to go, and then more powerful skills become available.

So I could decide that...first of all, for solo, it's great, because I can make myself heavy DPS, and then I can fairly quickly recharge and push myself over to the healing side to heal myself. In a group it's great because I can say I'm going to go into an encounter and I know that the first MOB [a non-player character or monster] is really really tough, and we need as much firepower as possible, so I'm just going to immediately start using skills that'll push me over to the DPS side so I can stand back and nuke the hell out of this MOB. But I also know that we're going to get to a certain point where we just need to heal. The Runekeeper's the only class that during battle, you can basically change its spec. It's not like a switch, of course. You can't keep jumping back and forth between DPS and healing, because that would be unfair. There's a cost. It takes a little time, and the stronger you get at one thing, the weaker you get at the other.

GO: I read somewhere that the enemy artificial intelligence got a boost, which of course sounded a little odd, since in most MMOs enemies either notice you and charge or they don't and just sort of wander aimlessly around.

JS: Well it's a combination of things. First of all, we're always trying to improve the AI. In Moria in particular we wanted to make the AI feel much more indigenous to the area. You'll find that as you encounter monsters and bosses in Moria, first of all they look like they belong in the area they're in, like they sort of grew up there. In some cases, their AI really takes advantage of the space they're in if there's water there, or if there's molten lava, or something to give them advantage over you.

And then we have monsters who will respond to the new class capabilities, and it's part of the overall balance. When you add two new classes to a game, you have to make sure they're balanced against all of the other classes, and that was a significant amount of work.

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