Mines of Moria with Jeffrey Steefel

Turbine is set to release the first expansion pack to Lord of the Rings Online, "Mines of Moria". Fans have been eagerly waiting for the time that they can set foot inside the once glorious Dwarven city. That time, is tomorrow morning! We couldn't be more excited here at Allakhazam. So much so, we decided to call Jeffrey Steefel, Executive Producer for LotRO on Friday to talk about it! During our interview with Jeff, we had the opportunity to talk about some of the changes that Mines of Moria will bring, in addition to some of the concerns that players have about the game in its current state.

Tamat : So Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us today. I know the expansion launches right around the corner, so things must be going crazy over there.

Jeffrey : Yup, very, very busy in preparation. Good crazy, though.

Tamat : So Mines of Moria launches on Tuesday. Are you excited? Are there some additions you just can't wait for players to try out?

Jeffrey : Oh yeah, absolutely. And some of the stuff we've been talking about publicly for a little while now. First of all, we're just really excited to get people to be able to visit Moria. Just for people to actually see Moria and see what we've built and see their reaction to it. I know even in alpha and beta, just seeing people go in there the first time has been extremely gratifying. I think the place we've created in Moria is quite astounding and unusual in sort of its depth and the way it looks, the way it feels, and how big it is. I don't think people will feel they've had the same kind of experience in a game like this before, so I'm excited about that.

I'm obviously excited to see players have the opportunity to move their characters forward in terms of advancement in major ways with this expansion. The Legendary Item system in particular is something we're really, really excited about. It's one of the systems I think that my designers have been more excited about than probably anything in a very long time because of what it brings to the game and what it brings to the genre in general, in terms of, "what can I do at a higher level in this kind of game that will compel me for a very long time in a lot of new and exciting ways?" So we're very psyched about that.

And then of course we've got some new classes. We can't wait to see the way people are going to sort of inhabit them and use them in ways that I'm sure we didn't envision, and just seeing lots of people new and old coming into Lord of the Rings. Either coming into it for the first time or coming back to it, or just coming to it to experience what we've just brought to them in this expansion.

Tamat : Alright, awesome. The development team has been very open regarding the expansion through numerous dev diaries that have gone out. How important do you feel it is to keep an open dialogue with fans?

Jeffrey : I think that's everything to us. One of the huge blessings and challenges, to be totally fair, in what we do compared to some other types of entertainment media is that we have a relationship with the people who are playing our game. The first few months of an MMO, people are paying a subscription price for whatever we've dreamed up in our heads. But pretty much as the community develops after that, the money they're paying, the time they're investing, the heart and soul they're putting into LOTRO as players, is just as much because of the other players, the community that's developing, the relationships they have, and the things that matter to them. So it's everything to us. We've been doing this for a long time and we have some pretty good ideas about what makes an MMO work, but there's a lot of things that we're just fumbling around, trying to figure out what's cool. Without the community out there before, after and during the launch of these products, we'd never be able to do what we do.

Tamat : Mines of Moria will see an increase in end-game instances and the implementation of the Challenges system so players can acquire their raid set. How will this new instance progression system change the end-game loot in Lord of the Rings Online?

Jeffrey : Well, in general we're adding a lot more encounter content to Moria because that's something that since launch, players have really been excited about, both in terms of the epic story element and also the sort of contained encounter experiences and how they're crafted. The players have enjoyed that a lot. In fact, we focused on quite a bit of smaller group content because that's just what we've gotten a lot of feedback on from players. We've also noticed in terms of what players actually do with their time is that getting together with a smaller group of people, three people, six people, is something that people like to do a lot. And in addition are the larger group raids that are in the game, and will continue to be provided in the game, so there's a lot of focus on that. We're providing people with a lot of different kinds of encounters and instances that are very diverse from each other, something you can chew off with a small group of people in a manageable period of time.

In terms of how that affects the loot, obviously, like any good encounter, it's going to give you all kinds of interesting new things to acquire. The important thing about the Legendary Item system is that it kind of changes the dynamic of advancement and itemization in the game in general in that what you get from a boss and an encounter is only part of the potential in the loot/reward system in the game now. There's a whole new avenue in how you acquire cool, exciting things in the game. In fact, those things that you acquire in those dungeons, in those instances and experiences become like part of your toolkit for how you continuously create these customized Legendary Items that are your own. That makes you special in the world in new, cool ways.

Tamat : In the same vein, what can lower level players expect to see on the expansion side from the two new classes?

Jeffrey :  First of all, a whole new experience in the game. We think for people that have been playing the game for awhile and want to create a new alt and make their way through the game in a new way, both new classes offer pretty diverse new gameplay; challenging, in fact, for more experienced players. In the case of the rune-keeper, it's balancing yourself between sort of a heavy DPS nuker and a heavy duty healer and the fact that you can dynamically do that in the game, and the flexibility and fun that goes with that. On the side of the warden, it's the ability to create these kinds of combos that give you all these bonuses and attacks that gives you a wide range of new experiences and new kind of strategies you can use.

The two new classes round out the parties really, really well, too. So we think that's going to be fun for new players and old players. And also for people coming into the game for the first time, I think especially the runekeeper, but the warden, too, offers them some of the types of class gameplay that maybe they might not have felt they could find in the game until now. Specifically, the rune-keeper is a much more straightforward nuker with some pretty cool flashy effects and things going on with the skills and casting that they're doing all wrapped in an appropriate container for Middle-earth. And the warden is a way for you to essentially do a fellowship maneuver, but on your own. It gives you access to something you normally wouldn't get to until later, but earlier on.

Tamat : That's cool. You know, the warden sounds really cool, but I'm really looking forward to starting a rune-keeper.

Jeffrey : I think there may be a few people out there who feel that way. ::laughs::

: Yeah, just a few. It sounds like a really unique class, one that we haven't played before.

Jeffrey : As cool as we thought both classes were (both teams working on both classes would have said they were equally new and robust), we did think just because of the nature of it that people would just flock to the rune-keeper, which they certainly have in beta, but a lot of people are digging the warden, too. Just because of how different that is and the role that you can play. It's a little more diverse.

Tamat : Now PvP always seems to vary drastically between MMORPGs. Some, such as Warhammer Online, focus on it, while others avoid it completely. Where would you say Lord of the Rings Online fits in? With a revamp of the Ettenmoors coming in Mines of Moria along with the addition of new monster skills and traits, are you hoping more players give PvMP a shot? How do you ensure it's fair and balanced at this point?

Jeffrey : We definitely want more people to be exposed to the Ettenmoors, and to some of the PvMP experiences in the game. People that have tried it, and the many people that play it almost exclusively, now love playing it. We think that because it's not traditional, straightforward PvP as people understand it, some people have not tried it yet because it just didn't seem like what they thought they were looking for. So this will definitely help bring them there, which is very exciting to us.

The other thing is that the way in which our game evolves over time is tied very much to the kind of place that Middle-earth is in the time of the Third Age. The reason that certain games do things differently is based on what that world needs. So for example, Middle-earth, especially in the Eriador part of Middle-earth where we launched, is relatively a "calm before the storm" kind of place. With the exception obviously being Angmar and the Witch King and that whole trying to destroy Eriador thing. The nature of the world in the Third Age at the time that we started the game is a little more quiet and a little more focused around life in Middle-earth: preparation, getting ready for war, all that kind of stuff. As we move through Moria and past the Misty Mountains into the places beyond, then it starts to become a place where there's a lot more conflict going on and a lot more war, so there's opportunity for us to actually continually expand the PvMP part of our game. It's more appropriate now because the story supports it, the world supports it, and we've got a lot of players in these areas that are much higher level and have a higher level of capabilities both as players and as characters.

The balance mechanic you talked about, one of the big things we did for Moria is add a kind of new balance mechanic to the whole Ettenmoors area. So for example, one of the things I know the players have encountered, which is true in any sort of PvMP experience, but particularly in the Ettenmoors, was that there would often be an imbalance between one side and the other. Just the strength in numbers was so imbalanced that it just felt like the fun wasn't as much as it could be. So what we have done is made the system aware now of the strength in numbers in both sides all the time. Whenever it becomes significantly imbalanced, not just a little bit but significantly lopsided, the system will apply buffs to the weaker side. One of the things we're utilizing for that is the session play troll and ranger we had previously put in the game. So if you're completely outnumbered, then you might have access to a few trolls to help you balance out the mechanic a little bit. That adds a sort of new depth and dimension to it that's going to be really, really fun for players.

Also, we're channeling you a lot more in the Ettenmoors than we did before so that people are kind of concentrated on a couple points besides just the keeps for these conflicts, and that, by its very nature, helps balance things because people are drawn to the same place instead of being scattered all over the place. The intention, and so far in beta this has been borne out, is that people feel like the experience is much more balanced than it was before. We've also done things like flesh out a lot of the monster classes. In some cases at launch, there were certain monsters that had more rounded-out skills than others. Now every monster has the same depth of skill, the same depth of traits and appearances available to them, so it's much more balanced in that respect, too.

Tamat : Now you mentioned receiving buffs if the team is unbalanced. Is that going to scale from a very low imbalancing to a very extreme case of imbalancing?

Jeffrey : Yes, although it will focus, as I said before, mostly on the medium to heavily extreme imbalance. If it's just a minor imbalance, we're not going to interfere. Because first of all, doing that perfectly would be a titration exercise from hell. It also just wouldn't make it fun. We don't want to dumb it down. One side needs to trash the other side. We want there to be some natural imbalances, but we want them to be more about player skill than the system.

Tamat : Well, on the topic of balance, balancing classes is always a daunting task when raising a level cap. For example, the minstrel community is worried that their class has been nerfed to address the fact that it can currently be viewed as overpowered. How do you ensure classes are as balanced as possible?

Jeffrey : You asked earlier why it is so important for us to be working directly with the community and directly with our players. In alpha and beta, that's the most important thing we do is get large groups of people encountering the content and interacting with each other so that we can really see how well in our hypothetical, theoretical paper world we've actually balanced things out. Obviously we don't get it all right in the beginning and so we make adjustments. Players right now on our internal test server are playing a new build that we put up there just a couple days ago. I actually spoke with our community manager yesterday and what she was telling me was that response so far from minstrels in particular was that they really felt like we had bounced out some of the things that were really bothering people during beta. Again, it's a small group of people giving us feedback in that respect, but we feel like we listened to what players were saying and smoothed out the placed that we had not gotten 100% right. And we still don't have it 100% right, I guarantee it. But that balance is constantly part of our focus all the time, especially when you're adding two new classes, and an advancement mechanic like the Legendary Item system.

I think it's a combination of us smoothing out places that were not as balanced as they could be and responding to feedback – and by the way, that doesn't stop when we launch Moria. The next time we update the game, we're going to be making other changes to it to balance it out based on what we continue to learn. And it's also the players getting any kind of change. I's an interesting dichotomy for games that continue on unlike a single player game that comes out and the game is the game. On the one hand, players want new things all the time, want to have new experiences, to be challenged in new ways, but on the other hand, change is jarring. So it's also about the players coming to understand the Legendary Item system and how it really integrates with the existing advancement path. And I think across the board we've kind of seen this in beta that players, when they really understand it, are going to be pretty excited by it. It will make more sense. We can explain these things in dev diaries and try to explain them on paper, but until someone gets in and really starts doing it, it's hard to convey.

Tamat : Sounds like an MMO to me.

Jeffrey : ::laughs:: That's exactly right.

: How do you go about mapping out Lord of the Rings lore? In Mines of Moria, we'll be entering one of the most famous underground environments ever created, but what's next? How do you divide such an in-depth universe into expansions and updates?

Jeffrey : Like anything, it's part art, part science. The good thing about working with Tolkien's lore is that he has provided us with a map, literally, both in terms of geography and also in terms of mythology, so we kind of know the major things that are moving forward. We know the path of the fellowship, we know the themes of good and evil and the other things that are being played around with in the game, so that gives us a lot of guidance on what we eventually need to string together. What guides us beyond that is our epic story and how it's intertwined with the story of the ring-bearer and the war of the ring and what the next natural step for that is. We are constantly conscious of, "Where's the fellowship right now?" and "What's going on in middle earth?" and "What is the epic story that the player is involved with?"

At the same time we're conscious of the fact we have a very famous world that has some hot spots we want to make sure we roll out to the players in a logical way. We could have made an MMO in the beginning that was sort of the tram ride through Middle-earth of all the cool places, and it would have been a 500-hour game and then the rest of it would have been fleshing out all those places. But instead what we've chosen to do is move to each important part of Middle-earth at a time and make sure you're really able to explore the depths of it while you're there so that it has more meaning and context before you move on to the next one, and Moria's a perfect example.

The movies, which did an amazing job (12 hours is about as much as you can do for a movie, even if you break it into three pieces), had to make choices about what was important and focus on nothing that's not 100% related to the direct path of the ring-bearer. We have the luxury to do much more. So, for example, a lot of your time in Moria is about discovering everything that is Moria: things that are talked about by Tolkien in the books and the appendices and referred to by characters in the books that the fellowship doesn't really encounter during that one particular time. So being able to see the parts of Moria that were built during the height of the reign of the dwarvish empire, being able to see the way Moria really works, from the waterworks below that really drive everything to deep in where the Balrog was released. These are all things you get to experience, and they're all rich and fun and very much filled with the lore of Tolkien.

That's kind of how we map it out, so we have an idea of where we want to go across the next decade, which is really what we're looking at, which is cool. The Tolkiens just renewed our license this year, so theoretically they sent us a license through 2014 and we can extend it another three years if we want to, and we can always go beyond that. But for at least the next nine or 10 years, we've got a path ahead of us, so we kind of know how we want to weave through. But on the other hand, just like anything, we're not going to get it 100% right. So we try to be open to where things are headed. Where's our story going? Where's the community going? The next places we want to go also need to be related to the players who have kind of reached the end of where we are now. What do they want? Where do they want to go? What's going to be most exciting for them? What are their expectations? The good news is that, especially once you get across the Misty Mountains, we're not going to run out of icons any time soon.

Tamat : No, you most certainly are not. Well, it sounds like Mines of Moria is something to really be excited about for the entire community, and I look forward to giving it a try on Tuesday. Thank you so much for taking a couple minutes to sit down with me and talk about the game.

Jeffrey : It's been a pleasure. We can't wait. We'll see you in there!


Andrew "Tamat" Beegle

Darryl "Togikagi" Gangloff


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