Monday April 23rd, 2007. The launch of Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) was due at midnight for the 24th and Turbine was hosting a launch party at the GameStop here in Bellevue Square, Bellevue Washington as well as in four other cities across the USA.
The festivities started earlier with a dinner for fans organized by IGN and some showed up in costume for the launch event. For midnight on a Monday night, the fan turnout was gratifying for the staff of both Turbine and GameStop.
"This is awesome!" exclaimed Meghan Rodberg, Community Manager for LotRO. "This is a great turnout for the middle of the night on a Monday," as she surveyed the crowd milling around, talking and examining the bags of swag they received with their receipts of for the game.
Five members of the Kinship, Insanity Incorporated, were there in costume although each and every one of them had purchased their pre-orders months ago when they were first available. It was easy to recognize the Captain and his Herald, but it took even Meghan a while before the Raven and Loremaster sank in - to her delight.
Their enthusiasm for the game was contagious as all spoke about LotRO - except for Death the Grim Reaper - or at least I thought that was who he was. He wasn't talking.
"We've been playing together since Asheron's Call."
"The Voice Chat in Fellowship. That's a wonderful feature."
"We'll be separate - all over the map, yet be able to talk to each other."
To grace this event, Turbine had sent not only Community Manager Meghan "Patience" Rodberg, but three developers: Andy Gillis, Games Systems Engineer, Jared "Amlug" Hall-Dugas, Content Designer, and Geoff Scott, Director of Audio, Video, and Visual Effects.
"The in-game music system was designed by me and Steve Degregiro, our Audio Technical Lead. We wanted to create an easy music system that anyone could play." Said Geoff. "We just... came up with it." He said with a modest shrug. "It was a big surprise that the players loved it."
The LotRO music team started out by simply mapping the major scale to the number keys on the keyboard. It has been so well received that fansites have begun to spring up around the music system, and short movies and sound clips of fan created music can be seen and heard on sites such as YouTube. At launch, players will be able to purchase with five different instruments - the flute, harp, lute, clarinet and horn. In the first month update, Turbine will be adding two additional instruments - Bass and Drums, as well as ABC notation, expanding the musical range of the instruments to three octaves and adding Freeplay - the ability to synchronize with other itinerant musicians in game to create concerts - impromptu or otherwise.
"I play the Guitar, Mandolin and Bass, and wrote the in-game ensemble music for strings, but this is player created content. Tolkien's world was a world filled with music and we hoped to create the same experience for players entering LotRO. I would love to see player created concerts in game. To see players utilize the system in ways I didn't think of."
I posed questions to the fans that gathered outside the store. To a body, the responses to "Why LotRO?" were similar.
"I've never read the books but I saw the movies. This is like walking around in Tolkien's world."
"We could visit places we've previously only imagined in our minds. Places barely touched on in the movies."
They pitched in their favorite places as their enthusiasm waxed higher with each response.
"Rivendell is just fantastic!"
"I love the Shire. I really do," said a fan that plays a Hobbit Hunter.
Both Andy Gillis and Jared "Amlug" Hall-Dugas expressed similar preferences about LotRO when I asked them about their experiences playing the game. They are the people behind the scenes that have seen this game umpteen times and inside out. Did they enjoy playing the game themselves?
Andy is a Games Design Engineer. He programs the systems that make the game. Systems such as the Auction system, Questing, Combat and in-game Mail.
"I was taken aback by the beauty of Eriador. Starting a character and being able to go through Eriador is totally amazing to me," he said. "I saw the movies but never read the books, I really like the way it has shaped up, and you know... it makes going to work really easy!"
Jared is a Content Designer, and in his own words, he "showcases" the systems that Andy programs. "Tolkien hooked me on the fantasy genre forever," said Jared, sharing with me that these were the first books he sought out without his parents pressing them on him. "I love the world! And I love seeing the world live."
Even the GameStop employees were hyped as they did drawings and handed out swag. "Yeah... this is great, it's a midnight launch and we'll launch at midnight. Midnight here. Not Boston. We're better than that," said one as he referred to another software outlet selling copies of the game early.
The atmosphere was festive, strangers were exchanging game names, cheers rang loud as the Best Costume prize - a lifetime membership to LotRO - was won by the Herald, and first runner-up his Captain. In the words of Community Manager Meghan Rodberg, "This is awesome!"