Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Jeffrey Steefel, the Executive Producer of Turbine’s Lord of The Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. As those of you reading this article are probably already aware, Turbine recently launched Book 12: The Ashen Waste, the latest in their line of free content updates. What you might not know is what goes into creating one of these new books. Struck with a sudden curiosity myself, that`s exactly what our conversation was about as we discussed updates, launch and even the business of MMOs.
There are a number of different factors that go into deciding what makes its way into an update. The developers have a long-term plan that lays out where they will be taking the story, both in terms of the overall arc and the continuation of the game's Epic Quests. They also have standing plans to grow some of the game's features, polishing the content or even adding new functionality . The character customization that was added in Book 12 serves as a good example of this, Turbine having had it planned for this particular update for quite some time.
Steefel was quick to point out, however, that the devs don't have a full plan for any book until its development starts, leaving each update malleable until they have gathered feedback about the previous Book.
"We`re constantly going through a process of listening to what the players are doing," Steefel explained. He went on to say that the developers do everything that they can to learn what will make the current game better. It`s all about finding the answer to the question: "How can we address the major concerns of players?"
In order to do this, Turbine gathers information from a number of different sources: They listen to feedback that they are getting from their partners, partners like Midway, Codemasters and even Tolkien Enterprises. Beyond that, they also gather information from inside of the game, tracking what players are doing and compiling that information to get an idea of what is needed. They also make sure that they read feedback on the forums (both positive and negative), looking not only at their own internal forums, but "anywhere people are talking about the game", including here at MMORPG.com.
To be clear, this doesn't mean that the team will follow every piece of advice gathered on various forums. Instead, the developers look for patterns, things that a large number of players are asking for. After the game launched, many players complained that while the group content was great and solo content did exist, they wanted more. Since then, Turbine has been trying to address that in their updates. Similarly, after the launch of Book 11 and the housing system, the developers found that players wanted more freedom to create their own designs. As a result, Book 11 saw the introduction of more housing customization.
Once the team has gathered a number of different ideas from a number of different sources, the potential features go through an interesting elimination process. Steefel lovingly referred to the process as Thunderdome, where two features go in to a room with a team of developers and only one comes out. Those that come out get more immediate attention while those that do not go into a queue and are referred back to at a later date. Just because something doesn't make its way out of the Thunderdome doesn't mean that the team won't find a way to integrate it later.
The team, we were told, is usually working on two books at any given time. When polish begins on the previous book, the next book rolls into full production. Surprisingly, I was also told that while they won't discuss exact employee numbers, the Lord of the Rings team is about the same size as it was at launch, allowing the game to continue and grow as an MMO should.
"Launching the game," Steefel said, "is just the beginning. We have a huge focus on this game." He went on to explain that comment, telling me that a full staff is a necessity when it comes to the various features that are brought into the game and the upkeep required to keep "growing those features".
"We launched the game at a certain level of quality," Steefel said, "and we have to maintain and improve that quality with each update."
Talking about updates made me curious about the launch itself. If you are constantly developing a game, and have a long-term plan for additions, how does a company decide when a game is ready to launch?
"First of all," he said when I asked, "we don't have a product until people are in-game." It seems like a little bit of an obvious statement, but he went on to explain that it isn't until after launch that they can see who is playing their game and what their needs are as the game moves forward. That doesn't mean, however, that the company can rush a game out the door and hope to improve it as time moves on. Development studios and publishers who rush a broken game out the door will, as we have seen over the last few years, regret the decision. It simply boils down to the fact that players have high expectations about a game at launch. First impressions are everything and if you don't make a good one with launch, your game may never recover.
"It's ok for our consumers to expect a lot," Steefel told me, explaining that while the pressure on a lanuch is high, that's exactly where it should be. It is, after all, the player who will keep the game running and, for the more cynical of you out there, the pay checks running. "You're launching a subscription based entertainment service," he told me. This means that the company has to not only have a solid game at launch, but they also need the technology and infrastructure in place to handle the needs of the consumers.
In the end, it comes down to the idea that it's done when it's done and not before. The game, at launch, needs to be as fun and engaging as possible given the limits of time (which as we know can sometimes be extended) and money.
While the more cynical of our readers will undoubtedly see a lot of what was said in this article as marketing-friendly lip service to the players, the truth of the matter is that it is in Turbine's best interest to listen to what the players, their customers, are looking for in the game. This brings me to the last topic of my conversation with Jeffrey Steefel. While I recognized both that Turbine is making a game, an artistic endeavour, they are also making a product meant to make money. I asked Jeffrey how the team finds a balance between those two sometimes opposing goals.
The answer, it seems, is fairly simple. "You want," Steefel said, "to drive the finest artistry you can that supports the business need." In the end, there's only so much money and time to go around. That's why, for example, some features get cut in the Turbine Thunderdome or a feature is launched 90% as good as it could be instead of 100% (is that boar texture being 10% better going to improve the game enough to offset the cost of that 10%?) Finally, Steefel says that it's all about being sure that you don't stifle the creative people in the process and that they be allowed to continue to push the envelope on the decision makers so that a balance can be reached between the artistic ideal and the financial reality.
While this might not be a complete and detailed description of an update from concept to finished product, it does offer an interesting sampling of the thought process and even policies that go into the decision making process at Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online.