On the last day of the 2008 New York Comic Con, Craig Alexander, Turbine’s Vice President of Product Development and Kate Paiz, Senior Producer on Dungeons and Dragons Online updated the assembled fans and press about the current state of their products. After the panel I had the opportunity to sit down with Craig Alexander to chat about Lord of the Rings Online and the current state of the MMO business.
As he had just finished a panel where he talked a bout Lord of the Rings Online for half an hour, LotRO is where the conversation began. The big news for LotRO lately has been Book 13: Doom of the Last King, which went live last week, and their upcoming paid expansion that will take players through the Mines of Moria and beyond.
Book 13 opens up the icy region of Forochel in Northern Eriador, where the coldness of the environment is included as one of the region’s many foes. Going into some detail about the process behind determining what makes it into a Book Update, he compared the region to the Misty Mountains, as both have an arctic climate. It turns out that the Lord of the Rings dev team was very fond of the Misty Mountains, and when it came time to figure out what would go in the next book, they looked back at the work they had already done, copied and improved on that work to help flesh out wilderness of Northern Eriador. That’s a standard procedure when preparing a new content expansion. They look back at the regions that they’ve created, pick the best areas, figure out what makes these places cool, and then translate the best of that region to the next. Or in some cases, they look back and see which regions they weren’t satisfied with, as in the case of Angmar, and give them an overhaul for an expansion instead.
Looking ahead to the Mines of Moria, they weren’t fully able to use this method because Moria is going to be more vast than any underground environment the game has seen thus far. To pull this off they’ve had to come up with entirely new methods to create this unique environment. Most dungeons are built using polygons, but when you use this method you quickly run into performance issues as your dungeon grows which usually means making compromises like reducing details or visibility ranges, or breaking the area up into smaller pieces. But none of that is an option if they want to do the area justice.
Moria as depicted in the Peter Jackson films was one of the most visually stunning and best realized areas depicted in the first film and Turbine is aiming to capture the same awe inspiring feeling as the film, and more. In the film, Moria was depicted as a fairly linear experience. The characters spoke about getting lost in the maze, but the audience saw them go down tunnels from encounter to encounter until they popped out the door on the other side. In LotRO, Moria will actually be a labyrinth of tunnels, and it will be as big as the other outdoor environments in the game so far. Think on the scale of the size of Breeland or the Shire. To pull this off, they’ve come up with what they call a duel height map technique. Basically, they use the same system they use to create the ground below your feet in a standard outdoor area, and use the same system to put a roof over your head instead of a sky. The floor and the ceiling meld somewhere in the middle to create the vast underground expanse that players expect. The end result of this duel height map is that they can make Moria big without all of the performance issues that would otherwise hinder play in such a place.
Now that was a very simplified explanation of something that is actually quite technical and complex, and it’s also not the only improved technology that they’re working on for the expansion. To capture the mood of an abandoned Dwarven city they need the proper mood lighting so they are working on dynamic lighting and player lights. Another area they’ve been working on is improving the environmental awareness of the game’s AI. Moria is a much more complex environment and requires smarter AI to create a better experience.
The Mines of Moria is still months away from being released, so this is probably not the last you’ll hear about the expansions features, it’s really only the beginning. Craig summed up the way Turbine is looking at Lord of the Rings Online when he described the game as still being in the process of launching, even a year out from the official launch. In some cases he meant this literally, as the game is set to launch in Korea and China later this year; in fact he mentioned that the Korean team is almost as big as Turbine’s US based team, and the Korean team is only working on bringing LotRO to a Korean audience. In other cases, he meant it more in a figurative sense, like the way they go about building new regions, or adding new features. MMOs are always a work in progress, and with LotRO the game won’t be close to being ‘done’ until they add Mordor. Considering that the game launched originally with regions that were mostly only covered in the first half of the first book, it’ll be a while until they finish launching.