At the New York Comic Con, Sunday was the big day for MMO fans, with a day full of panels, demos and discussions about the industry, its fans, and the games that keep us coming back for more. Two of those games were Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons: The shadows of Angmar and Dragons Online: Stormreach, both from Boston based developer Turbine, the largest privately held online game studio in North America. Craig Alexander (LotRO), Vice President of Product Development, and Senior Producer (DDO) Kate Paiz were on hand to give presentations on each of these products and answer questions from journalists and fans alike.
The talk started with Kate Paiz giving us an overview of DDO’s history since it launched two years ago to a lukewarm reception. There were a number of complaints from fans early on. There was no wilderness adventuring, the early game was a bit dull, many veteran D&D players weren’t fond of the Eberron campaign setting which was relatively new at the time, and there were no dragons. To many, running around Eberron as a Warforged and not slaying dragons in the wilderness just didn’t feel like D&D. The game received a lot of flak early on from nerds like me, because the promise of a persistent world with many different players all playing at the same time sounded like it would be the truest incarnation of D&D in an electronic game space that had yet to exist.
Over time it turned out that that flak was mostly undeserved. We’re in a funny place in the MMO industry, where we have games from the earlier generations of MMOs which are still running and getting updates after being around for more than a decade. Yet if a new MMO doesn’t do well immediately, people just assume the game is dead. In other areas of the gaming industry, games don’t have that sort of longevity. They get shipped out the door, they get the spotlight for a few months or a year, and then they fade out, and it’s on to the next big thing. MMOs have a much longer shelf life and are never truly finished; they are always a work in progress. My point is that it doesn’t make sense to dismiss an MMO just because it doesn’t have a spectacular launch. Judge an MMO based on how it is right now, not how it was.
With that in mind, DDO’s future starts to brighten up. The game has had 15 updates over the past two years, many of which addressed player concerns like the ones I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. The game didn’t have dragons at the start for good reason; dragons are powerful and special creatures, and low level characters have no business messing with them unless they enjoy being lunch. Dragons were quickly included in early modules (free content expansions) as characters leveled up and level caps were increased. In a more recent module they listened to fan criticism and suggestions, and went back to the drawing board with their starting area, giving it a complete overhaul and making it a little more fun. The dungeons were one of the game’s strengths, and really captured that traditional table top RPG experience, but the game was missing the freedom of wilderness adventuring. Of course that too was added in subsequent modules, including another new wilderness area that is on its way in Module 7: The Way of the Monk.
Module 7 was the topic of most of the DDO portion of the panel, and it does sound like an expansion that is worth getting excited about. It will include a new wilderness area as mentioned above, as well as a complete overhaul of the pirate themed Three Barrel Cove area, two new raids, and new monsters including classic D&D creatures like the Horned Devil and the Sahaugin, and a memorial site for D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. Module 7: The way of the Monk will also include the much anticipated addition of the monk class to Dungeons and Dragons Online, which should prove to be a faithful translation of the class with the monk bearing many familiar skills and abilities like Flurry of Blows, Wholeness of Body, and Abundant Step. So if DDO wasn’t your cup of tea when it first came out, now might be an advantageous time to give the game a second try, as a lot has changed since launch.
The Story of Turbine’s flagship game is a little different. Lord of the Rings Online launched almost a year ago and was well received by fans and press. The game had a notably smooth launch and served as an example of how a AAA quality game should be launched if you want to be able to call your game AAA. Turbine has openly embraced the idea that an MMO is a work in progress. Instead of delivering the entire story at launch, they include only the area covered by the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring, more or less. Like Craig Alexander said, they didn’t try and build the whole world all at once, opting instead to take things slow and focusing on detail rather than the size of the world. They plan on moving the story forward with a free content expansion every 10 weeks or so, as well as yearly paid expansions like the recently announced Mines of Moria which will include the vast expanse under the Misty Mountains as well as Lothlorian, and Eregion. A few months ago Turbine secured the rights to the Lord of the Rings intellectual property until 2017, showing that they’re in this for the long haul, and that they have the support of Tolkein Enterprises. All in all the game has grown 30% in terms of geography since it launched last year, and the epic portion of the world is only just now beginning to open up as they finish off the last major regions of Eriador.
With all of the activity that this game has had it often feels like the game has been around a lot longer than it actually has. It’s hard to believe that May will only be their first anniversary. Turbine has a few events planed to mark the occasion, with former players being able to return for five days around May ninth, as well as defeated monsters will be paying off with more rear items.
LotRO’s anniversary seems like the quiet before the storm though, when you look at what they’ve got ahead of them. Turbine is currently preparing for the games launch into several key Asian markets including China and Korea in the fall, and they also have their first paid expansion on the way. It looks like it’s going to be a busy year for Turbine. After the panel was concluded I had the chance to sit down and talk to Craig Alexander about Turbine, Lord of the Rings Online, his impressive resume, and the state of the MMO industry in general.
Look for the interview here at MMORPG.com next week.