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Festivals, Missions And More - An Interview With LotRO's Rob Ciccolini

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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As I walked up the ramp to the uppermost tier of Minas Tirith, the festival all around me felt like it hit a fevered pitch. Garland and other decorations adorned every column, every walkway, the jovial Tower of Guard felt dramatically different than it ever had. Walking into the courtyard where the White Tree once flowered and its sapling now grows under tight guard, a smile crossed my face. This was a moment in Middle-earth’s history I’ve waited 13 years to see in game – a Minas Tirith no longer under siege, but rather celebrating the future after so long under threat.

The Great Wedding is taking place right now in The Lord of the Rings Online during the Midsummer Festival, and everyone in game is invited – regardless of level. Opening up what is a late-game area in Minas Tirith to all levels is only going to drive more and more players to the festival as well – something that the LotRO team has done really well throughout its history.

“Well, I think the team is amazing,” Standing Stone Game’s Executive Producer Rob Ciccolini stated wrly in an interview earlier this week. “And I think that I can path them on the back without sounding arrogant, I certainly don’t have anything to do with the amazingness [of that team], and the ability to execute on festivals and such has been a strength of the game.

“And we want to extend that and add more. The thing I like about festivals is because they’re repeating content, festivals get better over time. Unlike one and done content, every year when you add a little bit more and a little bit more to festivals, they increase in scope and get better and you can fine tune them and fix mistakes.”

Rob mentions as well that because these are repeatable and get better over time, it gives players more and more reasons to come back to them each year. It’s something that is a strength not just of LotRO’s design team in creating these festivals, but the strength of the longevity enjoyed by The Lord of the Rings Online.

“Sometimes it’s nice to go back to content that you know and redo it as long as its not too often. Festivals, since [they] only come around once a year, it’s nice to go back to some familiar things and yet see new content woven in. That’s something that longer term games can execute on that maybe you don’t get from the new game unless you’re playing through multiple characters.”

Other festivals, such as Farmers Faire or the Yule Festival are spectacles in their own right, but with the weight that portraying such an iconic event like Aragorn and Arwen’s wedding in The Lord of the Rings, it adds to the excitement on the players end, but also has the developers looking at how to do it justice.

The wedding is such a huge event – especially considering the future it signals for Gondor and the reunified realm of Arnor and Gondor – that getting it right was paramount.

“The team was very excited about it,” Rob tells me. “When we were talking about it, they had a lot of ideas about it. It’s something that they’ve been looking forward to for a long time. And there is also an apprehension of doing it right. In other words, doing it justice. So the team went back and forth on a lot of things, but there were some goals. One is the wedding itself needed to live up to the story. Second is that we wanted as many players to participate as we could. So the update has a lot of ways for characters who aren’t max level to participate, but also like activities.”

Some of those activities involves catching fireflies for the lanterns that will grace Minas Tirith during the wedding, gathering ale deliveries for the party and more. Each tier of Minas Tirith has stuff for players to do and explore – and it’s a great way too for LotRO to show off the giant city to new players who may have always looked forward to exploring the world of Middle-earth more fully. And to sweeten the deal, the festival content is completely free to all players.

The wedding itself got the team excited, of course, though, as Rob mentioned the art coming through that made up the final product.

“As for the wedding itself, it was really exciting to see all of the art coming through, because it’s one thing to see it all at the end, but when you see the art floating through you get to kind of see how much amazing work was done on a lot of the details around the wedding. And I think that’s inspiring. The small details you may not notice the first playthrough for instance, when you’re developing it, all of those details and all of that planning comes through. And it’s pretty amazing stuff when you’re looking at it.”

This philosophy though of adding content to the game where everyone can participate in one way or another isn’t just restricted to the Midsummer Festival, Rob tells me. The Lord of the Rings Online, like many older MMOs, can be daunting for new players to join in for there is such a feeling of being behind when starting something that’s just been around for ages. 13 years is a long time in video games – MMOs specifically as we see them rise and fall so frequently.

More often than not when new updates arrive for MMOs they are geared towards the higher end players. Content such as Minas Morgul for instance is overwhelmingly for those who have progressed through the storyline for those years before it. Games like World of Warcraft are no different. However, while the overall story progression isn’t being adjusted to no longer target those fans who are interested in the next tales the team tells, Rob mentioned that future updates are being planned to make sure everyone has the ability to take part in the content in some way.

“So that’s sort of one of the things that we want to do in LotRO is provide content for characters of all levels. More often than not, for a long time, we’ve been offering content as the story progresses. What that meant is that the content updates that have been coming out have been great if you’re caught up, but not had as much to offer if you’re not. So not only does this have content for all players, the next update will also have a section of the content that anyone can participate in so that players of all levels will have new things to do even as they level.”

There is a balance here, though, Rob admits. Doing something like this can have the effect of pulling players out of the progression of the story if done wrong. MMOs overall have been offering more and more content for all players – The Elder Scrolls Online’s entire questing and Chapter release model is built around any player being able to pick up and go regardless of their level – so the team at Standing Stone Games is aware of what this could potentially do for the game – both the good and the bad if not done properly.

“So one of the things when you're working on the game and adding stuff at the end, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that a lot of players are in very many different parts of the game, I think as an industry MMOs are, are becoming more and more cognizant to provide content that is not only end gaming level agnostic, and we certainly want to do that. It’s a hard thing to do though, because if you do it wrong the players completely lose a sense of progression.

“And it’s particularly challenging in LotRO. For instance, in [Dungeons & Dragons Online] the way we do that is provide content both at high level and a variant at the heroic levels. But for LotRO, there is such a strong sense of progressive story, that you want to make sure that the players don’t just start doing things out of order and lose the sense of progression.”

To that end, The Lord of the Rings Online team are adding what they are calling “missions” in the next update – a way for players of all levels to participate in the story and new update without necessarily jumping around and losing that sense of progression – or even be caught up with the current Epic storyline.

“So for instance, for [the current update] the people can go and participate and it will be festivals. And even if you as a player decided to wait on the wedding to see it in the story order, there are a lot of festival activities you can participate in.

“For the next update, in the ongoing war of the Dwarves versus the Orcs, there will be a new kind of content that we refer to as Missions. And players of any level can go and participate in the new mission system to help out the war and ear rewards and such., so that it’s not just the end game players that have things to do when a new update comes out.”

Rob mentions that this is something his team has been thinking about since last year, how to implement this type of content, as well as the tech they would need. And it doesn’t really stop with this next pending update – if things go well the next expansion could also see this type of philosophy implemented in its content.

As for the next update, the team is still hard at work on it. While there isn’t a finalized title just yet, tentatively is being called ‘The War of Three Peaks’. This update will continue the ongoing story being told with the war between the Dwarves and the Orcs, but also start a new major storyline in LotRO, also with a tentative name, “The Legacy of Durin and the Trials of the Dwarves.”

For me personally, it’s so cool to see the team explore other areas of Middle-earth. In fact, I’ve always felt that was one of LotRO’s greatest strengths – telling compelling stories that fit the world of Tolkien without just being another adaptation of the War of the Ring story. And while LotRO definitely follows the Fellowship and takes part in some of the iconic moments – the parts of LotRO that stick out the most is when the team is sub-creating on Tolkien’s world.

We see a lot of references and emphasis put on the Men and Elves in this story, but exploring the Dwarves and their struggles is compelling to me – and it’s something the team seems excited to be able to tell, as well as the other stories looming on the horizon.

“The next update is, tentatively ‘The War of Three Peaks,” Rob previewed. “It’s starts – continues – but starts the war between the Dwarves and the Orcs and starts a new major storyline. ‘The Legacy of Durin and the Trials of the Dwarves’ is the working name. And so that will start talking about what Durin is doing, what the legacy of Durin is, and the ongoing story following that. So we’re excited about that. There’s a lot of story to tell.

“I know that there are some people that say as the end of the story comes, but to me it’s just beginning. Finally we’re where we want to be, in terms of like, now we can tell the stories that happened beyond because there is a lot of things left to do. There is still a lot of evil in the world. It’s not like ‘Snap your fingers’ and all shadow goes away. So I think that this will be exciting. And we’ll have the mission system and it will start a brand new story. And the main storyline, like the Epic story, will be free. And you know, the content around it will be part of the War of Three Peaks update. And I think that it’s going to be great – and the team seems really excited for it in terms of that and then that will continue and lead up to the expansion next year.”

Obviously, as the War of the Ring drew to a close many were asking about what LotRO could do from here. The team has always had a knack for telling stories around the main story, but with Sauron defeated and the Great Wedding happening now, many wondered, especially with Amazon’s Lord of the Rings -based MMO looming on the horizon. However, Rob and his team don’t seem worried, especially given they feel there are still so many stories left to tell in Middle-earth, as well as the more than a decade of storytelling and community that has built around this game.

“We’re gamers at heart. We love new games. And if Amazon provides a Lord of the Rings game and we can log in and have fun, that’s great. […] And like on the Dungeons & Dragons side, there are new Dungeons & Dragons-themed games all the time. So every new game that comes out basically has a chance to compete and offer new ways of looking at this type of content. So we encounter this many times a year.

“The Amazon game will be hopefully very good so we can enjoy it. But the chances of them providing the experience LotRO players are looking for is probably not that high. First of all, when they come out it’s going to be hard for them to create a world as extensive as the one that we’ve created in 13 years. That’s a big ask. And for a new MMO it might have a different pacing and it might just provide that LotRO players move back and forth between the two games. [..] I think that there is a great opportunity for Amazon to provide a different kind of MMO, a different kind of style, a different kind of pacing that players can get into and then come back to LotRO which has provided a whole bunch of stuff. So I’m just as concerned as I am with any new game. We see this all the time – nothing new in the 13 year history of the game.”


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore