Interview with Turbine's Craig Alexander
Carolyn Koh recently had the opportunity to chat with Craig Alexander, VP of Product Development at Turbine, about the current and future happenings in Lord of the Rings Online.
I was curious to know what challenges Turbine had faced in transforming Tolkien’s famous work into an MMORPG and what else players had to expect in future expansions and had the ability to speak to Craig Alexander, Turbine’s VP of Product Development and Meghan Rodberg, Senior Manager of Online Community Relations at the recent LOGIN Conference in Seattle.
Currently, the Mines of Moria are open for players. The storyline is set in Moria itself, and at this point in time, the narration has changed from Gandalf to Galadriel as the Fellowship has already passed through Moria and Gandalf is presumed lost. The chronology however, is not the same for all players as the game makes use of instances to advance the epic storyline.
“The nice thing about MMOs is that we can go back and change things as the story moves forward,” said Meghan, referring to how for players that have advanced through the storyline no longer see members of the Fellowship wandering around in the public landscape. They still can be found by new players playing through the beginning story, but the quest now takes them into an instanced area.
The game also employs what they call session play. Players can actually see events that lead up to the current storyline, sometimes briefly seeing events unfold through the eyes of one of the lead characters and playing the story through in their shoes.
“Tolkien described some characters and areas in great depth and detail,” said Meghan, “and yet left others such as the nameless ones untouched. Which allowed us free reign to make them what we wished, within the context of the Middle-Earth.”
“Gameplay is paramount,” said Craig, “and really, it was actually easier in a way, than having to craft an original IP. Our storyline is laid out for us.”
“Mines of Moria is the natural second step for us in the storyline,” said Meghan, “a continuation of where Shadows of Angmar left off, and the next chapters will bring this storyline right up to and prepare us for Tolkien’s second book, The Two Towers.”
“How did the players and Tolkien purists accept magic users?” I asked, referring to one of the new classes introduced in Mines of Moria, the Runekeepers.
“Our magic users aren’t just mage or wizard lookalikes. Their magic hearkens back to ancient magic. The use of runes and the magic of the earth, and that’s very much in keeping to the Medieval European setting that Tolkien based Lord of the Rings on,” said Meghan.
Craig was more than pleased to talk about what was to come.
“Now that the Misty Mountains has been penetrated, we have the entire East area to play with and you can expect to see new lands open up for exploration regularly as we move the storyline forward.”
Essentially, players wanting to know what are to come simply have to read or re-read Tolkien. Yes, Gollum gets into the game. Yes, along the way, Boromir dies. Yes, Gandalf returns as Gandalf the White (He dinged! Yes, he did!) No, players will not be able to have flying mounts. The eagles helped Gandalf. No one else. Period. Yes, the goats in Moria were a way to have mounts within the mines.
Game experience and feature wise, Turbine has moved the entire game to DX10, utilizing and taking advantage of the advanced graphic features. The game has also moved to be more solo-friendly and more small fellowship quests have been introduced. The Reflecting Pools or Shrine System allows players to replay Epic story line instances that have been complete. The newbie experience was revamped in Book Seven and Book Eight, to be released in June will bring 12 man raids deep in the Mines of Moria.
“There’s also the Summer Festival and more dance emotes for players to discover,” said Craig.
“Dance emotes?” I asked.
“Oh yes! There’s more than just one or two dance emotes. The most expensive item I found in the Auction House recently was a dance move! You can do more than just slash dance.
Players, it seems, have been cagey about the new moves they’ve learned and not sharing freely. I wanted to know if humor and pop culture references were planned. “Well, some of them are,” said Meghan, “but we are careful not to over do it. Some players love playing the Moore Cowbell, you know? From Saturday Night Life? Some players absolutely hate that animation.”
“Easter eggs are often snuck in by a programmer and some of them are marvelous, but then again there are those that we or players find and we go OMG! And remove with extreme prejudice.” Laughed Craig, “But we did put in Orcs in Moria that call out Fellowship maneuvers and screw them all up.”
Two new classes were introduced in Mines of Moria and I asked if more were planned.
“New classes are a good thing.” Craig said solemnly.
“So, there are more to come?” I asked.
“Well, you know, we have the rights out to 2017 right now, and the second book comes next, not to mention that rights can be extended. As new areas, new lands, new cities are discovered by the players in game, what’s to say that the next city won’t have a specialist class as yet to be encountered? There’s Rohan… Helms Deep… and countless other places East of the Misty Mountains,” said Craig.
“We have areas described and areas mentioned but not fleshed out by Tolkien to play with and you may expect that we will do everything we can to keep it fun and yet in keeping with the consistent with Tolkien’s original work.”
Craig spoke of game design in LotRO as a marathon and not a sprint. LotRO’s strengths are its conformation to Tolkien’s storyline and the keeping of game play to its lore, as evidenced by many glowing reviews of the same. The game play that is criticized is its PvP which is currently created in instanced areas allowing players to do “Creep” or Monster play, which is playing what are essentially the evil creatures, such as spiders, Wargs and Orcs.
“Some players simply love playing as a Creep.” Said Meghan, “Once they got to level then and started Monster play, they never went back.”
Will Turbine be expanding Monster Play then? Perhaps the battle for Helms Deep will allow for legions of Uruk-Hai and Human Dunlending players? Both Craig and Meghan were mum about that, but in the Marathon of game design that is Lord of the Rings Online, perhaps we shall see that in expansion three or four? RvR fans can hope.