Lord Of The Rings Online: Ask Turbine #7: Launch Preview, Interview with Jeff Steefel

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Today in an article format “Ask Turbine” – our regular chat with key Turbine staff – we look back a bit at the beta and forward to the launch of Lord of the Rings Online. This article, based on an interview with Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel, acts as a sort of primer for the game’s launch on Tuesday.

Ask Turbine #7: Launch Preview
Based on interview with Jeffrey Steefel (Exec. Producer)
Article by Dana Massey

With under a week to go until the Lord of the Rings Online launches, the crew at Turbine can see the end of a four year journey. They’ve been in an Open Beta for a few weeks and the massive influx of people has taught them a few things about their game, their customer support and their overall readiness for April 24th.

“[Beta’s] been great,” Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel told us. As this is their fourth MMO title, they’ve got their feet under them and spent a lot of time since Alpha organizing the team so that they would be ready and able to gather and – most importantly – act on feedback from the community. The Open Beta itself was extremely polished and, in years past, would assuredly have already launched. Thus, they could spend their time tweaking spawns, the flow of people, choke points and other details that only crop up when thousands of people attack a game at the same time in a way only Open Beta and launch can accomplish.

The process has also allowed them to work on overall usability. Steefel believes that they had created one of the most complete MMOs ever to hit an Open Beta, but nonetheless, usability, UI and balance were the major things the team worried about over the last few weeks.

Thanks to an early start program, Lord of the Rings Online has already essentially launched. There are players in the Open Beta playing the same characters they’ll play on launch. In some ways, for them, launch will be more like a patch than anything else. That said, there is a cap at level 15 for everyone, a decision that led to some extremely interesting discoveries. Steefel explained how the cap actually helped test some of the peripheral systems like crafting. Capped in adventuring, players branched out and tired new things. What’s more, some of the uber achievers sought ways to accomplish things that the cap should theoretically have forbade. No one is more creative than a player who is told something is impossible. The result was a treasure trove of exploits and holes in game design discovered as these players valiantly and persistently sought to skirt the system.

Steefel also characterized the beta as a validation of their design. Aside from small issues, the game accomplished what they wanted it to and the curves were more or less in synch with what they’d predicted (in the tests prior to the cap).

It also surprised them. Some features that they thought were cool turned out to be extremely popular. Their music system is a prime example. This system allows players to actually play music in the game. They thought it was neat, but it has created a YouTube revolution as Dwarfs belt out Clapton songs in local pubs.

“It’s an interesting thing to work on an online world for four years without anyone in it,” Steefel noted. The team has been excited that real people are out there loving, hating or otherwise exploring the work they’ve done. On the 24th, they hope for a lot more.

Currently, the demand in their Open Beta has meant eleven servers online. Despite many cagey attempts by the interviewer, they refused to say how many they’d have ready for launch, but promised “more than eleven”. They added that they are as prepared as they can be, short of commandeering every server they could find.

The bulk of their energies at this time are spent optimizing the game. One big hurdle they’ve hit lately was the launch of Windows Vista. Steefel said they’ve been talking to Microsoft with senior people from every single department to make sure the game runs for those who have upgraded. For most users, this is not an issue, so far as they can tell. The only problems come from those with super high-end machines running the game with super-high resolution textures. For them, there are crashes and in the short term, he suggests they use a less visually robust version of the game if they are having problems.

He reiterated though that fixing those high end problems is one of their top priorities. People buy those machines for the insane graphics they can chug out and Lord of the Rings Online put a lot of effort into meeting those demands. They want to make sure it works.

“It’s a real, very significant issue,” Steefel added.

Open Beta ends in the middle of the night on the morning of the 24th and the team anticipates only minor downtime as they enable the retail clients early that morning. Core team members will be out all over the United States for launch parties. However, Steefel noted that they have plans in place in case things go wrong and he himself will be in New York, which is very near Boston, if he needs to get back.

So how many people do they expect? Again, cagey attempts were thwarted!

“We’ve positioned the game to be the most successful since the game that shall not be named,” Steefel told us, in an obvious reference to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. He added that while they expect a great reception from MMO players, they’re very excited and curious to see how Tolkien loyalists react. He believes they’ve won many of them over, which could make LotRO the first MMO for a whole new crop of fans.

“[Children of Hurin] reinforces that Tolkien fever is alive and well,” he told us. The new book was edited and released by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher and is the first original work released in 30 years from the late author. They may be a few years beyond the movies, but are not too worried that no one remembers.

Lord of the Rings Online launches on Tuesday, April 24th. If you live in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Seattle, you can attend midnight launch events at local GameStops. Turbine has shipped stock in advance to major retailers, so the game itself should be ready and available for people to pick up on the first day.

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