LotRO Book 11: Pre-Launch Interview with Jeffrey Steefel

Turbine will release Book 11 for Lord of the Rings Online on October 24, we learned in an interview with Executive Producer Jeffrey Steefel and Director of Public Relations Adam Mersky, where we discussed the Book, class balance, their recent corporate changes and more.

“We stand in good shape or we wouldn’t be releasing it,” Steefel said. With only a week to go, Turbine is rapidly approaching the end of its QA cycle and is already hard at work on Book 12. But next week, all focus returns to Book 11 for its launch.

Housing is the core component of the free update. Turbine organized the world into instances communities of four kinds (elf, human, hobbit and dwarves) and has worked hard to make sure this isn’t just something elite players get.

“We’re pushing pretty hard on housing to make it more accessible,” Steefel said. Players can first buy a house at level 15, a level not overly hard to achieve in LotRO, and according to Turbine, the average character who worked his way there should be able to afford a small home out of pocket. For the hardcore, there is a whole array of furnishing and large buildings to keep them entertained, but accessibility is key.

Steefel explained how the company has identified three kinds of players: hardcore, casual and those who are in it for the story. He believes housing appeals to all three. The accessibility enables the casual players, the story-driven folks will enjoy the sense of community and the hardcore can work at the latest loot.

“We want to try and provide something new and fresh to each of those players in each update,” he said.

The team also worked to ensure that housing is a core feature, not a tacked-on sideshow. Steefel and Merskey gave examples of how it integrates into the crafting system, their future plans for community (each house is on a street and neighborhood improvements are in the plans) and even little touches, like the taxidermist NPC who will stuff any creature a player kills so the player can mount the corpse on his wall.

The other big addition in Book 11 is the game’s second bit of raid content. It culminates in a showdown with the Balrog, but players need to make their way through a wealth of new content to reach that point. Turbine has created over 100 new, unique items players can earn in a 12-person raid, and to date, the feedback has been positive.

Tolkien’s source material, though, has always been about more than just a quest to slay a dragon or burn a ring. At every turn he placed a value on intelligence and wit over brute force, but puzzles and other non-combat solutions have rarely been well-designed in MMOGs.

Steefel believes Turbine has begun to leverage that kind of Tolkien-esque content, but remained firm in his belief that those who do raids ultimately want to kill something. He gave us several examples of puzzles and story-driven quests that lead up to the confrontation.

Luckily for Turbine, it is the same company that created Dungeons & Dragons Online. That game, for all its critical dismissal, did rethink the traditional quest and introduced significant puzzles into the MMOG space. This is something Steefel believes the LotRO team can take advantage of and fans should expect more of in the future.

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As part of each update, the team always addresses two classes. In Book 11, the Minstrel and the Loremaster fell under the microscope. “Anything that makes that particular class feel unique, we’re trying to accentuate that,” Steefel said. Specifically, he referenced the Loremaster who had developed into a master of crowd control, which people enjoyed. In Book 11, they can expect more.

The Minstrel most notably gets some improvements to its solo-capabilities. It was a strong support class, but many players feel it needed some love when it’s out alone (although one might ask if a Minstrel sings alone in the forest, does anyone hear?) and this update addresses that.

In the next update – Book 12 – Steefel promised that the Guardian is next on the agenda. Like the Minstrel, this heavily armored class has some problems on offense and is not necessarily the best choice for the solo player. They feel that this aspect has improved greatly since launch, but it could still use some tender love and care. What is the second class to get a look in Book 12? No word yet.

The real drama out of Turbine lately though was not in Middle-earth, but in their boardroom. Longtime CEO Jeff Anderson was replaced by tech guru Jim Crowley, and former EA Mythic producer Walt Yarbrough moved north to a senior position on both Lord of the Rings Online and an unannounced project.

“[Anderson’s departure] hasn’t affected the game at all,” Steefel said. He admitted saying so is a cliché, but in this case, he insists that it’s true. “Companies go through phases and transitions.”

For Turbine, the move, according to Steefel, was more about the direction of the company as a whole and less about Lord of the Rings Online. He noted that for the first seven years, Turbine was a development studio, not in control of its own destiny. Anderson came on board and over the next seven years made Turbine an independent player in the MMOG space. Now Crowley takes the reigns in an effort to kick it up a notch, yet again.

Anderson himself remains a member of Turbine’s Board of Directors, but the company wants to iron out his ongoing day-to-day role before speaking more about the changes.

While the new boss gets up to speed, people shouldn’t expect to hear too much, but in the next couple months, Crowley will be out and about with a new vision for Turbine and the MMOG scene in general. “I think we’ve got a really interesting take on how to take these games to the next gen,” Mersky said.

Yarbrough brings Turbine a wealth of MMOG experience. He was with Dark Age of Camelot from day one and had a senior role at EA Mythic. At Turbine, it’s more of the same. While Steefel wouldn’t say what exactly Yarbrough is up to, he did note that his hiring is a “huge win for me.”

“[Yarbrough] is taking a senior role on a number of LotRO initiatives,” Steefel said. He went on to praise his leadership capabilities and reiterated how excited he was to have him onboard.

An official announcement on the Book 11 launch date drops tomorrow, but fans should plan moving day for next week as they get comfy in their new homes.

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