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A lot has happened since the last time WarCry spoke with Jeffrey Steefel, Executive Producer of Lord of the Rings Online, nearly two months ago. Book 13, the latest content update to arrive in Middle Earth, has been out for over a month, giving players an entirely new zone to explore along with a host of other tweaks to monster play, fellowship finding and other game systems. The future is looking bright for LotRO, and not just on this side of the Pacific.

Turbine is making the final preparations for the open beta of LotRO in South Korea, a country where online gaming has evolved into a national pastime. The stakes are high, but Steefel remains confident. “This particular launch is the strongest overseas launch, in some respects, that we’ve ever been able to tackle,” he said. “The partner’s great, the audience is huge; we had a very, very small but successful closed beta that I think even the partner was surprised at the response to. It’s exciting to see the game really start to expand.”

Between overseas trips, however, they’re still paying close attention to players’ reception to Book 13. Steefel said that Forochel is definitely a big draw for high-level players, if for no other reason than offering a new environment. “It’s always good when you add a new region, to see people really excited about a new space in the world. That’s always a goal for us; that when we add a new region, it feels different, it feels fresh and kind of exciting and not like things that they’ve seen elsewhere.” It’s more than an opportunity to allow their environmental designers to flex their muscles, however; Forochel also showcases new environmental effects and Turbine’s “dual-height map technology,” which will certainly come in handy in their upcoming expansion, Mines of Moria.

Turbine is also satisfied with the impact that the addition of the Orc Defiler class has made on monster play. Steefel commented that he feels the community’s interest in monster play has finally reached “critical mass.” He said that “the addition of the Defiler has definitely sparked more activity,” and it’s drawing players into monster play that were otherwise uninterested or ambivalent.

For Book 13’s other major additions to the game, Steefel felt that it was too early to tell what kind of lasting impact on the game. “The only things that we ever find out about quickly are things that people hate,” he said. “If it’s a new feature that people are trying out and using, we don’t find out, in terms of comments and things through the forums, as quickly.” Book 13 introduced an overhaul to the game’s “Looking For Fellowship” system to help players find groups for questing, but while “people are definitely using it … we can look and see how they’re utilizing it, but what we don’t have a sense of yet is how it’s really affecting their overall sense of grouping up in the game.” Sometimes just pinning down how an audience feels about a feature is half the battle.

With Book 13 live and the Mines of Moria still months away, Turbine’s is focusing on Book 14, the last free content update before they release the expansion later this year. Adam Mersky, Public Relations Director at Turbine, explained that this content update would be a bit different from previous ones. “What’s going to be unique about Book 14 versus the previous books is that, rather than adding a whole new region like Forochel, there’s going to be a lot more live-event-driven type of activities,” he explained. “So we’ve blocked up a lot of those live events because we don’t want to spoil this for players who are coming to test and players who want to see some of the new content.” Mersky said it was an opportunity for the team to start “spreading their wings” on the live- event technology they’ve put in the game, yet another step toward preparing for the expansion later this year.

And, of course, there’s Moria; the 800 lb. gorilla in the room that unfortunately still isn’t ready to be let out of its cage. Steefel remained tight-lipped about the details on how the content is progressing, but his enthusiasm was audible. “What’s been fun for me is that, in the last month I’d say, we’re getting to a place in terms of Moria itself where now we’re all dying for people to see it,” he said. “Before it’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever … don’t look at it. It’s not cooked yet.’ But now we’re at the point where the developers and everybody are kind of saying, ‘Boy, I can’t wait until we can actually start talking about this.'”

While he wasn’t able to say much about any new features or classes planned for the expansion, Steefel was vocal about the surprising success of their unlocktheminesofmoria.com website. “It’s almost to the point like, ‘Wow, this is just a promotion we’re doing.’ I’m surprised that our CEO or finance guys haven’t come to us saying, ‘Well, how are you making money from this?’ he said. For the first game, “King Under the Mountain,” Steefel said that visitors to the site had recorded over half a million gameplay hours so far. “There were people that had played the game, like, 200 times. It’s funny, in a way: Our little promotional site is becoming like a casual game destination,” he said with a chuckle.” It’s a brilliant idea, drawing people into the information pipeline for a game through gameplay itself (no matter how simplistic).

I couldn’t let Steefel go without trying to pry at least one morsel of information about Moria from him, however. He said that the artists and animators have spent a lot of time tweaking the combat animations in the game to give conflicts a bit more impact. “The feedback that we’ve gotten fairly consistently is that ‘it would be even cooler’ if some of the combat felt more snappy,” he said. Perhaps recognizing the influence of a certain Norwegian developer’s recent efforts, he noted that “people are starting to expect more of that, sort of … not real-time, but just that snappy, responsive feel.” He emphasized that it wouldn’t be a change to combat mechanics, but a more subtle visual tweak that will nonetheless cause players to take notice.

As for the two new classes to be introduced in Moria? “Not yet,” Steefel intoned. From the sound of it, however, Turbine may have more to say on that matter later this month. Stay tuned!

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