Last week the first retail expansion for "The Lord of the Rings Online" titled "Mines of Moria" was released.
But hot on the heels of the "World of Warcraft" expansion "Wrath of the Lich King," would "LotRO" still be "the one game to rule them all" for its playerbase?
Right before the game's launch, I spoke with executive producer Jeffrey Steefel about competing with "WoW" and "Warhammer Online" and what Turbine's future plans are for "LotRO."
"Mines of Moria" is the first commercial expansion for "The Lord of the Rings Online: The Shadows of Angmar," which was originally released in April 2007. It raises the level cap from 50 to 60 and adds three areas, two classes and leveling items.
I asked Steefel if he felt apprehensive at all about launching his game's expansion so close to the "World of Warcraft" one, and if Turbine had considered changing the date to move further away from their competitor's release. After all, "World of Warcraft" has 11 million subscribers and those who've left for other games have a tendency to return. (Note: I inquired about the number of "LotRO" subscribers, but I was told that Turbine is a privately-held company and does not release that information.)
"We announced our launch date because it was the best time to launch the product -- and then other people announced their launch dates," Steefel said. "We are driven by what we think is the right cycle for the product and our existing players, and then also to bring in new players. But we felt that it was okay [to launch near "Wrath of the Lich King"] because the market isn't quite the same as it was in the past. It's gotten more diverse, and there's always going to be competition. Some of it is gargantuan compared to us, but everything's relative... We're competing against these giant media conglomerates, but we're holding our own, so we're pretty psyched about that."
"At the end of the day, it's about what your game is...and not worrying too much about what's going to happen when another game comes along."
But the games from these "giant media conglomerates" also happen to have the same theme as "Lord of the Rings Online" -- namely orcs and elves. Why should gamers play "LotRO" instead of "World of Warcraft" or "Warhammer Online"? I asked Steefel for his sales pitch.
"Imagine if you could get the fun online gameplay but doing that in Middle-earth, where you'll basically be a part of the story that you saw in the movies or that you read about in the books," he said. "There's certainly several games out there that offer MMO players a lot of different choices and different kinds of play-styles. Somebody who's really looking for that heavy [Player vs. Player] or [Realm vs. Realm] experience, they're going to go play 'Warhammer.' But if they're looking for the best [Player vs. Environment] game, it's clearly 'LotRO.' Period. Plus, it's 'Lord of the Rings!'"
Steefel also claimed that "LotRO" wasn't too affected by the release of new games like "Age of Conan" in May and "Warhammer Online" in September. And he didn't seem worried about "Lich King"'s impact. "We actually saw less of a dent in our subscribership than we had expected," he explained of when "Conan" and "Warhammer" were released. "People do want to go try the thing that's new, but most of them have come back, and we have a lot of new players. At the end of the day, it's about what your game is and what it's providing and not worrying too much about what's going to happen when another game comes along."
I wondered why "LotRO" has succeeded and continues to thrive while others -- like most recently "Tabula Rasa" -- have failed. An industry veteran and a longtime MMO player, Steefel said that in the early years gamers were more forgiving, like when an online game was broken or had ugly graphics. But nowadays, gamers don't cut online game developers any slack.
"Consumers aren't so forgiving anymore, and I think that's why [MMOs] are starting to have difficulty."
"Consumers aren't so forgiving anymore, and I think that's why [MMOs] are starting to have difficulty," he said. "It's why 'WoW, 'Lord of the Rings' and a couple of the other games that have come out have succeeded... [The game] has to be good, and it has to be good all the time. It has to continue to grow and evolve. It has to be stable, and it has to perform well. And you have to maintain all these things at the same time. It's also hard for game companies to figure out how to be service organizations. That's a whole other part of the business that game companies don't normally have to do... We have people that we have to satisfy 24-seven, and it doesn't stop when we put the box on the shelf."
As for what's next for "LotRO," Steefel said to expect another retail expansion about a year from now. In the meantime, the development team is already at work on the next free content update -- called "Books" -- which they've been releasing every few weeks since the original game launched. Turbine recently opened a west coast office and is hiring approximately 50 positions, presumably to help work on the previously announced console MMO. Steefel declined to give any details other than that it was still in the early stages of development.
"The Lord of the Rings" expansion "Mines of Moria" is in stores now, and for a limited time, Turbine is offering a lifetime subscription for the game for $199.