Jeffery Steefel Talks Moria
Jeffrey Steefel may not be an intrepid Hobbit martyr, but he and his team of developers at Turbine are marching toward Mount Doom with the same sense of purpose as Frodo and his companions. Last week, they released Book 14 of LotRO to players, refining a number of storytelling tools that will certainly come in handy for future content. Book 14 is the last content update before the Mines of Moria expansion, and it's clear that Steefel and company are setting players up for an epic experience in Moria.
Session Play will be an important part of Book 14, allowing players to briefly inhabit a few of the characters that have made an impact in Tolkien lore and relive their experiences. The mechanic has been in the game for a while, but it's clear that the scope and variety of the experience that Steefel wants to offer players is growing. "We already had Session Play for the troll and the ranger and the chicken, and believe it or not there's both a narrative and a design thread that ties all that stuff together, which is, if part of being in LotRO is experiencing the place that is Middle earth and the story that is Middle earth, how can we give you as many different points of view as possible?" Steefel said. "And yes, even from a chicken's point of view. [Laughs.] That's a bit on the absurd side, but it's still the same kind of thing."
Steefel talked about the need to balance the desires of the LotRO player-base with the realities of MMOG development: you want players to feel like they have an impact in the game world, but if everyone is special, then no one is. "This is a persistent MMO-world, so the main character of the story is you. On the other hand, the reason why people come here is because this is Lord of the Rings, and the main character of the stories are these other people," Steefel said. "It's a very blurry line ... but, yeah, having somebody jump into Gandalf's body and go running around Rivendell - probably not a good thing."
Session Play won't just allow you to relive the great victories of heroes past - the developers also plan to use it to illuminate the villains and their motivations. This could introduce some ambiguity to the epic conflicts of Middle earth. "It gives you that same kind of feeling of, 'Oh, wow, I can understand how Sauron would be so evil, because it's fun being evil.' And the next time you fight him, you're not going to want to kill him any less, but it adds a richness and texture to it."
In Book 14, Turbine have given LotRO's Live Event system some attention as well. "There's sort of 'live' events and then there's 'developed' events, for lack of a better word - live events, literally, the true definition is a bunch of GMs on every server inhabiting characters, going into the world and either causing havoc or handing out cool things or advancing a storyline," Steefel said. "That's the kind of thing that has the immediacy that you can only get by having real people on the other end."
Of course, coordinating Turbine employees across multiple servers takes a lot of planning and effort - most functions fall into the latter character of "developed" events. They can be timed to occur at specific times, initiated manually by Turbine GMs, or programmed to begin based on players' actions. Obviously, that last category has the most potential for new and unique gameplay. "So 'when X number of players do Y amount of this, then the event will trigger' ... that's where it really starts getting fun."
Of course, Steefel and company will be pushing the boundaries of Session Play and Live Events much further in Moria. It was still too early for him to speculate on a release date, but he did have a lot to say about the new classes that will debut in Moria, the Runekeeper and the Warden. Both will introduce entirely new gameplay mechanics to LotRO's class roster and offer a "snappier" and more immediate feel.
The Runekeeper will be the first magic-using class in LotRO - "in and of itself a breath of relief for many players who were wanting that kind of unabashed magic in the game, and a cause for stomach churning for people who are really into the lore that think we're going to suddenly turn it into flying wizards and stuff like that," Steefel said. But more interesting is a new "attunement" mechanic that will allow Runekeepers the flexibility to switch between fully offensive and defensive rules, even within the same encounter. More succinctly put, "the Runekeeper is really interesting because it is a gameplay that can be tuned in real time."
Most hybrid classes encourage players to specialize in either damage-dealing or healing through their choices in gear and talents. But the Runekeeper's "specialty" will depend on the player's choice of spells during an encounter. Choosing damage dealing spells will increase the power of subsequent offensive spells and limit the effectiveness of healing spells, and vice versa. Out of combat, the Runekeeper goes back to a sort of "hybrid equilibrium" where both schools are available. Steefel elaborated, "you have an actual 'attunement bar' that's a special part of your UI that allows you to manage this balance between one side and the other - almost a yin and a yang - and you can't do both at once." This ability to slowly transition between roles should make for some interesting raid encounters in Moria.
The other class that Moria will introduce, the Warden, employs a combo system similar to the Fellowship Maneuvers that groups of players can activate mid-fight. By stringing together a group of abilities, the Warden will have access to special "macro" skills. Like the Runekeeper, the Warden's role incorporates elements of more pure offensive and defensive classes. "The way that Cardell Kerr, our Creative Director, likes to describe him is that he's like the local beat cop of Middle earth ... he has this kind of utility about him," Steefel said.
Finally, Steefel talked about one of the major changes Turbine is making to LotRO's Trait system. In it's current form it offers players a ton of flexibility, but the developers were concerned that the game lacked clear upgrade paths for players to follow if they wanted to pursue a certain specialty. In Moria, Turbine will be adding a mechanic called "Trait Sets" which will allow players to gain additional bonuses by pursuing a specific upgrade path. "They're class based, and depending on your class, you'll have different sets available to you, and by getting certain traits and equipping them properly, you get to this complete set, and that gives you a set of macro bonuses and extra stats," Steefel said. It's another way for players to maximize their characters' abilities, and another reason to look forward to entering the Mines of Moria.