Turbine CEO Jeff Anderson on Lord of the Rings Online

By Nick Breckon, May 30, 2007 2:00pm PDT

Turbine announced Middle-Earth Online in 2003, planning to release the Tolkien-licensed game sometime in 2004. A year later Middle-Earth saw delays, while World of Warcraft hit stores and captured much of the market that Turbine had hoped for. Finally released to the public on April 24th, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar has caught a lot of people by surprise--in a good way. It has received critical and popular acclaim at a time when a fantasy MMORPG that isn't titled "Warcraft" can be a tough sell.

The first free content expansion to the game, titled "Book 9: The Shores of Evendim," will see a new area of the game opened that contains over 60 new quests and introduces the characters of the Ents. With the addition of distinct AI patterns to the nine new monster designs, adventurers will find more of a challenge in defeating their enemies on the way through the level 35-45 content. Armor sets that grant bonuses when completed will aid in surviving the game's first 25-man raid encounter. Evendim also marks the beginning of a long string of upgrades to the character classes, starting with a bolstering of the Champion class with new abilities.

With more updates on the way in the form of these one-book installments, Turbine CEO Jeff Anderson's job is never done. In a brief conversation, the Ultima Online alumnus spoke with me about his company's plans for the future of Lord of the Rings Online, as well as his thoughts on the MMO industry--an industry that has seen massive growth befitting of its name.

Jeff Anderson: I love your headline, "It gets you chicks." That's awesome.

Shack: Haha, thanks. So, how have you been the past month? Were you happy with how the launch went?

Jeff Anderson: Oh yeah, it's been amazing. We've had so much success, based on the retail units sold, the pre-order campaign. We're feeling quite blessed at this point given the consumer feedback, the critical feedback, the awards we've received. It's been terrific.

Shack: Now, I'll be perfectly honest with you and say that I was skeptical about Lord of the Rings Online at first, mainly because I saw such a huge challenge in differentiating your game from both World of Warcraft and the Lord of the Rings movies. And yet after a little playtime, I found myself pleasantly surprised, and in watching the community, I've seen a similar reaction. You must be pleased.

Jeff Anderson: You know, it's been quite a challenge. The franchise is so massive and there's so much expectation when you take on something like that. People want it to be a huge hit and be successful, and at the same time, everyone has very strong personal views on how things should be handled, and often they're more contradictory than they are similar. But we've been able to do a good job. I think it's really a credit to the team.

Shack: The game itself seems to be fairly stable, which isn't always the case.

Jeff Anderson: I think what we're trying to do is set a new bar for what the industry needs to get to. For a long time, people made a lot of excuses about why launches were crappy. People just said, "Oh you can't do it, you can't do a clean launch, you can't actually launch without service issues, you can't launch without billing issues." And I think we wanted to dispel that myth once and for all.

Shack: So let's talk about the content expansion for a second.

Jeff Anderson: The name of the expansion is called the Shores of Evendim, and it covers what we describe as Book 9. The original launch product we actually include books one through eight. Book 9 covers the area just to the north of the Shire, and it's contiguous with the game world. You can actually walk right up the Brandywine River, all the way into this new area. It's covering about five, six million square meters of new space. It's probably a tenth the size of the game. The center of it is this massive lake that the shores of Evendim are around. The brand new monsters and the new AI will really add to the overall appeal of the product. Book 9 focuses in on providing level 35-45 content, and most players aren't really at that point, so we just want to continually be ahead of them, providing new, free game content to keep them excited about where the product is going.

Shack: I heard there will be updates to the music system as well?

Jeff Anderson: The music system is one of those features that just came out of nowhere for us and became a lot of fun for people to play, and try, and experiment with. Some people have become quite good at it. The new music system gives you the ability to use what they call ABC notation. You'll be able to actually write your own music and import and share that music with your friends. So it's kind of like, I can't really think of, it's not really a scripting language, it's more of a notation system.

Shack: So will you be writing the music in the same way you would write music on a staff? I'm not familiar with ABC notation.

Jeff Anderson: Yeah, I think it's not exactly where you're writing music like that. Do you play music at all?

Shack: Yeah.

Jeff Anderson: I don't, so you're asking the wrong guy. [Laughs] It's some kind of standard notation system that people use to help describe the music system, the songs that they are writing, that's not actually on a standard bar line, because it needs to be machine-readable so that we can actually import it into the game.

Shack: Do you have a rough release schedule for the next few years drawn up, or are you sort of feeling that out as you go?

Jeff Anderson: You know, yes and no. The way we look at deploying online games is that you need to know where you're going, but sometimes the path you get there will change based on how the product is being received by the consumers. So there are certain milestones that we want to hit. For example, the first expansion pack. We have certain key updates that we need to get into the product. Part of being a service is that we need to be listening to where the players are taking us and what they're interested in. A year ago, if you'd have asked me if we would have been adding updates to the music system, I would have said, "What music system?" But those are the things that we continually react to and listen to from the player's perspective. For example, we've got this one [Book 9] coming out that sort of fills in the level 35-45 content, then we're coming up with Book 10 a couple months after that. Clearly one of the big things people are excited about is monster play, and that's why we're coming back in Book 10 and adding a lot of upgrades to that, both in terms of quests, experience, and gameplay mechanics. And then in Book 11 this coming fall and October, we're going to be releasing more space, more content, and also a very large housing system that will allow players to own their own home in the world of Middle Earth.

Shack: Can you give me an example of some of the new monster play mechanics in Book 10, or is that still being worked out?

Jeff Anderson: Well, you'll see that the raid mechanics that we have built into monster play are really going to go through a big upgrade. We're going to provide a lot more--I'm trying to think of a good way to describe them--multiple objectives to the same instance? Today, there's really one objective when you grab a castle or a keep--it's going to defeat the head boss. I think we've got some pretty exciting upgrades. You're going to be able to go into the game and get bonus level characters, so that you can go in and start playing as some of the elite monsters. I could tell you more about that, but I think we're going to wait another 30 or 60 days or so before we start explaining that. I'd love to sit down in another 30 days and tell you about how you're going to be playing… and I'll kind of leak this one to you, but you're going to be able to play as massive trolls in the game, as one example. We can go out there and just start destroying big swaths of land and tearing up the world. And that's great. People love monster play, that's what they're excited about. But those kinds of upgrades are coming down the pipe, and we're looking forward to adding more of those.

Shack: I know you haven't announced anything specific about player housing, but could you share some of the possibilities you are considering in terms of how you plan to integrate that into the current game? Will they be instanced houses inside a sort of demarcated "player housing zone"?

Jeff Anderson: Well, it's something that we're currently kind of still working at and designing, but there's a couple of different things that we do know. There will be some cross-section of landscape housing and instance housing, and I think it depends on whether it's for a kinship, or whether it's an individual player. When we talk about Lord of the Rings, we're talking about a really successful game right now, where we have maybe over 10,000 people per world. And when you start doing the math, that's a lot of homes to have on the landscape. You don't want it to feel that it's gone from Middle Earth to suburban sprawl. [Laughs] So we need to kind of maintain some balance there, and to achieve that, let people have homes and feel like they've got that part of Middle Earth. Instancing is a way to do that. But we've come up with some pretty innovative ways to do instancing as groups, so that you're not just alone in your house. I think we're going to be doing neighborhoods, and letting people have multiple homes in the instanced area so that you can actually have that sense of publicness to the space.

Shack: I assume the player will be able to do standard things like customize the appearance and contents of their house?

Jeff Anderson: Yeah, absolutely. We want to give players the ability to do upgrades and visual appearance upgrades. But you know, we're going to spend a lot of time talking about that over the next couple of months too. Players love housing. I think of housing as kind of your second avatar, because when you're in the game as your character, everyone gets to see who you are, but then when you log out you're gone. Homes are one of those persistent avatars that exist even when you're not online, and people can see by looking at your home the amount of energy that you've placed into it, the commitment you've had to the game. You can express a lot of your persistence through that.

Shack: If a free update contains one "book," do you have any idea of how much content a retail expansion will contain?

Jeff Anderson: That's a great question. We've talked about whether or not we end up charging for housing as a feature coming out this fall, and we haven't yet decided on what the economics around that are going to be like. Book 9 we've announced is going to be free, and Book 10 is definitely free as well. It really comes down to how much content we can get into it. We felt like doing a region around Evendim just wasn't enough to qualify for charged content, even though it's a huge epic space. But if we had paired that maybe with a couple of really big features, maybe. Already, some of the space and content that we're delivering is going to be bigger than some of the things that you've seen. Probably, in fact, by the end of this year, we'll have produced more content than [Blizzard Entertainment] did for [the World of Warcraft expansion] Burning Crusade after working on it for two years. So we're aggressively pursuing a path of continually adding content.

Turn the page for Jeff's thoughts on class changes, subscription fees, console development, and the future of online gaming.

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Shack: Can you tell me how the decision to sequentially update each class came about? To me it seems like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. If you update all the classes at once, you run the risk of balancing issues. If you do it sequentially, people who play other classes might feel jealous that their class didn't come first.

Jeff Anderson: That's exactly right, those are the challenges that you face, and I think you're neither going to be happy with one or the other. To really go back into a significant review of the classes just isn't what we're talking about doing here. What we really want to do is give players improvements to the classes, continually upgrade those classes. It's just a matter of time before we get to everyone's class, and we don't see this as a one-time thing. We're going to be revisiting the classes, and adding new content and features to them. It is a process of improvement that we're committed to over a long period of time. So will we sometimes interrupt and maybe add a couple features here and there to some of the classes? I think so. But some classes really needed to be addressed and given some love earlier than others. Some classes are pretty significant right now, and we wanted to make sure we balanced it out. We also look at play patterns and usage patterns, so if there are some groups that are really underrepresented, we will go back and try to improve those as a way to encourage other people to roll characters of that type.

Shack: So far the community feedback has been positive. Is there anything that you've taken away from the feedback that has a lead to a change in your thinking, or has their reaction simply reinforced your philosophy?

Jeff Anderson: Well, we've mostly seen positive feedback, that maybe has just doubled down on ideas that we were excited about already. There's nothing that we've done that people have come back and said, "Boy, this is just gonna be a big problem." Certainly the two things we want to improve on to continue to make the individual avatars more and more distinct, more unique, and deeper. And that's just part of being a good MMORPG studio; that you're always trying to make sure you're giving people multiple points of differentiation. Some of the feedback we've gotten from the players is, "Wow, I want more collectible mechanics, more variety, more points of differentiation from players." And the high-end armor sets give you all that.

One piece of feedback that we took as well is that people said, "We want to make sure that, before you change anything with the economy, we want to let it settle down for a month," because it's so tough at the beginning to understand which are the roles that make money, and which are the roles that really aren't as valuable. And you know, the economy really settled down, and the auction houses are quite robust now. You see a lot of players transacting on a daily basis, spending hundreds of dollars in gold, and that's sort of come full circle. But I'd say, going back to your original question, I don't think that there's any one thing that people walked away with saying, "Wow, that's just broken. That's gotta get fixed." It's given us a great opportunity to, instead of focusing on problems, be focusing on the future. It's really a credit to the success that the product's had. The game's come out bug free, and it gives us a chance to immediately dial in on the future.

Shack: I'm wondering what your opinion of MMO pricing models is, seeing as how you have experimented with them lately. Are you happy with the usual approach, or do you wish there was a better way?

Jeff Anderson: Are you kidding? [Laughs] I'm never happy with the pricing models. I think that's the one thing that we as an industry need the most work on, more than anything else. Just look at the launch of Lord of the Rings. I think we were more experimental in that one product in 30 days than any company had been since back in the days I was at Ultima Online, and we kind of went to the flat, all-you-can-eat model for $10 a month instead of the $4.95 per hour model. I think there's a bunch of work that needs to be done, and I think we're just scratching the surface of what the future is going to be.

Shack: How do you feel about the relationship between the customer and the developer under a subscription model? Is there too much pressure on you to get new content out, or is that something that players deserve for their money?

Jeff Anderson: To get high quality content, it does take a bit of time to go through the motions of building it, testing it, qualifying it, and getting it deployed and launched, assuming you want something good. But I think players deserve to have new content added to the product. Otherwise, what are they paying for? Imagine this--if you were actually paying your cable bill, and you watched the same shows every week, how would you feel?

Shack: Right. MMOs are becoming like television series in that way.

Jeff Anderson: Oh, it's too late, they already are. What we build is episodic content, right? We're building a pipeline, a network of programming that we provide to consumers. Anybody who's playing any of the other competitive games who aren't getting that, they should be asking why. Why are these companies just pocketing all the money and not investing in the franchise? Why are they not adding to the world that they've created? And likewise, if you don't feel your publisher is supporting you, what are you hanging out for? I think those are the things that really are becoming differentiators in the space. One of the reasons we're seeing people leaving other games like World of Warcraft is because they just don't understand what they're getting every month. They're bored with the product. And boredom means that there's nothing more for you to do.

One of my favorite questions I get asked is, "What's the end-game in Lord of the Rings?" When you play an MMORPG today, the normal answer is that, well, when you get to level 50, 60, 70, you just have to wait around for the next few years for something new. And they say, "Oh wait, play this raid a hundred times and you'll be satisfied." Right? Like, "What? That's an end-game?" We've got lots of what you would call classic end-game behaviors, whether it's going to be PvP in the Ettenmoors, or raid experiences like Helegrod. We've got those mechanics and the epic loot sets to collect. Sure, we've got those mechanics--but we think the concept of the end-game really misses the point. What that phrase means is that the company has given up on making content for it. You know, why is there an end? And I think that the more I get asked that question, the more I try to spread the news about how I think it really misrepresents what the concept of being an online product is. There are two kinds of strengths [to online games]: One, obviously we play with other players online, and that's a huge incentive, so that I can be with other people. But the other one is that it's a distribution vehicle. It's not only a communication vehicle, it's a distribution vehicle. Where is the content? And so that's what we make sure, is that part of our end game is that there is no end game. [Laughs] You know, you've got another three months worth of new content this month. Enjoy that, go try that experience, whether it's music, or monsters, or adventures, or PvP.

Shack: How would you respond to the common complaint that a new MMO is announced every week? Do you think the genre is in for a recession, or do you envision space in the market for dozens of popular MMOs?

Jeff Anderson: Well, if you go back in time and you do some analysis, I think you'd find that there have been new MMOs being launched--or let's put it this way, announced--every month for the last 15 years. But they're without a doubt the hardest product to make, and the hardest product to final, and the hardest product to launch. And when you really go through that and see what the percentage of games that have been announced that have actually seen the light of day, historically it's a very small percentage. Even look at the story of Lord of the Rings Online, right? It certainly went through a lot of incarnations before it finally got out and we finally launched the product and made it happen. You know, we always jokingly say that, "I wish the press covered closures as much as they cover starts," because they certainly go away as fast as they come. But that being said, I think there's going to be a lot of players coming to the online space, and it's not just around MMORPGs. I think it's the preferred way for players to interact with each other. In that sense, I don't think MMORPGs are a genre as much as a gateway to content. I think, in that sense, the single player game business is on a trajectory that is going down.

Shack: So you think single player games are on the way out?

Jeff Anderson: Well, there's always going to be a room for it, in the same way that there's always going to be room for going to Blockbuster and wanting to buy a video there. But when given the choice between that and video on-demand and NetFlix, it just becomes a less and less important, less relevant way for me to get my content.

Shack: In building these massive games, I'm sure you guys often think up features that simply can't be done with current technology. For instance, integrated voice chat was probably something that nobody would have considered back in the early days of Ultima. What is one concept or idea that you would like to see realized in an MMO that hasn't been done, or simply isn't possible yet?

Jeff Anderson: This is a great question, and it's a topic I'm kind of personally passionate about. I think if you look at the history of peripherals, and you kind of see where we've gone; we went from a keyboard to a keyboard and a mouse. And the mouse was revolutionary compared to a keyboard, right? I mean, just think about that. What a big difference for the average users to be able to use a mouse instead of alt-tabbing or control-t or whatever you had to do to access a program. The mouse just made everything easier and changed the way that people interact with the product. In the same way, right now, what you and I are doing on Skype is a completely different way of interacting with the computer. So those kinds of peripheral upgrades--where the Wii is right now with the Wii remote--those change the way that people interact with the device. I think that's what we're excited about. Because, content, without a doubt, is going to continually improve. We're not even close to getting to the level of illusion that the movies can create. When look at a game, you can say, "Wow, that looks great," but it still doesn't yet look real. Whereas if you're in a film, and you're watching Jurassic Park, it actually looks pretty real. So there's still a pretty big gap between the reality and the gameplay visuals, but that's something that we're all working on and I think I look forward to getting there, and I know predictably we move toward that direction. The thing that excites me the most is how peripheral changes really change the audience demographic that you can reach.

Shack: Oh, definitely. The Wii is obviously a great example of that.

Jeff Anderson: Yeah, and so is voice chat. Taking away the requirement that I have to be using a keyboard to be able to have a conversation, or use a keyboard to actually use things. All of these changes actually make it more and more effective for us to deliver to a wider and wider audience, so that at the end of the day, when we look at gaming, it continually moves away from being the in-the-basement, playing- by-myself, 14-year-old mechanic that it was maybe 15 years ago, to a point where it takes center stage in everyone's life and becomes ubiquitous. As you see it now, we're really close to some of that, where PDAs and cell phones make gaming constant and on-demand, always with you, so that you've always got gaming part of your existence and part of the day to day activities that you're doing.

Shack: Sure. You used to have peripherals for the PC like flight sticks, but those sort of went away as the simulator market declined. If you're interested in peripherals, then, do you see PC development resurging at all, or do you think console development is the way forward?

Jeff Anderson: PCs are always going to retain a place, but long-term, consoles are a huge market. As a company, we want to get to where the consumers are, and the consumers are online and they're on the console. And I think that's why you'll be seeing our next product announcements will be having a strong, multi-platform component.

Shack: So, going forward, will Turbine be acquiring new licenses, or developing a new IP?

Jeff Anderson: Let me just say that we'll be talking to you guys soon about it.

Shack: Okay, well thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

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