Interview: Turbine’s Jeffrey Steefel Talks LOTRO, Design Philosophy, Part Two

The MMO Gamer: You mentioned scale a little bit ago. That was actually something I griped about in my review of the game. I thought the world was very well designed, had good art direction, but I thought it felt… small.

I have a hardback copy of The Lord of the Rings on my bookshelf, and while I was playing I whipped that out to look at the map to compare it to your map. The mapmaker drew a scale on the bottom, and I seem to recall that it was roughly a hundred miles from The Shire to Bree. I did the math on that, and if the scale held true in LOTRO, your horse would be going roughly a thousand miles per hour.

I believe the exact phrase I used was that it felt a bit like a Tolkien-themed Disneyland. So, aside from the obvious issues of polish and size on the disk, what considerations went into making the world the size that it was?

Jeffrey Steefel: We had all those conversations, over, and over, and over again. Especially when you talk to real Tolkien fans who are like, “It took them five days to walk from here to here! And this needs to be this amount of distance!”

But, the bottom line is that the space in between the stuff that you do in these games is not really that interesting. Unless we’re prepared to create, literally, mile-for-mile inch-for-inch Middle Earth with the kind of density that players expect, what’s going to happen is you’re going to have this really cool social center and then a lot of nothing that you’re going to have to get across for a very long time. And then another cool place you’re in, and then a lot of nothing.

That’s one of the challenges with some of these space games in an MMO environment. Vacuum’s just not that interesting, and neither is big, open space. There’s a reason why in the books he actually doesn’t describe every moment that happened while they were walking, just says “Five days later…” because it’s just not interesting.

So, we decided to shrink the world in that respect, try to shrink the less-interesting parts, not [things like] The Shire. The Shire is pretty much built precisely as it was described, and if you look at some of the early maps that were drawn up for The Shire they’re pretty much the way they are.

But, between The Shire and The Lone Lands, for example, to your point, you’d be on your horse for a very long time, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner watching that backend of the horse.

The second thing is: Middle Earth is gigantic. Bigger than any—I can’t even imagine how big it is. But, in ten years I’ll know, because I’ll have built it all.

We had a choice: You can either do the epic-scale of the world kind of the way the movies did, by—it’s funny you used that analogy, because the analogy I make is that the movies in a way are, and Disneyland I use as an example, you can either go to Disneyland and go to all the places, or, you can take that little tram ride that takes you to all the major points of interest.

The tram ride is much faster, and it’s higher up, and you get this sense of “Wow, this is a really big place, this is cool!” But, you’re just touching on little points along the way. That’s what the movies did, they had to, otherwise it would have been a hundred hour movie, not an eleven hour movie, and they did it brilliantly.

Our choice was no, this is an immersive, persistent world, so let’s do the Disneyland, not the tram ride. Let’s create depth in all the places that we go, there’s richness in this world, and let’s not be in a hurry, we’ve got lots of time to grow it.

Let’s make sure that we focus on every place that you actually are has stuff going on and it has interest. I can’t say we did that 100%, there’s still times where you feel like you’re just trying to get from place to place. That’s why fast travel exists.

But, long answer to your short question.

The MMO Gamer: Alright, we’re going back to high school English class, now.

Jeffrey Steefel: Oh boy.

The MMO Gamer: I’d like for you to tell us Turbine’s overall design philosophy. Why you people go to work every day to make the games that you do.

But, do not use the words fun, creative, original, or innovative.

Jeffrey Steefel: [laughing] Fun, creative, original, or innovative? Ah, I don’t do any of those things, anyway.

Well, I can tell you why I do. I’ve been in one kind of media or another my whole life. Started life as a—sorry, you said go back to high school—started life as a kid who wanted to be an astronaut, but who was a singer and a musician.

Ended up in college as an engineer, who graduated with a drama degree. Was a performer on Broadway for a long time while I was playing around with ten Amigas in my little tiny apartment in New York, teaching myself Lightwave and whatever.

This whole time I was involved in online social networking—I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars I didn’t have on the GEnie Network playing Federation, which is this space-based MUD, just being with people all over the world and having that whole experience of what that’s really, really like.

That’s been a part of my DNA all along. The fact that I’m in a place that’s building that, really—it was interesting, I spoke at the Virtual Worlds Summit on Monday here, and the whole speech was about the fact that you don’t stop talking about massively multiplayer games, and virtual worlds, and what’s this one good for, and what’s that one good for?

And I’m like, “Dude, same thing.” You know? Some virtual worlds are just like a big open sandbox with nothing in it, and that’s not really good anyway, but we’re building social worlds, we’re building the social networking on—this whole thing about Web 2.0 social networks, we’ve been building social networks for ten years.

So, what drives me is figuring out how to create these environments where people are interacting with each other, and increasingly getting more sophisticated in what that interaction’s like. It’s going to get really complicated going forward, because now we’re starting to get different types of people together in these environments who don’t want the same thing.

That’s the next challenge, that’s what I’m excited about. That’s what gets me up in the morning.

The MMO Gamer: I’d like to follow-up on that, but I am running a bit short on time. So, for now, thank you very much for joining us, and we look forward to speaking with you more in the future.

Jeffrey Steefel: My pleasure.

The MMO Gamer: Good luck with LOTRO.

Jeffrey Steefel: Thanks. See you in Middle Earth, I hope.

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  1. Orodruin Khuzdul says:

    It’s disappointing to see how much Steefel’s views have changed with the development of “The MInes of Moria.” Basically he’s gone from upholding a game “faithful to the books” to a game with certain “needs” that is anything but a believable world.

    I was kind of hoping that LOTRO would be something new — something realistic to a point, and more mature in terms of more deeply involved gameplay and less neon lights and flashy graphics garbage. Since PAX, I’ve begun to doubt him. Hopefully, he’ll prove me wrong.

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