Through Turbine's palantír: Developers outline LotRO's future

In J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, characters would use magical orbs known as palantírs to see and communicate with far away places. While Massively's own palantír is at the shop, we had access to the next best thing -- a one-on-two chat about Lord of the Rings Online's future with Turbine's Aaron Campbell and Adam Mersky.

A lot's been happening since LotRO's free-to-play version went online last fall -- the closest thing to a relaunch that this game is likely to ever see -- and both Campbell and Mersky have one important message for fans: We're just getting started. Even as the Turbine team gears up for LotRO's third expansion, Rise of Isengard, the devs want you to know that they're also dedicated to bringing a good amount of content between now and then.

Everything was on the table during this discussion, from this weekend's anniversary celebration to next month's update to the new expansion. Join us after the jump for a look through the palantír to see what information we can pry from the future!

Happy birthday to us, happy birthday to us!

As you read this, LotRO's fourth anniversary is in full swing. In the past, the celebration was fairly low-key, marked only by special tokens dropping in the world that could be exchanged for virtual gift boxes. Starting this year, however, Turbine is expanding the event to become a mini-festival in its own right, with horse races and beer fights.

One of the things the team is experimenting with is taking previous features, such as the old Yule Festival beer brawl, and transplanting them to other areas of the game. While some reports of the festival are less-than-glowing due to the grind involved for reward tokens, it's good to see the devs treating the game's anniversary with more brouhaha.

We asked them about the griefing that's been going on in some places during the beer fights, with malicious players knocking others out of the arena so that they fail the event. Both Campbell and Mersky advised staying as close to the middle as possible to avoid such a possibility and filing reports against any repeated griefers that are abusing the event.

Tomorrow we'll be taking a look at this momentous occasion, both from the perspective of the players and the developers. Stay tuned!

Countdown to Update 3

It's been but a month since Update 2, Echoes of the Dead, launched across the world, and Turbine's ready to show that its dev team is on the ball by prepping another batch of content for May. Update 3 -- no, the devs aren't sharing the name just yet -- is in the wings waiting for its chance at bat.

The centerpiece of Update 3 comes in the form of four brand-new instances: two skirmishes and two dungeons. The first skirmish is called Attack at Dawn (levels 30-65) and takes place at Dol Dinen, the Orc camps in North Downs, while the second is named Icy Cravasse (levels 40-65) and has you trying to take down an Angmar sorcerer in Forochel. Both skirmishes task you to go on the offensive, and they offer new jewelry and armor as special rewards.

If you've been loving the scalable dungeons so far, you'll be excited to dive into one of two additional scalable group instances with both the skirmish marks and unique rewards that we've come to expect. Inn of the Forsaken (levels 20-65) sounds incredibly cool, with many pits, traps and "devilish puzzles" awaiting fearless visitors. If you get far enough, you might even find out the inn's secret: a ship that's waiting in a cavern below. The instance has new armor, weapons, and a pocket item to help you gear up!

Continuing along on this spooky theme, players are also invited to check out the Halls of Night (levels 40-65), what Campbell is calling a "return to the Barrow-downs." The fun begins when adventurers disturb a certain corpse, and it only gets better from there. Along with new armor and jewelry, Halls of Night will reward daring fellowships with cosmetic items. All of these instances will be available to test on Bullroarer soon.

Update 3 will also introduce us to a different type of event: a treasure hunt. While Turbine's still being coy about the specifics, we now know that it will take place in Ered Luin, making it accessible for all levels.

Behold the Rise of Isengard!

Of course, we couldn't wait to pepper the devs with queries about Rise of Isengard and all of The Two Towers goodness waiting for us to discover it this fall. While Campbell and Mersky said that there would be much bigger announcements coming about the expansion at E3, they were happy to let us in on a few juicy tidbits now.

One of the biggest pieces of news is that the expansion will be raising the level cap to 75, not 70 as previously reported. The reason for this is that as the team was working on all of the content, it felt more natural to allow greater room and opportunity for character progression. In fact, the classes team is hard at work inventing and tinkering with ways our characters will grow during these levels, including new skills, improvements to crafting, and other goodies. We asked whether the cap on virtues, currently set at 10, would be raised, and Mersky replied that while the devs were looking into it, it was nothing they could confirm at the moment.

Rise of Isengard's three new zones (Dunland, Gap of Rohan and Isengard) are confirmed to be sizable. "[They're] substantially larger than Mirkwood in regards to the content we're delivering," Campbell said. Epic storyline lovers will thrill to hear that the expansion will include three books as well.

Thematically, the expansion will mark a turning point in players' journeys, as we'll finally begin to encounter the war from the east. At this point in the game, Saruman is at the height of his power, the Rohirrim are confronting his forces daily, and players will be going up against a tower unbroken by the later events of The Two Towers. However, the devs also hinted at the future of the game, when the tower would be shattered and the fan favorite Ents would make their appearance.

How will Turbine handle the epic scope of the clashes that are featured in the books? The developers admitted that while battles ranging in the hundreds of thousands of combatants may be too much for technological limitations, they are certainly looking to have you witness and engage in them on a smaller scale. Perhaps the devs will utilize skirmishes for such storytelling moments, although Campbell and Mersky were mum on the subject.

What is coming, however, is a long-awaited raid against a giant dragon. The raid was scheduled for a previous update but had to be delayed for futher development and testing. One of the things we learned was that this will be a truly epic 24-man raid instead of 12-man.

Of course, all of this is subject to change, and there is no definite date for Rise of Isengard as of yet.

A grab bag of possibilities

Before we let the duo go, we had a number of assorted questions to ask, and the devs were kind enough to address a few of them:
  • How's mounted combat coming along? Good news on this front: Mounted combat is deep in development and has reached the prototype stage. It's something they want to do right.
  • Is Turbine planning on capitalizing on the upcoming Hobbit movies within the game? Currently, Turbine only holds the license to the trilogy, although Warner Bros. (Turbine's parent company) has access to the rest of the library. The Hobbit is nothing that Turbine's talking about right now.
  • What about the promised housing revamps? It's still on the "long list" of things the devs want to get done, but it's not currently on their plate.
  • Will we be seeing golf as a hobby anytime soon? That would be fun, the devs admitted, but not at the top of their list.
  • Are there any plans for a revamp of the character models? While there will always be new cosmetic items introduced to the game, the devs are proud of the fidelity of the game world and characters. As it stands, a revamp of the models would be a time-consuming task, and the devs have to make wise decisions with their resources and time. So, no, we're probably not going to see an upgrade to character models any time soon.
  • Are there plans to revamp other zones as the team did with Evendim? "Yes, it's an ongoing project," they said cryptically.
  • What about reworking other instances and dungeons into a scalable version? The devs want us to know that the Rift raid is something they've certainly not given up on yet.
  • Did the switch to a free-to-play version extend the lifespan of LotRO? In their opinions, yes. By removing the financial barrier of entry from the game, Turbine ensured that friends and interested parties are now able to check LotRO out without worrying about payment (at least initially), and the increased audience will certainly help keep the game operating longer.
Ultimately, Turbine's self-proclaimed number one job is to grow and develop the awesome world it's been given, and the team hopes that the rate and quality of content updates are proof that this is a task they take seriously.

"We've got a lot of runway left to cover, a long time left on the license, and a growing, vibrant playerbase," Mersky said. "It looks good for the future."

This article was originally published on Massively.