Riders of Rohan
In the words of Frank Sinatra, 2011 "was a very good year" for Lord of the Rings Online. Executive Producer Kate Paiz and Director of Communications Adam Mersky sat down with us to talk about the future of the game, but before they got to the juicy details, they wanted to give a quick recap of the previous year for the game and the studio.

The big emphasis for LotRO in 2011 was the unifying of the global community and the release of the game's third (and best-selling) expansion, Rise of Isengard. While the aforementioned unification of the NA and EU sides of the game presented many challenges for the team including localization, it paid off in spades. Turbine plans to continue to add more payment options for those used to methods other than the ones currently available. The team was most proud of unveiling Saruman "in all of his glory" and the inclusion of free players into the sphere of Monster Play.

"The game definitely grew last year," Mersky said in response to a question about the current number of players. He noted that the playerbase has changed somewhat in the past two years, becoming more casual in some respects.

But it's time to move forward! Turbine is prepared to take LotRO players on a dizzying chase around the wilds of Middle-earth with a few significant changes and additions to the game -- and the release of the brand-new expansion later this year, Riders of Rohan. Mounted combat, ho!

Saruman
Lessons learned

One of the key lessons that the team learned from 2011 is that players very much enjoy interacting with what Turbine calls the "Big T" -- referring to Tolkien's narrative and characters from the book. Because of this, players should expect to see an emphasis on crossing paths with the books more often going forward. (The "little t," by the way, is Turbine's reference to itself.)

"Players want more! It's not a complaint; it's a compliment to what the team has done," Mersky said. Turbine will be bringing more of those "Big T" moments, such as Boromir's demise at Amon Hen and excursions into Fangorn Forest.

Even with this "Big T" mission, Turbine continues to be dedicated to fleshing out parts of the world that weren't heavily covered by the books, such as Enedwaith and Dunland. For the team, it's as much about the journey as the destination.

Turbine also vowed to increase its content output in 2012, promising that this year will be bigger than the one before. The profits the game has been churning out since going free-to-play? Those will be reinvested to "double-down" on content for the future.

The 5th Anniversary

April of 2012 will mark LotRO's fifth anniversary, and the team is "enthusiastic" about the milestone. The LotRO team has activities on deck for this event, although Mersky and Paiz wanted the interview to focus on broad strokes instead of the minute details.

We did ask about the fallout from last year's bungled fourth anniversary event, which turned into a "Grindaversary" for many players trying to earn rewards. Paiz said that the team certainly heard the feedback and shared player sentiment in the matter. Turbine wants to do much better with this year's anniversary and will not only be "noodling and tweaking" the elements from last year but be adding more mechanics for this one.

Map of the Great River
Update 6: The Great River

Have you already conquered the whole of Dunland? Are you twiddling your thumbs looking for more content to devour? Turbine's got good news for you, as the spring update will add a completely new region to the game: The Great River.

The region takes its name from the Great River Anduin, and readers of the books or watchers of the films will recognize it as the waterway that the Fellowship took south from Lothlorien to Amon Hen. In terms of the game map, it will serve as a gateway between Lothlorien to the southern country of Rohan (and more on that later!), much the same way that Enedwaith led in to Dunland. It begins at the mouth of the Anduin Valley and travels down to the area right before Fangorn.

Players will get to experience the journey down the river as new challenges and sights present themselves. Kate Paiz says that we should not be disappointed: "I think the players will find it extremely stimulating."

Update 6 will also contain the second iteration of the instance finder, which Turbine considers to be an in-process system. "It's really big and really hard to get right the first time," Paiz explained. Once the update hits, players will be able to join the finder as a group and choose specific instances. Additionally, the instance finder will completely replace the world join and reflecting pool interfaces, as it will have rendered those redundant.

Skirmish soldier
Coming soon to a game near you

Casting our vision out further into the future, we see a glimpse of something altogether unexpected -- but not unwelcome. Turbine shocked us by announcing that players will be granted the ability to take their skirmish soldiers out into the world proper as companion characters. Dubbed "soldiers on landscapes," this feature will assist soloers and small parties with the more difficult tasks in the world.

Paiz and Mersky emphasized that this feature is still deep in testing and that while skirmish soldiers will make it out into the gameplay world, as of right now they will not be allowed into instancing due to balance issues. Perhaps some day, but not now.

Another pleasant surprise is that a new festival is in the works for the summer, which checks off one of my personal wish list items for the year.

Expect to see a much more agile and responsive Turbine in 2012 as well. With the difficulties of unifying the game behind it, the team wants to focus on responding to player feedback and producing more content than ever before. In fact, Paiz and Mersky vowed that starting this year, players will be seeing LotRO adopt Asheron's Call's monthly update model.

This means that we'll be seeing smaller, frequent content updates between the major rollouts. These smaller updates will be designed to give players something to look forward to and should include bug fixes, store additions, quality of life improvements, festival tweaks, and additional epic storyline content. This will be made possible by restructuring the Turbine team to meet the demands of this "tighter cycle."

Map of Rohan
Expansion four: Riders of Rohan

Of course, you probably skipped everything above there to get right to the big story: news of the game's fourth expansion. Yes, it is Riders of Rohan; yes, it's coming out this fall; and yes, it will feature mounted combat.

Both of those facts might not be as much a surprise to you as Turbine would have liked, with mounted combat rumored to be in the works for a while now and news of the "Riders of Rohan" URL being snagged by Turbine back in 2009. According to the duo, this particular expansion was mapped out way in advance, and sometimes there's no way to keep everything completely secret.

But enough of that -- what's Riders of Rohan going to be like? The very first thing Turbine told us after we stopped gleeking out is that it's trying to do the region justice by making it "crazy enormous." Just one look at the map of Middle-earth reveals Rohan to be a large country with rolling, grassy plains, so it makes sense for the developers to try to capture that feeling of expanse and space. It's so large, in fact, that the regions developed for this expansion will be twice as big as Moria.

Even more insane in terms of scope is the fact that the expansion will only be covering the eastern half of Rohan. It will be divided into two small zones (Amon Hen and the Eves of Fangorn) and one large one (East Plains). Looking at the map, we see the expansion drives a wedge right into the middle of Rohan with room to move east (to the marshes), west (the western plains and Helm's Deep), and south (Gondor).

While the depths of Fangorn Forest are too treacherous to allow from a lore perspective, the devs definitely want to get players into the outer reaches of this infamous woods and perhaps see an Ent or two.

Rohirrim
Saddle up, pard'ner!

The team's been hard at work developing the technology to toss large numbers of enemies at you; these enemy groupings which will be called Warbands. Warbands will be prevelant in the East Plains and will be defeated by players using a new tactic: mounted combat. The idea behind this "robust system" is the image of groups of mounted warriors dynamically clashing, wheeling about, and maneuvering to gain advantage over their foes.

Players will learn special skills for mounted combat and spend their spare time up-armoring their My Little War-Ponies.

The East Plains will be the only place in the game (for now) where mounted combat will be allowed, and the devs emphasized that it would not be wise to travel the zone on foot due to the size and danger. It's in this region that Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas traveled to find their kidnapped Hobbit friends and first encountered the Rohirrim.

There's definitely challenges of pushing the technological boundaries of the game, although Paiz is confident the team is up to the task. If you're sore that you won't be going to Helm's Deep right away, take comfort in knowing that it's coming soon. "It's absolutely the next step," said Paiz.

Along with the new regions and mounted combat comes a 10-level cap increase, from 75 to 85. New skills and class-like traits for mounted combat will be a primary focus of these levels.

So why is Turbine so devoted to the idea of expansions when the rest of the industry seems to be abandoning them? We were told that expansions give devs an excuse to cut out a huge piece of content, and besides, it's more exciting and fun for players to get all of that at once instead of piecemeal. Plus, since Lord of the Rings Online is such a region-based game, it made sense to divvy those regions up into expansions. Our prediction for 2016? Doom of Mordor.

If you're liking the notion of two expansions two years in a row, Turbine gives you permission to anticipate the same in the future. "We're pretty committed to doing a big expansions every year or so," Mersky concluded.

We want to thank Turbine for taking the time to talk with us about this year's exciting content!

This article was originally published on Massively.
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