Visiting a game studio is always a special occasion, whether it be as press or as a player, and getting to visit the PAX East-adjacent Standing Stone Games is no exception. Thanks to the team there, I was able to sit down with the Executive Producer, Rob ‘Severlin’ Ciccolini, to conduct an interview regarding Lord of the Rings Online, one of the two games currently run by SSG. Many thanks to Jerry ‘Cordovan’ Snook for facilitating and joining the interview. As with my last recorded interview with the SSG team, we include a full transcript for the hearing-impaired. For full disclosure, it should be noted that I am a frequent guest in-game during Snook’s +Cord of the Rings show on the game’s official Twitch channel as a veteran player of LotRO and member of the LotRO stream team, there to provide guidance on gameplay. Thus, the interview included a couple of references to events that happened during previous streams.
MMOC: All righty, so I ran into a random player on the show floor at PAX, was very upset that he had the five-year hoodie that I have seemingly misplaced, but anyway, his name is Andy Molloy, and he’s an altaholic on Brandywine. He’s one of those players who plays for a few or several months and then goes away and then comes back and always loses his house. He’s wondering if there could possibly be a mechanic where somebody could pause the upkeep of their house, put everything in storage or whatever and when they come back, they can just hit the button and go back to having their house if it’s still available.
Ciccolini: We… somewhere on the list… ‘the list’… I make quotes… is a pre-pay for houses so if you know you can just pre-pay up to a year and just be good when you come back. What we’re trying to prevent though is every house has an expense. We’re trying to prevent someone from just… the house never frees up. So we don’t want that, but we also don’t want something like one of people… one of the groups rather that has asked for that like military people play the game and they go away for a while and they come back so we do want to avoid or accommodate that. So that is something that is on the list certainly. It crops up on the feedback list and we been looking for… it’s the kind of thing that if it gets bumped up in player priority that we can definitely look at that earlier than later. It will be easier to look at things like that when we have a new LotRO engineer which we are working on getting. I think I talked about that in another podcast. So one of the good things about having such a fantastic player base is that they support the game and because they support the game very well. We had a great year last year and what we want to do is when the players support the game and we have a good year we roll that back into resources for the game, like we reinvest, and one of the ways we do that is by expanding the team so we have extra resources working on content. We have extra artists and we are getting an extra engineer.
MMOC: Yeah, kinda like the concern where the you know the infamous 64-bit client was finally said it’s on hold until you can get that resource put back into place because other things have taken precedence.
Ciccolini: Particularly updates to backend systems that maybe… I mean, the game is old, there at certain things that Microsoft end support for and you don’t want to float in that world, because if something goes wrong with your hardware or some such, you may be in a state where you have extended downtime as you’re trying to get stuff done and we wouldn’t want that.
MMOC: Like the lottery system?
Snook: Now that specifically was about a deprecation of the mylotro site with the lottery.
MMOC: I think so, but it was the actual servers that it was hosted on got a brownout and it toasted the servers so it couldn’t be recovered.
Ciccolini: The other thing is that there have been a lot of weird security things this year globally which is taking a lot of our tech ops and when tech ops goes away, engineering has to support them.
MMOC: Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of extended downtimes recently and my understanding is that it’s catching up on some of that tech debt where things have been put off and put off and now suddenly you can’t put it off anymore or otherwise it will conceivably make the game unplayable into an extent where players or not you know were using a bit of hyperbole wouldn’t be hyperbolic at that point.
Ciccolini: In the technology’s defense it wasn’t entirely tech debt. Some of it was brand new security threats that came out that we had to update and do security patches for in terms of servers.
MMOC: All right, so actually that’s a good question. After we get through these various rounds of getting past updating security, getting past tech debt, what sort of improvements are we looking at in terms of the overall server structure because of course, lag in Minas Tirith, lag in Bree… as much as I would like to say, ‘oh hey bro, get better internet connection’ which is unfortunately some of the complaints is that’s how you’re going to solve those but there are some issues… I have a great internet connection, I’ve got excellent ping, and I’m lagging like crazy and I won’t ride my warsteed in Minas Tirith, which is a stupid idea anyway. But I’ve seen some epic rubberbanding because server and client weren’t keeping up, so where are we headed in that direction?
Ciccolini: So the Minas Tirith lag as far as we’ve investigated is a client lag. It’s just the part where it’s coming up to certain memory requirements as far as we can tell. I mean I’m not saying that there’s no server-side lag anywhere but Minas Tirith in particular is so large, so complicated that the server actually has problems because it’s swapping out memory. We’re running up against a very real memory limitation there, so we’ve worked around it and 64-bit should help. At some point we want to go back and rework the entire thing but that’s a lot of our people taking a lot of time for something that not a lot of players are currently playing. We’ll will get to it eventually, for now we worked around it and moved on to Mordor and North. Basically we right now are going north both into Northern Mirkwood and then beyond for the next update.
MMOC: Speaking of going beyond, I know you probably can’t answer this question, but I’m going to ask anyway. I understand that The Hobbit materials are not officially within license yet we have the Path of the Company deed which I thoroughly love by the way…
Snook: To Sev there, I don’t think that’s true, is that? We have the license…
MMOC: I’ve heard conflicting…
Snook: My understanding is that we do have the rights to The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but do not have for The Silmarillion.
MMOC: OK, if that’s official, we can do The Hobbit…
Ciccolini: It’s not official, I have to go and look. I believe that’s the case.
MMOC: It would make sense. It actually surprised me that the Thorin and Company deed was right there in your face as soon as you get to Northern Mirkwood and start looking around and all of a sudden you’re doing stuff that’s specifically Hobbit-related that was never mentioned in the appendices.
Ciccolini: So I want to be careful because you’re going to the gray area of talking about licensing.
MMOC: And we don’t want to start that fight again.
Ciccolini: And one of the problems is if the licensor is listening and they have a different expectation of what we say, they may get upset especially since I’m not the lore person. I know the lore; I’ve read the books a number of times but I’m not the lore person that knows. Part of things… there are many things in The Hobbit that were mentioned in the Lord of the Rings, things that they find later that we can talk about in terms of nostalgia or Easter eggs. So the water is muddied between those and even with The Silmarillion. If things are mentioned in the main book that reference stories from The Silmarillion… I mean we can’t go full-blown but if they’re in the books, then we can basically mention them.
MMOC: Well where I was kinda going with it is when Northern Mirkwood was on Bullroarer, the collision plates through the Forest Gate at the rocks weren’t there and you can get through, and I rode around on the other side of that. It seemed pretty well developed, the Vales of Anduin, and it is mentioned in the books at the Council of Elrond, Gimli and the dwarves are kind of upset that the Beornings were charging them a little bit of a toll to use the roads through their land, so that is something a lot of players are looking forward to hopefully seeing. Those of us who like to take chickens to weird places in the game (I’m not blaming Corey Olsen at all for this) —
Ciccolini: We’re aware of people’s love of chicken play and how they like to wander in places they shouldn’t be as chickens.
MMOC: You could’ve blocked the boats to Ithilien from chickens, and you didn’t, so why not? I was bugging Pinion about it earlier and I keep bugging him because we want to know when we can actually legit throw a chicken into the Crack of Doom, cos the only way you can currently get into the Crack of Doom for real is to get through some collision plates I found a hole in one day while I was streaming. I was actually trying to, but yeah, that happened.
Ciccolini: I don’t want to be a sort of a fun spoiler, but one of the things that we want to be careful of is there are certain iconic places that hold a certain gravitas, particularly for the fans and we want to have fun because after all the books are about hobbits that fight evil because they’re sort of common people. The fun has a certain gravitas to it, that’s one of the themes of the book. On the other hand I don’t know we want to be careful that certain scenes in the book remain iconic in players’ minds. Our urgency to open up those areas for things like throwing chickens into Mount Doom is not… is not prevalent if that makes sense.
MMOC: Right, right, I understand. Let’s see. I understand that Shelob is our next big bad and Corey Olsen had the best troll suggestion for that. I think it would be funny but I don’t think it would actually be doable because you don’t want to start that fight, to have the entrance to her, and we know we’re going to see Shelob and then all of a sudden you see a human woman come out and then Shelob comes out and pounces on her and wraps her up as of course a reference to Shadows of Mordor.
Ciccolini: I don’t have… I’m glad other games have been able to use the Tolkien license and I’ve heard great things about the games. I’ve played them, enjoyed them but I don’t want to obviously trash talk other games, especially ones that are from a company I used to work for. They’re great games and the people working on them are great, you know what I mean so you know.
Ciccolini: It’s a tough it’s a tough thing to say. I think that it’s interesting some of the directions they took with it in order to open up a new territory, and so I think in the future we see a lot of other things a lot of other people are looking at doing things with Lord of the Rings I’m really interested to see sort of what their take is. The good news… sorry, go ahead.
Snook: I was just going to say maybe to address the question of Shelob being the next big bad, do we have plans for Shelob in Update 23?
Ciccolini: So our next update will move towards the Grey Mountains but we expand we expect to have some reference or maybe even a short appearance because that will be the beginning of that storyline. Does that make sense? So the next update will not be like ‘oh God you know, deal with her immediately!’
MMOC: Get her in as a force in play…
Ciccolini: Right. Now, how much the story writers want to tease her or even give a first look is I think something up for discussion. We just finished the other one they’re kind of working on that storyline now. So I suspect we will see something of her in the next update and we will certainly see story elements of her in the next update but I don’t want to tie their hands particularly if they feel… like what I’m worried about is this is the kind of thing that happens. They’re working on something, Art is doing it. They’re getting all excited and then they realize you know what? This would be have more emotional impact if we do it with a bigger reveal in the update after and so I don’t want to get excited and then people are like… I don’t mind talking and changing plans… the players when I talk like this should know you know that this is us talking casually and plans may change. These are not official announcements but I also don’t want to open up something where the players are disappointed.
Snook: It does go to… so we had an earlier producer’s letter that had suggested that Update 23 might be Minas Tirith with a Shelob content and that has been pushed out slightly in place of some other stuff for Update 23.
Ciccolini: Correct. One of the things that that players want… they’ve been about instances, so the next update is intended to be instance-heavy.
MMOC: Well, that will make a lot of people happy.
Ciccolini: So long as we can do that and still give the solo players plenty to do, so we can do like 1- and 3-man instancing as well, so they have a lot of things to do and there’ll still be some landscape content, might be lighter on landscape content and heavier on instanced content with a lot for solo players.
MMOC: Everybody has to take a turn.
MMOC: So you mentioned the Grey Mountains… where the Grey Mountains meet up with the Misties, and right in that little corner is Gundabad. Lots of orcs.
Ciccolini: There are lots of orcs there.
MMOC: Are we going to Gundabad?
Ciccolini: That I can’t answer right now. Sorry, I don’t want to answer that right now.
MMOC: Well, that’s better than ‘no’, so I’ll take that as a hopeful remark in my opinion. Of course one of the things even much further out than dealing with Shelob, Minas Morgul, and the journey back, people are wondering what sort of basic tentative groundwork or methodology of how you’re going to do the Scouring of the Shire. Until the Q&A that was on the stream however long ago, a week and a half, two weeks, whatever, it was that was the first time you guys had openly confirmed that yes you are doing the Scouring of the Shire. We all pretty much assumed, but it wasn’t actually put down in writing, as it were.
Ciccolini: I mean, of course we need to do that. The problem is for someone reading the book you kind of get to the Scouring of the Shire fairly for a quick, but the inferred content between the Ring and the Scouring of the Shire, there is a real lot, right, and all of our lore people are looking at that like ‘oh my God there’s so much that we need to do’ that the Scouring of the Shire is a long way away. So I think there’s a lot of content that we need to explore in all of that time before we get to the Scouring of the Shire. I can see the gleam in their evil eyes about how they want to do it but I don’t like… we’re not there yet in terms of like there’s a lot of content that we want to do before then and honestly even though I know that people have seen certain iconic scenes but there’s a lot of Mordor left and we don’t want to run right back into Mordor because the oppressive feel of Mordor is something you can’t overdo with the players. There’s still a lot of Mordor left and there’s still a lot threat there that need to be dealt with as well.
MMOC: Yeah, the other three quarters of Mordor. Speaking of Mordor, Mordor hit everyone like a freight train. Unless you were top of the line geared up and had your friends with you or were Chromite Swiftpaw, a lot of people found Mordor too tough. Mob density was a little bit too much, too great. We’re not even going to talk about the whole Ash thing and the whole kerfuffle there. As far as I’m concerned, that’s been sorted. But the main issue that still remains, I’ve got a Minstrel, got decent gear, still gets her butt kicked with regularity in Mordor with mobs of lower level and that’s the first time that’s ever happened in-game. Before, you could just go through the game with just quest gear and you wouldn’t have too much of a problem unless you pulled every single mob in the area, but Mordor is completely the opposite. Are there any plans to massage that a little bit to make it a little bit more casual/solo-friendly because right now you have to have top of the line gear just to survive, especially if you’re a Minstrel… Jerry.
MMOC: Putting Might gear on a Minstrel.
Ciccolini: So, there’s there’s a lot of to talk about there. First of all, the design for Mordor, the intention was meant to be if you were going along… first of all, Mordor was supposed to be tougher. It just was, it’s Mordor. If people had gone in and started going into Mordor and pull 20 mobs and kill them, I think the players would be like ‘wow!’ On the other hand, we wanted to have the main storyline go down passing Mordor that weren’t too difficult for the normal player that isn’t top of the line geared. And I think that in terms of moving through the storyline and into the Allegiances and then the Allegiances start sending you places that are tougher I think that that line was a little too tough. So I wouldn’t… when we go back to it that is something that we can look at. On the other hand, I think one of the problems is I think the class balance pass will also help that. You’re like… so some of the never used trees will get some buffs. Some people who take DPS trees and otherwise other classes might see in the long run not the short run more bonuses in people like the Minstrel and the Burglar should be able to compete. I know that the Champion for instance is getting some buffs as well because that’s sort of fallen behind, and in the past we have given Hunter buffs and now they’re actually doing very good DPS. On the tanks some of the mechanics are getting fixed but they’re in a good place. They have the survival they need but I think that some of the other classes are falling behind. Beorning needs a lot of work so our strategy there is when the first pass comes and it has hit Palantir. The players will come back and their first impression will be that everybody got kind of modified but this isn’t enough for my class. Because rather than swinging the pendulum way too much, we’re doing a small series of changes for every class except the ones kind of need it more… Beorning, then ones that really need bug fixes because what will happen is everything right now is all over the place. Everything will come closer towards a happy middle and then we’re going to see it on live and then we’re going to do that again, so it will come in waves where all the classes slowly move in to balance so we don’t try to do… We want to avoid two things: pendulum of a class goes from like way low to way too high and then gets pulled back and we also want to avoid the case where well Burglar got their pass and I’m still waiting on my class a year and a half later. So I think that will help and I think the main path needs to be massaged, but I think that if you’re going to do some of the world quests and some of the endgame content in the deeper Shadow, you will need gear, because it’s Mordor.
MMOC: Right. No one wants Mordor to become easy, they just wanted a little less tough, like maybe bring it down just a little bit. There was a question that was asked on the Q&A that you didn’t have time to answer, a specific Hunter-related one. Caanjaal asked if you could adjust or remove the Hunter animation for the Hunter skills Cry of the Hunter or Purge Poison. [He said] the animations are currently exceedingly long (for Purge Poison, that is true) when compared to similar skills for other classes and detrimental to the survival of the Hunter. (They’re OP, especially in PvMP.) For instance, the animation is so long, it’s almost equal to the time just riding out the stun you’re trying to remove. It wasn’t a big issue with previous iterations of the game, but with the DPS levels of bosses and creeps, it’s not uncommon to get stunned, immediately trigger Cry of the Hunter, and be dead before the animation’s even done. So it’s like getting stunlocked, basically.
Ciccolini: So the…
Snook: I think this is something we’re going to have to take a look at.
Snook: I don’t think we have an immediate answer to that, that I’m aware of.
Ciccolini: What we don’t want do… we don’t wanna get into the specifics of specific powers. The systems people come up to me and wave your hands a lot and say the animations are all over the place and we should fix that in a general sense. So they’re aware that there is… we could probably go through 25 different ‘this animation is too long’ sort of questions and the time to bring that up is when this moves from Palantir onto Bullroarer, then as people are going through and testing the changes to their classes stuff that needs immediate attention should be doing that. I also want to say that in the long run we definitely want to support PvM.
MMOC: Yeah, actually that was a good question. There were a couple of folks, particularly Bludborn, is advocating the notion of putting PvMP in as a premium option if not full free to play. What are your thoughts on that?
Ciccolini: It depends. One… so when PVP becomes free to play and people can make unlimited accounts, there were certain ways of exploiting the game that open up. So we are not… we want more players in but we are not keen on all of the sudden allowing monster players to create unlimited accounts and all of the things that come with that. Does that make sense? ‘Cause all of a sudden it opens a whole bunch of balance issues and those are sometimes not design problems. Sometimes those require having the engineering in to prevent those exploits, so part of that is by design to prevent that. A VIP account has more value and the people… and it’s harder to exploit in terms of doing that with hundreds or thousands of accounts if someone could be creating them.
MMOC: But yeah, but people are already complaining about lag in the Ettenmoors, so that would compound that problem. You mentioned VIP accounts and value… one of the other things that some folks are wondering about is that there’s been a call for more VIP rewards. The last major new perk given to VIP accounts was not having to pay upkeep for Belfalas housing, so is there anything in the works or being considered to add value to a VIP account?
Ciccolini: So, VIP accounts are a constant thing. The answer to your question is yes, that we expect to add VIP value as often as possible. One of the things about VIP that’s kind of odd, is that… so VIP has a lot of ongoing value and as a designer, you expect these perks. But for the players, old perks even though they give constant value, they aren’t as exciting as new stuff, so one of the things we want to do is give more VIP perks. I think we’ll look back at the LotRO VIP perks in… fall is the timing on that?
Snook: Fallish, I think.
Ciccolini: Yes, I believe if I’ve remembered the schedule on it. I wish I’d like the ability to accelerate all these things but things have to happen in a certain order to give time to be developed.
MMOC: It goes back to the overall fact that when the transition to Standing Stone happened, everybody was well aware of the presence of Daybreak as the publisher, now hardly anyone remembers… I just remember some folks who had experience playing other Daybreak games and there was noticeable concern that ‘oh my god, what are they going to do? Are they going to have a hand in things?’ and now anytime anybody is even aware of them as the publisher is whenever they go to Bullroarer and have to re-sign the EULA and go back to live and have to sign it again. So, obviously you have a pretty… you’re basically considered the boss, but there’s obviously somebody above you making decisions and that’s cool, ’cause that’s the way a company works, so how are things going, you know, the overall health of the game and the company itself?
Ciccolini: Daybreak is great, OK. All of our interactions with them have been fantastic. It is creating a synergy in that we can enlist knowledge from them so the good news is that Daybreak runs a lot of MMOs, and they love MMOs as we love MMOs and we love these games. The other thing is that my direct boss is Jack Emmert [Ed. Note: CEO, Austin studio]. He has a lot of experience running MMOs, possibly more than anyone on the planet except maybe some of the people across the world. So his feedback is fantastic, being able to enlist that kind of knowledge is great.
Snook: Could we do… we’re getting close to the end here. You got another question or two, maybe?
MMOC: Yeah. We can touch on the music system because that’s something, you know, you’ve probably heard the consternation that fiddles don’t have three octaves and I think DarthCeltics is working on a possible workaround for that [Ed. Note: a new Basic Fiddle was added after this interview which addressed this primary concern and both the Sprightly and Lonely Mountain fiddles were tweaked to give them a wider range]. But I think the big concern right now is that the two really good fiddles besides the basic one anyone can get were put in the Spring Festival. Will they be available in subsequent festivals so that players can go into the Summer Festival and get them or do they have to wait until next spring until they can get some more?
Ciccolini: We had a solution for that, and I can’t remember what it was.
Snook: I know that in general, I have the ability to give them out for contests and events so we might use that, but I’m not sure if that’s the solution or just part of what we’re gonna be doing.
MMOC: I’m not sure if you’re currently aware, but most of the bands will create alts on all of the servers, so they will need to grind that content on every server for however many band alts they have.
Ciccolini: So, when we discussed it, let’s talk about the design, because a lot of times I… we discuss the design at a high level and then… so we don’t consider musical instruments cosmetics, we consider them content. Cosmetics are the kind of things that we can play with in terms of difficulty in acquiring. Content is something that needs to be able to be acquired… if you, you know, put in the time in order to get that, so instruments are content. We realize that people need them in order to do their bands, they’re not just… in other words, I want to make sure that the fiddle is available to people and if we put in a purple fiddle it has you know particles on it, that’s cosmetic but not the sound. I think that I need to look into what’s happening with the extra fiddles in terms of… they produce a different sound and so I wanted to make them for anyone who did it, and so that’s why we put them in the festival rather than like put them in lockboxes or put them on for dust, so that anyone of any level could access them. That’s our goal. We don’t want necessarily to shut them down. We want people to be able to get them, that’s why they’re on the festivals, tho I’d have to look into the specifics of that, but I wanted to go through the design intention was.
MMOC: All right, since [Snook]’s not here, can we get a hint about the new instrument you mentioned on the Q&A, and I’m not talking… don’t tell me… okay, if you want to, you can tell me what instrument you’re actually working on, can you tell me what family of instrument it is, like woodwind or string, brass…?
Ciccolini: [laugh] No. So there’s people that will be their joyous revelation, and I don’t want to take that from them. You’ll have to find out anything about that potential current instrument when they get talked about.
MMOC: Final question then. Can we get a sneak peek at the new stuff in the anniversary this year?
Snook: I think so, probably. We have a new tier.
MMOC: Well, yeah, it goes to eleven.
Snook: I don’t think we want to give out the gifts yet, but we could probably talk about…
Ciccolini: Let’s save that… the thing about the anniversary is that it’s a different kind of content. We want all the excitement to happen on the anniversary, so whereas I… it’s easy for me to spoil normal content because the joy of that is playing. The anniversary joy is surprises, so it’s a little different in terms of what the design intention is, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the anniversary and reduce the surprise there.
Snook: We can talk a little bit about what our plans are, though, which is that we have like a new tier of the eleventh, of the yearly events, we’ll have a year eleven tier. We will have a gift for our players as well, similar to what we’ve done in past years. So we do have things at the Party Tree and I believe new items related to that, some kinda itemization for the new stuff for the year eleven tier.
Ciccolini: You were very forthcoming there.
Snook: [laughs] Yeah.
Ciccolini: That’s nice.
MMOC: Any hints about what we might see in the producer’s letter that’s coming with the anniversary?
Ciccolini: So we’re trying to figure out… well, we’ll talk about some of this stuff that we’ve talked about informally in sort of meetings, we’ll talk a little bit about what’s coming in the fall, and we’ll talk about the sort of longer term future about what players can see and some of the areas we’d like to visit.
Snook: I think we’ll have more info on U23 as well.
Ciccolini: One of the things we’ve been discussing is we may go written producer’s letter, video producer’s letter, written producer’s letter, but we don’t know how the players will react to that yet, so we’re exploring doing something like that.
MMOC: I will always recommend that if you do videos, get it transcribed. So thank you guys much.
A final note after the interview. LotRO‘s 11th anniversary begins at 10am Eastern/server time on April 19th and runs until 3am Eastern/server time on May 9th. There is a 12-hour anniversary livestream tentatively slated for April 25th, hosted by Cordovan. Keep an eye on the forums for the final date and time to be announced.