Interview with Turbine’s Jeffrey Steefel

I had a chance to talk with Jeffrey Steefel, the executive producer for Lord of the Rings Online, and I decided that it would be great to discuss some of the lore aspects of the MMO.  Since I had recently completed most of the Mines of Moria quests, I figured talking about the lore of the black pit would be a good way to go.

Jeffrey told me that when they started designing Moria they had two huge fundamentals that would guide the specifics: space and story.  He launched right into the fact that Moria was a place steeped in history.  It contains remnants of the greatest dwarven civilization to exist in Middle Earth.  So when looking at spaces to create they wanted to present the civilization and not make a series of caves or encounters ala Dungeons and Dragons-type dungeon.

This history is very notable with the passage westward from the First Hall on the east side of Moria, where Durin envisioned Khazad-dûm at the Mirrormere lake.  Jeffrey said that the dwarves started with cruder tools and hastier progress, and the architecture was reminiscent of earlier real-life civilizations such as the early Roman periods.  As Turbine created the space westward they took some of the concepts from the greater ancient civilizations, such as the Roman empire, Anglo-Saxon architecture, and Jeffrey thought that there might even be hints of Egyptian influences in western Moria.  After all, he said, when you have 500 years to create a space, it’s going to be pretty intricate and well designed.

The space also had to contain a feasible self-contained ecosystem, and that is why places like the Waterworks and items like the reflecting mirrors were designed.  He said that they felt the dwarves would at least have control over simple mechanics, such as drawing power from a river or moving light through the underground.  Even though the dwarves would trade with the elves, Khazad-dûm had to be largely self-sufficient, and the space was designed to reflect that.

The story of Khazad-dûm and its fall to Moria also had to be conveyed in the space.  The Flaming Deeps sub-region was an example Jeffrey gave me where they wanted to convey a place that reflected the balrog, Durin’s Bane.  Turbine also wanted to give the impression that Moria was waking up.  Jeffrey said that in the Lord of the Rings movie The Fellowship of the Ring when the bucket falls down the well, things started waking up.  For so long Moria had been dormant, and now the doors had been breached.  He stated that first and foremost they always go back to the source (i.e., Tolkien’s works), and they never just “do what would be cool here.”  They give paramount value to ensuring it is as Middle-Earth as possible.

Having done some quick research on the Encyclopedia of Arda, I had found that Tolkien gave the briefest footnote that Durin VII reclaimed Khazad-dûm during the Fourth Age of Middle Earth.  Jeffrey replied that the devs were always thinking about the future of Moria, and there are many, many paths the story of the initial dwarven entry in to Moria could take.  He said it was quite feasible that the reclamation would take until the Fourth Age, and the emergence of Durin VII would be the culmination of the dwarven crusade.  It is the stories that happened in between that Turbine is most interested in.

I asked about the depth of the lore that Turbine was actually creating and how they kept track of all the little bits.  Jeffrey explained that each area has a personality document that is created to be the tome of lore.  The personality doc details the lore for the area, what relation it has to the epic story or Tolkien lore, the biome, the creatures, who works there, and the goal is to create a personality for this area.  They also have a massive database for all the creatures in the game, and Jeffrey said that the devs are many epic books ahead of the epic books that are live, even if the future epic books are only in some developers’ heads.

Our next topic of discussion was on the lore of the orcs and goblins in Moria as they are the most prominent force (splintered as they may be) at the current time in the game.  I tangentially asked about the Watcher and its influence on Enemy culture given that with the absence of Durin’s Bane the Watcher was likely the most powerful denizen of the deep.  Jeffrey posited that the effect was fairly minimal.  The Watcher was more like a caged beast, and where the Watcher resides there is much less goblin influence.  The Watcher doesn’t keep the peace like the Balrog did.  Jeffrey explained that it was because of the Balrog’s absence that we have all the warring factions in Moria.

Jeffrey reiterated that before the Fellowship passed through Moria was really dormant.  When Gandalf killed the Balrog, things really were shaken up.  Obviously it was time, the dwarves felt, to reclaim the dwarven underempire, but many outside factions of the Enemy also felt that the Morian goblins could be yoked or weapons could be used against the Free Peopls.  As a result, the Mordor orcs and Saruman’s White Hand also went forth.

Going off our discussion of the warring tribes, I first mentioned that I really liked how no other faction in Moria gave the White Hand any respect.  They were almost beneath notice.  Jeffrey explained that it was very important to note that the White Hand had very little culture for themselves.   They were basically seen as machines (or creations) of Saruman doing their jobs.  The Mordor orcs, on the other hand, did have a culture of their own as well as a job to do.

I asked Jeffrey about the relationship between the Morian faction and Mordor because in the beginning of play in Moria we see a 300-esque scene of a Morian orc kicking a Mordor messenger down the rushing waters of the Cooling Chamber.  Later on we find out the leader of the Morian faction, Mazog, is actually under sway of Dul Guldur, a former stronghold of Sauron.  Jeffrey hinted that there was going to be more information about those relations in the upcoming Book 7 and beyond, and he said to watch for some elements when you join Legolas and Gimli in a book quest.

We finished up discussing the lore elements that just did not make the cut, and Jeffrey told me that upcoming Book 7 is forefront in his mind.  Turbine really wanted to include the full region in the expansion’s release, but it just could not be squeezed in.  He said that Volume 2 will eventually lead away from Moria, but they have plenty of things to still explore in future updates on the black pit.  They are all really excited about the future of the game, especially upcoming Book 7, and the regions we are headed.

tell Luca Brazi to come in

4 thoughts on “Interview with Turbine’s Jeffrey Steefel”

  1. I always had the impression that Steefel was just a well intentioned but not-too-involved face man for Turbine. It’s really awesome to hear this depth of detail and fascination with the lore of the game coming from him.

    Thanks for getting the scoop on the thematic whimsy of the Turbine development team instead of just the nuts and bolts advertisement we’re used to. :D

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