EX-LOTRO Dev Shares Industry Insights

Well, that was unexpected. I’ve been involved with the game of LOTRO for about four years now, and have followed it fairly closely for my responsibilities on LOTRO Players for about two of those, but never have I read such an in-depth “first-person” viewpoint of the inner workings of Turbine as what was posted by ex-QA dev Aylwen in the LOTROcommunity forums – not to be confused with the official LOTRO forums – yesterday. Oh, we’ve heard grumblings and whispers and rumors, and we’ve read the glassdoor reviews, but never have we seen so much from the inside of the traditionally tight-lipped company. Aylwen claims to have no beef with his former employer, and seems to wax nostalgic as often as he criticizes.

I feel like I should throw several disclaimers in here. First, anybody can claim to be anybody on an anonymous forum. Second, if the poster is who he claims (and seems to be from the abundance of information, screenshots and office pictures) he only worked at Turbine through the Siege of Mirkwood expansion, and then again right after the launch of Rise of Isengard, so some of the following points are speculation. Third, the posts come only from Aylwen’s perspective, and as we know, many people can have a different take on the exact same set of events.

But what a perspective it is. First the positives:

  • The studio pushed itself to deliver/support 3 MMO’s simultaneously, when many companies of the same size would not have been able to deliver one
  • Turbine was a tight, family-like atmosphere with dedicated, talented employees
  • Employees possessed a true pride for the products being produced

Likewise, there were a few revelations (or for some, confirmations). Not all of them negative, but some rather surprising:

  • Free to Play was a direct result of diminishing revenues, and not (as has been suggested by Turbine) simply a reflection of the F2P success of DDO
  • Development was once underway on a LOTRO console game
  • Many aspects of LOTRO were lifted directly from WoW
  • Infinite Crisis spent most of it’s marketing money on it’s Twitch campaign, with almost no return
  • WB’s acquisition of Turbine was for their expertise in supporting online games, not for LOTRO
  • In Aylwen’s opinion (which seems to be corroborated by ex-PC members) the Players Council is more of a “gimmick” than an actual focus group
  • The new PvMP map that was confirmed by community relations was never actually on the roadmap. It was never even planned.
  • Many systems (he named Legendary Items and Skirmishes specifically) were much better in original concept than in execution
  • PvMP was not originally a planned feature. It was a forced addition to the original game by marketing, since every other MMO had a PvP aspect and they needed to be able to say that LOTRO had one, too
  • Describes a culture of mediocrity and lack of overall leadership and direction, and a propensity to spin all communication towards the overly positive, both internally and externally
  • Blizzard was generally viewed as a “crush all competitors” studio. This was reinforced by Blizzard seemingly scheduling periodic updates that coincided with LOTRO’s
  • Rivalries existed between teams within Turbine (DDO and LOTRO were mentioned) due to the scarcity of shared resources
  • Housing and hobbies are both orphaned systems. When the developers left, nobody continued to work on them
  • He speculates that LOTRO has been “under the gun for a long time”

And while we can take the studio to task for some of these practices and failures, Aylwen points out that much of these aren’t specific to Turbine. His stints with Zenimax and Meteor show them to be industry-wide issues. Namely, lack of overall vision and direction, developers doing their own little pet projects, delayed launches, layoffs resulting in skeleton crews and inbred media relations.

It all makes me wonder: why? Why does this industry seem so dysfunctional? When I suggest that companies can (and are) profitable without bare-bones layoffs, or that retaining your best employees can actually benefit your products, I’m typically met with responses that suggest that I simply don’t understand the entertainment business. This is probably true, but staring at the numerous bullets in that 2nd list, I’m left pondering if this is the best that can be done. Marketing teams forcing unplanned features (and, in my own speculation, $50 cash store hobby horses), poor system execution, infighting, orphaned systems, community relations (of all people) promising unplanned features to the players, gimmicky player representative groups, poorly planned marketing campaigns, copying from competitors. Is this all really the norm for this industry?

If it is, then I guess I don’t want to understand the entertainment business. But it does make the constant layoffs seem a little more comprehensible.

Featured image by fiatlux on Flickr Creative Commons

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13 thoughts on “EX-LOTRO Dev Shares Industry Insights

  1. Roger Edwards (@ModeratePeril) March 5, 2015 / 8:18 am

    “Why does this industry seem so dysfunctional?”

    I won’t write a wall of text but I think this comes down to the simple fact that many of the institutions that we perceive as being big and therefore efficiently run, are not.

    Politics, business, and entertainment are rife with people who are as equally flawed as those we find in our own places of employment.

    Then of course there is the Dunning-Kruger effect which impacts on all social groups both in and out of business.

    I think we need to take a lot of people and companies off the pedestals on which they’ve been placed and reconcile ourselves to the fact that precious few institutions are well run, efficient and competent.

    Like

    • Braxwolf March 5, 2015 / 8:35 am

      You’re probably right in that this is more common than it seems. However, I’ve been in the business world for seventeen years, and I don’t feel like I’m putting any company on a pedestal or being outlandishly unreasonable to expect that a company have a viable long-term strategy and vision in place for the good of the products, employees, and the company itself!

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      • Doone March 5, 2015 / 6:59 pm

        This exactly, Brax. I don’t see pedestals anywhere. I see companies in great positions of responsibility being completely irresponsible. There’s just no good reason for this lack of leadership among dev teams, infighting, and petty politics. Every office will have those, but the ones which take these things seriously will do a better job of overcoming them and putting out superior products. I don’t see why this is considered a pedestal.

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  2. Scotty March 5, 2015 / 9:10 am

    I read Aylwen’s thread for a while, but it began to feel self-serving so I gave up. I worked in QA for two years and I’m familiar with a certain ‘driving from the back of the bus’ mentality that often results. QA folks are awesome, and often keep longer hours than everyone else, but they usually think they know more than they do. It was only when I got promoted to design that I realized that beyond QA, you find a lot of very smart people making very tough judgment calls. Most people see the endpoints of those decisions, not the whys and wherefores, and think they could have done better.

    This goes to your general point. Everything in game development involves risks and trade-offs on some spectrum: financial, schedule, polish, originality, accessibility, resourcing, performance, etc. Every design decision is a gambit that often takes a long time to pan out. I’ve found myself regretting a decision that made a lot of sense months ago, and then praying I’ll have time to fix it. Some decisions are glaringly bad, but some are just the result of trying and failing, which is part and parcel of innovation. So when I look at that 2nd bulleted list, I don’t see dysfunction, I just see game development.

    Aylwen’s general disdain for the content people is a huge red flag for me – it just feels like resentment from an outsider. Every team I’ve worked with, even a team whose effort results in a bad game, initially commits to making a good game and busts their asses to do it. You can wake up one day and find yourself polishing a turd, through no fault of your own, but you keep polishing and hoping you’re just too close to the project to be objective – that’s a whole separate subject I haven’t even touched on. In any case, speaking as someone who really enjoys the care put into the content design of LOTRO, I can only see his disdain for the content team as being personal, factional, or possibly deriving from his PvP focus.

    Like

    • Braxwolf March 5, 2015 / 9:25 am

      Thanks for your comment. You make some great points, here, and I think it does punctuate the point that everybody sees the same events with their own slant. I do wonder if Turbine were a studio that operated with a bit more transparency towards the player base if they would be more quickly forgiven for the pitfalls inherent in game design.

      Like

      • Scotty March 5, 2015 / 9:49 am

        I agree with you wholeheartedly. The best example I know of team transparency is Star Trek Online. The fan-made Priority One podcast seems to have someone from the dev team on every 4th episode, speaking about the tradeoffs and even debating with the hosts for an hour or more. Even if they’re trying to defend an unpopular decision, just the fact that they’re having a discussion about it keeps player loyalty high. And doing it vocally instead of through blog posts and forum replies makes it all the better.

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  3. gamesthatiplay March 5, 2015 / 3:47 pm

    I only knew one person that played it and she forced me to play it. Here’s the reason why no one could play it. Once you closed the program you could literally never open it ever again. Even uninstalling and reinstalling it. The only way I could ever play it a second time was buying a new computer and installing it there. That’s the key issue.

    When they made it free to play that didn’t fix the issue, at least for myself and others that I know that fixed it. One friend said he even spent $20 on something and well it was useless when he couldn’t start the game a second time.

    Like

    • Braxwolf March 5, 2015 / 7:06 pm

      I’m not sure why you had this issue. I played the game for over four years.

      Like

      • gamesthatiplay March 5, 2015 / 7:55 pm

        My friend did too. I wasn’t the only lucky one the forums had 4 year old threads.

        Like

  4. Talarian March 5, 2015 / 9:16 pm

    I have to agree. I’m in the games industry now and I don’t understand the culture of laying off your senior employees, or not having clear leadership, or treating QA, Content, and Developers as mere cogs that are replaceable.

    Companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft all spend billions a year on the Research part of Research & Development. And it pays off in spades. They’re–well, maybe not desperate–but at least motivated to retain their employees, *especially* the senior ones. Those employees represent literally millions of dollars in investment in some cases, from a domain knowledge and product knowledge perspective. Cutting them loose seems like the dumbest thing after you spent how much money hiring them, training them, and having their familiarity with your products, culture, and company.

    The gaming industry IS dysfunctional, and probably a good 15 – 20 years behind the application development industry in terms of procedures, policies, and techniques. It’ll sadly probably take some break out company or two to do things differently and manage to make a tidy profit to really change how things work in the AAA sphere.

    Like

  5. C. T. Murphy March 5, 2015 / 11:03 pm

    Leadership is scarce in every community, culture, country, and company.

    Like

  6. chargalam June 24, 2015 / 8:46 pm

    Lotro played for 3 years and this period saw a game decline a lot, both in their forums with the irresponsibility of Sapience and all developers, the game is dying and the amount of lotro player is the smallest already registered this proves the inefficiency of now in arresting the attention of the players many things the EX-Turbine I already said I believe that evidence are on the game itself, perhaps with the closing of the IC may perhaps hold the attention of developers to make more attractive contents and skillful time for players, since events like take the hobbit to isengard and hobinanigans sincerely are ridiculous events.

    Like

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