Asheron's Call developer and now publisher Turbine Entertainment continues in growth mode. Since buying back the rights to the Asheron's Call universe (from Microsoft) in late 2003 and then launching a West Coast office in early 2004, there's been a steady stream of new hires announced and new agendas sought at Turbine. This morning, the company will announce two additional hires--a new vice president of production, Vijay Lakshman, and an executive director of online programming, Jeffrey Steefel.
Lakshman will oversee production as well as operation and management of the studio's upcoming Middle-Earth Online and Dungeons & Dragons titles. Prior to joining Turbine, Lakshman was vice president of production/internal development for VU Games (the current publisher of Middle-Earth Online). In addition, he has worked at FASA Interactive, Looking Glass Technologies, and Bethesda Softworks.
Steefel will take lead position in Turbine's online programming area. He comes to Turbine from There, Inc., where he was vice president of programming and member services. Prior to There, Steefel was vice president of programming and production for Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), where he supervised production, programming, and development for SOE's casual gaming site, The Station@Sony.com.
GameSpot spoke with Lakshman and Steefel shortly before the news was announced.
GameSpot: What's the current status of Middle-Earth Online?
Vijay Lakshman: MEO is currently working through example levels in an effort to get a better sense of the user interface and gameplay. We also want to see how these elements integrate with each other. We have people throughout the company playing the game and offering feedback on what works well and what doesnt. The hope is to gain valuable perspective on which design concepts still make sense after implementation and which ones need tweaking or revisioning. The team is passionate about realizing Tolkiens vision, as contained in the literary works.
GS: With your move from the publisher side to the developer side, you have a unique perspective on the MEO project. What are the elements of the game and its gameplay that you are most passionate about preserving or making sure are contained in the final product?
VL: I think it imperative that for our fans sake we put our best foot forward. This means ensuring that each feature we decide to include has consistency within a larger framework and supports the overall vision of the game. Right now, the team is busy evaluating the design and implementation of various components in an effort to do just that. I think the fans will be excited to see how we are weaving the newbie experience into the mid- and elder gameplay. We want to give people fully realized features that complement each other, rather than independent ideas that serve no purpose. As far as my own favorites, Ive always been a big fan of giving players feedback that validates their (ultimately) legendary status--things that let the player know that they make a difference in the world. After all, player characters are the heroes of this world, arent they?
GameSpot: Jeffrey, you come to Turbine from one hit (SOE/The Station) and one miss (There). What are the qualities that separate the winners from the losers in the online and MMO space?
Jeffrey Steefel: Interesting question, but I dont feel it is fair to compare Sony Online Entertainment to There. There is a very different proposition. SOE is, well, SOE. There is attempting to reach out to an audience that is not made up of core gamers. They are trying to provide a richer social experience than the world of AOL IM chat consumers were already using for many hours a week.
At There, we learned a great deal, including some exciting new business models and some encouraging insight about how communities can form in an immersive environment without a central fiction to rely on. With There, people began to create their own stories. So I learned a few things. First, creativity and innovation blossom better within a small amount of structure. At launch, the successful MMOs all provide this kind of structure in a very simple form. Secondly, if you are going to approach a mainstream audience, be careful, and start small (dont overbuild).
For an MMO, base the game on a very simple but engaging player-focused concept. Then let it evolve, and make sure you have a kick-ass service to back it up. MMOs tend to grow after launch--if they are well supported by service and infrastructure, which is hard to accomplish for all but a few large providers. That is exactly what we are trying to do at Turbine, which will help us support our games successfully.
GS: What did you learn from your experiences at SOE and There that you intend to apply to the new job at Turbine?
JS: I learned a lot from both organizations, and Turbine is a place Im excited to bring that learning. To start, knowing whats happening in your game is key. The sophistication of data capture and analysis started very early at SOE, and I think this is a critical key to success for any MMO provider. Its really the only way to see inside your service to assess what is working and what needs to be fixed. And, of course, we have to make games that are based on a simple, clear, player-focused, and active concept. Complexity is fun for developers and designers, but it can be a drag for players.
There was more about building a community and less about game design. We had some very interesting early successes with player content and some different business models that I hope to explore with Turbine. Theres members were more on the mainstream-side and required significant high-touch. So, I helped create customer service approaches that were similar to the kinds of services that people were used to experiencing at more-everyday service companies, like retailers or telco providers. The key is doing this without going broke. It was an incredible experience. I walked away having learned a lot about how to manage a diverse community and introduce less-seasoned players to an immersive experience. This is something all games will need to get better at as we look to grow our audiences. At both companies--SOE and There--I looked at expanding the addressable audience for our games (through other markets and platforms), and I definitely hope to bring that opportunity to Turbine as well.
GS: Thanks to you both, and best of luck.