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