If you consider yourself to be up on current events, you've probably heard of filmmaker Peter Jackson's smash-hit motion pictures based on author J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novels. You may also know that EA LA, which contains team members that have worked on previous games like Red Alert 2 and Command and Conquer: Generals, is now working on a new real-time strategy game that takes place in the world of Middle-earth. Art developer Matt Britton explains how the team has been approaching the task of making the world of Middle-earth come to life on computer screens.
The Art of Middle-earthBy Matt Britton
Art development director, EA LA
Working on The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth has been an amazing experience. As the project's art development director, I have what I think is the coolest job on the game, leading an amazingly talented team of artists as we work to translate the world of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy into a groundbreaking real-time strategy game. It has been a big change for me, having worked previously at visual effects companies like Industrial Light and Magic and Henson's Creature Shop. The team is really small compared to the hundreds of people typically working on a major feature film, so I'm enjoying this new sense that my work has a visible impact on the project on almost a daily basis.
When we began work on the in-game art for The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth, the plan seemed pretty straightforward. We would take the real-time strategy gameplay of Command and Conquer: Generals and Zero Hour, and combine that with Peter Jackson's characters and environments from the films. Considering how much visual material we had available, it seemed simple to translate it into our game. We operated under this misconception for a little while before the true nature of the challenge settled in. The fact that this was my first video game project after spending the bulk of my career in the film industry probably helped prevent me from seeing what we were truly up against right from the start.
You could say that the characters in the movies are a visual feast. The film's producers had provided us with more than enough reference material on the actors and costumes, so they translated into our in-game units pretty easily. But the creation of our game's faction buildings was much tougher. The movies really showcase castles like the golden hall of Rohan and Orthanc tower of Isengard, while omitting mundane buildings like stables and blacksmith's shops. That was the challenge we had overlooked at first. We needed to take Gondor, Rohan, Mordor, and Isengard's respective architectural styles as established in the films and use them as jumping-off points from which we would extrapolate our barracks, archery ranges, orc pits, and other structures, each with a unique function in the game. Gondor and Rohan were difficult enough to dream up, but at least the movies showed us some buildings in places like Minas Tirith, Osgiliath, and Edoras.
Isengard's and Mordor's faction structures would prove to be much trickier. We needed to dream up buildings that looked like they could be built by an army of savages on the move. On these buildings (collections of rock and sticks, really) we would go through countless iterations both on paper and on our computers before finally arriving at a visual solution we were happy with. Just in case all this wasn't demanding enough, we also needed to add in animated characters from the game whose actions helped demonstrate the functionality of the buildings, giving each of them a visual "gag." Deciding to put a horse with the stable building was an obvious choice. Dreaming up the best way to demonstrate that a crater full of mud is in fact a pit used to spawn orcs was a bigger test of our creativity.
With the characters and faction structures figured out, it should be pretty easy to create environments where their battles can be staged, particularly since we see all those locations in the films, right? Wrong again. The film's environments are a stunning mix of beautiful locations and well-crafted visual effects, and some areas such as the Shire are really colorful. But many of the battle sites such as Ithilien or the fields outside Fangorn Forest are fairly colorless. Our challenge has been to create game levels that feel true to the look established for these places in the movies while still providing the kind of color and contrast that you might expect from a modern computer game. In all honesty, this is the place where I think we've had our greatest success. As we approach the completion of our work on the project and I see new levels being finished, I feel more and more like I'm battling my way through a piece of the movie every time I play the game.