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Feature Article

Shadow Of War Director Explains Why Making Everyone Happy Is "Impossible"

Michael de Plater talks about expanding the Nemesis system and the challenges of adapting The Lord of the Rings.

While there were good Lord of the Rings video games before it, none were as impactful as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. The Monolith Productions-developed game proved to be extremely innovative, introducing a new story set in Mordor and the Nemesis system that allowed you to forge stories with individual, procedurally generated enemies.

With its sequel, Monolith has aspired to create something even bigger and better--succeeding in some ways, but not in others, as you can read about in our Shadow of War review. Ahead of its October 10 release on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, we sat down with Monolith's VP of creative, Michael de Plater, to discuss the studio's approach to the game, the influence of Batman: Arkham Asylum and sports games, and much more. Also be sure to check out our video feature detailing the challenges of making a Lord of the Rings game, why the monstrous spider Shelob appears as a human, and what motivates decisions to deviate from the Lord of the Rings canon.

GameSpot: What's your background with Lord of the Rings, even before you were working on Lord of the Rings games and at Monolith?

Michael de Plater: So I guess my history with Middle-earth goes back to when I was four. My grandma was a teacher, so she was giving me books all the time from when I was tiny. And The Hobbit was like the second book she ever gave me. And so I just loved it. Devoured that and then immediately after read Lord of the Rings and then read it again and again and again, right through up to my teenage years and devoured every other epic fantasy book ever that was available from the late '70s through to pretty much the present. But it's absolutely the foundation of all of them, of the entire genre. So I've just always loved it. And then, of course, like a lot of gamers, I was massively into Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing and kind of running around and exploring all these worlds. And so ultimately getting the opportunity to make this big open-world action RPG in Middle-earth is just totally my 12-year-old self's dream come true.

At what point did you know you would be able to make a game in Middle-earth? Can you walk me through that point in your career and what you were feeling knowing that, like you said, your 12-year-old self would finally realize your dream and be able to make what ended up being Shadow of Mordor, Shadow of War, Guardians of Middle-earth?

Yes, so when that first flickered in my mind that [it] might be a possibility, I used to work on strategy games. I worked on the Total War series and then I was at Ubisoft and we did a console RTS called [Tom Clancy's] EndWar. And [Electronic Arts RTS] Battle for Middle-earth was great. I think I'd always imagined that maybe I'd get to work on a strategy game in this universe, in big, epic battles and so on. But then, I think it was around the time The Hobbit movie started coming out and I heard that Warner Bros. had acquired the rights.

So it was this combination of here was Warner Bros., here's these Hobbit movies coming out, here's Arkham Asylum getting published by Warner, which is the greatest licensed game that had ever been made and totally redefined what you could do with a game [by] moving away from that idea of it being a movie game.

I approached Warner Bros. and got in touch and started talking, and then I was hired to come and work here. And from that moment was the inception of getting to make this open-world Middle-earth game.

Yeah, it's interesting you mention Arkham Asylum because when I first played Shadow of Mordor, the combat, the attack counter ... was Arkham Asylum a big influence on Shadow of Mordor?

Absolutely. It just set the bar for how to make an amazing game within this rich world that's not a movie game. In particular, that it was coming out simultaneously with the Chris Nolan movies, but it was completely its own thing. So it was a very direct inspiration for us, and also did set the bar and elevate third-person combat and action-adventure games. So both are kind of our what we call our predator gameplay; our stealth [was] really influenced by it.

But, of course, we also wanted to have things that made us stand apart and that were really unique. Firstly, the fact that we can have all these weapon systems and be really visceral on the violence of the game, that was pretty fun for us. And secondly, we wanted to have a way to think about what we do with the enemies and how to make them interesting and engaging in varied and that was part of the genesis of the Nemesis system as well.

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It's funny that you mention Arkham Asylum and then obviously seeing Shadow of Mordor, in my opinion ... I'm not just trying to be a suck up ... Shadow of Mordor, it's my favorite licensed game.

Oh, wow. Thank you.

It's like that, it's Arkham Asylum, it's GoldenEye. But there's always that difficulty, right? How do you remain faithful to the source material, but also it's super important that you make a fun game, right?

Yep.

I imagine it's a difficult balancing act to straddle the line between those two poles.

Yeah, it's really hard to balance because at the core, the number one thing is you have to make a great game. But you have to make a great game that is incredibly respectful of the source material. So I think from our point of view, it was going through the source material and looking for the themes and the ideas that best worked with what could make really great game. And that's where the Orcs were fantastic. We looked at Saruman's Uruk-hai slaughtering and getting into this fight with the Orcs of Mordor as they're carrying Merry and Pippin. All the Orcs turning on each other and slaughtering each other in Cirith Ungol when Sam's going to rescue Frodo. Being able to get these guys to turn on each other, kind of being the spark that sets off that chaos, that seemed like a really interesting angle.

And the other thing that we looked at was the number of times, in both the books and the movies, it teases this idea of what would have happened if Boromir had gotten the ring of power? What would have happened if Galadriel had taken the ring off Frodo and we had dark Galadriel? So that teasing of someone with heroic goals, but tempted down the road of using power and fighting the dark lord head to head was a really interesting idea.

So we found the kind of ideas and the themes that were in the books and the movies that were appealing that we could focus on in order to try and make the best game we could. One of the things we hear most often as feedback is why don't you go to the Shire, or why don't you go throughout Middle-earth? And obviously that would be exciting as well. But Mordor was this place where we could really bring together what would make this great action-adventure game in such a way that really draws on the themes and core ideas of Middle-earth.

I always thought it made sense for a video game if someone actually used the ring's power, and then you have Talion come along he's like this anti-hero. It seems like it fits. How do Talion and Mordor fit into the themes you mentioned, like of power and fear in this fantasy world?

Talion's two biggest influences from the books is [first] of course Boromir. So he's this heroic warrior of Gondor who is trying to use the weapons of the enemy against them. Like he's trained as a soldier and he's brought up as a soldier. But his difference from Boromir that I think makes him a bit more like Sam is that he's an everyman as well. Like he also would really just prefer that he got to live out his quiet life with his family and that this war hadn't come to him at all. And there's a great scene with Sam in the books where, when he does put on the ring, his mind is just totally overtaken with these fantasies of power, of raising armies and marching through Mordor and conquering everything. And Sam's got enough common sense to realize, "No, I'm just getting deluded by the ring. That's never gonna happen."

Whereas Talion I think is enough of a hero and a warrior to really believe and buy into that particular power fantasy and that promise. And of course games are so often about that same kind of power promise as well. So it very much puts Talion in the same shoes as players are [in] when they're playing the game. And then Celebrimbor, who is united with him, is much more like a figure of power. More like Galadriel. But whereas Galadriel was, "Okay, I resisted temptation. I'm not gonna take the ring," Celebrimbor is much more of the opinion, "No, if I do take the ring, I can do a better job than Sauron. I can fix this." You'll have a bright lord instead of a dark lord and that'll be great.

You mentioned the Nemesis system. Obviously that was Shadow of Mordor's crowning achievement? It created these villains and let people find their own emergent stories and we've gone on a few of these trips this year ... Prey [creative director] Raphael Colantonio said he knew you back at EA.

Yeah, we started at like the same time. We used to sleep on the floor of EA UK.

Then he saw your name on Shadow of Mordor after playing through it. I think he thought, "Oh my God. I worked with that guy for a while." And a bunch of [developers] mentioned Shadow of Mordor as where they think games can go next, in terms of emergent narrative. Where were the kernels for the Nemesis system? How did that start? Was that something you wanted to do for a while, or was it like a collective effort?

That's funny hearing about Raph and thinking all the way back to EA UK and those days because I think the seed of it, a lot of it really was in sports games. I started off working on EA Sports games. Sports games--and sports in general, not just sports video games--are actually really good at creating dynamic narratives around the interaction of these different characters. And the thing I always really liked in sports seasons as well ... You know you've got this beginning, you know you've this escalation of drama that comes up through the finals, you know you've got this epic climax in the Super Bowl or whatever. So there's a narrative structure to it, but there's a lot of different ways that it can go along the way. And there's a lot of individual rivalries and personalities.

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In a lot of ways, the dynamic commentary in sport games and so on, of keeping track of what you've done, and then when two teams meet again later--calling back to that is really powerful. And something we also had on Total War was embracing that same idea. We really wanted to have this non-linear campaign. So you never want this thing of okay, I've got to mission four and I failed, so I'm gonna do mission four again. It's like no, I lost, but that set me back. So that's dramatically interesting, because now I want to go forward in another way. So that kind of open-ended story. But taking those ideas of a dynamic narrative and these procedural characters and putting them into an action-adventure [game], that was really exciting.

And then the other sort of seed of it is going back to pen-and-paper role-playing games, where they are always dynamic and the most memorable characters are the guy[s] who started as a random NPC that you met on the fly, but he managed to get the last hit in. They're always more memorable and more meaningful than whatever the crafted narrative that the dungeon master wants to tell you is.

After Shadow of Mordor released, everybody thought the Nemesis system is the next thing that a bunch of studios are gonna try to copy, right? And looking at it, I read ... I think it was Mike Bithell from over in the UK. He had written something like why it was so good and how other devs can emulate it. It's great to see immersive sims with emergent gameplay becoming much bigger in recent years. And I see Shadow of Mordor as one of those sparks for that.

Yeah, and it's a real process of learning about all this emergent gameplay and not just ... Emergent I think is very different from random. We really are trying to create stories and emotional connections to these characters. So when there is a betrayal, or when you lose someone you're attached to, or when you finally get revenge, it's a big emotional moment. So we've learned so much and we've been doing this for six years now and are still just at the beginning of what the possibilities are of where we can take it in the future.

For Shadow of War specifically, when you sat down to think about what you want to do in the sequel, … obviously, you want to say where can we go narratively, where can we go in terms of the setting, the artwork. But also when you're thinking about the Nemesis system, what were some of the tenets you wanted to hit and kind of expand upon from Shadow of Mordor?

I think just in terms of making the core experience of having these personal enemies that you love to hate, just making that stronger. Like going and looking and reading a lot of people's stories of who was your most memorable nemesis, or who did you hate the most. And just looking at those user stories or videos and just saying, "Okay, how do we make sure that more players who play the game absolutely will have those really memorable experiences?" It was a little bit more random in Shadow of Mordor. Some people had these great, memorable, personal enemies. Some people, because they either didn't die or they died too much, didn't get to have the best possible experience, or the most memorable enemies. So trying to make sure everybody got that, [and] being smarter about how we spawn enemies, how they cheat death, how they come out and ambush you, and making sure those stories are stronger.

And then expanding it from just being about enemies to actually having this notion of followers as well. So they all start off as enemies, but as you kill them, you really have that choice between am I gonna kill this guy and get the loot, or am I gonna make him part of my army? And then you've got this whole different relationship. That opens up new stories because you've got the guy who potentially kills him, or you've got him when he betrays you, or you've got him saving you and promoting him. So [we worked on] expanding the whole emotional pallet of the type of stories we could tell.

I genuinely can't imagine anything we could come up with--even if you set it as your goal--[that would] make everybody happy; I think it would be impossible.

To go back to talking about working with the book and movie license. When you are trying to figure out what story to tell ... Did you ever interact with the Tolkien estate throughout the years, or did you usually go through Warner Bros.? How does it work, clearing it with the Tolkien estate, Warner Bros., and how does that influence your design?

Yeah, it's Middle-earth Enterprises that we work with. And then Warner Bros. also has a number of experts and scholars. So it both gets submitted to these kind of official Tolkien scholars. So Janet Croft is great. And then Middle-earth Enterprises. And they're super constructive. I can't think of a time where--if they have had some detail that they're like this is wrong, there should only ever be seven Palantir--they haven't also come back with, "Here's a way you could solve that." Or, "Here's another detail." Or, "Could we help you figure out to do it like this?" Even more so after the success of Shadow of Mordor, I think that gave them a level of trust in how much we love the lore and how we're really genuine in trying to do the best job we can. Because we do, to some extent … it's not canon. We've changed things on the timeline. It is another story that exists alongside the books and the movies. And the movies also have events that are different from the books. So it's really striking that balance, like any good adaptation has to do, of telling your own story but really trying to capture what's strongest about the source material as well.

Yeah and that's always the tough part. I'm sure when Shadow of Mordor released, tons and tons of people loved it, but I'm sure there were some really diehard Tolkien fans who were like, "Oh, a Tolkien character wouldn't use these kind of powers against the enemy." But again, that's kind of where you have to really find that balance to really make a fun game, but also not really shrug off the Tolkien property.

Yeah, it's really hard because I genuinely can't imagine anything we could come up with--even if you set it as your goal--[that would] make everybody happy; I think it would be impossible. Because there are just differences of interpretation, and people are emotionally attached to different things. And people really care, including us, about these universes and IPs that they're attached to. We just have to commit to making the best game we can within the context of our interpretation of the lore. It's more important that a lot of people really love it, [rather] than [ensuring] that everybody thinks it's okay. So it's just kinda, make something that the people who do play it and enjoy it can really love it and really find something to get engaged with.

Was it tough to sell the idea for Shadow of Mordor, whether it was Warner Bros. or Middle-earth Enterprises?

Yeah, every game is tough. I think, again, the thing that they really supported right from the beginning is that we were ambitious. Basically, we want to have this innovation of everyone having their own unique enemies, and we really love the lore and we're really inspired by the success and attention to detail and quality of Arkham. We don't want to make a movie game. We're trying to make the best game we can. And everyone got behind those goals. And then I think when we were fortunate enough that the game did come out and was successful, again the thing that goes up is trust and then people want to support us to then become even more ambitious. And it's like, "Okay, we've done that. Now we want to do the truly epic version of all of those ideas."

Obviously you're super happy with how Shadow of Mordor did. I'm sure you're happy with Shadow of War before release. You probably can't even talk about specifics, but are there some things that you regret not being able to put into these games?

Oh, always. It's a three-year process. So if you're thinking about something 24/7, and [are] inspired by it and playing it, you're just constantly going through a process of having new ideas or things you wish you could have done. But at the same time, you have to make the game and get it out. But, and hopefully if Shadow of War does well, there's a place and an opportunity to take all those ideas and all that learning and all that inspiration and use it in the future. Because that's one of the most exciting things about working in games. Because it is relatively new as a medium, and because the technology is always moving and because we're always learning, there's always that excitement about what's going to happen next.

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Chris Pereira

Chris Pereira is GameSpot's engagement editor. He likes Twin Peaks, The X-Files (before it was bad), and serial commas.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

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