Yesterday developer Monolith Productions showed of 16 minutes of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War gameplay. To get even more information about the game, our US and UK offices had a chance to sit down Monolith's VP of creative Michael de Plater to talk about lore and the new Nemesis system.
The questions and answers below are a compilation of both interviews and are not ordered as a transcript of the talk.
The New Nemesis System
GamesSpot: What are the key pillars of the Nemesis system that you really wanted to focus on for the sequel?
Michael de Plater: It's hard to distill it down into a single answer because there was a lot. I think the biggest one was looking at people's stories, whether it was Reddit or YouTube. What were the most emotional? The strongest emotions are the most resonant stories; what do people remember or what do they identify with and how could we really double down on that? What were the things that make those stories stronger and also ensure that everybody had a really good experience? Some people had these amazing Orcs that they remember, they build these relationships with them, and they just love to hate them. And then they get up and they kill this Orc and then they feel sad because they've developed this relationship and now that was lost.
But then other people, especially people who are very skilled and didn't die, basically didn't get to experience that at all. Or players that were more casual and who died a lot would have their enemies grow too powerful, and they'd drop out.
We wanted to make the whole system smarter to ensure that everybody gets these memorable, personal stories so.
The other focus was to create a lot more variety. Ultimately, we had a few things that bubbled up, like poison weapons or Orcs who were immune to everything, but we wanted to create more variety in terms of how they behaved and how they fought and what abilities they had.
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How do the changes to the nemesis system all come together? It seems like you're picking up right at the end of the last game, and you're controlling armies going against these forts. Are you always controlling armies, or Is this just a small part of the game's overall exploration?
That's very much a small part, and that's something we build up to. We definitely ramp up to that, and have this very fully featured, open-world action game. I think that's why the first act, where the game begins, where Sauron's returned--Sauron's grown in power; the Nazgul have returned--we start on this human city under siege. It gives us this great context to ramp up, set the stakes, and get to know our abilities and so on. Because the game, of course, has to be approachable for someone who loved Shadow of Mordor and is ready to jump in. But also for someone who's never played it before and wants to start, and get introduced to it. Because it is a massive game in terms of the combat systems and the nemesis systems and RPGs. We need that growth.
Then as people get their heads around that on the action side of the game, then we can get into Mordor, and then we can introduce the domination and the manipulation and the nemesis system, and grow to this level where we can start conquering the forts and defending them and so on.
Are the forts themselves procedurally generated, or does everyone have the same forts in the game?
It's a combination. The basic fort itself, or the layout or position of the wall, they're fixed. But the scale of the walls, the upgrades, the boiling oils, the who's defending it, all of the monuments and statues and banners, all of those things are dynamic. It's really a combination.
The Balrog in the trailer was a pretty exciting reveal. Since trolls can become the rulers of a fort, do Balrog's have that potential as well, or are they separate?
They're not running around everywhere. He's a particular character. A Balrog's got to be a pretty big deal. What is actually even in that trailer is, he's a little bit different to the one that Gandalf meets in Moria in the sense that he actually is armored. He has an important role in the story as well.
Rules for Talion's New Army
If one of the Orcs under your control dies in battle, can they come back as your enemy? How does that work?
Basically we always think, whatever happens, how can we create a new story out of it? For example, if we'd been attacking this fort and we'd been defeated, then our army that's with us out of that has a bunch of different outcomes that could happen. They could have been killed. If they're killed, maybe they'll cheat death and come back and they'll have a scar. If they come back, maybe they'll come back to us. Maybe they'll be annoyed and betray us. Maybe they'll be captured. If they're captured maybe they'll be scheduled for execution, or maybe they'll be in prison. Then we'll have rescue missions.
If we follow those rescue missions, maybe we can save them, and then they'll become even more loyal. Or maybe we don't bother saving them and we leave them to die, in which case they'll be betrayed. We're always using the game systems to create these new stories and relationships that the Orcs can speak to and react to.
In the demo, there are moments when your followers come in and save you at the last moment. Is that something you're able to call on, or does that just happen naturally?
It's actually a combination. You can assign a particular follower to be your bodyguard, so he's on call. If he's there and available, he will come in and rescue you when he can. Then there are also other ones that are dynamic that will jump in to save you. We saw both examples actually in that. We had Ragdug at the end. He was summoned, so we used that to call him in. That has a cooldown. Then we had Deadeye who was up there as a sniper who saved us as well. Both of those types can happen.
So they come in of their own volition?
They will do, if they're around so it depends on where they are and where you are in the world, or if you've assigned him as your bodyguard.
Could you meet them in the world and go talk to them, or is it purely based on the experiences you've been through on the battlefield?
You can command them at any time so you could send them into the arena to fight in order to level up or you can send them on missions or infiltrate them to become spies. Basically you can manage them as much or as little as you want.
But can you go and just catch up?
We don't have any sort of conversation trees or dialogue trees. But I think it's really the same with the Nemesis system generally--they have a ton of dialogue, but it's all in relation to their memory or reaction to what's going and what you've done and what your past is.
Size of the World
What is the core of the game? It feels open world but also feels quite contained in different parts. How are you guys approaching that?
It's absolutely an open-world game, and I think we've really expanded all of those dimensions. There is a main story that's going through that's a lot bigger than we had last time. All side stories now also have their own character arcs and their own cinematics. So you've got the main story to pursue or the side stories to pursue or the exploration of the world and that sort of history. Or the RPG systems and the loot and the gear. The fort assault itself is really one corner of each one of the regions or areas of the world. It's very much an open-world sandbox.
What's the scope of the game's map?
It's huge. The thing is, it's enormously large with multiple dimensions. Every single one of those areas, one of those regions, whether it's Minas Ithal and then Minas Morgul, or Cirith Ungol, or any of those. They're a lot larger, and they've got a lot more depth and detail and verticality. Then they have outposts, which are like what we had in Shadow of Mordor. But then over and above that they have the fortress that controls the whole region. Then the Orc culture, depending on the state of that, really does affect and change the ambience and the life in the sandbox, and the enemies you'll encounter.
It really feels different to go into, we saw Seregost there under the Terror Tribe. If we were exploring that and it was the Machine Tribe, it really has a different vibe. There's more slaves working. There's more machines going. There's more factories in place. There's this whole sort of new dimension by which we can make the whole world dynamic.
We're still testing and determining the overall size of the game, but it's so much bigger.
One consistent criticism that came up was that Shadow of Mordor lacked variety. Is that something the team is addressing?
Yes. That's a huge emphasis for us. We attack things from multiple directions. I think the big place for the variety is in the enemies. The Orcs themselves now have such a massively greater variety of abilities, of attacks, of animations, or special moves, of weapons. They have advanced classes. If you were fighting an assassin, versus a marksman, versus a tank, versus a trickster, they're all going to have different strategies, different ways that you need to approach them.
Then the weapons, basically the different elements they can use. If you're fighting someone who can use fire or poison or curse, and how they can affect and debuff you. How you can use your followers, and the fact that the infighting between the Orcs is now much more meaningful in terms of their abilities. Bring someone with a fire weapon to someone who fears fire, that whole dimension. Just a massively increased variety of actually fighting the different enemies themselves.
Then on the player's side, there's also a lot more variety. Because it actually is much closer to an RPG. You can now customize your skill loadouts. You can customize your gear loadouts. There's many more gear upgrades and customization there. Then you've got your followers to build into the fights. The story, the world, the variety are really things that we've attacked pretty heavily.
Modor was built on creating memorable stories, but then bringing that to a game this size seems even more difficult. How many memorable stories can you have before none of it's memorable?
That's an interesting place to strike a balance because you're meeting a lot of different Orcs--how much do we emphasize trying to make every one memorable versus trying to track your story and your interactions and saying, "Okay we're really going to try and bubble up five or six or seven that are absolutely amazing"? And you can genuinely know an orc's name, how he fought and write your own story about it.
We've put a lot more emphasis on that and the key way to do it was by having them remember you, and at having them speak to what the most important interactions or stories were. The thing with a fort assault is that that is probably the culmination of many hours of gameplay in the sandbox. By the time you reach that, you've got the guys who were fighting alongside you, that hopefully you care whether they live or die. If they start bleeding out on the battlefield, you want to get over there and revive them and not just leave them to die.
And the enemies you're facing are also not just in that boss fight but characters you've also developed relationships and histories and stories with. So the fort assault really becomes a culmination of all of the gameplay types in the sandbox.
You obviously had an idea for this, an inkling at least for this game at the end of the last one. Do you feel like this is an ongoing series, or do you feel like, "We had this story we wanted to tell. We wanted to make sure people wanted to play it. Now we get to finish that story"?
We're certainly not holding anything back with this one. As you said, that was spot on, we had maybe over-ambitious ideas on Shadow of Mordor. As a result there were things we had to cut or scope, or we weren't able to do. This is all of our biggest craziest ideas from Shadow of Mordor. We get to actually realize those this time. These epic bosses, and the finale, and this enormous world and so on.
I think it's definitely a complete story with a strong finish as well.
Shadow of Mordor returns to the single-player experience. Did you consider incorporating co-op or multiplayer at all?
We think about everything all the time. But this is very much at its heart a core, single-player game. We really focused on, "What can we do with the nemesis system to make that single player experience really unique, and really personal for everyone?".
Gear vs. Runes and RPG Mechanics
Is the gear replacing the runes?
Yeah, but now you have the ability to see that visually and have that full gear system. And each of the tribes has a full gear set associated with it. So this mythic gear is also driving people to track and want to hunt down particular types of enemies.
You are obviously pushing RPG side, what was the thinking behind that? The Nemesis system on it's own seems so complex but also complicated, do you worry about making the other stuff too complex?
I think the thing we want to do is tie the gear system into the Nemesis system in a really meaningful way so if you've got a really powerful, fire-wielding enemy who you've got this sort of relationship to, when you take him down and defeat him, the reward that you're getting for that is going to correspond to his level and your relationship and if you had a death threat on him or if it was a revenge mission. And then you get the gear, which basically commemorates that victory, then we have challenges on the gear which it relates to--if he was a fire god you might have to burn a dozen enemies, which then unlocks additional traits and perks. But then also his name is kind of immortalized as part of that weapon as well.
In some ways, it's a very typical, RPG gear system like Destiny or Diablo, and that's obviously really engaging. Being able to customize your appearance and your character. But we wanted to make sure this gear really does commemorate and immortalize your relationship with the different Orcs.
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It also creates this sort of a mixed emotion every time one of your followers dies, because you've got these guys and you value them, but if you want the gear that's associated with them it's only available when they die. So you get these mixed feelings of, "Oh no he's gone! But I got this really cool cape."
Lord of the Rings Movie Connections
Does this still fit into the canon of Lord of the Rings? Or do you feel like you're able to go outside that and make your own world and story now?
It's always a challenge balancing those two things. But I think something we are really excited about with this is that when people get to the end of this story, and they've played it, and then they immediately go and watch or read Lord of the Rings, that we will have made some connective tissue, or explained or explored some things that can even enrich or shine a new type of light onto those stories. It should really fit in. At the same time, it's us telling our own epic story.
The one thing we have done, which actually does align somewhat with the movies as well is, we've got real events but we've shifted the timeline around. Of course the Witch King did take over Minas Ithal. It did fall and become Minas Morgul. We've moved the timeline of that event without changing the event. We've moved that into our timeline of between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But that aligns with the notion of, in the first game as well, Sauron returning to Mordor and to the Black Gate after being absent for 1000 years.
Basically what we've done is aligned it with what we did in Shadow of Mordor, but also made it really fit within The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Did you talk to Peter Jackson? Has he had any input into this one?
Not directly, but we do work really closely with Middle Earth Enterprises. We're definitely very much inspired by the movies, within that and that treatment of the world. We also work with Tolkien scholars as well. A lot of different partners to try and keep that authenticity.
Do you feel any kind of pressure being able to bring these famous events to the screen in a very different way and how much of it will we experience or has it already happened by the time?
So the siege is kind of where we start the game and I think, it's a combination. There is one area where we're actually more aligned with the chronology of the films. Sauron and the Nazgûl awakened and were driven back to Mordor, and when they returned was when Talion died. They're "real" events but we've moved them in the timeline to fit with Sauron's return.
We really wanted to play that epic battle and that siege and partly because what we're trying to do is make something that resonates with some of the most iconic moments from the Lord of The Rings and that trilogy. Return of the King is amazing, so to actually get to see those epic and iconic battles and those moments, and then also seeing that transformation of Minas Ithil into Minas Morgul is this really epic, iconic example of what we're doing with all of the fortresses in the game and with the Nemesis system, where you are actually transforming them depending on who controls them.
It reminds me a lot of Helm's Deep. Were you looking at the The Two Towers for inspiration?
Very much so yeah. Not that we directly reference other things, but if you look at Star Wars: Rogue One, you know want to tell this very strong, standalone story. But you also want to represent and resonate with one of the most iconic and awesome things about the original source material; and the other thing we're very much trying to do this time with the story is bring it all the way up to Lord of the Rings. So as you play through this and as you reach the end of our story, there's a big, epic, satisfying pay off, but it also segue seamlessly into Lord of the Rings in a way that expands what you see about the lore and shed new light on Lord of the Rings so. And we'll explore the Nazgûl as the villains and the rebuilding of Barad dur and why Sauron is trapped in the flaming eye--it's taking these iconic things and just adding some new information.
And looking at the more human side of the relationship, I think Talion and Celebrimbor's relationship is something we can explore a lot more. The idea of power and the idea of corruption and telling the story with an actual fall. We were always very inspired by the idea of, "What would have happened?" Like, "What would Boromir have done if he actually got the One Ring?" Celebrimbor is obviously very inspired by what would have happened to Galadriel if she had taken the ring and become the dark queen.
Regarding the Project Scorpio announcement, will Shadow of War be the same across every platform: PS4, Xbox One, and Scorpio? Or do you have special plans for Scorpio?
One of the big advantages we have, it's not something I can really talk to because I'm not on the tech side, but having our own engine and our own engine team is just enormous for us. We're in such a great position to take advantage of all of the different technologies, or technical advantages. Our PS Pro version was great as well, and really took advantage of that. We're always really excited to take advantage of hardware.
Lore Deep Cuts
Cirith Ungol was on the map there and obviously it has a very famous inhabitant. Are we going to be seeing more characters from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, because we obviously had Gollum, in Shadow of Mordor?
Are we going to see Shelob?
I didn't say that specifically.
If you were an Orc in this world, what would your title be?
I think I'd be an Olog. And there's a guy called Dwarf Hater. He's festooned with just Dwarf beards. That's me.