The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth Designer Diary #1

The next real-time strategy game from the creators of Command & Conquer: Generals will take place in J.R.R. Tolkien's world of Middle-Earth. Executive Producer Mark Skaggs explains.

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Real-time strategy games let you hastily gather resources, quickly build a base of operations, and promptly amass an army that can crush your opponents before they can do likewise. So it's perhaps no surprise that the fast-paced Command & Conquer strategy series, which focuses on near-future battles between armies of tanks, fighter jets, and infantry, has been so successful. The last game from Electronic Arts' EALA studio, Command & Conquer: Generals, was a popular game that combined modern-day conflict with colorful 3D graphics and over-the-top explosions. Interestingly, the studio's next project will be a very different sort of game.

The battle for Middle-Earth begins.
The battle for Middle-Earth begins.

EALA is now working on The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth, which is a real-time strategy game based on director Peter Jackson's Academy Award-winning motion pictures and inspired by the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. In the game, you'll be able to play as the riders of Rohan, the armies of Gondor, the legions of Mordor, or the forces of Saruman. Each playable faction will have very different strengths, soldiers, and abilities, and as you might expect from the creator of Generals, these factions will collide in spectacular battles during which trolls and "mumakil" elephant riders will send their enemies flying while siege weapons will raze castles to the ground. Executive Producer Mark Skaggs begins this series of designer diaries by explaining what the game is and what the team at EALA hopes to accomplish with it.

The Biggest Battles From the Movies
By Mark Skaggs
Executive Producer/Vice President, EALA

My name is Mark Skaggs. I am a vice president here at EA Los Angeles, and I am the executive producer of the upcoming real-time strategy game The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth. Today I'm going to give you a little insight into our vision for Middle-Earth in this exciting new game.

One of the things we're really focusing on is capturing the essence of Middle-Earth and making it feel like a living, breathing place. The Battle for Middle-Earth features legendary heroes, exotic creatures, and beautiful locales--all things you'd expect from reading the books and watching the films. Because of this, we have a chance to do a strategy game like no one's ever seen before. In The Battle for Middle-Earth, you may encounter an ent (the gigantic walking trees of Middle-Earth) strolling through the forest. Orcs may attempt to attack the ent, and the ent may decide to retaliate in its own uniquely slow but powerful way. Or perhaps you'll be defending a city in Gondor from a mumakil. What makes The Battle for Middle-Earth stand out isn't just the chance to experience all the creatures and locations of Middle-Earth but to see them interacting with and reacting to one another in a believable way.

When we made Command & Conquer: Generals, emotions weren't really an important factor in the game. Tanks don't have emotions. But ents do. So, when we started designing the game, we were faced with the challenge of trying to imbue the characters of Middle-Earth with emotion but without losing control over them. A character fleeing from a troll would be exhibiting a believable emotion, but that emotion might be one that would unfortunately make the player lose control over him. We had to come up with a way to give characters emotion by building it into the style of their actions but not necessarily in the actions themselves. For example, you might command a group of Gondor warriors to fight a troll. They'll follow your orders, but you can see their fear as they attack. Likewise, you can also see their joy when they achieve victory. That's a whole new concept for strategy games.

When we were first designing The Battle for Middle-Earth, we were faced with the choice of making what we felt could be the best strategy game ever or the best Lord of the Rings game ever. It wasn't an easy decision. However, we've lived and breathed real-time strategy, and it's in our blood. We knew we could count on the fact that, with our extensive knowledge of and experience with these games, we probably wouldn't do anything silly with the actual game. So we decided to strive for being the best Lord of the Rings game ever. This is uncharted waters for us. It may mean changing some of the strategy conventions we're accustomed to, but it's worth it. Our goal is to make you completely immersed in this world--fighting the battles and controlling and directing the characters of Middle-Earth. What could be more exciting than that?

Of course, we are including many familiar real-time strategy features in the game, but we've also been working on ways to make Middle-Earth feel like a real place for the player. This involves creating environments that look and feel natural. As we look at re-creating the world of Middle-Earth, we've had to learn about the subtle events and sounds that happen in nature. One of the prototypes we've created is a very cool waterfall scenario surrounded by ambient wildlife. In this scenario, a few elk are eating grass, a few birds fly past, and some cranes are picking fish out of the water. It might sound boring, but surprisingly, many people find it to be very compelling and relaxing to watch. (People we've shown it to have actually asked for it to become a screensaver.) Beyond being great to look at and to "experience," this sort of thing helped us learn how to make a map look and feel "real" and exciting, without having to resort to explosions and tricky camera moves.

EALA wants to make sure you have fun stormin' the castle.
EALA wants to make sure you have fun stormin' the castle.

One of the areas most people will be interested in knowing about is the campaign structure. We've got some great experiments going on with that right now, including a prototype that shows how the game will have nonlinear solo play. Think for a moment about the possibility of seeing a map of all of Middle-Earth from the air. Then think about clicking and zooming all the way down into an area like Helm's Deep and fighting that battle there. Next, imagine that during the battle at Helm's Deep you could zoom back out to go look at what's happening at Minas Tirith, or Mordor, or even the Shire. You can see how this could lead to a nonlinear game.

There's tons more stuff we're working on that I'll discuss next time. Thank you for your interest, and please stay tuned for our next designer diary!

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