SDCC 2012: Lord of the Rings – Guardians of Middle Earth

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We were able to catch up with Jason Olander, the Senior Designer of Guardians of Middle Earth after getting our hands on Guardians for the first time.

Tell us what the overwhelming response has been here, since Comic-Con tends to bring out the most rabid of fanboys.

JO: Actually, the reaction we’ve had so far has been pretty great. It’s a videogame that is associated with the films, and we’ve worked closely with Peter Jackson, WETA and Middle Earth Enterprises, so there’s definitely an authenticity to it…but it’s also a game. Gandalf’s in there mixing it up with Gollum and Sauron, and people are going to say “waiiiiit…what? How can Gollum stand up to Gandalf?” I think the key, though, is that with *our* Guardians, we’re building their abilities almost like you’d expect from the stories. How would it feel if I had Saruman out there on the field? How would Gollum react to fighting in a multiplayer arena? You immediately identify with how the characters are reacting. On *that* side, the response has been great. The game looks fantastic, and our engineering and art team has really done an amazing job…so that doesn’t hurt. But more than that, I just think that people are excited to see a new competitive brand like this coming to consoles.

Do you feel a game like this would bridge the gap between PC people and console people, who seem to be in the same tree but on different branches?

JO: That’s a great question. Guardians started as a germ of a project, as Monolith (primarily a shooter studio), we’ve done a lot of multiplayer games, and many of our team members have done other large-scale multiplayer games. We’re really trying to bring that competitive edge and experience that you get from those large-scale games to consoles, but with something a little different. This was the perfect vehicle to do that. Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games have become very popular on PC in the last few years. But we found that many console gamers are rather standoffish about it; they’ve heard about it, or their friends play it and it’s very hardcore. Given that it’s the Middle Earth brand, with familiar controls, you’re going to ‘get it’ right away, AND on a console to boot; plus it’s a shorter experience in comparison to other MOBA-style games. It’s a little more action oriented…it’s faster. The survivability might be a little bit higher than you’d expect. We’re really looking for those people who have heard about it, might know about it, but aren’t really sure about MOBA games…this is their gateway in. So it’s completely accessible, but strategic depth is the other side of that coin, so we have a ton of systems in there for the hardcore contingent. Once you’re familiar with it, you can jump in and fine-tune ’til your heart’s content.

Fine Tuning?

Yes. The Relic system, our  inventory slotting system, lets you say “ok, I want 2% more speed and 10% more survivability” and you build this configuration of relics to fine-tune your experience. It’s really going to resonate with hardcore fans and multiplayer gamers alike.

So you’re getting a good response?

Absolutely. The awesome thing with shows like this, is that you get a whole mass of different gamers coming through. I mean, we had pros come through, people who make a living playing games like this, and they’ll play it and pick up on the control scheme right away, and were surprised about the depth of the game. Then you have new players that don’t even know anything about the game at all, but the controls are intuitive, so it’s easy to jump right in and start hitting buttons and doing cool stuff right away.

Are you concerned that Guardians will get the same response that Battle for Middle Earth did? IE that fans and hardcore RTS fans will love it, but casuals won’t give it a proper chance?

Not really. MOBAs are a great bridge of that gap between the RTS, which has a ton of management, with units and buildings; and action games which have none of those options. It originally started as a Warcraft mod, and you only really had one guy to worry about…and that’s still how it is. You get into the game and you learn about your one Guardian:  what are my abilities? What am I good at? What am I bad at? Once you get used to that, then you start to look around. Ok, who’s on my team? How do *we* work together? Now there are two or three of us combining our abilities and finding results. Then it’s all about the battlefield, using the land to our advantage. From a management aspect, it’s far easier than a hardcore RTS. From an action standpoint, it’s a little more deliberate than a shooter. I honestly feel that we’ve nailed down that feeling with Guardians…we really cornered that action/strategy experience. Easy to learn, hard to master…you know how that goes.

The skill tree that we had access to had four abilities, will you be able to switch those out, or will there be four static abilities for each character?

Each Guardian has four basic abilities, you open up three in the very beginning and you eventually unlock that last Ultra ability later, and a big dynamic is managing those three/four abilities and their cooldowns. But the other thing is the inventory system, which we talked about before. There are potions, which are one-offs (health, attack, etc.) that can only be used once per game. Then you have commands, which have incredibly long cooldowns, but they’re incredibly powerful. My favorite is the Balrog, which is an attack command, you bring a Balrog on to the battlefield and he just goes ballistic. But with that, it takes forever to cool him down, so you want to hang on to him as long as possible. Beyond that, we have the Relic inventory system, and those build up as you progress through the game as well. Some are triggered by doing different things with certain abilities, so there’s a lot of depth to the controls. Once you learn the four abilities, you have to learn how to use them in tandem with the commands and the relic system.

How many Guardians will there be to choose from?

What you see here are ten Guardians…when we ship, there will be more than twenty, and we have a very robust content plan for even more Guardians coming regularly.

So we can expect consistent, post-launch DLC?

Yes, we already have plans in motion. For example, leading up to The Hobbit movie, we have some very specific Guardians and DLC coming to tie-in with the Unexpected Journey, and that’s going to be the coolest thing ever!

Is it going to be straight multiplayer right out of the box, or will there will there be a bot system as well?

There are definitely going to be bots, because we have a full tutorial system; everything from learning the basic controls to skirmish mode and teaching you about this type of game. There are three lane maps which you see here today, and we also have a one lane map that will be coming out at launch, which is just manic…everyone meets in the middle and just goes crazy. Then we’ll have a full skirmish mode which is you and your buddies against the AI. Lastly we’ll have fully customized games where you can mix and match by adding friends, some bots, no bots…it’s all about customizing your favorite mode.

So will a location like Weathertop be an example of a single-lane map?

We haven’t revealed anything about the locations of the single lane map yet…but it is a different style than this. Today’s map is a three lane, total nerd-out. It’s from the Eastern Ruins, from the Lord of the Rings lore. We’re hard core with our nerdiness…some of us…well, it’s sad really (laughs).

I was going to ask something about that. For LotR purists, will this have a lot to “get”? Because there’s not going to be a whole lot of expositional content, right? You’re relying on players knowing who each character is beforehand, right?

We have lots of touches in the game for the hardcore Tolkien fans…I mean, we’re working closely with Middle Earth Enterprises. In fact, when I was finished writing ability names and relic names, I passed it to them to make sure it’s lore appropriate. That also goes for the art, the writing, the characters as well. That being said, it’s not a single-player game, so you won’t get a strong story out of it in, in terms of a linear narrative. Being a competitive multiplayer game, the storyline you end up with is the story of battle. It’s like a sports game: when you’re telling the story of a great football game that you just saw. That’s really what you’re getting out of Guardians. All of the characters have a background and there’s expositional info you can read about them, and there’s custom spoken dialogue for everyone. There’s a lot of touches for the lore-hounds if they want to look for it, all sorts of little things that crazy people like me put into the game. But the stories themselves really come from the flow of battle. Just like when you stand around the water cooler talking about the game last night.

Seeing as how many online-only games are adopting the microtransaction system, will Guardians feature this as well?

No, absolutely not. There will be no microtransaction system…it will be a fully-featured game right out of the box…er…ether, since it’s a download title. All 20+ Guardians, skirmish mode, maps…everything. Afterwards, the DLC content will be individual, but there will be no MTX systems in place. You earn currency in the game, in addition to experience points in each game. We also are giving you currency for completing objectives, winning, etc. which you use to purchase inventory; your potions, commands and relics, all of which you can purchase at the beginning or inbetween each game.

Guardians of Middle Earth, a new competitive, 5-on-5 online experience coming out this Fall to Xbox Live and the Playstation Network.

> Mick, Julia Ghoulia and Kristin


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Author: Julia Ghoulia View all posts by

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