Guardians of Middle-earth is an upcoming downloadable title for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network set (very loosely) in The Lord of the Rings universe. Developer Monolith Productions and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment are set to throw their hats in the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) ring against genre champions DOTA (Dota All-Stars, DOTA 2, and Blizzard DOTA) and Riot Games’ blockbuster League of Legends.
GamesBeat recently attended an extended play session at Monolith’s headquarters in Kirkland, Wash. We observed a handful of players (each using distinct characters) across several matches, as well as a few select live gameplay segments presented by the Monolith team. We also dominated the rival team as an unannounced unlockable Evil character, but I think that was mostly because we were playing against game journalists and, as everyone knows, game journalists don’t actually play games.
The gameplay is typical MOBA fare with a Tolkien skin wrapped over it. Two teams compete for points while moving between three lanes, attempting to destroy each other’s towers and guardians (playable characters) to gain experience points and dominance over the map. Here’s a video if none of that made sense:
Guardians of Middle-earth has just over 20 characters, split across five playstyles: warrior, striker, mage, tactician, and defender. Gollum, Gandolf, Sauron, Legolas, and most of the usual suspects make an appearance, but it also has a decent selection of characters excluded from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations to fill the roster.
After we played it, we sat down with Ruth Tomandl, a senior producer at Monolith, to discuss bringing a dowloadable MOBA to home consoles and competing (or not) with the big boys in the genre.
GamesBeat: Can you give some of your history in the game industry?
Ruth Tomandl: Yeah. I was at Gas Powered Games for seven years. I was a level designer on all of the Dungeon Siege games, and I worked on Supreme Commander a little bit. Content engineering. Then I was a lead level designer, and I liked the scheduling aspect, so I wanted to get into production. I came to Snowblind as an associate producer on Lord of the Rings: War in the North and eventually became a senior producer on Guardians of Middle-earth.
GamesBeat: How did you go from Snowblind to Monolith?
Tomandl: Snowblind and Surreal and Monolith were all acquired and put into this one building, so we’ve had some transfers back and forth, depending on project needs.
GamesBeat: Let’s start with previous Lord of the Rings games. They’ve been of varying quality. Some of the movie ones may have performed well financially, but they were just the generic common denominator. Movie’s coming out, and Electronic Arts just pumped out a game to go with it. There was a real-time strategy game that I actually kind of liked. …
Tomandl: Our creative director worked on that game, on Battle for Middle-Earth.
GamesBeat: Then there’s War in the North and several others. So what is some of the good, but also particularly some of the bad, feedback that fans have had about previous Lord of the Rings games that you’ve addressed with this one?
Tomandl: It seems like with Middle-earth games, the things that have excited the fans the most and the things that they’ve been looking forward to the most are the capability to play with the world and characters and not necessarily be stuck in a single narrative. I think that because the books are so strong and the films have been so strong, I think people expect to see that in games as well. But like you said, the games that follow those same narratives haven’t been as strong. I think it’s because there’s so much more to the world and so much more to the characters than just those stories.
I think players are always asking for open-world Middle-earth games. The RTS was a really good use of the Middle-earth license, because it lets you do more with it. It lets you explore that world and those characters and those races more. I think that’s something that’s a strength of Guardians of Middle-earth. We’re taking those characters, but we’re not locking them into a narrative. We’re letting you explore the characters themselves as heroes in battles and see what happens with them. They each have their own backstory and personalities, which are very strong, and the world is very strong. But we’re not locked into a single story that’s been rehashed 50 times.
GamesBeat: Even though the MOBA genre is growing, you are facing some extremely hardcore steep competition. Does Guardians plan to infiltrate some of that fanbase? Are you maybe targeting the console-specific audience instead?
Tomandl: I think it’s an advantage for us, certainly, to be only coming out on the consoles. It’s let us focus on making a really good console game, but it also eliminates any question of competing. Because yeah, those games are very established. They’ve had a lot of time to iterate. They’ve had a lot of time to polish and come out with new champions and stuff. I think if we went head-to-head with that, we wouldn’t have a very good chance. Guardians of Middle-earth is a new game, and it doesn’t have all the history and polish and established fanbase. I think being on the consoles gives us a chance to surprise players and give them something that’s familiar to them, but also new.
I think that we’ve seen that with MOBA players..we brought a lot of professional MOBA players down here to test the game and give us feedback on it. They said that they felt like it was a separate genre. Part of it is that they’re so steeped in their particular game and all the minutiae of it. Anything that deviates slightly from it, they see it as completely different. But also, they said that there were enough differences, the controls were different enough, that they didn’t really consider it to be in the same genre as the PC MOBAs. I think it’s a good place for Guardians to be in. It’s something that people recognize, but at the same time we’ve been surprising people. It’s always a good thing to pleasantly surprise people with your game.
GamesBeat: What are some of the drastic features or changes that differentiate it from other MOBAs?
Tomandl: A lot of it is the pacing. The matches are shorter. You get into matches more quickly. When you get into a match, you start the larger battles more quickly. We shortcut some of that initial laning and jockeying for position and getting a creep score phase. I think pretty much all of the PC MOBAs have that. We start you off with three abilities unlocked already. The map is a little smaller, so you move between lanes a lot more. There’s more incentive to move between lanes. I think it just gets into more of a fast-paced battle more quickly. Which is something I think console gamers are more interested in. PC gamers, I think, have more patience to invest a lot of time and then reap the rewards of it, whereas console gamers want to get in, play a match, get out, and get more expertise that way, by playing more matches. I think that’s the biggest difference people will notice. We’ve also added some things like upgrading your towers. Upgrading your soldiers. The shrine captures. That kind of thing. The player customization. The character customization is different. But I think the biggest change people will notice is the pacing.
GamesBeat: I did notice the pacing while playing and during the presentation, but maybe not necessarily in a good way. Obviously you have your faster characters and your slower characters. The movement speed is one thing. But I noticed that the actual attack animations felt a little sluggish. The battles didn’t seem very exciting or urgent because of this.
Obviously the spells are pretty spectacular, but the actual clashing of swords and things like that felt a little underwhelming. Is that something that was intentional, or if that’s something still in the works? Or if I’m the only person who’s ever said that?
Tomandl: I don’t think I’ve heard that feedback specifically, except that it’s possible it’s because you were using the basic controls. That is one drawback to that control set. Was it that when you use an ability, you have to press the button and then let go of it, which does introduce a delay?
GamesBeat: Let me ask you this, because I first noticed it while you were giving the presentation. During that demo, I noticed that if there’s a soldier or whatever, it just seems like he’s swinging really slow. It was notable.
Tomandl: Interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard that before. I don’t have anything to refute it. And I’ve also been looking at this game for a year, so I probably wouldn’t notice it. But that’s interesting. …
GamesBeat: Has the game maybe been balanced to not be too overwhelming to the player? Obviously a lightning-fast game would be intimidating to anyone. But have the animations or the pacing maybe been designed to be more accomodating to an average gamer?
Tomandl: Not that I know of. I wouldn’t want to speak to the design specifically, because I certainly don’t know of any design focus on that. I do know that there are some…let’s see. I know I’ve seen a lot of bugs on animation delays being set incorrectly, and I think that there are. … When you use an ability, there is a delay before you can do something else sometimes, which might be what you’re seeing. I don’t know. That might be interesting. You might want to talk to Scott Compton about it. He’s the lead designer and he knows a lot more about that than I do. I’m more familiar with the backend systems. But yeah, I haven’t heard that before, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
GamesBeat: Longevity is something that the mainstays of the MOBA genre have just conquered. They have their different ways of doing it. Every week in League of Legends, I believe, there’s a new hero. I noticed that in the booklet, with the characters, one of the dwarves was “featured this week.” Can you explain what being featured means and also what your plans may be to give the game a long lifespan?
Tomandl: Yeah. When the game ships this fall, it will have more than 20 guardians included. All of those are included in the game. Five of them will be available to the player right off, and other ones will have to be purchased with in-game currency that you earn from playing matches and completing challenges. You get some in-game currency, you can purchase a guardian. …
GamesBeat: Will it also have unlocks like Forza and other games do, where if you don’t want to take the time to earn it, you can just spend Microsoft points?
Tomandl: We’re not planning to do any microtransactions. We don’t want to have that model in the game. It’s all in-game currency. So there’s no way to shortcut it with real currency. What we do have for people who want to try a guardian that they haven’t purchased. … We do have between one and five guardians unlocked by default for a short time. That’s what the “featured this week” thing is. What we can do via our backend systems is say, “OK, this week everyone can play as Galadriel.” And then at the end of the week she’s gone, but you can also purchase her with in-game currency after that.
GamesBeat: You only have five?
Tomandl: Up to five.
GamesBeat: Wouldn’t it be relatively easy to unlock all five and not have any left? At that point you would kind of render the “featured” system unnecessary?
Tomandl: You start with five unlocked. And then there’s still 15-some that aren’t unlocked. Of those 15, we can say, “OK, these five are unlocked this week, these five are unlocked next week. …”
GamesBeat: Is there a target for how long it would take a player to unlock that initial lineup entirely?
Tomandl: Let’s see. The max profile level is 20, but then you can prestige and start over at one. I think by the time you hit profile level 15 or so, you should have enough currency to unlock all the guardians if you don’t spend it on anything else. But there’s also potions, which are consumables that you use in-game currency for. There’s relics and gems. I think that’s it? But all of those things together will absorb your currency over time as well.
GamesBeat: The presentation showed a chart where you can eventually summon a Balrog. How does that system work?
Tomandl: Profile level one; you don’t have any custom loadout stuff at all. You can use the default loadouts for the guardians, which gets you into the system in an easy way. Then as you level up your profile…I think at profile level two you unlock your first potion slots. Then you can earn a potion and take it into the match with you. The commands…I don’t remember when they unlock. But at certain levels…you’ll unlock the first tier of commands, which are things like healing and speed bursts. The second tier of commands unlocks at a later level. By the time your profile is at level 20, you’ve unlocked all four tiers of commands, and the fourth-tier commands are the really powerful ones like the Balrog summoning. And those are all things you can load out on your character for the match.
GamesBeat: I meant to ask, when you said you weren’t playing…you didn’t want to have microtransactions. Is there a reason why you wouldn’t? Because it’s a common feature of other MOBAs. Why is it not right for this one?
Tomandl: We did run into some difficulties doing it on the console. It’s not something that’s really well-known, how to do it well. And it’s also something that players just really don’t like. We’re already blazing enough of a new trail that we want to keep as much player goodwill as possible. We’re already doing something that players are very skeptical of. We’ve gotten a lot of comments and a lot of feedback to the effect of, “I don’t think this is going to work on console at all.” Once people play it, I think that they’re a lot more, “OK, this does work.” But that initial “This genre isn’t for consoles!” kind of mindset: If we added microtransactions to it, that would make it much worse. It was just something that we didn’t want to pursue for this first game.
GamesBeat: It’s just something that blows my mind, because every day at GamesBeat, we write or read stories about how EA’s doing something with Mass Effect or Capcom’s doing something with Street Fighter X Tekken or Activision’s got like 80 day-one DLC pieces for Transformers. It just seriously blows my mind that you guys said, “No, we don’t really want to do microtransactions. We just wanted to leave that out.”
Tomandl: Well, we like money. [Laughs] I don’t know. It just felt nicer to have it as a package that the player purchases. And we are planning to do DLC, certainly. We just don’t want it to be like, you have to pay more real money than you’ve already paid for the game to play the game. We’re already trying something so interesting and different that we want to reward people instead of punishing them for trying it out.
GamesBeat: So the last question, which may be a very short answer: Can you speak to the long-term plans for the game?
Tomandl: I think all I can tell you is that we have spoken to the postlaunch tuning. We’ve got a pretty robust system. We can tune any number in the game. And we are planning to do DLC. But I’m not allowed to tell you anything more about that. [Laugh] That makes PR really happy.