THE BIG IN­TER­VIEW: BOB ROBERTS

With Shadow Of War about to land on Xbox One, we chat with de­sign di­rec­tor Bob Roberts about the chal­lenges of mak­ing a se­quel to a pop­u­lar game in an es­tab­lished uni­verse

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - stephen ashby

Cre­at­ing a se­quel is never easy. You can’t just rest on your lau­rels and make more of the same when peo­ple are ex­pect­ing some­thing big­ger, some­thing more ad­vanced, or some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent. But when your first game is as suc­cess­ful as Mid­dle-earth:

Shadow Of Mor­dor was, do you re­ally want to make dras­tic changes to a win­ning for­mula? To find out how a de­vel­oper like Mono­lith solves a prob­lem like this, we sat down with Bob Roberts, De­sign Di­rec­tor at the stu­dio, to talk about Shadow Of War – the big­ger, more am­bi­tious, and higher-res­o­lu­tion se­quel that is aim­ing to be­come the one game rule them all. You’re build­ing this orig­i­nal story in Tolkein’s uni­verse. How be­holden do you feel you ought to be to his work? We are huge fans of the source ma­te­rial, ob­vi­ously, and we spend a lot of time think­ing about how to tell a new story in an au­then­tic way that’s true to the themes. Even though we’re mak­ing up some new char­ac­ters in or­der to tell that, we’re try­ing to keep it in line. So we ex­plore the na­ture of death and death­less­ness, and the cor­rup­tion of power, and it’s fun to tackle that in a videogame where peo­ple in­ter­act and get to feel their im­pact. As a gamer you’re used to grow­ing in power over the course of a game, but in Tolkien it’s a lit­tle more sin­is­ter a prospect. Re­flect­ing on Shadow Of Mor­dor, what are the big­gest lessons you learned af­ter the first game? We try to in­ter­nalise so much of the feed­back that peo­ple gave us, and there’s a lot of valu­able stuff that we’ve tried to im­ple­ment in Shadow Of War. I think one big thing is try­ing to en­sure that the sense of ex­plo­ration is there by mak­ing the world big­ger and more di­verse en­vi­ron­men­tally. You have that in­nate feel­ing that you’re in this epic fantasy world. We’ve also tried to weave the story and the Neme­sis sys­tem to­gether bet­ter. We had these more sep­a­rate pieces last time – you had story mis­sions, and then you went out into the sand­box and did Neme­sis stuff, and they weren’t as in­ter­twined. We’ve tried to find ways to get char­ac­ters you’ve de­vel­oped dy­nam­i­cally, that you’ve got some per­sonal his­tory with, to show up at the right mo­ments in the story. Then they get dropped into the sand­box for you to mess with once their story is com­plete.

Of course the core of our game is this dy­namic sto­ry­telling en­gine and the pro­ce­dural char­ac­ters and en­e­mies, and so we had tons of ideas last time that we put out there, and we were read­ing peo­ple’s sto­ries, read­ing about their most hated Neme­ses, and we started to see com­mon pat­terns. Some­times those pat­terns were too com­mon, and we need there to be more di­verse sto­ries, you know? Not ev­ery­one’s Neme­sis should be a poi­son spear­man with cer­tain traits. And we see the ones that don’t al­ways show up, but when they do show up they make a big im­pact. So we started look­ing at those ideas, work­ing out the ones that worked re­ally well, and then worked on more off­shoots of that. What were the big­gest tech­ni­cal chal­lenges in open­ing up the Neme­sis sys­tem to in­cor­po­rate more char­ac­ters, and even some ar­eas? That must have been tough – but fun! Yeah! [laughs] It’s cer­tainly tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing to get that many char­ac­ters fight­ing, es­pe­cially with all the di­ver­sity – fit­ting ev­ery­one into mem­ory when all of the Neme­sis char­ac­ters are to­tally unique and dif­fer­ent. And then there’s the balanc­ing – [it’s tough] find­ing ways to keep your level of power bal­anced. If we make you strong enough to han­dle huge fortress fights, when you’re then fight­ing guys out in the rest of the world it can’t be out of whack. That made us re­ally add a lot more to the tool­box for Talion to han­dle dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. We ex­panded the skill tree in ways that have turned out to be re­ally fun, too. What is the one big­gest minute-to-minute im­prove­ment that fans of the first game will no­tice in Shadow Of War? One of my per­sonal favourites, which I hope ev­ery­body gets com­fort­able with – and it’s the kind of thing where, when I go back and play Mor­dor now, I can’t live with­out it any

more – is the dou­ble jump. So jump­ing off a build­ing, tap­ping A again, get­ting to re­di­rect and cover big­ger gaps, and then tim­ing your climb­ing presses to climb faster too. Nav­i­gat­ing the world on foot is just so much more fluid. Let’s get into the Neme­sis sys­tem a bit more. One thing we no­ticed is that the com­bi­na­tion of ran­dom el­e­ments can make some fights re­ally hard, es­pe­cially when fac­ing mul­ti­ple cap­tains with con­trast­ing weak­nesses. What kind of rule sets help de­cide the bal­ance of these af­fects? The rules driv­ing this stuff are… well, I think if I were to dive into those peo­ple would prob­a­bly glaze over at the tech­ni­cal­i­ties here, but we def­i­nitely have a set of ex­clu­sions for im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tions. But we try to con­strain it as lit­tle as we can get away with, so that the pos­si­bil­ity space in the sand­box is as great as it can be, while still be­ing of­fi­cially ac­com­plish­able. And [we want it to] re­ally pay off to the peo­ple who are pay­ing at­ten­tion to those traits, and strate­gise, so you can have the most epic mo­ments where it feels al­most over­whelm­ing and im­pos­si­ble, but you know there’s a so­lu­tion. So you dig in, and you fig­ure out what you can do, and ex­e­cute a plan, and it works. Those are some of the high­est heights, es­pe­cially when that guy has killed you sev­eral times. Af­ter the huge suc­cess of the Neme­sis sys­tem last time, did you find it hard think­ing of ways to im­prove on it? Peo­ple al­ways want big­ger and bet­ter – how do you go big­ger when it’s some­thing that ev­ery­one loves? I guess there are two ma­jor ways that we take in­spi­ra­tion to ex­pand it. First of all, work­ing through the first game we had tons and tons of ideas. We tried a lot of them, a lot of them we didn’t get around to im­ple­ment­ing in time, so we had a big back­log of things we wanted to try. But there’s also just re­act­ing to the ran­dom­ness it cre­ates ev­ery day and find­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in that. Bugs hap­pen a lot – it’s a dy­namic sand­box, so it’s crazy and chaotic dur­ing de­vel­op­ment, and a lot of times those bugs will pro­pose fea­tures to us. “That was a weird, crazy thing that hap­pened be­cause of the me­chan­ics… wouldn’t it be great if char­ac­ters could re­act to that, and it reg­is­tered to part of the ex­pe­ri­ence you’re hav­ing?” So we write some lines of di­a­logue and make sure, in­stead of fix­ing it, that ev­ery­one just re­acts ap­pro­pri­ately. And now that’s part of the game! So there are a lot of fea­tures that emerge like that too. The com­bat sys­tem in Shadow Of Mor­dor was ex­cel­lent – for some other, sim­i­lar games it seems so hard to get right. What’s your se­cret? Well, I don’t work on any of those other games, so all I know is our de­sign­ers and an­i­ma­tors, and the guys that are work­ing non-stop for years on that must be re­ally good at what they do [laughs]. They’re mak­ing it work for peo­ple in a way that I cer­tainly have fun play­ing ev­ery day af­ter years and years of this. To­wards the end of Shadow Of Mor­dor, up­grades and abil­i­ties made you al­most god­like. How are you avoid­ing that this time around, or is that some­thing you wanted to in­clude again? In the last game you got to that place where peo­ple com­plained you be­came OP at the end. An­other com­plaint we heard was that the high­est level en­e­mies would ho­mogenise, and they would have all of the strengths and none of the weak­nesses, and

that’s kind of the same fight ev­ery time. We have in­tro­duced the idea of ad­vanced classes. So we had those bases, like the de­fend­ers with the shields that you have to jump over, and the sav­ages with the axes that you have to stun first – those ba­sic class types. And now, any of those can evolve as they grow through the cap­tain hi­er­ar­chy and be­come one of nine ad­vanced classes. These dif­fer­ent archetypes keep the va­ri­ety there later on, and will make you switch up your style as you keep play­ing, even into the deep end-game.

For the OP fac­tor, we were cer­tainly ner­vous be­cause we had all these ideas of how to ex­pand Talion’s abil­i­ties, but if you’re al­ready OP… that was un­com­fort­able at first. But as we kept de­vel­op­ing, we were try­ing to make the orcs tougher and more in­ter­est­ing, and then build­ing the fort as­saults es­pe­cially, and see­ing the mas­sive-scale bat­tles, we re­alised, “ac­tu­ally, we kind of need these wider arse­nal so that you can deal with all the new chal­lenges we’ve de­signed”. Talk­ing of up­grades, what was your think­ing be­hind the new up­grades sys­tem, and what are your favourites of Talion’s new skills? There are two big ar­eas of char­ac­ter up­grades this time around. There’s the skills, which has a big­ger skill tree with all of these dif­fer­ent up­grad­ing op­tions which are choices you have to make. Ul­ti­mately you can un­lock them all, but you can only have one equipped at a time for a unique skill. If you un­lock them all then you’ve got the full set of choices avail­able to you, and when you tar­get a cap­tain and go to hunt him down you can look at his weak­nesses and tune your skill build to him. We’ve got the dif­fer­ent trees – if you’re fo­cused on ex­pand­ing your Com­bat abil­i­ties, we push some new moves there like hold­ing X for the big AOE at­tack, and up­grades and fol­low-ups on that. And we’ve got the same thing in the Stealth and Range trees – one of the big­gest things is be­ing able to hold the aim but­ton while you’re fly­ing through the air to slow down time to aim, then chain that into a bunch of dif­fer­ent moves.

Then there’s your Gear, which changes the ap­pear­ance of Talion as well as his stats – we’re ex­pand­ing that so much. Not just in the vis­ual cus­tomi­sa­tion, but also try­ing to pull the Neme­sis sys­tem deeper into the Gear, since these things are me­men­tos of your kills, es­sen­tially. You can keep that guy’s name on it (which we did last time) but this time we also drive the prop­er­ties of the gear, and there are lit­tle chal­lenges to up­grade the gear. So, if you get a Gon­do­rian sword from a guy who was throw­ing lots of fire­bombs at you, that in­ter­ac­tion is go­ing to push the like­li­hood that you’re go­ing to get fire prop­er­ties on the sword, and there’s a chal­lenge maybe to burn 10 more guys to up­grade this into its per­fect form, and it be­comes The Firestarter. How easy was it to get Shadow Of War up and run­ning in 4K with HDR, and how is the up­graded ver­sion look­ing at the mo­ment? As a de­signer I don’t have a lot of the tech­ni­cal de­tails, but what I do know anec­do­tally is that our tech­ni­cal team got the build go­ing on the Xbox One X dev kits within a day or two. So it was a re­ally seam­less process, and we could put a lot more time into op­ti­mi­sa­tion in­stead of the ba­sics of get­ting go­ing. I know we demo as much as pos­si­ble on 4K screens, and we’ve got the HDR en­abled, and it looks re­ally hot – we’ve got all the set­tings cranked up. Do you think it’s the case that once you see one of these games run­ning at 4K and in HDR that it’s dif­fi­cult to go back? Or do you think we’re still in a tran­si­tionary pe­riod? That’s a good ques­tion. I feel like that’s such a per­sonal, sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. I love play­ing and demo­ing at the high­est pos­si­ble set­tings, but if you’re in it for the me­chan­ics and not re­ally into the graph­i­cal side of things it still plays great on the other Xbox mod­els. But it’s cer­tainly the best ver­sion of the game on the Xbox One X. You guys have carved out this lit­tle cor­ner of the Tolkien world to play in. If there was any one char­ac­ter that you could bring from the wider LotR uni­verse – even if it didn’t make 100% story sense – who would it be? [Pauses] I would love a ridicu­lous, con­fus­ing mis­sion line with Tom Bom­badil. We were think­ing the same. DLC? [Laughs] Mid­dle-earth: Shadow Of War is avail­able now for Xbox One, and will be avail­able in 4K on Xbox One X from 7 Novem­ber.

above Armies will fill the screen dur­ing fortress ass­saults.

left We sat down with Bob to talk orcs, up­grades, and ob­ses­sions with Tolkien.

Top If you man­age to leap onto one of these bas­tards, things are go­ing to get toasty.

left The ex­panded Neme­sis sys­tem will ex­tend to weapons, too.

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