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
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.