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SPECIAL REPORT: ‘The Battle for Middle-earth’

July 20, 2004 at 11:46 pm by Cliff Quickbeam Broadway  - 

Where the Fine Arts Meets Electronic Arts

A Special Peek Behind the Scenes for EA Games’ The Battle for Middle-earth Game

Down in the depths of Southern California you will find an amazing place. The Electronic Arts L.A. Campus is designed to keep the resident video game designers very happy. Everything in the environment, from the shiny green landscaping down to the massive salt-water aquarium in the lobby, helps keep the army of people working for EA Games content through the long haul of production. The campus is both an artists’ studio and multi-leveled corporate playground all at once. Instead of sterile ‘cube farms’ you see in most offices, they have colorful hexagon cubicles, where many of the panels are forced open by employees so they can see, interact with, and throw paper balls at their neighbors. They have complete recreational facilities, covering all the bases. Their vibrant dining facility offers homemade breakfast burritos, cooked to order. They have their own gym, basketball courts, and soccer field (ready for a round volleyball).

The facility excludes such annoying distractions as corporate goons who love to pester the artists while they work, or shrill customer service call centers. Nothing like that here. This place is for gamers! One thing is for sure — this ain’t your Father’s office space.

Here there be many wondrous sights and secretive assets! My tour of the campus included a preview of hundreds of cool things related to EA Games that must, alas, remain secret. I was there to visit the Battle for Middle-earth production team — who are busy creating a new, virtual Middle-earth where the player controls the armies, strategies, and ever-changing shifts of power as seen in The Lord of the Rings films. Actually, you might play this Battle for Middle-earth game as either the Free People’s side or the Sauron side. Anything is possible. This is a real-time strategy game that promises to delight the hardcore gamer – and packs a big ‘Wow’ factor for Tolkien fans.

Mark Skaggs is a busy man these days. He is the VP and Executive Producer for The Battle for Middle-earth, and the buck stops with him. Overseeing a massive team of 80 different artists, drafters, animators, programmers, project managers, and the requisite marketing crew is what he simply calls ‘A Day’s Work.’ And seeing the strenuous efforts of his team going on all around me, as I walk the corridors of the Campus, it is suddenly very clear how similar to Peter Jackson he really is. Like the famed movie director, Mark must bear the brunt of huge expectations from Ringer fans — including myself — all the while attempting to orchestrate a swarm of people unified under his vision and guidance. I don’t envy him a bit, as he too is trying to handle one of the biggest fantasy franchises of all time.

Yet he and his team are doing it with finesse.

He proudly shows the assembled reporters a unique demo of the game, shown recently at E3. It begins with a stunning map that must have taken years to develop. It’s a gorgeous virtual rending of all the lands of Middle-earth that were involved in the War of the Ring, with exaggerated relief features, smoke rising out of Mt. Doom, and verdant forests. My hat is off Richard Kreegler, for it is one of the most stylish Middle-earth maps I’ve ever seen in any medium. This is the kind of artwork that should please Tolkien fans, while it’s not perfectly accurate in geographic detail, that’s not the point. It’s just so organic and inviting. This is indeed art.

You click on the map to enter the virtual locations where battle will be decided. As the camera moves down towards the city of Osgiliath, or wherever you might go, you certainly can expect beautiful visuals. And Howard Shore’s amazing score.

First we saw how an Orc Camp is created. For those non-gamers out there, the skill and challenge inherent in every Real-Time Strategy Game really boils down to managing resources. Units are built on the field where Orcs can create armor, weapons, practice their fighting maneuvers, etc. The same thing exists for the good guys, with stables, food storage, and barracks. It’s all about building the best army and deploying them with gusto. This is mighty cool stuff. The graphics are top notch, as everything is cut from similar cloth that WETA had already masterfully woven for the cinema version of LOTR.

Matt Britton comes in to explain how 35 supremely talented artists and animators put it all together. The EA team has full access to designs and assets from the WETA Camperdown Studio in Wellington. I’ve been there myself recently — shooting for the “RINGERS” documentary, and there is no shortage of magic inside the confines of that marvelous building, believe me. Pure unadulterated magic. And the production team from EA Games enjoys such a rich bounty of existing work; only to extrapolate those ideas for a new digital environment. They take existing architecture, creatures, and even “staged lighting” and make it unique for their game.

There are so many types of army units you can choose from. There be Ents here! And Mumakil that threaten to stomp everyone in their path! When the Balrog appears, sheesh…. you might as well hang it up buddy, because you’re toast. All the best design elements are recreated in detail from what you’ve seen on the silver screen: from the Riders of Rohan and their equestrian motifs — down to the ugly, coarse brown hair growing on a Warg’s back. The “Army of the Dead” units have a very unique effect surrounding them, ghostly and surreal.

Some units are chosen individually, others are counted as “hordes” that allow you to chunk out huge portions of armies and deploy them en masse. Mark tells us about a new concept in developing your units (gamers call this “powering up” units) called “veterancy.” The characters and units you develop over time have increased power and effectiveness based upon their previous battles. Even the buildings themselves (such as battlements and armories) increase veterancy.

As the game demo progressed I realized that Warg pits are very fun indeed. Every kid should have one in his backyard. I feel sorry for city-dwellers like me who live in apartment without a nice yard. The Orcs of Isengard are shown furiously chopping at trees — however the catch for the Evil Player is to not rouse the Ents who are nearby! Something more appealing for you greenies out there: you can build your own Entmoot if you like.

I am so there!

We are treated to a special presentation by Richard Taylor. NO, not the same Richard Taylor over in New Zealand…. same name, different gentleman…. a very generous talent from American shores. Besides working on Star Trek, he was the Visual Effects Supervisor and concept designer for Disney’s TRON, that most nostalgic and groundbreaking of CGI films. Here at EA Games, Mr. Taylor creates stunning animatics that play during the course of the game. He is a film director of a special kind — making “mini-movies” that must meet the high demands of Tolkien’s universe. Saying to the assembled reporters, “Games have their own lives,” Mr. Taylor explains the agonizing process of storyboards, sketches, camera controls and angles; not to mention the endless man-hours needed for character movement. All for a 40-second clip that looks as good as anything you’ve seen from Hollywood. The disciplines of filmmaking are in full force here, and it’s remarkable to see it from concept to creation.

Dustin Browder, Game Design Director working on BFME, offers us some very cool game strategies and sage advice. He shows us the basics of going around the map and placing you bases in the best locations. Just like in real estate, it’s all about location. We also got to see a remarkable interface that uses the Palant’r concept. By looking at the lower-left of your screen, you can check on the prevailing status of your units and heroes. The design is elegant in the extreme.

Did I say “heroes?” Yes, there are major characters from LOTR in every aspect of this RTS game. You will witness the courage of Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Theoden, etc., while the forces of Sauron command the Witch-king, the Balrog, and more. This game has the goods. And just wait till you sit down and play it yourself.

I hear you asking: On what platforms will BFME be made available? When will it come out in stores? Well, to find out you absolutely must visit the EA Games website for The Battle for Middle-earth [click here]. There you will find a plethora of information, discussion with other gamers, and even more previews of this utterly cool game. While you’re at it — don’t miss the “Video” page with promotional clips in glorious Quicktime! [click here]

It’s always good to know that artists, when given a good home and the right support, will wax creative in the extreme, producing the most awesome work that comes from pure inspiration. Over at the EA Games Los Angeles Campus, they make unprecedented efforts so their artistic team feels good about their work. This idea is borne out in full with BFME. This game is truly beautiful…. and now I can see why working for EA is the most desirable job in the gaming industry.

Much too hasty,
Quickbeam

Posted in Old Spy Reports on July 20, 2004 by

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