I recently paid a visit to Electronic Arts to check out the new LOTR games based on the movies and chat with some of the producers. Look for hands-on previews of the PS2 and GBA games soon, but first, an interview with Neil Young, the Vice President of the franchise.
British-born Young began his career in the interactive entertainment industry in 1988, when he was a programmer and producer at Imagitec, a small British development company.
He joined the staff at Probe Software in 1990 as a senior producer, working on a wide variety of titles for Acclaim, Sega, Hudson, USGold and Virgin Interactive.
Young moved to the United States in 1992, where he went to work for Virgin Interactive, where he produced or executive produced Disney’s Aladdin, Jungle Book, Toonstruck and 11th Hour, among many others. He was quickly promoted to Vice President for Product
In April of 1997, Young was named Vice President and General Manager of ORIGIN Systems, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts based in Austin, Texas. During this time, Young supervised the launch of the highly successful Ultima Online.
In 1999, Young left ORIGIN to become Vice President and Executive in Charge of Production at Electronic Arts, where he founded Synthetic Studio, a new studio currently creating next-generation interactive content exclusively for EA’s new online business division, EA.com.
(DarthCaeser): From Blinky: Will the game be very linear — will we be able to explore Middle-earth or will we be stuck to a specific path?
(Neil Young): The game is a fairly linear progression through the story of the movie, and what we’re trying to do is trying to give people a sense that they are playing the movies, that they’re in the world of the movie. Versus trying to re-imagine Tolkien’s work, we have to adapt Peter [Jackson]’s work. And I think that what ends up being the pinnacle of the property is if we can take that great visual imagery that Peter has brought and stamped indelibly on the world and bring interactivity to it, so we end up capturing the very best parts of the process so far. Return of the King will be a little less linear in it’s progression and then Trilogy a little less so. The Two Towers is an action game, Return of the King is an Action/Adventure, and then Trilogy is an Epic Story Adventure. So we’re shifting and moving over time to try and get to the place where we want to get to ultimately, the Trilogy, which is to try and create as memorable and impactful a version of the work in our medium as Peter’s Jackson’s work is in his medium or the original works were literary works. And so inherent in that is some degree of exploration and being able to see and feel the environment.
(DC): Also from Blinky: Will the game give away any major plot details to the movie The Two Towers?
(NY): It depends on your standpoint, it’s hard to give away plot details because the books have been out for a long time. Although what the film makers do do is they play around with time and compress time and sort of editorialize the books, and bring the things to their medium that they think will be the most impactful. So to the extent that the main areas of the film are the main areas that will be focused on in the games, then yes, we will certainly be hinting at what people are likely to see in the Two Towers. Then we have footage from the Two Towers in our game ahead of the film. I think for the fans it will be a really big kick to see stuff from the movie ahead of it’s actual release. I think that’s going to be exciting for people, I think it’s going to be really exciting to play in Fangorn, to play in Rohan and Edoras, to play in Helm’s Deep. And to be playing in Helm’s Deep and controlling an Aragorn that looks and sounds like Viggo Mortensen, or a Legolas that looks and sounds like Orlando Bloom in an environment that is built on top of the architectural model of Helm’s Deep itself. I think that’s going to really give people a sense of what that world is like. And I hope that when they go to see the movie, in the back of their head they’re sort of thinking about the game, and in the move maybe they saw the shot here, but in the game they were able to actually run around the corner there, and they know what is around the corner. That’s one of the things we are trying to do.
(DC): From OhioYankee: Will the other members of the Fellowship join in the battles as NPC’s?
(NY): Yes, they absolutely will. You can play as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and one hidden character. In the environments often if I’m playing as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli will be running alongside me and fighting with me. But if I’m in Balin’s Tomb not only will they be fighting along side me, but also Frodo will be in there and Gandalf is in there and Boromir is in there. Merry and Pippin aren’t in that sequence for us in the game because we’re just running out of characters we can fit on the screen. In Amon Hen, Frodo runs off and you’re fighting along side, if you’re playing as Legolas for example, fighting along side Aragorn and Gimli. So yeah, you’ll be able to fight along side Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White.
(DC): Also from OhioYankee: What will the Boss Battles be like?
(NY): Really good, fun, fun… The real emphasis in the game is actually not in the boss battles, the real emphasis in the game is in the combat that you have with the Orcs, going from whether it’s a sort of lesser melee Orc, which is kind of like a Goblin from Moria; a Moria Orc, all the way up to an armored Uruk Hai with a shield, So there’s a range of Orcs you can battle against, and a close relationship between attacking and parrying. I think what you’ll see is you kind of get a sense that it’s about trying to give people an experience as much as it is about trying to give them a game. So it will be a good game and it will be fun, but it will be like playing the movie, it will look like it, it sounds like it, it feels like it. And that’s sort of the essence that we want to try to get across, more than a focus on any specific type of creature or boss.
(DC): From Ranger of Dunland: Will the characters be given new weapons that will boost there stats?
(NY): Yes, there’s this little sort of lite-RPG system in the Two Towers game, whereas you kill Orc’s you build experience and then you level up. You get to spend those experience points at the end of the levels, at the end of the missions on upgrades. And those upgrades are unlocked based on your level. You can go up to ten levels for each of the characters. At the beginning of each mission, you pick the character you want to play. So by the end of the game, if you’ve picked Aragorn 80% of the time, then you’ve probably got Aragorn to be a level eight character. But if you played Legolas all the rest of the time and Gimli not at all, then you’ve got Legolas at maybe level two or three, you’ve got Gimli at level one and you haven’t unlocked all their features and potentials yet. So some of those things are bigger health bars, more powerful weapons… we sort of take a little liberty with the weaponry. For example, Legolas just has his regular arrows, but he can also fire flaming arrows, or sort of magical arrows if you like, and these are better at critical kills or head kills or whatever. That sort of helps extend the game.
(DC): Will the actors be providing their voices for the game?
(NY): Absolutely, we’ve just finished the recording of that, And on the game DVD, in the special features section, there are interviews with all the actors, certainly with Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies and Elijah Wood talking about the process of making it.
(DC): Have you begun work on Return of the King, and has anyone from EA seen a rough draft of Return of the King?
(NY): Yes, we have begun work on Return of the King. Has anyone seen a “rough draft” of the film? We have absolutely read the script for Return of the King, and we have seen a lot of the production stills and previous stuff from Return of the King. I’ve worked on movie games before, and this is by far the closest collaboration that I’ve ever had on any one of those products that I’ve worked on. Peter and Barrie [Osborne] down there, Peter is a Gamer, he loves games, he’s excited about games. New Line and he and Barry who runs ThreeFootSix, the Producer of the film, have really been just awesome at kind of just “What do you need?” “How do we make it work?” “How do we build games that are as cool in your medium as the films are trying to be in ours?”. And so whether that’s sitting down with Richard Taylor and talking about what it really means to craft a sword from Middle Earth, or exactly why Aragorn is wearing the clothing that he’s wearing and how it is made and how do we capture that. Or whether it’s sitting down with Peter and talking about the areas of the books that he’s trying to bring out in the films and things he thinks are important. Or whether it’s literary using digital models from the film and bringing them to life interactively. Any of those things I think ends up adding to the quality of the games at the end of the day.
(DC): What are the challenges of working with the movie license versus the literary license?
(NY): If you flip the question the other way… I think it’s more challenging to work on the license of the book than it is to work on the license of the film. And the reason I say that is, the books are huge epic pieces of work that the only imagery that exists to explain what a Balrog looks like, or what an Uruk Hai looks like, or what Saruman looks like, or what Gandalf looks like is really your own imagination, or it’s Alan Lee and John Howe’s work, which is essentially imagined from the books in the first place. If we were working with the book rights exclusively, I think it would be harder for us to focus on gameplay, because we’d be spending all our time focusing on “Well, what does a Balrog look like?” or “What shouldn’t a Balrog look like?” Working on the film a lot of the visual imagery has been defined and I don’t want to reinvent it. I think that people, for the foreseeable future, will have a very distinct image in their head of what an Uruk Hai looks like, or who Frodo is, or how Aragorn moves. Being able to capture that is a really big advantage for us. Being able to use Howard Shore’s score, and being able to use the voices or sound effects or actors or film footage really allows us to craft an experience that has a strong center in gameplay, versus trying to build something that’s got good gameplay. I think that sort of works to our advantage at the end of the day.
And as for the number one most asked question; “Will The Two Towers be coming to Xbox/Game Cube?”
Well, things were still in final negotiations during the interview, but we can now officially announce:
EA’s The Two Towers will be coming to Xbox and GameCube in early 2003!
Thomas G. Morrow III AKA: DarthCaeser is the Gaming Editor here at TheOneRing.net. He can be reached at DarthCaeser@theonering.net