How did the book license restrict your creative vision?
Ed Del Castillo:
There’s a lot of surrounding events around each of those key events. So what we’ve done with War of the Ring is focus a lot more on the surrounding events in order to explain the key events. So, from a realtime strategy perspective you’ll be very pleased only because there is the opportunity to win and lose – there isn’t a determined outcome already.
And from a story perspective – from a Tolkien fan perspective – they [will] like all the ancillary stories kind of brought to life. Like ‘Why did Legolas go to the Fellowship of the Ring?’; ‘Why did Gimli end up in Rivendell?’; ‘Why did Aragorn end up in Rivendell?’ Oh, we know why Aragorn ends up in Rivendell, but why did Boromor end up in Rivendell?’ etc.
So I guess I’ll give you the short answer now. The short answer to the question was: the more it came from the actually story of the book, the less we could change it. And the more it was something that was just kind of breezed over in the books the more we were allowed to define what happened. So, for example, we knew – according to the books – that Legolas was in Rivendell mainly because Gollum had escaped from his father’s kingdom, from his grasp, and they knew that that meant trouble. That’s what they were going to tell Elrond about that. And how all that happens is never fleshed out. So what are the adventures that happened? And that’s where the freedom comes in.
As long as we weren’t violating the spirit of the universe, or violating the spirit of the characters, they allowed us a lot of freedom.
Does War of the Ring use the same, or parts of, the engine used for Battle Realms?
Ed Del Castillo:
The correct and accurate answer is that it’s all made from scratch. Now the kind of mushy/touchy-feely answer underneath that is, of course, a lot of the same people that were working on Battle Realms ended up being people who worked on War of the Ring. So as a result, there might be some systems in there that have a flavour [similar to Battle Realms]. That has more to do with the fact that that’s the guys’ coding practise than it has to do with the fact that we tried to emulate anything from Battle Realms.
There’s a lot of reasons for that above and beyond; we wanted to make sure that when we left, when we stopped working on creative, or when creative stopped working with us – however you want to think about it – when we started a new thing, from a company perspective we wanted to be very careful about reusing technology because we didn’t want to infringe upon any real issues.
Many people have noticed similarties between War of the Ring and Blizzard’s Warcraft 3. Why is this?
Ed Del Castillo:
That’s a good question. I think the answer to that is, it all comes down to how it all plays in the end game. One of the chief differences we have – and I’ll talk about other specifics in a minute – but one of the chief differences you’re asking about is if you play Warcraft 3, once you get really good at it, what you realise is there’s really only one way to play the first five to ten minutes. There’s only one way to play, and what I mean by that is, sure, there’s a lot of different choices that you’re given, but if you’re playing against a worthy opponent, including a regular AI, if you haven’t built your first hero right off the bat [and] if you don’t have that hero to level 3 or better by time your first conflict occurs with your opponent – again whether that be AI or human – you’re going to lose the game. And that’s all there is to it. The heroes in Warcraft 3 are the core of your army, they are essential and without them you will lose. The main difference I can give you, or one of the main differences I think that’s in our game – the heroes play a much more supportive role. Very few of the heroes actually have direct damage capability; very few of the heroes are actually [unbeatable]. So what happens is that they become the artillery fire, as opposed to the front rank.
The result of that also is that it’s unlocked the opening moves of the game to give you more strategy up-front. You don’t need to follow a specific path. Apart from that, we’ve also had people say ‘Well, why is it that your art looks similar? Why is that the heroes have similar abilities?’ It’s an interesting thing because a lot of the abilities that are in Warcraft 3 can be seen, or were evident before, in Battle Realms. We like to say it’s [War of the Ring] a successor to Battle Realms although some people like to look at it [War of the Ring] as a successor to Warcraft 3. We chose a very vibrant style in Battle Realms and we chose a very vibrant style in War of the Ring – on purpose, and probably for the same reasons that Warcraft 3 chose them.
Vibrant characters are easy to see. Vibrant characters read well. And in a game where you’re moving large numbers of units around on a board very, very quickly, and you’re trying to absorb a lot of information, the visual interpretation a player has – the things that catch his eye – are incredibly important. And when you build a – in my opinion – if you build a very realistically coloured world and on top of that you put some realistically coloured units, you have extreme difficulty [seeing them]. We tried it here – we actually went with a realistic, a gritty look, right away. And we moved away from that for readability, for the sake of readability of the characters.
It’s very hard. Can you imagine trying to click on a lot of units that you can’t see? That’s what it’s like.
What sort of advanced graphical effects can we expect from the engine?
Ed Del Castillo:
We wrote our engine from scratch. One of the things that we wrote was a particle engine, so we have a completely new particle effects engine which creates all those special effects in terms of things that are transparent, things that are actually to do with objects, [or] doing revolving.
In a short gameplay movie, we noticed some of the particles you mentioned breaking over the top of the interface. Is this intentional?
Ed Del Castillo:
I can’t take credit for that. That was some amazing trickery done by our Vivendi Universal folks. Like it actually breaks [over] the interface – the whole game window actually. I can’t take credit for that. Essentially, it breaks out of the entire computer.
But above and beyond that, we have whole new particles that use what we call ‘per-poly collision’. You know, they’re colliding with individual polygons. In addition to that we have reflections happening in real-time, especially on the water. It’s also a dynamic[ally] animating mesh water.
Part of the weather system keys on a wind model that we have in the game. We have a completely randomisable wind model which is generating wind across the map. And of course like wind, it varies in direction as it goes, and that wind affects a number of things. It affects the water – it creates ripples on the water.
All of these are technological gee-whiz doodads that we put in to kind of make the world feel a little more alive. But we also have grass – each and every blade [of grass] is modelled individually. Not only do they push aside when units walk through it, but the wind also causes the rippling wave effect in the grass itself and you’ll actually get to see that. The wind actually pushes clouds along – clouds drift through the sky – so you’ll get to see that. In addition to that . . . all of this is home-grown, which is why we’re proud of it. None of this is using anybody else’s middleware. We wrote it all [ourselves].
We have a fully animating cloth engine as well, so you’ll see on the buildings, and on some characters, pieces of cloth that are actually being affected by the wind in real-time. So you’re not seeing a canned animation: the flag will actually droop if the wind falls, and pick up if the wind does. We think all of those things are really, really nice to look at. And that’s what I think of when think of the rain and the weather.
We also have rain of course, and lightning and thunder and all that kind of stuff. We’ve always looked at what we’re making, sometimes people focus a little too much, but I kind of enjoy it on the details.
Somebody once said to me: ‘God is in the details’, and I think so many of these [RTS] games don’t focus – so many of the games we’re forced to play – wow, what a horrible life we lead – so many of the games we play today just don’t make the mark. They’re just very undetailed: they have the basics you need to get that gameplay across and they don’t go into the small details. That’s one of the things Liquid has always tried to do is put those touches in that are above and beyond. Put those touches in and say ‘You know what, we’re really thinking about this.’ Water’s not just a flat plane – water is a dynamically animating mesh. When you get a chance to play the game, you can actually take the mouse and run it over the water and it will actually cause ripples.
Will users with lower end cards see all these effects?
Ed Del Castillo:
The answer is ‘yes’. I think there’s one thing that I can think of that needs a GeForce2 or better card for and I think that’s the realtime reflection on the water. Otherwise you just get kind of clear water. A kind of clear water with an opacity because certain cards don’t even support that kind of reflective material. But other than that, all the other effects that we are doing, it’s just a matter of quality.
What we’ve done is we have a huge hierarchy of effects internal in the program, and it shuts them down [the effects] as your frame rate stops. You can also go into the Options menu and turn them on or off to maximise or minimise your frame rate.
Is there a particular effect that you’re proud of?
Ed Del Castillo:
Yes. I think there’s one effect that I’m especially proud of and that’s the Balrog. A lot of people immediately go ‘Well, that’s not really an effect, that’s a unit.’ But the reality is that if you knew how many effects went into making that Balrog look the way it does, and the fact that those effects are so seamlessly integrated that you don’t think of them when you see the Balrog – that’s what makes it so perfect. And that’s what makes it my favourite – yes, there is a mesh of a demon – a Balrog – there, but on top of that mesh is a flaming sword, which is completely done in particles, [and] there’s flames and smoke coming off every part of him which is all particles. When he walks he actually leaves a huge molten footprint of where he’s been, which is another particle.
On top of that, whenever he walks he also shakes, which is an effect of the particle which shakes the camera . . . Even off-camera; if he’s about to come onscreen, he’ll actually shake the camera as he’s coming on camera. And all of those effects – I mean there’s more effects on the Balrog than on any other unit in the game.
And they all work so well in concert and they’re so seamless that when you’re playing with that unit, you don’t even think about them, and to me, that’s the true magic – when it’s not being pointed at and called out and said to you ‘Look, see these, see that one?’ I think that’s where the real gamer’s movie magic – if you want to call it that – happens. So that’s definitely the one I’m the proudest of. It came together perfectly.
How long has War of the Ring been in development, and which part took the longest to complete?
Ed Del Castillo:
We started development in May 2002, although we were in negotiations with Vivendi since the end of Battle Realms. They actually came to us, and asked us to do the game, which we were very flattered by.
Since May we’ve been working on it, and I would say probably. . . it’s tough to say what took longest because there’s so many different difficulties and so many different groups, but I would probably say that the things that took the longest were all those effects that I talked about. Getting the wind model to look right; getting all those details right wasn’t easy because no one has ever done it before. I mean there’s so much stuff in those details that people just have never incorporated into a real-time strategy. Getting it right and tweaking it right. . . making it feel right.
Now, that’s what I’d say on the coding side. On the design side, it was absolutely the balance of the units. We were playing with the units forever, trying to get them to feel right, trying to get the heroes to feel right, trying to get every single unit to play [right]. One of the things I like to ask around here is: ‘Why do I want to build that?’ Every single unit in our game has reason to be built. It’s not just thrown in there for fluff, colour, filler – whatever. There’s a lot of realtime strategy that you play right now where very quickly you learn which units are valuable and which units a valueless.
The same goes for buildings, the same goes for upgrades, the same goes for every single component of a realtime strategy and one of the things we really focused on as designers was – we would watch people play, and we’d watch ourselves play, and we’d say ‘Okay, what am I not building, and why not? What am I not interested in? How do I make that more interesting?’
So we’ve tried to give you a reason to build every single thing. So, that said, if you’re not building something, you don’t understand its use. And that’s one of the important keys to the game and understanding the depth of the game. I’m sad to say that a lot of people make their decision about a game, even some press these days, make their decision about a game within the first 5-10 minutes of the game. And this game is a game that looks like RTS light, and plays like RTS deep. And that’s something that we definitely wanted, because we wanted to attract Tolkien fans – people who’d never played realtime strategy games before – but at the same time have a very pleasing and fulfilling experience for those people who had played Starcraft, Warcraft, Battle Realms, Command and Conquer and everything in-between.
In that case, would you say War of the Ring is aimed more at RTS fans or Tolkien fans?
Ed Del Castillo:
If I had to pick a leaning, I would say, we probably leaned a little towards the RTS veterans. And the reason for that is because we are all RTS veterans. So although we think we’re doing everything we can to make it accessible, I know that in our heart of hearts we probably left a lot of depth in there to be discovered by the hardcore fan.
In regards to balance tweaking and all that hoo-ha – do the sides play somewhat the same? Are their units, counter-units, counter-counter units, etc?
Ed Del Castillo:
They [the sides] absolutely play differently. You’re talking about the Rise of Nations or Age of Empires approach – or for that matter the Chess approach – where you create a quality, and thus create strategy by creating a quality. There’s definitely another approach. There’s what I call the ‘toppling’ approach, which is there’s one unit and then there’s another unit on the other side that kills that unit, but is nothing like that first unit. And then there’s another unit that’s nothing like that second unit. And it kills that unit, etc, etc, etc. We really have gone out our way to make the sides play and feel very different.
For example, the good side is very centralised. They expand off the stronghold which is a very central thing, so they have slow expansion. But as a result, all of their buildings are much more well fortified [and] they’re much harder to take down and they keep a much better defense. Whereas the dark side has a lot easier time expanding, but a lot of their buildings are a lot weaker. So they have an expansion capability, and they have a very rapid development threat they’re creating, but that threat can be toppled with a concerted strike against their weak points. Their weakness becomes that they spread themselves thin if they’re not careful. The weakness of the good side becomes that if they stay too centralised they’re easy to find and be destroyed.
And that’s just on the buildings. You go out further and you have different things like – I’ll just start pulling [units] out [of] the tech tree – on the good side you start with, you’re building Gondor swordsman and you’re building Dwarven axethrowers. [They’re] kind of like the first melee and missile unit you get. On the dark side it’s a completely different mix. You get a very light and scouty unit called a Goblin spearman, which you can pump out very fast, whereas the swordsman is a lot more tough and can hold off a lot of those spearman. But the spearman won’t hold you for very long – you’re forced to go into Orc production, or you’re forced to go into Troll production, because those light fast units that you have aren’t very useful as the opponent gets into any form of military strength.
But then, later on in the game, both [of these] light [side] units become more effective as they get upgraded, and they become great fillers for your ranks. They become great shields for your units and so you get a very different style of play, where you have – for example – on the good side you have a very [regimental] army structure where you have a base of units and you’re branching out into other units with a smaller and smaller amount of money. And so there’s always kind of a larger group of grunt warriors with smaller specialised units.
It’s the exact opposite on the bad side. The bad side relies on you understanding and using a number of specialised units for specialised tactics and to use them in concert in order to maximise your ability. It’s only towards the later portions of the game that you start getting filler units to be able to put into an army, and so that creates a very different dynamic. Whereas the good starts feeling a little more like an aggressive juggernaut, the bad side feels more like a vast army of commandos.
What weren’t you able to include but really wanted to? For example: features or gameplay dynamics? How about more sides?
Ed Del Castillo:
The side thing is kind of interesting, that’s what Tolkien wants.
There’s such a wealth of history in the Tolkien universe, it’s a shame that we can’t get it all into one game. It’s just huge. No one can get it all in one game. It’s a shame and I wish we could have gotten more of that in there, and really brought in some of the earlier histories and gone a little further. Because right now, our game pretty much starts right before the Ring quest and ends up right at Helm’s Deep, in terms of the timeline.
The other thing that I wish we could have brought in, we wanted to breathe life into the game beyond just our game. We wanted to create a living timeline where they’d be a timeline of all of the events that kind of hung at the bottom of the scenario selection screen and as you moused over the events in the world and locations in the world it actually would tell you what occurred there and at what times. It was almost like a living atlas of the world that we wanted to implement. And that became such as huge task and such an amazingly tangential task that we decided at the end of the day that it was better to release the product in a timely fashion than to focus on something that actually wasn’t even RTS-related, or even Tolkien-related.
Is there a sequel planned?
Ed Del Castillo:
We are talking to Vivendi about both an expansion pack to the existing game and a sequel. And we’re committed to doing it.
For more information, visit the War of the Ring website