Interview: Making a 'more gentle' MOBA with Guardians of Middle-earth

By Steve Watts, Sep 05, 2012 12:30pm PDT

Guardians of Middle-earth is intentionally a very lean MOBA experience. Developer Monolith Productions has trimmed the fat to tailor the experience to consoles, making it feel like a natural fit for PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. The streamlining was a conscious choice, according to producer Bob Roberts.

"I think that in general the entry point is, this is more gentle for new players," Roberts told Shacknews. "My guess is that people will get addicted here and might never leave it, but I could see that definitely being a more enticing option for people who, like some of my friends, know about [MOBAs] and want to get into it but feel like it's intimidating."

While Roberts is a fan of the genre now, he said in his personal experience it can be a difficult hill to climb alone. "I know the people who got me into MOBAs in the first place had to work at it," he said. "They had to convince me that it's worth it. The fact that it [GOME] is a little more intuitive to just pick up and play will make a nice entry point for people who are cool with this on the PC but can't get their friends into it. They could switch to the console version here and potentially draw in some of their friends who are scared off."

The heaviest changes from the norm come in the form of level progression. Rather than presenting an in-game shop to purchase upgrades with level progression, GOME presents a load-out screen before the match. "There was a lot of debate and contention on whether or not that could work. So far, totally works," he said. "You still do all the strategic planning and thinking about your load-out. When you watch really good MOBA players on the current PC MOBAs, they open the store for a split-second and buy their items. They already know what they're getting. So we are just letting you set that up beforehand and unlock it through the course of the match."

That doesn't mean that strategy doesn't play a key part, however. "A lot of the time [strategic choices are] based on who they're up against. Once they see who they're up against they think about how to build differently. So we give a little stretch of time right before the match starts when you see who you're up against and you have a window to swap the load-out and change things around based on the enemy team. So we do that to compensate there, and we also have more in-game buffs scattered around the map to target and make some more strategic choices halfway through once you see how things are going.

"But there are still so many layers that you can continuously dig into, and there's no shortage of depth to this game. Especially for an XBLA type of release, I think people are going to be really surprised how many hours they can sink in before they see the bottom." To that end, the game is being balanced internally, but Roberts notes that it pings a cloud balance database at start-up, letting Monolith readjust on the fly without a lengthy approvals process.

Those hooks won't mean much if the game doesn't gain an audience, and Roberts notes that "it doesn't hurt to have an enormous Peter Jackson movie coming out." Guardians of Middle-earth definitely makes use of its license, but it's not just a lift of iconic film characters. A few make an appearance like Gandalf or Gollum, but several characters are taken from more obscure parts of J.R.R. Tolkein's fiction.

"Who do we remember who seemed kind of cool but never got fleshed out?" Roberts said of the creative process. "And we also had to consider, whatever we launched with, we wanted to have a good balance of styles and strategies. We kind of took that into account too, and once we started seeing the roster of who the obvious picks are, what are the holes design-wise, and who are the fun characters?"

Monolith is in contact with various parts of Tolkein's estate to get approvals on any new fiction they create for the characters as well. Like in the novels and films, sometimes heroes come in unexpected packages. "Tolkein's fiction is really thematically about the little guys, who are accompanied by these big guys who seem more like the 'heroes'," Roberts said. "But it turns out, it's the hobbits, it's the unlikely little guys."

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