RPG Games
Mdl. Earth Online

The Vault Network
August 4, 1999

Middle Earth Interview
Alexander, Nichols, Crane

Yosemite Entertainment recently announced the completion of negotiations with Tolkien Enterprises for rights to the interactive game license for J.R.R. Tolkien's widely-beloved Middle Earth fantasy realm. At the same time, they revealed plans for a massively multi-player game called Middle-earth. Although it is still in the early stages of development, Vault Network Editorial Director Jonric had the opportunity to learn more about this ambitious project from Yosemite General Manager Craig Alexander, Lead Designer and System Architect Steve Nichols, and Project Manager John Crane.

Jonric: How did this project come about?

We've been spending the last three years trying to figure out a way to bring massively multiplayer on-line gaming into the forefront of computer gaming. Many developers have been losing money in this genre for many years (present company included). However, most of us believe that this technology is the future of our industry. Therefore, many of our founders, most notably Ken Williams at Sierra and Richard Garriott from Origin, have invested heavily. Sierra's experience dates back to the late 80's with the Imagination Network (INN.. formerly The Sierra Network). Also, we've developed the Realm for over 4 years. Therefore, we have significant experience in this area.

Many of us are longtime fans of Tolkien. He spent his entire life creating the Middle Earth universe. As a result, Tolkien's world is probably the most intricate and detailed fictional creation of all time. Waterstone's, a UK-based book chain, called Lord of the Rings the book of the century. As a tribute to Professor Tolkien, our goal is to bring his world to life by the end of the century (millennium).

Jonric: What was involved in obtaining the license?

Craig Alexander: A significant amount of work between myself and Eric Roeder, the Cendant Software attorney.

Jonric: How long did it take? It was rumored that at least one other major game developer was interested in acquiring rights to the Tolkien franchise. Was there much competition for it?

Yes, there was a competitor, but I cannot disclose the details. Negotiations lasted for approximately 6 months.

Jonric: Does your license include anything other than the massively multi-player Middle Earth?

The license is multi-year, multi-product. We're planning to produce both a massively multi-player on-line AND multiple single-player games.

Jonric: How many people are presently involved on this project? How many more do you expect to add? Who are the key people and what does each of them do?

About 20. Over time, we could increase to about 40. The key people include Steve Nichols (Lead Designer and System Architect), Janus Anderson (Assistant Designer) and Mark Zechiel (Project Manager).

Jonric: How big will the game world be? Will it include all of Middle Earth? If not, which parts will it include?

We are aiming to recreate the majority of Middle Earth. The areas being created include every area covered by the Trilogy. The world will be approximately 20,000 surface screens. Each of these screens will be a scrolling 2400x1200 area (16 bit color, 800 x 600 display).

Jonric: Will there be a clock? Will daytime differ from evening and night? Will there be weather? Seasons?

Of course. We are implementing the same measures of time outlined by Professor Tolkien. There will definitely be day and night. Weather will be supported in the form of rain and the like, however the effect on the world will be minimal. Seasons will not be supported via direct artwork changes because of the prohibitively large amount of artwork that would be required to represent Middle Earth in each of the seasons.

Jonric: Will you be able to own land? Build a house? A castle? Grow crops? Hire NPCs to perform tasks; eg. fight with you or protect your house?

I am unable to divulge the particulars of that level of gameplay. I can say that we will pursue what we feel will be the appropriate level of realism in the game. Growing crops will probably be out. ;)

Jonric: Please give me an overview of the game. When in the chronology of Middle Earth does it take place? Will there be a main plot or storyline? Sub-plots?

Our recreation of Middle-earth will take place several generations into the fourth age. This was our choice because it allows us to introduce thousands of hungry adventurers into the world without destroying the well-defined stories that have been written. It's an integrity choice. You really can't have 3000 people running around trying to kill Smaug, now can you? As for story, all I can tell you at this time is that there indeed is a overall plot. It will be the most immense plot in any game of this kind to date. Sub-plots are a given. Your life will be very quest-oriented in Middle-earth.

Jonric: How will character creation work? What kind of character(s) will I be able to play? What professions or classes? What races? Gandalf was, I believe of the Valinorian race, but I did not see that listed on the web site. Does that mean I won't be able to become a great wizard? Do you plan on three characters per account like The Realm?

Actually, Gandalf was an Istari. He was sent by the Valar to assist with the overthrow of Sauron. But, to answer your question, you will be able to play human, elf, hobbit and dwarf. Our role-playing system is a combination class-based and skill-based system. Every character will have a specialized role to facilitate cooperation between characters. Being a "wizard" will be an option, but not in the standard way. We are planning on 4 characters per account.

Jonric: What kind of options or choices will I have for selecting/customizing my starting character, both visually and in terms of starting attributes and/or skills? Will there be many character attributes? Many skills? Will characters have faults?

We will continue our unparalleled system of character appearance specification. You will have a very large number of facial options including head shape, hair style and color, eye shape and color, eyebrows, mouth shape and ear shape. Your clothing options will be very diverse as well. We are planning about 32 skills to choose from. And yes, characters will have faults.

Jonric: What can you tell me about character development? Will it be level-based, skill-based, some combination or something else? Will a single character be able to master all the skills, or will there be limitations? Will there be "major" and "minor" skills?

The role-playing system is a skill and level based system. While your character will not have an overall level (like The Realm) he will have levels of skill. Your level of skill in an area is increased by using the skill in question. Instead of creeping percentages of achievement that you see all too often in RPGs, we will be providing levels of achievement. The advantage that this gives to the player is a feeling of accomplishment upon achieving a particular skill goal.

Jonric: Will there be many NPCs to interact with? Will races not currently listed on the website (eg. ents, ringwraiths, dunlendings, dragons) appear as NPCs? Will specific characters from the Middle-earth books appear as NPCs?

Middle Earth will be a very quest and story oriented game. To that end, our NPCs will be highly developed. As for specific characters from the Middle Earth books being in the game, no comment can be made.

Jonric: What kinds of monsters will there be?

We are planning to incorporate the majority of the creatures described in the LOTR. Orcs, trolls, wargs, spiders and the like will not be uncommon.

Jonric: What about combat? Will it be turn-based and take place on a separate screen like The Realm?

No, it will not be turn-based. We can safely say that we have solved the issues involved with real-time combat of this type over the Internet. Combat will be fully integrated with the rest of the game.

Jonric: Will a player be able to attack another player? If so, how do you plan to address the PK issue; eg. "psychotic killers", newbie killers, "random" PKs who do little else but PK?

We are very sensitive to the player-killer issue. As in The Realm, you will be given the option to control whether or not you want to involve yourself with player-killers. We will also continue to provide "training ground" areas where player-killing is not allowed.

Jonric: What will happen to you when you die? Any stat, experience or item loss?

Yes, there will be both item and skill loss on death.

Jonric: Will there be any form of "true" death?

No comment. ;)

Jonric: Will stealing be possible like it is in The Realm?

Yes. Stealing will be an option.

Jonric: Any thoughts on how you plan to address anti-social player behavior?

I'm quite partial to the way anti-social behavior is handled in The Realm. Every player is given the option to ignore other players. We also will continue to provide active in-game moderation of public chat channels.

Jonric: Will you take steps to facilitate or encourage cooperative play?

Our class-based role-playing system provides an instant need for cooperative play. Beyond that, we are toying with the idea of providing some kind of system that gives players who help newbies out some kind of recognition. Social interaction is a very important aspect of this game.

Jonric: How important a role will quests or missions play? Will there be lots of them?

While you don't HAVE to do any quests, you'll want to. The role of the quests will be quite involved and there will be a plethora of them.

Jonric: What will there be for players to do other than fight monsters or each other? Will there be puzzles or other types of non-fighting quests?

I can not comment on the particulars of that at this time. We have excellent plans for non-combat gameplay, however. ;)

Jonric: Will there be special items, weapons, etc? Unique artifacts where only one will be made?


Jonric: How important a role will magic play? Any idea how many spells you'll have, and what kinds? How do you plan to reconcile the major role that magic typically plays in RPGs including The Realm versus its rather restricted nature in Middle-earth?

We are very sensitive to the role that magic plays in Middle-earth. All I can say is that we will provide both mystical and non-mystical ways of achieving magical effects.

Jonric: A common criticism of The Realm, UO, etc. is that very little roleplaying takes place. Do you have any plans to facilitate and encourage role-playing?

Yes, we do have plans to encourage role-playing. The particulars of this system are not to be divulged at this time.

Jonric: What role if any do you foresee for guilds? Any plans to encourage them?

As in any society, there needs to be some form of social groups. The role I see guilds taking is exactly that, a social group or family. And we have many things planned to encourage socially oriented play. I'll not spill the beans on the particulars of our plans at this time.

Jonric: What will the user interface be like? Any new or special features planned? What will be changed and improved from the Realm interface?

The interface is being based off of The Realm's interface. However, we are improving it in many ways. The inventory system will be much improved over The Realm, providing more direct and simplistic management of your items. We will be simplifying all methods of communication in the game so that esoteric meta-commands will not be required knowledge to enjoy the game. We will also provide different methods of presenting the chat interface so that players who enjoy the UO style of chat (for instance) will have that option.

Jonric: What kind(s) of gamer are you aiming at? Will it appeal to the pen-and-paper roleplayer? The online world power gamer? The single-player CRGP enthusiast? The casual gamer?

We hope to appeal to most all of those groups. But our focus is the beginner / intermediate gamer. The game will be simple enough to use and enjoy so that all age groups and skill-levels will be able to jump right in. But there will be enough substance for the hard-core gamer to really sink his teeth into.

Jonric: How about the technical side of the game? What can you tell me about your game engine? I've seen over 2000 players in The Realm at one time, but it seems like a significant leap to 10,000 or more. How will you accomplish that? What kind of server structure is planned?

The Realm's server structure is quite advanced. It is a scalable, multi-threaded system that can grow with demand. Not to mention that server hardware is getting faster and cheaper all the time. 10,000 may seem like a whopping big number, but it's attainable with our system.

Jonric: What are the projected system requirements?

Being that this game needs to have a relatively long shelf life, we are aiming high. But I can't give specifics at this time. We are supporting AGP and MMX in the client.

Jonric: Stephen stated on the Realm board that "the client technology has been totally re-worked". Can you provide details? Will the front end be customizable, and if so, to what extent? Will there be an auto-map?

The Realm was written using Sierra's proprietary language and interpreter (SCI). Middle-earth is being constructed from the ground up in C++. This allows us to do things far more advanced than what we could in the past. We are also upgrading to an 800x600 resolution at 16 bits of color. This is quite a jump from The Realm and will allow us to give a much more appealing game to the customer.

Jonric: Any special plans to deal with lag? In The Realm, movement seems to slow down quite often when an area is crowded; eg. near the gatekeepers. What if anything can you do about that?

SCI was our major bottleneck in The Realm, causing significant delays in packet processing and animation. Our new system will handle many more characters on-screen at one time and will be able to process many times the number of packets as The Realm.

Jonric: Do you anticipate any problems with hacking and/or cheating? Have you had any problems in these areas with The Realm? What about macros?

Yes, we do anticipate these problems. The Realm has been hacked like mad and we are redoubling our efforts to provide a hack-free environment.

Jonric: Where does development stand right now? What do you see as your biggest challenge?

I can't give specifics on progress, but I can say that our most difficult task is making sure that Middle-earth (the game) is as close to Tolkien's Middle-earth as humanly possible.

Jonric: What are the next important target dates in your development schedule?

Can't say.

Jonric: Do you plan public alpha and/or beta testing? Any idea how much? When is it likely to start?

Yes, we will complete an extensive beta cycle before releasing this product, probably beginning in mid-1999. How much? As much as it takes to get it right. We plan to avoid falling into the trap that other products of this type had to contend with, as regards proper pre-release testing.

Jonric: What are the major lessons that you've learned from The Realm and that you'll be applying here? What about from other online worlds?

Social interaction is key. That's the major lesson. You must foster, at all costs, the social element in your persistent on-line game. To ignore this is certain doom.

Jonric: Even assuming no undue delays, there will probably be quite a bit of competition by the time you go commercial. Aside from the setting, what will make Middle Earth Online stand out?

I'm quite certain that we will have the BEST massively multi-player game world out there. That should stand for itself. But to slap on the icing, we've got the BEST fantasy franchise known to man to work with. I'm confident that we'll stand apart easily.

Jonric: I know how excited you are about the challenge of capturing Professor Tolkien's great fantasy tradition. On behalf of our readers, thank you all for taking the time to share a bit of that excitement with us.