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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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.