In 2006, Snowblind Studios shipped its last game as an independent developer -- Justice League Heroes. In 2008, the studio was acquired by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. The first project under its new publisher home is Lord of the Rings: War in the North for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which releases this week.
This action RPG game, which has been over two years in the making, marks a major change for the studio -- which has expanded, and seen a shift in its culture, explains lead designer Andre Maguire. Maguire, a veteran of another WBIE studio, Surreal Software, joined Snowblind right as War in the North was kicking off.
In this interview, Maguire discusses how the team identified the direction they wanted to take with the game, why the game has a strong co-op focus, and whether single player gaming is dying. He also discusses the creative partnership with license holder Middle Earth Enterprises -- which went more smoothly than might be expected.
How long have you been at Snowblind?
Andre Maguire: I’ve been at Snowblind for about two and a half years.
Did you get hired at the beginning of the project?
AM: Basically as soon as Lord of the Rings: War in the North was getting kicked off, yeah. I didn’t get hired for the project specifically, but I came in as it was just getting underway.
It was my understanding that Snowblind didn't have a big design department in the past.
AM: Yeah, it was more of a programmer house, I think it's fair to say. Some of those guys are still with Snowblind. It was sort of more of a smaller kind of indie vibe, as far as the studio went, but I mean, I wasn’t there, so I’m going by what I’ve heard. But, yeah, Dark Alliance, Champions of Norrath, all those games were developed mainly with sort of a programmer mentality.
Can you speak about how the studio has evolved since that time?
AM: Well, certainly, the studio got a lot bigger. The previous games were more RPG-centric, more hardcore RPG, and we kept a lot of those elements, but we also wanted to expand on the idea of a more interactive combat system. A focus on co-op, and how the abilities relate to each other, and how combinations of abilities can really benefit the group. So from a content standpoint, we expanded on the combat.
From a studio standpoint, and culture standpoint, it’s completely different. It’s an open floor system. You’ve got a larger team overall, and it’s all in-house tech -- so it’s proprietary tech. And it always has been, but it’s certainly a lot more complex.
Well, everything is, this generation, right?
AM: Yeah, right.
The Dark Alliance gameplay perspective was great for the last generation, but it wouldn't cut it now.
AM: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s an all-new engine for War in the North. I mean, it’s certainly based off of a lot of the experience and toolset and techniques that were there before, but it’s an updated engine built specifically for this game.
You came on right at the start, as the lead designer -- and it sounds like things changed pretty profoundly for the studio around that time, when the project got going.
AM: Yeah, sort of. I mean, it was a massive IP, right? And so yeah, in terms of focus, the studio really changed quite a bit.
Obviously Lord of the Rings is a very lore-heavy, long-established traditional license. Did the narrative aspect of it fall under design?
AM: Yeah, it did. We were actually really lucky in that regard. One of the encounter designers, Scott Crawford, just was amazing with the lore, and had gone and done so much research that it just made sense. He had writing chops, so our writer is actually a designer, and came up as an encounter guy -- which was great, too, because he had an implementation background, and he was able to jump in and implement the story, as well as work on developing it.
But that was also collaborative, in that the level designers and encounter guys were needing to make sure that story beats fell in a certain way, and that the pacing was right, and so there was a lot of back-and-forth. There wasn’t like an outsourced writer that just sends it off, and then you've got to work with whatever. It was very collaborative.
Did you start the project with him as a writer, or did he evolve into that role?
AM: Once we knew we were doing the Lord of the Rings project, he was the guy. It was clear going into it that he was the guy.
You mentioned the company had a programmer culture. I’m curious about tools, because sometimes in a programmer culture company, there is not as much concern with the design tools.
AM: Yeah, right. Well, there was a lot of work that we had to do once the project was kicked off, and we knew the direction, as far as being able to script encounters and being able to set up the combat, so that it was something that we could deal with. A lot of times, it can get completely out of hand, as far as how much data you’re managing. So there were a lot of tools, while we were in production, that we had to still develop.
But ironically, it wasn’t so much of a programmer focus in the early days, it was actually more of an art focus. It was really more about we had the code -- like we had the networking code, we had a lot of ability to do good art, and to import good scenes, but the design stuff was where we had to do a lot of work.
And you talked about implementation in the design. From your perspective as a lead, are you a "people have to get their hands dirty" with scripting kind of designer?
AM: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Everybody was hands-on with the game. It wasn’t sort of ivory tower, throw things over the fence, and then the guys implement it.
Everybody who was involved was doing implementation, and that is important to me particularly, with management. I think it’s important that if you’re managing a group, or even within production, that you have a sense of how people build the things that you’re telling them to build.
When it came to iterating on the things you were building, you said sometimes, for example, combat encounters could get out of hand. How did you work that out?
AM: Well, it was really on an as-needed basis. When we found that a particular scripting situation was just too complex, it was unmanageable, then we would look at it from the standpoint of whether or not we needed to add new tools to be able to make that better. We knew going in the basic sorts of things, and what we would need, and so we worked on those right away, but there were still discoveries that we had to adapt in, as we went.
Did you ever use playtesting to keep yourselves on track?
AM: Definitely. Yeah, definitely. That was a big deal for us. And actually, through WB, we had a great ability to do really honest multiplayer testing, multiple times. We were able to see the trends from month to month, as far as how things are tracking. And everything from straight balancing feedback, to "How is this game making me feel?" feedback, to targeted stuff like the UI. Can people get in and connect up online quickly, and understand what the UI is telling them?
How was working with marketing on the game?
AM: It was very collaborative between marketing -- like positioning of the game -- and what we wanted to do with it. It, and I wouldn’t say it was really that out of sync. It was a Lord of the Rings game, co-op focused. It was a mature title with a unique story, and those things synced up really well, so when it came to making sure that we were doing something that was working with marketing, it was kind of easy, really.
I mean, there are always little things along the way, but that didn’t so much bother me. And also working with Middle Earth Enterprises and getting information from Weta, and all that kind of stuff, was really great. Middle Earth Enterprises, those guys were awesome. You were kind of a little bit worried going in to it, but it was great.
The game has an original story, correct?
AM: It’s on the same timeline as Lord of the Rings. So we’re intersecting with that story along the way. We’re talking to Aragorn in Bree, we’re talking to Elrond in Rivendell. You’re hitting familiar points along the way, to keep it rooted and in sync with that timeline.
But it takes you to whole new areas in Middle Earth that people had never done before in games, and it’s a story that’s alluded to, but we were able to expand on that, on those notes in the books, and invent some of the locations -- how they look -- and some of the enemies, in terms of what they do, exactly.
But again, working with Middle Earth Enterprises, everything was very tightly synced with that group, so that there was no lore breaking, or weird stuff going on.
It was a two and a half year project, and over the course of a long project, people can lose track of the central vision. How did you keep people focused?
AM: From a development standpoint, it was just about constantly communicating what the goals were, constantly communicating the pillars of the game, making sure that everything was cool between the development team and marketing, making sure that we were always reviewing it and seeing the progress.
I think as far as the challenges go, it was tricky to get a deep combat system integrated nicely with an RPG system in a co-op setting.
The tendency is to be competitive with your allies, but we really wanted to team to feel like they were constantly working together, so incentivizing that through the XP system, and making sure that as you’re upgrading your character, it’s complimentary with what’s going on with the other characters. That took a lot of time to get right, and we were iterating it on it right up to the end -- trying to get that.
Talking about making co-op the focus, from your perspective, is that how the game is primarily intended to be played?
AM: Yes. Everything that we built is about teamwork. It’s about working together as a team, and by doing that, you really get the best experience. If you were playing single player, we certainly support that, and that’s cool.
We have AI bots that simulate the behavior of the other allies really well. They’ll use those skills, they’ll upgrade their gear. You can direct them to attack your targets, or defend, or whatever you want, but you’ll miss out on a lot of the loot, you’ll miss out on the side areas. It’s likely that you won’t get the most complete experience in single player.
Do you think the era of single player is over?
AM: Well, I’m always surprised, actually, when I see games that have been around for a while, and they don’t evolve into multiplayer territory. I don’t think it’s over, but I think it’s certainly becoming more compelling for consumers, and for gamers. I certainly think it's cooler. But it’s just a different thing.
I think as people get more bandwidth with their internet connections, and it’s just more available, and it integrates more seamlessly into the family room, and the mobiles and all that, it’s going to be more prevalent.
It can be hard to find the time for a lot of the audience to go through a whole campaign in co-op. Is that a consideration?
AM: Definitely. We see that all the time -- and there’s certainly a lot of data about how far players get through games, and what the trends are there. But I think that’s why you see a lot of games, and certainly War in the North is no exception, where there’s an incentive to playing online with your friends. It’s easy to connect up online; it’s not a big thing. Making it accessible and making it worthwhile for players, I think that’s the key, and if you can tie that in with your core pillars, then that’s great. I’d say it’s a challenge, but it’s worth it.
As the story evolved throughout development, from a design perspective, how did that work in terms of approvals, and working with Middle Earth Enterprises? Are they set up to work closely as with an evolving game, or was that new for them?
AM: Yeah, totally. We developed a really personal relationship with those guys, where we’d fire off emails to them, and they’d respond. Or they’d come in and check it out, and we’d present to them, and walk them through the entire game, and they saw everything, and were really receptive towards it. And I remember there was some kind of company event which they came to, and that was cool to see them there, and they were really cool.
A lot of people I’ve talked to have spoke of the difficulties of working on licensed properties.
AM: Yeah, all the time.
License holders not getting it. Not getting it and not being used to this creative process of iteration. It’s very different from other media.
AM: Right, yeah. No, it’s common, right? There were challenging times, but it didn’t feel like that to me, on this project. I think that it was easier. We were more synced up from the beginning; there was insight into each other’s process, and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t weird.
It sounds like there’s passion from your side, particularly from the narrative space.
AM: Yeah, totally. It was really important that we didn’t go off the rails, because you’re just going to have to fix that anyway. But also you don’t really need to. There’s enough content there. There are enough lines in the actual books, where you can refer to, and actually expand on those notes, and make a compelling experience.
Definitely everybody on the team knows Lord of the Rings, and is into it, and saw the movies and all that kind of stuff, and so we’re able to draw on that passion as a team. A good example of that is our art director Phil Straub, an amazing painter. And it's really inspiring to look at the imagery from Weta, and all that kind of stuff, and it’s not hard to find things to be passionate about in a Tolkien universe.