GDC 2004 Game Design Keynote: The Making of The Return of the King

At this year's Game Design keynote, Neil Young, EA vice president and production executive on the Lord of the Rings games, talked about the widespread success of The Return of the King and discussed the critical difference between gameplay and entertainment.

At this year's Game Design keynote, Neil Young, Electronic Arts Vice president and production executive in charge of EA's immensely popular Lord of the Rings games, talked about the widespread success of The Return of the King and discussed the critical difference between gameplay and entertainment.

EA Games' Lord of the Rings franchise, now including both The Two Towers and The Return of the King, have been dynamite titles for the company in the last two years, selling over ten million copies worldwide and shipping in seventy-seven different platform/language combinations.

According to Young, the key to the success of the games lies in the understanding that these titles were not simply mass appeal games, but also mass entertainment experiences. Gameplay -- the mechanics of game design -- can certainly make or break a game, Young said, but on a broader level, the widespread success of a title depends equally on how broadly engaging a title is in terms of its general entertainment value.

Finding the Fantasy

Tapping into just what makes an experience enjoyable, said Young, is a matter of understanding what he termed finding the "User Fantasy" -- that which reaches into the player's head and heart and captivates their imagination. The Fantasy of FIFA Soccer is to be a pro soccer player; the Fantasy of Need for Speed: Underground is to be an illegal street racer. And the Fantasy of "The Return of the King," said Young, is to live out the Lord of the Rings saga.


One secret of the success of EA Games, Young said, is what the company calls "X'ing" -- identifying the core (or "X") of a title, and making sure that the development team understands that "X" and is capable of communicating it back to the producers. It sounds simple, Young said, but reaching that level of product focus is one of the keys to successful game design.

In the case of The Lord of the Rings games, Neil Young and his team were clear that their "X" was to create an entertainment experience with simple, scaleable gameplay, leveraging the production assets of the Lord of the Rings films, such that a player would be able to "live out" the movies. The challenge, then, was to find a way to manage that experience and succesfully manipulate the Fantasy.

The Six-Sides of the Ring

The solution to that challenge evolved for Young as a six-pronged approach to the game's design.

  • First Impressions and Expectations. According to Young, you have one chance to make your initial impact on a player, one chance to introduce them to your game and show them what to expect from the experience. In The Return of the King, the first image and sound to appear to the player are, aptly, the THX logo -- a brand that carries with it the promise of aural richness and intensity.
  • Rich Punctuation and Simple Words. In The Return of the King,Young found that the secret to creating a mass entertainment experience was to keep game moments short but powerful. If games are books and levels are paragraphs, said Young, then his goal was to use simple phrases dotted in frequent exclamation points. This technique, said Young, helped the game develop and keep a wide, captive audience.
  • Milliseconds, Moments, and Missions. Finding a cohesive structure to the games was another point that Young found important in the development of the series. Gameplay occurs at many levels, Young said -- in beats, in moments, in missions. The questions he asked himself as a designer was, What will the player be doing most in this game? How can smaller actions be made cohesive with the game's larger structure? And how can this be done in a way that keeps the gameplay both simple and scaleable?
  • Scene Ambience. Maintaining a consistent atmosphere was another point that Young believes helped immensely in giving the Lord of the Rings games an appropriate and recognizable energy. Scene ambience does not need to be subtle, Young said -- it just needs to be consistent. For example, The Return of the King makes use of analog air and lighting elements to set itsvisual tone, and relies extensively on handheld camera effects that mimic the frenetic camera motion of a live action battle scene.
  • Music. Leveraging the resonance of a musical score -- particular a score as powerful as Howard Shore's -- has immense power to draw a player into an experience and help them live the User Fantasy, Young said. Young emphasized several times through his lecture that sound was a major component in the design of The Return of the King.
  • Visual and Aural Correlation. The Return of the King was built on Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth, said Young, and leveraging that vision was perhaps the key to the success of the games. Combined, The Two Towers and The Return of the King leveraged some 200,000 assets from the movies, and finding ways to integrate those assets into the games was the challenge of making these particular titles work.

Delivering an Entertainment Experience

In concluding, Young said that the mass appeal of The Return of the King stems from its development as a mass entertainment experience. By connecting to the core Fantasy of the player, and learning to properly manipulate that fantasy, Young and his team at EA Games were able to translate The Lord of the Rings into an interactive format and bring the audience into the heart of the experience.

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