Shadow of Mordor, the long-awaited and highly ambitious game from Monolith Productions, promises an environment where the enemy hierarchy of Tolkien fare will procedurally replenish its ranks when you destabilise its armies. On top of this, you’ll have the ability to control massive enemies, scale huge mountains with them and take part in battles on multiple scales at the same time.
We spoke to Bob Roberts, lead designer from Monolith, about the inherent challenges of such potentially chaotic systems.
So enemies can replace their superiors and ‘rank up’ dynamically. Does that reach all the way to the commanders of the armies?
All the way. They’re all procedural – there are a couple of tent-pole villains who are the cinematic bosses, but the vast majority of the bosses in the game are these procedural orcs which are built out of the millions of parts of armour, faces, bodies, weapons and everything else.
And what about at the bottom end? What happens with the little guys?
The guys that are normally the cloned horde of random grunts – they’re all procedurally generated as well. So if any of them get the killing blow on you, then they have a little taunt, they’ll stand over your corpse and say ‘Yeah, this’ll probably get me promoted’ – this is a big deal for them.
You learn their name right there and we don’t rewind time and start from a checkpoint. We don’t erase the memories of everybody in the world like normal games. It’s not like we’re saying that those last few minutes didn’t happen and you can try again [when you die] – time moves forward, the orcs go on their missions – they level up, they kill each other etcetera.
That guy that killed you now has a chance to fight his way in and become a low-level boss. He goes up against the other captains and says ‘I just killed the Gravewalker – I deserve a place in the hierarchy’ and tries to fight his way in there. If he succeeds, he becomes a low-level boss – you already know where he lives and what his name is and can go hunt him down.
Did relying so heavily on procedural structures present big design challenges?
Yes, many. It’s such a complex system and there’s so much going into it that over the course of the last few years that we’ve been working on it, we’ve been iterating non-stop trying to iron out all the kinks and details.
I think one of the biggest things is getting the guys to promote into that structure in a way that felt right to the player. We’ve got so much variety in terms of the character art, the voice overs the animations, the personalities of those guys (and then on top of that the boss fight mechanics), that the strengths and weaknesses they have and what makes them an interesting enemy was tough.
We had to get people to come into the hierarchy with whatever frequency they needed to based on how often you’re dying and how much time is moving forward – keep that a consistent experience for everybody without it getting kind of crazy off in one direction or another with too many guys that are impossible to fight, too many guys that are way too easy or too many guys that start to look the same or sound the same – all that kind of stuff.
How did you manage the fighting on multiple scales at once with those huge creatures battling both each other and the smaller orcs?
That was a big challenge. When trying to get the scales of the world to the level design – the strongholds, the wilderness and everything – we had to first establish how big these things were going to be. We had to know how tall were the doorways were that [the creatures] have to be able to move through. It was about finding that sweet spot where it’s big enough that it looks like you can go through it and it’s fine. If it gets any smaller and you’re blocked and you can’t move through something, it needs to be so small that it’s really obvious that you can’t go through it, otherwise people will be stuck and grinding up against it. There was a lot of that sort of stuff.
Then with the climbing metrics, there are these huge guys who can climb up to a certain height. Making sure they have enough room to actually get up onto something became important. The Caragors (the big cats) climb like crazy, and pretty late in the game we started really opening up their traversal – really letting them go anywhere and just hoping that it’d work out. It went surprisingly well. We’d basically fine-tuned our movement system enough by then that we could start to ask ‘Well, what if we just let them go anywhere?’, and it pretty much worked really well.
So that freedom becomes really important, and I think a lot of people miss that.
Is it because having large scale creatures climb isn’t something they’d normally expect from a game?
Yeah, they don’t even register that you can climb with these beasts because it’s so uncommon.
Is the ease of the Caragors’ traversal a good example of the rewards of putting so much time into the systems at the beginning of the game?
Yeah, I think having really strong systems for how big everything is – for how tall and how much depth and how wide platforms need to be so you can fight or traverse on it – having all that established lets us do a lot of things. Now we know the standards are and we know we’re not going to get into too many edge cases or headaches in one place or another – we can start to add new features like that [climbing] with relative confidence that it’ll work.
Thank you for your time!