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.
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.