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.