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Postmortem: Monolith Productions' Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Postmortem: Monolith Productions'  Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
January 20, 2015 | By Michael de Plater

January 20, 2015 | By Michael de Plater
More: Console/PC, Programming, Art, Audio, Design, Production, Business/Marketing

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Michael de Plater is design director at WB Games studio Monolith Productions.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor shipped worldwide beginning Sept. 30, 2014. Shadow of Mordor was an ambitious game around which we built our current team here at Monolith Productions, and it was the first time many of us had worked together.

For the majority of the team it was our first third person, open world action game not to mention our first “new gen” title.

This combination of factors made it an enormously educational experience seeing how far we can improve. The following list is a small sample of our experience gained over the last three years in development. 

What went right

The benefit of hindsight and the fact that the end result turned out quite well makes some of these wins seem clearer and more obvious than they did at the time.

1. The Nemesis System

There were two main goals which drove our focus on the Nemesis System. The first was a commitment to creating systems which empowered players to create and share their own stories. The second was for us to leverage the new generation hardware through our innovation.

We played to Monolith Productions’ strengths as a team and a studio in crafting innovative Artificial Intelligence, for example in F.E.A.R.  With Shadow, we targeted our efforts on having the NPCs react and respond to the player, the environment and each other. Focusing on this from the outset informed many of the design decisions up to and including our core innovation revolving around AI and NPC behavior.

Bringing this system to life was a result of very strong cross-discipline collaboration. There was no part of the team not strongly involved in the Nemesis System – writing and VO, AI, animation and facial animation, cameras, game design, UI and level design. With all the pieces in place, Character Art did an amazing job realizing our Uruks as a rich set of unique and hideous snowflakes.

As soon as the game launched, we began to see players creating and sharing their own videos and stories of their experience of the Nemesis System and how much they loved to hate their enemies. Giving players the tools to create and share their personal stories is going to be a key pillar of all our work going forward.

2. Core Gameplay and Controls

We were determined to innovate our systems and AI. It was critical that the core gameplay, the controls and the camera supported the players intention at all times. We aimed for controls to be immediately accessible, if not “pick up and play,” given the depth of options for melee, stealth, ranged and movement gameplay. 

Our goal was to match the “best in class” core gameplay quality of the genre we were entering, which we clearly identified as the Arkham series by Rocksteady. Arkham is also published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and we wanted players to perceive that we were trying to emulate their approach to a licensed IP by focusing on quality, independent of the blockbuster movies which are coming out in parallel.

Having said that, it’s one thing to aim to model your combat on Arkham and quite another thing to execute on that intention. The core component of the success was the close collaboration of Design and Animation as well as our in house MoCap facilities. That allowed us to have a continuous and fast iteration process on every move in the game. 

Between the player animations and the variety of classes, abilities and moves in the Nemesis System this was a hugely challenging task. What we learned was that seemingly trivial changes to animation or timing can have enormous implications on gameplay and balance.

3. Usability and QA

These are actually two separate topics, but they have in common that they allowed us to iterate more rapidly and close strongly.

Our Usability lab was not only continually bringing in playtests of all ability levels to play Shadow of Mordor, but also continually benchmarking against competition so we had some context against which to analyze the incoming data. We held regular playtests among the team, where everyone had the responsibility to play and give feedback.

This had multiple benefits. Most obviously it made everyone more familiar with the game, and more committed to improving it. Secondly, by being obliged to provide feedback, it increased everyone’s sense of ownership and made people more comfortable with communicating tough or negative feedback across disciplines.

Additionally, we had very strong and experienced in-house QA. This was the one core discipline on the team that did have a wealth of third person action game experience. They also provided the most conservative and realistic assessment of what it was going to take to go from Alpha to Beta and from Beta to Final, which enabled us to hit our dates and ship on time.

4. Proprietary Tech

I mentioned at the start that this was our first third person, open world action game, however we had an enormous advantage in having our own engine and an extremely experienced engine and tools team.

Monolith Productions has historically created games across a very diverse range of genres, from FPS to MMO to Strategy and the ability to adapt to the requirements of our design was a huge asset which made everything else, including the Nemesis System possible.

Concept art provided courtesy of Monolith Productions

Another big win for Shadow of Mordor was that the entire studio and team were focused on a single game, where previously Monolith Productions had been developing multiple titles in parallel.

This singular focus allowed the engineering team to direct all of their efforts towards new platform adoption and optimizing both the runtime systems and the tools to the requirements of a single game.

Another big win was our robust build infrastructure, which allowed us to get vetted changes out to the team rapidly and always have a stable version of the game running to test and play. This was essential to our ability to rapidly iterate.

5. Publisher Support

Arkham had shown stakeholders that the right way to approach a license was not to make a “movie game.” It is to make the best game that you can, that plays to the strengths of games as a medium and respects one of the world’s most prestigious IPs.

Within Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and from our Licensors this was the mandate we were given, that is to focus on quality and innovation. Then we were supported every step of the way, for example by having access to WETA Workshop in New Zealand, having a great presence at E3 2014 and strong marketing support at launch.

The level of communication and feedback from executives and partners was clear and well informed and we were able to remain aligned on our goals throughout the project, including our approach to IP and our focus on the innovation of the Nemesis System.


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