With J.R.R. Tolkienís classic in their hands, the UK studio is taking on its most ambitious LEGO project to date. Rather than split up the games into multiple releases, it is hoping to cram as much content from the three films, books and other official material as possible into one disc.
Thatís resulted in the largest open world yet for the series, a huge amount of gameplay material and plenty of cinematic sequences to parody in the style that Travellerís Tales has become famous for. And itís looking as faithful to the Jackson movies as you would expect. I sat down with the gameís producer, aptly named Phil Ring, to tell us more about the process behind developing its biggest project.
Phil Ring: Yeah, Gotham City was our first open world, and it was really cool to be able to fly to rooftops as Superman. But when we introduce any element into a LEGO game, we always ask ourselves what can be done to make each title feel different to the last. So for Lord of the Rings, we felt that navigation had to be tweaked to make sure things were really clear for people to understand.
LEGO Batman 2 had our first attempt at a map system, too. We had never done anything like that before, and it was interesting to understand what kind of information would be useful to players. We had a compass in Batman - do we need a compass in Lord of the Rings? No, because we have quest studs, a self-orienting map and fast-travel points.
So we learnt a lot of lessons from doing open world with Batman that we wanted to refine when making this game. If thereís things that people didnít like, we wanted to make sure we improved on them.
Phil Ring: That was our biggest technical obstacle. Lord of the Rings is a journey, and the primary goal for us was to allow people to go on that journey. But, itís an easy thing to say, and much harder to implement. In a way, itís why weíre doing this game now - we wanted to push the open world and hub in LEGO Batman 2 first, and it gave us some experience in working towards something much bigger.
SPOnG: What about from a design perspective? Youíre following the story of Lord of the Rings from the books and films, a very solid text. But you also have to keep players entertained with sidequests, right? How do you offer those features without messing up the flow of the story?
Phil Ring: When we started out, we knew that all the characters in the Lord of the Rings have unique abilities and equipment, that we thought would be great to include for optional side-quests. But then we realised that these perks only get given to the characters at certain points in the story. And yes, we didnít want to break the fiction for the sake of gameplay.
So yeah, we really focused on making sure we had enough fun things to do throughout the course of the story. To make sure players kept going off and getting distracted, wondering whatís around every corner of the world. I think having puzzles that both fit the LEGO and Lord of the Rings universes really come into play here.
With the LEGO puzzles, we could introduce some cool building puzzles that didnít detract - or at times, even built - on the story. Building ledges to reach higher places, that sort of thing. And then you have the Lord of the Rings-inspired quests, where you can help out dwarves hunting for Mithril. We get to play on two gameplay styles to keep things fresh when you donít want to continue the story.
Phil Ring: No, they were both absolutely fantastic. We showed them concepts, told them how we were going to approach the game... they were fine with it. In fact, they contribute to the humour.
One day, we told the guys about introducing female dwarves in the game. Now, Middle Earth said it was a great idea, but advised that itís difficult to tell what a female dwarf really looks like - according to Tolkien lore. They pretty much look like male dwarves. So they suggested, as a gag, that we give the females stubble. It was genius.
So theyíve really been accommodating with what we want to do. And I think also weíre kind of lucky that weíre making this game now. It means that weíve got the history of the LEGO games that weíve already done, so people know what we do with the franchises. It meant that Middle Earth Enterprises and New Line Cinema knew exactly where we were going to go with this.
Phil Ring: Well, we always had these trilogies. Weíve been lucky, in a way - the original LEGO Star Wars games was evenly split between episodes 1-3 and 4-6 and Harry Potter had two distinct themes between Years 1-4 and 5-7. There was enough material in these trilogies and chapters to draw a lot of content from right away.
In a way, the difference with Lord of the Rings is that we had the opposite situation. We had so much content just from the three films alone - theyíre three hours long each, even without the extended cuts - let alone the books and other official material. There was a lot to try and pile and cram in, because we wanted to do this one big adventure.
Itís been a challenge, but weíve managed to get a lot in there - thatís why the game is designed the way it is, with the sprawling hub and the side quests with hidden collectibles. We wanted to include everything in some way.
Phil Ring: They both have their pros and cons. Itís great for us to have the option of doing both. When we were writing our own story for LEGO Batman 2, we thought it was fantastic because we got to write in our own jokes. We could make Superman our own, that sort of thing.
But what we did with this one... because we already had a set story to work with, we wanted to tell that story accurately, while still making it feel like itís our own. So thatís where the challenge came in there. How do you make LEGO Frodo and Aragorn, when the storyís already been told? Itís something weíve learnt from working on the earlier LEGO titles, because we followed film franchises before.
Honestly, I donít think thereís one particular direction that people prefer. We have people in the office who absolutely love Lord of the Rings as a franchise, and are completely dedicated to making the game feel like that world. But we we also have people who love the approach we took with Batman and DC, the idea of telling our own story.
Phil Ring: Itís an interesting idea - to run though and decide whether to invent our own characters, or take some of the lesser-known characters in the fiction and tell their own story. But for Lord of the Rings... thatís a franchise that really has its own audience and core group. They know what the world is like, they know what to expect.
These guys know the books, they know the films - and the films were already a close representation of what was in the books... so that sets a precedent for us. Whereas other properties... Batman, for example, already has many different stories and canons from the TV series, cartoons, films and comics. It lends itself much more easily to create our own world.
Our own world of LEGO Lord of the Rings might feel... a little disjointed. Itís an interesting point, because weíll be building a familiar world, but introducing people to characters theyíve never seen before, in fights they donít know about. Doing the movies is fantastic, because we get to do this massive cinematic experience. If we did our own thing, weíd have to be effectively shooting our own Peter Jackson movie using LEGO! So weíre very much film-oriented for this game.
SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.
Phil Ring: Thank you!
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Closing date:30 Jun 2013