The Art & Design of Helm's Deep: An Interview with LotRO Devs
Helm's Deep, the upcoming expansion for the Lord of the Rings Online, continues the players' march toward a final confrontation against Sauron. But, as the song says, the road is long with many a winding turn. We all know what's coming eventually, but the journey is just as important as the destination. In this case, the journey takes us into the western half of Rohan, continuing on where last year's Riders of Rohan expansion left off.
While one might think that Western Rohan would be pretty much the same as Eastern Rohan, it's clear that this is not the case. Rohan is a very large kingdom, and there are differences between the two halves. The devil is really in the details, and our interview with LotRO world-builder Matthew Fahey and Turbine's Director of Digital Communications Leo Tan gives us an inside look at just what those differences are.
We start out in the region of Kingstead, home of the capital city of Edoras. Kingstead is the "safest" region of West Rohan precisely because of the capital city - the orcs are pouring in over the borders in other areas, and the Rohirrim are being directed to head to Edoras to find safety. Of course, things aren't great in Edoras at the beginning - King Theoden is under the sway of Grima Wormtongue, who acts on behalf of Isengard and keeps the king physically feeble and mentally muddled.
At one end of Kingstead is the prosperous town of Middlemead. This is a well-to-do trading town, where wealthy residents trade horses and armors and weapons, but recently a lot of people have gone missing. Caravans have been attacked, traders don't show up for business, and the thane is starting to prepare for evacuation.
"It's one of the only towns I can build that has any trees in it for Kingstead," says Matthew Fahey. "One of the things for world-builders, especially for this zone, it's very open plains, rolling hills, grass, really good for horses obviously. What we try to do here is be as dynamic as possible in each one of our zones. We wanted to give each area within West Rohan its own feel but still keeping with the rolling plains, so we used different trees, different bushes, even different colors at times. We used brighter greens, even some turquoise-style greens, some really interesting colours. Kingstead, the zone I built, is mostly lush greens that really pop. It is one of the better farming areas and one of the richer areas in terms of both how the land is and the people, so we sort of try to capture that by giving it this vibrant life feel."
All of the cities get their own treatments. The mead-hall in Aldburg, for example, has a different feel from the mead-hall in Edoras. Aldburg feels older and more historic - the city was the original capital of West Rohan before Edoras was built in a better, more central area with better farmland. Stuff there looks older and slightly more lived-in than the newer capital. The design team has stayed with the Anglo-Saxon/Viking style of architecture seen in East Rohan, but the buildings in West Rohan use slightly more wood. There is a lot of attention paid to the small details, from the moss-hung walls of ancient Aldburg to the intricate tapestries hanging in the mead-halls of every major settlement.
There are also excellent lore bits like the Pukel-men, the big creepy statues lining the switchback trails leading up to Dunharrow and the Dark Door. They look like big, fat, howling ghosts with their arms crossed over their chests, and were carved long ago by unknown artisans, possibly to resemble the Woses (or Druedain) who live in the forests between Rohan and Gondor.
"We had the Pukel-men statues hand-made and placed," Matt Fahey says. "It's sort of a big lore moment, and people who are really into Tolkien will understand the reference there and what that's all about. We actually brought in new heraldry and banners, and one of the towns actually has Pukel-men as the sort of tapestry of their town, so it's on their banners and it's on their flags."
And of course, there's the Dark Door itself.
"One of the cool things is the Dark Door," Matt says. "The eeriness leading up to it. We have these skull stones that are quite menacing - we wanted to give that feel of how the Dark Door is really just a bad place. You don't want to go in it, the rumors are just... no, it's too scary. So we wanted to start by giving it this ominous pathway that leads up. As you get in there, it's going to get dark and dreary. We have the door actually built, you can go right up to it. It has a lot of blacks, some cold stone and some green flames to give that sort of "undead" feel to it. Unfortunately, players will not be able to go in there because, according to lore, you can't just knock on the front door and walk right in."
While it does indeed look like a fine entrance to some kind of challenging group content, having players able to waltz around the Paths of the Dead beating up the ghosts of the Oathbreakers willy-nilly is a lore-breaker. That's Aragorn's job as the Heir of Isildur and the King of Gondor, and besides, he needs those ghosts for the fight at Minas Tirith later on down the road.
". . .and in the wall the Dark Door gaped before them like the mouth of night. Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read, and fear flowed from it like a grey vapour. . ."
The Stonedeans region has its own unique look as Matt explains it. "We brought in even more rolling hills, more rocks and different trees, a lot of pine and less coniferous. There are new rock types and stuff like that. We spend a lot of time molding the terrain and adjusting it to look at in a full 360. Players want to be immersed in a zone and in Rohan they want to feel this, that wherever they stand they can turn a full 360 and see something cool off in the disance."
But while the designers want to fill West Rohan with loads of eye-candy, they also have to work within a fairly constrained set of rules.
"For an area like this, we can't just have these crazy juxtapositions," Matt explains. "The zone has to have some sense of continuity, especially for Tolkien lore where we don't have that crazy magic. We can't just have lava areas coming out of nowhere, we have to sort of blend it nicely. And even though we make each section feel unique, it feels real. We mix the fantasy with that realism. It's really hard work but it's really rewarding when you get those nice transitions."
Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Helm's Deep is the last hope of the Rohirrim. Some of Rohan's proud, stubborn people find a bad end when they attempt to go their own ways - the orcs are bringing war with them, whether the Rohirrim wish to believe it or not, and have sacked a few towns and raided many caravans. Players can encounter these events along the roads - highways packed with refugees fleeing first towards Edoras, and then towards Helm's Deep when it becomes clear that Edoras is no safer than anywhere else. And even though it's just a stopping point on the way to the Rohirrim's last stand, Edoras is a major story piece that demanded a lot of attention.
"We have Meduseld built and it's beautiful," Matt says. "All custom assets, all custom deco there. We have the graves and the flowers and the entrance to Edoras really built up nicely - that is complete from-the-books lore. We had custom stones made for each of the burial mounds for all the old kings. We stuck with the flowers growing only on the one side - everything that you read in the book, we looked over and we made sure we made assets perfectly for it."
"We're just finishing Edoras up now. We brought in all custom houses for that as well, new styles of Rohirric architecture. We didn't want to just copy the old stuff, we wanted to show some new structures and some new stuff in there. It keeps with being a horse city and it's really open in its feel, it doesn't feel like a clumped major city like Bree is. It's different because they would have all these horses and horses need the space to graze, and that openness."
The second last stop on the tour was Helm's Deep and the Hornburg. The designers decided that the valley of Helm's Deep was the result of glaciers coming down from the White Mountains, and that Helm's Dike - the natural barrier walling off the valley from the rest of Rohan - was a moraine formed along the glacier's edge. The gaps were fortified with walls, and the valley is effectively sealed off from attack. Deeper inside Helm's Deep is the mighty Hornburg, the ancient fortress where the Rohirrim plan to make their last stand.
"We brought in a lot of the Gondor-style assets because it was originally built by the Gondorians and we wanted to stick with that. And then what we did was we brought in custom deco as well that is from the Rohirrim and has sort of been added on to the space. So we have the old and the new sort of mixing together. We have the Gondorian architecture, but then the Rohirrim building on top of that - we have their banners, their tapestries, their war machines, their catapults. It's basically stone versus wood."
Gondorian architecture in LotRO draws from a number of real-world influences. The layout of Helm's Deep, for example, combines early medieval fortress layouts with Romanesque architectural influences and Gothic detailing like one might find on a church or cathedral. This gives the structure a more militaristic, forbidding tone, making it even darker and more imposing than the mountains surrounding the structure.
The tour ended with the Glittering Caves, the natural refuge inside Helm's Deep that leads deep into the White Mountains.
"It's one of the most beautiful things we've shown off," Matt says. "All the deco and art is custom in here. The glow-maps and the new textures on the rocks, the tech we put in on this just to get it, visually, is amazing. And it feels so expansive, you can just stand and look out into the cave. It feels so massive and so beautiful."
The pictures don't really do the caves justice - one needs to see the camera moving around inside the place to really appreciate the depth. But they will play a fairly vital role in the big battles, so players will surely have the opportunity to see it all for themselves.
When asked what was his personal favorite place or thing to build, Matt responded immediately with "Edoras."
"A lot of people don't know, but major cities are a lot of work. It's a lot of deco and a lot of thought condensed into a very tight space. You have to plan as hard as you can and then be ready to redesign. I like the challenge of it all - I have to balance the visuals and players' expectations with gameplay. We can make things look beautiful and pretty, but if they are tough to navigate or they don't quite work gameplay-wise, players don't enjoy that experience as well. Especially for a major city, navigating around, we have to make sure that it is beautiful but if payers need to get through it from an actual movement way, we have to plan that out as well, to make sure that it is efficient and up to standards and performance and everything like that."
The visual tours will be continuing over the coming month. In 2 weeks, Turbine will be showcasing the sweeping class changes taking effect with the expansion, and 2 weeks after that they will be showing off the big battles that take place at Helm's Deep. Stay tuned!