Helm's Deep - an Interview with LotRO Devs
Turbine has begun beta-testing on the fifth expansion for the Lord of the Rings Online - Helm's Deep, which will expand Rohan westward and open up the iconic Rohirric locations we've all been waiting for. Players will finally be able to roam around the capital of Edoras as an open-world location, scout from the clifftop overlook of Dunharrow where the Púkel-men hold watch, and wander the walls of the Hornburg, the great fortress within Helm's Deep where the Rohirrim make their last stand against the uruk-hai army of the White Hand.
We had a chance to sit down and talk with Leo Tan, Digital Communications Manager at Turbine, and Hannah Foell, Associate Producer of LotRO, to talk about some of the more interesting details about what's in store with Helm's Deep this fall.
To start off, we sort of glossed over the stuff that everyone already knows about: Western Rohan will consist of five new regions; there will be a 10-level cap increase with a new tier of crafting; and the epic story will be expanded.
"We are re-introducing the story of the book," Hannah says, "moreso than our other expansion packs. This expansion pack is really tied in with the story of the books, so you're gonna get to see the battle at Helm's Deep, you're gonna get to see King Theoden return from the sway of Grima Wormtongue. There are three epic books in this expansion."
Basically, the rest of the gigantic region of Rohan will be explored, including some of the lesser-known parts that didn't play a huge role in the books and were more or less ignored in the movies. One of these background bits of lore is the Púkel-men, man-shaped statues possibly crafted by (or perhaps merely resembling) the primitive Drúedain (also known as the Woses) who live in the forest between Rohan and Gondor. The Púkel-men statues line the road to Dunharrow.
But these are the stuff we already knew about. The big ticket changes coming with Helm's Deep are that all classes will be getting a fairly major revamp, and the Battle of Helm's Deep will be using all-new tech to make it work.
The new tech for Helm's Deep is almost a given, but the last time character classes saw a major revision was the Mines of Moria expansion in 2008. The changes since then have been mostly relatively minor tweaks, like reorganizing Traits and tweaking their bonuses, or upping the cap on Virtues a few times. We've been using basically the same UI for this for the past five years, and a major revision is bound to cause some concern among us old-timers.
The changes coming with Helm's Deep sound quite promising, though. Currently, characters are limited to a single trait set, which must be painstakingly rebuilt and rebalanced at a bard NPC anytime the player wants to make a change in his character's combat abilities. For example, swapping a Guardian from full-tank spec to DPS involves not just a gear change, but also swapping out most of the Defender of the Free traits in favor of Keen Blade ones to add more oomph to Overpower stance, and changing out Legendary skills from threat-generation to damage-dealing. To do this, the Guardian has to travel all the way back to a major town with a handy Bard, and it costs quite a lot of money to make the changeover. The new system will mirror the Mounted Traits system - a window, accessible anywhere, with multiple setups that you can change on-the-fly (as long as you are out of combat).
"We're moving to a trait tree system for classes," Hannah Foell explains. "We thought it made a lot of sense for us. It's an understood system - we did it with mounted combat and we found it to be very successful. And it something our players already understand, so it's a system within which we can work. Each class has three different trait lines that you can spec out, so you specialize very heavily in one line at a time. And then you can specialize in a couple of different other ways and save them as different specs and then you can switch between them as much as you want."
LotRO players have been asking for the ability to "multi-spec" for years, and for classes that have choices between very different combat roles (e.g. healing or DPS for Minstrels and Rune-keepers), the ability to quick-change from one role to the other and back again, as needed and on the fly, will be a significant benefit. But this is only a part of the class revamp - the other part involves "streamlining." Essentially, this means eliminating skills that see only limited use, or tying certain skills to specific trait trees. The logic follows along the lines of, "if a person is playing this way, they won't be using these skills, but if he's playing this other way, he will be."
Characters will start out with two trait tree setups, and additional setups can be purchased through the LotRO Store.
These kinds of changes can be scary to some people. Especially to the bard NPCs that have been hanging out making their livings in taverns and such for years. Now that they are no longer raking in all that cash from re-traiting, they are demoted to simple lute merchants.
"Yeah, bards are all retired," Hannah says. "We're going to give them all a boat and a Jimmy Buffet record."
Of course, the major focus of the expansion is on the Battle for Helm's Deep, an epic and iconic battle that takes place in Western Rohan. This battle pits the seemingly unstoppable forces of the White Hand against the fleeing and vulnerable Rohirrim, who retreat into the Hornburg, their last-ditch stronghold, where they intend to make their final stand. This battle has been interpreted a few different ways - Tolkien described it one way, Jackson and Bakshi each depicted their own versions. Turbine is committed to remaining faithful to Tolkien's version of the story, where the orcs and uruk-hai hurl themselves at the wall of the Hornburg with reckless abandon and savagery that dismays the besieged Rohirrim. There will be no eleventh-hour elven intervention led by Haldir.
"The Battle for Helm's Deep is, I would say, the most epic thing in the imagination when people think of Middle-earth," Hannah explains. "We're very much the game of the books, but Peter Jackson's movie really put Helm's Deep on the map. (But) we follow the book, so for instance Helm's Dike is there. That's something that kinda got removed by Jackson."
"The way that we do the Battle for Helm's Deep, through telling the story in a series of instances, means that you see different phases of the battle, and take part in different parts," Leo says.
"We already know how this battle ends," Hannah says, "so one of the design challenges that we had was, how do you make a battle that we already know the ending, how do you make that interesting and dynamic and challenging for the player? What we settled on is, we already know that the good guys win, so you as a player decide how much you contribute to that, and how much of that victory is because of your bravery and your amazing ability to load a catapult."
The Battle for Helm's Deep instances are not your average instance or skirmish. These instances will be this expansion's endgame content, but it is not limited to end-game players.
"You can jump into the Battle for Helm's Deep starting at level 10," Hannah explains. "You'll always play as your own character, and you will get scaled up to level 95. So anyone can play together - if you're level 15, you can play with your friends that are level 55 and level 95."
This time around, Turbine wanted to do something for all of their players rather than just for the players on one end of the scale. "We were really proud of mounted combat," Hannah says, "but it was disappointing that only people who were level 75 could take part in it. So we wanted to build something new that everybody could interact with."
Actually pulling off a battle as epic as the one at the walls of the Hornburg requires new technology and some of what Leo Tan calls "technical trickery." The forces of the White Hand number in the tens of thousands, and when the player looks down from the wall, he will see what looks like thousands of bloodthirsty orcs laying siege. But there is no realistic way to put ten thousand orcs on the landscape and have the player be able to do anything, and they didn't want to re-use the same kind of animated painting they used for Wulf's Cleft. The orcs will be "fake," but the player will be able to interact with them.
Players will be able to take on different roles in Helm's Deep - Vanguard, Engineer or Officer.
"To be clear, when I say that, it sort of sounds like we have three new classes within it," Hannah explains. "And that's really not the case. You could jump in and make choices and contribute to the battle using all of those techniques. They're really just categories of actions and choices that you can make within the battle. So, for instance, a Vanguard is sort of traditional combat - going in and fighting with the orcs trying to get over the wall, fighting with the orcs that are already there. An Officer is going to be giving orders, healing troops, and Engineers are going to be interacting with siege weapons in a bunch of different ways. We have new UI for all of the siege weapons and the interactables so that you can interact in a number of ways with every catapult up on the wall. You can load it, you can fix it , you can crank it. And in addition, multiple people can interact with the same catapult at the same time."
At the end of the battle, players are rewarded medals and ratings. If the player did okay, he gets a bronze medal. If the player did the best he could possibly do, he gets platinum. These medals are not dependent on level - a level 10 can earn a platinum medal by putting in the effort and really mastering his tasks. The Helm's Deep medals are a new progression currency to be exchanged for specific rewards. And the instances can be completed solo, or in 2, 3, 6 or 12-man groups, depending on the instance. Not all instances come in all sizes.
"And they're not just scaled up," Hannah says. "They're all built by hand, so the 12-person space is gonna be a lot different (than the solo space). There's a whole different set of objectives and challenges than there are in solo spaces."
As for the tech behind the epic battles, Leo says, "It's all new. We've spent the last year in the bunker working on this, making it as good as it can possibly be. Our aim is very high."
So are our expectations. LotRO's Helm's Deep expansion is in closed beta, and is scheduled for launch this fall.