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
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
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!
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Lord of the Rings Online Game Page.