Helm's Deep - an Interview with LotRO Devs

Turbine staffers talk about Púkel-men, visual trickery, complete class overhauls and other things we can expect from LotRO's fifth expansion, Helm's Deep.

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.

Helm's Deep - King Theoden and crew during epic story

"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.

Helm's Deep - a barrow near Edoras, covered in white simbelmyne flowers


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.

Helm's Deep - Lore-master Trait Panel

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."

Helm's Deep - A wall at the Hornburg

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. 

Helm's Deep - The Hornburg

"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."

Helm's Deep - a view at the fields before the Hornburg

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.

Helm's Deep - looking down from the ramparts at the Hornburg

"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.

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