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Interview with Chris Taylor
Middle-earth Online has not even entered Beta yet, and is at least a year from release, yet has still one more awards than some games can claim six months after release. One of the most promising titles of 2004 must be in good hands then! Today we have for you, those hands, or rather, the mind. Chris Taylor is the Producer for Middle-earth Online, a Husband, a Father, and a Gamer. Read on!
Flinch: Hi Chris! Why don't we start with you telling us a bit about your history in the industry. What kind of past projects have you been involved with? Do you enjoy long walks on the beach? Or a quiet night snuggled up by the fire?
Chris: How romantic! Unfortunately, my career hasn't been exactly like that. Fortunately, I've had the opportunity to work on some truly great games: Fallout, Starfleet Command, Stonekeep and others. I was a lead designer at Interplay for a long time (11 years and one day). I've also been involved in gaming for the longest time. My mom sent me to summer school for Dungeons and Dragons when I was in middle-school. Thanks Mom!
I play with my two boys, I play a fair share of EQ and my wife beats me at Uno.
Flinch: What do you look for in a game? Which genre do you lean towards in your own selection of a gaming title?
Chris: I'm an RPG nut. My first real computer game was Wizardry I for the Apple ][+. I played Bard's Tale, Wasteland, Might and Magic, the D&D gold box games, Ultima, Deathlord, Autoduel, Legacy of the Ancients, Magic Candle, Phantasie, Questron, Wizard's Crown, Knights of Legend, Dragon Wars, and a few others - all before graduating high school. Since then, I've really enjoyed the Icewind Dale games, Torment, Ultima Underworld, Dungeon Master, EoB, Lands of Lore, Daggerfall and almost all of the other prominent computer RPGs. I guess I like the ability to make my own characters, develop them and play around in these alternate worlds. After that, I'm into combat flight sims and strategy games.
Flinch: Going into Middle-earth: Online, how did you prepare yourself for the difficult task ahead, with so many fans that will be picking your brain for an accurate game?
Chris: Tums. Lots and lots of Tums. And an annual re-reading of the book. And devouring all of the other material I have time for. That and we hired a Tolkien expert named Daniel Greenberg. If things go really wrong, I can blame him. *grin*
Flinch: With titles like Everquest doing so well, and Star Wars Galaxies releasing soon, what will Middle-earth: Online offer that will set it apart from existing titles?
Chris: We have a very well developed setting, we have a great story, we have great (well-known) characters, we have the advantage of being able to look at all these other games and advance the genre based on actual feedback from customers, we have an outstanding next-generation engine. We have a team of developers and creative people who are passionate about Tolkien.
Flinch: What Era will the game take place? Will a player be able to interact with members of the Fellowship or their allies they met along the way?
Chris: 3rd Era. Interact with allies of the Fellowship -- Absolutely. There are some great characters that we want to bring into the world. Interact directly with the Fellowship -- that's a much trickier thing to do and something we're still hashing out. We want people to interact with the story, but not interfere with it -- and that's going to take some work to get just right.
Flinch: What regions will be explored in the first release of the game? Are there plans to expand these regions in future editions of the game?
Chris: We're still working out the exact are that the first game will launch with. We are planning starting with a reasonably sized area that we can do very well, and expand to include more areas from Middle-earth as time goes on.
Flinch: What races will we be able to play as in Middle-earth: Online?
Chris: Currently, we're planning on Dwarves, Hobbits, Elves and the Race of Man for player characters. Each race has three nationalities (or sub-race) planned for it.
Flinch: Is this a game someone can play in a group? Will there be benefits to playing in a big group with others?
Chris: Grouping is not only going to be allowed, but it will be encouraged. Not all characters are going to be able to do everything. Forming a Fellowship with other players will make your characters more efficient. Some characters will be better soloers than others, but all characters will be able to bring something to the group.
On top of temporary Fellowships, we are also planning on more permanent Kinships. And Kinships will have be able to access different content, especially towards the End Game (that term has always made me chuckle when you're talking about MMPs.) Kinships will have some other advantages as well.
Flinch: How will casual gamers interact in the world compared to players who dedicate a lot of time and effort into developing a character? If someone spends an average of two hours a week playing Middle-earth: Online will they have the same opportunities as someone who plays 20 hours a week?
Chris: Our advancement scheme is not the traditional "go kill for XP and level" model. It has room for a casual gamer and still supports the more hard-core player. Casual players will probably be better supported in this game than any other fantasy RPG. We want people to be able to play without having to worry that they are falling too far behind their friends. We do this by making offline time something valuable. However, the 20+ hour a week player will have advantages over the two hour player and they should.
Flinch: What platform's will Middle-earth: Online be released to, will we see a Mac OS X version early on in the development, or will the title remain strictly PC?
Chris: Currently, the title is only for Windows-based PCs. We're keeping an eye on other platforms, but no decisions have been made.
Flinch: What type of creatures will a player encounter along his travels besides the many cultures of Orc?
Chris: We've been gathering a list of opponents from the lore itself. My favorite line so far is "It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough..." That is so open for interpretation! We will have a range of critters, from the small to the very large.
Flinch: How will death be handled in the game? Will there be a penalty for players who run into a battle they just cannot win?
Chris: Death is tricky. There really isn't good lore justification for resurrection spells and the like. We're going to avoid actually killing the player, but there will still be a penalty for defeat.
Flinch: In such an early stage in development, how are you feeling about the process at this point? Do you have a strong vibe about how things are progressing? Are there areas you hope to dedicate more attention to?
Chris: It is very early. Fortunately, due to the engine we're using, we've already been able to get a prototype up and running. That's very, very reassuring. Getting a look at the world, how the characters move and interact, the early combat tests, the first test for how we handle communication -- all of this is extremely important and gives us more time to tweak it. I personally feel very fortunate just to be involved with a project of this scope, quality and importance. I'm looking forward to making sure we get Magic right, I think it will be a challenge, but we have an opportunity to really do something neat and different there. I'm looking forward to working on the end game encounters. And I really want to get our character advancement scheme down right, since it's different from other games.
Flinch: Sounds like Middle-earth: Online is in good hands. We can't thank you enough Chris for taking the time to talk with us. Hope to speak with you again as the development process continues. Middle-earth; Online from Black Label Games will make its way to your PC in late 2004. Keep your eye on Gaming Havens here at TheOneRing.net for the latest on this exciting new title!