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Monolith: Shadow Of Mordor's secret sauce

Why "turning Mordor into a giant prison yard" worked

Michael de Plater, creative director at Monolith Productions, used his DICE Summit talk to explain that the success of its recent hit Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor lay in empowering the players to tell stories.

"Players are no different from us, they also love telling and creating and sharing stories, it's just such a fundamental innate human need" he said.

"But it was more important for us to worry about empowering their ability to tell stories than it was for us to worry about telling them our wonderful stories. This was really the secret sauce of how the Nemesis system worked.

"We had to give people detailed anchors at points in the story so their imaginations would fill in the gaps in a way that created these really rich narratives. And then also to maximise the number of different stories we could tell and support, to understand what was enough information to give the players so that their imaginations could then run off and fill in those gaps."

They also wanted to give people an emotional experience - demonstrated by a video of a very angry man being repeatedly killed by a particular orc before finally defeating him - where they could make their own stories and become emotionally engaged with the characters.

"And then, even more importantly, in the modern world where we've got YouTube and we've got all these vehicles they could share those stories with each other as well."

He explained that to do this one of the big references Monolith used for designing the Nemesis system was real world sports like soccer, which don't have checkpoints.

"Sports are designed as systems which generate stories every year. They start with the early play-offs, they're designed that if there's a failure through the mid-season you don't rewind to the last save and start playing again from that point, as much as you potentially wish you could. You embrace that and move forward

"Turning Mordor into a giant prison yard"

"And commentary systems in sports games, there's the ability to remember and recall things that have happened previously. Their narrative systems that build drama out of conflict and tribalism and then their career mode, you can follow one rookie player all way from entering the league all the way up to super stardom."

Memory was also important - you could build a players level of engagement by acknowledging them in this sort of way - he cited Metal Gear Solid as a game that did this well.

de Plater also spoke about the use of scars to mark the orcs depending on how players had fought them, in a way that gave them a super villain look and a story of their own. Those orcs also had their own power hierarchies, "turning Mordor into a giant prison yard."

He added that in the future Monolith Productions planned to find ways to introduce collaborative storytelling using the Nemesis system.

Shadow Of Mordor was released on September 2014 and was biggest launch ever for a game based on The Lord of the Rings. It was also praised by critics.

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Latest comments (3)

Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve6 years ago
While I have a lot of love and respect for Shadow of Mordor (I finished it to 100% completion), I do feel that the Nemesis system didn't quite live up to what it could have been.

You don't form a rivalry with someone in a game just because they kill you once, even if you judge it to be unfair. A rivalry takes time to develop, and more importantly, they have to be an actual threat. None of the Orc leaders in Shadow of Mordor individually pose a threat to you, when I was defeated it was always a numbers game, two leaders teamed up on me or too many orcs got in the way. They missed an opportunity to make rivalries matter by having orcs that were initially too strong to defeat, leaders that required you to learn abilities or to really plan out how to take them down.

All of my 'showdowns' just involved me jumping into the action and hacking off heads until all had died or ran. It's pretty easy to quickly dissect the weaknesses of a leader even if you didn't have intel to tell you up front. It was a brief session of trial and error (without much punishment for making mistakes) and then once you found a technique that works it was rinse and repeat. Leaders never outsmarted you, they never had any other interaction with you other than fighting you and a quick exchange of insults. If you watch any movie that has a protagonist and an antagonist the rivalry will always go deeper than that. The Nemsis system standing on it's own had a bit more quantity than quality for me.

That said I don't really hold it against the game, I still had a great time with it and it really deserves all the success it's had.
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Seb Downie Producer, Guerrilla Games6 years ago
Really like that "Prison Yard" analogy. So simple, yet provides so much room for Design and mood.
I wonder if that was the brief or "X statement" to begin with or something that was realized after the case.
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James Berg Games User Researcher 6 years ago
Really liked this system (and *really* hated a few of the orcs), and even as a first-version of it, I think it played quite well. What I'm really looking forward to is where that kind of system is going to go next - I'm sure many games are going to put their own spin on it and build on it, which I think is going to be a really cool direction for gaming, possibly it's own sub-genre.
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