The Making of a Battle
The following is a Developer Diary released the day before Update 18: The Battle of Pelennor Fields was released.
There comes a day when every team must gird for battle. True, we’d done battles before, but never anything quite like this. This, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, was something apart. One for the history books. Lasting the entirety of a day—dawn to veritable dusk—it spanned reversals and triumphs, the rise and fall of kings, the revelation of hidden allies, and, for Lord of the Rings Online in particular, of half-forgotten foes.
As we scouted the land ahead, we pondered our stratagems. How about one massive instance? Too big. Too complicated. Epic Battles? Nah. The longer we considered, the clearer it became that the Battle of the Pelennor Fields could not be contained by any one single piece of content.
We gathered our musings and laid out what we knew. A rather grim list of who was fated to fall on the field battle was drawn up. Slides laying out every stage of the battle, blow by blow, were conjured by our senior loremaster, Chris Pierson. We debated how to show the black sails of the Corsair fleet from the hillock. We pondered how we might have the Rohirrim “sing as they slew.” We recollected Denethor, apart from the battle, in the Silent Street. Technology and assets from across the game were dragged out and appraised for their usefulness to the task at hand.
We mused and we pondered. We arranged and rearranged the pieces on the board. Epic Instances seemed a necessary element, but we didn’t like the idea of snapping you back to an unchanging starting point, nor did we love hours of uninterrupted instance play, all in a row. An instance cluster (maybe even a raid?) were awfully appealing, but there were narrative moments we didn’t want to house in those, either. There was much that clearly belonged in the Epic.
What mattered most began to emerge from the haze: to take you, the player, through the entire, hard-fought day of battle; to do so as seamlessly and immersively as our game would allow; and that the experience need not consist of one single form of gameplay. And from what mattered most, a strategy was formed.
Starting with the Ride of the Rohirrim, the player (that’s you) would traverse five key areas of the battle, each at a different stage of the day. Epic instances would by-and-large bridge these moments. An instance cluster would be called out at branch-off points where appropriate (as well as in the Instance Finder, of course). And in-between, we would render the raging battlefield from the soldier’s-eye-view, after a fashion never before seen in Lord of the Rings Online. And to do that, we were going to have to get creative. The kind of creative that meant assembling a team.
Cue the heist flick round-up montage and watch the rogue’s gallery assemble: art and design leads, world builder, tech art wizard, animators, music and audio geniuses, Epic and instance designers, QA, grumpy old loremaster. Engineers and systems designers on call for when the going got rough. We met for regular reviews—call them “war-councils” if you like—looking first at maps and then at roughed out in-game works-in-progress… and then, slowly but surely, the emerging semblance of the smoky, war-harried Pelennor we had dreamed and toiled to see. Solution by solution, review by review, task by task, a battlefield was made.
Rendering armies raging across such an open and level battlefield (without tanking performance) was our first big challenge. We had technology called Distant Battlefield Units (DBUs for short) that were created for Epic Battles, and also a decorative moving version that had been added for Pelargir. The thing about a DBU, however, is, well, let’s just say they look best from a distance. It was when we started thinking about how to effectively enclose those five key areas (which we called “hubs”) that we realized we could solve both problems at once. We dubbed the solution war-walls.
War-walls are pretty much exactly what they sound like: grouped thickets of battlefield combat that players can’t cross. Because they are simplified assets saved out as one giant animation block, they cost far less for performance than hand-placing soldiers, and they look much better than DBUs. Our first attempts were literal lined-up rows of soldiers. That didn’t look quite right, and after some iteration we settled on breaking them up into more organic melee patterns. When we realized that our tech would let full-fledged enemies charge out of the fray through those organic-styled war-walls, we knew we were in business. Put war-walls in front, DBUs behind, and boom, you’ve got an army.
“We already have an extensive list of animations for our characters. The issue was getting them on a rig with 12 soldiers in it. I created an animation clip library based on those old animations. Each clip was an attack, block, or idle animation which could be applied to any of the 12 fighters. This allowed us to animate the soldiers like actors.” – Evan Slaughter, Tech Artist
“Making (yet) another copy of Pelennor was the easy part, since we've done that a couple of times already.” – Charlie Clayton (Charlie_Work), World Designer
War-walling off these key locations, or hubs, afforded us a number of other advantages. We could set the time of day, weather, and sky separately for each one. We could set population caps (with dynamic layering), too, another important performance-saving measure.
It was a little farther on before it occurred to us that we could show a different world map for each location, as well, and this opened up a whole new mission to find the best use for location maps. We knew we wanted to show a general’s-eye-view of the battle. Loremaster Pierson tallied troop numbers and we decided to represent those in icons over the terrain. But something was still missing. Where was everyone going? Who was winning and losing? Many discussions and more than a few delves into actual historical battle-maps yielded the final result.
“The various hubs provided the perfect opportunity to include troop movement and to help clarify the narrative of the chaotic battle content. Our goal was that players really feel like they're part of events as they unfold and that the maps support that.” – Tod Demelle, Art Director
Another major question was, point for point, what type of content would be featured in each step of the battle. The most signature moments simply had to be handled with Epic cinematic sequences, including the initial charge of the Rohirrim onto the field and a certain encounter between King Theoden, the Witch-king, and one Dernhelm. There were also some old story threads for the Grey Company that we wanted to wrap up this way. At first, we were going to devote the instance cluster solely to the true moments of pitched battle. Blood of the Black Serpent captures Theoden slaying the King of Harad and Quays of the Harlond lets you join Aragorn as he takes to the field. But then we (once again) remembered the Silent Street and began thinking about what a great space it was for an instance—and what stories we might be able to weave around the scene with Denethor and Faramir.
When at last we felt confident that we could add a raid for Update 18.2, we resolved to lay the groundwork with a solo version, tied to the Epic, and eventually named it The Foe Resurgent. I’ll stay mum about the raid for now; let’s call that the fog of war. As with Osgiliath, we’ve wrapped the instance cluster in a quest chain and garlanded it with befitting loot (more on this from Edgecase in a separate diary).
“In addition to showing Aragorn’s arrival, we wanted to look further into the repercussions for the Corsairs not showing up to the battle. We asked the questions: Who would be held accountable for these missing troupes? Who would seek revenge?” –Tim Dwyer, Content Designer
“The Silent Street is unique in that of all the spaces in the Update 18 cluster, it was the only one that wasn’t originally part of our plans. After a passionate pitch by MadeofLions, we felt strongly about bringing the space to life and building a story around Denethor’s final moments in the House of the Stewards.” – Ryan Penk, Content Designer
Blood of the Black Serpent
Early in the battle, join Theoden and Éored against the King of Harad. Mounted combat optional!
Quays of the Harlond
Fly to join Aragorn as he and his force cross the Harlond and surge onto the Pelennor.
The Silent Street
Follow the others into the Silent Street and find that Denethor and Gandalf are not the only ones vying in that space.
As I mentioned, we didn’t want the entire experience to be instance after (different kind of) instance. So we resolved to weave landscape moments into the Epic, offering sometimes brief and sometimes longer respites, where you can simply spend some time in the midst of the raging battle, taking it at your chosen pace.
Location to location, hour to hour, on landscape and in instance, solo and in fellowship: out of these the Battle of the Pelennor Fields would be made.
Our regular “war-council” reviews were vital to seeing the vision become reality, and nowhere were they more useful than in our key cinematic sequences. Cinematics have a lot of moving parts. On top of the usual in-game wiring there are cameras, custom art, animations, and audio—all of which need to be combined as they are finished. And every time one of element gets plugged in or edited, everything else shifts and needs to be re-appraised. After a few meetings, the complexity of a couple of the most key cinematics became apparent and we realized we were going to need a new approach. Rather than simply assembling everything at the end, we needed to get in early and block out the moments. It took some extra work, not to mention the risk of an unfamiliar process, but in the end it was well worth the effort and time. While the rest of the Epic came together our tech art wizard, Evan Slaughter, had locations and hooks to begin work on things like the charging Rohirrim and Theoden and the Witch-king. As a result, we could see far earlier, in our review meetings, what needed to happen to get where we wanted to go.
“It wasn’t easy showing these super-early preliminary instances at reviews, and it was often embarrassing (‘Eventually this thing will land here. Trust me! Oh, ignore his T-pose, eventually he’ll fall down. Ignore that text, that’s placeholder. That too. Oh, that’s not a Breeland Male, that’s…’).” – Jeff Libby, Epic Content Designer
Elsewhere, it was a matter of planting seeds and tending them as they grew. Early on, we somehow convinced Professor Michael Drout, a Tolkien Scholar and friend of LOTRO, to try his hand at verse for what the Rohirrim sang as they charged into battle… in Rohirric. And because we were fortunate enough to continue collaborating with composer Matthew Harwood, we were able to turn the thorn-and-eth-riddled poem into a glorious choral intro to the Pelennor Battlefield. In fact, thanks to the fact that we had separated the Pelennor into various key locations, we were able custom fit music to each. I can’t overstate what a victory this is: sky, music, weather, map, and landscape scenery all come together to conjure a specific time and place.
No endeavor this size comes with total certainty, and our crack team labored with fingers crossed, hoping our vision would come out as we had planned. Backdrops and decorations were tinkered with; performance was vigilantly watched; balance knobs were tuned and tuned again. Starting locations were shifted, banners raised, and debris rearranged.
The dust settled. The great battle is done. So don your armor and gather your arms. Now comes your turn to join with the Rohirrim and charge into the fray.