I had the chance this week to hop on the phone (along with several other reporters) to chat with Monolith Productions' Scott Compton and Ruth Tomandl, designer and producer, respectively, on Guardians of Middle-earth. The upcoming Lord of the Rings game marries Tolkien's expansive lore with a genre that, until now, has seen little play outside of PC gaming: the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA.

(I already wrote an entire list of reasons why this is a great idea, so read that if you're unsure about the wisdom of pairing DOTA or League of Legends with Galadriel, Gandalf and Gollum.)

The topic of the day was Guardians of Middle-earth's class and character system. The game features 20 characters from Lord of the Rings, including Gandalf, Galadriel, Gollum, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Sauron, as well as lesser-knowns like "Ugluk the Uruk-Hai" and "Gothmog, lieutenant of Minas Morgul."

These "Guardians" come in five flavors: Enchanters, Defenders, Warriors, Strikers, and Tacticians. Enchanters like Gandalf have lower health and basic attack resistance, but stand up well to other Guardians' abilities and deal lots of damage with their own. Defenders, like Galadriel, have high survivability and are designed to support their teammates. Warriors (Ugluk, for example) are balanced between defense and offense, and can be played in a variety of ways.

Strikers, like Gollum and Legolas, have low health and resistances, but deal high damage with standard attacks. And finally, Tacticians like Gothmog have decent survivability and focus on controlling the battlefield in a variety of ways.

On top of all that, each character has a set of four unique abilities and can be outfitted with consumable items and unique "gem" and "relic" loadouts. As you can imagine, Compton and Tomandl had plenty to say about it all. Read on for a selection of questions from myself and my colleagues and excerpts from the duo's answers.


What was the character selection process like for you? What made certain minor characters stand out more than others?

Compton: Yeah, I mean, from the design angle, since obviously I'm really internal with all the design and the design call-outs, we looked initially at what kits we wanted to create for balance across all the classes. But then we also looked at—and knowing just our familiarity with the particular characters—we just, it was so natural to say "Oh my gosh, Ugluk would fit this role perfectly with a particular kind of kit we wanted to design with that particular—knowing, like, we wanted to have this guy fulfill a role. What guy would fulfill it? And then, you know, five or six different characters from the lore pop into your mind and you go okay, of these five let's narrow it down to like maybe be one or two, and then that guy just fit that particular design. So from the design angle we already knew up front that we wanted to fulfill certain roles that players could take on, but with the vast amount of Middle-earth lore that exists we could just pull from across the board.

Tomandl: Yeah, a lot of the team was looking at a particular character from the lore and thinking, you know, thinking "Is it really relevant to what people want? Oh yeah, that guy would totally play that way." Like, Legolas is a great example of you know, everyone knows exactly how Legolas would play in the game, and once you tell them, you know, he's a ranged striker, and he's very much about, like, single target, high damage, and it really makes sense to people intuitively. There were a couple characters from the lore that really didn't jump out that way, and it wasn't sort of as obvious to us what class they had, and we kind of just stayed away from characters that didn't really, you know, kind of speak to the game as well. We tried to just collect characters that really do sort of fit an obvious role in the game that people are going to really recognize.

How much did you delve into Lord of the Rings mythology for aspects like characters' abilities and other details? For example, Gollum has an ability called "my precious."

Tomandl: We definitely tried, like, anywhere that we could evoke kind of the personality of the character in either the name of the ability, or what it looks like, or what it does, we definitely went that route. So yeah, for Gollum's abilities, we tried to sort of name them all after things that happened to him in the books or things that he said. For pretty much all the characters we tried to do that, just because, you know, we think it's fun, and we, you know, we're big fans ourselves. And also it just really kind of ties it back, and again it really kind of reminds the player of how they should think of the character.

So for example with Galadriel, you know, her ring is named Nenya. And so she has an ability called Waters of Nenya…and we wanted to kind of bring it all back together to like, what is it about Galadriel that makes her interesting to play? What is it about her character in the books that you know…people aren't super familiar with, but that will kind of, you know, augment how people already feel about her character. So we know that she's very strong, she's very powerful, she's more of a sort of support character in the books. She doesn't actively necessarily go out and you know, kill Orcs herself. But she, you know, helps other people through her advice and knowledge to be able to do it. So you know, she's much more of a support class in the game, but she's also very helpful, she's very difficult to, you know, to get down, and again, like, all the names of her abilities we tried to really tie them back into kind of her history and what happened to her.


Were there a lot of restrictions that came from working with the Lord of the Rings property?

Tomandl: Any time you're working with an existing IP, there are restrictions, because, you know, obviously the owners of that IP really want to make sure that it stays respected, and, you know, they're always concerned that what we do with it is what they want us to do with their IP. But I think that our goals have been similar. I mean, you know, we are huge fans. We definitely respect the lore. And we want to make sure that, you know, the game really feels authentic. And that's what the license holders want as well. So I think that it's actually been beneficial to us to have them there kind of pointing out things that they don't feel are authentic, because it, you know, just helps us make it more authentic, which is what we want to do.

You've mentioned before that the classes will be complimentary to one another, and players will really need to work together to succeed. How will the game facilitate that? Will it be easy to form and maintain parties?

Tomandl: Yeah, we have a system that uses the first-party invite system on both Xbox and PSN so that you can create a party in the game up to five—really up to ten, if you want to create a custom game with all of your friends—but normally up to five…and yeah, you can play a string of games as long as you want with those groups of people. Or a smaller party if you want. And then the party goes into matchmaking like a single player would.

What about clan support or anything like that?

Tomandl: We're not announcing any clan support right now.

It sounds like a lot of time has been spent ensuring that all the classes, abilities and items are extremely well-balanced. Within that ecosystem, would it be possible to add DLC in the future?

Tomandl: It's certainly possible to do. Yeah. And the other thing we have is—so not only could we add characters, we could also balance the game on the fly. So we've got a system where we can balance any existing stats within the game, so if it turns out that, you know, Galadriel's completely overpowered because her health is too high, we could adjust that after the game ships kind of in reaction to the data that we collect on the back end or you know, players are just in an uproar over how awful Galadriel is.

Compton: Yeah. I mean, from the design angle we have so many knobs that obviously can be turned. We're tracking every single knob on every single Guardian extensively…the designers go through giant passes even three times a week with our QA [Quality Assurance] balance team to really, like, pull in everything to make sure everything is really tuned nice and solidly. That's been an ongoing process for over a year.

Tomandl: Yeah, and anything that we would release as DLC would go through that same process to make sure it's balanced against anything that's already out, and, you know, each other, and that we could also tune those guys after they shipped as well.


Are there any more obscure Guardians like Ugluk and Gothmog, who aren't central LotR characters, that you've talked about or can announce?

Tomandl: We will be announcing more in the future. I'm trying to think of anyone that we have already announced that's kind of obscure. I think we've mostly announced Guardians that people are pretty familiar with…but we'll definitely be announcing more coming up, both pretty well-known and pretty obscure.

You mentioned accolades before—challenges with in-game rewards—has a lot of thought been given to how these will affect gameplay?

Compton: I think I can answer part of this. So the different rewards you get for the challenges and accolades are a little more like the staple, more expected items that players can still buy [with in-game currency] ahead of time, but the rewards there are very more in the realm of the standard, that you would expect to get, where you're actually going to be buying with the currency more of the specialized, more exotic, more interesting items on that front. So it doesn't really—totally for the concern you brought up of the meta game balancing, we pretty much alleviated that because of what we allow you to actually access with the challenges and accolades.

Tomandl: And the rewards…are rewarded after the match, not during the match, so I don't think it'll affect the match itself. And the challenges are—so each Guardian has their own ten challenges. So the challenges are kind of based on that play style expected from that Guardian…Galadriel's not going to have a challenge that's, you know, kill three Guardians or you know, like, Galadriel's not going to have a challenge that would make her play badly or encourage her to play badly. The only thing I can say is that some characters do have challenges for them to kill a specific other character. So I think, like, well this isn't a real challenge, for example, Ugluk might have a challenge to kill Galadriel ten times. Which could affect the gameplay, because then Ugluk would be going after Galadriel whereas you know in a normal game without that challenge he might not be. But I don't think—I think that challenges have been examined so that they won't be detrimental. They'll be more additive, if that makes sense.

Can you explain the loadout system? What are gems and relics, how do you get them, etc.?

Compton: Yeah, sure. So what gems are are they are passive bonuses or benefits to your Guardian. You can have up to seven gems loaded out into what we call a gem belt and when you augment—when you actually place in different types of gems into your belt, depending on your relics that you have, it'll allow the relics to be active if you have the gems slotted into those spaces, that would activate that particular relic. So for example, let's say you have a relic that gives you healing regeneration. You might need two green gems and a blue gem, for instance, to power that regeneration relic on.

There's a slight unlocking system that happens based on match level. So at every second level in the game (so at level two, four six, eight, ten), a gem actually unlocks for you automatically when you reach that level. So right when you start the game at level one, you have no gems active and have no relics active. When you reach level two, you have one gem active. Then like if you reach level four, and let's say you have a two-slot relic, at level four that relic would be active along with those two gems.

Tomandl: The way you earn them is with currency that you earn in the game from completing matches.

Thanks very much Scott and Ruth! Do you have any more questions about the game? Do you think LotR and MOBA gameplay are going to make for a good pairing? Tell us in the comments or on Twitter.