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How Mordor's Orcs came together as 'hideous snowflakes'

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When I first saw Shadow of Mordor, a few weeks before E3, I was immediately struck by the promise of the 'Nemesis System' which allows the player to build up stories and relationships with Orc enemies and the emerging Orc hierarchy.

At that time, the game seemed like a pretty slick Assassin's Creed-alike with a strong Middle-earth license. But this significant innovation offered the promise of my favorite story staple: revenge.

Four months on from the game's launch, it's clear that the Nemesis System is a key part of why Mordor was one of the best games of 2014, one that I am still playing. It helps that the game also released with a really smart combat system, a simple but effective upgrade tree, an interesting open world as well as some brilliant writing, voice-acting and animation.

On Gamasutra today, Monolith design director Michael de Plater offers up a post-mortem on the development of the game. He talks about how Nemesis really shaped the final Mordor. He says that it was one of the big successes of the project, but it also created a lot of problems which the team had to resolve, during the game's three-year construction.

Mordor

"There was no part of the team not strongly involved in the Nemesis System: writing and VO, AI, animation and facial animation, cameras, game design, UI and level design," he writes. "With all the pieces in place, Character Art did an amazing job realizing our Uruks as a rich set of unique and hideous snowflakes."

That last point is, I think, spot on. For fans of Mordor, it's clear that the variety and personality of the enemies in the game are a source of entertainment and amusement. During a period when I was heavily into playing the game during the evenings, my eight-year-old son was in the habit of asking me, each morning, "did you kill him yet?" He was talking about a particularly stubborn Orc, whose blood-smeared face bothered the boy. The Orc was in the habit of teasing me about my repeated failures to bump him off. When I finally silenced the Orc, my boy gave me a high-five.

This is the sort of stuff that game-makers love to hear. "As soon as the game launched, we began to see players creating and sharing their own videos and stories of their experience of the Nemesis System and how much they loved to hate their enemies," added de Plater.


But it's interesting that Nemesis gave Monolith a great deal of trouble. Monolith was working on its first open-world third-person adventure. The company had set Warner Bros. stablemate, the Batman Arkham series, as its benchmark. The team were working with new consoles and experimenting with a gameplay system that hadn't been tried before. "The Nemesis System started with a fairly simple idea of personal villains, then during pre-production, it went through quite a bit of feature creep which made it significantly more complex and took it further away from the core promise," he recalls.

"For example at one point we had multiple Uruk [Orc] Factions with separate bars for Morale and Discipline, each Captain influenced these Bars and their state determined the behavior of the Orcs in combat as well as emergent missions. At this point, their Hierarchy UI looked somewhat like a Christmas tree."

A rich set of unique and hideous snowflakes

The team refined the systems, down to their current level, and this process yielded the "Domination feature" which allows the player to recruit orcs and have them turn against one another.

Internal insecurities about the validity of the Nemesis system led the team to over-reach and create too much alternative content. "We had no clear benchmarks or data to demonstrate that it would work even once it was created. This insecurity about our core systems led us to direct a lot of effort to peripheral systems such as side activities and even some epic features like a climbable Great Beast that later got cut."

Although Shadow of Mordor stands on the shoulders of older games, it dared to try new things, like Nemesis, and to execute them in a way that resonates with players. I definitely get a bee in my bonnet about certain Orcs, and I won't rest until they are slain. This is great game design, and it's good to see Monolith opening up about its missteps as well as its triumphs. You can get more from de Plater in the full post-mortem.