Riding high off the success of Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, Capital Games is back at it again – this time tackling The Lord of the Rings franchise. The EA-owned game development studio has adapted the whimsical world of J. R. R. Tolkien into a mobile RPG title, and arguably done it successfully.
In fact, Heroes of Middle-earth is the very first character collection RPG game to be made using The Lord of the Rings IP. The game draws from the original three books, as well as The Hobbit.
In a nutshell, the plot starts with a ring of power that has been rediscovered, granting visions and influence across different timelines. A shadowy figure in these timelines works to corrupt the various stories of Middle-earth. The player’s goal in the game is to heal the corruption that has taken place.
I had the chance to chat with EA’s Jay Ambrosini, who is the design director for the game. Ambrosini emphasizes the studio’s launch goal of celebrating The Lord of the Rings IP “for what it is.”
What this means, according to Ambrosini, is staying true to the source material. He describes the effort as “trying to give that Tolkien kind of twist to what’s going on.” For a franchise as beloved as The Lord of the Rings, it’s a tricky balance between introducing novel concepts without deviating too far from the author’s original vision.
In order to remain faithful to the source material, it was critical for the development team to put constraints around its plans. “The beautiful thing about having Tolkien’s narrative and the stuff with that is that we can use what the text is saying in order to give us that box to start working from,” Ambrosini says.
So, how has Capital Games attempted to capture the spirit of Middle-earth, while also giving fans of the franchise something new to chew on? The answer comes in the form of the game’s “what/if” scenario system.
At the core of all of it is player agency. There are multiple timelines and considerations to consider, giving players the ability to craft unique threads of gameplay. The development team says it wants to tell interesting stories and pit together existing characters for the first time. For the player, it comes down to “if I put this character on my team, what will happen?”
The team at Capital Games is working closely with Middle-earth Enterprises to best reflect the franchise lore. The development team describes it as a desire to “feel authentic, and not perpendicular to what fans would expect from The Lord of the Rings.”
The game has also been crafted with accessibility in mind, according to Ambrosini. Besides the desire to make the game enjoyable for existing fans, he says newcomers to the franchise will have no problem jumping in.
“We want Lord of the Rings fans to come in and play the game, to have a great time. We also want non-Lord of the Rings fans to come in and play the game, but then as they start getting into the game, be able to go back and be like ‘oh, I’ve never read these books before.’ So yeah, we can really give back to the community in that way,” he says.
Prior to its release, Heroes of Middle-earth was soft-launched in certain markets such as Brazil. Besides the obvious bug fixing that took place, the development team was able to take in feedback from gamers on things they liked and disliked about the experience.
“From that feedback, we’ve been able to update our art style,” says Ambrosini. He says the input is important to help the team develop a game that’s exciting to players and can include what they’re looking for in the game.
In my own limited time with the new title, my impressions have been positive so far. I’m not far enough along to get a sense of the “really epic stories” the studio says it’s trying to tell, but what I can say is that the opening does a decent job of setting the stage without falling into the trap of overdoing the tutorial.
Ambrosini says there’s an influence that the studio’s work on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes has brought along. “We love how well it’s reached players and really brought Star Wars to many, many people and let them live inside of that world. We want to do the exact same thing for Lord of the Rings.”
While the game may have launched, the folks at Capital Games are far from done with the project. The plan is to gradually roll out new content. “Every few months there’s going to be new features, new gameplay, new adventures, new content we’re constantly building and going to be releasing,” says Ambrosini.
The studio says there are three major additions on the way after launch. These include “storybook raids” that will advance the experience like chapters in a book, new character customization and a new squad player-versus-player experience.
While the game itself is free-to-play, it will, of course, be monetized. Capital Games says that monetization is not required to access content, and a core principle of the team is to “ensure players of all kinds of preferences can access the content put into the game.” As time progresses, we’ll get a better sense of how deeply microtransactions are incorporated, and whether they become an overbearing force.
Heroes of Middle-earth is available now for download on both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.
Image credit: EA