The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Fri 13th Jan 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Game Production Focus

13 January 2012, by Paul Hellard

Developed by Snowblind Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North is full of stunning visuals and offers new story elements to the Tolkien tome. The creation of this deeply loved and intricate movie brand into a video game was a titanic effort by a dedicated team of artists. The majestic color maps in the many levels in the game, together with the many characters, gave the Warner Brothers team a challenge to relish.


© New Line & © Saul Zaentz Company license to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.


There are many locations in The Lord of the Rings: War in the North that have never been visualized in any medium. This offered the art team a unique opportunity to explore uncharted territory within the universe of The Lord of the Rings. “Of course, it was very important that we not only stayed true to the lore, but also brought something new to the consumer,” explains Philip Straub, Art Director at Snowblind Studios on Lord of the Rings: War in the North. “To this end, the art team utilized a treasure trove of amazing references provided by the IP holders from the previous The Lord of the Rings films along with many other resources. In addition, we worked closely with resources across Warner Bros. in the development of the art assets throughout the production of the game to ensure we retained authenticity.”

When it comes to environment production design for the entertainment industry, Straub looks at the progression of the story and game play to understand how the visual beats can appropriately accentuate the consumer experience. “Typically,” he says, “the first stage of developing visual beats is to create a mood board or rough storyboard that takes into consideration a baseline story and enhance it with all the artistic tools available including color, light, value, composition, and shape language.” Phil Straub, winner of multiple awards for creations in book covers, film and game concepts, and his Utherworlds book, says it all comes down to viewing the environment as a character.


© New Line & © Saul Zaentz Company license to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.


Visual Beats:

Color: Specific color palettes were applied to the environments that have proven psychological impact on humans to accentuate a mood or feeling. For example, the color red is a very common tool used in visual development to symbolize evil. The core reason is that red hues are the color of blood, which humans relate to death, danger or peril. Applying these primal human responses to color can have an extremely powerful impact when combined with sound and movement.


Atmosphere and Weather: Atmosphere and weather are used heavily in The Lord of the Rings: War in the North to enhance the emotional experience or punctuate an important gameplay moment. Warner Bros used it quite extensively through the game to enhance mood and as part of the way to increase immersion. For example, in Barrow Downs there is fog that is essentially ambient life that moves throughout the landscape. Furthermore, there is a variety of levels that apply light pollution to create a sense of heat or thickness in the air.

Spatial Relationships: These were used within the environment to create a sense of claustrophobia. Conversely, a sense of scale and openness was applied by highlighting expansive vistas to contrast the feeling of containment. All this applied in the right order, with the right recipe, creates a visual experience that has tone and adds to the overall mood.

Shape Language: This was all taken one step further and specific shapes were defined in the environment to further enhance the emotive experience. So, for example sharp angles and twisted shapes were used in the trees that applied a visual metaphor of skeletal fingers reaching down on the player.

From here, the art team applied all of the above visual tools to then create visual targets that further supported the story and gameplay as it became more concrete. Visual targets are usually defined as 2D paintings that are used as references for the production team to match. “Once again, lighting, color and value are defined through highly detailed concept art that the whole team can understand, get excited about, and buy into,” describes Straub. “Once the visual targets are completed, each location then receives a style guide treatment that details out all the key visuals beats with clearly defined material definition, flora and fauna. Once approved, the style guide and visual targets are then printed out in large format for the whole team to see.”


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© New Line & © Saul Zaentz Company license to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.





The next step is to work with the team to ensure that the core of each levels visual language is realized while supporting game play and story beats. “We maintained style consistency and quality by implementing bi-weekly art critiques with the world team with a concentrated focus on evaluating the art,” explains Straub. “In every review, the style guides were pulled up and discussed to make sure that they mapped to the progress the team was making. In addition, the team had a larger cross-discipline review that involved all the key stakeholders in the production to ensure all of the group’s needs were being heard and addressed.”


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© New Line & © Saul Zaentz Company license to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.


As with every game development there are always unexpected surprises that come up during production. The key is to mitigate the potential issues as much as possible without hindering the natural iteration necessary to find the fun or the great visual moments in the game. “Somewhere around mid-production we realized that it would be a challenge for us to complete the necessary world art content to deliver the consumer experience we were looking for within the development time window. Our solution was to create sub groups (sometimes know as pods), based on the collective skill sets of the artists and pair them with a level designer (or two, depending on scope). This allowed us to create content at much faster clip while still retaining the high visual bar we’d set for the game,” says Straub.


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© New Line & © Saul Zaentz Company license to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.



The Lord of the Rings: War in the North was built on propriety internal tech built by the Snowblind team. Phil Straub tells me this is one of its greatest strengths is its rich artist-friendly toolset. A cinematic pipeline and supporting tool set was developed simultaneously with the game along with a conversation system. “This is no small feat,” adds Straub. “Additionally, there was a big push across all the art staff to implement ZBrush into both the environment and character pipeline. For many, ZBrush was a brand new tool, but the artists quickly got up to speed on how to implement it into the overall pipeline.”


When looking at creating characters for The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, the full gamut of artistic tools available, were applied to develop personality and visual variety. “With our player characters it was extremely important that we paid attention to silhouette, color palette, materials and the positive/negative shapes within the patterns of the costumes. The unique visual recipe we applied was chosen to enhance the iconic nature of the character and its behavior while allowing for the rich character customization required in RPG games.”

A unique color palette solution was applied to the dwarf, human, and elf. These color solutions allowed the player characters to be immediately recognizable and easily differentiated from each other in the game space, even from the player’s periphery vision. Next, this concept was taken further by creating an algorithm that increased the quality of the materials available in the character’s costumes over time. Essentially, the more the character levels up, the finer the materials in the costume. For example, the dwarf may start out with primarily low level fabrics and leathers with just a touch of metals, but as the game progresses the player has increased access to finer crafted metals and leathers as well as a greater variety in armor. “While some of these solutions are standard fair in RPG character development, what really sets this game apart is that of the nearly 1,000 possible costume variants they always look like they fit together,” explains Straub. “Simply put, this solution enabled us to avoid the typical ‘clown suit’ you see in other RPG character customization where inevitably pieces are mismatched.”

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© New Line & © Saul Zaentz Company license to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North has more than 45 enemy variants that the player will experience over the course of the game. Many of the traditional The Lord of the Rings baddies make an appearance, but the art team has also expanded the roster. “The icing on the cake here for consumers is that not only do they have rich character customization that always has a high quality look, but they can take different tracks in developing their character. The elf can be customized with skills that represent a warrior type or can take a mage track with visuals to support that,” says Straub.



Data management is always a tricky thing in game development. The average consumer has no idea about the amount of balancing the team goes through to find the data management ‘sweet spot’ that provides the best possible user experience. Everything is a compromise down to the bone on a character, the density of a texture, the amount of blends in an environment and the amount of post process that you can get away with to create an immersive and visceral visual experience. All balancing is a challenge most game teams go through - how many enemies can you have on the screen and how many are needed to support the optimal game play experience.

“Typically as the numbers go up, the intelligence and the variety of enemies, the consumer experience at any given time goes down,” says Straub. “So, you have to define priorities that are mapped to the consumer experience you’re shooting for. It’s about finding the right balance of allowing the art team to create industry competitive assets, supporting the amount of AI the gameplay demands, and balancing all of the other systems that need to be running in the background in a gameplay moment. Any developer will tell you this is not an easy task because every discipline wants what it believes it needs for their discipline focus to succeed.”




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