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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 09:18 GMT
One game to rule them all?
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

JRR Tolkien, BBC
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is an enduring classic
Fireballs have given Jeff Anderson a lot of trouble.

Mr Anderson is the head of the Turbine game studio and is overseeing the monumental task of turning JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings into an online game.

He's aware that his company has taken on a huge responsibility in turning Tolkien's towering work of imagination into a digital playground for hordes of wannabe hobbits, dwarves and elves.

"It's a piece of literature for which the interest is just enormous," he told the BBC News website. "It's one of the most widely read books ever."

Mr Anderson counts himself among the fans and, like many of them, has always harboured a desire to walk in the same world as Frodo and the other members of the fellowship.

But he realises there is a big difference between simply depicting a world and turning it into something that is enjoyable to play - especially given the precedents set by other online games.

"The question is whether we try to remain true to Tolkien or try to make a great game," he said.

And this is where the fireballs come in.

Magic man

A Shire scene, Codemasters

Almost every other online and offline computer game set in a fantasy world comparable to Middle Earth lets players be a magic-user that can sling fireballs with devastating effect.

"Tolkien had very particular views on Middle Earth that did not include wizards throwing fireballs around," said Mr Anderson. "There are only five wizards in the world and [a player] cannot be one of them."

Solving that problem reveals the tensions inherent in turning the Lord of the Rings books, including appendices, into a game.

Turbine has got around the predicament by using other objects and artefacts to create the effects gamers expect - such as fireballs.

"We want the game-play effects of a magic system, but we do not have to call it that," said Mr Anderson.

"Magic in other systems is kind of 'because I said so'," said Mr Anderson, "but there are all kinds of ways to do buffs and debuffs."

For those not in the know, buffs and debuffs are the bonuses and penalties that using spells or suffering their effects have on characters.

"There are lots of other ways to debuff," he said. "If your boss comes into your office and screams at you, then you have been debuffed."

In Turbine's Middle Earth, a flask of oil and a rag lets users throw what is, in effect, a fireball.

A cave troll, Codemasters
Players will face some fearsome opponents in the game
"We have things going on that would seem to be magic-like to other people," he said.

Characters that can sling these fireballs are experts in what Turbine calls Lore - and that gives them access to many of the magic-like effects that actually employ mundane objects and substances.

Animal magic

Turbine faced equally tough choices when putting together the bestiary to populate the online world.

While some creatures and monsters are depicted in the Lord of the Rings books, there are nowhere near enough to populate the virtual Middle Earth that will eventually be about 50 million square metres in size.

"We flagged that as an issue early on," said Mr Anderson, "and the route we took is that just because JRR did not tell you about the millions of people in the world, it does not mean there were not millions of people in that world."

The developers combed the books for all the mentions of creatures and monsters in the books; to these they added other beasts that you might expect to find in wilderness areas; then they included all the varieties of goblins and orcs; and finally, they did some creative thinking about the foes that might exist, given that Tolkien wrote about such things as Balrogs, Barrow Wights and Neekerbreekers.

"When we finished this we had tonnes of things to draw from," said Mr Anderson, "more than 10,000 different monsters and non-player characters."

More than enough, he believes, to make the game interesting.

Orcs and bats, Codemasters
Orcs made many appearances in the virtual Middle Earth
Lord of the Rings Online is due to launch worldwide on 24 April. Initially players will only see a subset of this bestiary, as the opening sections of the game are set in the parts of Middle Earth depicted in the first book - from the Shire to the Council of Elrond.

Later, expansion packs will depict other areas such as Moria, Rohirrim and Minas Tirith.

Turbine could have built the whole world from the start, said Mr Anderson, but that would have produced a game that could be finished in 300 hours.

"The alternative is using chapters and revealing the setting over time," he said, "and that was the option we have gone with."

"We will be able to let players go into new exciting areas, such as Moria, which gives us enormous opportunities to reveal new ideas," he said.

The game is set in the Third Age when the Fellowship has set off on its epic journey, and as the game expands players will get a chance to help their characters cope with the changes convulsing Middle Earth.

That's something every Tolkien fan has had the desire to do, said Mr Anderson.

"I have always wanted to be in Middle Earth and be part of that but I've never before had the chance."

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