Shadow of Mordor surprised everyone with its unique features like the oft-praised “nemesis system“. The game’s novelty and ambition meant that it couldn’t accomplish everything it set out to though. Developer Monolith opened up this week about some things that were left on the cutting room floor.
Writing in a development postmortem for Gamasutra, Monolith design director Michael de Plater detailed how Mordor’s excellent nemesis system changed over the course of the three years it took to make the game. While the final product remained intriguing and complex thanks to the way it generated incredibly smart, relatable, and personalised bad guys, he makes it sound like the thing could’ve been even more so:
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.
For example at one point we had multiple Uruk Factions with separate bars for Morale and Discipline, each Captain influenced these Bars and their state determined the behaviour of the Orcs in combat as well as emergent missions. At this point, their Hierarchy UI looked somewhat like a Christmas tree.
Mordor eventually scrapped the idea for having multiple warring orc and uruk fiefdoms. Though the infrastructure in the game’s world is still remarkably vibrant thanks to the dynamic antagonism that all of Mordor’s gross denizens bring to the table, the thought of having those same monsters coalesce around discrete “factions” sounds like it would have been amazing. He doesn’t go into too much detail, but the image in my head looks something like the gang system from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where different parts of the city were controlled by vying groups that game’s protagonist could fight and even play against one another.
Other than a brief aside about getting overly ambitious, de Plater didn’t explain why Monolith ended up changing things, exactly. But the developers ended up moving towards an individualised system for its orc and uruk nemeses:
Then as we play tested and refined the gameplay, we progressively returned to something closer to the original focus, but with some key improvements based on the systems we had created under the hood. Having said that, some strong features did come out of the exploration, in particular the Domination feature and the ability to create your own followers and directly control how the Uruks turn against each other.
Sigh. Maybe they will bring it into a sequel, someday? In either case, he ends with an interesting final note about Mordor’s magically-powered interrogation system:
This was an improvement and evolution over the original vision which was closer to Sam and Frodo’s experience in Cirith Ungol, where interrogation did not have any magical properties and you were turning your enemies against each other. The final game is closer to the idea of the power of the One Ring where you are directly controlling your Enemies.
Huh. I hadn’t thought of Talion and his spirit elf-friend Celebrimbor’s magical abilities being anything like the ones bestowed upon those wearing the ring. Cool thought.
Since Mordor was Monolith’s first open-world, third-person action game, de Plater admitted that the developers suffered from a lack of “clear benchmarks or data to demonstrate that [core features like the nemesis system] 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,” he added.
Lord of The Rings nerds will remind you that “great beasts” are those gigantic siege engine-type critters that Sauron’s army used when trying to capture the city of Gondor. Having those things in the game sounds spectacular in theory. But given how poorly Monolith handled adding just two additional monsters (both of whom are much smaller than great beasts) to its game with the disappointing “Lord of the Hunt” DLC, it’s probably a good thing they left those out.
Monolith has been incredibly tight-lipped about the intricacies of Mordor’s nemesis system — even forcefully so when the marketing operations for the game required YouTubers to enter into contracts saying they would “promote positive sentiment about the game”. Or, far more often, they were just curiously silent about the thing, like when they only responded to my questions about players’ orc-killing problems after weeks of repeated inquiry by saying they hadn’t been able to replicate them. The developer’s postmortem continues this trend, for the most part. But de Plater does make one interesting comment about his studio’s “communication problems” towards the end of his piece:
Throughout development, we didn’t do a great job of communicating the promise of the Nemesis System, either internally or externally. This created an additional burden of explanation each time we demoed or pitched the game and made the game feel more systemic and mechanical than we wanted.
Players and reviewers ultimately did a much better job of expressing their own user stories than we had, and this was the tipping point when people really “got it”. This taught us the power of giving players the tools to share their experiences and stories with each other and how meaningful those stories can be. This led us to prioritise the development of Photo Mode feature that we added after release in order to support player expression.
It’s nice to see that they’re at least owning up to some of the undue “burden of explanation” they placed on themselves, though I’m not convinced that leaving things up to players to figure out for themselves was a perfect solution. Regardless of how Monolith chooses to handle the future of Shadow of Mordor, communication is a crucial factor that the developer will have to keep in mind — both in terms of listening to their fans and explaining stuff to them in clear terms. The game proved too successful for them not to.