Turbine builds the buzz for 'Middle-Earth Online' New Zealand Herald August 23, 2004

Turbine builds the buzz for 'Middle-earth Online'

The people crammed into a meeting room at the Providence Convention Center were contemplating a long visit to an exotic land. They wanted to know about the shape of the mountains and what the weather would be like. They asked if the natives would be approachable.

One man wanted to know whether he could burn things down. "I admit it," he said, "I'm a pyro."

He and the others were asking about "Middle-Earth Online."

This virtual world being created by Turbine Entertainment Software of Westwood, Massachusetts, is not yet ready for tourists.

Once it is completed, tens of thousands of PC owners will be able to create their own characters and step into a land of hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, and dwarfs, most of them controlled by other computer owners who want to spend time in the universe created by J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. They'll be able to explore, fight, make alliances and perhaps even look for treasure.

"Middle-Earth Online," or MEO (pronounced MEE-oh), was slated for release in November. But Turbine, best known for its Asheron's Call multiplayer online games, has pushed the date back to the fall (northern hemisphere autumn) of 2005, convinced that it can use the extra time to turn what is already a good game into a great one, according to spokesman Jason Wonacott.

(Coincidentally, the release also won't conflict with "Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth," a real-time strategy game from Electronic Arts, that is scheduled to be on the shelves in November.)

Turbine set aside time during its August convention to build some buzz for "Middle-Earth Online" and get some reaction to initial artwork from potential customers.

"I'm so excited, I want to be part of the beta soooo bad," said Jenn "I'm disgustingly obsessed" Cortright, who trekked 185 miles from Ridgewood, New Jersey, just to hear about the game. The 17-year-old wants to be a "beta" tester, one of the privileged few who get to try it out, looking for bugs, before it goes into full distribution.

The seminars only whet her appetite.

Creating a game with so many participants in a world beloved by so many people is a challenge.

"It's difficult because of the expectations people have," said Todd DeMelle, lead production artist on the game. "It becomes a tremendous responsibility to do it justice."

The various races of Middle-earth won't look exactly like the creatures in the three blockbuster films. Turbine artists are trying to follow their own vision of Tolkien's work.

"A lot of it comes from clearing your mind of what the movies are, which is not the easiest thing to do," said Art Director Chris Clay. "Gandalf can only look so many ways. We will have something similar that's true to the book."

One of the biggest tasks is making each player - or the team they eventually join - feel important as the stories and story arcs unfold.

Fortunately, Tolkien referred in his books to many things that he never developed. That alone could be fodder for plenty of storylines.

"There's a lot of effort going into making things feel alive and real in a place you would want to visit." said lead designer Mathew Imregi. "You won't be picking up the bread crumbs of the Fellowship" of heroes in the "Lord of the Rings" saga.

Two of the initial levels of the game, unveiled at the conference, involve a storyline that doesn't give players a lot of flexibility. They're mainly designed as a tutorial on how to move, talk and act.

But then, as with other massive multiplayer online games, participants will have to form groups to succeed in their journeys of exploration, stealth and attack.

"It's not just killing monsters. It's not just talking to people," said Chris Foster, lead quest designer, as he took people through a virtual tour of the village of Archet. There will be puzzles, locks to get past, and quests that connect to create a larger story.

"We really have the potential for the types of stories Tolkien would have wanted," he said.

Middle-earth is still evolving.

At the conference, one person complained that the mountains didn't seem rugged enough (the team says they're working on that). Another wanted to know if there will be day and night effects (there will be), and a third wanted to know if the snow will accumulate.

"That sounds cool. I'll have to think about that one," said Clay, as one fan wondered if accumulating snow might bury the dwarfs.

After a tutorial on all the intricate steps required to create and animate an Elfin ship, the self-professed pyromaniac wanted to know if this would be the first game that not only has fire, but lets objects be consumed by it.

"You won't be burning down a town," Clay said. "But in some situations, you can use fire."

But Michelle Sullivan, a production artist and world builder, warned: "You're not allowed to set our art on fire."

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