Authentic yet distinctive: How Middle-earth: Shadow of War came to mobile

Spanning worlds

Authentic yet distinctive: How Middle-earth: Shadow of War came to mobile

As mobile games have matured, so it’s become clear trying to synergetically combine their accessibility and scale with the extensive marketing generated by the next big console blockbuster makes little sense.

Few such mobile tie-ins have demonstrated critical acclaim, let alone commercial success, and, if noticed at all, have merely weakened the overall brand.

That’s why despite sharing a name with a big console release, mobile title Middle-earth: Shadow of War is very much its own game.

WB Games’ director of production Shelby Moledina says ensuring it was authentic to the franchise was a huge priority, just not the only one.

“We think there will be some people who play both [console and mobile games], but the markets are pretty different from each other,” she explains.

“So we created this game from the ground-up with the mobile player in mind.”

Nemesis to the core

The result is a real-time squad-based RPG that senior producer Jon Katz says gives players “a similar experience to the console game, without trying to recreate it”.

Aside from shared characters and the general Tolkien universe setting, there was one specific gameplay element that had to be integrated, however.

“The mobile-first implementation of the Nemesis system really is unique among mobile games today,” argues Moledina.

Perhaps the most characteristic element of the two console Middle-earth games - Shadow of Mordor (2014) and Shadow of War (2017) - the Nemesis system transforms enemies from cannon fodder into their own tactical layer.

We created this game from the ground-up with the mobile player in mind.
Shelby Moledina

In the context of the mobile game, this results in an experience that allows you to see each boss orc’s weakness, and once defeated, either kill or capture them.

In the case of the latter, you can level them up like your other characters. Your orc army can also complete its own missions, and you can even add one orc to fight alongside your four-person squad.

Indeed, so inherent is Nemesis to the franchise that according to Katz, it was the system’s initial design that precluded the development of a mobile game based on the original Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor game.

“A few ideas were explored… but at the time Mordor was being created, we were 100% focused on making sure the Nemesis system could work on console, before figuring out what its application to a mobile game could be,” he says.

Gaining intel on the enemy is a key element of the Nemesis system

The system’s importance is underlined that when talking about the different genres considered, he jokes, “I’d totally play a Nemesis-based match-3 game”.

Automatic for the people

As for keeping up-to-date with F2P mobile gaming trends, there were two early design decisions that underline why Shadow of War is a mobile-first experience. The most obvious is its portrait screen orientation.

“We wanted the pick-up-and-play aspect that portrait brings,” Katz explains.

Balancing that level of accessibility with the complexity required for long term retention and monetisation also saw the ability to autoplay missions provided from the get-go.

“The game is designed to have moments that require all your focus and attention, but some battles are more about farming resources,” Moledina adds.

“We wanted all players to be able to play at their own pace and desired intensity.”

I’d totally play a Nemesis-based match-3 game.
Jon Katz

The result is a game that one month on from launch has been a solid performer on the app stores, going into the top 100 grossing charts in markets such as France, Germany, the UK and the US, although falling away somewhat since.

Of course, WB Games, alongside development partner IUGO, has plenty more planned.

“In addition to regular content updates and new champions, we’re building out the social and competitive systems that will give you new ways to play with your champions and orcs, with and against other players,” Moledina says.

“I’ll just say - get ready to shout ‘you shall not pass’.”

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.