With only hours separating us from the debut of The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria on PC (the PlayStation 5 version has suffered a last-minute delay to December 5th, while the Xbox Series S|X version won’t land until early next year), we’ve got an exclusive interview with Game Director Jon-Paul Dumont to keep you busy until then.
In case you haven’t heard of it before, The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is the first game adaptation of the immensely popular fantasy IP set in the Fourth Age, after the end of the War of the Ring. It’s also the first to be a survival crafting game and the first to be focused entirely on Dwarves.
The premise is rather simple: popular character Gimli (voiced by John Rhys-Davies like in the movies), now Lord of the Glittering Caves, is done with waiting for Durin the Deathless and gathers Dwarves from all over Middle-earth to conquer the long-lost kingdom of Khazad-dûm, more commonly known as Moria. Players will create their Dwarf and make their way through a procedurally generated (for the most part) Moria while rebuilding and restoring the ancient Dwarven glory, crafting Dwarven armor and weapons, and fighting goblins, orcs, and the like. The game supports co-op for up to eight players.
In the interview, Jon-Paul Dumont talks about the history of the development studio called Free Range Games, the game’s best features (he says the combat is the best in the survival genre), and goes over a bit of the post-launch roadmap such as crossplay and support for shared worlds.
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is available through the Epic Games Store.
Free Range Games isn’t well-known to most gamers. Can you talk about your studio? How big is it, and why did you pick this project for your first high-profile full development endeavor?
Free Range Games as we know it started back in 2009 with a small crew of former Shaba Games members, an Activision company behind some of the beloved Spider-Man and Tony Hawk IPs. In the early years, the company was mostly a work-for-hire studio with a couple of mobile games under our belt. As we grew, we developed some VR titles for the HTC Vive and Meta Quest and even self-published some games such as JENGA AR and Spelldrifter.
As a company, we set out to challenge the status quo and make games that are at their core fun, meaningful, and memorable. We reject the traditional hierarchy that you might see at some bigger companies, which we believe fosters a much more open and creative environment. While The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria may be Free Range Games’ biggest release to date, we are a team of skilled professionals with diverse backgrounds in the gaming industry. The Return to Moria team was the largest team our company had ever put together, and our goal is to deliver a compelling and authentic experience that both fans of the genre and fans of The Lord of the Rings will enjoy.
How long have you been working on Return to Moria?
The initial idea is about three years old. Myself and a smaller group started working on it around then.
Would you describe the game as a triple-A project?
No. Free Range Games is, at its core, an indie studio. Our team has a lot of experienced developers with AAA backgrounds, so our taste level is close to that. But this game was never intended to be done at that level of high cost and high scope. When you spend that much money and time on a game, it gets really hard to take risks or focus on what the team is passionate about. So, we are balancing an indie mindset with a high-quality bar. We think we landed on that balance with Return to Moria. It’s also reflected in the game’s pricing at $39.99, which we feel delivers an incredible value while not charging the full AAA premium price.
What is an average player’s split between base building, crafting, and exploring in your game?
It really varies. We built a loop of “go out and adventure” and then “come back home.” The game has something for every type of player, and each player moves through the game differently. We really saw this exemplified in our Closed Beta. Each player had completely different experiences in the game. On one end of the spectrum, players would speed run through and take in all of the sights, while on the other, some would spend hours meticulously cleaning up and rebuilding just one small area in the game. It’s a great game for both veteran survival-crafting fans and gamers who want to dip their toe in the genre and try something new.
How much focus did you place on combat? Can you discuss the combat system mechanics?
We think we have the best third-person melee combat in the survival genre. Of course, to skilled Soulslike or action adventure players, it will feel lighter than they are used to. Combat is just one of the pillars of the game.
Mechanics-wise, as I mentioned, it’s third-person melee. You have one or two-handed weapons, the ability to equip a shield, dodge, block, roll, and target lock. Each biome’s enemies are harder and have different weaknesses. The player goes through the exploration, crafting, and building mechanics to get geared up for that challenge.
Are there going to be many boss fights?
Moria has been abandoned for quite some time, and there are plenty of dangerous bosses waiting in its depths. There may be a few that come as a surprise to fans, and we are really excited for people to find them.
How much bespoke content would you say is available at launch? Is there a main storyline to complete, and if so, how long is it going to take?
The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria is a procedurally generated game with a few scripted events you will encounter. There’s a lot of lore and things to discover along the way. As we stated, each player goes at different paces depending on their focus in the game. We suspect the game will take about 40-60 hours for players to complete.
Will there be any puzzles in Return to Moria?
There are a few collection and exploration challenges, but we’re saving more complex environment puzzles and riddles for upcoming updates.
Gameplay-wise, what’s going to set your game apart from the others in its genre?
First, it’s the Dwarves. Every mechanic has a strong sense of theme to it. For example, there aren’t potions, there is ale. You don’t pick up new, powerful items; you craft them.
Second is the sense of narrative and direction. It wouldn’t be The Lord of the Rings without an adventure to go on. Each section of the game is its own sandbox, and the whole thing goes full sandbox when you finish the adventure.
Third, the singing. 🙂
Are you planning to change anything specific for the full release based on beta feedback?
Yes, Closed Beta was great. It helped us validate some concerns we had and find a lot of bugs to fix. We are adding more quality of life to managing storage and picking items up. We are also fine-tuning the resources that drop and the cost of things. Many players had to make whole new bases just to warehouse their wood and scrap metal drops, and that didn’t sound that fun to us. So we are going to improve that.
In terms of post-launch content and features, what would you like to introduce to The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria?
We have a year planned and a year’s worth of ideas. Some big technical updates like releasing an Xbox version, crossplay, and shared world saves are on our roadmap. Some are features we didn’t get to; some are new adventures to go on that advance the story. Nothing we can detail at the moment.
I’ve read the online infrastructure is based on peer-to-peer. Is there any chance for dedicated server support at some point?
Support for shared worlds is on our roadmap for next year.
Why does the PlayStation 5 version lack 8-player support? Could that be expanded later?
We are continuing to work on the game beyond release on all platforms and hope to expand the number of players on PS5 in the future.
Does Return to Moria support NVIDIA DLSS, AMD FSR, and Intel XeSS on PC? What about DLSS 3/FSR 3 for Frame Generation?
The game will support both NVIDIA DLSS 2 (Super Resolution) and AMD FSR2.
Thank you for your time.