Thursday, 17 May 2012

Who else could have made a SONG OF ICE AND FIRE computer game?

With the second Song of Ice and Fire computer game - A Game of Thrones: The Roleplaying Game - now out in the States and getting somewhat mediocre reviews, there seems to be a growing consensus that Cyanide were perhaps not the best company to develop a game based on the series. One of the most common comments has been that a bigger company should have tackled the project, with Bethesda (makers of the Elder Scrolls fantasy RPG series) and BioWare (the makers of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series) frequently cited. However, what a lot of people don't know is that both of these companies, and others, have considered exactly such a project in the past.

Bethesda Softworks

Some time between the completion of their fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion (published in 2006) and starting work on the fifth, Skyrim (2011), probably whilst they were still working on Fallout 3 (2008), Bethesda were approached by George R.R. Martin's agent as he believed they were a 'good fit' for the Song of Ice and Fire series. Todd Howard, the head of Bethesda Studios, agreed but also knew they were extremely busy between two different franchises, with games in each franchise taking between 3 and 5 years to develop individually. With their online off-shoot (Zenimax Online Entertaiment) working in secret on The Elder Scrolls Online, there was no capacity at the company to embark on such a big project, and they (regretfully) passed.
"With A Song of Ice and Fire, we went ‘We want to do that!’ People in our studio liked it, and it seeped in a bit to what we were doing. We were actually asked a while ago to turn those books into games. We wanted to do our own world. That’s where we wanted to put out time into. Before we were even making Skyrim, there was a conversation with George R.R. Martin’s people. They thought it would be a good match—and so did we, actually—but then we thought about if that was where we wanted to spend our time. It was tempting, though."


Unlike Bethesda, these ideas never made it to any kind of formal discussion with GRRM or his agent, but internally there was a strong feeling at BioWare that they should consider making an MMORPG based on A Song of Ice and Fire, even going as far as producing proof-of-concept documents. However, LucasArts and BioWare then decided to make Star Wars: The Old Republic, based on their earlier Knights of the Old Republic games, which turned out to be a very lengthy and incredibly expensive project indeed.
"So we were looking at doing a Lord of the Rings MMO, a Silmarillion MMO, a kind of a Gunslinger-esque Dark Tower MMO, a Game of Thrones MMO." Each setting has different strengths," Ohlen added, describing the 10 page documents that the team drew up at an early design stage. "If we were going to do a Game of Thrones MMO, what kind of rules and what kind of gameplay elements would really bring that world to life? Each one had that, but we always focused on the story at the fore."
However, minor references to the books can be found in their Dragon Age games, which were developed with A Song of Ice and Fire cited as a major influence.

Relic Entertainment

As with BioWare, this seems to have been an idea kicked around in-house and never spoken about officially with the rights-holders. However, one of the project leads on Relic's superb WW2 real-time strategy game Company of Heroes did like the idea of producing a strategy game based on the ASoIaF novels:
In the latest Games For Windows podcast, Josh Mosqueira - the lead designer on Company of Heroes - said that he wanted to make an RTS based on acclaimed fantasy author George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. When asked what games he wanted to make, Mosqueira replied, "Game of Thrones [the first book in the series] - that would be awesome." In case you haven't read any of A Song of Ice and Fire (and we recommend that you do), it's an epic story with extremely complicated and devious characters. Mosqueira rightly described it as, "It's like fantasy, but without the sucky parts of fantasy." The books also describe detailed military strategies, as well as various well-developed armies and houses, each with different strengths. As such, an RTS based on the series could be amazing, and Mosqueira said that the books featured, "a lot of interesting things in terms of what could be done within a strategy setting."

Paradox Interactive

Paradox are the extremely well-regarded developers of numerous 'hardcore' strategy games, including the popular Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron series, as well as the Crusader Kings games (which have very popular ASoIaF-based mods). Surprisingly, they were apparently also in touch with GRRM's camp a few years ago over a possible game, but ultimately decided not to proceed with a licensed property. Paradox CEO Fred Wester explains:
"A few years ago we were in contact with George RR Martin to make a CK like game based on the books, but we didn't finalize any contract. It is quite unlikely that we will work with third party IP, for many reasons."

Ultimately, Cyanide got the job because they pursued the licence with passion and commitment. Whilst the games have not worked out as well as might be hoped, the simple truth is that it's unlikely a larger company would have taken a risk with - what was a few years ago - an obscure property. Today, with the success of the TV series, it would likely be a different story. I suspect we have not seen the last ASoIaF computer game and it'll be interesting to see what happens next.  It's also worth remembering that there's some very exciting fan gaming projects coming up that look vastly superior to anything Cyanide has done.


Anonymous said...

The setting of Dragon Age series is so strong, i do doubt, that Westeros will be a better fantasy setting for a role-playing COMPUTER game. It really were inspired by ASOIAF, but for game-designers it is certainly better to have their own world, where they can kill evryone and create magic system as they like.

For Bethesda, the TES setting is enough for fantasy open-world games, it is more familiar to gamers then Westeros.

Games of Bethesda and BioWare will be sold just because they are Bethesda and BioWare games, but for companies like Cyanide a well-known setting is a good way to promote their games.

Anonymous said...

Wert - You raise some interesting points, but I can't help but think that GRRM was poorly served by his advisors here. The mediocrity of these game is not surprising to anyone with any sort of background in gaming. I understand that the HBO deal happened after the Cyanide deal, but there's still something to be said for waiting for a better fit to come along. Bad licensing decisions damages the brand, and that has a negative impact on both GRRM and gamers.

Frankly, I can't help but think of the Simpsons episode where Krusty is sobbing about how he couldn't resist lending his name to any product willing to pay for the privilege.

Fool's Chaos said...

As a big fan of Bethesda and Bioware, I could easily see them doing a game on the series, I feel Bethesda would have created the better world, but Bioware would have been better for the story.

There are a few others that could have pulled it off nicely, Piranha Bytes, Spellbound, and possibly Larian studios.

Anonymous said...

Both the GOT games we have gotten in the last year were awful. Seldom have I seen such an attempt to milk a franchise without making any effort to make a quality product.

Joris M said...

Another company that could have made an interesting game is Paradox Interactive, although that would probably have been quite different from the more mainstream developers.

According to the Company CEO Fred Wester there has been contact in the past, but never a contract.

"A few years ago we were in contact with George RR Martin to make a CK like game based on the books, but we didn't finalize any contract. It is quite unlikely that we will work with third party IP, for many reasons. "

Adam Whitehead said...

Paradox nearly got the contract? That would have been excellent. Damn. I'm going to add that to the post.

Anonymous said...

I think CDRP are the only dev capable of making a worthy ASOIAF game (TW2 is the most ASOIAF-like game out there), aside from maybe Creative Assembly.
Why Bioware and Bethesda? Because of their size, or something else? The kind of games they make are nothing like ASOIAF...

Skip said...

You missed the obvious people to do this. The 3D Realms team was available, and the pace at which Martin writes would have fit right in with the team that took fourteen years to not quite finish Duke Nukem Forever...

Adam Whitehead said...

Clarification: this post is about the companies that have actually shown an interest in the property, not a wish-list for who else could have made the game. Though if people want to talk about that in the comments, that's fine :-)

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't mind a Call of Duty-type game (i.e. the WW2 version), focussing on either Robert's Rebellion or the War of Five Kings. :)

Xen said...

Check this out:

As good as it looks already, I really hope more people will hop on and make an ASOIAF mod for Crusader Kings II a reality. I've had fun playing Medieval II Total War, but it's always been my opinion that the Total War engine is not well suited for an ASOIAF game. After all, in Westeros and real medieval Europe alike, the game of thrones can only be won with both battles and intrigue. To this end, the Total War engine is somewhat lacking, with too much focus on tactical combat and only very shallow strategic elements (btw I never understood why the series is called Total War).

On the other hand, the CKII engine, while lacking tactical battles, has almost all strategic elements required for an ASOIAF game: succession laws, vassal management, titles and claims, an intrigue system, dynamic dynasties, and more. It's really too bad that Paradox wanted no 3rd party IP with its small dev budgets.

Adam Whitehead said...

Agreed, for the most part, but the reverse is also true. CK (and CK2) do a fantastic job with the vassal, inheritance and character systems but the military side is lacking, with no way of directly controlling battles. In fact, CK's depiction of warfare isn't entirely in keeping with the style of warfare in the books (which is a bit closer to TOTAL WAR's).

Ideally, we'd have a CK-style diplomatic/map system and a TW-style battle system fused together, although that is currently beyond modders' abilities (until the full source code for both games is released, and maybe not even then).

Xen said...

Well, Total War and Crusader Kings combined, that would be something awesome.

While some Paradox fans might defend its grand strategy approach to simulating conflicts. You do point out rightly that an ASOIAF strategy game just isn't complete without tactical elements. After all, the most memorable battles, fictional or real, are often those where the outcome defied the odds, which literally never happens in Paradox games.

That said, if I have to choose one approach over the other for an ASOIAF game, I would have to go with a grand strategy game and forgo the tactical battles simply because of the way I play games. Sure, in CKII, I had to painstakingly conquer England county by county over the course of a decade, but in Total War, the AI was so easily exploited that William the Conquer became the King of England, Scotland, France, and the Holy Roman Emperor. Both are unrealistic, but CKII gave me a far more immersive experience, after all, what's the fun in conquering all of Westeros by force in about 30 turns over countless battles when you can do so over decades through marriages, assassinations, and fabricated claims.

Xen said...

Now about an ASOIAF RPG game, I really don't know, though I don't think Bethesda makes a very logical choice as developer. If an ASOIAF RPG is to succeed, I think the experience would have to be unique by its immersive story telling. I can almost cringe imagining a game where I do fetch quests for maesters, follow some people around on spying missions, then smashing my left mouse button the rest of the time. I can't see myself playing such a game even if there is a good overarching story at the end.

On the other hand, a Bioware game with a storyline heavy on choices between honor and duty also faces many challenges. Namely, outside of dialogue and cut-scenes, how do you reconcile the themes of ASOIAF with RPG combat. I think the popular RPG paradigms simply would not do here, at best, we will either get a good game that has little to do with Game of Thrones, or a game whose otherwise superb storytelling standing at odds with constant blood-spilling gameplay.

I guess for alternative game mechanics we can look at games such LA Noire and Assassin's Creed, though I've played neither. At any rate, in my opinion, some innovative combination of storytelling and gameplay is needed for a third person ASOIAF game.

Anon said...

I honestly don't think Bethesda or Bioware could have done an ASoIaF game justice. ASoIaF is all about the characters, story, and moral ambiguity. Bethesda excels at creating massively open worlds but have consistently fallen flat when it comes to memorable characters, writing, and a solid main plot. I don't think they would have been a good fit at all.

Bioware, while a better option than Bethesda, would have nailed down the "great characters" part. Unfortunately, I'm not impressed with their generic main plots and their inability to properly capture moral ambiguity.

The only two studios I think that could do it justice are CD Projekt RED and Obsidian. CDP are absolutely brilliant at adapting a book series and have shown how good they are at presenting "the lesser evil" theme in their games. Obsidian has some of the best writers in the industry and they nailed the whole "gray morality" and competing factions in Fallout: New Vegas.

Adam Whitehead said...

Obsidian would be a fine choice for the RPG. They were supposed to be making the WHEEL OF TIME RPG, but that seems to have stalled due to - predictably - Red Eagle's incompetence in finding funding.

It occurs to me that a good approach could be a sort-of medieval version of DEUS EX, except you have diplomacy/intrigue as an additonal option (as well as stealth and combat) to get through the game. A game that relies on violence alone would not be true to ASoIaF, but one that relies on diplomacy alone would also not be true.

This, I think, is the problem. The books depict continent-shaking events that result from small events and decisions taken by just a few people in King's Landing. With an RPG you are nailing the small-scale events but not the larger ones, with a strategy game the inverse is true. Some way of bridging the two might result in a stronger game (maybe something like the King Arthur wargame-RPG, which I own but haven't played yet).