Is There Hope for New Game of Thrones Licensed Titles?
Like many die-hard Game of Thrones fans who are also enthusiastic gamers, I was disappointed when Game of Thrones: Genesis turned out to be such a dud. The RTS tie-in, from French developers Cyanide Studios, clearly had its heart in the right place — reviewers praised attempts to include diplomacy and subterfuge, two key elements of author George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. At the end of the day, though, Cyanide’s small stature and relative inexperience seemed to have gotten the better of it. The licensing deal that led to Game of Thrones: Genesis was inked before the smash-hit HBO show made A Song of Ice and Fire a worldwide sensation, and the French studio’s abilities and resources are more in line with the series’ former status as a best-selling but resolutely niche interest.
With Genesis’ failure in mind, it’s hard not to be skeptical of Cyanide’s forthcoming Game of Thrones RPG, which recently announced a publisher — Atlus Games — and a 2012 release date. Though the studio has secured the rights to assets and voice actors from HBO’s well-financed TV production, A Song of Ice and Fire is a gigantic, engrossing saga, and based on their track record, one wonders if Cyanide can really do the source material justice.
In their defense, the French developers clearly “get” Game of Thrones. The bleak design of the environments and the battered, lived-in feel of the character designs that have appeared in early screenshots feel right at home in Martin’s internecine, pragmatic, cynical world. While promoting the game, Cyanide has cited Planescape: Torment, KOTOR, and Baldur’s Gate II as inspirations. The story will focus on two characters, one a member of the Night Watch, the other a fallen aristocrat returning from exile, bearing a strange new religion. The combat is said to resemble The Witcher 2′s blend of live-action and turn-based gameplay.
Despite the auspicious influences, Cyanide is not Black Isle, Obsidian, or BioWare. It’s background is mostly in sports management sims like Horse Racing Manager. The studio’s only other foray into RPG’s, 2007′s Loki: Heroes of Mythology, received only tepid reviews. Though everyone is wishing Cyanide the best of luck, the deck is stacked against it. The Game of Thrones RPG will be the studio’s first attempt at a AAA title, and only its second attempt at making an RPG. It will be adapting an almost comically far-ranging source material, zealously curated by an ever-expanding audience of rabid fans. If Cyanide pulls it off, it will have performed one of the greatest feats of game design in recent memory. If it fails, the Cyanide brand might never recover.
Cyanide Studios isn’t the only lord invited to this feast, however. Yesterday’s announcement brought news of two more Game of Thrones licensed games. The first, a free-to-play online MMORPG by German developers BigPoint, didn’t exactly quicken any pulses. Still, the Berlin studio did a decent job on Drakensang Online, an attractive, easy-to-play Diablo clone. The prospect of Westeros being brought to life by BigPoint’s talented artists is an appealing one, and the source material’s cast of thousands and globe-trotting plot certainly lend themselves to the basic premises of an MMO. Given the serious, adult nature of the subject matter, however, one wonders if the studio’s history making breezy, browser-based games for all ages will work against them.
The second game announced yesterday is an untitled social game, dubiously described as “Farmville meets Westeros.” Before you call the banners and set off to destroy whoever came up with such a horrible idea, consider this: A Song of Ice and Fire is series set in a feudal, agrarian society. Its characters are often concerned with increasing their harvests, and maintaining their hereditary estates. One of of Martin’s prequel-esque Dunk & Egg novellas, “The Sworn Sword,” centers around a dispute over water rights and irrigation. Counterintuitively, therefore, a Farmville-esque game about maintaining a feudal fief in Westeros might actually provide unexpected access to one of the central themes of the series.
Nevertheless, fans of A Song of Ice and Fire have every right to demand more. When HBO agreed to produce a series based on the books, it seemed like the perfect match. For fans of the series, HBO was the only network with the pedigree to capture Game of Thrones on film the way it needed to be captured. So far, the dispersal of Game of Thrones’ game-licensing rights has not met the high standard that its devotees demand. Only one of today’s true development giants — a BioWare or a Bethesda, say — would be accepted without question. Still, to borrow a central tenet of Martin’s series, things are not always what they seem; houses that appear powerful may in fact be decrepit, and houses that appear weak may have a source of hidden strength. Hopefully, in 2012, we will all be surprised.