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.
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.
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 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.