It had to be said. And for fans of George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, that one little phrase elicits some powerful and mixed emotions: excitement (to actually wander about Westeros) and dread (will it actually be Westeros?). There was even a collective cringe among some Massively staff when the announcement was made that Game of Thrones was becoming an MMORPG. Could such a complex world translate well into the virtual realm? It made the transition to television pretty well in HBO's series, but a free-to-play browser-based MMO is a whole other beast.
We're pleased to say that fans of the books and the series can breathe a little easier and even look forward to the upcoming title becuse it's going to be gritty, it's going to be gory, and power will shift like the winds across the Dothraki Sea. Massively was able to sit down with Jorgen Tharaldsen (Producer at Artplant), Alan Dunton (Public Relations Director at Bigpoint), and Rob Ollett (Executive Producer at Bigpoint) to discuss details about what's coming.
Being true to your roots
In the very beginning of the interview, Jorgen stated that a primary goal of the game is to allow players "to explore and conquer the world of Westeros." The question/concern on many a mind was whether or not the world would actually resemble Westeros. Alan admits that "it's tough to take someone's IP and translate it into a game that makes sense," but the team at Artplant (with Bigpoint's support) seems to be doing just that. Although a game is limited by nature (and a browser one even more so), key elements will make the experience feel familiar to fans.
The MMO's license is actually based on HBO's series Game of Thrones, not the books themselves. But the connection doesn't end with just the name: The game is being made in partnership with HBO, and Bigpoint reports that HBO has been very supportive. As Alan stated, "They brought us the throne." And yes, he does mean the throne -- the Iron Throne, which this writer happily sat on. HBO has also supplied assets from the series, such as the music and sound effects, the flags, and the backgrounds. There will also be authentic locations throughout the game. Jorgen excitedly explained that his team had just received the introduction sequence, which the designers hope to develop into an interactive in-game map displaying territory control.
For those who worry about continuity, Alan and Jorgen pointed out that aspects of the game go through approval runs with HBO; one reason we don't see any video footage of game development is that the graphics aren't quite up to snuff yet (i.e., cinematic in quality). Basically, if the game has to reach a certain standard as far as representing the vibrant world as depicted in the show, we can have some assurance that it will have continuity. Even beyond that, developers met with George R.R. Martin for a day to get his opinions. Martin was able to convey what was important to him. The key point? He was most adamant that there be a way to get power without actually fighting. Very Westeros!
Scheme, intrigue, and backstab
While the game is PvP-based, any fan of this IP knows that blatant hand-to-hand combat is not the only form of war and fighting in Westeros; political conflicts boil and bubble alongside large-scale military ones. The MMO incorporates this aspect as a basic premise of the game, inserting the political aspects on a guild level through territory ownership and shifting alliances. Players "will be able to scheme, intrigue, and backstab." Now that's definitely fitting!
A point Jorgen makes clear is that even though the devs "are following the TV series, this is Westeros as a setting. This is not a scripted, single-player game with a start and a finish; this is an open world with a sandbox where the players have a lot of tools and mechanics to change and to shape the game if they want to."
The game is set just after the death of King Robert. When groups of players come together in the game, they will form a lesser house as opposed to a guild. The lesser house then aligns itself with one of the three major houses: Baratheon, Stark, or Lannister. Aligning with each house will have specific benefits and drawbacks. All lands except for King's Landing, which will be neutral, can then be conquered and controlled by the different factions. Lands can also change allegiance without changing ownership; a lesser house can actually switch and align with a different major house without any fighting. This can really heat up the political side of the game.
Another interesting political quirk is that players can actually be Hand of the King for a week through a voting system. What privileges will be awarded along with the office were not disclosed, but it is certain to involve wielding power!
So we have Lannisters vs. Starks vs. Baratheons, all vying for control. That's definitely a good start! But how will this conflict actually be realized, and how will the game play?
Players will initially start in the north, the south, or the west, unaligned until they formally join/create a lesser house. Players will be able to explore Westeros, but they won't be able to travel beyond The Wall or across the Narrow Sea -- at least at launch. While exploring, players will experience a dynamic weather system.
There will be some character customization; while body models will be one-size-fits-all (for performance issues), there will be customization through clothing, make-up, hair, etc. Starting abilities will be based on a chosen lineage; basically a player will choose who his father was (e.g., an armorsmith) and get the corresponding abilities.
Game of Thrones will not have any class archetypes; instead, it will be skill-based. As players level, they get skill points to spend in abilities. The idea is that players can be unique contributors on the battlefield with personalized skill sets. Levels go from 1-100.
Combat is controlled by the player. It's directional action-combat; there won't be any auto-attacking. Movement will be the typical WASD, and the one, two, and three keys correspond to high, medium, and low strikes. Players can perform a combination of the strikes then click an ability for the finishing move. The game is graphic and mature as the team is going for a 16+ rating, although the devs will be careful with nudity.
There will be PvE and some quests, but the limitations of the current technology of the platform prevent a massive questing system. Lesser houses (guilds) will have a tool to create quests for their members. There will also be a skirmish system, a type of matchmaking system, and a ranking system (both in and outside of sieges), and we can expect item progression through gameplay and achievements as well.
Territory control will be achieved through a siege system. There will be eight castles, 16 forts, and many keeps in the game. To own an area, players must conquer, control, and keep the castle within. But before even getting the chance to take the castle, the attackers must first conquer the land's keeps and then the forts, finally working toward the castle. Castle sieges will be 50v50, fort sieges will be 30v30, and keep sieges will be 20v20. Different castles and lands will have different resources, spurring trading within the game.
Although there won't be any crafting in game, the resources will be important for fortifying and strengthening holdings as well as aiding sieges. Crafting could be possible in the future; while the focus on the game at launch is a good PvP experience, where the game goes afterward will be dependent on the feedback of the players (and the development of technology). As time passes, features that are genuinely wanted by the players will be explored. Rob emphasized:
[the devs are] starting with the core components that we think are going to make it fun. But the great thing is we are getting to market so early that we can listen to what people want. Instead of spending three to five years making this amazing thing that we think is right, let's spend a good amount of time making the first version with the core things you would expect. Then if there are very specific features that everybody has to have, then we'll do it. You have to listen to your users or they will leave."Can't buy me win
Refreshingly, when asked whether owning the biggest wallet would be akin to an instant win button, the Bigpoint reps said no. In fact, they emphasized that skill gained through gameplay would basically always beat financing. Jorgen said, "A skilled player will always beat a paying player, even though he is many levels below. [...] We want to really emphasize that all the items in the game can be gained through gameplay." He further stated that some items and skills will be looted-only or available only in game and never available for purchase.
Winter is coming... when?
It is always a pleasure to talk with developers who show true enthusiasm and excitement for their game. This enthusiasm was apparent during the interview... and infectious. Jorgen stated, "We are really trying to take the browser gaming in a new direction. I think that everybody saw that in Battlestar Galactica Online, that we took graphics and hopefully a lot of the gameplay to a new level. And now we want to do that with a fantasy MMORPG."
Here's to the team reaching that goal! Game of Thrones is expected to start beta testing in the late fall, so be on the lookout -- it will be worth checking out. Many thanks to Jorgen, Alan, and Rob for sharing their work and time with us!
Massively sent four resolute reporters to San Francisco to bring you back the biggest MMO news from this year's GDC, the largest pro-only gaming industry con in the world! From games like The Secret World to PlanetSide 2, we're on the case, so stay tuned for all the highlights from the show!