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Cable TV of Thrones: Why Game of Thrones Doesn't Work as a Game
by Mark Filipowich on 07/19/12 01:24:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[From a marketing standpoint, basing a game off Game of Thrones seems intuitive. After a mixed reception to the latest adaptation, the problem that nobody seems to have considered is that the kingdom of Westeros is a miserable place -- that nobody should want to be in.]

After two seasons on the air, Game of Thrones has captured the heart of the internet. The books may have been popular, but it was HBO’s series that made it into the phenomenon that it is.

Since the adaptation hit the airwaves it has been ripe for gamification. Games based on screen franchises are usually rushed cash-ins forced on a studio’s junior development team. It’s rare that they reach large audiences, and it’s rarer that they deserve to.

But the good will that the audience has built up around Game of Thrones and the intimacy that the show has garnered with its viewers means that from a marketing standpoint, basing a game off the show seems intuitive. The problem that nobody seems to have considered is that the kingdom of Westeros is a miserable place that nobody should want to be in.
Game of Thrones is about feudal lords killing each other for political influence that can’t last. The “game” of Game of Thrones that the audience is repeatedly warned about is one that you either “win or die.” But nobody ever wins. What makes the show stand out is how brutally honest it is in its portrayal of medieval politics. Contemporary fantasy stories are about magic and majesty, about good and worthy kings disposing of greedy tyrants.

However, the actual dark ages never worked that way. Game of Thrones shows us what a fantasy in the actual dark ages might look like: powerful people keep their power by deceiving one another and good people are exploited. There are no heroes and the people in authority have nearly no accountability.

Europe in the dark ages—which is so often romanticized—is defined by dysentery, syphilis, famine, bigotry and corruption. Making a “game” set in this environment doesn’t hold much logic. Either you win the game by being a terrible person or you’re put in a position in which you can only lose.

The kind of heroism found in games (especially RPGs) just doesn’t exist in Game of Thrones. When someone is impaled on a sword, they die. They don’t lose a certain amount of HP based on the attacker’s strength. Magic comes at an enormous cost, not at the cost of a regenerating mana pool. There’s no previous evidence in the Baldur’s Gate universe that indicates that the heroes can’t take a few blows to the head, chug a health potion, and leap back into the fray.

Game of Thrones doesn’t work that way, and audiences know it doesn’t because they’ve seen Ned Stark, who is supposed to be an exceptional fighter, lose the use of his leg after fighting off just a handful of basic infantrymen. Putting the player in Westeros and giving characters the prowess that they had in Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age dulls the impact of the show, in which everyone is just flesh and blood.

It isn’t that turning Game of Thrones into a game can’t work, it’s just that there’s a mental gap in the way that it’s been done so far—a gap that seems destined to widen. The planned MMORPG, Game of Thrones: the Seven Kingdoms seems even less appropriate a direction to take. In an MMO, every player is created equal. Each class is balanced according to planned challenges. A player can improve their ability and standing by gaining a predictable resource (experience) through a predictable means (completing quests).

One can rise in an MMO relatively easily. The conditions for getting better are flat and unchanging. That isn’t how Game of Thrones works in its other incarnations. Personal morality, bias, and tragedy muddies everything. Characters never know what to do, and they’re constantly left to make hard decisions with incomplete information against several competing groups—that is when they have enough autonomy to make a decision for themselves at all.

The typical counter argument at this point is that Game of Thrones is a recognizable brand that should easily translate into greater profits for the creators. Even if the decision were so simply and callously made, it still doesn’t hold up.

People recognize that Westeros is a terrible place where any experience of agency (which is what games are all about) is nonexistent, illusory, and temporary or it feels out of place with the world that’s already been built. In short, will people buy into it when it seems so off?

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Eric Schwarz
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I think it might be more practical to make a game set in the universe, but that covers it on a much broader scale - such as a strategy title. An RPG seems like a logical choice for a fantasy environment, but you're right in that sticking to the usual good guy/bad guy setup is a lot harder in such a universe, and the expectations about fantasy might make it difficult to develop scenarios that players actually want to take part in.

Adam Rebika
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A Game of Throne : Genesis ?
The game actually exists.

Joshua Darlington
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The goodguy/badguy setup is always flawed in VG RPGs due to the Ring of Gyges.

"The Ring of Gyges is a mythical magical artifact mentioned by the philosopher Plato in book 2 of his Republic (2.359a–2.360d). It granted its owner the power to become invisible at will. Through the story of the ring, Republic considers whether an intelligent person would be moral if he did not have to fear being caught and punished."

IMO a perfect Game of Thrones adaptation would be something like the classic Steve Jackson card game Illumanati - about building networks of power and alliances.

Evan Jones
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The deeper problems:
- a narrative in which the good guys suffer makes for very exciting drama but feels miserable to role-play unless you're emotionally detached from your character's success.
- if you do suffer a major setback (like the avoidable death of a main character), it may make for good drama, but you're more than likely to restart from an earlier save file because you don't want to deal with the (negative) consequences of that setback. Autosaving after a bad decision (a la Heavy Rain) creates a feel-bad experience because it runs contrary to expectations.

Agency comes with an implicit feeling of responsibility that observation doesn't. I'm working on a post that addresses this very topic, in fact.

Joe Stewart
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I suspect players of a strategy game set in Westeros---even if it's the best strategy game ever---would eventually realize that that's not the right type of game for that world. Because the alliances and jockeying for position aren't really what it's about either. The themes that emerge over the course of the five books in the series so far are just too deep and too broad in scope to translate to any kind of video game, IMO (but I'd love to be proven wrong).

I actually think an RPG might be the right choice, but it would have to be an RPG that's not afraid to go HUGE and HARD: giving the player the ability to actually change the world in a deep and meaningful way, but making it really, really, really hard to do so.

Katy Smith
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There already is a good "Game of Thrones" game. :
One of the things I do agree with in the article is the sense that you don't want to live in Westeros, and it makes a terrible place for the traditional-hero-type game.

Hendrik Ruhe
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Well Cynanide tried to make an RTS game but they failed completely. It wasnt just of low quality: It was packed with bugs.
As a gamer and a fan of the series, I see such a great game potential in game of thrones.
Imagine, the first time, a real time strategy game in which you are not just moving troups all the time.
The heavy weight should be on single units, lords, which gather their people. Spys which spread rumours and the assasination of other lords.
This could have become an RTS game, as close as you can get to RPG. It would have been - or could become fresh and interesting - well... of course also amazingly hard to balance ^^ but thats a different story.

I hope a studio with RTS and RPG experience lays hand on this one.

Ryan Bowen
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There already is a perfect Game of Thrones game: Crusader Kings 2.

The Game of Thrones modification is perfect and improving, it is a game all about politics, keeping your friends close and your enemies closer; assassination those in your way, bribing, imprisoning.

Christopher Engler
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Eric and Ryan have the right idea. Strategy is a great way to go for GoT, but an RPG could also work if it were something similar to Mass Effect's loyalty system. Your character could be assigned/destined to fight the oncoming winter in the north, but because the task is so great, he/she would need to earn the loyalty of other noblemen and their armies. Some noblemen could be easily bribed; others might want favors; some may need to be blackmailed; a few might even be moved by noble actions (yes, even in Westeros). These varied motivations would create mixed alliances that are likely destined to fall apart in the end, but the trick would be to keep these powerful alliances together just long enough to fight off the common foe. There could even be a sub-system that would pertain to your own army. Do something too nice and your army will think you're weak; do something too evil and reputable men will abandon you; pay too much and your men will become sloppy and too drunk to fight; pay too little and your army will mutiny etc...