Interview: Win or Die With Bigpoint's 'Game of Thrones' MMO

In the last year, writer George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice novels have gone from being the 20-year obsession of a group of dedicated readers, to a multimedia phenomenon, thanks to the success of the HBO series based on the first novel. Now, there's something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the Game of Thrones universe, with comics and other tie-in products filling fans' shelves the world over. Add to that three games with three different treatments of the material available to gamers or coming soon: there's Cyanide's third-person action-RPG based on the novel being published by Atlus, along with Cyanide's prequel strategy game from last year, and then there's our topic of conversation today, the browser-based MMO by Bigpoint Games.

During GDC, Bigpoint was showing off Game of Thrones, which is based directly on the HBO series and being developed in conjunction with the show. We spoke to the game's Executive Producer, Rob Ollett, about bringing this rendition of the show and the novels to your browser at the beginning of 2013.

"With any deep piece of fantasy IP, you're going to meet a lot of people who absolutely live and die for the detail, and they love it." This was what Ollett told me when I asked about the biggest challenge of adapting the hugely popular TV series which makes its second season premiere the first Sunday in April. In fact, Ollett says that he was a fan of the novels before working on Bigpoint's free-to-play MMO and coming to the project knew there would be challenges in being faithful to a linear storyline in a very non-linear RPG.

It might explain why Bigpoint has gone the distance to maintain as much fidelity as possible to the series, including voice work from the show's actors and even sharing incidental audio from the series like the sound of horses and crowds along with the now-famous opening sequence. For Ollett, the novels and TV show have provided ample fodder to get a game off the ground; "All the thing I need to produce a great game," he explains, "are in [the novels]. And I have to cherrypick them into an experience that can be social."

Right now, the most important goal for the Bigpoint team seems to be that social component as they attempt to build a community within the game in advance of its release. For Ollett, it's important that Game of Thrones capture the political element of the series while also "being a game where you hit people with swords and hammers and ride on horses, which there are lots of." Ollett believes that one of the unique selling points of their title is that a player should be able to win without having to swing their sword, a directive that came right from George R. R. Martin.

The game is based around the various factions found in the GoT universe, the houses, families, and alliances all marching towards (or trying to avoid) all-out war. With that in mind, depending on your choice of character class, you can either be a bruiser, wading through enemies, or a political master, setting territorial boundaries and attempting to sway your opponents through manipulation and forging friendships with player and NPC characters.

Ollett says that the wealth of content from the source material means that the Bigpoint team has had to be judicious in prioritizing what goes into the game. He says that PvP combat, castle sieges, and politics were the three pillars that were essential to the game. I asked him what Bigpoint had to draw focus away from when developing the game and he said that questing had to be scaled back; Bigpoint has found with some of their other titles like the Battlestar Galactica MMO, that heavy questing and story content don't draw in their gamers as much as combat and objective-based interactions. "We did that with Battlestar, and [that] community loves our game, so we don't feel like we're gypping anybody," Ollett, explained.

Back to that social component, for Ollett, one of the most important things right now and what he acknowledges is the key element for an MMO's survival is keeping his team's game community-oriented. That means creating content that encourages players to work in groups, to team up to take down a group of enemies, to plan raids and strategize inside and outside of the game space. He points to castle sieges as being the "epic gameplay," and kind of the endgame for some of Game of Thrones' social scenarios.

Right now, he says it's key for Game of Thrones to start developing a community. He says that some of the people who've played Battlestar most avidly are the ones who've been around the longest. He credits the success of that title with creating social spaces in the game where you can meet someone you don't know, interact, and work toward a common goal or against a common threat. He says that's the secret to retention and it's key that GoT have social tools in place.

As for two other Game of Thrones titles being out in the market by the time the Bigpoint MMO is available, Ollett isn't especially concerned, saying that all three games offer their own experiences to fans of the novels and TV show. At the same time, Bigpoint it taking its time to get GoT made, rolling it out at their own pace to get to the level of quality that they want without the constraints of meeting any calendars related to the show's release (although Bigpoint has an eye towards getting the game out at the beginning of next year).

Ollett says that we can look forward to Game of Thrones the MMO about three months before the debut of the third season of the HBO series, meaning we can probably expect it around January of 2013. In the meantime, you can find out more about Game of Thrones as Bigpoint releases updates and new information on the Game of Thrones MMO site.

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