A while back, we wrote about how Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming, an officially-licensed, China-produced GoT mobile game, was in the works. Now, with a week to go until the show’s eighth and final season airs, the gaming title has been released by Tencent, having been produced by Shanghai developer Yoozoo.
Initially, we were intrigued by this Chinese-American gaming collaboration, the first of its kind for the award-winning HBO series. But even back then, there were signs that the project would be a soulless, empty money-grab.
Tencent Rolls Out New Game of Thrones Mobile Game
“We want to combine action and scenes creatively to make our users experience the world,” Yoozoo chief creative officer Cui Rong noted vaguely. He also explained that the game would feature characters from the show in their period-appropriate clothing. So yeah, it didn’t look good.
Fast-forward to now, and the game is out. We played it. Suffice to say, winter has come.
We’ll tell you the good news, and then the bad news, because the latter is going to take much longer. The good news is that the game is visually gorgeous. Animated characters sway subtly as they deliver dialogue. The city map is lush and detailed. Even the loading screens are full-blown art affairs, etching figures from the show into dramatic scenes that look almost painted.
The bad news is everything else.
Ten seconds into gameplay, Melisandre appears, swaying. “My lord, winter is coming,” she tells us. So far so good. “You should stock up on your resources and build a strong army.”
A flashing arrow appears over an empty plot of land. Click on it to view the “building things” screen, and Melisandre returns.
“I suggest building a warehouse first, and gather more resources.”
Ok Mel, getting a little thick now aren’t we? Who’s the lord here, and who’s the Red Priestess? This is a little pushy, especially from someone with inconsistent use of gerunds. We follow the arrow and click to build a warehouse.
Melisandre and her floating arrow continue to offer instructions. Together, the three of us build a barracks, scout a rebel waterspring, and train infantry troops to deal with pesky spearmen who apparently float around outside the city’s walls (“My lord, infantry troops are most effective against them. Please train some light infantry”).
About 15 minutes into the playtest, our brains are numb. We’ve made zero decisions, instead just clicking over and over on the “please do this thing” arrow, while Melisandre justifies the requested action. The game is clearly a vanilla-flavored citadel strategy title, re-skinned for fans of the franchise, offering little to do with the series itself. Every once in a while, the developers toss us a bone and give us an actual Game of Thrones reference:
“I have foreseen your victory in the flames. But first, we should restore order and rebuild the city,” she says, before we click 50 more times to build a farmland, lumberyard, quarry, and mine.
You might think, “this is a really long tutorial level, surely it gets more exciting?” But as we trudge into Chapters 2 and 3, it becomes clear that the game doesn’t really achieve greater heights. Opening the Quest Menu will tell you what you need to build/buy/upgrade, and then following the arrow will tell you how to best execute it.
It feels like a huge waste of a massive franchising opportunity, yet for certain branches of the Chinese mobile gaming market, this is par for the course. Mark Alexander, an American who worked as a playtester and translator for the Shanghai office of game developer DeNA, explains that the phenomenon of the “gameless game” is far from uncommon.
“I’m not a hardened mobile gamer, but the major difference I noticed in China’s mobile gaming scene was the level of interactivity. Playing DeNA’s Transformers game felt oddly voyeuristic. You’re waiting for this actual gameplay experience, but you never get to it. You advance by clicking the same buttons, scrolling through dialogue, and shelling out RMB for arbitrary resources.”
Real money can buy you mundane power-ups that let you skip load times for your city infrastructure projects.
Tencent’s pet system of “pay-to-win” — where users pay real world money for necessary virtual items and features — caused skepticism among international gamers since news of the project first dropped. Unfortunately for Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming, there’s just not enough “game” present to incentivize those purchases.
The rest of our session played out in much the same vein. Following Melisandre’s instructions, we completed such exciting quests as “Train 80 Light Spearmen” and “Upgrade the Castle to Level 3”. We endured occasional contrived references to the show, and joined an online alliance called the East European Lords.
But every moment we spent in the game felt like time spent underwater, searching for the sweet sensation of air, where “air” is just anything that’s not playing this game.
Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming is an embarrassing misstep for HBO, and a cautionary tale for international brands who assume mobile gaming culture will translate universally. It will probably still make a shitload of money.
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