The developers of Lego games, Traveller’s Tales, spent $1 million on a pitch for a Hobbit video game that never came to be. Studio co-founder Jon Burton revealed this in a new video for his YouTube page, GameHut, and he speaks very freely and openly about the project and how it came to be (and not be).
In 2008, Warner Bros. announced plans to make two Hobbit movies, with Guillermo del Toro attached to direct. Burton wanted to make an Xbox 360/PS3 video game tie-in for the movie, but not a Lego game like his studio had become known for.
Burton and his team got the greenlight to pitch to del Toro and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, and the studio worked for six months to create a demo to pitch in February 2009. Burton said it is his belief that a video game tie-in for a movie should try to replicate the movie as closely as possible so it feels like you’re “living” the film. With the movie not out yet, Burton’s team used Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings as a template, recreating key moments from the movies.
Things got out of hand, however, and Burton’s team went too far. They created four different fully playable and polished levels, as well as five additional tech demos that would showcase what the studio was capable of. The playable levels, which are shown off in the video, including a free-roaming stealth campaign with Frodo where he sneaks around and can throw rocks to distract Orcs and climb trees. Another demo featured the Isengard battle between Gandalf and Saruman, while another depicted the scene where Frodo is trying to stay hidden from the Nazgul. If he was spotted, Frodo must avoid the temptation of putting on the ring through a mini-game.
Yet another of the demos showcased the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog. The tech demos, meanwhile, included a fighting sequence where you play as Aragorn at Amon Hen. Another was set on Weathertop with Frodo and Sam trying to escape the Nazgul.
“We basically went way too far and spent way too much money but I really wanted to show what we could do beyond just the Lego games,” Burton said.
Indeed, you can see in the video that these demos were well thought out and polished–remember, this footage is from 2008 and early 2009.
So in February 2009, Burton flew from the UK to New Zealand to pitch his game to del Toro and Jackson. Although he remembers being incredibly jet-lagged, Burton said the pitch meeting went well. Del Toro in particular was positive on the idea, and Burton was told his team could begin work on a Hobbit game to tie into the movie. However, higher-ups at Warner Bros. ultimately shot it down because they instead wanted a game not based on the movie specifically, but a story that happened in the world at the same time.
Burton disagreed with this, saying he thought it would be better to make movie tie-in first and then expand with something new for a sequel.
In the end, Burton was happy with how things worked out. The Hobbit movie would eventually be delayed (and later split into three movies), which would have meant another year of work for his team. Not only that, but del Toro dropped out of the project, and the series overall ended up as a relative disappointment compared to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series. And in any cases, Burton and his team would go on to make Lego: The Hobbit and Lego: The Lord of the Rings anyway.
This video is remarkable for a number of reasons. Developers big and small rarely speak so openly about their pitches and canceled projects, and especially not for a properly as big as The Hobbit. Also in the video, Burton says he may share full gameplay walkthroughs of the various demos if people want to see them. I’m betting they do.
Burton left Traveller’s Tales in 2019.
There are multiple new Lord of the Rings games in development, including one told from Gollum’s perspective. In addition, Amazon is developing a new Lord of the Rings MMO, while NetEase is working on a new Lord of the Rings game for mobile.
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