In July 2006, EA revealed The Lord of the Rings: The White Council. Slated as the follow-up to EA Redwood Shores’ critically-acclaimed Lord of the Rings games, The White Council was set to finally unlock the shackles binding the studio to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. Unfortunately, the project was canned approximately two years into development for reasons ranging from the technological jump of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation to the reception of an expensive and damningly lukewarm Godfather game.
After speaking with the executive producer and creative director of The White Council, it’s reasonable to say that it could have been the greatest Lord of the Rings game ever made. That’s a big statement, but it’s backed up by two solid facts: EA Redwood Shores was considering including J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in its source material for the game, and Christopher Tolkien was on board to back it up.
“The White Council was a really ambitious open-world Lord of the Rings MMORPG,” executive producer Steve Gray tells me. “We were using the Sims 3 Simulator – the latest version at that time – to power the NPCs. It was really about exploring the world of Middle Earth around the time of the movies – though we had also considered having servers that were set back in earlier times, drawing on the mythology in The Silmarillion. It was crazy big and complicated.”
That last part is a particularly apt description of The Silmarillion as well: big and complicated. Tolkien’s legendarium is often revered for its immense depth, but it’s largely the mythopoeic stories of The Silmarillion that contribute to that. Even the appendices in more modern versions of The Lord of the Rings – which include annexed stories designed to add historical context to the events of the novels – are just simplified versions of the tales recounted in The Silmarillion. These stories feature vast and varied characters from Gil-galad and Glorfindel, to Thorondor, King of the Eagles and Ancalagon the Black – the largest dragon to have ever existed in Middle-earth.
The White Council isn’t just the name of the game though – it’s a functional group in Tolkien’s stories. As such, it’s worth delving into the game’s title in more detail. Initially held in the Second Age and presided over by Gil-galad, The White Council originally convened to discuss the encroaching threat of Sauron. After the fall of Numenor, the Council was disbanded for the remainder of the era, and didn’t regroup until Third Age 2463. This new iteration of the Council was spearheaded by Saruman the White, and included more commonly known Lord of the Rings characters such as Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf, as well as Cirdan the Shipwright, Lord Glorfindel, and Radagast the Brown.
So how does this all tie in to EA Redwood Shores’ The White Council? Well, after developing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as a sequel to Stormfront Studios’ adaptation of The Two Towers, as well as recounting the entire trilogy in The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, EARS finally had the opportunity to tell its own story in The Lord of the Rings universe. On top of having the rights to the New Line film trilogy, the studio had obtained the license for Tolkien’s books – and for this team, that was a miracle waiting to happen.
“Working on the Lord of the Rings games was an incredible experience,” creative director Chris Tremmel tells me. “There were members of our team, like Steve Gray and myself, who had been on Lord of the Rings for 6+ years.”
“As for putting our own stamp on the stories – definitely not on the Two Towers, or Return of the King games. We were explicitly directed by our executive producer, Neil Young, that what we were making was not Neil Young’s Lord of the Rings, or even EA’s Lord of the Rings. We were making Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. This was great in my eyes, as it gave us a tangible target to shoot for, as well as made for an authentic experience for the fans. Clearly the further into the franchise we went, the more liberties we took and were allowed to take. By the time we got to the Third Age game, we were collaborating with Tolkien on new characters and new fiction within the world and time of the War of the Ring.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age was published in 2004, after Return of the King and before development on The White Council had started. It received generally favourable reviews, but even this was impressive given its background. Although it launched immediately after the Return of the King game, The Third Age retreaded the same story of the War of the Ring, with tidbits of original fiction interspersed throughout it. For example, it introduced a brand new character called Berethor, a soldier under Boromir, who was never in Tolkien’s books. At the end of The Third Age, Gandalf tells Berethor, “Your tale has hardly begun.” However, 16 years later, Berethor is still waiting for his next chapter.
Berethor is just one new character created by EA Redwood Shores, but the point is that The Third Age introduced the studio’s first indulgences in original Lord of the Rings fiction – which, as Tremmel points out above, the studio was working with Christopher Tolkien on. It’s worth recounting Tremmel’s association with the franchise here, too. He spent a year working on The Two Towers, a year on The Return of the King, a year on The Third Age, and almost three years on The White Council, which he was creative director of and had the license to the books for.
This is where the name comes back into play. A White Council meeting is staged in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, despite not appearing in Tolkien’s original text. For those who have watched it, it’s the scene in Rivendell in which Gandalf warns Saruman about the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, who he correctly believes to be the reincarnation of Sauron. This isn’t actually called the White Council in the film – it’s referred to as the “great council of the white wizards, masters of lore, and great magic” – although it proves an interesting prospect.
This is because Peter Jackson also collaborated with Christopher Tolkien for his most recent Middle-earth trilogy, showcasing the kind of creative liberty that arises from blending original fiction with Tolkien’s external notes. I think calling a game The White Council could have played into this much more effectively – Saruman ultimately agreed to an attack on Dol Guldur 90 years later, during the third Council meeting, and Sauron was defeated. Sauron reappeared ten years later in Third Age 2951 – 67 years before The Fellowship of the Ring – and the Council met for the fourth and final time two years afterwards. All of this could play into the overarching narrative of the White Council founded in the Second Age, which there is clearly an appetite for given the setting of Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series. The White Council is probably the second-best way of covering multiple eras of Middle-earth out there, falling just behind the line of Aragorn – which, hypothetically speaking, could have also been implemented into the game.
Obviously I’m delving into the name’s etymology here, and what it refers to in the larger world of Middle-earth. That being said, when you consider EA Redwood Shores’ journey through Tolkien’s legendarium over six years in the early 2000s, it makes sense that the studio was gearing up to go hard.
Tremmel says that for The Two Towers, the team was mostly focused on combat and level flow. After that, they had to rebuild The Return of the King from scratch due to the studio shift from Stormfront to EA Redwood Shores. “That meant no re-use of anything from the Two Towers game,” Tremmel adds. He notes that his day-to-day for the majority of this project was focused on rebuilding the game, and mentions that he spent six weeks with the stunt team from Peter Jackson’s trilogy filming mocap for it, as well as working with Ian McKellen for the voiceover. “This helped us create what in my opinion is still one of the best film-to-game adaptations of all time,” Tremmel says.
“By the time White Council came around, we were definitely confident in working with the material,” Tremmel explains. “We were also quite confident in our ability to create a meaningful experience for the players.
“The game had been in development for roughly two years,” Tremmel says. “There were multiple playable demos on two different engines. The first engine we started with was a variant of the Sims’ next-gen engine. The second demo was done on a different engine. The game included basic combat, the area of Framsburg, Horseback, Uruk-Hai, a cave troll, and an entire ecosystem of animals. Everything was super, super early, but we had a full Sims-like ecosystem where characters had wants, needs, fears, and so on. This ranged from humanoids all the way down to the rabbits in the world.”
“As for telling our own stories within the Tolkien universe, that is exactly what The White Council afforded us,” he adds. “By the time the project ended, we were in full collaboration with both Tolkien and Games Workshop, [and] we were making some pretty incredible stuff. We were developing a hero-crafting system that allowed you to craft a hero with a customized background in Middle-earth, which would affect the way the world reacted to your character. We had weapon crafting, spell crafting, even quest crafting.” Let’s remember that this was supposed to be an MMORPG: With The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings’ vast appendices at the studio’s disposal, The White Council was en route to shaping up as a bonafide Silmarillion mythopoeia game.
So what happened? Why did an ambitious Lord of the Rings game with the Tolkien Estate’s support and backing for original fiction get canned?
“EA was just coming off shipping The Godfather, which was a big and really expensive project that had gone way over budget and schedule,” Gray tells me. “I just think there wasn’t appetite for another big over the top project.” When I brought up the fact that The White Council was never officially brought out of hiatus, Gray assured me that The White Council is “dead as a doornail.”
“The cancellation is complicated,” Tremmel tells me. “This was a super interesting time for EA and the industry as a whole. Here are some things that led to the White Council’s demise:
- The game was overly ambitious: This one is really simple. The game was massive. It had a bit of everything. We were working at EA, and our goal at the time was to create the ultimate Lord of the Rings experience and to be able to compete with the Bethesdas and the BioWares of the world (This was prior to EA buying BioWare.
- Platform shift: The White Council was being created for Xbox 360, and PS3. This was at a time when both platforms were either brand new or not yet released. Changing from a linear PS2 game to an open-world online Xbox 360 game was a massive undertaking to say the least.
- License Expiration: At the point at which White Council was cancelled, we had probably two more years of development on the project, at least. The license at the time would be expiring within that window, and as we know, Warner Bros. picked it up right after.
- Team Focus: Towards the end of the project, there were definite camps within the project when it came to combat and moment-to-moment gameplay. On one hand, continuing with a turn-based model would allow us to more easily incorporate online, as well as appease different stakeholders within the company. On the other hand, people wanted the visceral feel of the original Lord of the Rings games that we had created. The more action approach limited what we were capable of achieving in an online environment at the time. This non-alignment in focus definitely hurt the project in the end.
- Company Focus: At the time, EA was pushing for a central tech solution, while going through a new IP growth period (Dead Space, Army of Two, etc.) The company had also just acquired Mythic, and was preparing for the Pandemic and BioWare purchase. Continuing down a two-year path with a licensed game did not make sense at the time.
As you can see, The White Council was in a pretty bad way with two entire years of development left. It was supposed to be a BioWare-scale Lord of the Rings game, but EA was gearing up to buy BioWare. EA had also just pumped money into an ostentatious Godfather game, which didn’t quite attain the blockbuster status it set out to. The new consoles were coming in, while the Lord of the Rings license was running out. Online functionality was still a curious, untamed beast, opening the doors for original IPs to excel – and make significantly more cash than licensed ones. And so promising as it seemed, The White Council lost out on just about every single financial metric it was measured against.
All of that being said, both Gray and Tremmel still believe in the Lord of the Rings game that never was. “I still think someone needs to make a really great Lord of the Rings MMORPG,” Gray continues. “I know there are some that have been built, but nothing I think really rises to the level that the franchise deserves. Whether I would do it myself, I don’t know. I spent almost seven years of my life making Lord of the Rings games… they might be enough.”
“First, I love Steve Gray,” Tremmel says. “Personally, I loved Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online. It was one of the first games in a long time that dealt solely with the book license that I truly enjoyed. That being said, I do believe that the definitive Lord of the Rings game has still yet to be made.”
The White Council may be the Lord of the Rings game that never was, but if the people who worked on it 14 years ago still believe it could have filled a void since unfilled, there’s still hope for Tolkien fans out there. We might get our Sims-esque Lord of the Rings MMORPG blending Silmarillion lore with original fiction in the era of games-as-a-service yet, provided nobody decides to bring out another pricey and kitschy Godfather game.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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