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The $1 Million game that never saw the light of day

There have been plenty of video games based on The Lord of the Rings released over the years. Some of them are good, while some of them are an insult to J.R.R. Tolkien's unique fantasy world. One, however, never got a proper chance to impress us. Jon Burton, founder of Traveller's Tales (the developer behind several LEGO games), recently shared the story of how close his studio came to making a full-fledged adaptation of The Hobbit.

Back in 2008, when The Hobbit movies entered pre-production, Traveller's Tales was invited to pitch its concept for a Hobbit game to producer Peter Jackson and then-director Guillermo del Toro. Excited by the prospect, Traveller's Tales decided to show what its team was really capable of, putting together a lengthy demo for Jackson, del Toro, and Warner Bros. 

Here's the wildest thing about this demo, though: unlike many other proof of concept pieces like this, it's an incredibly polished piece of work. Even the most seasoned gamers may have a bit of trouble telling the difference between this demo video and a released tie-in title. There's a good reason for that, too. This demo cost Traveller's Tales one million dollars to produce. No, seriously. 

According to Burton, he and his team wanted to show Jackson and del Toro just how closely Traveller's Tales could emulate the cinematic experience of the property in video game form. Since The Hobbit hadn't been released yet, much less filmed, it was decided that Traveller's Tales would base their demo around The Lord of the Rings. By taking specific sequences and characters from the Lord of the Rings film series, Traveller's Tales hoped to capture the feeling of actually playing the film as closely and accurately as possible. 

This, Burton says, is when things got a little out of hand. Although Burton says he cannot recall whether or not he ever considered pitching a straightforward Lord of the Rings adaptation, he has found some early concepts for something that Traveller's Tales referred to as The Lord of the Rings Arcade

Whatever the case, the project got started and continued to gain steam. Designing with the current-gem Xbox 360 in mind, the team eventually created four full levels and five tech demos. In other words, this pitch went beyond the normal scope of a simple demo. This was meant to be a fully comprehensive look at what the team could do with the property. 

Traveller's Tales' demo included stealth gameplay of Frodo sneaking his way around enemies and through the driving rain. There are also a few mechanics in this sequence that are reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham games or The Last of Us. This includes throwing items to distract enemies and a "focus" ability that would have allowed Frodo to hone in on his targets for better stealth or elimination.

The demo also shows off other playable characters from the Fellowship of the Ring, including Gandalf the wizard. Gandalf is featured in a rather impressive-looking battle against the evil Saruman. The magical duel seen here is reminiscent of the gameplay seen in games like Skyrim. In other words, Traveller's Tales was really throwing everything into this game to see what would stick. 

That fact is acknowledged by Burton, who mentions how the cost of the demo ballooned as work continued on it. As Burton puts it, "We basically went way too far and spent way too much money making this demo, but I really wanted to show what we could do beyond just the LEGO games."

All of that work nearly paid off, as Guillermo del Toro in particular enjoyed the demo. However, according to Burton, the game was never greenlit due to creative differences between Warner Bros and Traveller's Tales. WB wanted a game that was more of a spin-off of The Hobbit, but not a strict adaptation. Burton didn't agree with this approach, and so they parted ways.

The response to Burton's video telling this tale has been wildly positive, with some fans asking in the comments for a full play through of the demo. Some are blown away by how sharp the cutscenes look, particularly for the era. Others express their disappointment towards the fact that the game was never properly completed. 

It's a shame that we never got to see this game, although it's worth noting that the last few years have brought us some spectacular Tolkien-inspired games, courtesy of the Middle-earth series. One thing is for sure, this might be the most passion and work (not to mention money) ever put into a game that never officially existed.