The Show Must Go On

By Chris Remo, May 18, 2006 4:28pm PDT The Los Angeles Times takes a look at the neverending trend of movie-based video games. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the reputation movie licenses have for being money in the bank, the article's author notes that licenses may not be the guarantee they're cracked up to be. Ubisoft's tie-in Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, designed by the acclaimed Michel Ancel (Beyond Good & Evil), was hailed as one of the all time best examples of a film to game adaptation. Despite the hype and the positive critical reaction, the game apparently didn't see the kind of retail sales that were expected from such a high profile property. Ubisoft still considers the game a success in terms of the positive effect it had on the company's interactions with Hollywood, and soon after the game's release, Ubisoft president Yves Guillemot noted that he'd like to see 25% of the company's revenue come from movie licenses.
Movie producers and game designers have tried for decades to cash in on each other's appeal with movies based on games and with games based on movies. Flops have far outnumbered hits. Even as technical differences erode -- games are more cinematic, movies rely heavily on computer effects -- the gap between the two remains difficult to bridge.

Only one game with a movie tie-in, "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," ranked among the top 10 best-selling U.S. titles of 2005, according to NPD Group video game analyst Anita Frazier. In contrast, Frazier said, "King Kong" came in 72nd.

With the cost of game development continually rising, particularly with the current console transition, many are reevaluating the benefits of movie licenses, which are often very expensive for publishers to acquire. Activision just spend an estimated $70M on the Bond license, but that opportunity was only made available after Electronic Arts dropped the license to move away from content not entirely controlled in-house.

As most gamers know, movies and games have not traditionally been nearly as compatible as many Hollywood and game publisher executives have hoped. Still, more and more Hollywood filmmakers have expressed interest in moving into the video game space, even in the case of games that are not solely adapdations. Last year, Electronic Arts announced that Steven Spielberg will be contributing to several upcoming video games. Action director John Woo is making what is essentially a sequel to his classic film Hard Boiled, but instead of a movie, the followup is a standalone video game. Actor Vin Diesel's game studio Tigon has contributed to Starbreeze's Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (a rare example of a well-received film adaptation) and an upcoming original property The Wheelman, which is being developed both as a game and a film.

Despite the less than promising results of the past, it seems that the possible payoffs from a crossover between two incredibly lucrative industries are simply too attractive for game publishers and film studios. Expect the film-to-game trend (and vice versa) to be relentlessly pursued, with the occasional success fueling the fire.

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9 Threads | 23 Comments

  • Those Brian Farrell quotes are spot on, especially when he says [b]"You make a lousy game -- even based on a great movie -- it doesn't sell."[/b]

    He gets it. No one else quoted in that article seems to, though.

    There's this dangerous assumption that a lot of game publishers indulge in - that if you make a game based on a "hit movie" or a popular license, that it will translate into robust sales for that game.

    There is a breathless desperation for "day and date" releases - when the game comes out the day the movie comes out - that often accelerates game production schedules and sacrifices quality for marketing synergy and cross-promotional opportunities.

    EA seems to be wisening up to the dangers of being beholden to licensed properties. When you work on someone else's IP, you are beholden to them for production support (style guides, concept art, scripts, etc...this can be impossible to get if the movie is still in production, or if the studio lacks the proper licensing infrastructure to supply you with that stuff), you are subject to their creative whims and continuity problems. At the end of the day, they are calling at least some of the shots, and often they are the most significant shots.

    It seems that EA is realizing that they can turn away from other IP and foster their own (and EA has some amazingly successful original IPs). Not surprisingly, Activision, doomed to an eternity of playing second fiddle and sycophantic copycat to EA, gobbled up the Bond license. I'm sure their new managers are convinced that they'll make that reported $70 million back. (I'm taking bets NOW that it NEVER happens, btw.)

    It's the same breed of flawed logic. Movie Property A is a cash cow in Hollywood, therefore it will be a cash cow in the game industry, JUST BECAUSE IT'S SO POPULAR. Never mind that movie consumers and game consumers are fundamentally different (not meaning that gamers don't watch movies, just that the decision making process surround "what game should I buy" is different than "what movie should I see"). Never mind that the Bond heyday was TWO GENERATIONS AGO. Never mind that it's a crusty old brand rife with anachronism.

    The allure of the profit potential for movie-based games (and, I believe, the almost pathological inferiority complex the game industry feels towards the film industry) trumps all other considerations. The license becomes more important than the gameplay.

    Corporate leaders, brand managers, and financial analysts will wring their hands and scratch their heads and wonder why they can't just sit back and churn out, say, a Harry Potter game or four every movie release and make bazillions of dollars. Ditto the Dreamworks games from Activision.

    They don't realize that, when the player gets past the title screen, past the characters they recognize, they'll sit down with a game and, if it ISN'T FUN TO PLAY, they will be MAD. And they'll tell their friends not to buy it. Faster than ever (the Internet and text messaging and blogging and MySpace are making consumers more informed than ever before, because they can instantly share their opinions about entertainment products, and the traditional lead times entertainment purveyors used to rely on, the haze of ignorance and hype that lingered before word of mouth killed a movie at the box office or a game at the mall, is evaporating FAST).

    Making matters worse, two entire generations of gamers have grown up and learned, by painful object lessons, that, more often than not, movie-based games are crap. So, there's even that hurdle to leap over for publishers. That materially devalues movie-based properties in an almost non-quantifiable, but still significant way. Publishers look at a property like Bond and they just think "I'm gonna make 10 Goldeneye's with this and we'll be RICH!" but don't think about stinkers like The World Is Not Enough and the other 5 Bond titles that have shipped under EA's guidance, almost all of which were critically reviled (Everything Or Nothing was a good game, though).

    Game publishers need to trust developers to come up with good gameplay and interesting intellectual properties. If you look at the most successful game "franchises" of all time, you'll find that they are overwhelmingly NOT based on other intellectual property. Think of your ten favorite games of all time? Are any of them based on a movie property that isn't Star Wars? Doubtful.

    Game publishers need to put gameplay first. Sure, a movie license may be attractive, and it IS possible to make a great movie-based game (Star Wars has some awesome games, for instance) but gameplay is, and always will be, king.

    Sorry for the longramble, but this subject pisses me off.

  • Its not about tie in's, they hurt as much as help, and precedent has burned so many gamers and franchise fans alike that its wide berth, before take the plunge.

    These plonkers have raped and pillaged consumers with rushed and inadequate titles floated solo on branding and now they wonder why no one buys there games anymore.

    Buy a fing clue, you shovel shit and try to pass it off as truffles and eventually even the dire hard fanboi is gonna call that bluff and ditch your products for ones that actually care about the end user experience.

    These fools are all thinking the fast buck and short con, but ultimately they have reaped what they have sown, because now the industry is moving away from third party IP based on horrible returns and incredible upfront costs.

    Nothing says stinker like a movie tie in, and perhaps more entertaining is the rebound effect this is having on the movie industry itself.

    Vicious Karmic Spiral.

  • I'm not really sure if it's possible for a game/film transition to work well, particularly when they're both trying to cover the same story. The two mediums are more different than most people consider in terms of what's necessary for entertainment, and how the plot is progressed. Compared to the average bodycount of a game, most films have it fairly light, and it usually feels like fluff filler when a game suddenly adds in a load of new enemies in a transitional section between scenes of the film. As an example, F.E.A.R. might seem like a good idea for a film, but I couldn't see it ever working, even if the films of games prior to it had been huge successes (somehow). It's too light on plot, and too heavy on combat, for most films.

    Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay worked for a variety of reasons - it had a solid engine and idea, and it took place in a section of the established character's extremely violent past. You didn't necessarily need to have seen either of the Riddick films to get a grip on what the game was doing and more importantly, it was rather different in tone to the films. It went its own way. Enter the Matrix could have worked, but was let down by less-than-spectacular characters, and a pretty terrible plot and game engine. It's kind of sad when you consider that EtM had one of the best shots at being a really good film-to-game. There are plenty of franchises that have good shots at being good games, and there are proven examples (Bond's an excellent franchise to make games of, and Goldeneye was amazing) but they're few and far between because it feels like most developers, or most film makers, just don't quite realise the differences.

    I still hold out hope that the situation is going to improve, but I believe what I said at the top of this post: By and large, films and games are too different for it to work all that often, unless there are some extremely smart people on the design side of things.