Janet Hetherington grabs for some popcorn -- and a joystick -- to discover how videogames are enhancing the summer movie experience.
It's summer movie time, and while moviegoers are reaching for the popcorn, gamers are just as eagerly reaching for the Wii control or joystick. Today's summer movie videogames are offering the chance to participate in the adventure -- to be the hero -- in addition to ever better graphics and new storylines.
For example, SEGA of America Inc.'s Iron Man videogame players are immersed in the world of Tony Stark -- and actually get to be Iron Man. Using the advanced technology in Iron Man's refined suits, players can evolve the battle armor with a wide array of high-impact projectiles and ammunition. The players then speed through massive open-ended battlefields, strategically blowing up and destroying any enemy force while using that enemy's own weaponry and vehicles against them.
There's similar appeal to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor mobile game based on the summer movie sequel (opening Aug. 1 from Universal Pictures), which is targeted toward 18-35 year old males, action/adventure movie enthusiasts and players of action games on mobile, PC and console.
"You play in the lead role of Alex O'Connell and have to race through exotic locations fighting soldiers and mummies to save the world from the Dragon Emperor," explains Gonzague de Vallois, VP of publishing, Gameloft, which produced the mobile game.
In addition to extending the summer movie fun, companion videogames play another important role. "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor game will launch two weeks prior to the theatrical release in the U.S., so it works as a great marketing tool for pre-buzz of the film," de Vallois says.
"The tie-in with videogames and Hollywood has been something that has been prevalent, if not necessary, over the past three years," de Vallois comments. "Almost every action/adventure film released nowadays has a game tie-in. The videogame market is huge, and studios understand that the audience for games is very similar to target audience for action/adventure films."
"The biggest challenge is taking a two-hour movie experience and turning it in to a 10-hour-plus game that's just as captivating and interesting, yet is developed in half the time on 2% of the budget," comments Andy Satterthwaite, producer, Speed Racer: The Videogame, from Warner Bros. Interactive Ent.
"We [Sidhe Interactive] got introduced to the project when Warner Bros. Interactive Ent. realized we were probably the best people for the job," Satterthwaite says. "After we completed GripShift for PlayStation 3, we earned a reputation for doing slightly obscure arcade driving games in a very short time. And prior to working at Sidhe Interactive, I was the producer on Wipeout XL and Quantum Redshift (both very fast futuristic racing games), so Speed Racer: The Videogame was a really good fit for both myself and the company.
"On Speed Racer: The Videogame, we decided to go with the spirit of the film (i.e., high-speed combat racing) rather than copy the story exactly," Satterthwaite adds. "It seems to have paid off, as the film and game complement each other, rather than try and fill the same gap." The game was released on Nintendo Wii and DS on May 9.
Satterthwaite notes that a key goal for film-related videogames is to create enough parallels in the game to make the playing experience familiar (as seen in the movie), yet different and fresh. "You can go to the movie, then come out and race as Speed Racer in the game on the same tracks you've seen… but it's a different racing season, so the player isn't recreating the same events or having the story spelled out to them," Satterthwaite continues. "Instead, they can enhance the experience and the movie story in their mind."
Gameloft's de Vallois agrees. "The game varies from the film in that it doesn't capture every single aspect of the movie, nor does it feature every character. We targeted the main scenes and translated those into the game.
"This is the exclusive official mobile game of the film and we wanted to not only stay true to the core storyline, since it has such a huge cult following, but also add some fun and creative elements to take advantage of the cool action-adventure theme and exotic locations," de Vallois says. "We worked closely with Universal Pictures to ensure that the mobile game was reflective of the upcoming film, so we're pretty confident that the game stays quite true to the movie. The locations featured in the film are in the mobile game: the Emperor's tomb, Shanghai, Himalayas, Shangri-La, etc."
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian videogame from Disney Interactive Studios also offers activities -- combat, exploration and puzzle solving -- that extend beyond the film. The game features 20 playable characters, including the ability to play as Prince Caspian.
"We know that fans of the movie are looking for a continuation of their experience, so it is our goal to make the game consistent with the movie and provide additional content that expands far beyond it," says Tim FitzRandolph, international producer, Disney Interactive Studios. "Movie fans and videogame fans are primarily the same audience so it's important that each experience is cohesive in content and feel but provides different experiences for entertainment."
Today's videogame creators are able to provide a more authentic movie-like experience thanks to the increasing use of shared assets. At the London press conference for the Speed Racer movie in May, producer Joel Silver spoke about his and the Wachowski brothers' involvement in the development of Speed Racer: The Videogame, giving direction and assets to the development team directly from their Berlin set.
Silver noted that a lot of the assets of the movie were incorporated into that game, saying, "These games are hugely successful, and these kids are seeing them and accepting a visual style that then can be translated to movies. We've come a long way from Pong, so I think the games are getting more sophisticated, the technology is more advanced and every year there's something that we've never seen before."
"We had a lot of the car models provided to us from the film guys," confirms Satterthwaite. "Each was made up of hundreds of thousands of polygons. We had to squeeze them down to less than two thousand each, and then get all the textures to fit. We also got 3D models of key racing scenes, but again in formats completely incompatible with a Wii game."
The asset sharing on Speed Racer did help. "While it is still a lot of work converting these assets to get them into the game," Satterthwaite continues. "By starting with the film models as a reference point, you know the approvals process is going to be a lot less painful.
"It would be great to think that for future productions we could work with the filmmakers at a much earlier stage," Satterthwaite notes. "That way, we could actually provide them game models that could be used for previs and we could really tie the game and film worlds together, letting them feed off each other, rather than it being a one-way street."
Disney Interactive's FitzRandolph says that one of the most notable assets was the exact model of King Miraz's castle seen in the film, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. "The game production team referenced the asset from Weta Digital, one of the vfx teams on the film. The game production team at Disney worked closely with the film crew in London to assure accuracy on visuals and story. Disney Interactive Studios is able to gain access to film production easily because of company synergy. Director Andrew Adamson was also involved with reviewing various stages of the game and assuring its accuracy to the film's look."
Setting the Tone
Summer movie videogames are in the unique position that they can add to the mythos of a popular franchise. The game may also extend the film director's vision.
"In our first meeting with John Gaeta and the Wachowski brothers, they were very clear on the target audience and the type of game they wanted to create," adds Satterthwaite. "The Speed Racer movie was to be aimed directly at 8-12 year olds, and the game should be too. They also felt that the game should not just be a racing game -- indeed, they didn't even mind if it wasn't a racing game at all… What was most important to them was that it should be a kinetic battle between cars with enough energy to have the kids actually jumping around the room while playing it. (This was one of the primary reasons why we led with the game on Wii)."
This meeting provided a bit of a conceptual challenge as, traditionally, the future racer genre appeals to hardcore gamers rather than kids -- and it's usually about twitchy finesses on the controls rather than high energy vehicle collisions. But the Wachowski brothers had a name for vehicle-vehicle fighting: 'Car Fu' and that single phrase was enough to get the imagination flowing. When we then got to see a previs short of their vision for the movie, we knew that we could make something really fun."
In the end, Satterthwaite says that the biggest challenge, and the most satisfying element, was getting the physics and the Car Fu as imagined.
"In games, players need to feel in control," Satterthwaite offers. "When they do something they need to feel the car acts correctly, but the movie doesn't exactly obey all the laws of physics. For example, in the film, Speed Racer is the best racing driver in the world; in the game, we have to make an 8-year-old feel like they are too, while still offering a challenge for the older players."
Satterthwaite notes that Sidhe Interactive has a usability lab where they can get players in front of early versions of the game and film their reactions. "This allows us to see how we need to tune the game to appeal to a wide variety of players, and to make sure that the important messages in the game are getting through. The feel of the game and the 'Car Fu' battles were developed using repeated usability tests and a lot of hard work by the code guys," he says.
Creating believable characters and animals was a challenge for the Prince Caspian videogame. "Any time you deal with a fantasy storyline that includes such a wide variety of both fictional and real animals, making them all look consistent and believable is a challenge," says Disney Interactive's FitzRandolph. "For instance, we know through observation what a four-legged mammal like a lion will look like when walking but a creature like a fawn, centaur or minotaur is an entirely different story and requires some interpretation and artistic license on our part."
Videogames are also incorporating new technologies that directly affect (and connect) game play. Prince Caspian for Nintendo DS is debuting DGamer, Disney Interactive Studios' new technology that provides a connected game community for Disney videogame fans. With DGamer, players earn content, interact and chat with others on Nintendo DS through the Nintendo wi-fi Connection or on a computer through the Disney.com website.
DGamer will be offered in North America in future Nintendo DS games from Disney Interactive Studios with a future launch scheduled in other global regions. Prince Caspian for Nintendo DS was developed by Fall Line Studio, the Nintendo platform-dedicated development studio of Disney Interactive Studios.
Summer movies mean action, and so do their videogames. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor computer and console videogames have been developed by Sierra Ent., a division of Vivendi Games, with work by Eurocom Studios for the Wii and PS2 and by A2M for Nintendo DS. The game was created through a licensing agreement with Universal Pictures Digital Platforms Group.
As in other games, this videogame interpretation of the Mummy sequel will mirror the action and adventure depicted in the film. Players will take on the roles of Rick O'Connell and his son, Alex (played by Brendan Fraser and Luke Ford, respectively). Players will follow the lead characters on their journey across exotic locations from ancient catacombs to beautiful, but dangerous, Himalayan peaks to defeat the revived servants of the Dragon Emperor (Jet Li).
"The Mummy is one of the most distinctive and expansive franchises in Universal's portfolio, and there is inherent game play in the property," says Bill Kispert, VP and general manager, Interactive, Universal Pictures Digital Platforms Group. "The new film amps up the action, introduces a ruthless new villain and takes our heroes to incredible new locations. We are thrilled to bring all these attributes to life in this game." The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor videogame is scheduled for release on July 22.
As for the mobile version, Gameloft's de Vallois says that one of the biggest challenges faced in creating mobile games in general is trying to work within the size limitations. "There is a fine balance between having an engaging storyline so that players will want to see it through to end and rich graphic/visuals that will keep the player engaged," he adds. "It is even [truer] with a film like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, because the environment has captivating backdrops and features exotic elements such as caves, tombs, mummies, monsters, etc."
Yet another franchise staple -- and one of the most anticipated summer movies of the year -- is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Indy is offering several videogame experiences.
One upcoming game from Lucasarts, several years in production, features the groundbreaking euphoria behavioral-simulation engine from NaturalMotion Ltd., creators of the award-winning Dynamic Motion Synthesis (DMS) technology. euphoria enables interactive characters -- from Indiana Jones to the foes he tangles with -- to move, act and even think like actual human beings without the limitations of traditional animation. Characters move and adapt realistically to their given situations on the fly, resulting in a series of experiences and payoffs that will never be the same twice.
This game becomes as unpredictable as Indy himself. Imagine a swaying rope bridge. With euphoria in action, characters visibly attempt to balance themselves, their feet stumbling, their arms flailing, and their hands reaching for security as the unpredictable movements of the bridge threaten to send them plummeting to their doom. Perhaps they all survive. Perhaps they all fall. The use of euphoria means the action is not scripted -- it's simulated -- so players are never be able to predict exactly what will happen, no matter how many times they have experienced a certain scenario.
However, another, stockier Indiana Jones is also hunting for archaeological treasure in the LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures videogame from Lucasarts/TT Games. This game follows the spirit of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as Dr. Jones treks through the jungles of South America to the mountaintops of India.
Players are invited to "build, battle and brawl your way through your favorite moments, from Indy's entanglements with snakes to his dashing boulder run." In the kid- and parent-friendly game, LEGO characters are fully immersed in their environment, are able to swim, climb, shimmy across rock ledges and pick up and carry objects. Players can use a variety of weapons from the environment such as chairs, guns, swords and bottles to fight enemies -- including Indy's whip, which can be used as a multi-purpose tool to attack, disarm, swing across gaps, activate levers and interact with a world of LEGO objects and puzzles.
This LEGO videogame is itself part of a franchise, following the success of the LEGO Star Wars franchise that sold more than 15 million units worldwide. An integrated $7 million marketing campaign, including TV, is targeting a broad range of gamers, and will be complemented by a strong online presence, print campaign and partnership with the movie promotional partners. This game is scheduled for release June 3.
Yet another game developer, THQ, is making its latest mobile phone game featuring the adventures of Indiana Jones and Mutt available to users as of May 1. Gamers play as Indy and Mutt Williams as they journey through the jungles, cemeteries and temples of Peru. Indy uses his legendary whip to defeat enemies and to swing his way over the gaps, obstacles and up to the higher platforms. Indy also has an ability to defeat enemies on lower platforms by attacking them from above.
In another effort to extend the movie experience, videogames are also offering unique content for players and fans.
Disney Interactive's FitzRandolph says that the The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian game expands beyond the events of the film to provide fans with different looks at Narnia. "The game starts with the fall of Cair Paravel, which happens between the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian," he adds. "In Prince Caspian, we see the ruins of Cair Paravel but only in the game do we see what happened. We were able to provide that while working closely with the C.S. Lewis estate."
In addition to content from the film, there are two original, live-action scenes only available in the videogame. "The scenes were shot on the film set in Prague, Czech Republic, during principal shooting and feature dialog revealing plot based on the events of the book, game and film," advises FitzRandolph. "The creation of the live action content was under the guidance of Andrew Adamson."
In SEGA's Iron Man videogame, players will be offering unlockable suits from the Marvel comic book history, including (but not limited to) the Extremis suit, the Classic suit and the Hulkbuster suit -- each of which features its own strengths and weapons.
Speaking of the Hulk, SEGA is also offering a videogame based on The Incredible Hulk summer flick from Universal set to smash into theaters on June 13. Like the movie, Dr. Bruce Banner wanders in search of something to help him fight his involuntary rage. And like the movie, gamers can demolish anything in their path -- including lampposts, passing cars and even buildings. The fury-fueled game features key moments from the film, as well as additional plotlines and characters from The Incredible Hulk universe. Players crash through New York City, battling gigantic enemies amidst soaring skyscrapers in a massive open world.
However, the green behemoth has a change of color -- red -- in an exclusive offering from GameStop. Marvel Comics' website reports that on June 13, the same day as the movie hits theaters, the Hulk's latest game will be released for XBox 360, PS3, PS2, PC, Wii and DS. Some 360 gamers who patronize GameStop will be able to enjoy the only access to Red Hulk.
And even as the summer is just warming up, game developers are already working on next year's crop of summer movie videogames.
Disney Interactive's FitzRandolph says, "We know that fans of the film can't help but leave the theater wanting more, and that is our goal with the videogame as it expands beyond the events of the film and provides gamers with more ways to experience it and the ability to play as various characters."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who enjoys going to summer movies. She shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.