Janet Hetherington takes a look at how videogames based on movies are being packed with original content to keep players happy and film franchises alive.
King Kong. Superman. The Matrix. Harry Potter. Star Wars. James Bond hit movies almost inevitably spawn sequels, but today they are equally as likely to inspire hit videogames.
Its not surprising. Videogames are among the fastest-growing and most profitable businesses in the entertainment world. Domestic sales of videogames and consoles in the U.S. generated $10 billion in revenue last year, compared with movie ticket sales of $9.4 billion.
Game players seem ready to gobble up titles stemming from new and classic flicks. However, sophisticated gamers are also demanding strong original storylines, great effects, catchy music and top-notch technical delivery for an exciting play experience.
Games based on films allow fans to extend the movie-watching experience in an interactive way, says Jason Hall, svp for Warner Bros. Interactive Ent. With Superman Returns, the game has elements of the storyline based on the film, but it includes different tangents, action and additional villains from the DC Comics history of the superhero. After people see the film, they get to take the controls and actually fly as Superman in the game.
Superman Returns: The Videogame is scheduled for release in summer 2006 from Electronic Arts (EA), and the Man of Steel is making his videogame appearance in conjunction with the Superman Returns movie due for release on June 30, 2006.
With the launch of the next-generation platforms, gamers are definitely expecting better graphics, more defined characters models and 3D effects, Hall adds. The need for good storytelling in gaming is leading to the quest for better writers, producers and directors of games to develop games in all of the different genres. A lot of good games will combine genres. For instance, great action games could have really funny lines or a dramatic twist. Visual effects from the films are often incorporated into games by way of film footage or in-game cinematics.
While Superman Returns convinces gamers that a man can fly, wizard-in-training Harry Potter will be providing players with the opportunity to relive moments from his newest movie. The Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire game, which just launched, is more closely linked to the film than the previous games with the character likeness and textured environments, Hall continues. In this game, you play the great action sequences of the film and a lot of the story bookends the action in cinematics, so gamers are playing the most exciting parts from the film and not the parts that dont make for compelling game play.
In the Harry Potter game, Harry, Ron and Hermione are all playable characters, modeled after their big-screen counterparts. The game includes a spell-casting system that allows players to feel the magic as the controller shakes and reacts with each flick of the wand. Like many modern videogames, the Harry Potter game is designed for play on numerous platforms: Console/PC, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS and PSP.
Videogames are drawing from many different wells for that perfect movie experience. In EAs new James Bond release, From Russia With Love, players can create their own Bond, James Bond based on Sir Sean Connery as 007 set in a 1960s Cold War era scenario, complete with classic cars, cool architecture and retro fashion. Connery, who will receive the American Film Institutes 34th AFI Life Achievement Award on June 8, 2006, reprises his role as the dapper Mi6 agent in this console game. The game is being released on the PlayStation 2 computer entertainment system and the Xbox videogame system from Microsoft and is currently available. A version for the Nintendo GameCube will be released in mid-November and a PSP version of the game will be released in early 2006.
Todays videogame developers are involved closely with filmmakers, and have the opportunity to make use of shared assets. Depending on the film, there is definitely the sharing of pre-production assets or actual footage between the film and the game, Hall suggests. In the case of Batman Begins, we used real film footage in the game. Sometimes it makes sense to have footage to enhance the storyline of the game when it is tied closely to the film.
A good game can take two years to make, while a movie can be completed in 14 months. With King Kong, we had two-plus years to work on the game in parallel with the movie, offers Michael Beadle, pr manager for Ubisoft. We were given unlimited, unfettered access to concept art, actors for the game a triple-A collaboration and shared resources.
That access included both key moments from the King Kong film as well as creatures that were created for, but never made it into the feature. In addition to a towering King Kong, Beadle says, there are tons of creatures in the game that are not in the movie, so players can go beyond the movie experience. The King Kong videogame is due for release on Nov. 22, while the Peter Jackson movie opens Dec. 14.
For Aeon Flux [which features the voice and likeness of star Charlize Theron], as opposed to visual effects material, voice-over recordings, music, original set designs, environments and structures featured in the movie were used by our developers and incorporated into the game, says Ken Gold, vp of marketing, Majesco Ent., makers of the videogame version of Paramounts Aeon Flux, opening Dec. 2.
Modern gamers expect the best in this new wave of movie-based videogames. As software and development techniques become more advanced, so do the expectations of consumers, continues Gold. Gamers are very educated to what is available, and what their consoles and hand-helds are capable of. Plus, with each generation of hardware come new capabilities and ever more increasing processing power.
It goes without saying that one of the driving reasons to purchase a new system is for the superior and more realistic graphics. As such, to remain competitive, games must incorporate the best technology that is available. The trick is to do this without blowing your budget way out of proportion.
Brand New Content
In addition to superior graphics, many game manufacturers are telling brand-new stories about existing movie characters, using the videogame to advance the mythos.
As opposed to creating a game that allows players to simply relive the movie, Aeon Flux offers an opportunity to experience what happens during the 400-year gap between the original animated series and the upcoming feature film, Gold suggests. In addition to the unique story, players will encounter characters, environments, weapons and other key elements from both the series and the film, delivering an interactive experience not available anywhere else.
Another interesting development is that creators who work on the films are becoming more and more involved with the videogame production. Jackson, director of the acclaimed The Lord of the Rings movies and the King Kong remake, is a passionate gamer who had a direct hand in creating the Kong videogame with Ubisoft.
The effort was truly collaborative between Peter, Universal and Ubisoft, says Bill Kispert, vp of interactive, Universal Studios Consumer Products Group. Peter had several ideas that he felt were important to build into a videogame adaptation of the film, such as designing Skull Island in the game to be this incredibly hostile environment where every step the player takes is wrought with danger and also the concept of the dual game play: playing as both Jack and Kong. We knew it would take an exceptionally creative and innovative development team to achieve these goals. When Peter also noted that he had played Michel Ancels Beyond Good & Evil, and was impressed by the character development and storytelling, it became clear that Ubisoft, and Michels team, would be the perfect group to work with on the game.
Ubisoft is not the only game publisher playing the name game. In October, EA announced that Academy Award-winner Steven Spielberg would be collaborating with the game-makers at EAs Los Angeles studio (EALA) to create three new original franchise properties. Spielberg will work directly with EAs development teams and stamp the new games with his signature style of storytelling to the concept, design, plot and artistic visualization. EA will own the intellectual properties and the game franchises will be developed, published and distributed worldwide by EA.
DreamWorks had produced videogames for a time under its DreamWorks Interactive division, but EA bought that property in 2000. EAs developers are aiming to deliver titles that take advantage of new technology in upcoming gaming consoles, while delivering more engaging and novel play and entertainment.
I have been playing EA games for years and have watched them master the interactive format, Spielberg said in a prepared statement. Having watched the game industry grow from a niche into a major creative force in entertainment, I have a great deal of respect for EAs understanding of the interactive format. Im looking forward to working closely with the team in Los Angeles.
Having big-name talent attached to videogames is attractive to gamers, who are often fans of the films on which they are based. Another new game based on the Matrix trilogy, The Matrix: Path of Neo, actually has film footage and input from the Wachowski brothers who directed the films, notes Hall of Warner Bros. Interactive. This adds even more authenticity to the visual and technical effects in the game.
Set in the Matrix universe, the newest Matrix videogame offering, released this month, is from Atari Inc. The game lets players take on the role of Neo and become The One by reliving memorable scenes from the film trilogy. The likenesses of all of the films key actors, including Keanu Reeves (Neo), Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus), Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity) and Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith), are featured in the game, which also incorporates footage from The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions as well as The Animatrix. To further entice Neophytes, the videogame offers a completely new Matrix ending written and directed by the Wachowski brothers.
Since the Matrix franchise is as much beloved for its innovative vfx as for its complex, virtual philosophy, the game has a lot of material to draw upon. The bullet time effects, martial arts combat and Hollywood-style action sequences recreated in The Matrix: Path of Neo are sure to delight long-time franchise fans and appeal to new consumers, says Marc Metis, Ataris svp of marketing.
Movies Got Game
For these games, geared to adults, building the franchise base is what its all about. Previously, games were often treated as an afterthought, while now they are commonly part of the upfront, overall marketing and production strategy.
A videogame tie-in only makes sense if the movie is appropriate to be translated to a videogame, comments Majescos Gold. Action movies tend to work best as opposed to a dramatic love story. That being said, nowadays if a movie doesnt have a videogame partner, as well as a host of other co-promotional partners, it will probably not be considered a big release.
Having a videogame partner provides added awareness among the hard-to-reach, male youth/young adult demographic the movie is likely targeting, and gives this audience the ability to interact with the storyline and characters in a non-theatrical environment, Gold continues. Additionally, videogames present excellent promotional opportunities for other movie marketing partners and can incorporate content from the movie in unique ways, including unlockable bonus features, behind-the-scenes and additional cuts not used in the movie.
Development budgets are comparable with other videogame titles and vary a great deal based on development time and platform. While videogames have their own budgets and marketing launches, the net effect for both the movie and the game can be increased by working together. A great example of this is having the Aeon Flux game integrated into the movie website. As a result, all of the marketing for both the game and the movie directs consumers to one place to learn more about the property.
In many ways films continue to lead the way for the marketing of a franchise, notes Kispert of Universal Studios Consumer Products Group. However, games can play an important role in targeting specific demographics or immersing potential filmgoers more deeply in a given world, especially if you are developing complementary storylines for the games. We are strong believers in games as fiction extenders for a brand that is, original game stories can be created to further develop the universe of a given property. In that regard, games become very important for providing compelling content that keeps fans engaged in those years between sequel movies, for example, or even in the window between theatrical and DVD releases.
The marketing of videogames is becoming more closely linked with films now that the gaming audience is getting wider, according to Hall of Warner Bros. Interactive. There are greater opportunities for cross promotions, and game trailers and television advertisements broaden the reach of the brand when a game is based on a film property.
Games do have full-blown marketing, advertising and publicity campaigns similar to films but unique to the game genre and audience, Hall explains. Every game is an individual case where the marketing plan must be tailored to the target audience, which could mean more online marketing, more television and print ads depending where the awareness for the title needs to reach.
Game launches are also being tied into the increasingly important DVD releases that follow a movies theatrical run. The Star Wars Battlefront II game, which boasts never-before-seen environments straight out of the Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith film, hit retail outlets on Nov. 1, the same day as the DVD for Episode III.
However, as VFXWorld previously reported, movie studios are learning and publishing companies are making it clear that a bankable name brand does not automatically guarantee videogame success. Videogame publishers are becoming more cautious about the risks they take, especially with licensed games. Contracts between gaming publishers and movie studios now often include guaranteed box office clauses, which determine percentage changes if a movie does not make as much money as the studio expects.
ublishers tend to put out more original content with new console launches, and because the amount of consoles sold is still low, the games need to sell to almost every person who owns a next-generation console for the game to become a success. A licensed property is too expensive and the profit margin too high for the risk.
Additionally, it costs more to create next-gen games. Titles for current systems can cost about $6 million to make, but production costs could rise to $10 million for next-gen titles, combined with production timelines that are often longer than that of the movies.
The upswing is that todays movie studios are thinking more like gamers, as seen with Paramounts deal for The Warriors. Sandi Isaacs, vp interactive, Viacom Consumer Products, explained at E3 that Paramount looked at the gaming market and saw that adult games were hot. So they mined the library of Paramount titles to find properties that would fit the trend. With the success of The Warriors, the door was opened for The Godfather game.
Isaacs said that dusting off a library title such as The Warriors and seeing it succeed in the gaming world also allows the studio to gauge potential sequel or remake opportunities.
Scarface is another videogame featuring a protagonist from a film gem. Scarface is an exciting project for us and our partners Vivendi Universal Games and Radical Ent., given the iconic nature of the film, the diverse audience that continues to revere it and the dramatic game play potential it inspires, says Kispert. To give game players the opportunity to actually play as Tony Montana...and to make decisions about how to rebuild your empire... that is something no other game can deliver.
In terms of developing new storylines, for any project it is a collaborative process between Universal, our creative partners on a given property and, of course, the game publisher and developer. These new stories need to be consistent with the overall universe (past and possibly future), should reward the player with new or more in-depth knowledge of a world and be crafted so as to enhance the core game play mechanics of the project.
In addition to next years Scarface, Universal has several movie-based games in development, including Curious George (tied to the Feb. 10 theatrical release of the 2D-animated feature) and Jaws, in which you get to play as the Great White.
Make My Day
Gold advises that in addition to Aeon Flux, Majesco is working on a Ghost Rider videogame based on the Marvel character and Sony film (scheduled for release next summer), a Teen Titans videogame based on the Warner Bros. cartoon series, as well as a next-generation videogame called Demonik.
Demonik is being developed in partnership with the acclaimed horror writer and director, Clive Barker, Gold says. Clive is also set to write and direct a live-action, feature film version of Demonik.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has teamed with Clint Eastwood to develop a next-gen videogame based on the Dirty Harry franchise. In the case of Dirty Harry and other archived films in the Warner Bros. library, Hall says, we look for ways to expand the franchise and revered characters in a new story. The narrative of the game should stay true to the heart of the film but engage players with action-packed game play and new, thought-provoking adventures.
And while movies inspire games, games also inspire movies. There have been film adaptations of videogames such as Doom, Mortal Kombat and even Super Mario Bros. but the plots never seem to venture beyond their remote-controlled roots. However, there is hope for the next-generation of films based on videogames, with news that director Jackson has taken on the role of exec producer of the new Halo videogame-inspired film from Universal Pictures. In addition, scriptwriter Alex Garland was paid $1 million by Microsoft to write an adaptation of the popular game.
As the cross-pollination continues, gamers and moviegoers can look forward to a tasty new crop of games and flicks.
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Ottawa, Canada, where she shares a studio with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.