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Cartoons and Video Games: Let's Do Business

MIPCOM consultant Frederique Doumic answers her most frequently asked questions regarding the merging of the gaming and animation industries.

Space Circus, an action-adventure game produced by Infogrames, was a big hit among producers shopping for multimedia properties at MIPCOM `97. © Infogrames

Frédérique Doumic is MILIA's special consultant in collaborative ventures between animation producers and interactive gaming companies. At the last MIPCOM, she organized "Informal Encounters" which was designed specifically to promote joint projects between the two industries. Viewed as a great success, these discussions will be continued in Cannes at MILIA (The International Content Market For Interactive Media) from February 7-11, 1998. Lately, Frédérique has been in demand, but she took time out to answer her most frequently asked questions for AWM.

You organized meetings between cartoon and video game producers at the last MIPCOM. What form did these meetings take?

These meetings, organized with the active support of the Reed Midem Organization, and more particularly the MILIA staff, consisted of ten private sessions between three major video game companies, Ubisoft, Infogrames and BMG Interactive; and cartoon producers, including Nelvana, Ellipse, EVA, Alliance, Pro Sieben, Cartoon and Mattel. The aim of these meetings was to find out whether these operators wanted to work together and if so, how.

What struck the operators in both fields at these meetings?

The video game companies were struck by the degree of regulatory and editorial constraint imposed on producers of audiovisual materials, often independently of the wishes of the final consumer. As far as companies in the audiovisual field were concerned, they were impressed by the creativeness and modernity of the games presented at these meetings.

Will any agreements be finalized due to these meetings?

Two projects, Space Circus, an action-adventure game produced by Infogrames, and Roberto, an educational game initiated by BMG Interactive, were presented to the cartoon companies over the course of these meetings. Most of the cartoon producers were extremely interested in Space Circus. The game has a very powerful graphic world and plot framework. In addition, following the presentation of Roberto, a licensing contract is to be signed between BMG Interactive and a large Canadian producer. Ubisoft took a stand at MIPCOM and thus, presented its projects separately. The animation tests for Rayman and other Ubisoft properties also appear to have interested a considerable number of audiovisual producers and broadcasters.

Kids playing Space Circus. Photo by Yves Coatsaliou. © Infogrames

In the direction of cartoon properties becoming video games or vice versa?

Only Ubisoft had come with licensing in and licensing out in mind. They made a number of interesting contacts with the idea of turning existing cartoons into games. But now there are video game producers who have wanted to work in audiovisual for a long time. As far as cartoon producers are concerned, it is only recently that they have been attracted to the interactive field and I am afraid that video game companies do not necessarily need them so much now. Video games have made a lot of progress since the appearance of CD-ROMs and 32-bit consoles. They look increasingly like interactive cartoons and have more and more detailed plots. Video game producers have become financially just as powerful as the senior players in the audiovisual field.

Do video game companies want their products to be converted into cartoons, or do animation studios want their properties to be expanded into games?

We witnessed an embryonic test of strength on the subject of "which side will convert the other's products."

Which sector, cartoons or video games, has the most easily converted worlds?

I think that increasingly, we will see the video game worlds being exploited. These game worlds are creative and modern, with a captive public. Gaming is an area where authors can give free rein to their imagination. There is a lot less censorship of video games. The sole judge in the end is the customer, whose judgment is taken into account through tests carried out during the production process.

Is licensing a good way for these two sectors to work together?

It must be acknowledged that licensing is rarely a success. The converted products are often rush jobs simply aimed at exploiting an existing property. As time goes by, consumers are becoming wary and some big licenses have been resounding flops.

Are gaming and cartoon companies ready to work more closely than just selling one another licenses?

In my opinion, the key to success is the work carried out upstream, the creation of worlds designed from the very start for both medias. To my great delight, the MIPCOM meetings demonstrated that the companies in both sectors were interested in upstream collaboration. But appropriate collaborative structures still remain unestablished. The temptation for some gaming or cartoon companies is to do the job of the other sector on their own. Some major cartoon companies have already done so: Disney, Warner, Viacom, among others. Not always very successfully mind you. The success of video games largely depends on their gameplay. A good cartoon doesn't necessarily turn into a good game. It is perhaps easier to move from games to cartoons. The skill of storytelling is older and therefore, more widespread than the skills involved in properly programming video games. Some video game companies are in the process of setting up animation studios. They are already working with animators from 2-D and 3-D cartoons and with fiction scriptwriters to construct game worlds. Now they feel properly equipped to produce cartoons. However, not all game companies have taken this step yet, and it is time that those operating in the cartoon sector set up partnerships with them.

In 1998, MILIA will invite companies to submit cartoon projects to be presented to a panel of video game producers. Photo by Yves Coatsaliou.

What do video game companies need to have if they want to become successful animation producers?

They still need a "network" enabling them to agree to large (U.S. $10 million) financing plans quickly. However, they are fast learners! Some of them are successfully positioning themselves in the young adult cartoon market. At the last MIPCOM, Chaman, a new gaming and animation company created by Denis Friedman, the former chief executive of Psygnosis France, attracted Asian partners and video producers for the direct-to-video production of Gaina, a 52-minute cartoon adapted from a game which is still in production.

Which products are the easiest to convert?

Only a limited number of projects in either sector exist in both media (one game in forty, according to Infogrames). Genuinely international-scale, action-adventure games and cartoons particularly lend themselves to this, but some products for specifically targeted groups such as young children and young adults also deserve to be mentioned.

Aren't the gaming worlds out of line with the requirements of cartoon broadcasters?

Some broadcasters appear to have reservations about distributing programs that are video game spin-offs because they think that video games in general are violent and stultifying. These are hasty judgments that need to be refined in terms of the particular projects in question. Likewise, some broadcasters do not like 3-D. Games are very often produced in full 3-D to give players greater freedom of movement. I think that children are now completely used to 3-D, and that what is needed to produce CGI cartoons is scriptwriters who can use the third dimension properly. Video game producers are, in my view, very well equipped to invent stories in three-dimensional worlds.

What is the main reason producers in the cartoon sector should make video games?

Video games are considerably more profitable than cartoons for companies in the cartoon sector, except where it is a question of worldwide merchandising rights. Successful video games produce earnings that are ten, even a hundred, times the initial outlay. Margins for cartoons, on the other hand, are often a percentage of the cost of production. But the risks associated with the games sector are somewhat frightening for producers of audiovisual materials. There are very few with large enough resources to carry the financial risks taken by gaming producers. On average, each game costs U.S. $2 million, and the risk of poor sales is virtually 100% of the cost of production, plus the cost of issuing it. That is why producers of audiovisual materials need to team up with specialists in the gaming field.

And from the point of view of video game companies?

For game companies, the distribution of a cartoon creates or reinforces a game's reputation and thus its profitability. It also makes it easier to get access to the merchandising market, a market to which games have virtually no access at the moment. As far as the risks associated with cartoon production are concerned, they are very limited compared with those of developing or manufacturing video games. That is why game companies are, in my view, in a better position to start producing audiovisual materials.

To what extent are game companies prepared to invest in cartoons?

At the MIPCOM meetings, the gaming companies expressed a wish to co-produce cartoons based on their games, at least to the extent of their rights. Video game producers are financially very powerful companies. In my view, some of them are quite capable of having a very ambitious investment strategy. What is more, Ubisoft intends to open animation studios in China for the production of cartoons based on its video games.

What are the main restraints on the production and distribution of combined video game/cartoon products?

There are still fairly major differences between the time it takes to put together, produce and distribute cartoons and video games. It is therefore quite hard to synchronize game and cartoon releases. Even if they are designed at the same time, a cartoon will take at least one or two years longer than a game to come onto the market. However, there is a trend toward the production time of games lengthening and that of cartoons shortening.

Do you plan to extend these MIPCOM meetings through other actions?

My job is to establish collaborative ventures between these two worlds so I am working on it every day. What is more, in cooperation with Reed Midem, we are planning to organize a major cartoon/video game event to encourage the creation of partnerships between the two media forms [MILIA]. Shortly, we will be inviting companies to submit projects. We will then select about ten cartoon projects to be presented to a panel of video game producers and to the MILIA public under privileged conditions. The aim of this "exchange floor" is to help audiovisual producers find partners in the interactive field. We will likewise be organizing special meeting places for the two media. With the fifth edition of MILIA 1998 having the theme "Towards Convergence," it will be the ideal market for initiating partnerships of this type

MILIA, A Description

MILIA is the only international event dedicated to interactive media content regardless of the platform or technology. MILIA's aim is to bring together, over a five-day period, key decision-makers and professionals in the interactive media industry to buy and sell rights, form strategic alliances, develop online services, scout new talent and negotiate distribution agreements. This year's theme promises the right developments, as it connects online, gaming and multimedia professionals with the latest technologies and converging industries, such as television cable, satellite and telecoms. With all this in mind, MILIA is definitively the right place for the TV/PC convergence.

Frédérique Doumic is MILIA's special consultant in collaborative ventures between animation producers and interactive, gaming companies.