Next-gen video games show promise as property-launchers

From Pac-Man to Pokémon, Hollywood has always taken the video gaming audience very seriously. But this year, the cinematic battles between Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy beg the question: Can video games become tent-pole entertainment franchises? And how will the next-gen...
May 1, 2001

From Pac-Man to Pokémon, Hollywood has always taken the video gaming audience very seriously. But this year, the cinematic battles between Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy beg the question: Can video games become tent-pole entertainment franchises? And how will the next-gen platforms introduced this year influence the movie business from this point on?

Digital discs that allow greater storytelling, more animation and fully realized environments are allowing gamemakers greater access to Hollywood. ‘This is yet another vein of content for Hollywood to mine,’ says Peter Dille, VP of marketing for gameco THQ. ‘It provides some great content. The other thing that’s different is that demographically, and sort of psychographically, the studios are looking at this and saying, `We’re competing for our consumers’ time; we know that people are spending more time on games-let’s see if we can’t mine that world for stuff that would cross over.”

‘It’s an exciting time to be in the video game industry for a lot of reasons,’ says Jane Thompson, director of development at Sega of America. ‘The technology is extremely advanced, and that allows artists, technicians and game developers to create very deep environments and really tell stories-much more than they were able to do before. This new character and story line depth is very attractive, and certainly Hollywood is tapping into our industry for content.’

The games being produced today have richer stories, so much so that game companies have a steady stream of studio suits coming through to look at properties in development, to see if they would work well as feature films or TV shows. But are all the bells and whistles provided by the extra content in these new platforms enough to influence Hollywood producers?

‘I’m amazed how many come in and have a jaw-dropping reaction to what they are seeing,’ says Dille. ‘The fact of the matter is that history and backstory are already there as part of the game. That is something that is very portable. But yeah, Hollywood likes to rewrite regardless.’

Sega’s Thompson concurs. ‘Hollywood is always looking for original content, and these game developers are the most creative minds in the world. But even with the extensive backstory and graphics provided in the next-gen games, most video game properties have to be adjusted to the medium.’

According to Greg Goldstein, VP of marketing at Activision, studios and producers must judge whether what’s appropriate in a game, both editorially and visually, would work in the movies. ‘The advantage is you’re practically `trailering’ the property,’ says Goldstein. You’re saying `Here’s what it looks like, here’s what you can do.’ If I make a movie that’s faithful to the game, the gamers may like it, but is that enough to motivate Hollywood to make a movie? Hollywood needs properties that go way beyond the gaming audience to be successful.’

As gaming technology advances at warp speed, so too do production costs. ‘These games cost as much as movies do. A triple-A title costs between US$5 million and US$20 million, says Sega’s Thompson. ‘And to launch these titles, it’s like launching a movie-millions of dollars in marketing.’ As evidence of just how far the industry has advanced in so short a time, THQ’s Dille reflects: ‘It used to be the games were made by a couple of guys in a garage somewhere-maybe one artist, one programmer, very small teams.’ Now, in addition to escalating production costs, the size of production team has multiplied, with up to 50 people involved in any one project, including several programmers, graphic designers, screenwriters and orchestras producing scores.

‘It’s an evolution that’s become a revolution because of the technology,’ says Activision’s Goldstein. ‘The technology has always been way behind what the developers wanted to do. The more realized vision in the games creates inspiration, content and opportunities for Hollywood.’

‘In the past, when we’ve had entertainment properties based on our games and characters, they were like stand-alone offerings,’ explains Nintendo’s VP of marketing George Harrison. ‘There was a live-action Super Mario Brothers movie that was not successful, although part of that failure can be attributed to the crossover from 2-D to live action. Historically, it’s been more difficult than expected to make a video game property into an extended entertainment property.’

Harrison believes that’s about to change, dramatically. One of the advantages of the new game technology is the amount of additional animated sequences it allows-full-motion video, added as rewards or clues for enhancing gameplay. These bonus bits require more development on behalf of the game producers, creating a more complete entertainment experience for the gamer.

‘Because we are moving to a digital disc, there is more opportunity to tell a backstory, and certainly the quality of the graphics are of a higher standard,’ says Harrison. ‘With the expanded space on the disc, we are able to do opening cinematics and `reward animation’ after each game level that really become, in small ways, parts of an expanded animated story.’

THQ’s Dille agrees that more disc space offers bigger opportunities. ‘When games went from cartridge to CD, I remember the reaction was `Oh my god, look at how much we can put on this CD. We’ll never fill it up,” Dille reflects. ‘Now we’re going from CD to DVD, which gives us even more storage capacity, and the development guys will find ways to fill those up as well.’

And yet the gaming industry is bracing itself for its biggest changes to date, with new consoles that offer convergence with other media. And electronic game producers are going through what THQ’s Dille calls a ‘transition period.’

‘New technology is replacing the old, and we are experiencing a bit of overlap while that happens,’ explains Dille. ‘Right now, PlayStation 2 is being introduced, while PlayStation 1 is winding down.’ And with Sony beginning to ship PS2 in mass quantity, Microsoft introducing the Xbox, and Nintendo launching the Gamecube and Game Boy Advance, ‘this is the year when things really begin to take off,’ says Dille.

The previous console generation was marked by the dominance of Sony PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64. And Sega, which has had its problems keeping up with this technology, is getting out of the hardware business. Sega’s Dreamcast would have competed against PS2, being the first of the next-gen consoles to launch, but it just didn’t get to the point where a critical mass of the development community supported the product.

Dille sees convergence and compatibility as factors in the new platforms’ success. ‘One important difference is that PS2 will be backward compatible. (It can play both PS1 and PS2 games.) No video game system has had that advantage. Unlike the shift from eight-track tapes to cassettes, or vinyl to CDs, where you’d have to replace your software catalog, you don’t have to replace your PlayStation library.’

It’s a rapid change, and the gaming world is now taken as seriously as books, graphic novels and Broadway plays as a major source of TV and film inspiration. ‘In the beginning, video games were looked down at and people never really appreciated that this was a big business, that video game revenues are on par with, or greater than, domestic box office,’ says Dille. ‘It’s not kids stuff anymore.’ Indeed, the electronic gaming industry grosses US$6 billion annually.

Nintendo’s next-gen platform, the Gamecube, will debut in October and uses a three-and-a-half-inch digital disc to store its game programming. THQ, which creates games for all competing platforms, is excited by the new opportunities afforded by the extra scenes. ‘The object of any game is to get the gamer to suspend disbelief, to feel like they are part of that world they are playing in. Whether that’s a role-playing game, where they are fighting a dragon, or a sports game where they are out there on the field with their heroes, you want them to feel like they’re part of the action,’ says Dille. ‘So these `cut scenes’ are very elaborate sequences that help a story-based game.’

And yet there’s a downside. ‘What people are wrestling with now is the use of gratuitous cut scenes that don’t really lend anything, they’re just kind of there and they’re annoying. If it helps tell the story and adds value, or if its interwoven into the entire gaming experience and the game actually looks like the cut scenes, then it’s appreciated. It has to be done in a seamless way.’

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before video game studios start producing their own full-length films, without Hollywood’s help. If you ask Sega’s Thompson, that day has already come, as a theatrical feature based on a Sega game is slated for a summer debut in Japan. Shenmue The Movie was created using Dreamcast technology by the game’s creator, Yu Suzuki, who is considered the Steven Spielberg of the gaming industry.

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