Making integrated magic

Memo to the gaming industry: Hollywood no longer sees you as a bunch of pasty, bespectacled nerds clicking away in obscurity. And the driving force behind this newfound respect - transforming video games from a mere ancillary prospect into an 'it' category in the eyes of the studios - has everything to do with the ka-ching of the cash register.
January 1, 2004

Memo to the gaming industry: Hollywood no longer sees you as a bunch of pasty, bespectacled nerds clicking away in obscurity. And the driving force behind this newfound respect – transforming video games from a mere ancillary prospect into an ‘it’ category in the eyes of the studios – has everything to do with the ka-ching of the cash register.

That sound, combined with technological advances and the mainstreaming of gaming from geek obsession to family pastime, has forced Hollywood to get religion. The result is that some studios are now bending over backwards to accommodate the needs of their gaming licensees. Integration and collaboration are the buzzwords du jour, and game publishers and developers are gaining unprecedented access to film sets, scripts, art assets and talent.

‘From our side, there’s always been a desire to get in as close as we can on a film because we need those assets to make a great game,’ says Peter Dille, senior VP of worldwide marketing for Calabasas Hills, California-based THQ. ‘Now you’re seeing a greater interest at the creative level of the studios – they’re wanting to work with us collaboratively.’

Of equal importance to gamecos is how soon they can get their hands on those assets. With production lead times averaging between 18 and 24 months, game licensees need to see the script and key art elements at least that far out in order to ensure that titles are released day-and-date with the movie, as well as to take advantage of the millions of impressions that are generated by a theatrical marketing campaign.

And for their part, the studios claim to be smarter about timing. ‘I’m meeting publishers and developers about films that we’re doing two or three years from now to see how we can make the games better,’ says Mark Caplan, executive director of sales for Sony Pictures Consumer Products, adding that five years ago, lead times were between 12 and 16 months.

The payoff of a more collaborative process, say proponents, is games that are more entertaining and sell more units. A case in point, says Caplan, is Activision’s Spider-Man: The Movie (based on Sony’s feature film), which was the sixth best-selling PlayStation 2 title in 2002, according to industry tracker The NPD Group. In addition to having access to the film’s script, style guide, CG imagery from Sony Imageworks and voice work from the film’s two leads (Tobey Maguire as Spidey and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin), Activision met early on with director Sam Raimi, with whom they collaborated on story lines that were featured in the game.

With the average video game lending itself to 40 hours of play, you can’t rely on a two-hour movie to provide enough content, says Lori Plager, senior director of licensing at Santa Monica, California’s Activision. In fact, through its discussions with Raimi, Activision was able to determine early in the process that there weren’t enough characters for the game, and decided to license additional Spider-Man foes from Marvel Enterprises. ‘Because gaming has become as popular as watching movies,’ says Plager, ‘publishers understand that adding authentic elements from a movie – whether it’s getting input from the creators or using actors’ voices and original footage – gives games a better chance of succeeding.’

On the downside, a greater demand for film authenticity is driving up costs for game licensees, says Plager. To keep pace with the writing quality of games like Spider-Man, Activision is starting to use Hollywood screenwriters for its own IP titles, to either polish up dialogue or to write scripts. Furthermore, she says, rates for voice-alike talent (voice actors gamecos hire to sub for a film’s stars) have, in some cases, doubled from what they were five years ago.

Nonetheless, Activision has witnessed what happens to titles that don’t achieve an acceptable level of movie realism. For Minority Report: Everybody Runs (based on Stephen Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi flick), the gameco was unable to secure the licensing rights to lead actor Tom Cruise’s voice or a suitable sound-alike. ‘It was problematic,’ says Plager, adding that Cruise’s voice likeness would likely have helped boost the game higher than its 421st spot on NPD’s video game sales charts for 2003.

Minority Report, however, is the exception these days. Many of Activision’s studio partners are taking steps to make sure it gets whatever it needs to make a successful game. DreamWorks, for instance, which has granted the gameco licenses to three of its upcoming animated pics – Shark Tale (October 2004), Madagascar (summer 2005) and Over the Hedge (holiday 2005) – has provided the company’s game developers with offices on several of its lots. ‘They’re literally next door to the creators of the movies,’ says Plager.

The focus on collaboration is also being driven by technology. With major advances in hardware and software, video game graphics have become more sophisticated – to the point where some people are hard-pressed to notice the difference between it and the CG animation used in feature films. ‘That’s very different from a few years ago, when the industry was barely doing 3-D and characters were blocky-looking,’ says THQ’s Dille.

Ed Zobrist, group VP of the youth category for Vivendi Universal Games, concurs: ‘These days, a lot of people in Hollywood are looking at video games as more of an evolved art form than the simplistic bang-bang cartoons they used to be five to 10 years ago. Now they see them as something they can use to convey a story line.’

With The Simpsons: Hit and Run, for instance, VUG consulted with the property’s creator Matt Groening, used the actors’ voices, and collaborated with the show’s writers on story lines. The game, a family-friendly Grand Theft Auto in which players interact with their favorite characters while driving around Springfield, was the top-selling title for VUG in October, barely a month after it was released.

Other companies, namely Aliso Viejo, California-based Shiny Entertainment with its Matrix titles, are taking the synergistic approach to new a level. For Enter The Matrix, property creators the Wachowski Brothers wrote and directed the game, for which they also shot an hour’s worth of exclusive footage while filming The Matrix: Reloaded. Rather than replicating the film’s story line, Enter is meant to serve as a significant key to understanding the entire Matrix saga. Besides featuring different story lines and a hacking system that allows players to break through to different parts of the Matrix world, Enter’s lead characters aren’t even the same as the ones in the films. Released in May 2003, the game hit fifth place between January and August, according to NPD.

‘The level of involvement from studios is going to get stronger, because from a director’s or a creator’s point of view, it’s allowing them to extend their vision,’ says Nicholas Longano, group VP of marketing at Vivendi Universal Games. ‘They’re able to take two hours of cinematics and come up with a story line that lasts 20 hours and enables the player to go places within the game that weren’t in the movie or that were left on the cutting-room floor.’

For Universal’s comic book actioner Hulk, for instance, VUG developed original characters (the leader robots and the gama guards) with the blessing of property owner Marvel. Set one year after the film ends, the game comes with a feature that allows players to key in special codes they retrieve from watching the movie. ‘There’s lots of replayability there,’ says Longano.

Similarly, THQ’s Finding Nemo game (released day-and-date with the Disney/Pixar flick in May 2003) features scenes – including one set in a sewer – that were cut out of the original movie because of time constraints.

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