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.
May 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 the film 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? 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 the team collaborated on story lines that were featured in the game.

Al Ovadia, who reps Sony in Spider-Man Merchandising (the limited partnership with Marvel that oversees licensing for the film), says not only was the gameco granted similar access to scripts, voice talent and face-time with Raimi for Spider-Man 2, Activision’s development team was about one-third larger and had more time to further integrate the movie experience into the game. When the game hits shelves in late June, players will be treated to full web-swinging action that should make them feel like Spider-Man as they patrol the game’s 3-D rendering of Manhattan.

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 for both of its Spider-Man movie-based games. ‘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: The Movie and Spider-Man 2, 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 have probably 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 four of its upcoming animated pics – Shrek 2 (this month), 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.

And design influence can go both ways, especially when game and film animators are developing product in tandem. In the case of Shrek 2, Plager says Activision’s animators were a little further ahead in the visual development of a few characters set to appear in both the film and the game. DreamWorks took a shine to Activision’s interpretation of one of the characters and ended up integrating it into the film.

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 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 example, 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 2003, 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 a new 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 ones as in the films. Released in May 2003, the game finished ninth in total sales for the year, according to NPD.

‘We’ve honed the art of video games to the point where we can complement the storytelling experience. Directors recognize this and want their vision to be faithfully captured in this medium,’ says Zobrist, adding that many more directors want to be involved in game-making than they did five years ago. ‘Directors are somewhat hampered by the linear, two-hour movie format.’ With 40-plus hours of gameplay, says Zobrist, video game creators can flesh out hinted-at content, prequels/sequels or parallel story lines that the film director hoped he could address, but simply didn’t have the time to.

For Universal’s upcoming action/horror flick Van Helsing, for instance, VUG developed original enemies for the monster hunter to fight in addition to the Universal Classic Monsters (Frankenstein’s Monster, Wolfman and Dracula) that appear in the film.

Similarly, THQ’s The Incredibles game (slated to be released day-and-date with the Disney/Pixar flick in November 2004) features scenes that explore settings through which the film just breezes because of time constraints. ‘Pixar understands that games have to go beyond linear,’ says Dille. ‘If you have a door in a scene and you ask ‘what’s behind it?’ – the video game can take you there.’

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