State of Play: A simple guide to separating the junk from the jewels.
It used to be lunchboxes and glasses and Happy Meal toys. Now video games are the mandatory cheap marketing tie-in every big-budget summer blockbuster or sappy kid flick needs. That's progress for you. Sure, there's a bunch of great Star Wars games and plenty of classic arcade exceptions, but it's pretty much taken as a given these days that any tie-in game will absolutely suck. What's surprising is how uniform the low quality is. You'd think at some point the law of averages would kick in and a decent-to-good game would accidentally sneak through production.
True, they don't get the same resources as an A-list title might. Time, for starters. Most summer blockbusters are in the pipeline for two or three years, about the same length Bungie spends on a Halo. Nobody gets that long to work up a movie game. Hell, contracts could be signed and checks cashed for years before one line of code is written. Why? Because the movie's look, design, actors (and/or licenses for their likenesses), even the script might not be fully locked down until it's all well into post-production. And after the late start, developers get nailed with an artificial deadline - on or near the film's release date - that can't be slipped if testing shows a level or two needs work.
Not that most devs or publishers necessarily put extra effort into these titles. It's ingrained that these aren't million-sellers, so budgets are comparatively low. Games go Gold by way of Green. If the dollars are lacking, so too is the work. Even when interesting ideas enter the mix, which I've actually seen happen, they're the first elements cut when time and money runs thin. I've seen that, too.
The focus is on delivering a broad-strokes product that works. Any appeal these games have is based on the franchises they represents, so they're largely inoffensive, basic-play, risk-free affairs to prevent alienating any potential buyers. Aside from the whole "it sucks" thing alienating them, of course. That's why most tie-in games are aimed directly at younger, less discerning players (typically in the 6-12 range) with parents who buy what the kids point at without asking too many questions. Irresponsible? Possibly. But even something like Alien vs. Predator: Requiem is rated T for Teen.
At the risk of a slight understatement, that's not the best foundation to build on. But it's the formula that really kills them.
Tie-in games either mimic the movie's storyline, or present a side-story leading up to and/or paralleling events in the film. Bad move, either way. I once wrote a deep, scientific dissertation on why there's not a single video game movie scoring above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Short version: so far, nobody's successfully translated a game's core interactive elements into a movie's core interactive elements... namely, emotional involvement. Even if the emotion in question is as simple as, say, fear, every movie trades on making you feel something. Moving in the film-to-game direction, the same problem occurs, but the result is much worse.
What makes a movie cool? Interesting characters, good performances, snappy dialogue, dazzling special effects, amazing action, involving plot, a smart resolution... all of which are generally absent from a movie game. Basic game design requires an objective-problem-solution setup. At its most basic, that's all you get, and then those events repeat themselves. A lot. They leave out everything that makes a movie work (always assuming the source material did indeed work), then replace your emotional response to the film with boredom. Ironic, since re-creating that emotional response is the only reason anyone buys these games. If it's a side-story, you might not even have the movie's original characters to latch onto.
Small wonder games based on Friday the 13th, The Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge and Saw just weren't as frightening as something along the lines of a Silent Hill. Or even a Super Mario Bros. Minus the scares, what's left? Sportswear, puppetry, and emo girls who need to comb their hair.
I should stress this isn't always the developer's fault. They're slaved into whatever the movie is, and that's a box they simply aren't allowed to think outside of. But it's okay, friend. It's okay. For one thing, nobody's made a game based on Twilight yet. For another, we now know beyond all doubt that you can pull off a great film-to-game transition, and do it with style.
Here's the secret: make the game after the movie.
There's one other resource tie-in games never get, and more than a lack of time and money, it's what really makes them feel like throwaway projects. The big guns always stay holstered. Ubisoft made a very big deal out of scoring the rights to James Cameron's Avatar (in 2007) and hyped up their resulting game far beyond what other tie-ins ever get. They tried very hard to make Avatar: The Game into an event. So it might seem a little odd that the person they chose as lead designer for the project had, as far as I can tell, never been lead game designer on any project before he was handed perhaps the biggest movie of the decade.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying he wasn't able or qualified to do the job... far from it. His credits say he'd been lead level designer on a number of games for a number of years. Clearly, it was time for him to move up. But Ubisoft has a number of people in-house with Lead Game Designer credits on a long list of AAA-rated titles, and not one of them took the gig.
Top designers want to follow their own visions, not somebody else's. Except, of course, when they're fans.
The same year Ubisoft announced their "coup," super-cool footage of a 3D Ghostbusters game leaked onto YouTube, and everybody went crazy for it. The truth came out a few days later. It wasn't a real game, but a proof-of-concept by Slovenian developer Zootfly, who didn't actually have the rights to the Ghostbusters IP. They did it because they loved the movie and it sounded like a cool idea, and they were right. Everybody suddenly remembered how awesome Ghostbusters was, forgot the travesty of Ghostbusters 2, and Terminal Reality rode the buzz to a fan's dream job.
And man, did bustin' make me feel good. Their game successfully translated everything Ghostbusters is supposed to be. So much so that, in a nice bit of karmic balance, it helped greenlight a new Ghostbusters movie.
That's what a little enthusiasm can do. Who would think about licensing cult classic The Warriors, much less turning it into a superior brawler, if they weren't in hopelessly gooey love with it? Wanted: Weapons of Fate didn't excel, but the bullet-bending mechanics turned a standard shooter into a fun tactical carny ride. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and Scarface: The World is Yours were both surprisingly good. Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of the best games of 2009. Only Butcher Bay hit shelves with a movie - The Chronicles of Riddick - in theaters, but to be fair, Riddick was a sequel. Butcher Bay was largely a response to the first film, Pitch Black.
Know what they all have in common? With the exception of The Warriors, which is 75% prequel, they're all presented as sequels. Those designers weren't stuck churning out some weak-tea copy of a movie as ordered. They were adding to a legacy.
Not that time and fandom are cure-alls. Neither Reservoir Dogs nor The Great Escape got the game treatment they deserved. I should also mention that EA's decent takes on The Godfather rewrite the movies to give you the staring role. On the other hand, it has to be said the only Transformers game worth a glance came out years after the cartoon and years before Bayformers vomited CGI across the land.
If publishers wanted to get smart about this, at minimum they'd take Wanted's approach and target a film's home market release. Give the dev team time to dial into the property, think about the game they're building around it from the conceptual level forward, and then do something worthwhile. Something that might appeal to people over the age of twelve, for example. And hey, if the movie tanks, there's still room to cancel a game nobody's interested in before too much time and money and effort goes to waste. Either way, maybe we'd cut that failure rate down some.
Not that I expect the Red Tribes and Brash Entertainments of the world to wise up any. Too many people are too comfortable keeping the ambition level right at the cheap and forgettable mark. History's taught them they can generally scratch out a few bucks that way. I wish I could say their market's going to dry up, but there will always be too many parents willing to buy their kids whatever. Somebody will always cash in on that.
The good news is, in the last year especially, the real cash has gone to inspiring games made by inspired fans. Hey, it's a start. And if there's one thing Hollywood and the gaming industry both love, it's repeating successes.