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Had a really great conversation about the Mass Effect series with my good friend, Matt Sake, who runs the website tap-repeatedly.com. He was cool enough to post it as a podcast on their website. It’s long, full of spoilers, and probably not interesting to the vast majority of you. That being said, if you’re curious, feel free to check it out here.
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( In case you’re wondering, the title for this post refers both to the post itself and to the video that it discusses.)
Most of you have probably heard about and/or seen the “Kony 2012” video that got so much attention last week (79 million YouTube views as of this writing). If not, here it is:
I’m a little bit slow to comment on the matter because I was out of town for the last 10 days and because I wanted to be sure that I took enough time to give a thoughtful response. After watching the video, reading several related articles, and watching several related videos (which by no means makes me an expert), I have to say that I am disappointed by the negative responses. What people seem to be missing is that there are many different levels of activism. Not everyone is going to be like Jason Russell or Adam Branch and fly to Africa to devote their life to a cause.
I have created a simple graphic to illustrate my point (I have no artistic skills whatsoever, so I made it in Paint. Please forgive its crappiness). I call it The Activism Funnel (but professional sociologists somewhere probably have a better name and probably came up with it a long time ago):
The Activism Funnel
I, for one, have already reached level 3! My point is that you don’t get to ANY of these levels (much less, the bottom of the Funnel) without “awareness,” which is exactly what this Mr. Russell said he was trying to achieve (and exactly what he did achieve quite spectacularly). By making the top of the funnel as big as possible each of the subsequent layers can be as big as possible too.
Sure, some of his messaging may have been a bit self-serving, manipulative, and/or propagandistic (I think I just made that word up). Recognizing that these criticisms can probably be levied against any activist messaging, I think that we can all agree with his basic goals of helping people in Uganda and bringing Joseph Kony to justice. Also, I’m willing to bet that most of the video’s critics are people who are either a) already pretty far down the funnel and wish that more people were like them; b) people who wish that their own efforts to raise awareness had been even a fraction as effective; and/or c) people who agree with the ends but disagree with the proposed means.
To the people in group A, I say, “Calm down. Thanks to this video, there’ll be more of you soon.” To group B, I say, “Stop being jealous.” And to group C, I say, “Great, let’s have a conversation about it. Now there will be a lot more people who care to listen to it.” (After all, even those who disagree with and criticize the video are getting more traffic and attention now than they ever did before.)
So, I’m willing to bet that far more good will be accomplished as a result of the Kony 2012 efforts than bad. For that, I say kudos to Jason Russell, Invisible Children, and the Kony 2012 movement.
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Most who are familiar with making film-based video games would agree that the current process is broken. Although I believe that this system can be fixed, doing so would require fundamental changes to the way that these games have been getting made for the last several decades.
Fortunately, there are opportunities to improve the quality and market performance of these games within the existing system. Integrating a Transmedia Producer with an understanding of both game and film production can ensure that many common pitfalls are avoided.
Before I explain those pitfalls, however, it is helpful to understand the basic process that a film-based game goes through….
A Generic Movie-License Game Production & Development Process
- Film development & pre-production
- Film production begins (12 – 18 months prior to film release)
- Interactive rights licensed to game publisher (approx. 1 month)
- External game developer contracted by game publisher to create game to ship day & date with film (approx. 1 month)
- Game pre-production (1-3 months)
- Game Design Documentation Signoff (1-2 weeks)
- Game Developer
- Game Publisher
- Film Studio
- Film Production Company
- Other rights holders
- Game Production (4-8 months)
- Game reaches “Alpha” (feature and content complete) Milestone – Must receive signoff by all parties
- QA & Localization Testing (1-3 months)
- Game reaches “Beta” (ready for submission) Milestone – Must receive signoff from all parties
- Game submitted for certification by 1st-party (2 months prior to target release date)
- Certification Testing (2-4 weeks)
- Certification Approval
- Manufacturing & Distribution (1 month)
- Launch/Release (Tuesday before or after release of the film)
Potential Pitfalls during this process:
- 1. Missed Opportunity to Influence Choice of Developer – Often, the Studio will have the right to approve the Developer that the Publisher chooses to create the game. The Film Production company may have an opportunity to weigh-in on this decision, if they make it clear to the Studio that it is important to them. Obviously, the better the developer, the better the game is likely to be. The Studio may not have the expertise (or the interest) to ensure that a good Developer is chosen and the Publisher is unlikely to pay for a top-tier Developer. The Transmedia Producer can help ensure that the best possible Developer is chosen for the project.
- 2. Missed Opportunity to Influence Game Design – The Pre-Production process (Step 5) is when the film team has the best chance of influencing the design of the game, and when doing so will be least disruptive to the Developer. This is also the most important time to share information, such as costume designs, sets/locations, characters, updated scripts, art direction, with the Developer. Waiting until the proposed design document is completed and submitted for sign-off (Step 6) is a mistake; major changes at this point (and beyond) are extremely costly and disruptive for the Developer. Unfortunately, the lines of communication between the film team and Developer are often poor and the film team may be very busy with the production phase of the film during this time. The Transmedia Producer can help to establish a clear and efficient line of communication with the Developer as early as possible, and to ensure that both teams are aware of each others’ direction. This will both make it easier to communicate further into production and minimize the likelihood of costly changes that could have been avoided by better communication.
- 3. Poor Lines of Communication – It’s not uncommon for a game designer to have a question that someone from the film team could quickly and easily answer, but have no way to get that answer in a timely fashion. Often, there are multiple intermediaries, such as a Producer at the Game Publisher, or an executive in the Film Studio’s interactive/licensing/merchandising department who must be relied upon to relay communication between the two creative teams. These individuals often have conflicting priorities that can include trying to keep themselves in the loop for the sake of their own position/influence, or even minimizing the potential “disruption” that the game project might have on the film production. Additionally, they are likely to have a poor understanding of either the question that the Developer is asking, or the answer that the film team is providing. As a result, it can take weeks or longer to get a clear answer to a simple question. The Transmedia Producer can streamline this game of telephone and establish an efficient line of communication between the two teams, which can have a profound impact on the Developer’s productivity.
- 4. Slow or Repeated Turnaround on Approvals – Generally, the film studio and, by extension, the film production company, will have final review/sign-off rights on all aspects of the game. This includes everything from the game’s mechanics to its user interface and every character, object, environment, creature, and vehicle in the game. Each milestone (usually every 4-6 weeks), the Developer submits a batch of these “deliverables” to the Publisher, who then has 5-15 days to approve them. During this time, the Publisher forwards them to the Studio, who may or may not forward them to the Film Production company and/or any other rights holders. The longer that it takes for the Developer to receive any notes/feedback on these deliverables, the harder it will be to act on them without disrupting their schedule. Much of this signoff process can be streamlined by delegating responsibility for gathering and delivering notes/feedback quickly to the Transmedia Producer.
- 5. Unrealistic Demands/Expectations – It is very important for the film team to understand that the Developer is working within a different set of technical constraints than they are. Because of the need to render a game in “real-time” there are limitations that can affect the visual fidelity of the game’s assets. In particular, the film team often has unrealistic expectations regarding how characters’ faces animate when speaking, how accurately characters’ faces resemble their film counterparts, how many characters can appear in a scene, how large/complicated environments can be, and more. A Transmedia Producer who understands the technical limitations that the Developer faces, as well as the goals and desires of the film team, can help both parties set priorities and problem-solve to achieve the best possible results.
- 6. Missed Opportunity to Incorporate Film Actors in the Game – Often, studios will fail to secure the interactive rights to actors’ likenesses and/or voices when executing their contracts. Frustratingly, this can mean that the game will have to deliberately work to ensure that the game version of a character does NOT look or sound like the film version. Conversely, if these rights can be secured, the Developer can often go so far as to do a 3D scan of an actor’s head, creating a remarkably accurate likeness, and/or use the actor’s voice for the character’s lines in the game. The end result can be a much greater sense of consistency between the game and film. The Transmedia Producer can help navigate the associated logistical challenges, including legal/licensing terms, timing, prioritization, and remote recording/scanning sessions.
- 7. Late Changes – As the game production moves forward, it becomes more and more costly/difficult to make changes. Things that may seem small/trivial from a film perspective may have major impacts on the Developer due to very different pipelines for the creation of the game’s assets. It is safe to assume that changes after the end of Pre-Production will have a negative impact on the game’s schedule. Changes after Alpha will be extremely difficult and may not be possible without delaying the game’s release. Changes beyond Beta are essentially impossible. A Transmedia Producer who is up-to-speed on the production of both the game and film projects throughout their entire process can flag potential issues early, propose potential solutions, and ultimately help minimize late changes.
- 8. Missed Opportunities for Coordinated PR & Marketing – Although the game industry’s press has not been around as long as the film industry’s, game magazines, blogs, and websites that preview/review games have a significant impact on sales performance. In fact, a game’s commercial success is much more strongly correlated to its aggregate review score than is a film’s. While many game industry reviewers are prejudiced against film-based games, a Transmedia Producer can contribute to a PR strategy that can earn tremendous goodwill (and coverage) which will directly impact the game’s sales. Tactics such as including film talent in interviews with game industry press, inviting key game press to the film’s PR events such as screenings and junkets, and representing the game at the film’s PR events are all ways in which the Transmedia Producer can help maximize the game’s positive reception.
These are just some of the ways that including a Transmedia Producer can have a direct and positive impact on the quality and success of film-based games within the current licensing-based business model. As the quality of film-based games improves, the negative pre-conceptions about them from gamers and game press will begin to change as well. Thus, higher-quality film-based games will result in greater revenue in both the short and long-term.
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First of all, what I’m about to say is not intended to excuse bad writing/performances in games. This is an area that, in general, continues to need improvement and in which big strides have been made in recent years (I submit the Uncharched franchise and LA Noire as exhibits). [NOTE: It's worth remembering that the audience for most AAA games probably has a lot more in common with the target audience of Transformers or Conan the Barbarian, than The King's Speech or Tree of Life. So the definition of "good dialogue" is also somewhat arguable.]
Earlier today, however, a couple of friends basically asked “why does the dialogue in video games so often suck? Don’t they have good writers? Don’t the review the scripts/recordings before they go into the game?” Having several friends who are professional video game writers, and I daresay, very good at it, I felt compelled to answer their question. Here is what I said: think about it this way: haven’t you seen plenty of movies that have bad dialogue? Not being a movie person, I’m speculating here, but I suspect that this is often a product of the fact that the dialogue looks good “on paper” or seems good when it’s being recorded, but really doesn’t work when you cut the whole film together. At that point, it’s often prohibitive (for either logistical or financial reasons) to go back and reshoot those scenes.
In games, there are similar production realities. For any high-quality, narrative-focused, game today you can assume that a good writer has written a script that has been reviewed and revised based on feedback from several parties. The days of a designer just banging something out at their workstation at the last minute are largely behind us (correct me if you disagree, Cliff). After that script is written and approved it has to be cast, recorded, cut, implemented, and synched to animation before you really know what the finished product looks/sounds like. During that process, again, there are even worse bits that have been cut, re-written, and re-recorded. Now, realize that a game like Skyrim (which sparked the original question) probably has about 100x more dialogue content in it than your standard film; AND you don’t always have control over the order in which it’s going to be experienced, sometimes even down the line-by-line level. So, who is going to review all of that? On a film, there isn’t a single frame that makes it onto the screen that hasn’t been viewed and approved by the Director. That allows for a remarkable level of consistency of tone and authorship in the finished project. If that happened on Skyrim, I’d be very pleasantly surprised, considering the sheer quantity of content and the huge number of other tasks that a Lead Designer, or Producer is responsible for; not to mention the inherently more collaborative nature of game development when compared to filmmaking.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that when most of the dialogue was recorded it was probably done by individual voice performers working in isolated sound boxes, asynchronously from their counterparts in the same scene? Of course, there are exceptions, for games such as Call of Duty, Uncharted, etc., where the actors are able to rehearse and perform alongside each other in the same location. But this is generally a luxury reserved for the highest-budget projects and even then, generally only those that have relatively short, linear campaigns (see above examples). Admittedly, I’m highlighting issues with performances, not simply with dialogue writing, but look at how much of a film script gets tweaked and re-written during shooting when the director and actors are all in the same place and able to iterate multiple times on individual lines/scenes collaboratively and then think about trying to do that for 100x as many lines of dialogue.
Hopefully you’re starting to see the challenges that game performances face. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve seen plenty of movie people acknowledge that a great script does not a great film make, and vice versa. In the case of games, this is at least equally true. So, just blaming the writers for bad dialogue in a specific video game is, in my opinion, a bit of unfair scapegoating without really understanding the production realities that project faced. While it MAY be fair and accurate, there are a number of other factors could, at a minimum, have contributed./rant
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I got a chance to spend about 15 mins playing with the newly-announced Wii U at E3 on Tuesday. Here are my thoughts:
For me, the key issue is whether or not they’ll be able to get multiple Wii U controllers to connect to a single Wii U console. If so, I think it has the potential to revolutionize local multiplayer games, by allowing players to have information that is “secret” from each other . This could be huge for TCGs, board games, strategy games, and sports games. If you can only use one of the things with each console, then I think they are missing out bigtime. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer on this at the show. If you think about it, it basically turns the home TV into a huge, HD, Nintendo DS, which is kinda cool.
I was also told that the controller allows you to transfer the game from the TV to the controller “on the fly.” This could prove very useful in households where Mom & Dad decide they want to watch something on the big living room TV. Instead of having to turn the game off, the kid could just keep playing on the controller.
Another thing worth noting, I believe, is that the controller will basically allow developers to port iOS/Android phone and tablet apps to the console. With a decent online store, this could help them protect themselves against the threat that these devices pose to traditional consoles as the Wii U controller seems to me to support pretty-much all of the functionality that’s available in the iPad. Also, when it comes to future-proofing, one thing that seems very clever to me is that the console itself ought to be pretty easy to replace without needing to replace the controller. So, if they suddenly find themselves underpowered on a technical level they could just release a new console with updated specs that remains backwards compatible without making the controllers themselves obsolete.
Given the backward compatibility with the existing Wii software and hardware, as well as the ability to now support ports of all major gaming platforms, and the wealth of innovative new design possibilities, I’m cautiously optimistic.
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I have to say that I am REALLY impressed with the Halo Reach Legendary Ed. The Halsey Journal is easily the most interesting, involved, and well thought-out piece of collector’s edition material that I’ve seen in any game so far and the production value is excellent. They could have charged $20-$30 for it alone and I think it would have sold. If you’re at all familiar with and/or interested in the Halo universe and back story (believe it or not, they are very well developed), I highly recommend it. The way that the journal ties-in other characters and events from the previous Halo games and lore is also very impressive.
I’d love to meet whoever was responsible for putting this thing together. I’m not kidding when I say that my first 2 hours after opening the box were spent reading the journal. For that matter, I also recommend watching the Halo Legacy animated shorts (think of the Animatrix, for Halo). All of this is making me seriously consider reading the Halo novels, which I’m told are actually pretty good. Talk about Transmedia…
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As most people who know me will tell you, I’m a pretty big fan of the Rock Band games, from Harmonix and MTV Games. So, of course, when I was E3 in June I made damn sure to swing by and learn about what is planned for Rock Band 3, which launches later this year.
I won’t go into of the details, but suffice to say that the game looks incredible. It feels to me like Harmonix is making all of the right decisions and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. One of the things that I’m particularly pleased with is that they are continuing to support Rock Band as a “platform,” which means that, in addition to the 70+ new songs that will be included on the disc for Rock Band 3, you will still be able to play all of the previously-released songs (with the exception of the Beatles music) in Rock Band 3. This means that if you have already purchased them, you will be able to play all of the songs included on Rock Band 1 and 2, as well as Green Day: Rock Band, and all of the downloadable tracks, as well.
Together, there will be more than 1000 playable songs available for Rock Band 3 when it launches. Harmonix and MTV Games illustrated this point by listing all of these songs on a huge wall at E3 (see picture below).
Nonetheless, this functionality seems to be something that relatively few Rock Band owners are aware of. In fact, I’ve had numerous conversations with other Rock Band owners who under the mistaken impression that there are either a) not many songs available for download, or b) that they are mostly by bands that you’ve never even heard of. Which brings me to the point of this blog post. This is an impression that I think MTV/Harmonix really need to address and I had an idea for how they could do so…
(As a disclaimer, I should say that I’m not in PR/marketing and have no idea of the actual viability of this idea. There may be a number of reasons why this simply wouldn’t be possible, or would be prohibitively expensive. But, my gut says that it should be doable.) What I suggest is this: the week prior to the launch of the game, MTV/Harmonix should identify the most popular rock-and-roll radio stations in the largest radio markets in America and sponsor a “Rock Band Week,” during which all songs aired by the station would be pulled from the available Rock Band set list.
I can only imagine the number of people who would have moments listening to the radio when they would say to themselves, “no way! You can play this in Rock Band?!” It would also do wonders for overall awareness of the game’s upcoming launch. Financially, it might not be as expensive as one would expect, as the radio stations would still be able to generate their normal advertising revenue and could even still take requests (so long as they came from the set list).
Of course, like I said, there may be some reasons why this isn’t practical. If so, please mention them in your comments. Otherwise, if someone thinks that this is a great idea and knows someone at MTV Games, feel free to pass this link along. I will even waive my normal consulting fee.
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(This review should be pretty spoiler-free.) I picked up my copy of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty Collector’s Edition on Tuesday, at Target and have spent a pretty considerable amount of time with it since then.
There’s a lot of value in that big $99 box, particularly from the exclusive Battle.net assets, the inclusion of Starcraft and Brood War on a 2GB USB replica dog tag, a gorgeous and large art book, and an exclusive WoW pet. The game soundtrack, Episode 0 comic book, and behind-the scenes DVD are nice but not as important to me. My biggest complaint is that there wasn’t a way to get the Collector’s Edition (or some sort of equivalent Digital Collector’s Edition) directly from Blizzard via Battle. Net. I looked for this option and would have taken it, had it been available. Instead, I spent about an hour calling all over LA to find a Target that had a spare copy.
With regards to the game itself, I’m very impressed and would say that Blizzard’s perfect record of creating top-quality video games remains untarnished. So far, I have spent most of my time (about 15 hours) playing the single-player campaign and am really enjoying it. From a gameplay perspective, Blizzard made the wise decision to make the single-player experience very different from the multiplayer experience. By this, I mean that one does not play the single-player missions as one would a multiplayer match. The missions are much more scripted and frequently catered to a specific unit. Similarly, many missions have unique circumstances, such as time limits, shifting day/night sequences, optional objectives, unique units, and more. I also really appreciate that there are so many more units available in the single-player campaign. This makes sense, considering that these missions don’t really have to be balanced like they would for multiplayer. I particularly liked that units from the original game (such as Vultures, Goliath’s, and Firebats) that have been dropped from multiplayer are still playable here.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Starcraft II and previous Blizzard RTS games is the inclusion of “RPG-Lite” mechanics in between missions. In particular, the ability to contract various mercenary units, spend credits on upgrades for basic units, and use research points to unlock new bonuses and units are all very cool. While these are not fundamentally revolutionary concepts (having clearly been borrowed from Relic’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II), as usual, Blizzard has taken a good idea and refined it to near-perfection.
Blizzard has also given the player a greater sense of control and agency in between missions. In addition to the standard (and gorgeous) Blizzard cut-scenes, the player can now explore 4 different sections of the main character (Jim Raynor)’s flagship, they Hyperion. These four areas are the Armory, Bridge, Cantina, and Laboratory. In these places the player can watch News broadcasts, initiate conversations with other characters, spend credits/research points, and explore the ship. Finally, in another apparent nod to Relic’s RTS games, the player is given a limited set of choices with regards to the order in which they choose to pursue the various missions. Admittedly, these implementations are rather “lightweight,” but they certainly offer more depth and sense of immersion than was available in previous Blizzard RTS games.
The single-player campaign, of course, centers around a story that picks up where the Brood War expansion left off. The story is quite solid, but presumes a pretty significant amount of knowledge of the earlier events. The included manual does a decent job of summarizing these, but a replay of the original games (which can be easily accomplished considering that they are included on a USB flash drive with the Collector’s Edition of the game) is not a bad idea.
My primary narrative-related complaint has to do with the Raynor character. At times there is a disconnect between his performance and the way that the other characters in the game treat and speak about him. He seems to be a reasonably upbeat guy with a wry sense of humor most of the time, but he’s also supposed to be this pathologically depressed alcoholic who is pining away for his lost love. Unfortunately, the game struggles to make these two personalities feel natural for the character, leaving him seeming somewhat schizophrenic. However, to even be having this conversation in the context of a video game is pretty unusual/impressive, and it is definitely a story that has kept me engaged.
I have a love-hate relationship with the moments in the campaign where I’m forced to make big decisions (Tosh vs. Nova; Hansen vs. Protoss). Similarly, with regards to making the research decisions as you progress up the research tree. On the one hand, I hate having to worry about whether or not I’m making the “wrong” decision, but I also respect that the game acknowledges that you can’t always have your cake and eat it too. I have really agonized over some of these and am considering replaying the game to see what happens if i make different choices. This added replay value is nice.
Of course, Starcraft is probably more well-known as a multiplayer game than a single-player one. I have not played very many multiplayer matches yet, but I spent a lot of time playing the multiplayer beta, and I’m assuming that it hasn’t changed much. If that’s the case, I know that I’m going to spend a lot more time with it after I’m done with the campaign. As always, Blizzard has done an amazing job of balancing the 3 factions. I’m also really pleased with the improvements that have been made to Battle.net, including the RealID system, built-in voice chat, achievements, improved matchmaking, etc. Again, nothing revolutionary here, but all very welcome and well-executed.
Visually, I think that the game is stunning. The level of detail is incredible, the characters (particularly the faces) are remarkably well-exeucted, and even playing on “Medium” visual settings (for the most part) on my laptop, I’m struck by how great the game looks. I just wish that I could play it on a machine that could handle all the Ultra settings.
One of the chief complaints that i’ve heard leveled at the game (and I can understand why) is that it’s very similar to the original Starcraft. I think that this is particularly true in multiplayer, where many of the games conventions actually seem a little bit out-of-date. Still, for people like me (and most of Korea) who loved the first Starcraft game, this will not be a huge negative. And I really think that the game has a much more ambitious single-player experience than I had expected, and certainly one that improves significantly on the original game.
In summary, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is a blast. As is to be expected from Blizzard, it is a highly-polished experience that pefects many of the genre’s best ideas, without taking any major risks. If you’re a fan of RTS games in general, or this game’s predecessor in particular, you will not be disappointed.
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part 3 – Game Company Myths About Films
Myth #1 – Games take longer to make than films.
As with most myths, this idea is rooted in truth. From the point at which a major (non-animated) film begins principal photography to the day that it is released to theaters, rarely takes as much as 2 years. The most successful games, however, often take at least this long, from start to finish. What this myth overlooks, however, is the amount of time that a film can spend in development and pre-production (these are two distinct phases that come prior to filming). When this time is added to the film’s production and post-production process, films can often take at least as long to make as the most ambitious game. The challenge for both industries is to find a way to successfully pursue both timelines, in parallel, rather than waiting until it is “too late” to get started on the game. I believe that the solution to this problem lies in how the projects are financed, but that is a topic for another article.
Myth #2 – Filmmakers don’t respect game developers.
On the contrary, the people who actually create/produce films consistently express a tremendous level of respect and appreciation for their gaming counterparts. Many are also gamers themselves and most acknowledge that creating games requires a unique set of creative abilities that they do not possess. This level of intimidation and respect may actually explain why so few film creators have felt comfortable trying to embrace the interactive entertainment medium. Nonetheless, this “second class” perspective persists amongst game creators for two very simple reasons:
Game developers have had virtually zero exposure to their film creative counterparts during the crucial stages of building a game and making the movie. Even those game developers who are working on major projects that are slated to release alongside blockbuster films have traditionally been separated from the people creating the film by several layers of individuals who have little (if any) creative/production experience in either field. It would not be uncommon for the lead designer on a film-based video game to be separated from a film’s director by at least the following people:
- The internal game development team’s Producer.
- The external game publisher’s Producer.
- The film studio’s consumer products/licensing executive.
- The film production company’s mid-level executive who had been tasked with interacting with the film studio’s consumer products division.
Given all of these people who are concerned, to varying degrees, with ensuring that the game production doesn’t disrupt the film production, it should be unsurprising that the Lead Designer doesn’t feel that the film Director or Producer considers them worth the time of day. Meanwhile, the film Director or Producer may have no idea that the game’s Lead Designer may have critical questions that only they can truly answer.
Myth #3 – Games based on films have to suck.
This myth effectively encompasses all of the issues that we have discussed so far. And, if prior performance were necessarily a predictor of future performance, this statement would certainly be true. Despite nearly 30 years of film-based games (going back at least as far as E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark), one would be hard-pressed to identify even a handful of film-based games that are widely considered to be more than mediocre. There is no reason why this trend must continue to be true, however. In fact, many successful film properties (Indiana Jones, Aliens, Lord of the Rings, Inglorious Basterds) could be easily correlated to similarly popular games (Uncharted, Halo, Warcraft, Call of Duty). As we have seen, there are 4 basic reasons why the quality of film-based games has proven so consistently inferior:
- Talent – Licensees do not hire top-tier game developers for licensed games.
- Communication – Game developers have extremely limited, if any, access to their creative counterparts, much less the ability to influence the creative direction of the film in order to ensure that it will also make for a great game.
- Timeline – Game developers almost never have enough time to create high-quality games.
- Story – The story/narrative elements of the game are afterthoughts for the screenwriters and film directors
When these four, highly-solvable, problems have been addressed, there is nothing preventing film-based games from achieving high levels of quality (and the financial success that accompanies it).
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Part 2 – Film Company Myths about Video Games
Myth #1 – Video games based off of films are similar to toys and merchandise based off of films.
Historically, the film industry has treated video games in much the same way that they treat other products that are derived from films, such as toys, lunchboxes, and DVDs. Most commonly, this has meant licensing the rights to create and market a video game based on the film to an independent company (typically a large video game publisher such as Electronic Arts, Activision, THQ, and others). The film studio receives an up-front payment for this right and the game publisher assumes the risk associated with creating the game, as well as the potential reward.
As the market for video games has grown and matured many film studios have taken notice of the fact that the lion’s share of the revenue from their film-based game licenses are often left with the game publishers and attempted to build their own in-house game publishing groups. However, in almost all cases, these efforts have met with limited success. The explanation for this difficulty is rooted in the studios’ misconceptions about games. Instead of treating them as high-risk/high-reward, talent-driven, creative endeavors (like films), they have often been left under the purview of the studios’ consumer products, merchandising, or licensing groups. These organizations are traditionally charged with monetizing the film production group’s creative product, rather than creating their own. The studios often then compound this problem by leaving the responsibility for the game production in the hands of executives with little to no experience with it. In some cases, these groups have hired game publishing executives to be directly responsible for production matters, but even then they are often reporting to supervisors from the film production side.
As long as film studios continue to treat their film-based games like toys, they will struggle to achieve the level of quality necessary to realize the highest levels of critical and commercial success. Some studios, such as Warner Bros. and Disney have begun to show some signs of improvement in this area, but even their successes have been predominantly with original game titles, not those that are directly linked to upcoming films.
Myth #2 – Gamers are mostly teenage males.
While this myth may have been true 15-20 years ago, the first decade of the new millennium saw a remarkable expansion of the video game market. Today, the average age of a “gamer” is over 30 years, and most game-players are actually female. Admittedly, much of the industry’s revenue is still derived from more “hardcore” gamers, but even these are now predominantly over the age of 20. Given the maturity of both the industry and its audience, as well as the intense level of competition, it should be unsurprising that only the best games achieve the highest levels of financial success. It is no coincidence that the most commercially-successful game franchises (Call of Duty, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero, The Sims, God of War, and more) also receive consistently excellent critical reviews. Today, the “big money” comes not from selling a T-rated game to a 14 year-old boy and/or his mother during the holidays, but from selling a AAA-quality M-Rated game to at 21-34 year-old. This means that a truly successful game needs more than a “hot license.” It actually has to be very, very, good.
Myth #3 – Sequels are never as good as “the original.”
Sadly, this statement is often true when referring to films, which explains why it seems so intuitive to filmmakers. However, there are two fundamental reasons why it is much less frequently true of games.
Reason #1) The underlying technology of game development continues to advance and evolve at with tremendous speed. At its core, this means that what games are capable of, as well as the tools available to game creators, tend to steadily improve over time.
Reason #2) Unlike films, the most valuable and elusive aspect of game development is not an original and compelling narrative, but instead it is a concept simply known as the “fun factor.” In fact, some of the most successful games are often guilty of having some of the most derivative, predictable, and poorly-delivered narrative experiences in entertainment. (Not to mention the many successful games that have no narrative at all). The “fun factor” in a game is something that is zeroed-in on. It is reached through an iterative process that rarely (if ever) “ends,” and often spans multiple game releases.
It is for both of these reasons that games often see increased critical and commercial success in successive iterations.
Myth #4 – Film celebrities are more “valuable” than game celebrities.
It is often said that one of the major differences between the two industries is that “there are no real ‘celebrities’ in games.” People who make this statement are correctly identifying that there are few, if any, individuals in the game industry with the kind of global name recognition and fan following that is quite common amongst film stars and directors. What they are overlooking, however, is that the “celebrities” in the game world are not individuals, but instead the game development studios themselves. Whereas the names Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, and Universal, tell their audiences very little about what can be expected from their product, gamers know that when they purchase a game by Blizzard, Bioware, Epic, id, Valve, and many others that they can expect a truly top-notch gaming experience. In effect, these developers’ names are at least as valuable as those of major film stars/directors, and can be counted upon to bank tens of millions of dollars of revenue at the gaming “box office.” Perhaps for this very reason, companies of this caliber rarely choose to work on film-based games. Instead, the film industry has consistently chosen the game industry equivalent of releasing only independent product, using relatively unknown stars, directors, and production talent. Here is just one example of the game’s industry’s acknowledgement of the importance of the development studio’s name recognition and identity.