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.