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The new game in town

Vidgame boom lures top writers and filmmakers

Bruce Feirstein, who helped pen three James Bond pics for MGM, is about to send 007 on another mission, with the secret agent once again using gadgets and his Aston Martin to battle baddies.

But this time, it won’t be for a movie. It’ll be for a videogame.

With games increasingly resembling big-budget pics and its creators hitting a technological ceiling when it comes to graphics, the quirky and disarmingly geeky $10.3 billion vidgame industry is paying more attention to well-crafted characters and plots to make games more marketable.

And major vidgame publishers — including Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubi Soft and Infogrames — are tapping into a growing group of Hollywood screenwriters, directors, actors and producers to create titles based on movies or TV shows, as well as new franchises.

Aside from Feirstein, who is helping write EA’s next Bond adventure, the list includes the likes of Steven Spielberg, John Woo, Vin Diesel, the Wachowski brothers and a slew of vet scripters.

Attracting Hollywood’s creative community are these perks:

  • Talent gets the freedom to create without studio execs constantly looking over their shoulder. Ultimately, few changes are made to what’s written.

  • Writers are often surprised that game developers are grateful to have someone who understands plot. They’re brought in because they’re the experts.

  • The money can be great, with paydays ranging from $10,000 to seven figures, plus backend participation. Jobs come on a per-project basis. There are no term deals yet.

  • Hollywood talent can become celebs in another arena. Feirstein co-wrote 1995’s James Bond actioner “Goldeneye” for MGM, but says young gamers often mistake him for having written the blockbuster game of the same name, which hit store shelves in 1997, selling millions of units. “Kids didn’t know the movie, but they thought I did the game,” he says. “To them, that was the coolest thing going.”

  • Unlike Hollywood’s development hell, the process of working on a game usually means the project will be produced — and quickly. Game publishers are known for self-financing titles and being in the business to take risks on projects.

“In the game business, when you say you’re going into development on Monday, ‘development’ means you’re actually making stuff,” says Keith Boesky, former prexy of vidgame publisher Eidos who now runs ICM’s vidgame division. “But the word ‘development’ in the film business only means you’re talking about it.”

Creating a game is collaborative. Though scribes have few execs to deal with, they work closely with a game’s team of developers and designers.

“There are a lot of things involved,” says an agent at a major tenpercentery. “You can’t go off and create something without letting everyone know what you’re doing. It’s all inter-related.”

Due to the language barriers of the two industries, companies are still trying to test the waters when it comes to enlisting Hollywood talent — with some studios like EA entrusting more than others.

The publishing giant, the biggest in the biz, is readying a 500-person studio in Los Angeles to court Hollywood talent, including writers, set designers, production designers, lighting specialists and animators to create games.

“Technology is becoming less important, less of a competitive advantage,” says EA veep John Batter, a former DreamWorks exec and chief operating officer of animation house PDI (“Antz,” “Shrek”), who says games have evolved to the point where producing one is like creating an animated film.

“It’s really in the hands of the creative talent more than the engineers. Stories in videogames used to be incredibly cheesy. There’s a bunch of people in the film industry who understand how to create great worlds, great characters.”

Strong relationships are being formed, especially as Hollywood heavyweights turn to games as a creative outlet and way to further expand fan involvement in franchise properties. The vidgame biz is no longer performing under Hollywood’s radar, but is becoming a billion-dollar venture commanding respect.

The gaming biz’s growing reliance on Hollywood’s creative community makes sense.

Top-quality games are increasingly resembling big-budget film projects, with the equivalent of negative costs averaging $5 million and occasionally topping $50 million when advertising, duplication and other costs are included.

That money pays for not only the game’s mechanics, but licensed songs from major music acts, as well as high-end cinematic CG action sequences.

Steven Spielberg helped develop EA’s “Saving Private Ryan”-influenced WWII game franchise “Medal of Honor.” John Woo and Vin Diesel each are starting vidgame development studios.

Recently, director Marco Brambilla (“Demolition Man” and TV mini “Dinotopia”) and writer-producer Michael Markowitz (TV’s “Becker,” “The In-Laws”) have been hired by publishers to create titles for Sony’s Playstation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Gamecube console game systems.

Also signing on for games: scribes Flint Dille (“An American Tail: Fievel Goes West”), who tuned the noir dialogue on Namco’s “Dead to Rights.”

Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson (“The Rocketeer,” TV’s “The Sentinel,” “Viper”) have written for several EA blockbusters, including “The Sims” and James Bond-inspired actioners “Agent Under Fire” and “Nightfire.” (The two Bond games featured original plots unrelated to any movie.)

Games have even become a lucrative enough avenue that CAA and ICM have launched separate vidgame divisions. (At other agencies, a scribe’s vidgame deals are handled by his lit agent.)

And the money can be pretty good. In some projects, it’s what one exec producer called “supplementary” to other income streams. But writers can earn $10,000 to seven figures. Backend deals are also a possibility.

But every deal is different; there are no defined rules or paydays yet, despite the existence of a WGA interactive contract

Games aren’t for everyone. A writer accustomed to making $2 million to $4 million for a film script won’t collect that kind of cash for a game. That’s why some developers say TV writers are more appropriate for games: They’re used to working fast and aren’t stunned by smaller paychecks.

And while a screenwriter for a film gets paid in two installments — on commencement and on delivery of a script — it’s not unusual for a vidgame scribe to be paid in as much as 13 installments.

But some Hollywood fans of the business say their colleagues don’t realize what they’re missing

“The fallout from the Internet bled into the interactive space,” says Sean O’Keefe, a former producer at Artists Production Group and now co-prexy of Union Entertainment.

“Most in Hollywood don’t know much about games,” O’Keefe says. “It’s retarded Hollywood’s appreciation of the creative and financial possibilities of the game business.”

“I get a lot of calls from other writers saying, ‘Hey, tell me about games,’ ” Dille says. “There are two kinds: Some who think games are cool, and some who think this will be easy.”

They may be cool, but they’re not easy.

Agents also warn clients that games have long put an emphasis on design and graphics over plot and character.

“Games really force you to think things through and do stuff you never have to do in writing a movie,” Dille says. “There’s a level of detail, down to such minutiae as the location of buttons on the screen.”

Games are also not about ego.

“There are a lot of writers and directors coming in right now and want to try to learn something about games,” says American McGee, a game designer (“Quake,” “Doom”) and musician who now is creative director of game and movie developer Carbon Six. “But it’s important they don’t come in and say ‘I’m king of my domain. Now I’m going to be king of this domain.’ ”

In the past, most scribes have been hired to polish dialog that will appear during brief cinematic sequences in between game play or flesh out characters. The time commitment varies from a few weeks on a project to being on-call during a typical game’s 18-month production cycle.

That’s changing. More and more are being brought in to work with designers on an idea from scratch, mapping out a game’s entire plot — which can range from 100 pages to 1,000-page tomes with lengthy summaries in game design bibles.

The mere phrase “script consultation” can mean different things in the two businesses.

In the movie biz, it’s the sort of thing that instantly gets the Writers Guild of America involved, because issues like screen credits come into play.

For games, it’s a far more informal process, although scribes are still protected under the WGA’s interactive contract.

Feirstein says he’s been treated far more professionally and with more respect than he’s received for script doctoring services at the major film studios.

Says the scribe, who doesn’t actually play vidgames himself, “I’m used to working with junior execs who’ve never been on a movie set. The default in the movie business is ‘the first draft sucks.’ ”

But game developers, he says, are “really cool. They’re like really hip geeks. Very smart and very, very professional. The thing that has most impressed me is that they’re very task-oriented: ‘This is about making videogames. Let’s go.’ ”

And game publishers are hoping that hiring Hollywood talent will help a title make the transition to the big screen.

Studios are just as obsessed with adapting a popular vidgame into a film as they are a comic book these days. But one problem has been the lack of characters or plots to adapt.

“Not every game deserves to be a film,” Boesky says. “But Hollywood is buying, and videogame companies are trying to get writers into games so they can have stronger characters, some kind of plot to adapt.”

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