Movie-based games play up plot

Going where movie (and book) doesn't is also a selling point

The days of movie videogames that play like a low-res repeat of the movie itself have gone the way of Atari’s infamous “E.T.” release.

Today, movies are only a starting point for games that take players deep into the mythology, characters and world of the franchise.

Activision’s “X-Men: The Official Game,” due to hit shelves next week, recruited screenwriter Zak Penn and longtime comicbook scribe Chris Claremont to create a story that bridges the gap between “X2” and the forthcoming “X-Men: The Last the Stand.” Voice work from actors Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Alan Cumming and Shawn Ashmore is also included.

Going where the movie (and book) doesn’t is also a selling point for 2K Games’ “The Da Vinci Code” and Electronic Arts’ “Superman Returns,” the latter drawing on both the new Warner film and the Man of Steel’s 67 years of DC Comics mythology. Doing any less invites the scorn of fans and risks financial disaster.

“Consumers seem to be disappointed, and rightfully so, when they play a game and there’s no difference from the movie,” says Chris Gray, exec producer of the “Superman Returns” game. The development team met with director Bryan Singer and looked for elements in the movie that would work as a vidgame. They then brought in elements from the comicbook such as villains Bizarro, Metallo, Mongul and Mr. Mxyzptlk. Star Brandon Routh lent his likeness and voice to the project; fellow cast members Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Parker Posey and Sam Huntington did voice work only.

“Bryan Singer is a gamer, so he gets it,” Gray says. “He understands the game is the game and the movie is the movie and they’re not the same thing.”

“For a movie, the most important thing is the story. For a game, the equivalent of story is the game play itself,” adds Penn, an avid gamer. “I don’t care how well written the cut scenes are, if it’s not actually fun to play, I won’t care.” That applies to star power, too. “People don’t buy videogames on the basis of an actor or director, they buy it because it’s fun,” says Jason Hall, senior VP in charge of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Essential to creating good game play is starting with a universe rich enough for gamers to want to explore for 40 or 50 hours. And while not every movie is suitable for being turned into a game, a good movie with a good game is the surest path to financial success.

“The mass market, the broader audience is more accepting of film games,” says Robin Kaminsky, global head of brand management for Activision. The company takes its licensed properties very seriously for an obvious reason: almost half its revenues in fiscal year 2006 have come from licensed games.

“We only want movie games that are going to be franchises,” she says. “If we’re buying into a universe, we want to make sure we can get more than one game out of it”

Franchises don’t have to be based on the films of today either. “Star Wars” remains a strong game property and Paramount has seen successful games made based on such older films as “The Godfather” and 1979 cult pic “The Warriors.”

“It’s fantastic to have a movie window, but I think people are more and more so tied to those windows they give up the polish a game might need,” says Sandi Isaacs, VP interactive for Viacom Consumer Products. “The Godfather” was delayed but has been released to good reviews and sales. Isaacs says these games have introduced the properties to a young audience and created a spike in DVD sales and new merchandising opportunities.

There are still ways in which games and movies can work together. “There should be hints in the movie that help you with the game. I’d love to have to sit down and watch the movie again if I want to do better at the game,” Penn says.

Marketing also is an area of convergence. “I’ve always been surprised that movie theaters don’t sell movie videogames,” says Hall. “The ‘Superman Returns’ DVD and the videogame should be next to each other on the shelf.”

As the production costs for games skyrocket to the $20 million area, more Hollywood talent will take a stab at working in the medium. Games and movies will also be able to share digital assets such as 3-D models, and build off each other’s marketing efforts.

“The connection is only valuable if the movie is great, and the game has to be a really strong game,” Gray says. “If either one of those don’t hold up, it won’t work for us.”

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