Bond, Superman games on the move

James Bond has switched sides in the videogame world.

In a major shift, MGM and Electronic Arts have ended their deal for the superspy, one of the most popular and profitable licenses in the vidgame biz, four years before it was skedded to end.

Lion has signed a new deal with game publisher Activision that extends through 2014 and is worth around $50 million, according to insiders.

In other big videogame news prior to next week’s E3 industry confab, THQ has confirmed that it is developing a “Sopranos” game that will include the show’s creative team and cast, while Warner Bros. and EA have delayed the “Superman Returns” game from the theatrical release date in June to the DVD release this fall — a potentially costly move.

EA first published a Bond game in 1998 and extended its deal with MGM and EON Prods. just three years ago through 2010. At the time Bond games were some of the industry’s most successful. EA has published three since then; 2003’s “Everything or Nothing” and 2005’s “From Russia With Love” did moderately well, while 2004’s “Goldeneye: Rogue Agents” sold poorly.

Publisher was not able to make a game tie-in for the upcoming “Casino Royale” pic, however, costing MGM millions in license fees. Insiders indicated that decision, along with a shift in EA corporate strategy, led to the two canceling the deal.

“No game means no revenue, and, for the first year, the consumer products team was left high and dry,” said one person close to the deal.

Game publisher has indicated a decision to limit its licensed games and focus on original intellectual property, though it has recently invested heavily in a few key Hollywood licenses such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Simpsons.”

Insiders said Activision was the No. 2 bidder for Bond in 2003, making it a natural to take the license now.

“We looked at a very selective group of potential partners,” noted MGM exec veep of consumer products Travis Rutherford.

First Bond game from Activision is expected to be a tie-in to the film after “Casino Royale.” Publisher has the rights to make Bond games not connected to new films, however.

The 21 Bond videogames published since 1983 have sold some 30 million units overall.

THQ was first reported to be in negotiations for a “Sopranos” game last year. Publisher confirmed Wednesday, however, that it has signed most of the creative talent from the show and is skedding the game for the holidays, tied to the DVD release of the current season.

Creator David Chase is co-writing the game’s story, and actors including James Gandolfini (Tony), Michael Imperioli (Christopher), Tony Sirico (Paulie) and Robert Iler (A.J.) are doing voiceover work and providing likeness rights.

Players will control a bastard son of former series character Big Pussy, who joins the Soprano crime family and gets involved in a battle with a Mafia family in Philadelphia. Game story is expected to connect the current season and the new one starting next year.

“The Sopranos” is the first videogame deal HBO has made for one of its series. It’s also an unusual license for THQ, which has traditionally been known for kids games based on Pixar or Nickelodeon properties. The “Sopranos” game is expected to be very violent and come with an “M” rating (the vidgame equivalent of an R).

“Two years ago, we made a conscious effort to diversify into products beyond kids and were looking for a project to let us compete with games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ that would be current and not derivative,” THQ director of global brand management David Miller recalled. “HBO started shopping the ‘Sopranos’ interactive license at around the same time, and it seemed like a good fit.”

Paybox spoke to several top publishers before settling on THQ. Multimillion-dollar deal is almost certainly the publisher’s biggest for a single licensed property to date and one of its most expensive games.

“Sopranos” game will have more competition than expected this fall, as EA and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment have decided to delay the release of the “Superman Returns” game over concerns that the quality wouldn’t be high enough if it hit stores in time for the pic’s theatrical debut in late June.

Many games rushed to meet a theatrical release date, such as EA and WB’s own “Catwoman” two years ago, turned out to be low quality and poor sellers.

Publisher and studio are hoping that the quality jump will ultimately boost sales, even though game will not be able to take advantage of the huge awareness “Superman Returns” will achieve around the theatrical release.

“We’re trading off the hoopla of the movie release for a much better videogame in its own right,” said WBIE topper Jason Hall. “I think it’s a significant milestone that you have a studio and major publisher agreeing to make the game as good as it can be for the sake of the franchise.”

News comes as EA reported earnings on Wednesday and saw its stock plunge 7% in after-hours trading due to lowered guidance.

With weak sales expected across the industry for the rest of 2006 among major shifts in the industry, including a console transition, EA said that for the fiscal year ending next March 31, earnings per share will range between a 15¢ loss and 15¢ profit on revenue of $2.7 billion-$2.95 billion.

That’s below Wall Street expectations and way below the past fiscal year’s 75¢ per share — or $236 million — profit on $2.95 billion in revenue. Those figures are down 53% and 6%, respectively, from fiscal 2005, reflecting the tough time EA and the vidgame industry as a whole are having.

In good news for Hollywood licenses, however, EA confirmed that “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” has sold over 4.5 million units since its November release, while March’s “The Godfather” has already sold more than 1 million.

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