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Viv U fine-tunes its playbook

Interactive unit looks to transform tentpoles, TV hits into top games

HOLLYWOOD — In Hollywood’s on-again, off-again romance with the vidgame biz, perhaps no studio has been a more steadfast suitor than Vivendi Universal, with its sprawling collection of inhouse game makers.

Now, its biggest games unit, Universal Interactive, is poised to ride vidgaming’s latest upswing, with plans to create two or three original properties a year based around Universal’s upcoming tentpole films, its high-profile TV properties, and its library of entertainment titles.

The division is expected to make one of the biggest showings this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the vidgame industry’s annual confab.

Among the big media congloms, only Sony is more invested in games than VU, and that’s in a less-integrated form: Yes, Sony will get maybe half its profits from the PlayStation and has two big U.S. game software units — Sony Computer Entertainment of America and Sony Online Entertainment — but there’s little synergy between its traditional entertainment units and its game operations. Sony seldom exploits Columbia-TriStar’s huge library for games, for instance.

Disney Interactive also puts out games, mostly modest cookie-cutter titles spun off from the studio’s animated pics. A series of licensing deals with outside publishers, including last week’s deal with game maker THQ for the next three Disney/Pixar animated pics, has only fueled speculation about the unit’s future.

Throw in Viacom’s small Simon & Schuster Interactive unit, and you’ve covered most of Hollywood’s inhouse game operations.

Other studios have ongoing arrangements with a single independent publisher or sporadically license properties to the highest bidder. But only VU has a large and growing games unit inhouse these days, working with other units of the conglom to develop titles.

“Everybody in Hollywood seems to be approaching it in different ways,” UI chief executive officer Jim Wilson says. “At VU, we have access to distributors, access to franchises that really work in the game space and access to technology.”

Universal Interactive was initially a small part of Universal Studios, known for two huge console franchises, “Crash Bandicoot” and “Spyro the Dragon.” Vivendi, meanwhile, was buying up PC game publishers Blizzard Entertainment and Sierra.

Then came the 2000 merger that created Vivendi Universal and VU Games, the division that contains all three publishers. Now, UI is expanding everywhere, especially onto the next-generation consoles that make up two-thirds of the $9.4 billion biz.

It’s a big shift for UI. A tiny operation just a few years ago, it cashed in with “Crash,” which sold a whopping 25 million units for the Playstation, and “Spyro,” which sold 10 million more. “Crash” was so popular (generating nearly $1 billion) that Sony made it a mascot, then bought its developer, Naughty Dog. At the same time, Wilson has moved the company beyond its original one-two punch.

“We started off with Crash and Spyro on the PlayStation and that’s all we were doing,” Wilson says. “Now, we’re really trying to balance it out. We’ll have 15 titles on all the platforms, plus online.”

UI is mining the Universal library, generating recent and upcoming games based on “the Mummy Returns” and “The Scorpion King,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Hulk,” and “The Thing” movies, the film characters of Bruce Lee and U’s ’30s-era monsters and “The Lord of the Rings” books.

And there are obvious, if not yet official, opportunities coming up, like a driving game based on the upcoming “The Fast and the Furious” sequel.

Monthly meetings between Wilson and top VU film and TV execs keep his unit apprised of gameworthy projects as far off as 2005, giving UI the time to develop more compelling titles.

In creating movie-based titles, Wilson says the games use characters and settings from the films, but try to explore new dramatic ground.

“I don’t want to do ‘See the movie, play the game,’ because we know how the movie ends,” Wilson says.

He points to “The Thing” as an example of how the approach works. The survival-horror game, which is winning buzz in the enthusiast press, starts after the movie ends, functioning almost like the sequel that’s never been made.

“It’s absolutely to build the franchises, to extend the franchises,” Wilson says. “Consumers don’t want a rehash of a movie. Kids want a rehash, but gamers don’t.”