Taking a whack

Stakes high for 'Godfather' game

A correction was made to this article on March 21.

Hollywood’s uneasy relationship with the videogame world will be put to its biggest test yet today, as one of the all-time classic film franchises gets a new life.

Electronic Arts’ vidgame version of “The Godfather” hits stores more than three years after Paramount first started shopping its film franchise as an interactive property.

Move was risky for Par since pic-based games are, with a few notable exceptions, cheaply made knockoffs that reflect poorly on their film parentage. By putting “The Godfather” into EA’s hands, Par is counting on the No. 1 game publisher to reinvigorate the franchise for a new generation. Success will mean both game royalties and bigger DVD sales; failure could leave a crack in one of the studio’s crown jewels.

It’s a big risk for EA as well. The publisher paid handily for the license, and it’s treating “The Godfather” like a top property, with a budget on the high end for vidgames — over $15 million — and a huge marketing campaign spanning print, online and TV. “Godfather” is EA’s first attempt to mimic the success of “Grand Theft Auto” by creating a so-called open world in which players choose where to go and what to do.

There was one very notable detractor. In an interview on AMC’s “Sunday Morning Shootout” last year that proved embarrassing for EA and Par, Francis Ford Coppola said he disapproved of the game, especially its violent elements, and called it a “misuse of film.”

Insiders say they reached out to the director early in the development process and were disappointed when he declined to be involved further.

“But we’re not trying to create the movie,” said David DeMartini, exec producer of the game. “We’re taking it to a new medium with new consumers where we hope we can do something great like he did and (author Mario) Puzo did.”

Publisher is hoping the game will spawn multiple sequels and match or exceed the two other Hollywood properties that have become game franchises in their own right: “Lord of the Rings” and James Bond. Insiders say a “Godfather” vidgame sequel is already in the works.

Process started in late 2002, when Paramount began shopping a turnkey rights package that included the films and book. Before deal closed in late 2003, parties spent more than six months discussing gameplay elements and creating prototypes for a game EA was sure would sell and Par felt would both make money and respect its property.

“The key for us was that EA demonstrated they could keep the authenticity but still translate the story appropriately,” said Sandi Isaacs, VP for interactive at Viacom Consumer Products, who oversaw the game for Paramount. “I don’t think there has ever been anything this big and remarkable in the (movie-based videogame) space.”

Though gamers play as a new character making his way in the Mafia, they interact repeatedly with the story and characters from the film, including most of the famous scenes, including the horse head discovery, the tollbooth shooting and the restaurant assassination.

Most of the actors from the films did new voiceovers and provided likeness rights, with the notable exception of Al Pacino. In one of his last acting jobs before his death, Marlon Brando did a day of voiceover work, though only a portion of the recordings were usable due to his illness. EA had to use a soundalike for the rest.

The actors were paid to provide likeness rights and do voice work though, under the agreement SAG reluctantly conceded to last year, they don’t get any residuals on sales. Coppola undoubtedly would have received a consulting fee had he agreed to get involved and help promote the game.

“Godfather” comes out at a low point for the game biz. Industry is in the midst of a significant slump, in part due to the transition to next generation consoles. As a result, the game is being priced at $39.95 instead of the typical $49.95 for top-quality titles. That could put it into more hands but means EA will have to sell more units to turn a profit.

Publisher is undoubtedly hoping to sell several million units to validate its big investment. Getting there will probably take until the end of the year — since most videogames sales happen around the holidays — as well as help from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation Portable versions set to come out in August, after the PlayStation 2 and Xbox games that go on sale today.

Game was originally scheduled to bow for the holidays last year but was delayed to allow more time for development. When EA announced it would miss the lucrative holiday season last summer, its share price was whacked 9%.

Early reviews in the vidgame press have ranged from decent to strong. According to IGN’s GamerMetrics service, “Godfather” is the sixth most anticipated game of the season, which puts it among sequels to some of the vidgame world’s biggest franchises.

More games based on classic pics are scheduled for the next couple of years, including “Scarface,” from Vivendi Universal Games, and “Dirty Harry,” from Warner Bros. Interactive. Rockstar did moderately well last year with a game based on cult pic “The Warriors.”

But “The Godfather” is the crown jewel of the group, and its performance will be closely watched both by studios with libraries they’re looking to mine and game publishers deciding whether to shell out for a classic Hollywood license in search of their next big hit.

“When you are trying to take on an industry leader (like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ publisher Rockstar), you need to come up with more than just a great game,” DeMartini said of the decision to license “The Godfather.” “The ideal combination of a great game with a great license gives you blockbuster potential.”