A look at how the games that accompany Hollywood's cinematic releases must evolve
In the past, games based on movies have almost always been poorly received by the games industry. I have no doubt that a large percentage of those games have actually made a significant profit but, while they have likely been commercially successful, I have struggled to think of any that were critically successful.
These games tend to have big sales due to the fact that they are based on, and released at the same time as, an incredibly successful movie. They are also entirely targeted at children, who are generally less concerned about how well a game plays – if the main characters of the movie are present and playable they tend to be happy. Your average gamer – and even more so game reviewer – requires far more depth and varied gameplay to be suitably entertained.
This year The Chronicles of Riddick was released to decent if not great reviews which showed the games industry that good games could be made from movie franchises, but it wasn’t until Rocksteady released the excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum that the industry stood up and took full notice of what can really be achieved if the right decisions are made during the design phase of the game.
When I look at Arkham Asylum, one of the things that strikes me is it’s not based on any of the massively successful movies. Rocksteady based its game in the Batman universe rather than tying it directly to a movie. While the game is undoubtedly a fantastic gameplay experience, I still believe it was a brave decision to forego the option of a movie tie in. There are definitely upsides to going it alone, but you are turning your back on some massive benefits that a movie tie can provide. Regardless of whether or not you tie the game closely to a new movie or not, the connection to the franchise will provide certain opportunities and development risks in almost equal measure.
If the game is linked to a specific movie you will have a full story arc written, a full cast defined in great detail, locations will be well described, and you will have a selection of action sequences to choose from. Depending on how much of a control freak you are, these could either be blessing or a curse.
Potential sales have to be the biggest benefit, with the opportunity to surf the wave of the huge marketing spend that inevitably goes with the release of any big budget movie. On the flip side you now have an unmovable release date, which can be a killer, as those few additional months at the end of a project can turn an average game into an amazing game. If you have no chance of the release date moving even by a few months, then this can be a daunting realisation.
Another positive is the connections the movie publisher will provide. You’ll have the best in the industry for high quality cutscenes, voice acting, motion capture, talented composers for musical scores – basically everything you would ever need to create a triple-A video game.
Movie franchises also have large pre-existing fan bases which provide an already captivated audience so sales should be high – although the risk is that big fans of large franchises tend to have big expectations. This makes it risky as a designer to try to put your own distinctive mark on the game for fear of alienating your audience. This potential lack of creative freedom is possibly the biggest downside as a designer. You will likely be working with a writer, and or director, who is understandably more focused on the need to drive the story of the movie than they are of creating fun features and objectives that would benefit the game, especially if they stray too far from the direction and setting of the movie.
Regardless of these upsides and downsides I still think it's fair to assume that we are about to see a new range of movie tie-in games now that Rocksteady has shown the game and movie executives that great games – with big sales – can be made from movie franchises. If I’m correct, is it too much to expect to see the production cost of games equalling that of the movies? Or will the movie executives continue to expect the games to surf the big budget marketing launch of the movie that the game is based on?
Personally, I think it’s too early to see games getting the same financial backing as the movies. Either way, there are some fantastic movie franchises out there that could provide the perfect setting for a slew of superb new games, and I’m looking forward to playing them.