Two can play that game

Hollywood and the games industry are getting closer than ever. Soon you may not be able to tell the difference.

Audiences are flocking to watch Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers this Christmas, but computer gamers have been immersing themselves in the latest Middle Earth saga, The Fellowship of the Ring, since late October. Although initial sales figures aren’t out yet, the game has been selling well: it’s currently number four in the Virgin Megastore computer games charts, even though the The Two Towers film was only released yesterday.

And, rather than being seen as another bit of cynical merchandising, it has been critically acclaimed by the highly discerning games-buying community.

Lord of the Rings is an example of a growing trend; closer links between Hollywood and the computer games industry. The big film studios have woken up to the power of computer games and are harnessing this to their own advantage.

And, in relative terms, games are far more lucrative than even the blockbuster films themselves. The development cost of a top game title is unlikely to exceed £3-4m, but with each unit selling at up to £40 and the games market in the US alone totalling 225m units, the attractions of a film/game marriage is clear.

In the US last year, video games grossed more than cinema. In the UK, the games industry made more money than cinema, video sales and video rental combined. According to the industry’s own figures, together the US and UK video games markets were worth around £5bn in 2001.

The success story is likely to continue. Sales for the first nine months of 2002 were even higher than last year; nearly 13% up on the same period the previous year. This Christmas is predicted to be the busiest ever for the industry and should push the leisure software market to a record of £1.147bn.

Many of the games on the shop shelves will have a familiar ring to anyone who enjoys a trip to the cinema: Bond, Spider-Man and Star Wars join Lord of the Rings on the shop shelves. One publisher, Activision, has had seven games associated with films over the past year alone. Enjoy watching Spider-Man and Minority Report? The game of the film is on sale near you. Two hours of escapism watching Harry Potter not enough? Then why not immerse yourself for far longer playing the game?

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was released in November after its predecessor, The Sorcerer’s Stone, sold 10m copies world-wide. The new game is expected to do just as well.

The Game of the Film hasn’t always been well received, but Hollywood is rapidly learning that the game-playing public has high standards.

Film studios have known for a long time that they could make a lot of money on the side by releasing branded merchandise. But when George Lucas made the first Star Wars film back in the 1970s his merchandising campaign was pioneering. The Star Wars computer games portfolio is now one of the most valuable in the market.

According to Simon Jeffery, president of computer game house Lucas Arts, the processes of game making and film making have become tightly intertwined: “When George is putting a script together he works with us to see what sequences will make good games.”

Games and film are good partners. Many of the resources used in film production can be tweaked slightly and then applied to making a game. Storyboards, sound effects and special effects are all transferable to some extent.

Lucas Arts has recruited two other of George Lucas’ companies in making its latest title, Bounty Hunter, released earlier this month. Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects studio and Skywalker Sound, the audio studio, are both providing material for the game.

All this means economies of scale as the huge investments in making a film can be applied to a second source of income. The computing tech nologies used to create both are also moving closer together. When Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe were filming Spider-Man, they took time out to visit the computer game studio to have their faces scanned so the developers could make the characters in the game look more realistic.

Brian Pass, producer of the Spider-Man: The Movie game, thinks it won’t be long before the graphics on some computer games will be up to Hollywood standards.

“We’re using a lot of the same tools now, we use programmes that are used in the film special effects world. I definitely see a time when you are not going to be able to see a difference between what’s been rendered out of a games console and what’s happening in a film.”

Not all films are suitable for translation to video games, but blockbuster action movies are the best. Aliens has several scenes where Sigourney Weaver is creeping along dark corridors hunting aliens that jump out and attack her. This is exactly the plot for the highly successful Doom series. The same tension generated in the film that kept the audience on the edge of their seats is what keeps the gamer playing over and over again.

Film critic and avid game player Stephen Rowley goes as far as suggesting that the thrill we get from playing a game can be more intense than watching a film.

“Audience identification is much more direct because we are the protagonist,” he says. “In Duke Nukem 3D [another game from the same genre as Doom], while walking down a tunnel, the roof suddenly collapses. This is extremely startling, and the fact that we can ‘die’ in game terms, makes our backward run to avoid the falling rocks more exciting.”

As Spider-Man producer, Brian Pass puts it: “You know when you’re watching a film that the hero’s going to win. The hero’s not always going to win in a game and it’s up to you as the gamer to make that happen. You get to become the character.”

Watching a film takes two hours, playing a game can take 10 times that at least, and to sell well it has to keep the game player interested. Games can’t yet compete with film when it comes to character development, dialogue or the more complex aspects of the story line, so a game like Spider-Man focuses on the action. The player controls Spider-Man, firing web strands, swinging between the skyscrapers, fighting villains. The plot of the game loosely follows the film but diverges to introduce new scenes and subplots, missions and enemies that aren’t in the celluloid version.

Indeed a growing trend is to develop games with storylines that diverge from the film or have entirely original plots. Wolverine’s Revenge is being developed to coincide with the release of sequel to the Marvel comics-inspired X-Men film. It focuses on just one of the characters, Wolverine, and introduces a storyline and adventures that won’t be seen on screen.

Meanwhile a new Indiana Jones film is due for release in 2005, but a game will be on sale next year. The studios hope the game will introduce the hat-wearing character and his whip to a new generation and therefore boost the box-office receipts.

Lucas Arts is also following the pattern of extending the plot of games beyond the movie. Its latest title Bounty Hunter follows the life of mercenary Jango Fet. Lucas Arts’ Jeffery believes that although people want to play games based on films, they want a different experience, with more depth, than they get at the cinema.

“They see Jango Fet, they think he’s really cool. They want to play a game about Jango Fet doing something else,” says the company president. “They want to see new planets, new vehicles, Sith Lords and things like that. The two obvious examples now are Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – it’s very clear that gamers want to see Lord of the Rings games that aren’t just the story in the film.”

The computer games industry is not just working closely with Hollywood on a creative level. It is also starting to mirror its business patterns. Most film studios are merely publishers who hire in experts from scriptwriters and directors to cameramen and caterers. Although Lucas Arts does a lot in-house, the trend within computer gaming is to copy the Hollywood studio model and outsource.

British companies are alert to this trend; Babel is a service company for the computer games industry, based in Brighton. Managing director Algy Williams sees this similarity with film production becoming stronger as the industry matures.

“Publishers need to concentrate on delivering great games to an increasingly demanding and sophisticated public. They shouldn’t get bogged down by carrying overheads for parts of the production process that are essentially seasonal and can be done faster and more efficiently by specialist suppliers.

“Publishers are just beginning to embrace this model and I think that they will quickly see more efficient processes, greater margins and better product.”

At the moment the British computer game industry is the third strongest in the world, behind the US and Japan. But in many respects it is leading the world.

British companies are recognised for being innovative and edgy; making ground breaking, creative games. The controversial crime game, Grand Theft Auto Vice City currently tops the Play Station 2 charts and is one of the top selling Play Station 2 games ever. It was developed in Scotland.

Another Scottish game, State of Emergency, has also attracted critical acclaim and criticism in large measure. It is a riot game where an evil global corporation has taken over society and it’s down to the rioters to bring it to its knees. New Line cinema, the studio that made Lord of the Rings, has bought the film rights.

It’s not the first time that a computer game has been made into a movie; Lara Croft was converted from computer graphic to screen goddess in Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil crept its way into cinemas this summer.

Chris van der Kuyl, the President and CEO of Viz Entertainment, developers of State of Emergency, believes that it will become more of a two-way street in future, with an increasing number of Hollywood films being based on games, as well as more games of films being released.

“Hollywood is coming to the gaming industry and looking for our properties. There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on between films and games. It’s not just ‘there’s a film character and we want to make a game out of it’.

“There are some really hot games titles out there that have a huge fan base and now Hollywood wants to tap into that – it’s sort of the machine feeding on itself.”

But there is one battle to be fought: if British game development is based on creativity, breaking the rules, bringing out games with challenging subject matter, the real challenge over the coming years will be surviving in an environment increasingly influenced by mainstream Hollywood, with an eye on middle American sensitivities.

The Guardian, Thursday 19 December 2002 10.05 GMT

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