Still Missing the Link
By Julie Tamaki, Times Staff Writer
Since the days of "Donkey Kong," video games have evolved with apes.So when Ubisoft Entertainment partnered with "King Kong" director Peter Jackson to develop a game based on last year's film, it was widely touted as the missing link between video games and movies.
In the end, though, retail sales didn't live up to the hype and "Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie" demonstrated yet again that, despite their similarities, video games and movies are very different animals."It was a successful game but fell far short of expectations," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles. "It's shocking to me they expected a gorilla game to do well."Movie producers and game designers have tried for decades to cash in on each other's appeal with movies based on games and with games based on movies. Flops have far outnumbered hits. And even as technical differences erode — games are more cinematic, movies rely heavily on computer effects — the gap between the two remains difficult to bridge.Only one game with a movie tie-in, "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith," ranked among the top 10 bestselling U.S. titles of 2005, according to NPD Group video game analyst Anita Frazier. In contrast, Frazier said, "King Kong" came in 72nd.Ubisoft lowered its revenue forecast in January, in part because reorders of "Kong" were lagging behind expectations. The French publisher shipped 4.5 million copies of "Kong" to retailers worldwide, and it estimated recently that just more than 3 million actually sold.Even so, Ubisoft executives described the game as a financial success that helped raise the company's profile in the entertainment industry. The company's future endeavors include a deal with Sony Pictures Consumer Products to develop and publish games based on the upcoming animated feature films "Open Season" and "Surf's Up.""Not only did we make money on ['Kong'] but it's going to bring us a lot more business," said Tony Kee, vice president of marketing for Ubisoft.Jackson's manager, Ken Kamins, said in an e-mail that the director and Universal Pictures also were pleased "both creatively and economically" with the game."By any reasonable definition, 1 million units would represent a successful video game," Kamins said.Though the allure of Hollywood partnerships remains strong, some game publishers have begun straying from the movies-to-games trend, choosing instead to tap Hollywood talent to develop original stories rather than recycling the ones found in films.Part of the reason is a recognition of the fundamental difference between movies and games: Games are interactive, movies are passive. Movie-based games that succeed often use the film as a starting point for new sto- ries that cater to the strengths of interactive entertainment.Games based on the "Star Wars" movies, for instance, use the well-known galaxy of planets and characters to launch players into new adventures that might require them to pilot starships or ferret out Imperial spies."Kids want to do something exhilarating and different," Pachter said. "They want to blow things up. That's why 'Star Wars' games do good."In the case of Kong, Pachter said, "the game was faithful to the movie. The art direction was great. The problem is, who wants to be a gorilla?"Cooperation between studios and game publishers is fueled by the growing legitimacy that games enjoy in Hollywood. Annual game revenues rival box- office receipts. Top games can make more than some hit movies. Many directors and producers grew up playing video games."As the technology surrounding games becomes better, I think you'll get more Hollywood persons involved in creating games," said Edward Williams, an analyst with investment bank Harris Nesbitt. "What those directors will be able to do is to look at a game and allow the users to engage in a story that can go on for a longer period of time than a movie."Electronic Arts Inc., the world's largest independent video game publisher, has teamed up with director Steven Spielberg, a video game fan, on three fresh creations. The Redwood City company, which has published titles based on the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films, has resolved to reduce the number of games it churns out that are based on licenses, particularly those attached to movies.Steep fees paid by publishers to creative talent and actors for voice-overs are fundamentally altering the economics of the movie-based game business, according to Frank Gibeau, general manager of North American publishing for EA. At the same time, the company no longer believes it's essential to use movie licenses to help expand the popularity of video games, given the mainstream appeal that games enjoy.Chicago-based Midway Games Inc. is collaborating with MTV Games and Tigon Studios, founded by action star and hard-core video game fan Vin Diesel, to create a car chase game called "The Wheelman." Plans call for Paramount Pictures Corp. and MTV Films to make a movie based on the video game starring Diesel."It's a new paradigm in the entertainment business: combining from the ground floor up the simultaneous development of a video game, a movie and the music," said Dave Zucker, Midway's chief executive.MTV Films has options to make movies based on three video games including "The Wheelman.""The way video games are being developed these days, many of them are very cinematic," said David Gale, an executive vice president at MTV Films. "And there's no time frame that the movie has to come out in to coordinate with the video game."Timing the release of a game to a movie has long been problematic, because the computer-created worlds that make games come to life often take longer to create than movies."To really capitalize on the movie's marketing, you need to come out day-and-date with the movie," said Frazier of NPD Group. "Studios are much more cognizant these days of the time frame needed by developers."Warner Bros. formed a division two years ago to handle the licensing and development of video games based on new and old movies in addition to original creations."The video game space in general represents a growth opportunity for a studio like Warner Bros.," said Jason Hall, senior vice president of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.Hall's division not only helps pave the way for film stars to help polish a game by lending their voices to movie-based titles but also helps game developers get their hands on movie assets necessary to turn out quality games."Because of our increased competency as a film studio, we are able to better understand what we can do to facilitate their production," Hall said.That hasn't always been the case. "The traditional structure was, the consumer products division of a film company would go out and try to license as many ancillary markets as possible," said Neil Young, general manager and vice president for EA's studio in Playa Vista. "Video games were there with T-shirts, pens, coffee mugs and fluffy toys. You'd all get the same materials, and if you were lucky you would get a visit to the set."Brian Farrell, CEO of Agoura Hills-based THQ Inc., recalled the time he made an eight-figure offer for the license to produce a game based on a large movie franchise. He said he emphasized the importance of having adequate time to develop the game when he submitted his bid.Nonetheless, the April deadline Farrell set for a response came and went. It wasn't until several weeks later that he received word that his offer had been accepted."I said we're not interested," recalled Farrell, whose company has spun off games from kid-friendly films such as "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." "You make a lousy game — even based on a great movie — it doesn't sell."Within the game industry, the most infamous example of that was a version of "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial" designed for the Atari 2600.Designers had just six weeks to create the game, but hopes for blockbuster sales ran so high that there were more games manufactured than there were Atari consoles. More than 1 million cartridges wound up being dumped in a New Mexico landfill, and the fiasco was blamed for helping spark the 1983 crash of the video game industry.Piggybacking on the muscle of a Hollywood film can be particularly expensive for game makers, because of the hefty licensing fees that film properties command. In the case of King Kong, for example, Ubisoft not only paid licensing fees to Universal Pictures but also cut Jackson in on the game's revenue."It's a very risky proposition," said Geoff Keighley, a host on "G4," a video game program on cable television. "As you spend more and more money on games, the risk increases."The average cost of developing a game is $4 million to $5 million, according to Pachter, and is expected to rise $10 million to $15 million for next-generation consoles such as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Typically, licenses are 5% to 15% of wholesale revenue, he said.A growing number of studios realize the value that video games can bring to a film."If people love the video game, the chances are they're going to really be looking out for the movie and vice versa," Gale said.One way software publishers are avoiding the timing issue is by trying to cash in on the popularity of movie classics with plots that take the stories into the future. EA, for example, is making a game based on "The Godfather" that builds on the original story. Warner Bros. is developing games based on "Dirty Harry" that are expected to feature Clint Eastwood's voice and likeness.Los Angeles-based Vivendi Universal Games Inc. is developing a title based on the movie "Scarface." Instead of watching Al Pacino's character Tony Montana die in a fusillade of bullets, players can steer the gangster past his enemies and back into the streets of Miami, where a new tale begins."The film has a story," said Pete Wanat, the game's executive producer. "We wanted to tell a different story."In the game, for example, the gangster uses boats to travel beyond Miami to various Caribbean islands as he tries to rebuild his drug empire. Players can also control Montana as he walks, drives, deals drugs and shoots his enemies."I don't want to be the industry average," Wanat said. "Luckily for us, 'Scarface' has never been more popular than it is now."