This post is part of the September Round Table on the transition from film to game.
I have worked on a number of film-to-game adaptations, although not as many as I have TV-to-game or even toy-to-game adaptations. I’m not going to name any names, but on the whole I would have to say that film-to-game is the hardest adaptation proposition in the whole of the videogame world, and there are sound developmental and commercial forces which contribute to the excremental quality of the finished product in most cases. Yet, and this cannot be overlooked, these games still sell in reasonably large numbers.
As Denis has noted in his Round Table post, part of the problem is scheduling. Film-to-game adaptations are a merchandising proposition – the whole basis of the commercial viability of the form is to get the game on the shelves when it can share in the hype of the movie (thus saving on marketing costs). Consequently, the damned souls condemned to work on a film-to-game adaptation are immediately up against the clock. The famed E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game (which David Lee knees in the proverbial groin in his Round Table post) had to be made in six weeks – when this is taken into account, its poor quality is perhaps more forgiveable.
That’s just the beginning of the problem though. Not only do you have insufficient time to work on these kinds of projects, but you are usually working solely from the screenplay (because you have to start work before principal photography has begun) and so if the goal of the project is to have the game represent the film, you can look forward to a panoply of crises later in the project as you discover your game doesn’t match the film at all. Not to mention that as well as having a publisher interfering with the development process, you also have the licensors from the movie studio interfering – and this usually means even more disastrously ill-conceived feedback than usual.
So in some respects, I have great respect for the people who persevere with such projects, because I know that ultimately the many things that will go wrong are not really the fault of the developer (except in so much as the developer chose to sign the game in the first place).
And let’s not forget, many of these games do sell rather well. Sales figures below half a million are quite rare for a big film-to-game license, and figures around a million are common. These aren’t exactly a high watermark figure (five, ten and fifteen million unit sales exist for the best titles in the current market) but they probably bespeak of a project in profit. Remember that E.T. game that everyone likes to knock? It still sold 1.5 million units. The game is only considered a failure because Atari paid too much for the license and thus manufactured too many units trying to hit the break point; if their bid had been reasonably judged, they would still have made a profit on this title, irrespective of the quality of the game.
The ghastly truth of the matter is that many perfectly well-made games do not sell in unit numbers on a par with the film-to-game adaptations, which underscores the reason for the adaptations in the first place: the commercial reality is that you’re going to sell more copies of a mediocre game with a strong brand license (especially with simultaneous release) than of a well-designed original game at least nine times out of ten, if not more. If you’re an investor (instead of, say, a gamer), which proposition do you think you’re going to prefer?
But before we paint a picture of the film-to-game adaptation business that is too bitter, let’s not forget that it is possible to do a good job. The most successful film-to-game adaptation is GoldenEye 007 on the N64, the game that brought first person shooter play to the mass market for the first time and sold a cool 8 million units, leaps and bounds ahead of most rival FPS games (excluding only the first Halo, which benefited from exceptionally high marketing spend and a long period of being the only title on the Xbox people considered worth playing). The recent Godfather and Scarface games also seem to have been better received than most film-to-game adaptations – but then, we’re dealing here with titles which were not up against the usual time pressures inherent in the form.
GoldenEye, for instance, was not released to coincide with the 1995 Bond film of the same name, and was in fact released to coincide with the following Bond movie (Tomorrow Never Dies) in 1997. The team had the time they needed to get the game as good as it could be, and it benefited from superior review scores, word-of-mouth and all the other advantages of a quality game title that didn’t have to be rushed to master. The delay in release did not, in this case, seem to negatively affect sales, although it might well have sold faster if a game of the same quality could have been prepared in time for the original release (putting aside the impossibility of this state of affairs).
Ultimately, this suggests two things to me about the film-to-game marketplace. Firstly, if you have a film that could make a great game for the gamer hobbyist audience, you would do better not to worry about timing a simultaneous release with the film – especially if you’re confident that people will still like the movie after they’ve seen it. (Obviously if you know your movie is going to stink, it might be better to sell the game before people catch on). If you spend the time to make the game of sufficient quality, and always assuming you’ve picked a developer who can deliver on this promise, delaying production to get the game quality where it needs to be could be the optimal commercial proposition.
Secondly, and quite conversely, if the film doesn’t suggest a game that could have gamer hobbyist appeal, perhaps it would be better all around to make a different kind of film-to-game product entirely (something Deirdra hints at in the context of her experience working on a CSI adaptation). Most videogames are too difficult for the mass market audience – many adaptations shouldn’t be making a game for the hobbyists at all, they should be making it for the actual audience such a licensed game will receive. It seems like a no-brainer, and yet developers get this wrong time and time again.
Case in point, Traveller’s Tales 2003 Finding Nemo game was monstrously old school in its design sensibilities; it’s hard to believe that the audience for the film who were then interested in the game could possibly have their play needs met by this sequence of unceasing pain. Yet the game sold in good numbers (about 1.12 million units in the US on the PS2) – on the back of the popularity of the brand. I do not think it is much of a stretch to suggest a more forgiving, more casual-friendly game design could have been delivered on the same resources but have better met the needs of the audience for a Finding Nemo branded game, and benefited from better sales on the back of better word-of-mouth and fewer returns.
Adapting from film to game is a perfectly reasonable commercial endeavour, and as GoldenEye and other titles demonstrate, it need not result in a train-wreck of a videogame. But we need to get smarter about how we approach the process of adapting to games in this way. The marketing sweet spot may be when the film releases, but if the film delivers the goods you can ship your game a little later and still benefit from the brand value. And if the game isn’t for the gamer hobbyists at all, then make a game for the audience you have – don’t ship something that no-one is going to want to play. If we don’t get this right, it hurts the whole industry, as consumers become wary of a games industry that is constantly selling them games they don’t want to play.
And yet, of course, the film-to-game adaptations keep selling... because even though we don’t like to admit it, marketing is still vastly more important to commercial success in the videogames market than game design or development skills. We may not like it, but it’s human nature to buy something familiar over something original and unknown – and no amount of bitching is going to change that.