Like a Bull in a China Shop
Can games based on movies be good? What could be done to improve them?
Christopher Medrano & Terry Randolph
Recently, Chris has had the pleasure of playing a string of horrible games; Fast and the Furious and RIPD (which you can read here). Not surprisingly, these two games are based off of movies recently in theaters. Movie based games are notorious for being horrible for a multitude of reasons like being rushed out to release simultaneously with the theatrical release day or forcefully adhering faithfully to the movie’s storyline.
One of the earliest known console games based on a film is also known as the worst game of all time, E.T. the video game. Released for the Atari 2600 in 1982, the game was believed to be able to sell a high volume of copies thanks to the popularity of the film. The problem? The designer Howard Scott Warshaw only had five weeks to build the game for the holiday season since Atari secured the rights at the end of July. Add the large amount of cartridges to meet the expected sales and it is easy to see the set up for failure. The game is cited as a major contributing factor the video game industry crash in 1983. Rumor has it that the remaining cartridges were crushed and put into a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico (a documentary has exploring the landfill for the game). Since then, most movie games have followed suit in being a rush job and result in being a terrible mess.
Several games have bucked the trend; Chronicles of Riddick, Goldeneye 64 and Spiderman 2 are a few that come to mind. In fact, Goldeneye 64 is considered one of the biggest titles in introducing multiplayer type games (players could host a local 4 person free-for-all type of match against one another). Spiderman 2 did a great job remaining faithful to the movie storyline, but allowed exploration of the locations and side quests. All of the games listed prove there is plenty of material to explore in the worlds the movies inhabit. However most games based on movies stick with the movie’s storyline and lose out on the potential the franchise has. Is it possible that movie based games will always be set up for failure? Probably if the current model established continues to exist. Yet, games based on movie they could a lot of fun if changes were made. Here are some of the problems that need to be addressed and an approach that could charter these games in the right direction.
The biggest challenge games based on movies face is the rush to release the same day as its movie counterpart does theatrically. The strict deadline places huge emphasis on creating a product to ship and less on the bugs, gameplay or polish a game needs. By extending the development cycle for these games it gives developers the chance to create a better product. Studios could conduct more testing of the game, patch any bugs in the code, create more variation in gameplay, polish the game and conduct focus groups. Overall, it creates a healthier environment with room for creativity and innovation and increases the chances at making a better game.
If studios are worried about shipping out the game with the movie, an alternate approach could be to release it the same day of the Blu-Ray/DVD release of the movie. The games could be sold in various special bundles with the movie. This has a double benefit because it could boost sales for both the game and the movie. More people will probably be more inclined to try the game in this method than paying for it as a standalone at full retail price. Not to mention, it extends the deadline for a studio to develop the game.
Another approach the games could explore is breaking away from using the movie story as a source to build off of. Instead, the games could tell a prequel or sequel to the movie. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a fantastic game that serves as a prequel to its movie counterpart The Chronicles of Riddick. Starbreeze Studios was given the creative freedom to explore the history of Benjamin B. Riddick, the main character of the titular franchise. The game released to wide acclaim, setting up the chance for Starbreeze to create a solid sequel called The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. It also showed that movie based games could be done well without being restricted to releasing with the movie. It is a quandary why other studios have not followed suit.
The biggest component often overlooked in development for games based on movies is gameplay. Particularly, it is striking how easily the games can get repetitive and uninteresting. Most of the games follow a simple formula; recycle the same enemy throughout the level, create a shallow objective that ultimately is a Point A to Point B experience. Another challenge arises from this approach, and that is how to make gameplay fun, interesting and challenging enough. Usually, gameplay both evolves over time and increases in difficulty throughout the course of the game. Your character faces various enemies that range in how to approach them, different objectives to achieve and subtle increases in challenge. This keeps the attention, can maintain interest and focus from beginning to the end. In other words, it gives the game life and makes it fun.
Gameplay is also built contextually around the story and tone of the game, which often gets overlooked as well due to time constraints. The Chronicles of Riddick games do a great job of building the atmosphere not just through the story or tone, but through how you approach levels as well. There are some tense moments where you can sneak up to enemies to get them. However, when Riddick is spotted, you can feel the frantic urgency to get through the firefight quickly. It increases the chances a player is immersed into the character, absorbing them into the game until the end. Most movie games are more focused on building around objectives than on the gameplay, and it shows. RIPD is an example of how building around a simple objective can be terribly wrong. Instead of taking moments of exploration, or building the gameplay on parts of the story, it becomes a derivative, generic horde mode game. As Chris put it, movie based games seem “about walking from one end of the level to the next”
All of this brings to light the problems with pricing these games; putting full retail price for them is a huge reach. People are more likely to take a chance on a game they are hesitant about with a lowered price. If studios are concerned with both the cost of production, or keeping in the public spotlight selling the game through digital distribution is a great alternative. Steam is a fine example of a digital platform boasting a large amount of users and selling a high volume of games. Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, or eNintendo Shop are other great digital distribution methods as well. It also leaves room to cut down the price of the game since it is selling the game directly from developers/publishers to the user. Digital only games like Real Steel have enjoyed moderate success at being sold as an arcade game with a ten dollar price-tag (800 Microsoft Points). Chris and I both found the game to be an enjoyable fighting game that was worth the price it was at, even if it left a little more to be desired.
Overall, the main problem is the push to rush the product out to meet the theatrical release date. It means less time to find the bugs to patch, to tweak/improve gameplay or polish the look. By allowing games to explore the universe of the franchise, possibly aiming for the Blu-Ray/DVD release date and reducing price, it gives the game a chance to increase their quality. Until then, games based on movies will continue to walk the line of mediocrity and remain the bull in a China shop.