If the ratio of good-to-bad movie-based games seems tipped toward the negative, why do video game publishers continue to roll the dice and release summer after summer of tie-in games?
By contributor
updated 7/9/2007 8:42:59 PM ET 2007-07-10T00:42:59

No self-respecting summer movie launches without a video game at its side. Activision's "Spider-Man 3" debuted with Peter Parker's third ride. "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" set sail when Jack Sparrow docked at the local multiplex. And when the "Transformers" touched down in theaters on July 4th, Activision filled shelves with an Optimus Prime simulator for gamers.

What, nobody wanted to control Seth Rogen as he bumbled through the delivery room in the video game version of "Knocked Up?"

This summer's bumper crop, which also includes "Surf's Up" from Ubisoft and "Fantastic Four" from 2K Games, is hardly an aberration. Since the first pop of the video game industry in the early 1980s, films have been a constant source of inspiration for video games — and reviews over the years for many movie-based games trend downward, from the disastrous "E.T." on the old Atari 2600 to "Ghost Rider" on the PlayStation 2 earlier this year.

According to review aggregate site Metacritic, overall scores for both the new "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" video games hover across the 60-percent mark. So, if the ratio of good-to-bad movie-based games seems tipped toward the negative, why do video game publishers continue to roll the dice and release summer after summer of tie-in games?

There is brand cachet in movies, and as video game prices continue to rise and shelf space at Wal-Mart is at a premium, publishers must find a way to cut through the many barriers between their game and your wallet. Licensing a movie is an effective shortcut.

"We license large-scale, mass-market properties because they have great potential in the marketplace," confirms Robin Kaminsky, executive vice president of Activision.

When preparing to license a movie property, Kaminsky says Activision asks, "Is it going to be a great movie with mass-appeal on a worldwide basis?"

Awareness of "Spider-Man 3" was at a fever pitch when the game debuted on May 4, the same day the movie bowed. According to the New York Times, Sony spent over $120 million on marketing for the film earlier this month — which is essentially $120 million of free advertising for Activision.

But, according to Kaminsky, this isn't a simple matter of drafting on a studio's advertising. "We try to think about how they are marketing, not how much," she says, citing how the publisher is working closely with Dreamworks and toy maker Hasbro for the upcoming "Transformers" game.

For example, Activision has robots unique to the game that do not appear in the film. Hasbro has created toys based on the video game-exclusive “Transformers,” extending the marketing of the game to the toy shelves.

Sales charts prove that cachet works. According to market researcher NPD, Activision's first two "Spider-Man" games grossed approximately $300 million. The third game charted well on NPD's May 2007 report, with the PlayStation 2 edition moving approximately 250,000 units, making it the second-best selling console game of the month.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," which went on sale on May 22, sold almost 40,000 copies each on the PS2 and Xbox 360 — not bad for just one week.

But aren't these games getting bad reviews? They are, but apparently it doesn't matter — much like the general apathy towards reviews of blockbuster movies. Sometimes consumers make up their minds about entertainment and cannot be swayed by critical voices. They like Captain Jack Sparrow and want to spend three hours with him, no matter if Salon movie reviewer Stephanie Zacharek calls the new "Pirates" movie "a glazed, inhuman, cluttered piece of work."

Kaminsky believes this is the case with the difference between video game review scores of movie-based games and their sales performance, citing that many professional game reviewers are hardcore players.

"The person that plays and loves 'Shrek' is not the same person that buys and plays 'Call of Duty," says Kaminsky, referencing Activision's best-selling World War II action game.

Still, reviews can affect the charting of a game after the game's initial explosion at retail. Once the people that were going to buy "Shrek" or "Spider-Man 3" anyway have come and gone, what about the rest of the gamers? To close the gap, developers and publishers need to create games that appeal to the core gamer audience, which is skeptical about movie tie-in games from almost three decades where iffy efforts far outweighed the hits.

Developers must forge games that are still fun in the context of the source material, but this isn't necessarily easy. The problem could be that the two mediums, films and video games, may share visual and aural planes, but at their core, they are seemingly two different beasts. While a fictional movie — not a documentary — is meant to be absorbed passively as one-way street entertainment, a video game relies on the direct interaction of the audience to be successful.

Basing a video game strictly on the events of a movie, such as "Pirates of the Caribbean" may put the fans close to Sparrow, but it makes for a short experience that feels relatively on-rails. There's no exploration when following a movie beat for beat, and exploration is a key part of many successful video games. Perhaps the key is to use the source material as a jumping off point, such as Ubisoft's "Surf's Up." The game, which follows penguin hero Cody through a series of exciting surf events, embody the spirit of the movie rather than attempting to match the traditional three-act structure.

While it won't be possible to see how movie-based games fared for this summer until NPD's September report, one glance at the May charts reveals that far more non-licensed efforts outsell the movie games, such as "Mario Party 8" on the Nintendo Wii (the overall best-selling video game for May) and "Forza Motorsport 2" on both Xbox 360.

This summer will see games based on "Transformers" and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." Are wizards and robots strong enough to beat out Pokemon on the Nintendo Wii and the powerful "Guitar Hero 2" phenomenon?

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