Video games based on blockbuster movies typically get panned, yet shamelessly benefit from the buzz of their film inspirations. But the developers of this summer's movie games are more intent than ever on transforming gamers' groans into grins.
"Movie games have a bad history," said Jeff Poffenbarger, senior producer at "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" game developer Raven Software. "There is a stigma to movie games, for a thousand different reasons. They come out and they don't live up to the hype people create. For us, it was all about creating the definitive Wolverine experience, not recreating the movie."
Traditionally, movie games are daunting to develop because they face opening-day deadlines yet take double the time to produce as the films they are based on. Veteran game director Joby Otero, chief creative officer at "Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen" developer Luxoflux Studios, said upgrading the genre's quality has become a primary goal in recent years.
"I think Hollywood is communicating with the games industry on a different level now," said Otero. "There's a recognition that a game's quality can impact the overall franchise. I think part of the reason is that more of the key creative decision makers grew up as gamers themselves. There's an understanding of how wrong these things can go."
In hopes of saying "hasta la vista, baby" to a poorly received game, the Halcyon Co., which owns the rights to the "Terminator" franchise, allowed the "Terminator Salvation" game developers to work under the same roof as the film crew when creating the apocalyptic third-person shooter based on the flick directed by McG and starring Christian Bale.
"It meant that the game developers, art directors and designers could literally sit in the same production studio as the film guys," said Cos Lazouras, Halcyon Games development vice president. "They worked collaboratively side by side. They had access to McG, who was intrinsically involved in the game."
Set two years before the film, the "Terminator Salvation" game serves as a prequel to the film, establishing what John Connor has been up to since "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." An increasing number of movie games, such as "Watchmen: The End is High," are using characters from their films to tell stories independent of their movie counterparts.
Because the "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" movie mostly deals with the origins of hooded villain Cobra Commander, the developers of the accompanying arcade-style shoot-'em-up decided to let their game serve as a quasi-sequel instead, recruiting elements from the 45-year history of the toy line and cartoon series to enhance the story line.
"We pick up where the movie ends," said Electronic Arts senior product manager Jason Enos. "We tell a genuine story that's exclusive to the game but ties in key plot points in the film. That also allows us to leverage the larger 'G.I. Joe' universe — characters, vehicles, things you're not going to see in the film but you'll get in the game."
The team behind the "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" game want to make one point about their work as sharp as the Marvel superhero's claws: This game is more about the character Wolverine, less about the movie itself. Still, they understand that Hugh Jackman's voice and likeness — and 20th Century Fox's massive movie marketing campaign — will help sell games.
"With a character like Wolverine, without the movies, we'd be solely relying on a hardcore comic audience that understands the character," said Raven Software senior producer Poffenbarger. "The movie actually broadens the appeal. The recognition is there. For us, we like the Wolverine we see in the movies, and the Wolverine in the comics."
Revenues for movie games vary, according to market researcher NPD Group. Box office popularity typically translates to game sales. For example, "Iron Man," last year's second-highest grossing film, was 2008's top-selling game based on a movie, selling a respectable 1.4 million. (A game based on "The Dark Knight," last year's No. 1 movie, wasn't released.)
"Some have done very well. Some have done OK," said NPD analyst Anita Frazier of the overall performance of licensed movie games. "I'd say the younger the target audience, the more important the license itself is in making the game successful. The older the target audience, the gameplay quality comes more to the forefront."
Movies have been a source of inspiration for game developers since the early 1980s when the likes of "Ghostbusters" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" descended on the Atari 2600. Nowadays, with graphic technologies constantly evolving, replicating film imagery has become easier — even with the games based on those graphically lush Disney-Pixar films.
Heavy Iron Studios executive producer Lyle Hall, who has worked closely with Disney-Pixar over the past seven years to bring such films as "The Incredibles," "WALL-E" and now "Up" into the interactive realm, said that despite the increased focus on creativity, it remains an uphill battle convincing gamers that licensed games aren't just another product.
"I still think they feel like it's the lunch box and the bed sheets," said Hall. "Those things are pressed out of a mold, but other than being on a disc, we are building and offering a creative experience. We're definitely trying to take inspiration from the film, which is built to inspire the audience. We're certainly trying to do the same thing."