There usually aren't many takers when a review copy of the latest movie license game arrives at the office. Whoever gets the short straw has to review it. There are some signs that point to a brighter future, while other signs points to a maintained status quo.
I heard a story not too long ago about a developer who pitched a concept do to a game on the upcoming Akira feature film. When they pitched their ideas to the owner of the license they were told their plans were very impressive but too ambitious for what they had in mind. In other words they wanted a cheap game, with a short production cycle rather than giving a developer with great ideas the chance to realise them and make a good game based on the license.
I have heard many developers complain over how movie makers hold back on vital story details or information until the last minute, making their efforts to make a good game in time for the movie's release impossible. But we always hear these tales after the fact.
Before games are released you often hear the opposite from the producers on the project. "We have been given unheard of access." "We have visited the set, motion captured the actors, they have contributed by giving us tips on their characters." These are all nice phrases, but if the overall game design is dictated by a Hollywood movie script - the end result is almost always a disappointment.
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One big exception to the rule was The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Developed by Swedish Starbreeze Studios, the game was a prequel to both Pitch Black and the related movie release The Chronicles of Riddick. Starbreeze were given the chance to first and foremost create a game that could stand on its own two legs.
Universal's producer of Escape from Butcher Bay, Pete Wanat, also supervised the development of The Thing, and he is now working on Wanted under development at GRIN's Barcelona studio. Pete is the kind of guy who likes to spread his f-words around, preferably at least once in every sentence. I recently met him in Leipzig, and he gave all the credit for the success of Riddick to Starbreeze. He hopes to repeat the success with Wanted - a movie game with a similar premiss as Escape from Butcher Bay. Instead of being set before the movie, the game is set after the events in the movie as Wesley tries to find his mother.
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I'm not sure Wanted will be the same success for Wanat and GRIN Barcelona as Riddick was for Starbreeze, but at least it is a licensed game that attempts to be something more than just a quick cash-in.
Another interesting movie license that will make a comeback this fall is Quantum of Solace. James Bond has had both highs and lows in his gaming career. Most would agree it has been mostly lows, and from what I have seen so far Quantum of Solace won't bring him back to his Goldeneye days (Goldeneye represents the pinnacle of licensed games to many). It should help with the pacing of the game that the developer has two movies to draw from, but they have been pretty much committed to following the movie scripts.
In the case of Quantum of Solace I don't think lack of ambition or funding is the problem. It's just that the person in charge of designing the game is only to a certain extent in charge of what gets put into the game. And any ideas he may have will be altered or turned down by higher ups in charge of the license. I guess it's the difference between a chef who can go out and buy his ingredients wherever he wants and one who is forced to use whatever he can find at the local 7-Eleven. The latter may actually be the better chef, but its hard for him to prove that.
With The Wheelman, Vin Diesel's Tigon Studios, are trying to take a page out of the Riddick book as well. The game is a prequel to next year's movie, and is meant to establish the background to Diesel's character in the movie. It is developed by Midway Newcastle, a team with plenty of experience with racing games such as their latest effort L.A. Rush, but maybe they have taken on a bit too much judging from the on-foot sections of the game. A mistake that ultimately led to the downfall of another Newcastle studio. But Wheelman deserves the benefit of the doubt as the driving seems very entertaining.
It will also be really interesting to see what Danish outfit Deadline Games (Total Overdose, Faith and a .45) will make of Watchmen. Instead of going all out with a retail game ready for the release of the summer blockbuster, the plan is to release a gaming prequel in episodes available for download. I haven't seen anything of the Watchmen game yet, but there seems to lie some hope in the concept.
There is some hope for games based on movies afterall, but it all comes down to whether or not there is a game underneath the license that can hold its own.