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Making movie games playable

Times Staff Writer

Soulless. Repetitive. Clunky.

Those were some of the kinder words that critics have bestowed on video games based on Hollywood films.

But many of those games have nonetheless sold well thanks to the movie marketing blitz that accompanies box-office releases. For example, the “Enter the Matrix” game, which one critic called “astoundingly dull,” sold 2.3 million copies in the U.S. The James Bond title “GoldenEye: Rogue Agent” rated an average of 65% -- the equivalent of an F -- from more than 200 reviews, according to GameRankings.com, but it sold more than 1 million copies.

“Licensed games have a bad reputation,” said Bill Kispert, vice president and general manager of Universal Pictures Digital Platforms Group. “And it’s probably well deserved.”

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Stung by the reviews, game developers and filmmakers are growing mindful that consumers may wise up and begin avoiding movie-related games. So the industry is taking a new tack, aiming to substantially alter the way games are made and financed.

The changes include urging studios to share more resources with developers, getting more creative input from film directors and finding ways to give developers extra time before commercial releases so the games look better.

The latest to make these promises is Brash Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based company that launched this month with $400 million in private equity financing.

What drew investors to Brash was a $30-billion global games industry that’s growing 10% to 15% a year, said Thomas Tull, one of the company’s financial backers and producer of such films as “Batman Begins” and “300.” But Tull, an avid player of video games, was also impressed by the company’s oath to make only high-quality titles.

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“It’s all about making great games,” Tull said. “That’s the foundation of this company.”

Brash and other developers that are trying the new approach are meeting in Los Angeles this week to discuss their challenges at the second annual Hollywood & Games Summit.

One of the biggest difficulties has been the conflicting production schedules required in the making of games and movies.

“Most studios can make a really good movie in 10 to 12 months,” said Kispert, whose group works with developers to turn Universal Studios’ movies into games. “Good games take a lot longer to make, sometimes up to two years.”

So if developers start work right when a movie gets the green light, they’d have half the time that’s usually required to create a game. The result often has been games that are unpolished or buggy.

Another big obstacle has been the lack of involvement by filmmakers who have no interest in games or are too busy making the movie. That can cause further delays in getting scripts and updated scenes to developers.

Even when the directors are passionately involved, things can go awry. Andy and Larry Wachowski, the brothers who wrote and directed “The Matrix,” might have become too involved with the interactive spinoff, “Enter the Matrix.”

“The game was designed as a fighting game,” said Geoff Keighley, editor of Gameslice, an online industry newsletter. “But the Wachowski brothers insisted that there be a driving level. So the developer had to kludge one in there. It was so bad, the wheels on the cars were literally square.”

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The Wachowski brothers also were dead set against having the movie’s protagonist, Neo, as a playable character in the game, even though market surveys indicated that was what fans wanted most.

Sometimes the movie itself limits what developers can do.

“Film is linear storytelling where the audience sits passively and watches the story unfold. And games are interactive,” said Billy Pidgeon, an analyst with research firm IDC. “A story that may be good for one may not be good for the other.”

With all those restrictions, it’s no wonder that some game developers have soured on making movie-based games.

“It’s really hard to get a top-quality team interested in working on a project that’s not their own,” said Mike Wilson, chief executive of game producer Gamecock Media Group. “You’re not going to get anyone who’s a rock star developer.”

So why bother shelling out the licensing fees, which can reach tens of millions of dollars for popular movies?

“It’s an easier sell when Mom and Dad are at Wal-Mart and there’s a familiarity that’s already there because of the movie,” Keighley said.

But many in Hollywood are tired of that model. Jesse Alexander, executive producer for the “Alias” and “Heroes” TV series, was disappointed with the game that Acclaim Entertainment Inc. developed for “Alias” in 2005. The Chicago-based game publisher has since declared bankruptcy and sold its name to a Beverly Hills company.

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“These types of games are done assembly-line fashion by people who are only interested in making money,” Alexander said. “Very often the products are inferior. And then the whole franchise suffers because people get a bad experience.”

Universal’s Kispert, who helped shepherd production of the game based on director Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” film, believes things can be different.

For “King Kong,” Kispert snagged top-tier developers at UbiSoft Entertainment by promising greater creative freedom and a chance to work with Jackson. Developer and director began talking two years before the movie was released. Kispert flew the development team to New Zealand five times to brainstorm with Jackson. One idea he shared was to have part of the game played from the perspectives of the human characters, and the other played from the giant ape’s point of view.

“That was a great idea because we ended up with two games in one,” Kispert said. Along the way, Jackson gave UbiSoft several digitally created scenes made for the movie.

The game scored well -- a respectable average of 80% from 73 reviewers, according to GameRankings.com. And it has sold more than 4.5 million copies worldwide since it was released in November 2005.

Having an inside track on the movie helps squeeze extra development time, said Larry Shapiro, Brash Entertainment’s chief creative officer and a former Hollywood agent.

“We have relationships with producers at the studios,” Shapiro said. “So that does help us get insight into the projects to get us an earlier start.”

Hollywood studios also are starting to think about possible game components from the get-go. “We call it transmedia storytelling,” Alexander said. “When we create a new franchise, we talk about how we can extend the narrative as a game, as a book, how it would look on the Internet and so forth.”

For their parts, developers are trying to do more than mimic the movie’s plot.

LucasArts, a game studio founded in 1982 by director George Lucas, has a forthcoming game called “The Force Unleashed” that takes place between the third and fourth episodes of the “Star Wars” film series.

“We extend the ‘Star Wars’ universe to give players a new experience,” LucasArts President Jim Ward said.

But even a rock-solid franchise such as “Star Wars” doesn’t guarantee financial or critical success. Although the film industry is often said to be hit-driven with only a handful of blockbusters, the game business is even more so. That’s because it doesn’t have lucrative DVD or video-on-demand businesses to recoup expenses on flops, as the film industry does.

“With games, you’ve only got one shot when the game releases at retail,” Ward said.

Brash is trying to minimize that by bringing an independent film-financing model to games and assembling a balanced mix of titles to spread its risk.

“It’s a portfolio approach,” Tull said. “But it’s difficult to predict with accuracy when you’re going to end up with a hit. There’s always an element of magic involved.”

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alex.pham@latimes.com


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