It's Bourne again ... but this time as a video game

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With "The Bourne Ultimatum" pulling in $70.2 million in its first weekend alone and delivering the biggest August opening of a film ever, surely someone would want to transform it into a similarly hot video game. What game publisher wouldn't want to ride the coattails of its huge marketing campaign?

But, oddly enough, there's no Bourne game in sight. At least not this year. And the one that Vivendi Games has up its sleeve for a mid-year 2008 release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 is no "movie game," its developers insist.

Didn't the publisher of "John Woo Presents Stranglehold" -- which is about to leap onto video game shelves the week of Aug. 20 -- say the same thing about its game? What's going on? Is there suddenly some stigma against movie games?

"Not at all," says Emmanuel Valdez, chief creative officer of High Moon Studios, Vivendi's San Diego-based internal developer which is building "The Bourne Conspiracy."

"Games for next-generation consoles take longer than movies to make -- two years and sometimes longer," Valdez explains. "We knew we didn't have enough time to build a quality 'Bourne Ultimatum' game and come out with it at the same time as the movie. So we decided to do things differently, something new."

That meant taking elements of the first Bourne movie, "The Bourne Identity," and stirring in lots of fresh material that needed to be approved by the estate of Robert Ludlum, the author of the Bourne books who died in 2001.

The project began in the late summer of 2005 and "we started off almost making a straight 'Bourne Identity' adaptation," Valdez recalls. "But the movie had come out in 2001, the sequel 'The Bourne Supremacy' had come out in 2004, and we knew we could never finish in time for the release of 'The Bourne Ultimatum' this year. So, together with the Ludlum Estate, we set out to make something original that could stand on its own two feet."

Developers of video games made from movies often speak of the hurdle involved in working with the film studio that owns the license. Apparently film makers speak a different language than do game makers and communication can be fraught with problems.

In this case, the licensee was the Ludlum estate, not a film studio. Yet, the same difficulties might have arisen if it weren't for Matt Wolf, the man hired by Ludlum Entertainment to act as its creative consultant. Wolf happens to be an independent game producer, having worked at Electronic Arts and Sega Entertainment, and High Moon was pleasantly surprised to find everyone on the same page.

"Even though the Ludlum people are in New York, most of our dealings were with Matt who is based here in southern California," says Valdez, who also served as the game's director, "so that made things very convenient."

Much of Wolf's role, he explains, was insuring that "The Bourne Conspiracy" remain true to the spirit of the character of the amnesic superspy as Robert Ludlum conceived him.

"We needed to make certain that Bourne in the game behaves and reacts just as the IP dictates," Valdez says. "But we also wanted to balance that with providing something fresh. Gamers are familiar with the first movie, 'The Bourne Identity,' and we didn't want to tell the same story over again. So we needed to take liberties. Fortunately, Robert Ludlum's novel contains plenty of back stories and side stories that weren't included in the movie."

Wolf arranged to have Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter for all three Bourne movies, flesh out the saga while insuring that the game play by the rules of the Bourne universe.

"For example, we needed to impress on the game developers that Jason Bourne isn't a gun-slinging maniac," says Wolf. "Here is a guy who is the perfect weapon who, through his hand-to-hand abilities and his quick wits, is able to survive in difficult situations. Part of my job was not just to guard the borders and say no; it was to come up with some creative solutions and support the process."

Matt Tieger recalls that the High Moon team had two principals that became the basis for the game's creation. Tieger is the game's lead game designer.

"The first was that Bourne isn't Gucci," he says. "Meaning that he isn't the type of spy who carries a lot of stuff with him, like weapons and gadgets. And he doesn't have cool cars. He pretty much weaponizes his environment. The second really important principal was the fact that Bourne always has a target, an objective. Meaning he's not the type of character who goes wandering around an open-ended world. He's very deliberate, he has a mission, and that really helped us drive the game in a certain direction."

Similarly, the High Moon team adopted the handheld-camera style of Paul Greengrass, director of the second and third Bourne movies.

"His style is very journalistic," describes Valdez, "and when we use it for the action sequences, it lends a very cinematic look-and-feel to the game. I recognize the irony; I mean, we're not making a movie game. And yet, we know that peoples' perceptions of Jason Bourne mostly come from the movies and not the books. So we very consciously took the spirit of the camera shot style from the movies and we deliver that in the game as best we can. We've used things like framing and some of the other cinematic techniques when we code how the game's so-called 'camera' behaves."

Despite the developers' attempts to give "The Bourne Conspiracy" a cinematic look, they were precluded from having their main character resemble actor Matt Damon who stars in all three movies. They recognize that might work for or against their game.

"We thought long and hard about that," says Valdez. "But it came down to the fact that we intend to build a Bourne games franchise. No one is sure whether there will be any more Bourne movies. And Matt Damon has been quoted as saying that he's kind of through with the character anyway. So, without his commitment to be in all our games, we decided that we were better off giving the character a different appearance altogether right from the get-go."

He likened the situation to Electronic Arts' James Bond game franchise whose main character resembles none of the actors who have played Bond.

"In addition, I believe that some of the strongest Bond games were the ones that weren't based on any of the movies," adds Valdez. "We're hoping to achieve the same."

At first glance, a Bourne franchise appears to be an odd project for High Moon's team of 100-plus developers. After all, its claim to fame is the first-person shooter "Darkwatch" that pitted cowboys against vampires.

"Our studio was really fashioned to create original IP and here we are building a game that's based on a license," says Valdez. "But because it's not a direct movie-to-game translation, it gives us the opportunity to be as creative as we can be. We're really very excited about completing this Bourne game and moving on to others."

While the first Bourne game is taking three years to reach completion, subsequent titles will be speedier, affirms Valdez. "The first game in a franchise always takes more time; there are technical challenges that we're dealing with -- new technology, new tools, new techniques -- that we won't have to face next time. In fact, we already have some great ideas for the sequel and we're rarin' to go."

Matt Wolf says the Ludlum estate won't talk about its plans for the franchise.

"Let's just say that it's one of my main focuses," he notes. "I can't be more specific other than to note that I've signed with the estate to be involved with them for the next decade."

And how does he predict the games will do if there are no subsequent Bourne movies?

"Robert Ludlum's name is a brand in itself. He's done a body of work the likes of which any author would die for," says Wolf. "I assure you -- the names Bourne and Ludlum don't need to ride the coattails of a movie."

Paul Hyman was editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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