'Eragon' games spread the novel's fantasy brand

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What ingredients does a game publisher look for in order to create a blockbuster, triple-A title? Sometimes, as it turns out, exactly the same ingredients that can make a film company eager to greenlight a blockbuster $125-million movie.

Take a few fire-breathing dragons, add the warriors who ride them plus a pinch of swordplay and a huge mythological universe, stir, and you've got "Eragon." It's a concoction that will be released to game store shelves on Nov. 12 and then to the big screen four weeks later on Dec. 15.

The story of how the novel "Eragon" came to be has been told numerous times -- that it was first written by a 15-year-old wunderkind whose parents self-published it and that it later became firmly entrenched on one of the "New York Times" children's hardcover bestseller lists for 87 weeks, 22 of them as No. 1. (It is currently in its 71st week on the children's paperback bestseller list.)

But the story of how first Vivendi Games and then 20th Century Fox became enamored of it is not as well known. It's a textbook case of how a game crew and a film crew can work together for almost two years with the goal of releasing two big-budget productions almost simultaneously.

Two years after the epic fantasy-adventure about a young farm boy and his dragon was published in 2002, the folks at Vivendi read about its growing popularity -- especially among the 18- to 24-year-old males who make up the main videogaming audience -- and began discussing how to take it on. When they heard that 20th Century Fox had licensed the book for a film adaptation, that clinched it. Vivendi went to Fox with a bid and a design, and nailed the rights to make the game from the upcoming movie, being released Dec. 15.

"It was a no-brainer for us," explains John Melchior, executive producer at Vivendi. "There was this whole fantasy universe for the setting, plus being able to fly a fire-breathing dragon, which makes for a great gameplay mechanic. And we knew that the book was going to be the first of a trilogy which increased the chances that this could become a huge franchise for us. I think we would have gone ahead even if there wasn't going to be a movie."

As it turned out, Melchior's role became that of communications hub smack in the middle among Fox, publisher Vivendi, and the two developers that Vivendi signed to create the various game versions: StormFront Studios for the PC and console platforms and Amaze Entertainment for the handheld platforms.

At San Rafael, Calif.-based StormFront, president and CEO Don Daglow recalls signing on to the project without hesitation because he felt confident that cooperation among all the parties would make for a quality game.

"We have been very fortunate that way with some of our earlier movie projects, like with Electronic Arts and [director] Peter Jackson on "Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers," says Daglow. "But it's not always that way. You can smell pretty quickly whether the others are concerned with getting the work done or if they have other agendas. And if we think it's going to be the latter, we just don't want to participate because you can't do a quality game that way."

In this case, Daglow remembers getting extremely helpful input from "Eragon" director Stefen Fangmeier, which differed in style and substance from what he received from Jackson, whose reputation was that of an avid gamer.

"We got more detailed feedback from Jackson, a stream of data that was really nice to have," he says. "But the relationship with Fangmeier and his crew was really helpful, too. We'd hear something like: 'With these three characters, you guys are dead on. However, on this other character, you're missing the feel of what we're doing.' Or they might say: 'Things look good in this environment, but we tore down this other set and re-did it because it wasn't working, so the blueprints have changed and you need to take such-and-such and move it over here.' "

What Daglow doesn't want to receive, he says, is what he calls the "IRS communique," something he dealt with on a previous project.

"I'll never forget getting a memo a long time ago that said something like, 'In order for me to approve your submission, you must make the following changes: As per change request #612, you must increase the amount of green in Monster #13's cheeks by two color factors.' That's the sort of thing that doesn't make for good relationships."

StormFront's role was to create the PC and console versions of the game, meaning for Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox and Xbox 360. All will be similar in content other than the fact that the Xbox 360 version will contain two added levels based on the book universe, not the movie. There will be no versions for the not-yet-available PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii consoles simply because time didn't permit.

"We started in 2004, a year after the book was published and the movie was still on the drawing boards with no actual assets available to us," Daglow notes. "We read the book, then we read the first script and then we began roughing stuff in stages. We knew Fox wanted to take the spirit of the book and just bring it straight to the screen. And we knew Vivendi wanted us to do the same with the game and not create a sequel or a prequel or anything that differed much from the movie."

One year after the console game process started, the handheld game process began. At Kirkland, Wash.-based Amaze Entertainment, the developer which specializes in handhelds was brought in to make three completely different versions of "Eragon" -- for the Nintendo DS, the Nintendo Game Boy Advance and for the Sony PSP. The company had previously created various builds from the "Pirates Of The Caribbean," "Harry Potter," "Lord Of The Rings," and "Star Wars" lines, among other movie-to-game projects.

Vivendi's instructions to Amaze was to take advantage of what the different handheld systems can do and create three unique games that will all please fans of the movie, perhaps enticing them to buy several versions and not just one.

"I think that was a really smart decision," notes Lindsay Gupton, vp and executive studio director. "Traditionally, a publisher puts out what is essentially the same game ported to each of the different platforms. Instead, we were asked to remain true to the tale of 'Eragon' and yet have each game focus on a different part of it. The PSP version is a flight-based product in which you fight in the air on the back of your dragon using magical spells; it takes advantage of the wireless multiplayer capabilities of the platform. The DS version is essentially an action-adventure game that features the unit's two touch screens, and the GBA version is a role-playing game."

The diversified design process required three separate teams that not only worked closely together, but also with StormFront and Vivendi.

"We shared whatever made sense to share, like art," says Gupton. "But because the capabilities of the consoles are so different and the stories are so different, there was just so much we could share. But we made sure that we were in lockstep with the others all the time, that each game was coherent, but still focused on its unique personality."

Coordinating the production of all seven games with the movie was no easy feat.

"Around November (of) 2004, even before they cast the movie, we met with the film's director three or four days after the movie contract was signed and that gave us an early idea of the direction the film was heading in terms of locations and the style of combat they'd be going for," recalls Melchior. "We were given versions of the script as they were written. And our lead artist, designer and our producer were invited to the set in Budapest for a week, and Fox was gracious enough to show us all the sets, the props and the movie's progress. The access we had was so much more than we'd seen on past movie licenses."

Similarly, Melchior provided monthly builds of the games to Fox for review and approvals. The feedback he got kept the games in synch with the movie in terms of its look and feel, characters and costumes.

"The important thing was to avoid any disconnects," notes Melchior. "We didn't go off in a silo and make an 'Eragon'-inspired game; we made an 'Eragon' game with Fox as our partner."

The StormFront and Amaze teams are very aware of what damage such "disconnects" can do to production as they both experienced them in earlier movie-licensed games.

"The biggest challenge for game developers is that everything we need to do in preproduction, the filmmakers do in postproduction," says StormFront's Daglow. "For instance, in the best of all possible worlds, we would build our dragon, the magic system -- our entire universe -- at the beginning of game production and then create gameplay around it. But anything that is CG-related in a movie is added to the film at the very end."

The solution is to use what Daglow calls "placeholder characters" until the movie people complete their design, and then the game builders adjust accordingly.

"Because CG in a movie is sort of the icing on the cake -- but in a game it's the heart and soul of it -- we had to use a placeholder for the dragon Saphira until about January or February of this year," recalls Mike Platteter, a producer at Amaze. "That's because we simply didn't know what she was going to look like. We had to go back and modify some of the characters' costumes when we got word that there had been changes. But that's minor stuff and you just roll with it."

Another trick of the game builders is to create "white boxes," functional environments that allow game play production but don't resemble the final appearance of the game. They are swapped out when the actual look and feel of the game is finally determined.

All seven versions of the game will be released on November 12th, a month ahead of the movie but smack in the middle of the Christmas gift-buying season. While publishers usually prefer to ride the coattails of the movie's hype by coming out day-and-date with the film, Vivendi apparently expects that the public's pre-release anticipation will suffice.

Vivendi's Melchior believes one of the reasons why the creative processes went so smoothly was that Fox is eagerly planning for "the book trilogy to become a huge franchise, and that Fox needs to do everything right to grow the audience, meaning both great movies and great games.

"I don't think this could have happened a few years ago," he adds. "In the past, studios didn't really understand what video games could do except bring in some additional revenue. They didn't pay attention to them in terms of how they could help grow the brand. But now studios like Fox understand how popular games have become and that they are an additional tool to expand their franchise. The more comfortable they become with that idea, the more they trust the game makers creatively, the better communications become, and the better the movie-to-game experience becomes for all involved."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the 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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