Hollywood playing catch-up in game space

'Avatar' could set trend for developing movie-based games

COLOGNE, Germany -- Films and video games would seem a match made in heaven, so why are games based on hit movies so bad?

Despite sharing the same demographic of devoted fans, action, sci-fi and fantasy films rarely translate into branded video game hits.

"Movie-based games almost never work, no matter how cool the movie, the game is almost always lame," said Philipp Dollinger, a gamer reviewer for German blog Pressakey.com and one of thousands of gamers swarming the halls of the gamescom trade fair, which runs until Sunday in Cologne. "Most are just bad imitations of better games already out there."

Hollywood has been burned before in the gaming space. Just ask Brash Entertainment, the U.S. group that raised $400 million to buy up film licenses and turn them into hit games. After two major flops -- an "Alvin and the Chipmunks" game and one based on Fox's sci-fi feature "Jumper" (2008) -- Brash folded.

It was a similar story for Pandemic Brisbane, the Australian outpost of the L.A.-based games developer, which shuttered in February following a disastrous attempt to deliver an ambitious game based on Christopher Nolan's blockbuster "The Dark Knight."

Despite those warning signs, there are plenty of new A-list movie ties at gamescom, and plenty of developers saying they have learned their lessons.

"For a lot of movies, the game is an afterthought," said Jake Meri, a producer at LucasArts. "The filmmakers are close to finishing production and they say, 'Oh, what about the game?' But a good game takes years of development."

LucasArts put in the time for its new release, "Star Wars: The Old Republic," a game it is developing together with Canadian outfit BioWare for games giant Electronic Arts.

"Star Wars"-based games have gotten mixed reviews in the past, but the buzz has been strong for "The Old Republic." LucasArts and BioWare have spent years designing the title, which will be a massively multiplayer online game similar to "World of Warcraft" -- a game intended to be played online by thousands of people simultaneously. PC Gamer U.K. called "The Old Republic" "a credible 'World of Warcraft' killer," and the lineups to see the demo at gamescom have been longer than those at most movie premieres.

"We have a lot to live up to with this game, which is why we've spent so much time and money on it," Meri said. "It will be the first fully voiced MMO game in the world. Voicing this game has been the most ambitions voiceover project ever -- we have thousands of characters speaking more than 200,000 lines of dialogue."


"Avatar"
 
LucasArts is famous for its obsessive protection of the "Star Wars" franchise, but the trend towards closer cooperation between film and games studio is one seen across the industry.

James Cameron was hands on for the more than three years France's Ubisoft took to develop "Avatar," a combat game based on Cameron's upcoming epic.

"It was really unprecedented," Ubisoft developer Patrick Naud said. "We had full access to everything -- the story boards, the concept art, the sound, the voices, the animation. It wasn't a typical movie licensing, where you buy the license and go away and make the game. It was a much closer collaboration."

"Avatar" will be one of the first big tests of this kind of tight movie-game teamwork when it hits stores in November, ahead of the film's holiday release.

"It might be too soon to say this, but James Cameron is a trendsetter, so maybe, in the future, this is the way everyone will be doing business," Naud said. "It would certainly make a lot more sense."
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