Woo's latest action: Turning film into game

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Talk about convergence. When "John Woo Presents Stranglehold" leaps onto video games shelves the week of Aug. 20, it will be the first time a full-length movie will be packaged with a game on the same disc.

For $70, Woo aficionados not only will get the Midway action title but also a high-def version of Woo's 1992 film "Hard-Boiled," which inspired the new game.

The special collector's edition will be available only for PlayStation 3 consoles, and Sony is quick to point out that the inclusion of the movie is made possible only because of the 50GB storage capacity of its Blu-ray Discs compared with the lesser 9GB capacity of competing DVD-based systems. As a result, the movie will not be included in the PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game which will sell for $10 less.

The inspiration for the collector's edition came from Midway, according to chief marketing officer Steve Allison, who says such versions appeal to die-hard gamers who feel they must have the best SKU of any game about which they are passionate.

"There's a long history in our business of collector's editions," he recalls. " 'Gears Of War' came in a special box, 'Halo' came with a helmet, and 'Need For Speed,' well, that collector's edition sold nearly half a million units last year. So they obviously do very well."

But the initial decision to build a game featuring Inspector "Tequila" Yuen, the maverick Hong Kong police detective who was the lead character of "Hard-Boiled," isn't an easy one to track.
It has taken a long, serpentine journey in the 17 years since the movie was first released.

Woo, who wrote and directed "Hard-Boiled," isn't necessarily a gamer, says Lori Tilkin, senior vp at Woo's Tiger Hill Entertainment. But he has a son who is a big fan, and Woo sensed that the two-fisted action of his movies might appeal to the same audience that enjoys gaming action. And so he was on the lookout for a project that would both excite him and that would translate well into that medium.

Tilkin is senior VP at Santa Monica, CA-based Tiger Hill Entertainment, the company Woo launched three years ago to control his original IP and develop it into comics, games, and other properties.

"John had visited the E3 conference several years ago and had seen games like 'Max Payne' that utilized his two-gun-wielding style," she says. "It seemed to him that 'Hard-Boiled' could be remade into a similar type of game, an idea which we explored, shopped around and found that Midway not only saw the value in it but seemed equally excited about building it."

At Midway, Steve Allison's recollections are slightly different, remembering what he calls a "mutual collaboration."

"The name 'Stranglehold' existed at Tiger Hill," he says, "but the concept of the game sort of evolved in discussions among myself and several other people at my previous company."

"Those discussions continued here at Midway and the game became known as the continuing adventures of Tequila," he says. "Marrying the concept with John Woo was perfect; he's known for gun ballets and heroic bloodshed, and 'Hard-Boiled' was really his last Hong Kong action movie before he came to America and so it is one of his most beloved works. It made a lot of sense for us to pursue the development of this game which was the most powerful project we could possibly do together with John."

Allison, who prior to joining Midway, was marketing VP at Atari, recalls approaching Tiger Hill about several projects, but the one Woo seemed most passionate about was refashioning "Hard-Boiled" into "Stranglehold."

"In the movie, Tequila is played by actor Chow Yun-Fat, whose likeness, voice, and mo-cap movements have been captured by the game. Additional voiceover talent includes Arnold Vosloo (of "The Mummy" fame) and Randall Duk Kim (who appeared in "Enter The Matrix" and "The Matrix Reloaded").

"Stranglehold" was Chow's first performance in a video game, and Allison observes that he handled it like a trouper. "We flew over to Hong Kong twice to capture all his video and to record him, and he really got into character. He'd do all the grunts and screams, and was very interested in our building a really good product."

Development of the game was spearheaded by Midway producer Brian Eddy, who last created "Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy," a third-person action-adventure shooter released in 2004.

"My team wanted to take all the things we'd learned while making 'Psi-Ops' and apply them to another great action game," he says. "We were excited about making a game with John Woo who, after all, originated all the slow-motion gun battles that were later used in films like 'The Matrix' and in games like 'Max Payne.' We perceived the game we were making as Max Payne on steroids."

This was the first game with a movie tie-in that Eddy had built and he was surprised at how smoothly the process went, especially with Tiger Hill's participation. His team of 30 developers -- which eventually grew to 50 -- worked closely with Woo, with Tilkin often acting as intermediary.

"There were a variety of ways we'd share information," says Tilkin. "Sometimes we'd have meetings with the Midway team when they'd come to Los Angeles; other times I'd fly out to Chicago. Occasionally John would sit in with our storyboard artist here and we'd scan the images and send them to Midway. Other times the Midway people would create movie files and send them here or to China if that's where John was."

"John spent a lot of time just looking at the game, tossing out ideas, checking out the builds we brought him and commenting on them," he says. "We'd often hear things like, 'I wouldn't do it quite that way' or 'Try it this way,' which enabled us to hone in on what is his style of action."

The first few months of production involved decisions about technology and how it would be used to generate the necessary gameplay. A huge hurdle had been Midway's earlier commitment to using Epic Games' as its game engine of choice throughout its studios. Epic needed to finish its own game, "Gears of War," before it could deliver certain technologies that would be used in "Stranglehold." Originally the game had been scheduled for a winter 2006 release.

"Then the process of getting Chow Yun-Fat signed on took several months," says Allison. "Finally, after getting the technology right and signing on the stars, we came to that point when we needed to decide what the game's story would be."

As the story evolved and the script was written, Eddy's team did storyboards much the same way as if they were creating an animated feature.

"We'd send them over to John, he'd make comments, we'd tweak the boards, and that's how the process progressed," explains Eddy. "Most of the discussion was John telling us how he would do it if it were a movie, and us trying to make that happen within the game. For instance, on a movie set, you can blow up a car and film it fairly easily. But, in a game, rendering explosions takes a long time. We really wanted John to instill a cinematic feel and flavor to the game, but sometimes we needed to explain the limitations of game production."

Occasionally Woo would object to what the game makers had in mind.

"At one point the developers suggested that Inspector Tequila shoot someone in the back of the head," says Tilkin. "We told them that we couldn't have that happen; John would never do that kind of sequence. And we went on to discuss what kinds of violence were acceptable and what weren't."

"We created some really cool-looking, elite killers who kind of looked like monks," recalls Eddy. "John said 'no,' they had too much of a fantasy look and he would never have included them in one of his movies. Similarly, we talked a lot about using his style of violence in the game, but John didn't want to go for a lot of gore with arms blowing off, for instance. He made us understand that he prefers poetic violence over gore-fests. Little observations like that helped us focus on his vision for the game."

Another challenge was creating a 10-15-hour gaming experience with a movie team used to making 90-minute movies, says Eddy. "We explained that the game needed to contain enough different kinds of animation so that it filled the 15 hours without becoming boring or repetitive while still containing a story that felt true to the movies."

Although "Hard-Boiled" is the first Woo movie to inspire a video game, Tilkin says there will be others. Woo has signed to direct and produce the movie "Ninja Gold" -- about a ninja warrior forced to confront covert warfare in the modern world -- for Fox Atomic. As he films, game designer Warren Spector will create a game to be released after the film.

"At the same time, we are looking for other exciting collaborations with game developers as well as comic book publishers," Tilkin adds.

Allison says that Midway has several movie-related projects in development, including "The Wheelman," which is in collaboration with Vin Diesel's Tigon Studios.

"People talk about this convergence stuff," Allison says, "to which they're usually referring to a game based on a movie that's coming out, which usually ends up being kind of crappy. But few people are doing it the way we're doing it -- by working with talent who takes some of the great stuff they do in movies and helps us bring it to the fastest-growing entertainment medium today, which is games. And then putting out a whole new product. It's sort of like what Spielberg is doing with Electronic Arts, although very little is known about that project.

"What we're doing is brand new gaming IP based on John's work, so it's not a movie license," explains Allison. "I mean, I'm not against movie licenses, far from it. If a movie is going to do $150-million-plus in the U.S. and then $300 million or $400 million worldwide, we're going to be aggressive about getting a license for that movie. But we don't view 'Stranglehold' as a movie game and we're not selling it as a movie game.

"It's a different take on convergence, for which we've injected extra-loving care and cinematic talent in order to create one cool, new, bad-ass video game."
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