Black magic for 'Beowulf' game


With the premieres of "Beowulf" the video game and "Beowulf" the movie premiere just three days apart -- on November 13th and 16th, respectively -- their creators will have performed one of those feats of technological black magic that most of us just take for granted. But producing a blockbuster film and a triple-A game concurrently over a two-year period and then completing them simultaneously on deadline requires precise planning, careful communications, and a willingness to take on a task not recommended for the feint of heart.

The advantage of releasing a video game day-and-date with a movie is, of course, that the gamemakers are able to piggyback onto a costly marketing campaign made possible by the film makers' heftier budget. Likewise, the moviemakers are able to more easily attract the gaming demographic -- 18-35-year-old males -- who might have otherwise overlooked the film. Call it a win-win for both companies.

But the reputation of day-and-date video games is a tarnished one, due mainly to their often having been rushed to market to coincide with the movie's debut. After all, triple-A games frequently take 18-24 months or more to produce, considerably longer than the typical movie. As a result, gamemakers occasionally have to make the Solomon-like choice of sacrificing either quality or marketing advantage.

Case in point: "Superman Returns: The Videogame." The Warner Bros. movie premiered on June 28, 2006, but the Electronic Arts game -- the release of which had been set to coincide with the film's theatrical release -- was suffering design complications. Rather than come out with an inferior game, the decision was made to eschew the marketing advantage. EA turned to Plan B and released on November 22, to coincide instead with the movie's DVD release.

Back in the summer of 2005, the "Beowulf" team at Paramount Pictures understood the hurdles of a day-and-date release with a game, but were intent on extending the appeal of the movie to the core gaming audience.

"We knew we had to not only leave plenty of time for the game makers but, more importantly, we needed to select a triple-A partner studio that was best suited for building on the visions of ["Beowulf" director] Bob Zemeckis and [screenwriters] Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary," says Sandi Isaacs, senior vp at Paramount Digital Entertainment's interactive and mobile group.

Having worked with video game publisher Ubisoft previously on the Tom Clancy-inspired "The Sum Of All Fears" in 2002, Isaacs approached Ubisoft's Tiwak studio, which had created the award-winning games "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter" and "Advanced Warfighter 2." Several months later, in October, the deal was signed and pre-production of the movie began. Then, in February, 2006, production of both the movie and the game began simultaneously.

Isaacs' role was to act as facilitator between the two teams -- the Ubisoft people in northern California and the filmmakers in southern California -- to ensure that there was good communication, that there was an ongoing sharing of assets and that both teams were on schedule and progressing smoothly toward the November 2007 release dates which had been set in stone from day one.

"We have a fairly defined process here on my team with how we work with the film people and not take up too much of their time," says Isaacs, "but also keep them involved in what's going on in game production so they feel part of the process and want to share their valuable insight into the core of the movie. It's important that, when the gamemakers are extending the 'Beowulf' world, that it is consistent with the tone of the film."

A series of four or five face-to-face meetings prior to filming expedited the process.

"The cooperation of the filmmakers was really exceptional," she adds. "They took the time and supported the game and gave really fantastic feedback. I think they were very excited and intrigued by the game designers and the game-making process."

While the movie's plot is based on the titular classic Anglo-Saxon poem about a hero who battles his way to the throne, other elements -- such as the dialogue, some of the characters' motivations and the timeline -- are unique.

Meanwhile, the game takes advantage of the fact that the poem doesn't mention what occurred during the 30 years in the middle of the story. Because they need to provide gamers with 10-12 hours of gameplay -- not just two hours of big-screen drama -- the developers filled in the blanks during that time period to extend the action.

The ability to share assets was simplified by the fact that "Beowulf" was shot entirely in a special technique of digitally-enhanced live action called EOG that utilizes an advanced form of motion capture. The CGI process is similar to but much more advanced than the one used in "The Polar Express." Director Zemeckis has called it "photo-real, but not completely real ... an interesting hybrid ... that ultimately provides the correct palette to tell stories that are bigger than life, stories that are mythic."

That CGI-style of filming simplified the sharing of digital assets with the gamemakers, explains Isaacs, "in the same way that when you're creating an animated movie, assets can be more easily shared with the video game company than with a live-action film."

Prior to first being contacted by Paramount, Ubisoft's Tiwak team had been putting the finishing touches on a hand-to-hand fighting system and was in search of a game with which to apply it.

"Sandi had approached our editorial department in Paris, which knew that we were looking for the next appropriate project," recalls Adrian Lacey, the game manager for "Beowulf" at Tiwak, who had movie-to-game experience building the "King Kong" video game. "They showed us some of the early concept art and we began brainstorming, picking away at the poem 'Beowulf,' looking at the movie's script, and tried to get a feel for what Bob Zemeckis was trying to achieve. What really turned us on was the whole Viking side of things along with the spirit of the Dark Ages. Here was a story about a man with a tormented soul, and we became excited about how we might portray that in a game and put the gamer in a position where they might feel that torment. At that point, everything really clicked and we decided that here was a good match for us."

Lacey admits he was very impressed with how open the movie production team was with Tiwak.

"They gave us a lot of time for which I'm very, very grateful," he says, "and they shared with us all their concept art and early clips. And because of the CGI system that they were using, we had a lot of things in common from very early on."

Actors Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Brendan Gleeson, and Sebastian Roche were among the actors who worked with the Ubisoft team, lending their voices to the game.

"The actors' abilities to contribute emotions to the game will mean a lot to the finished product," says Lacey.

He attributes his team's success in completing versions of the game for three platforms -- PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 -- in just 18 months to the fact that Tiwak already had one next-generation videogame under its belt and that his budget allowed for a staff of more than 250 at any given time. While he wouldn't discuss what the game cost, he described next-gen development teams as "typically much, much larger than when you used to be able to build a game yourself in a bedroom in your mum's house."

"We also benefited from the fact that Zemeckis had previously worked on hi-tech movies like 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' and 'Forrest Gump,' and he was obviously someone who was comfortable with those sort of projects," Lacey adds. "As a result, he gave us access to pretty much everything we needed, which isn't always the case when you're working on a licensed property. So we weren't facing any unnecessary surprises, and we didn't have to take liberties because we had his guidance and understood early on his vision. I don't think it could have gone more smoothly."

The same cooperation reportedly worked well between the marketing people at Ubisoft and at Paramount, according to Sam Saliba, group brand manager at Ubisoft San Francisco.

"I'm not so sure whether all the Hollywood studios have figured out the benefit of a shared collaboration, with both of us pushing the same properties at the same time, but the Paramount people sure have," he observes. "They understand how the two similar target markets can really benefit."

He reports that regular trips by the marketers from Ubisoft in San Francisco to Paramount in Los Angeles to discuss how they could all work together to support the common strategies eliminated any of the hurdles that might have occurred.

"Ubisoft has been experienced at working with several different movie studios," he says, "and we've participated in several huge Hollywood blockbuster launches, like 'King Kong' and, more recently 'Open Season.' What we're learned -- and I would recommend this to any movie studio considering a day-and-date video game -- is that you need to collaborate very early in the cycle and you can't think of a video game as just another license vehicle like an action figure or a T-shirt. A video game is a synergistic property that can work in synch with a movie property to extend the storyline and really give the consumer a value-added experience."

Paramount's Isaacs concurs: "My best advice to a film company is think hard before you decide to commission a video game to be released day-and-date with your movie. It's a very similar decision to green-lighting a movie. If you can get the right developer, if you can give them enough time to do quality work, if you can guarantee that the film makers will get involved, green light it!

"But if you don't have the time, if the game will have to be rushed, forget it. No one sets out to build a bad game. But, believe me, unless there's enough time to get it right, the game will suffer."

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.